The United States Navy: World War I (1917-18)


Figure 1.--The flag and the style of the boy's sailor suits tell us that this portrait was taken just before or during World War I. There was tremendous outburst of patriotic feeking dyring the War. Many boys were dressed up in sailor suits or even Army uniforms. One of the boys here is RCV Reid. The U.S. Navy played a minor role in the War, but it and the British Royal Navy defeated the German U-boat threat and successfully got the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) to France.

America's entry into World War I was the deciding factor in the War. Here it was the American infantry that brike the dead lock on the Western Front. The Royal Navy and French blockade of Germany played a major role in undermining the German and Autrian economies and civilian morale. This was largely accomplished before America entered the War. America had the third largest navy in the world, second only to the British and German navies. The 300 warships of the American Navy only added to the effectiveness of the Allied blockade, but were primarily deployed in the North Atlantic to guard the sea lanes between America and the Britain and France. Especially important was guarding the troopships that delivered the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) to France. A few Navy vessels were deployed in the Mediterranean, but the bulk of the Navy was deploted in the North Atlantics. Only a few Navy vessels were sunk during the War. The cruiser San Diego sunk by mines layed by a German U-boat off New York. Two Navy destroyers protecting convoys were sunk by U-boats. It was German U-boats and the German decesion to resume unrestricted sunmarine warfare that brought America into the War. The German U-boat campaign proved unsuccessful because of the convoy system imnplemented by the Royal Navy and the invention of ASDAC (SONAR). The United States had a small sunmarine force of 30 ships. The U.S. Navy established its Submarine School at the main Submarine Base in New London, Connecticut (January 19, 1917). The AmeriWan submarines would play little role in World War I, but the force would play a major role in World War II.

Pre-War Navy

As Europe exploded into war, the United States made little effort to expand its very small army. The Navy was an entirely different matter. The U.S. Navy was one of the world's most powerful navies and on the brink of becoming the first navy to challenge the Royal Navy's dominnce in more than a century. Naval analysts rank it third or fourth, behand Britain, France, and perhaps Germny.

Neutral Shipping

After the onset of the War, both Germany and Britain violated the rights of neutral shipping. This meant primarily American shipping as the largest, most important neutral country. The British blockade prevented Amerucan trade with Germny, an important ore-War trading partner. THe British action, however, seemed more civilized. The Royal Navy surface fleet could stop American ships and turn them back without sinking them. Thus there was no loss of life. German U-boats seemed more ruthless and uncivilized. This was the reaction to the German sinking of the Lusitania, a prestigious British passenger liner (1915). A German U-boat torpedoed the British luxury oceanliner Lusitania off Ireland (1915). Large numbers of Americans were onboard and killed. Americans were aghast. President Wilson's foreign affairs adviser Col. Edward House was in London and cabled Wilson that now was the time to declare war. Wilson replied that "America was to proud to fight." He insisted that some values went beyond war. Former President Theodore Roosevelt called him a "coward". While seeking to avoid being drawn into the war, President Wilson insisted on Americans' right to trde with the Allies. He also demanded the Germans restrict U-boat operations. He held Germany to “strict accountability” for its U-boat operations. The British restrictions on American shipping were much more palitable to the United States because of all the war orders from the Allies. American trade with the Allies tripled to $3 billion annually (1914-16). Both American industry and agriculture benefitted.

Naval Construction Act (1916)

The Wilson Administration backed plans to significantly expand the Navy. There were several reasons for this. America was now the world's industrial powers with extensive foreign trade. The British Royal Navy blockade of Germany restricted the rights of neutral shipping to which the United states objected (1914). The German sinking of the Luisitania shocked Americans (1915). And the Japanese declartion of 21 Demands were a direct challenge to America's Open Door Policy (1915). The U.S. Navy had 17 dreadnought and 23 pre-dreadnought battleships. The Naval Construction Act of 1916 provided for a massive expansion of the Navy. It authorized the construction of 156 new ships. This included 16 capital ships (10 battleships and 6 battle cruisers). There were also to be numerous new cruisers. All of these new vessels were to be laid down (construction began) by mid-1919. The actual numberous are less significant than the fact that these would be modern vessels. This would have meant that by the early-20s that the United States would have the most modern navy in the world. The British even if they won the War would not be able to afford such a massive building program. As the United States became involved in the War, American naval planning ficused on a war in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean.

Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (February 1917)

Military commanders convinced Kaiser Wilhelm to resume unrestricted sunmarine warfare. The Germans seriously under estimated the potential impact of American involvement. Gambling that they could force a decission in the Western Front, the military convinced Kaiser Wilhelm to resume unrestricted sunmarine warfare. This was the critical decision of the War and Kaiser Wilhelm made a catetrophic error. The unrestricted U-boat campaign gained Germany very little. The Kaiser's decesion ranks along with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as the most illadvised naval decesions in history. America's entry into World War I was the deciding factor in the War. In the end the British introduced the convoy system and the U-boat camapign failed. The declaration of unrestriucted submarine warfare, however, brought America into the War and it would be the American infantry that would blunt the German 1918 offensive and turn the tide on the Western Front. Without the arrival of the Americans, it is likely that the Germans would have won the war. Here it was the American infantry that broke the dead lock on the Western Front.

Declaration of War (April 1917)

American President Woodrow Wilson camaigned for re-election in 1916 with the slogan "He kept us out of war". America at various points tried to negotiate an end to the War. Wilson in a 1917 speech called for a "peace without victory". None of the major European combatants showed much interest in the American efforts. The Britsh were still hopeful that America would join the Allies. Kaiser Wilhelm dimissed Wilson's efforts as unrealistic. The Germans seriously under estimated the potential impact of American involvement. Gambling that they could force a decission in the Western Front, the military convinced Kaiser Wilhelm to resume unrestricted sunmarine warfare. After German U-boats sank five American merchant vessels, President Wilson on asked Congress to Declare War on Germany which was approved April 6. President Wilson's motives are a subject of controversy among historians. The declaration of war was following the declaration of War an explosion of patriotic fervor not seen in America since the Civil war. Large numbers of young men enlisted. Many cities came close to fulfilling their quota within a few months, well before selective Service went into effect (June 5). There wee patriotic celebrations with children dressing up in uniforms and patriotic outfits. Along with the patriotic fervor, a wave of anti-German hysteria spread over America with the declaration of war on Germany. It was far worse than hate crimes against Arab-looking and turbaned individuals after Septenber 11, 2001.

Force Size and Composition

The U.S. Navy rapidly expanded from 80,000 men and 12,000 reservists before the war to a peak of 560,000 men when the War ended (November 1918). The U.S. Navy at the onset of the war was a cruiser navy with a few dreadnoughts. The U.S. Navy had no way of resisting British seizure of its shippinging in World war I. The Naval Construction Act of 1916 set out to change that and the make the U.S. Navy on a par with the British Royal Navy and actually more modern than the Royal Navy. Of course there was big-gun battleship construction, but a less heralded development was major appropriations for two new vessel classes: destroyers and submarines. And it would be the American destroyers that would play the Navy's key role in World War I. American submarines would play an outsized role in World War II. After the completion of these vessels, no navy ever again would sucessfully interfere with American shipping. Germand and Japan would attempt to do so with disaterous results. The United States Army was totally unprepared for the War. As a result the American Expeditionary Force fought the Germans with mostly Allied (Britain and French weapons). Only the Navy had a force in existence which could be immediately deployed.

Capital ships (battleships and battle cruisers)

World War II navies were assessed in terms of the number of battlkeships which as a result were considered to be capital or the most important ships. Early battle ships had a variety of navl artillery with varying calibre and range. After the battle of Tsushima (1906), it was clear to naval planners that the armament of a battleship should be primarily the big guns. HMS Dreadnought was the emodiment of this principle. American had begun building a modern fleet inckudung capitl ships. The main American battle fleet, however, could not be deployed to Europe where the ction was expected in the North Sea. The United States like the Brutish had begun shifting the fleet over to from coal to oil-fired propulsion. And the Bitish were having troubkle supplying their own oil-fired ships. So the capital American ships deployed were the older cosl-fired ships.

Cruisers


Destroyers

The destroyer like the submarine in World War I were brand new vessel types. The progentator (torpedo boats) first appeared in the very late-19th century as the torpedo began to develop as a powerful weapon. Interestingly they were first used in the Chilean Civil War (1891) and Sino-Japanese War (1894). European navies began building more advanced torpedo boats, thus the birth of the destroyer. The concept was that a small inexpenive ship armed with torpedoes could sink a massive very expensive battleship with a huge crew. Generally speaking, national navies do not learn from such experiences until their own vessels are threatened or sunk. And this occuured during the Spanish-American War at the seige of Santiago in Cuba (1898). The Spanish Navy was outgunned in the War, but two Spanish destroyers threatened America battleships. The Spanish ships were sunk, but American admirals recognized the threat. The destoyer never lived up to its hoped for expectations during World War I, primarily because the envisioned range and accuracy of torpedoes was not achieved. The destroyers did help keep torpedo boats away from battleships. But the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy found the destoyer was precisely the vessel needed for an even greater threat -- to defeat the German U-boats. It was entirely serendipitous that the destroyers were available tor this purpose. The America Naval Construction Act of 1916 envisioned building 50 modern destroyers. Eventually the United States added another 200 additional destroyers in the World War I crisis. And those destroyers were assigned the most critical assignment given to the U.S. Navy in the War -- getting the American Expeditonary Force safely to France. The German admirals assured the Kaiser and the Reichstag that not only would the U-boats starve Britain out of the War, but that American troops were not a real threat. American troop transports like British merchant shipping would be savaged by Kreigsmarine U-boats. In fact this did not happen. The German U-boats did not sink one troop-laden transport headed to France. German U-boats did sink two empty transports returning to America to pick of more Doughboys. And as Gen. Ludendorf would admit after the War, it was the American infantry that would defeat Germany. It was thus arguably the greatest failure of any navy in the entire history of naval warfare. The German Kreiegsmarine not only failed to protect Germany, but actually was responsible for brining America into the War and thus defeating Germany.

Submarines

One might ask why the U.S. Navy needed a subnarine force. Subs coud be used to attack capital ships and cruisers moved, but as the war developed its primary use was to attack enemy shipping. But Germany because of the British naval blockade had no shipping that could be attcked by sunmarines. Building a submarine force in part reflected the fct that it was not entirly clear what country would be America;s long term naval eneny. This was decided until Kaiser Wilhelm ordered the resumption of unrestructed submarime welfare and after the War when Britain made the momenous decision not to contest America's emergence as the preeminent world power.

Allied Blockade

The Germans had the strongest army in Europe. Their best chance to win the war was in the first months before the Russians fully mobuklized and the British could deployba substantial army on the Continent. The French Miracle on the Marne (September 15) stoped the initial German offensive. Gradually the conflict became a war of attrition. Here the odds favored the Allies with their greater resources. The greater naval power of the Allies also came into play. The Royal Navy and French blockade of Germany played a major role in undermining the German and Austrian economies and civilian morale. This was largely accomplished before America entered the War. America had the third/fourth largest navy in the world, after Britain, France, and perhaps Germany. The 300 warships of the American Navy thus added to the effectiveness of the Allied blockade. The great sea battle of the War jad been fought off Jutland (1916). The Germans were unable to overcome the larger Royal Navy Grand Fleet. Five American battleships jointed the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow (December 1917). A second American battleship division subsequently followed. It was based at Bantry Bay in Ireland.

Atlantic Sea Lanes

The U.S. Navy was primarily deployed in the North Atlantic to guard the sea lanes between America and her new allies (Britain and France). Especially important was guarding the troopships that delivered the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) to France. A few Navy vessels were deployed in the Mediterranean, but the bulk of the Navy was deploted in the North Atlantics. It was German U-boats and the German decesion to resume unrestricted sunmarine warfare that brought America into the War. The German U-boat campaign proved unsuccessful because of the convoy system implemented by the Royal Navy and the invention of ASDAC (SONAR). While the U.S. Army was unprepared, the Navy was prepared to mke an immeduiate contribution to the War. Destroyer Flotilla Eight was immediately ordered to join the Royal Navy anti-submarine patrol force in the eastern Atlantic. They operated out of Queensland (now Cobh), Ireland. The first of 121 American wooden 110-foot subchasers began operating in European waters (May 1918). The U.S. Navy began laying the first of 56,610 mines in the North Sea, strenthening the anti-submarine barrage (July 1918). The Cruiser and Transport Force was formed to convoy American troops to France (May 1917). The Germany Navy which assured the Kaiser and Reichstag that America would not be able to transport an army to France did not suceed in sinking even one troopship. Over 1 million GIs were safely transported to France and many more were awaiting transport when Germany asked for an Armistice.

Casualties

Only a few U.S. Navy vessels were sunk during the War. The cruiser San Diego sank as a result of mines layed by a German U-boat off New York. Two Navy destroyers protecting convoys were sunk by U-boats.

Submarines

The United States had a small sunmarine force of 30 ships. The U.S. Navy established its Submarine School at the main Submarine Base in New London, Connecticut (January 19, 1917). The American submarines would play little role in World War I, but the force would play a major role in World War II.

Naval Aviation

the first American naval aviation units reached France (June 1917). Eventually, 16,000 sailors and 500 naval aircraft would operate from bases in England, Ireland, France, Gibraltar, Corfu and Italy.

Impact on the Navy

The War had a huge impact on the U.S. Navy even though there were no major fleet actions. The War and the deployment of the Navy primarily to escort convoys affected progress on the naval construction ptogram approved in 1916. The construction of battleships and cruisers were delayed. What the Navy desperately needed needed was destroyers and smaller vessels to escort convoys and attack German U-boats that were deployed to cut off Britain and stop the troop transports from reaching France.





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Created: 2:05 AM 7/24/2005
Last updated: 6:44 PM 5/26/2018