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World War I Centennial: Even Bigger Battleships, Part III

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 38th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

September 30, 1912: Kaiser Approves Bayern Design

With an international naval arms race stoking paranoia on all sides, in 1912 ship designers around the world brought their “A” game with designs for the biggest, most powerful ships the world had ever seen, including the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth, the USS Pennsylvania, and the Imperial German Navy’s Bayern. In Germany’s case, however, the new super-dreadnought would prove to be something of a last hurrah, as far as naval construction was concerned.

In the Reichstag the political will to build a huge German navy capable of confronting Britain’s Royal Navy was finally faltering. With one eye on public finances and the other on Britain’s First Lord Winston Churchill, who consistently warned that Britain would outpace German naval construction no matter how much, German parliamentarians soon lost their appetite for adding extra ships to the existing long-term construction plan. From 1912-1913, shipbuilding simply ceased to be a priority for German defense spending, which instead focused on meeting the growing land-based threat from France and Russia.

Typically, the name of the new battleship class, “Bayern” (Bavaria), reflected political wrangling by Navy Minister Admiral von Tirpitz to get Reichstag approval for the latest (and, it turned out, final) round of his ambitious naval construction program: Bayern was chosen as part of a strategy to court political support in the landlocked states of southern Germany, where interest in maritime issues was low and support for naval spending lukewarm at best. Not coincidentally, the other ships in the Bayern-class series – Baden, Sachsen, and Württemberg – also paid tribute to inland principalities.

Like other super-dreadnought battleships, the Bayern design was the result of a tug of war between competing demands for firepower, armor, and speed, which were finally hashed out in the summer of 1912 by Kaiser Wilhelm II (a boating enthusiast who often took a personal role in naval issues), Navy Minister Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, and other Admiralty officials. According to the design approved by the Kaiser on September 30, 1912, the Bayern class battleships would measure 591 feet long and displace 32,500 tons of water when fully loaded with armaments and fuel. They had a range of 5,000 nautical miles and a top speed of just 21 knots, reflecting the Admiralty’s assumption that they would confront the Royal Navy in the confined North Sea, and their preference for armor and firepower in this hypothetical short-range engagement. On that score the ships would carry eight 15-inch-diameter guns, each of which could throw a 1,653-pound shell over 13 miles (increasing to 14.7 miles when the guns mountings were redesigned). Cost considerations forced Tirpitz to compromise on some key issues, including delaying the installation of diesel engines for a year, but he insisted on the big guns.

The Competition

As noted in a previous post, by comparison the Queen Elizabeth-class battleship design approved by the British Admiralty in June 1912 measured about 646 feet long and displaced 27,500 tons. With a minimum crew complement of at least 950 sailors, the Queen Elizabeth had room for 3,500 tons of oil – around 25,650 barrels or 1.1 million gallons – a top speed of 24 knots or 27.6 miles per hour, and an effective range of 5,000 nautical miles (5,750 ordinary miles) at lower speeds, reflecting its core mission area around the British Isles. It carried eight 15-inch-diameter guns, each capable of throwing a 1,920-pound shell to a distance of almost 19 miles, for a total broadside weight of 7.8 tons.

The USS Pennsylvania, approved by Congress in August 1912, would measure 608 feet long, displace 31,400 tons of water, and carry a crew of at least 915. With room for 5,780 tons of oil (42,400 barrels or 1.8 million gallons) she had a maximum speed of 21 knots or 24 miles per hour and a maximum range of 8,000 nautical miles (9,200 ordinary miles) at lower speeds, reflecting the U.S. Navy’s preference for greater reach. She carried a dozen 14-inch-diameter guns, each of which could lob a 1,400-pound shell just over 13 miles, for a total broadside weight of 7.5 tons.

Construction and Service

The German Admiralty originally planned on building four ships in the Bayern class, but only the first two were completed, as the Great War forced Germany to concentrate production on land armaments and the new naval wonder weapon, Unterseebooten (U-boats or submarines). After the orders for the first two ships were placed in April 1913, the Bayern was laid down on January 22, 1914, launched on February 18, 1915, commissioned March 18, 1916, and finally accepted into the fleet in July 1916 – just missing the Battle of Jutland, May 31-June 1, 1916. In October 1917 the Bayern assisted the German conquest of Riga by helping drive the Russian navy from the Gulf of Riga, but then hit a mine, requiring major repairs.

Meanwhile the Baden was laid down on December 20, 1913, launched October 30, 1915, commissioned October 19, 1916, and finally accepted into the fleet in March 1917. It became the flagship of the German High Seas Fleet, but never took part in combat. In November 1918, both ships were turned over to the British as part of the armistice agreement. In June 1919 the Bayern was scuttled by its own crew to keep it out of British hands; the Baden sank after being used for target practice by British ships in 1921. Two other ships in the Bayern class, the Sachsen and the Württemberg, were laid down but never completed due to the war, and were eventually broken up as scrap metal in 1920-1921.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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Liberty's Victorious Conflict: A Photographic History of the World War, Library of Congress // Public Domain
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WWI Centennial: The British Capture Jerusalem
General Allenby enters Jerusalem at the Jaffa gate, December 11, 1917
General Allenby enters Jerusalem at the Jaffa gate, December 11, 1917
Liberty's Victorious Conflict: A Photographic History of the World War, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 296th installment in the series.

December 11, 1917: The British Capture Jerusalem

Located in the western Judean hills, Jerusalem’s strategic importance was exceeded only by its symbolic value as the ancient capital of the Holy Land, revered by three faiths and home to religious shrines including the Dome of the Rock, Western Wall, and Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Possession of the city would open the way to northern Palestine and Syria for the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force—but its loss would be an even bigger blow to Ottoman prestige.

Indian artillery in World War I
Library of Congress // Public Domain

After conquering Gaza in early November 1917, General Edmund Allenby decided to move on Jerusalem at once. The EEF pushed the Ottoman Seventh and Eighth Armies back at the Battle of Mughar Ridge on November 3, followed by the Battle of Nebi Samwil from November 17-24. The initial British efforts to capture Jerusalem failed, however, primarily due to a lack of heavy artillery as well as inclement weather. Oskar Teichman, a British medical officer, noted the challenging conditions when crossing a seasonal stream, or wadi, around this time:

On reconnoitering, we found the Warwicks crossing a swollen wadi, which had washed away the railway, and whose presence could not be discovered, as it was part of a great lake, until a horseman, who was riding through 2 or 3 feet of water, became suddenly submerged. It was an extraordinary sight: Several horses were swimming, and also men, some of the former disappearing altogether and being drowned in the swift current … On consulting my map, it was discovered that that the wadi in question was described as dry!

The British laboriously brought up artillery over muddy roads while holding off continuous Turkish counterattacks that attempted to recapture the village. On December 7, 1917, the British returned to the attack, prompting the Turks to withdraw from Jerusalem—forever, as it turned out—on the night of December 8. The Spanish consul in Jerusalem, the Conde de Ballobar, described the sad scenes as the beaten Turkish army evacuated the city:

The poor Turkish soldiers! The injured men that were passing by in front of my house were on foot, holding their wounds with their hands, full of blood, haggard. An officer came by on horseback with his arm bandaged and his body sustained by three soldiers on foot. The officer’s face expressed the most horrible suffering. He, just as the soldiers and wounded, went with his head down and looking sad, very sad.

Later the withdrawal turned into a chaotic race to leave the city, according to Ballobar. "I went back to the consulate, witnessing scenes of panic that cannot be described: Officers were running their horses at a gallop, soldiers as fast as their legs would carry them, women and children crying out loud,” he wrote. The inhabitants of the holy city didn’t comport themselves particularly well during the period of nonexistent government that followed, he noted:

The instincts of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were palpably shown. Everything that was capable of being stolen was disappearing into the hands of thieves of every caste, religion, and nationality that was swarming around there. Telegraph wire, half-destroyed cars, wood, old cans, etc. The scene was not very uplifting. From one of the balconies of the Hotel Kaminitz I saw an armoire being lowered down by ropes. And the Turkish police were watching all this without turning a hair.

On December 9, the city’s civilian mayor, hoping to prevent damage to its holy places and artifacts, visited Allenby under a white flag of truce and officially invited the British to enter. On December 11, Allenby, a savvy politician and diplomat as well as a skillful general, humbly entered Jerusalem on foot, instead of on horseback, to show respect as well as to convey the fact that the British didn’t view the inhabitants as conquered enemies, but rather victims of Turkish oppression. He immediately moved to reassure Jerusalemites that their lives, and the city’s treasures, would be protected:

Lest any of you be alarmed by reason of your experience at the hands of the enemy who has retired, I hereby inform you that it is my desire that every person pursue his lawful business without fear of interruption. Furthermore, since your city is regarded with affection by the adherents of three of the great religions of mankind and its soil has been consecrated by the prayers and pilgrimages of multitudes of devout people of these three religions for many centuries, therefore, do I make it known to you that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faith they are sacred.

View of Jerusalem, 1917
The New York Times photo archive, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The people of Jerusalem, having endured Turkish misrule as well as hunger and disease over the last three years, naturally greeted the British as liberators, Ballobar wrote in his diary:

And here one can apply all the wildly enthusiastic phrases that the newspapers utilize on grand occasions. Really, I have never seen a popular enthusiasm so spontaneous and great. Every British soldier that passed by was followed and escorted by a throng of admirers that touched his uniform, caressed his horse, talked to him in all the languages of the Orient and admired him like a hero … The balconies were full of people. Many people were hugging each other in the street, others were mutually congratulating each other and all were walking around in their best clothes.

The fall of Jerusalem was a huge propaganda win for the British and their allies, with Prime Minister David Lloyd George memorably describing it as a “Christmas present for the British people.” Meanwhile T.E. Lawrence, who happened to be visiting Allenby’s headquarters when Jerusalem was captured, was embarrassed that the Arab Army hadn’t participated in the battles or liberation of the holy city, and vowed that the next time, at Damascus, the Arabs wouldn’t be bystanders, noting: “The ceremony of the Jaffa Gate gave me a new determination.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain
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WWI Centennial: Horror in Halifax
Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain
Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 295th installment in the series.

December 6, 1917: Horror in Halifax

In addition to all the deliberate destruction, the First World War generated enormous collateral damage in the form of accidents, usually resulting from the movement of large numbers of people and dangerous material in unfamiliar environments—plus a lack of safety precautions that would be considered truly shocking by modern standards.

One of the worst accidents of the entire war occurred far from the European war zone, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an important stopover for cargo ships carrying munitions from factories in Canada and the United States to Europe.

Around 8:45 a.m. on December 6, 1917, a French cargo ship packed with explosives and high-octane fuel, the Mont-Blanc, collided with the Imo, a Norwegian ship chartered to carry relief supplies to Belgium in Halifax Harbor (below, the Imo after the blast). The collision started a fire aboard the Mont-Blanc, which quickly grew out of control. Twenty minutes later the deadly cargo ignited, unleashing a blast of phenomenal power, estimated to be equivalent to around 2.9 kilotons, or about a fifth of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

A ship involved in the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The explosion completely destroyed Halifax’s Richmond district, killing approximately 2000 people and injuring 9000 more. The strength of the blast was illustrated by the fact that a 3-ton anchor was thrown a distance of 2 miles, while a sailor’s decapitated head is said to have smashed church windows 1.5 miles away. A tidal wave created by the explosion killed every member of a community of Mi’kmaq people, a local First Nations tribe.

Barbara Orr recalled growing panic as the fire spread aboard the Mont-Blanc in plain view of people on shore who were helpless to stop it, followed by the cataclysm, then darkness and a huge wall of water:

It was so still, so calm, and this terrible, awful column of smoke went up, and then balls of fire would roll up through it. Then they burst—but there was no sound. It was the strangest thing. I stood spellbound in the middle of this field, and then thought, oh, something awful is going to happen. Suddenly the explosion went off. … I was thinking that I was going down in deep holes all the time. Somebody said that would be almost like an unconsciousness … There was this tidal wave—it’s said that you could see the bottom of the harbor. Well, this tidal wave … took a lot of people back into the harbor on the way down … but since I was smaller and lighter, I was caught in the tidal wave and the force of the explosion blew me the rest of the way.

A cloud formed by the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Library and Archives Canada // Public Domain

Another victim, Ethel Mitchel, was at home when the blast destroyed most of the structure:

When mother went down she was on the stairs when the explosion occurred. The cellar stairs were below the stairs going up to our rooms. The stairs, carpet and all went to the basement with mother on top of them. She was horribly cut. All I know is that this deafening roar occurred and the windows, both the windows went out towards the door on each side of me, and my cat was at the foot of the bed, killed. And yet I was not touched. I was totally unhurt. I was in that only corner of the house that was intact. Now here is the amazing thing. The stairs were taken completely away. How did I get down from that room to the next floor? I had glass in the soles of my feet, from running across the room. If I had jumped I would have gone right to the basement. And nobody knows yet how I got down. But I was found later sitting on a biscuit box way over on a corner, at the grocery store. Yes, and I had a man’s overcoat on, it didn’t belong to us, I don't know where I got it, and a man’s boots on, and nobody knows where I got them. Somebody recognized me, and took me back home.

Destruction resulting from the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The disaster—still considered one of the worst maritime shipping accidents ever—gave ordinary people a taste of the horror of war, and soldiers a disturbing preview. Two weeks after the explosion, Briggs K. Adams, an American soldier who stopped in Halifax en route to Europe, wrote home on December 22, 1917:

We all read about the disaster at Halifax, but you had to see it to form any conception of how terrible it must have been. At the farther distances, just windows and chimneys were broken; nearer, roofs and walls were caved in, and then in the immediate area, a whole hillside was stripped as flat as if it had been raked, not even heaps of wreckage—everything level. It must have been incredibly terrific.

The Canadian government hurried to first deliver tents and then build temporary housing for thousands of residents left homeless in the middle of winter, while concerned citizens across the U.S. and Canada donated huge amounts of food, clothing, and other necessities for the victims. However, major reconstruction efforts would continue until 1922, and a number of factories destroyed in the disaster were never rebuilt, leaving many unemployed.

Halifax Memorial bell tower
Jesse David Hollington // CC BY 2.0

Today the disaster is commemorated by the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower (above). The memorial recreates the appearance of a wrecked house; the bells were donated by Orr, who lost her entire family in the blast, including her parents and five siblings.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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