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World War I Centennial: Rattling the Saber at Sea

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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 15th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

May 7, 1912: Rattling the Saber at Sea

One of the grand traditions of Britain’s Royal Navy was the royal review, in which all the vessels of the home fleet – the core force, responsible for protecting the British Isles from invasion – assembled for a ceremonial inspection by the monarch in the Royal yacht, often followed by other yachts carrying assorted officials, nobles, members of Parliament, and so on. The first review, conducted by Edward III in June 1346, was a strictly utilitarian affair; by the early 20th century, the reviews had become spectacular events, attended by huge crowds of ordinary citizens on shore and aboard chartered pleasure vessels at sea.

While the object of this lavish display was ostensibly the British monarch, journalists and foreign observers were given front-row seats to ensure that the whole world witnessed, at least indirectly, the military might of the British Empire at sea. Indeed, the fleet reviews were the main means of projecting British naval power in peacetime – helping keep the peace, the Royal Navy Admiralty hoped, by intimidating potential rivals and reassuring friends and allies, who were invited to send ships to take part in the festivities.

May 7-11, 1912, saw the last great fleet review of the pre-war period (the next one, on July 20, 1914, turned into a wartime general mobilization) at Weymouth Bay, located on the south coast of England. Over five days, King George V and the members of Parliament observed complicated naval maneuvers by scores of ships, including dreadnoughts, battle-cruisers, and the new class of “destroyers” – smaller ships intended to protect the big ships from attack by enemy submarines. The dreadnoughts demonstrated gunnery by hitting floating targets, using smokeless powder so as not to obscure the view. At night the fleet was “illuminated” for spectators on shore with powerful electric lights in a rainbow of colors.

One of the main events of the Weymouth review was the launching of a new experimental aircraft – an airplane equipped with pontoons, allowing it to take off from the deck of a battleship equipped with a special ramp, fly around the fleet for scouting and reconnaissance, then set down again on the water, where it could be retrieved and brought back aboard the ship.

On May 9, commander Charles Rumney Samson became the first person to take off from a moving ship, piloting a Short S.27 pontoon biplane from the deck of the HMS Hibernia in Weymouth Bay. The pioneering flight, covered by newspapers around the world, helped win Samson the position of commander of the Naval Wing of the newly formed Royal Flying Corps.

The Weymouth review was undoubtedly an impressive spectacle, but it concealed growing unease among British authorities about the Royal Navy’s true strength and its readiness for war. The main fear was the growing threat posed by the German navy, just across the North Sea. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Royal Navy, was scrambling to deter the Germans from building an even bigger navy by promising to outpace their building by a margin of 2-to-1. But the huge expense involved in his proposed naval construction program risked political backlash in Parliament.

This prompted Churchill to propose a redeployment of British naval power from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, over the protests of commercial interests who accused him of leaving the trade routes to British colonies in the Far East unprotected. Churchill reasoned that Britain could reach an agreement with France, whereby the French navy would take over guard duties in the Mediterranean in exchange for a British promise to protect France’s northern coast from the German fleet in the event of war. And there was no doubt, Churchill assured Secretary of War Richard Burdon Haldane on May 6, 1912, that the main naval confrontation of the next war would take place in the North Sea – not the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, innovative naval aeronautics notwithstanding, the fact remained that the Royal Navy hadn’t fought a major fleet action since the Battle of Navarino in 1827, almost a century before, in the age of wooden sailing ships. The Royal Navy was very likely superior to any rival in gunnery, speed, and maneuverability, but it remained untested in combat, and there was no way to know how new weapons like airplanes and submarines might interact with more traditional elements of naval power in a fight. Indeed, few people probably anticipated the major role played by submarines in the First World War, when Germany’s policy of unrestricted U-boat warfare threatened for a time to bring Britain to its knees – but ultimately provoked America’s entry into the war instead.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Found: A Sunken German World War I-Era Submarine
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SMU Central University Libraries, Flickr/Public Domain

During World War I, one of Germany's most formidable weapons was the U-boat, an advanced military submarine with torpedoes that sank countless Allied merchant and cargo ships. But while deadly, these submersibles weren't invincible, as evidenced by the recent discovery of a sunken German U-boat in the North Sea.

As ABC News reports, researchers located the UB II-type dive boat—a smaller submarine that typically plagued coastal waters—off the coast of Belgium, around 82 to 98 feet below the North Sea. The 88-foot vessel appears to have struck a mine with its upper deck, judging by damage suffered to its front.

The submarine is remarkably intact. Two of its torpedo tubes were destroyed, but one of them is still in good condition. The ship itself remained sealed, and may serve as a watery grave for up to 23 crew members.

The U-boat's final resting place hasn't been announced, as to prevent looting or damage, according to the BBC. Meanwhile, Belgian officials have contacted the German ambassador to see how they should proceed with any potential remains.

This isn't the first time a World War I-era U-boat has been found in Belgian waters. Experts have catalogued 11 such discoveries so far, but this one is reported to be the best preserved. The Chicago Tribune reports that since 18 U-boats were stationed in Bruges between 1915 and 1918, and 13 of them were destroyed, there might be even more of these kinds of finds to come.

[h/t ABC News]

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This Just In
Boston University Students Discover 1915 Time Capsule Hidden in Storage
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While sorting through old files at their summer job, three Boston University students discovered an exciting relic: a time capsule from 1915, which had sat forgotten in storage for 15 years, according to

As BU Today reports, undergrads Sarah Mankey, Emma Purtell, and Adam Mumford were tasked with sorting, recording, and re-packing hundreds of boxes filled with old university records while working for the college’s Facilities Management & Planning (FM&P) organization. The project took up much of the summer, but in early August, Mankey and Purtell—along with their work supervisor, Jeff Hoseth—came across a toaster-sized copper container, buried in a box along with university building records.

The time capsule had been buried in June 1915, the student workers later learned, when the cornerstone was laid for a Massachusetts Army National Guard Armory. In 2002, the building—called the Commonwealth Armory— was razed to build BU’s John Hancock Student Village complex. The armory’s original cornerstone was reset into one of the arena’s new walls, but the hidden box was stored away and presumably lost to memory with the passing years.

Mumford helped Mankey and Purtell unpack the time capsule, which had previously been pried open. It was filled with historic records, including a 1915 newspaper with articles about World War I and a map of the newly-constructed MTA subway to Harvard Square; old coins, including an 1894 quarter; construction records; antique photos; and rosters of men based in the armory.

BU officials said they were contacting the National Guard for guidance on what to do with the time capsule and its contents. In the meantime, the student workers who found the relic say it was a fitting reward for a summer of hard work.



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