Britain’s first casualties of the war happened at sea. On 6 August the British cruiser, HMS Amphion, struck a mine in the North Sea and sank. One hundred and fifty sailors were killed.
The first naval battle of the war took place on 28 August, at Heligoland Bight on the northwest coast of Germany. Intending to attack German patrols, a British fleet, under the command of Admiral Sir David Beatty, scored an impressive victory and returned home to a hero’s welcome.
The Royal Navy gained an unexpected boost on 26 August, when the Russian navy sunk a German ship called the Magdeburg off the coast of Estonia. On boarding the stricken vessel, Russian sailors discovered two sets of German codebooks together with their corresponding encryption keys. One copy they kept for themselves; the other they sent to the Royal Navy. Britain’s naval intelligence and decryption arm was based in room forty of the Admiralty’s headquarters in London, and was called ‘Room 40’. Although the German navy increasingly relied on its U-boats, the codebooks allowed the Royal Navy to know the position of almost every German ship for the rest of the war.
A German fleet commanded by Admiral Maximilian von Spee caused much damage to British ships, both merchant and troop, culminating on 1 November with the defeat of a British fleet at the Battle of Coronel, off the coast of Chile. The British, determined to hunt Von Spee down, got their revenge on 8 December at the Battle of the Falkland Islands. Von Spee, together with his two sons, was killed. The consequence of their defeat in the South Atlantic was that the Germans decided to limit the use of their warships in direct clashes with the might of the British navy and instead concentrate on better utilizing their submarines, or U-boats.
British propaganda poster following the German navy’s shelling of Scarborough, 16 December 1914
But the ships still had their uses to the Germans. On 3 November, the German navy shelled Great Yarmouth, the first attack on the British mainland for 250 years. Then, on 16 December, a fleet of German ships cruised the North Sea and shelled the seaside towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby. One hundred and thirty-seven people were killed and almost 600 wounded, the first wartime casualties on British soil for over two centuries. The British public was outraged that the Royal Navy had failed to protect them and equally outraged that the German navy should attack civilians, vilifying the German admiral, Franz von Hipper, as a ‘baby killer’. (When Admiral Hipper tried a similar raid in January 1915, the Royal Navy, pre-warned by Room 40, intercepted his fleet and defeated it at the Battle of Dogger Bank.)
German ships caused much havoc to Britain’s merchant navy transporting food and materials and troopships carrying troops from across Britain’s dominions. On 20 October, the SS Glitra became the first British merchant ship sunk by a German U-boat. One German ship in particular did so much damage that the British sought her out. Captained by Karl von Müller, the German cruiser SMS Emden had destroyed thirty Allied vessels on the Indian Ocean and shelled a petroleum plant in Madras. She was finally destroyed by the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney near the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean on 9 November.
While German U-boats menaced British supplies, the Royal Navy, in turn, imposed a blockade on Germany. Minefields stretched across the North Sea, declared a military zone, and the Straits of Dover in the English Channel. British ships intercepted and boarded neutral vessels and confiscated anything that might remotely aid Germany’s war effort, then escorted the ships to their destinations. The USA, in particular, who wished to continue trading with all its European partners, complained that Britain was interfering with its ocean-bound trade. Within months, Germany’s imports and exports, vital for Germany’s economy, had both fallen by almost fifty per cent.
The use of aeroplanes during 1914 was largely limited to reconnaissance. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) were the air branches of the British Army and Royal Navy respectively until their merging into the Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918. Sir John French saw their value, commenting as early as 7 September 1914 that the RFC’s ‘skill, energy, and perseverance have been beyond all praise. They have furnished me with the most complete and accurate information which has been of incalculable value in the conduct of operations.’
On 22 September, the first British air attack on Germany took place when four aircraft attacked Zeppelin sheds in Dusseldorf and Cologne. The mission failed but the precedent had been set. On Christmas Eve, a German plane dropped a bomb over Dover, the first air raid on Britain during the war, although no one was hurt.