Blockade work is unspectacular, uninspiring, but exceedingly dangerous.
British Admiral Sir Dudley de Chair, 1916
The war at sea was a cruel war of blockade. Each side tried to starve the other out. Britain’s Royal Navy guarded the North Sea. It stopped any ships heading for German ports, seizing war materials and food.
From February 1915 Germany retaliated. German submarines fired without warning on ships bound for Britain, even if they came from countries not at war. The British blockade angered the neutral Americans. The German blockade enraged them.
Neither side wanted to risk losing their great fleets. Only once did British and German battleships clash in a massive sea battle, off Jutland, Denmark, in 1916. Within minutes 14 British and 11 German ships that had taken years to build were sunk. Nearly 9,000 sailors lost their lives. Both sides claimed victory. But Britain still commanded the seas.
Jack Cornwall gun
At the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, a salvo of German shells struck HMS Chester. The crew of this 5.5-inch gun were all killed save one, 16-year-old Jack Cornwell. Badly wounded, he stayed at his post awaiting orders. He died in three days later. In death, Cornwell, a delivery boy from Essex who had joined the Navy against his father’s wishes, became a national hero.
He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
Camisole and lifebelt
On 7 May 1915 a German submarine torpedoed the British liner RMS Lusitania. Passenger Margaret Gwyer was wearing this camisole when she was sucked into one of the sinking ship’s funnels before being thrown clear when the engines exploded. Blackened by oil and smoke, Gwyer was rescued.
The lifebelt here was found after the sinking. The loss of Lusitania with 1,195 lives, including 128 Americans, caused international outrage.
Britain’s naval blockade meant stopping ships and sending parties in small boats to inspect their cargo. The officers who led the inspections were ordered to carry a sword. One officer recorded seeing a boarding-party fall into the water, ‘Lieutenant Clarke was under the boat but managed to get hold of her rudder which had come loose. But he had an awful struggle to get at it. He had heavy clothes and was wearing a sword and revolver.’
‘All these little Powers hate one another cordially, but when the carcase is ready to be cut up each wants as big and juicy a slice as it can get...’
Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, letter, 27 December 1914
The Allies and their enemies tried to coax leaders of neutral nations to join the war. In May 1915 Italy, given a secret offer of Austro-Hungarian territory, joined the Allies. The Italians launched attack after attack along their border with Austria. They suffered enormous losses against determined Austro-Hungarian troops. Fighting in harsh mountainous terrain, soldiers on both sides had to endure bitter cold.
In September Bulgaria joined Austria-Hungary and Germany, hoping for land from its hated rival, Serbia. The following month, with its new allies, Bulgaria invaded and crushed Serbia.
British and French troops landed at Salonika, in neutral Greece, but they could not save Serbia. The Serbian Army, together with thousands of refugees, made a winter retreat through the Albanian mountains. Almost half died of disease, starvation or were killed in enemy attacks.
The Italian Army commander, General Luigi Cadorna, dreamed of marching on the Austrian capital, Vienna. But his men were doomed to fight bloody battles in harsh terrain, such as the rugged Isonzo valley, the stony Carso plateau and even on the peaks of mountains along the Austrian-Italian border.
Serbian troops faced equally terrible conditions. In 1915, with Serbia invaded by three enemies, they retreated across snowbound, gale-swept mountains into Albania. Those who survived were evacuated to Corfu.
Italy was ill-prepared to fight a modern war. Guns and shells were too scarce and valuable to be used to cut barbed wire, so the Italian Army created special wire-cutting units. Soldiers in these ‘Companies of Death’ wore this type of helmet, part of a suit of thick body armour that was supposed to offer protection against bullets.
This is the uniform of an Italian infantry private. Between May and the end of November 1915, nearly one in four Italian soldiers from its one-million-strong army was killed or wounded while fighting the Austro-Hungarians. One Italian general called it a ‘war of madness’.
British souvenir handkerchief
In Britain, France and Russia, people welcomed Italy’s entry into the war. This British souvenir handkerchief captures the mood of the time, showing British and Italian soldiers advancing together before the figure of ‘Justice’. The picture was drawn by the best-known popular illustrator of the time, Fortunino Matania, an Italian artist living in London.
The Serbian Army had fought off three Austro-Hungarian invasions in 1914. But by the following autumn, it was severely weakened by disease. Its best units had modern uniform and equipment, but not every Serbian infantryman was lucky enough to have an up-to-date, German-made Mauser rifle like this one.
The explosive bullet caused dreadful wounds and its use was illegal under international law. The Austro-Hungarian Army was accused of using such ammunition against Serbian troops. By 1916 the suffering of the Serbs was coming to world attention. During the war, Serbia lost one in six of its population to fighting, disease and famine, a higher proportion than any other nation.