German Naval Operations, August 1914

The following essay was written by Geoffrey Miller ( and appeared on WW1-L in May 1999 (reproduced here by permission).

The supposed German attempt to guarantee British neutrality by keeping the High Seas Fleet on a tight rein is, I believe, one of the great myths of early August, 1914. If, as indeed they eventually did, [1] the Germans pledged not to threaten the northern coasts of France in an attempt to guarantee British neutrality would they have been believed? It has become axiomatic in the accounts of the weekend's debate that the concern over the 'defenceless' northern coasts of France was largely irrelevant due to the apparent German willingness to provide a pledge to refrain from offensive naval action. [2] However, in view of the ambivalent German response to Grey's entreaty on Friday, 31 July; in view of the German declaration of war against Russia on Saturday evening; in view of the German invasion of Luxembourg on Sunday morning; and in view of the knowledge that the German Mittelmeerdivision [ie SMS Goeben and SMS Breslau] had left the Adriatic steaming westwards on their mission to interfere with the French troop transportation, [3] had not the Germans completely exhausted their remaining reserve of goodwill? [4] Already, British ships had been detained in Hamburg while the Germans laid mines in the mouth of the Elbe. [5] It had been known since the morning of 28 July that units of the German Fleet which had been in Norwegian waters had taken in 'considerable quantities of coal' and departed hurriedly. [6] A further intelligence report, received on the afternoon of 2 August, noted that the second and third battle squadrons of the German Fleet had passed through the Kiel Canal the previous night from the Baltic to the Elbe. [7] Although these moves could have been portrayed as defensive, by this time Germany was only at war with Russia. By 3 August it was reported that the entire German High Sea Fleet had 'passed through the Kiel Canal steaming westwards'. [8] What was the rationale behind this move? Is it not possible that it was interpreted in London as presaging offensive operations, either against Britain or the coasts of France? No matter how much evidence is adduced to prove that the German Government would not have made such a move, the point of contention is whether the members of the British Cabinet believed that they were capable of such an action. And clearly, after what had occurred within the previous twenty-four hours, eighteen of the nineteen members of the Cabinet thought Germany capable of uttering a false promise. Cambon certainly believed that, if Berlin suspected for a moment that London was hesitating before deciding to guarantee the defence of the French coasts, the High Seas Fleet 'would hasten into the Channel.' Rather than the British debate regarding the French coasts being irrelevant, it was in fact the German pledge, which came too late in any event, which was the irrelevancy.

German naval operational plans dating from November 1912 were based upon 'offensive mine warfare against the enemy coasts', coupled with the use of U-boats to attack British transports and 'contaminat[e] the lines of approach to the embarkation and disembarkation harbours' of the B.E.F. These offensive operations, to be of any use, were to be undertaken immediately upon the outbreak of war, which, in the case of France, was Monday 3 August. The mining operation had but one purpose: so to weaken the Grand Fleet that a major battle could be envisaged in circumstances not unfavourable to the High Seas Fleet. The principle war task of the German C-in-C 'should be to damage the blockading forces of the enemy as far as possible through numerous and repeated attacks day and night, and under favourable circumstances to give battle with all the forces at your disposal'. [9] Before the time limit to the British ultimatum to Germany on Tuesday 4 August expired the converted German minelayer Koenigin Luise had already sailed from Borkum on her mission to mine the approaches to the Thames. Although sunk in the process, she claimed a victim - the British light cruiser Amphion - on the first full day of the war.


[1] On Monday the German Foreign Minister pledged that the northern coasts of France would not be threatened so long as Britain remained neutral. By then, it was too late. Jagow to Lichnowsky, tel. no. 216, 3 August 1914, German Diplomatic Documents, no. 714, p. 520.(Return to text)

[2] For example, Steiner, Britain and the Origins of the First World War, p. 230: 'The idea of a naval war was more acceptable than an expeditionary force. This was the one time when the conversations with France affected the Cabinet's decision-making and then it was only of indirect importance as the Germans subsequently promised to refrain from such operations.' The Brocks made a similar point: 'The decision which the cabinet had made with such difficulty (Burns dissenting), to intervene should the French Channel coast be bombarded, related to a move which the German leaders did not intend to make.' Asquith Letters, p. 147, n. 4. Also, Trevor Wilson ("Britain's 'Moral Commitment' to France in August 1914", History, vol. 64, (1979), p. 381): 'the Grey-Cambon agreement 'involved Britain in at most a limited action against Germany, to keep the German fleet out of the Channel - something which any British government would have required . [and] it was possible to secure this object without becoming involved in war with Germany, because the Germans had no plans to send their fleet into the Channel.' (Return to text)

[3] Miller, Superior Force, p. 16. (Return to text)

[4] On Sunday 2 August, Tirpitz wanted to know whether 'we are to consider ourselves in a state of war with England.' Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office to Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 2 August 1914, Kautsky (ed.), German Diplomatic Documents, no. 654, p. 488. (Return to text)

[5] Grey to Goschen, Foreign Office, no. 49, 1 August 1914; Goschen to Grey, Berlin, no. 123, 2 August 1914, BD, XI, nos. 402, 456b. (Return to text)

[6] Findlay to Grey, Christiania, 27/28 July 1914, nos. 9 and 17, BD, XI, no. 168. The German ships reported to have sailed included Hannover, Schleswig-Holstein, Moltke, Deutschland, Pommern, Seydlitz and Stralsund. (Return to text)

[7] Goschen to Grey, Berlin, 2 August 1914, BD, XI, no. 489. (Return to text)

[8] Communicated by War Office, 3 August 1914, via Germany, BD, XI, no. 535. (Return to text)

[9] Vice-Admiral Heeringen's memorandum, 28 November 1912, quoted in Kennedy, "German Naval Plans Against England", in Kennedy (ed.), The War Plans of the Great Powers, p. 188, and, Roehl, The Kaiser and his Court, p. 174. See also, Corbett, Naval Operations vol. I, p. 30. (Return to text)

Last Updated: 12 July, 1999.

 Return to WWI The Maritime War

 Return to WWI Archive main page.