Pictures of World War I

Each Worth 1000 Words…

Submarines During World War 1

By the beginning of the First World War, almost all of the major players had submarines as part of their fleets. These crafts were somewhat small though, and their military value had yet to be uncovered as they were mainly being used for coastal operations and defense. In fact, submarines were seen as so impractical by some, that many fleet commanders scoffed at the concept of including them in their naval strategies and tactics.

The submarine itself had been around for more than a century though, by the time World War One had begun. So regardless of whether they saw the value of these ships or not, conflicting sides had had plenty of time to improve and refine submarine technology into something a little more lethal and practical.

The History of the Submarine

The submarines used in WWI had evolved quite substantially since their original military debut 1775 with the Turtle. This sub was a hand-powered device designed by David Bushnell and was used to transport a single person for underwater military operations. During the American Revolutionary War, the Turtle even tried to sink the British warship HMS Eagle, but was unsuccessful.

After this incident, submarine technology steadily improved over the course of the next hundred years. In the mid 1800s, the first non-man powered submarine emerged in Spain and France. These models no longer required their passengers to manually propel the device forward and instead used compressed air and combustion. This new method of operation made submarines somewhat more usable for turn of the century warfare.

German U-boats

Despite having a somewhat unreliable reputation at the beginning of World War One, Germany’s class of submarines, the Deutschland U-Boat, completely changed the way these vehicles were being used. Each of these ships was more than 300 feet long and could carry 700 tons of cargo at 13-knot speed on the surface and seven knots underwater. To increase its offensive potential during warfare, the U-boat was also fitted with torpedoes and deck guns.

These German subs made a very notable first impression on September 17, 1914 when a German U-9 submarine torpedoed and sunk three armored British cruisers in the North Sea. After this incident, submarines were no longer seen as silly “playthings” in warfare, they were now a legitimate threat and a necessary element in naval strategy and tactics.

Risky Ocean Voyage

Realizing the military potential of submarines from the get-go, Germany sought out to develop one of the largest and most advanced sub fleets during World War One. By the end of the war Germany went from a fleet of 28 submarines to one with more than 350–which meant they were building at least two vessels a week.

With the German U-boats patrolling the coasts and waters, ocean voyage was considered a very risky and dangerous endeavour. Each side was attempting to blockade supplies from the other through the use of their naval fleets. Ships traveling through the Atlantic ocean were instructed to be on the lookout specifically for U-boats and were advised to employ certain tactics (like speeding up and weaving) in order to avoid an attack.

The Sinking of Lusitania

On May 1, 1915, the British liner, Lusitania, left New York transport 1,959 people to Liverpool. Unfortunately for this ship, the captain was unable to use prescribed submarine avoidance tactics as they encountered fog on the voyage and were forced to travel slowly and on a predictable path.

Spotted by a German U-20, the Lusitania was immediately devastated by a single torpedo fired from the submarine. The ship sank in less than 18 minutes with a sickening death toll of 1198 passengers–128 of whom were Americans.

The amount of civilian deaths in this attack shocked and appalled the rest of the world. The United States was particularly angry that its citizens had been killed in a war they had taken an officially neutral stance on. In fact, many historians state that this was one of the main factors that contributed to the US officially joining the Allied Powers in 1917.

World War I Submarines Photos