The strategic role of the Royal British Navy in the First World War


The Royal Navy of the United Kingdom (UK) is the oldest part of Britain’s combat forces and is often referred to as the “Senior Service”. The Naval Service is comprised of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Fleet Auxiliary, Fleet Air Arm and reserve forces. From the 18th century up to the end of World War II, the Navy was the world’s principal and most powerful navy. Therefore it played a very important role during the period in keeping Britain’s position as the ultimate ‘superpower.’ The Royal Navy used various strategies and tactics such as the Antwerp, Mesopotamia, Gallipoli and the Zeebruge campaigns. The involvement of various sections of the Royal Navy helped to make sure of victories against serious enemies and opponents of British interests (Benbow 2011). This paper discusses the role of the Royal British Navy during the First World War by analyzing the war tactics they used in varying campaigns both on land and on sea.

In the first place, the Royal Navy was crucial from a defensive point of view, a point made all the more acute by the fact that Britain is an island nation that is relatively isolated geographically. In terms of the home front, therefore, the navy was the first and more imperative line of defence. It must be considered, as an adjunct to this, that the wealth and power of Britain relied in large part on his expansive Empire, which could not have been protected by means other than naval power. It might be argued, of course, that Britain had established effective naval supremacy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 (Benbow 2011; Halpern 1994). However, despite the nation’s best efforts in conflicts such as the Seven Years War, among others, the state of affairs in 1805 had in actual fact been reversed to a significant extent by the turn of the 20th century. By the time of WWI, Britain’s navy was fairly outdated and its competitors were on the ascendant (Benbow 2011).

The changing status quo by WWI made the burden on the navy heavier than ever. It still remained its 19th-century reputation as the ultimate military power and it had massive capacity to move soldiers and vessels across large international spaces territories. It still, moreover, had the capability to prevent rivals from doing similar strategic moving of troops and equipment (Halpern 1994). The floating gun vessels in particular were a devastating tool in the arsenal that frequently made it impossible for foreign leaders to act against Britain. The crucial fact was that the Royal Navy was able to stymie the efforts of foreign powers, making certain that there was always a supply of tradecrafts and raw materials so that Britain’s factories could make and distribute their products overseas. The Laissez Faire economic model that Britain adopted as the basis of its trading would not have been possible without the authority of the Royal Navy (Friedman 2001; Halpern 1994). It is clear, therefore, that regardless of apparent historical supremacy, the navy as important as ever in economic and defensive terms during WWI.

Another aspect of the Royal Navy’s powerful role was control of communications and supply lines, so that it was possible to link up the Empire and control activities across the globe. Throughout the whole period, the Royal Navy’s war preparation and entry into the First World War demonstrates its state-of-the-art operation. This ability, however, arose not just through the navy itself but also the vast and sophisticated underpinning of expertise and strategy. For example, the Royal Navy was backed by a comprehensive research programme into maritime history, careful studies of allied and defensive maneuvers, and knowledge of politics and power in various regions across Europe and beyond (Friedman 2001). An important part of this was that Navy’s role in reconnaissance and observation. It was able to procure information about the capabilities of rivals, for example, whether political, military, or economic.

The strategic role of the navy is best discussed in the context of contemporary events. The Germans marched into France and Belgium in August 1914 and desperately needed a “flying column”. At this time, Britain had between 20 000 to 30 000 navy reservists but could not make sure that all these reservists played a full role. Those parties in charge of strategy concluded that there were enough reserve soldiers to create two groups that would form vital brigades. So, in Britain the Naval Brigades and the Royal Marines Brigade were set up. The brigades became publicly recognized as the RND (Royal Naval Division) and soon after they were sent to Ostend, where they took part in a fierce battle in Antwerp.

This battle demonstrates a number of different things about the strategic important of the navy. On the one hand, it indicates a clear purpose: the opposing of a German threat on the continent which, if unimpeded by the reservists, might have become a serious threat. The Marines were among the only British forces participating at the battle of Antwerp, and they brought about Germany’s withdrawal of a large proportion of their troops from the French front in order to capture of Antwerp (Stephenson 2011). However, the extent to which these soldiers struggled in due to poor training and shortages of proper equipment suggests that at this stage the Royal Navy was of limited strategic value. Thus, the Belgium army, which was comprised of mainly six divisions, was overcome by the Germans at Liege and the River Gate and had to retreat to the stronghold city of Antwerp (Halpern 1994). Had the Royal Navy been more adept in the first place this might never have occurred.

However, the strategic role of the navy in this instance was salvaged to an extent when Winston Churchill, astutely realizing the important of Antwerp, bolstered the city using the Royal Navy Division. In this way, a key strategic position, in terms of Allied shipping, was saved by virtue of the navy. This point is made all the more compelling by the fact that the Belgians were forced to withdraw their forces from the fray on 6t October 1914, opening the path to a German victory. The intervention of the Royal Navy therefore came at a critical moment, heightening its importance (Grove 1987).

The tactics of the Royal Naval Division on this occasion also suggests strategic relevance. An innovative plan was devised by which the troops dug trenches so that they could position themselves strategically during the battle. The aftermath of the battle is also worth mentioning. On 11 October 1914, the residual divisions of the Royal Navy Division arrived back home in England and immediately commenced their training camp in Blanford in Dorset (Jolly 2000). Crucially, they brought with them Belgian experience and the innovation of British armed forces. Changes were made to the training to better prepare the Naval Division as well as the Marine substitutes, that in the future would be selected and serve in Royal Marine battalions. Thus, through the navy’s combat experience and later role in Britain, the capability of the armed forces was enhanced.

The French believed the Germans were on maneuvers in Belgium and sent some ships to trouble the German cavalry which were by now in North of Dunkirk. This maneuver was successful, which managed to give the impression that it was the central army. The British forces began to move ahead towards Brasa and captured Fort Zain. They also stopped efforts by the Turks to obstruct the river so the Turkish forces retreated from Brasa. Then, General Sir Arthur Barrett, the commander of the British army, deployed regiments to the city and the British forces established a strong occupation on 23 November 1914 (Knight 2006). The triumphant campaign allowed the majority of the British troops to return home, leaving only a small garrison. This episode is more than mere narrative. It reveals that for certain periods the Royal Navy was rendered almost redundant in a military sense due to a lack of conflict at sea. This is suggested by the fact that on 28 August, marines were located on ships during the battle of Heligoland, with no lives lost. Later, however, at the Battle of Coronel in November, the British forces experienced a loss of 196 soldiers. One of the last encounters at sea was in 1914 during the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December. The importance of the navy was brought back into focus when, towards the end of 1914, the deadlock between the Western and Eastern Fronts ceased (Friedman 2011). This allowed the British Navy to establish and consolidate maritime control and superiority, but it was not practical to have the opening of a similar instance as Trafalgar. The British administration therefore needed to begin searching for an alternative that would conclude the war.

During December 1914, the strategic importance of the navy on the Western Front became apparent. The British government had responded to a request for assistance from Russia, which was struggling to fight the Turks in the Caucuses. On 2 January 1915, the Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener agreed to demonstrate British strength to support Russia (McMillan 2013). Kitchener could not take any troops from the Western Front, so he turned to naval capacities for active involvement. As a result, the best location for action would be the tapered strip of water from the Mediterranean into the Sea of Marmara. The purpose and plan, masterminded by Winston Churchill, was to avoid the Turkish capital, First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill created a complicated structure of a ‘third Allied front’ which gave tremendous assistance to Russia. The Royal Naval Division, moreover, went on to form an important part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary force (MEF), was which also included the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), the 29th Division (British Army) and the Royal Naval Division (RND) (Dupuy 1967). Responsibility for the division was given to General Sir Ian Hamilton, The marines’ first conflict was in March 1915, where they targeted Turkish citadels and 22 individuals lost their lives while several others were injured. On 25 April the Plymouth Battalion with a group of 2nd South Wales Borderers landed on “Y” beach where a number of soldiers lost their lives (Churchill 1940). However, these successes were not without setbacks, and it should not be concluded that the Royal Navy was unequivocally of strategic value in these cases. There had been an early problem when the navy initially landed on 25 April and this had given Turkey chance of help to organize their defenses from Germany especially on top of cliffs that gave a direct view of the neighboring beaches and into the interior of the land (Dupuy 1967).

On 28th April, the Chatham Battalion landed on the Anzac shoreline in order to safeguard a beach, and they stayed there until 12th May despite many deaths and casualties. On the 29th April, the Admiralty gave control of the Royal Navy Division to the British War office and it became the 63rd Royal Naval Division. The 63rd also had control of the RM training division located at Blanford (Herwig 1987). During May and June, Royal Marines participated in warfare at the 2nd and 3rd Battles of Krithnia. Additionally, there was action at Achi Baba on the 12th June. The MEF held their initial position at Gallipoli to try and find a conclusion to the struggle (Herwig 1987).

One point of important to note about this episode is that the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF), along with the Royal Navy, experienced various levels of difficulties and higher levels of casualties. This prompted MEF’s withdrawal from Gallipoli, moreover. Winston Churchill’s administration has received severe criticism for the large number of lives lost over this period, and it can reasonably be questioned whether such as campaign can be deemed of strategic value. One might even say it was a strategic folly in human terms; and as Osbourne (2004) points out, the fact that Churchill stepped down from the Admiralty as a result is damning.

Following the activities of this period, more action then took place in the sea rather than on land. The Battle of Jutland was the largest wartime conflict that occurred at sea during World War I. The battle commenced on 31st May 1916 when Germany fired against the British Battle Cruiser regiments. Royal Marines proved their strategic value here, as they were involved in 10% of the most important naval attack on crafts (Osbourne 2004). This proportion comprised mainly RMA whose job during this time was to operate guns. As it got bigger, the battle looked like it was getting out of control. The next day, British demolisher vessels attacked and sunk the Pommern. However in total, the Germans lost 11 ships while the British lost 14 ships, which suggests strategic folly in numerical terms (Osbourne 2004).

In May the same year, RMLI brigades arrived from Gallipoli and were repatriated to France where new resources and weapons were organised. In addition, they were given more manpower and upgraded weapons to machine guns. In July, the RM Company was joined by companies called Howe and Anson the 188th Brigade of the re-titled 63rd RND (Herwig 1987). This group moved to a fairly quiet region of the Western Front. At this point, because of new weapons technology it was necessary to safeguard the line using three trench positions. Common Trench warfare was intended for use in heavy infantry but that was not commonly experienced through the commando tactics of RMLI (Friedman 2011). These battalions became a vital element to the Battle of Ancre Heights near Beaumont Hill. There were financial implications for this battle, as well as many casualties. On 17th April 1917 the 1st and 2nd regiments participated in armed combat at Miraumant and also during the 2nd Battle of the Scarpe later that month. During this armed effort, troops from the 63rd Division took over captured Gavrelle, led by General C. Lawrie. Immediately afterward, the 63rd Division also participated in the Battle of Arleux (Friedman 2011). The RND marched to various regions including Arras and Ypres during the winter weather, carrying heavy army equipment. In Ypres, the battalions trained very hard to prepare for a key offensive on the German border, north of Ypres. When it happened, the attack would take the forces to the strategic location of the Paddebrek stream, in the north region of the canal (Randier 2006).

Because of significant losses earlier that year the 1st and 2nd RMLI contingents joined together to increase their masses numbers. However, at this point, there were some signs that the war was moving towards an end and the Germans begun realizing that their momentum begun to slow down. Finally, on 8th August the British put into place their counter plan to impact on German troops, disturbing all levels of hierarchy in the army, including the German High Command. This appeared to be a possible chance for victory, although it is vital to point out that victory was not guaranteed. On 2nd to 3rd September 1918, the 1st and 3rd Armies fought at the Battle of Drocourt-Queant, alongside the 63rd (RN) division in the Third army (Morison 1942). On 27th September to 1st October 1918, the 1st and 3rd Armies also engaged in combat at the Battle of the Canal du Nord. During this time, the 63rd RN group was once again a component of the third Army (Stephenson 2011; Osbourne 2004).

As has emerged through this essay, the strategic value of the Royal Navy was mixed. Many historians viewed Gallipoli as a catastrophic tragedy, facilitated by confusing tactics and problems that allowed the enemy to prepare for the attack (Stephenson 2011). However, despite awful circumstances, the Marines still managed several successes demonstrating that they were a significant force on the ground in the capacity of infantry. Many of the experiences acquired by soldiers in World War I were valuable resources that were applied again in the experiences they would go through in WWII (Stephenson 2011).

This essay has detailed the many triumphs of the Royal Navy; however, of them all the Zeebruge campaign was arguably the most important in strategic terms (Koerver 2010). After dealing with frightful conditions and dreadful weather, the Marines still managed to carry out their responsibilities and sabotage the canal (Stephenson 2011). Their accomplishments led to an unintentional benefit of giving a confidence boost and momentum for all British soldiers involved in the conflict in other places (Knight 2006).

As a final, but by no means insignificant point, the importance of the Royal Navy as a blockading force deserves a mention. The efforts of the marines and the navy kept Germany surrounded, creating barrier to many trade routes and ports, causing starvation and eventually defeat. This contributed to higher levels of bankruptcy, as Germany exhausted its finances trying to keep up with Britain (Stephenson 2011; Osbourne 2004).

In conclusion, is clear that the Royal Navy was an indispensible strategic tool during WWI. It had the capacity to fight effectively in different environments and landscapes, as has been outlined in the narrative sections of this essay. It was also useful in observing and introducing a wide range of tactics, strategies, and military equipment to Britain, which helped to evolve many modern aspects of warfare that are still with us today (Knight 2006). Its versatility on land and sea, moreover, which has been outlined throughout this essay in description of campaigns, was enormously useful. In concrete terms, the most essential raids that consolidated included Antwerp, Mesopotamia, Gallipoli, and Zeebruge, all of which involved the Royal Navy. Of course, it certainly had its shortcomings, and some of its failures and blunders have been discussed. However, this is an inevitable part of the operations of any force. In the end, while the Germans lost the war for a wide range of reasons, the impact of the British Royal Navy was certainly one of them; it was undoubtedly of great strategic value.

Reference List

Benbow, T Naval Warfare 1914-1918: From Coronel to the Atlantic and Zeebrugge. (Newbury: Amber Books Ltd, 2011)

Churchill, W The Second World War. Vol. 2, Their Finest Hour ( Houghton Mifflin Company, 1949)

Dupuy, T. N. The Military History of World War I: naval and overseas war, 1916-1918. (New York: Franklin Watts, 1967)

Friedman, N., Naval Weapons of World War One: Guns, Torpedoes, Mines, and ASW Weapons of All Nations: An Illustrated Directory (UK: Naval Institute Press 2011).

Grove, E. Vanguard to Trident, (London: Naval Institute Press/The Bodley Head, 1987)

Halpern, P. A Naval History of World War I. The Standard Scholarly Survey. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994)

Koerver, H. J. German Submarine Warfare 1914 – 1918 in the Eyes of British Intelligence, (Reinisch: LIS 2010)

Herwig, H. H. Luxury Fleet: The Imperial German Navy,1888-1918. (Oxon: Routledge, 1987)

Joll, R. Jackspeak. (UK: Maritime Books, 2000)

Will Knight, UK unveils plans for a new submarine fleet. New Scientist (Environment) 2006,

McMillan, M. The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914(London: Profile Books Ltd, 2013)

Morison, E. Admiral Sims and the Modern American Navy. (UK: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942)

Osbourne, E. W. Britain’s Economic Blockade of Germany, 1914–1919. (London and New York: Routledge 2004).

Randier, J. La Royale: L’histoire illustree de la Marine Nationale Francaise. (Brest: Editions de la Cite, 2006)

Stephenson, D. With our backs to the wall: Victory and defeat in 1918. (UK: Penguin, 2011)

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