Today marks the centenary of the Battle of Heligoland Bight, fought in the North Sea on 28 August 1914. It was the first major naval action between British and German naval forces during the First World War, and was a victory for the former.
The appalling slaughter on the Western Front often dominates the commemoration of the First World War. However, without the contribution of the Royal Navy and the merchant fleet Britain could not have fought at all. Their struggle is the focus of a new gallery at the National Maritime Museum entitled Forgotten Fighters: the First World War at Sea.
The maritime conflict spanned the globe, raging from the North Sea to South America, and from Africa to China. The stakes could not have been higher. The British war effort depended on food and raw materials from overseas – crucial supplies that could only arrive by ship. Without sea power, rations and reinforcements could not have reached the men in the trenches, and the hundreds of thousands who fought alongside them from India, Australia, New Zealand and Canada would never have arrived at all. From the first day of the war the German navy threatened these lifelines, and all sides suffered terrible casualties in the struggle that ensued.
However, the naval war did not simply take place on the waves. Tens of thousands of sailors fought ashore as part of the Royal Naval Division, from the Gallipoli campaign to the killing fields of France.
The sky was also a naval battleground. The Royal Naval Air Service began the war with fewer than 1000 personnel. By 1918 that number had grown to 55000, with nearly 3000 aircraft and more than 100 airships.
The navy was equally at the forefront of new technology when it came to fighting beneath the waves. Although largely untried weapons at the beginning of the conflict, submarines soon proved their value to the British. For their crews, conditions were basic and extremely hazardous, with many vessels lost due to accidents or mechanical failures as well as enemy action.
From a German shell fragment that struck a British warship at the Battle of Jutland to a lifebelt from a merchant vessel sunk by a U-boat, our Forgotten Fighters gallery explores the maritime realities of a war that shaped the modern world.