The deep underlying idealism of that generation of naval officers also made its mark on the U.S. Navy. As technological development drove the horizons of thought to fill vacuums undreamed of in the days of sail, they strove to harness their minds to improve the Navy. There was much to work on.
Foremost among those bent on reforming and improving the Navy was RADM William Sowden Sims. Probably no American naval leader before or since, with the possible exception of FADM Chester W. Nimitz years later, or ADM Arleigh Burke later still, has had the charismatic personality of Sims. He was the leader of an extraordinary group of reformers who worked tirelessly within the system to better it. Widely acclaimed as the person responsible for teaching the Navy how to shoot straight, he also made lasting contributions to the proper design of the most important ships of the time–the battleships–and in the proper and efficient organization of the Navy and the Navy Department. The naval bureaucracy’s resistance to the correction of the many existing deficiencies in ship design–and its near-automatic reflex to reject all new ideas or technological developments–came in for hot and frequent criticism from him.
World War I was the biggest war ever fought in that small, convoluted peninsula of the Euro-Asian continent. It caused fantastic loss of life and irrevocably changed the shape and face of that part of the world. The conflict started from economic rivalry and militarism among the principal nations, but self-destruction, unprecedented civilian suffering, the fall of monarchies and spread of revolution, and a predictable second coming were its principal legacies. It fully deserved both of the names by which it is known to history: The Great War, The World War, and, because it was fought a second time, World War I.
Unfortunately for navy buffs and historians, the conflict saw only a few naval battles. Only one, Jutland in 1916, could be compared to Horatio Nelson’s Trafalgar (1805) in terms of forces engaged, but it was not comparable in outcome. At Trafalgar, British forces totally wiped out the French-Spanish fleet, sinking or capturing 19 ships and driving away the rest in confused flight. At Jutland, there was no decisive victory. The British suffered by far the greater loss of ships and personnel, but the Germans seized the chance, under dark of night, to disengage. So Jutland became known to history as indecisive. No further battle at sea followed, the stress of war was too great, and Germany was forced to give up when the impact of added U.S. military muscle began to make its mark.
A division of five U.S. battleships formed the initial American Battle Squadron as part of the British Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, Scotland, but the major employment of U.S. naval forces during the war was in convoying supplies of all sorts across the Atlantic. When Sims arrived in London in 1917 to direct the Navy’s operations in European waters, England’s Adm. John Jellicoe, Great Britain’s First Sea Lord, related his country’s desperate situation at the hands of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare. Merchant shipping was being sunk or destroyed at a phenomenal rate. Britain had approximately 6 to 8 weeks of food and was on the brink of capitulation. A cable to Washington, D.C., outlining the situation brought prompt action with the dispatch of a first destroyer division under the command of CDR Joseph K. Taussig.
In the eyes of the world at large the major naval development of that war was an entirely different type of combat–under the sea–followed closely by the unheralded marriage of the airplane and the warship.
The US Navy played an instrumental role in the war against the Central Powers. In consort with the Admiralty (British Royal Navy):
- The convoy system was instituted (with strong initial resistance from the Admiralty).
- Created the Naval Overseas Transportation Service (NOTS).
- The Northern Mine Barrage was conceived, planned, and executed with the Royal Navy.
- Designed, constructed 75,000 mines, laid 56,000 mines in the North Sea. (Royal Navy laid 13,000+ mines) .
- A series of naval bases and air stations were established throughout England, Ireland, Scotland, and France.
- A fleet of over 400 sub chasers was designed, constructed, deployed.
- Developed anti submarine tactics and maneuvers utilising surface, air, and submarine assets.
- Developed the depth charge.
- Developed early under water listening technology leading to what we now call sonar.
- Developed and deployed degaussing technology.
- Designed, built, deployed five 14 inch naval gun trains and crews in France.