With good reason, it is the stoic soldiers who faced the mud and slaughter of the trenches who come to mind when we think of First World War. The scale of fighting, suffering and dying on the battlefields of France was a magnitude greater than the conflict at sea, but the sacrifice of sailors and the critical role of the navy should not be forgotten.
Just as we are today, in 1914 the nation was reliant on sea trade. The sailors of our Merchant Marine were magnificent throughout the war, ships carrying not just their usual cargoes but transporting troops and war materiel too. One of the most common cargos crossing the Channel was hay and over 600,000 horses and mules were transported across the North Atlantic for the war effort. Some 3,305 merchant ships were lost, taking with them 17,000 merchant seafarers, most of their names are recorded on the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill in London.
For the Royal Navy and Royal Marines it was also long, hard war and, if not serving at sea, tens of thousands of sailors and marines were drafted to the Western Front to serve with the Royal Naval Division, later the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division. The battle of Jutland in 1916 was a human tragedy, the RN lost 6,784 men and 14 ships, in less than 48 hours, many more than the Germans. But the cold truth was the mighty Grand Fleet could absorb the awful losses and the High Seas Fleet was never able to seriously challenge again. This strategic victory enabled the blockade of Germany which eventually precipitated their collapse and the final end of the conflict.
Their surface fleet thwarted by the Royal Navy, the Germans turned to their U-boats and for a time looked like they could cut Britain off from the imports upon which she relied. The adoption of convoys and the resolute courage of Royal and Merchant Navy sailors eventually nullified the u-boats but underlined the enduring need to exercise control over our sea lines of communication.
During the war, the Royal Navy lost some 16 capital ships, along with 25 cruisers, 54 destroyers, 64 submarines, and other minor war vessels. 34,642 Royal Navy and Royal Marines officers and men died, around two-thirds of them recorded by name on the naval war memorials at Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth.
We will remember them.
In ocean wastes no poppies blow,
No crosses stand in ordered row,
Their young hearts sleep… beneath the wave…
The spirited, the good, the brave,
But stars a constant vigil keep,
For them who lie beneath the deep.
(In Waters Deep, by Eileen Mahoney)