While many of the First World War’s defining moments played out on land, this global conflict also saw the rise of U-boats. These early submarines were used on both sides of the war, and although they are now widely remembered as a tool of the German forces – especially during the Second World War – it was actually the British who first began heavily investing in a submarine fleet.
However, although they were initially reluctant to develop this new technology, it was a German U-boat that first sunk a ship using a torpedo. On the 5th of September 1914, only a month after the outbreak of the conflict, the British ship HMS Pathfinder was attacked by an enemy submarine, named SM U-21. This marked the beginning of a new kind of warfare – one that would have enormous consequences for both sides.
Germany soon began making a point of targeting commercial vessels, in the hope that Britain’s economy would become so weak that they would seek terms before America could be drawn into the war on their side. However, in their efforts to do this, Germany’s U-boat warfare proved to have the opposite effect. After sinking several US merchant vessels, they unintentionally provoked the American government into declared war, and the tide began to turn in the Allies’ favor. Germany had sunk well over a million tons of shipping by this point, but it was ultimately their undoing.
To this day, modern submarines are still used around the world, and the place they occupy in military history cannot be overstated. In this video, Indy Neidell explores the origins of these incredible war machines, looking at their roots from before the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. The Great War YouTube channel regularly posts a wide range of fascinating content, and their weekly updates on the progression of the First World War have become increasingly popular over the years.