Editor’s note (4/2/2017): This week marks the 100-year anniversary of the U.S. entry into the First World War. Scientific American, founded in 1845, spent the war years covering the monumental innovations that changed the course of history, from the first tanks and aerial combat to the first widespread attacks with chemical weapons. To mark the centennial, we are republishing the article below and many others. For full access to our archival coverage of the Great War sign up for an All Access subscription today.
There were several smaller naval battles in the first few months after the outbreak of the war, but given the strength of the British Royal Navy, the Germans were reluctant to risk a full-scale battle until 1916.
One attempt to use naval power in 1915 by the Allies ended in disaster: the attempt by battleships to force a way through the Dardanelles, the narrow seaway leading to Constantinople. The Allies then tried to land troops on the Gallipoli peninsula along the waterway, but after several months of hard fighting, had to withdraw them.
The Allied naval blockade started having an immediate effect on the people and industries of the Central Powers. Germany fought back by using its small but useful submarine fleet to sink civilian cargo ships bringing much-needed food and war supplies to the Allies. The civilian liner Lusitania was the most significant ship sunk in this way, an attack that brought the Germans much trouble two years later.
In the U.S. there was some alarm at the prospects of being unable to project power at sea should the nation need to go to war, and increasing effort was devoted to building the largest and most modern battleships in the U.S. Navy.
This slide show has snapshots of the year 1915 of war at sea. For a full look at the naval struggle, you can cruise through the entire Scientific American archive of World War I at https://www.scientificamerican.com/products/world-war-i/