Underwater Cultural Heritage from World War I

© M. Spencer
Archaeologist examining a wreck from the World War I at Gallipoli, Turkey.

Underwater cultural heritage from World War I can still be found on the bed of the seas and oceans of the world.

Underwater cultural heritage from World War I encompasses numerous warships, but also civilian ships sunk by accident or as a victim of the naval blockade. Some of these wrecks are well preserved but many have been destroyed or severely damaged by non-scientific salvage, commercial actions on the sites, or looters.  Many have also been scrapped or exploited in a hurry. Some were removed from where they had been scuttled for blockade purposes in order to clear shipping routes. Others have been subject to destructive actions long after the war, as for instance the wreck of the Lusitania. However, thousands of wrecks are still under water and many of them have not been explored yet.

The underwater cultural heritage of World War I has a great historical importance. It is a reminder of the existence of the war and its horrible consequences. The majority of the wrecks lying on the seabed are also grave sites still holding human remains. One of the goals of preservation and research must therefore be to make the public understand this historical significance and to raise the public awareness of the historical testimony these remains constitute.

The wrecks of World War I are an important historical source of information. Many of them represent the highlight of 20th century technology. Historians and underwater archaeologists can understand from their study how people were living in those ships, what kind of tools and machinery they were using, as well as find elements of their personal lives like personal belongings, books, clothes and shoes.

If all those cultural remains were to be lost, the history of the 20th century would lack an important witness. The protection of World War I underwater cultural heritage is essential to remember the horror of war and to know and acknowledge its history. It is also an important factor in reconciliation. Sharing the fright that the persons who died on these ships felt makes us understand how important it is to make sure that such a war will never happen again.

Overview of some major naval battles of World War I and their historic relics

The naval battles of World War I were dramatic. Their outstanding features can be seen less in large, extensive battles, such as the battles of Jutland and Gallipoli, and more in long-term naval blockades, unlimited submarine warfare and a great number of small skirmishes. The following count among the most deadly exchanges that can still be retraced on the seabed:


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Battle of Dogger Bank (began 24 January 1915)

On 24 January 1915 the German forces attacked three British North Sea coastal towns. The British intercepted the German fleet and sank the battle ship Blücher. The rest of the German squadron managed to flee. The Blücher remains at the bottom of the Drøbak Narrows, at a depth of 64 m.

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The Gallipoli Campaign (25 April 1915 and 9 January 1916)

The Battle of Gallipoli took place in modern day Turkey near Çanakkale. British and French forces tried to capture Istanbul and to secure a sea route to Russia. The attempt failed, with heavy casualties on both sides. The campaign was considered one of the greatest victories of the Turks and a major failure by the Allies. In Turkey, the battle is perceived as a defining moment in its history. It laid the grounds for the Turkish War of Independence and the foundation of the Republic of Turkey. The campaign was also the first major battle undertaken by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), and is considered to mark the birth of national consciousness in both of these countries. Anzac Day, 25 April, remains the most significant commemoration of military casualties and veterans in Australia and New Zealand.

Over 120,000 men died in the Gallipoli Campaign. Between April 1915 and January 1916, nine British submarines sank two battleships and one destroyer, five gunboats, nine troop transports, seven supply ships, 35 steamers and 188 assorted smaller vessels at a cost of total of eight Allied submarines which were sunk in the strait or in the Sea of Marmara. Also the British ships Irresistible, Bouvet and Ocean and the Australian submarine AE2 sank.

Turkish and Australian archaeologists have discovered a "museum under the sea" at Gallipoli. Their finds includes the wreck of a barge that carried injured and dead Australian and New Zealand soldiers from Anzac Cove during the World War I Gallipoli campaign in Turkey. In 1993, a coal mining operation revealed the wreck of the German submarine UB-46 near the Kemerburgaz coast. After carrying out missions in Black Sea, on its way back, UB-46 hit a mine near Karaburun and sank with all hands. It is now on display at Besiktas Naval Museum in Istanbul.

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Battle of Lake Tanganyika (began 26 December 1915)

The Battle for Lake Tanganyika consisted of a series of naval engagements that took place between the British Royal Navy, the Belgian Force Publique and the German Kaiserliche Marine. In the first action, on 26 December 1915 the ship Kingani was damaged and captured. In the second, the Hedwig von Wissman sank. The Graf von Götzen was later scuttled. Developments in the land-based conflict caused the German forces however to withdraw, and control of the Lake Tanganyika passed to the British and Belgian forces. The exploits caught the public imagination due to the eccentricity of the commander in force and the location. They were retold by C. S. Forester in his book The African Queen, later made into the film with the same name. The Graf von Götzen was raised by the Belgians and towed to Kigoma, but sank again at her moorings in a storm. She was once again raised in 1921 and returned to service on 16 May 1927 under the name Liemba. She still sails Lake Tanganyika.

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Blockade of Germany and U-Boat Campaign (1914-1919)

The Blockade of Germany was a prolonged naval operation by the Allied to restrict the supply of materials and food to the Central Powers, which included Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. It was one of the key elements in the eventual allied victory. An academic study from 1928 put the resulting dead due to starvation to 424,000 lives. The U-boat Campaign or submarine warfare was fought by German U-boats against the trade routes of the Allied in retaliation of that blockade. It took place largely in the seas around the British Isles and in the Mediterranean.

An important victim of the submarine warfare was the Lusitania, which was torpedoed on 7 May 1915 off the Southern coast of Ireland. 1195 lives were lost. The loss of 123 Americans among the dead helped to stimulate anti-German sentiment in the USA, leading eventually to the declaration of war by the US in 1917. The media attention paid due to the high loss of live, the discussion on whether or not ammunition was transported on board (making the ship a valid war target) as well as the rumour of valuable pieces of art on board has made this wreck especially well-known. It was heavily damaged by later destructive activities.

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Battle of Jutland (began 31 May 1916)

The Battle of Jutland (German: Skagerrakschlacht) was fought by the British Navy against the German Navy on 31 May and 1 June 1916 in the North Sea near Jutland, Denmark. It was the largest naval battle and the only full-scale clash of battleships in WWI.

The total British losses of the exchange were 6,784 men; German losses were 3,039 men, totalling 9,823 men. The British lost in the battle the Battle cruisers Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and Invincible, the armoured cruisers Black Prince, Warrior, and Defence, the Flotilla Leader Tipperary and the Destroyers Shark, Sparrowhawk, Turbulent, Ardent, Fortune, Nomad, and Nestor. The German Imperial Fleet lost Battlecruiser Lützow, the Pre-Dreadnought Pommern, the Light cruisers Frauenlob, Elbing, Rostock, Wiesbaden and the Destroyers (Heavy Torpedo-Boats) V48, S35, V27, V4, and V29.

The wreck of the Invincible was already found by the Royal Navy minesweeper HMS Oakley in 1919. After the Second World War some of the wrecks were commercially salvaged. For instance, the Hydrographic Office record for SMS Lützow shows that salvage operations were taking place on the wreck in 1960. In 2000–2001 a series of diving expeditions located the wrecks of Defence, Indefatigable and Nomad. During these it was discovered that the Indefatigable, too, had been ripped apart by salvors. In 2003 a detailed survey of the wrecks of Jutland was undertaken. The 14 British vessels lost in the battle were designated as protected places under the UK Protection of Military Remains Act. In 2000 the wreck of the German ship Frauenlob, largely intact, was located by Danish divers. The wreck lies upright on the ocean floor and largely in one piece. The after mast lies in the sand with the crow’s nest still in place. Human remains are still on the wreck.

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Battle of Otranto Straits (began 14 May 1917)

In this largest battle of WWI in the Mediterranean, the Austro-Hungarian Navy attacked the Allied Otranto Barrage. They sunk two Italian ships on their way to Otranto and sank fourteen Allied patrol ships at the barrage. Once the mission succeeded two British cruisers, Darmouth and Bristol, four Italian destroyers and the Italian flotilla leader Aquila cut their way home. Aquila, Darmouth and two destroyers were damaged in the ensuing combat and one destroyer was sunk by a mine.

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Raid on Zeebrugge and Ostend (began 23 April 1918)

Zeebrugge and Ostend were a compulsory passage for the Germans submarine based in Bruges. The Zeebrugge Raid, which took place on 23 April 1918, was an attempt by the British Royal Navy to neutralize the port by sinking three older British ships, the HMS Thetis, Intrepid and Iphigenia, in the canal entrance to prevent German ships from leaving port. Almost 200 crew members died, but two of the three ships succeed in sabotaging themselves at the correct place (the third sank too early) and their wrecks blocked the port of Zeebrugge for two days. After that German forces reopened the passage.

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The scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow (21 June 1919)

Even though it does not qualify as a battle, one must also mention the dramatic scuttling of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow on June 21, 1919, i.e. after the armistice of 11 November 1918. Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter was convinced that naval hostilities would be resumed soon. 72 German battleships were therefore scuttled in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy. Many of them were recovered from the seabed. However, some, including the Battleships Kronprinz Wilhelm, Markgraf, König and Light Cruisers Karlsruhe, Dresden, Brummer and Cöln have not been raised and remain an attraction to scuba divers.

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Battle of the Falkland Islands (8 December 1914)

The German Admiral von Spee attacked on the 8 December 1914 the British radio station and coaling depot on the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. Nevertheless, the British waited for him with a modern and well-armed squadron. Four German cruisers, the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nürnberg and Leipzig and the fleet´s colliers Santa Isabel and Baden were sunk. A further ship, the SMS Dresden was sunk little time later. 2200 soldiers were killed. Dresden's bell of 115 kilo, decorated with the Imperial Eagle, recovered from the wreck in 2006 in 70 m deep water is now in Germany.

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Battle of Coronel (began 1 November 1914)

This battle took place off the coast of Chile, off Coronel, between British and German forces. The German under Admiral von Spee decided to attack on 1 November 1914. The British ships Monmouth and Good Hope were destroyed and sank. There were no survivors from those two ships. The German forces suffered little damage.

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The Bombardment of Papeete (22 September 1914)

The German armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau entered the port of Papeete, Tahiti, in September 1914 and sank the French gunboat Zélée and the freighter Walküre before bombarding the town's fortifications. The wreck of the Zélée is still preserved under water and has become a common diving site.

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