When one thinks of World War I, they tend to envision Europe: Trenches crisscrossing French fields, surrounded by a charred, bomb-blasted no man’s land choked with mustard gas, a field of death where you’d have a better chance of surviving if you stuck your gun in your mouth and pulled the trigger rather than stick your head up. So much attention is paid to the European meat-grinder that we often forget that WWI was, well, a world war. Sure, the majority of land battles took place on the Western Front, but a fair number occurred in the Middle East and Africa, and naval engagements happened in the Asian, Oceanic, and South American spheres.
In one particularly stunning battle, a German naval squadron sent two heavily armored British cruisers to the bottom with all hands off the coast of Chile.
Known as the Battle of Coronel, it took place on November 1, 1914.
At the onset of the war, the Imperial German Navy had a base in China. The East Asiatic Squadron was headed by Vice-Admiral Maximilian von Spee. When hostilities opened, his goal was to dominate the Pacific Ocean, bringing commerce between allied nations to a standstill. On August 22, 1914, however, Japan declared war on Germany, and von Spee made haste in escaping, as he and the German high command knew that they would be unable to stand up to the Japanese navy. Von Spee set a course for Chile, a neutral nation with a large number of German residents. During his nearly two month trek across the Pacific, von Spee and his flotillas were constantly dogged by British, Australian, and Japanese battleships, staying a mere one step ahead of them. Late in the afternoon of November 1, von Spee happened across an armada of British ships commanded by Sir Christopher Cradock. Von Spee’s forces opened fire at around 7pm, hitting Cradock’s flagship The Good Hope and sending it to the bottom in less than half an hour. The Monmouth was next: After roughly two hours of heavy fighting, it attempted to withdraw, but was sank.
The Glasgow, which was lighter and quicker, managed a narrow escape and sailed to alert another Cradock ship docked at the Falkland Islands. The British responded by sending two of its ships to the area from the North Sea, and on December 7, the Queen had her revenge at the Battle of the Falkland Islands: Four German ships were sank with a loss of life exceeding 2,100, a figure much greater than the roughly 1,600 Britons killed at Coronel. Among those killed were Spee and two of his sons.
The destruction of von Spee’s fleet marked the end of German naval superiority. For the rest of the war, its main aquatic ace-in-the-hole would be its silent, deadly U-boats.
In 1917, Germany named a battleship after Spee. The war ended in November 1918, and the Graf Spee had not been completed. It was broken down for scrap in 1921. In 1934, another German battleship was named for him. This one met its end at the Battle of River Plate off the coast of Uruguay in December 1939, when it was scuttled by its crew. A third ship, a training frigate, was named for him. It was in service from 1959 to 1964.