The Battle of Coronel

1 November 2014


A Century of Industrialized Warfare:


A Naval Engagement off the Chilean Coast

When we think of the naval engagements of the First World War our first thought is usually of the Battle of Jutland, the largest engagement of the period, but we are reminded of the global character of the war by smaller (but more decisive) clashes around the world, such as the Battle of Coronel, which took place one hundred years ago today.

Once the land war in Europe stagnated and settled down into the routine of trench warfare that was definitive of war itself, the expansion of the conflict took the form of opening new fronts elsewhere. As the trenches that separated Germany and France nearly cut across the whole of Europe, new fronts had to be opened outside Europe. This was readily accomplished by naval engagements between the navies of the industrialized nation-states.

In far flung waters such as Zanzibar, Madras, Penang, Qingdao, Cocos, the Falkland Islands, Más a Tierra, and Imbros, the naval forces of the belligerents encountered each other, at times accidentally and at times by design, bringing the European war to Asia, Africa, and the Americas. While the trench warfare on the Western Front represented one face of global industrialized warfare, the naval engagements of capital ships throughout the world’s oceans represented another face of global industrialized warfare.

The opening of new fronts globally, and naval engagements in so many places in the world, was largely a consequence of European empire building in the nineteenth century, which gave the European powers bases and supply depots for their newly industrialized navies. This chain of colonial supply depots, with the food, coal, and fresh water required by the ships, grew in a kind of coevolution with the mechanized navies. Navies prior to industrialization could travel the world needing only water and food for the crew; after the conversion of navies of steam power, major industrial port facilities were needed throughout the world that could provide the coal and fresh water required for the boilers. The newly colonized regions of world provided the ports for the newly mechanized navies of the world; like flying insects and flowers, each needed the other.

Ironclads had been introduced to the world during the American Civil War, used (ironically) off the coast of Chile during the Battle of Pacocha — the British had built the ironclad Huáscar for Perú, which was eventually captured by the Chileans and employed by the Chilean navy. By the time of the Battle Tsushima Strait (1905), the world’s powers had built up fleets of ironclad, steam-powered, large-gunned naval vessels.

Europe had been preparing great fleets of battleships for at least a generation. The escalation in battleship construction between England and Germany in the period immediately preceding the First World War may be identified as the first arms race following the industrial revolution, and as such it served as the template for later arms races, most notably the construction of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and the construction of precision munitions in our time.

The First World War stands as the high point in history for battleships — by the time of the Second World War it was the aircraft carrier and the submarine that were the decisive naval weapons systems — and the First World War featured many engagements between fleets of battleships. The Battle of Coronel, an unplanned engagement in which neither the German Vice Admiral von Spee nor the British Rear Admiral Cradock expected to meet each other in force, was significant both because it happened on the opposite side of the world from Europe, and because it was a surprising defeat for the British.

The British were the naval superpower of the time, but the ships that met von Spee’s ships were inferior, and two were sunk in the battle. It was headline news around the world that the British had been humiliated at Coronel. The British reacted rapidly, sending a more sophisticated force to engage von Spee, and the Germans were soundly defeated in the Battle of the Falkland Islands; Vice Admiral von Spee himself was killed in the Falklands engagement.

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1914 to 2014

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A Century of Industrialized Warfare

0. A Century of Industrialized Warfare

1. Assassination in Sarajevo

2. Headlines around the World

3. The July Crisis

4. A Blank Check for Austria-Hungary

5. Serbia and Austria-Hungary Mobilize

6. Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia

7. Ernst Jünger is Mobilized

8. The August Madness

9. The Battle of Coronel

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twentieth century war collage

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Grand Strategy Annex

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project astrolabe logo smaller

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2 Responses to “The Battle of Coronel”

  1. Mike said

    The naval race of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries is a tremendous subject to delve into. The end results of it are seen in the naval actions of WWI from the fleet action off Jutland to the smaller engagements across the globe. Great article!

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thanks for your comment!

      I’ve thought about taking a serious plunge into the late 19th early 20th century naval arms race, but haven’t yet invested the time. I have a bibliography laid out and ready to go.

      Best wishes,


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