Above: the SMS Moltke visits New York City in 1912.
War scrambles truth like a blender. There are days when writing a history of the Great War becomes an exercise in discernment, requiring one to peek through a cloud of intentional disinformation, erroneous reporting, and propaganda to realize the shape of what lies beneath. This is one of those days, for the Baltic Sea is a chaotic battle zone, and the Russian Army is collapsing onto the imperial borders with Europe. German naval operations in the Gulf of Riga have grown more daring in recent months commensurate with the increased operational tempo of the Eastern Front.
Russian command anxiety is high. German surface ships are operating right up to the mouth of the Gulf of Finland, at the end of which sits the capital at Petrograd, and despite the land distance remaining between the armies of the Kaisers and the palace of the Tsar, a sense of siege is palpable in the streets, where the mood is pessimistic and rumors run wild. A flotilla of more than 100 ships entered the Gulf of Riga eleven days ago to sweep the defensive minefields and establish naval superiority, thus cutting off Riga from the sea and potentially forcing Russia’s Baltic Fleet to fight a decisive engagement. The fighting has been hot at times, with one of the sharpest exchanges of fire between battlewagons so far in the entire conflict occurring two days ago, when the pre-dreadnought Slava was forced to retire after three hits by the dreadnoughts Posen and Nassau. A heroic nightlong duel between the German destroyer V-99 and two Russian destroyers left her so damaged from mine strikes that the crew was forced to scuttle her the next morning. Losses have been particularly high among German torpedo boats involved in minesweeping operations, for Russian sea mines are not as good as German ones, but they are powerful enough to destroy a small craft. As in the Dardanelles Strait, where a British and French naval force found minesweeping a much harder task than expected, Vice Admiral Ehrhardt Schmidt’s flotilla has suffered most from the unseen threats. Today, the British submarine E-1 fires a torpedo that strikes the cruiser Moltke in a forward torpedo room, resulting in heavy damage that forces the ship to limp home. Lieutenant Commander Noel Laurence and his ship have only just arrived from Britain, having sailed through the dangerous waters off Denmark to assist their ally. To the Russian propagandists, they are here just in the nick of time.
Trying to reinforce Britain’s submersible flotilla in the Baltic last night, the E-13 ran aground on Saltholm, an island in the Øresund Sound between Malmö, Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark. This morning, the German torpedo boat G-132 led a second boat into firing range of the neutral shore and opened fire on the stricken E boat. Despite valiant efforts by the Danish Navy to shield and rescue the British sailors, half the crew is killed; the survivors are interned for the duration of the war.
After two more days of operations around the Gulf of Riga, Admiral Schmidt departs without further damage, leaving behind blockships sunk in Moon Sound to inhibit shipping. He has also laid mines of his own and shelled shore defenses with impunity, but coal and ammunition are limited, so his command cannot maintain its presence on an indefinite basis. Yet in the Russian telling, this moment becomes a spectacular victory. Over the next several days, the world’s newspapers uncritically report that the Russian defense of the Gulf has been a complete success, sinking several troop transports (actually the blockships) set on invading Russian territory(!), and further exaggerating the real, but limited damage they have inflicted on Schmidt’s flotilla. This Potemkin village of a ‘victory’ remains the Western and Russian narrative even today; it is hard to see how that is justified, for Schmidt was never ordered to stay forever. Indeed, the most sensational claims are later walked back, but the effects on public opinion are not undone.
German attacks towards Riga will cease on the same day, reflecting a reordering of priorities in Hindenburg’s headquarters as well. For as Austro-German successes push the front onto Russia’s own borders, the line also straightens and shortens, eliminating the local numerical advantage that the Central Powers have so far enjoyed in their spectacular conquest of Poland, and requiring them to make that line longer in attacking to the northeast. Convinced that the city, and even Petrograd itself, have been delivered from imminent attack rather than subject to a blockading operation, the fight for Moon Sound becomes a myth wherein the tide of battle has turned. The truth, as always, is a material and not a moral one.