This Day in History - The Battle of Coronel

By the summer of 1914, Britannia ruled the waves, or at least most of them. Germany, having consolidated its position in Central Europe in the latter part of the 19th century, soon sought to compete with Britain and the other major powers in the worldwide land-grab that characterized the “Age of Imperialism”, which, ironically would lead to the ultimate downfall of all involved except the opportunistic new kid on the block- the United States. The ensuing Anglo-German naval arms race was high on the list of factors that would ignite the world in flames following the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

The massive build-up of British and German battle fleets contemplated the sort of strategic struggle for control of the seas that led to the largest (albeit inconclusive) naval battle of World War I off the coast of Jutland in June of 1916. But it was the tiny clash of colonial fleets in a far-flung corner of the Pacific coast of South America where Germany would draw first blood, on this day in history, November 1, 1914, in the Battle of Coronel.  

The German East Asia Squadron under the command of Admiral Maximilian von Spee had been raiding the British shipping lanes in the South Pacific since the war began in August, 1914. In response, Britain quickly threw together a small force from their squadron in the West Indies and dispatched it around the Cape Horn, where it stumbled across the German ships off the coast of Coronel in central Chile. The defeat of the British fleet was epic in proportion. Von Spee sank two British armored cruisers with a combined loss of more than 1,500 men at the cost of 3 German sailors wounded. However, as was so often the case throughout World War I, the devastating German victory was short-lived. Von Spee’s squadron, having expended most of its irreplaceable ammunition supply in the the victory, was met and completely destroyed by a second, larger British force at the Battle of the Falkland Islands just five weeks later, on December 8, 1914, thereby eliminating any significant German presence in the Pacific for the rest of the war.

There is a dearth of literature specific to this obscure little battle; the Brits, keepers of the worldwide military history flame, are loath to dwell on their staggering defeats and their American counterparts seldom show any interest in events in which they have no part. As such, the Battle of Coronel has typically been relegated to broad surveys of World War I naval history, of which there are many good titles to choose. One I highly recommend from our collection is The Great War at Sea: A Naval Atlas 1914-1919 by Marcus Faulkner (ISBN: 978-1-84832-183-0). Comprehensive in scope, it has over 125 maps dealing with all the major battles as well as smaller operations, convoys, skirmishes and other events impacting the war around the globe.