Reported in Scientific American this Week in World War I: September 12, 1914

HMS Laurel

HMS Laurel: a small but modern destroyer launched in 1913. The ship was one of several that lured larger German ships into a waiting trap, but was hit several times by German shells in the battle of Heligoland Bight, August 1914. Credit: Scientific American, September 12, 1914

The Battle of Heligoland Bight took place in the North Sea on August 28, 1914. Reports of the fight took a couple of weeks to make it into print. The battle was a convincing victory by the British Royal Navy against the German Imperial Navy, at a time when the Allies were doing badly on land.

Still, some details fell prey to the censor and to the need for propaganda. No damage to British ships is reported, even though the destroyer in our photo, HMS Laurel, was hit and badly damaged by a salvo of three 10.5cm shells in its fight with the doomed German cruiser Mainz; 11 men were killed on the British ship, 89 went down with the German vessel. The reference to the Germans losing three “crack scout cruisers” neglects to mention the fact that the cruiser Ariadne, launched in 1900, was quite obsolete by 1914, and the other two would be better classed as “light cruisers.”

The most important effect of the battle was to encourage the German navy to avoid an encounter with the British for the next two years, until the Battle of Jutland in May 1916.

First Naval Engagement of the War

“We now know that the British determined to ‘trail a red herring,’ if we may be pardoned the use of a term so unnautical, across the front of the blockaded German fleet. Hence, the dash of the ‘Arethusa’ and ‘Fearless’ with a fleet of destroyers past the guns of Heligoland.

“The bait was too tempting not to be swallowed, and several German cruisers with a flotilla of destroyers dashed out to seize so easy a prey. The British, spoiling for a fight, did not hesitate to give battle against superior numbers, and for twenty-five minutes the two cruisers and the destroyers fought, under odds as great as those against which, a few days before, the British held the Germans at bay for four days and remained unbroken in the north of France. Following their plan of operations, the British drew away to the open and out of the shelter of the Heligoland fortifications, making a fight against odds which must go down as one of the brightest instances of pluck and daring in the annals of naval warfare. When the Germans had been drawn into the open, the British battle-cruiser of the ‘Lion’ type, fulfilling their part of the programme, swept down and sank three German cruisers and a couple of destroyers with a few well-placed shots.

“The importance of this brilliant little fight is not to be measured in terms of the loss of men and material; although the German fleet was reduced to the extent of three of its crack scout cruisers and two destroyers, its chief significance lies in the showing of the relative maneuvering abilities, strategy, and gun-fire of the two fleets.”

To see a full archive of our coverage of World War I—military, economic, social, technological—view our archive package, Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, at