The loss of ships to German and Austrian submarines by the third year of the Great War was substantial. Not enough to knock any of the Allied countries out of the war, but enough to hamper national effectiveness. The submarine had developed into an effective weapon by the first year of the Great War in 1914. Anti-submarine weapons lagged behind: the first depth charge to sink a submarine exploded in March 1916. One article in this issue from 100 years ago looks at the statistics of ship losses from 1916; the losses cover ships sunk, damaged or captured by submarines or other enemy ships, and also detained in enemy ports on the outbreak of war.

Given that submarines travelled mostly on the surface of the ocean, because it was faster and because underwater cruising time was limited by the life of onboard batteries, one tactic useful against submarines was to add surface ships and aircraft to expand the area of ocean that could be patrolled.

The cost of submarine warfare: merchant shipping losses by the Allies up to October 1916. Credit: Scientific American, October 21, 1916

As the United States looked nervously abroad at the chaos and carnage, there was much ernest discussion about how to beef up the size of the diminutive U.S. armed forces. The U.S. Navy began to register privately owned pleasure craft that could be used for patrol service close to shore in some kind of Naval Coast Defense Reserve in the event of the outbreak of war. There were several civilian–U.S. Navy exercises to explore ideas for how to use these kinds of craft in shore defense and anti-submarine work. An article in this issue looks at a proposal by the Navy Department to standardize the design and construction of these kinds of private yachts. The boats were conceived as motor yachts of 45 and 66 feet, capable of sustained speeds in excess of 30 miles per hour, and large enough to carry a one-pounder (about 37mm) or three-pounder (about 47mm) naval “quick-firing” gun and a radio, respectively. Although these boats were never built as planned, several private motorboats were acquired by the U.S. Navy for a variety of roles after America entered war.


Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on naval warfare in the First World War. It is available for purchase at