Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Challenges to Consider: 1917 and 2017 

When U.S. Navy leaders and Sailors entered World War I, they did so within a rapidly expanding and recently reorganized institution. They had to incorporate transformative technologies and face highly dangerous and unorthodox threats. Periods of war can be dynamic and transformative periods for countries, organizations, and individuals waging the fight. Reviewing the rapidly escalating events of a century ago, today’s naval service members might envision how an organization entering a war likely will evolve quickly and emerge as something new when peace returns.

Significant organizational and legislative changes occurred in the war’s first years as the United States attempted to prepare for conflict while also maintaining neutrality. In 1915, Congress passed laws creating the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and forming the Coast Guard from the combination of the Life-Saving Service and Revenue-Cutter Service. That same year also featured the establishment of the Naval Reserve. The CNO position, Coast Guard, and reserves had antecedents and have all evolved in the last 100 years, but they illustrate the profound institutional legacy of World War I.

These organizational changes occurred alongside a tremendous increase in the number of personnel. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, the Navy had just over 79,000 officers and men, 11,500 of whom were reservists. When the armistice ended hostilities in November 1918, the Navy’s enlisted ranks included 217,000 regulars and 271,000 reservists; 10,500 regular officers were supplemented by 20,700 reserve officers.1 This included all members of the recently created Coast Guard, which was required by the 1915 legislation to transfer its personnel and ships to the Navy during periods of war. Administering, training, and supplying such a diverse influx of manpower added significantly to the long list of responsibilities facing the Navy’s military and civilian leaders.

The Navy also faced the difficulty of forecasting the quantity and types of ships the war would demand. In 1913, Congress cut naval appropriations, but in the next years began to boost funding and in 1916 approved a dramatic increase.2 When the United States entered the war, there was a scramble to incorporate private yachts into the fleet as expedient anti-submarine vessels. The total of commissioned ships in service rose from 342 at the war’s beginning to 774 at the armistice.3 While these numbers and sense of commitment may have been impressive, the type and timing of ships purchased proved more problematic. The 1916 Act, for example, prioritized construction of a battle fleet because Mahanian views prevailed at the time. Less than a year later, it had become clear that legislators and naval planners had failed to appreciate the strategic threat that submarines would pose. In addition, most of the ships with keels laid after April 1917 did not see action before hostilities ended a year and a half later.  As the historian William Still notes, “the prewar navy fought most of the war.”4

The Navy also faced the challenges of administering new bases and introducing new technologies. In 1917, the United States acquired the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million, the highest price Americans had ever paid for a new acquisition, and assigned the Navy to administer it. That same year, the Navy took over North Island in San Diego, which assumed a prominent place in early naval aviation efforts. The airplane’s potential began to revolutionize aspects of naval warfare, especially when combined with other developments such as a strategic submarine campaign and the transition from ships deriving their energy from oil instead of coal. The adoption of radio, meanwhile, initiated important changes in ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications.  While change may be a constant, periods of war become catalysts for even faster change. Sometimes what wars introduce, however, is wholly unanticipated.

On 1 October 1918, Congress appropriated $1 million to combat the Spanish influenza. The first notable outbreak within the Navy had occurred earlier that January and then fairly quickly spread to Europe, but through the late summer many senior leaders remained focused on fighting the war rather than illness. Shortly after Congress’s appropriation, however, Admiral William S. Sims, commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, cabled the Navy Department that “there is no doubt that [the flu epidemic] is now a greater danger to people on ship-board than the Submarine is.” Indeed the flu and complications from it ultimately killed over 5,000 sailors, more than double the number lost to enemy action. Across the world it would kill tens of millions, and thus provide a tragic reminder of how major wars tend to introduce the unexpected.5

In the first decades of the 21st century, observers who note the rapid pace of change and the complexity of challenges facing the Navy can benefit from considering World War I. A century ago, the Navy’s civilian and military leaders managed an incredible expansion of their organization while fighting a large-scale war that showcased many new technologies. The scale, multiplicity, and interrelationship of challenges sometimes obscured how serious things could quickly become, as was the case with the submarine threat in the spring of 1917 and the influenza epidemic in 1918.  Today’s leaders can profit therefore from incorporating historical perspective and a degree of flexibility into their efforts to prepare for conflict, for often it is only with hindsight that potential threats and effective actions become obvious.

                                                             Jon Middaugh, NHHC Histories and Archives Division, April 2017


1 William N. Still, Jr. Crisis at Sea:  The United States Navy in European Waters in World War I (Gainesville, FL:  University of Florida Press, 2006), 191.

2 John Hattendorf, “Rear Admiral Charles H. Stockton, the Naval War College, and the Law of Naval Warfare,” in Michael N. Schmitt and Leslie C. Green, eds., The Law of Armed Conflict into the Next Millennium (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 1998), lviii; Norman Friedman, “How Promise Turned to Disappointment,” Naval History, vol. 30, no. 4 (August 2016), 26–31.

3 Still, 307.

4 William Sowden Sims, The Victory at Sea (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1921), 3–49; Still, 5–6.

5 Still, 224–25.



Navy Department, Office of Naval Records and Library Historical Section, “Digest Catalogue of Laws and Joint Resolutions,” June 1920.

Schmitt, Michael N. and Leslie C. Green, eds. The Law of Armed Conflict into the Next Millennium. Newport, RI: Naval War College, 1998.

Sims, William S. The Victory at Sea. Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, Page & Company, 1921.

Still, William. N. Still, Jr. Crisis at Sea:  The United States Navy in European Waters in World War I. Gainesville, FL:  University of Florida Press, 2006.

U.S. Navy, Chief of Naval Operations. “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, version 1.0.” January 2016. 

Published: Tue Sep 10 12:38:49 EDT 2019