Perils of the Quest for Supremacy

By Howard J. Fuller

So was the Anglo-German naval arms race of battleships—and then dreadnoughts—an epic mistake? If Great Britain “won” the race, well before 1914, how had she nearly lost the war? After a century, can we say that  the “Queen of the Seas” was indeed the battleship, or had the very notion of classic naval supremacy become fatally misleading in modern warfare?

When the German Second Reich was declared in 1871, the Prussian army had swiftly and decisively crushed French arms, Emperor Napoleon III had been captured on the field of battle at Sedan, and Paris was under siege, soon to fall. Although the French navy was second only to Great Britain’s, it played virtually no role in the conflict. Even then the idea of invading northern Germany by amphibious landing was dismissed as far too risky. German coastal defenses—fortifications, mines, and shallow-draft coastal ironclads—were just strong enough to deter a French naval bombardment of German ports, and they kept the French fleet harmlessly out to sea, blockading very little. 

Under the leadership of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Germany soon became the leading military power in Europe. German industry, trade, and population also boomed. The notion of German national growth as synonymous with overseas colonial expansion coincided with the accession of Wilhelm II as kaiser in 1888 and the forced retirement of the 75-year-old “Iron Chancellor” two years later. Whereas Bismarck had wielded the German army to maintain the balance of power in Europe, and the peace, Wilhelm became convinced of Germany’s Weltpolitik —her new role in shaping world affairs. By 1897 the German foreign secretary, Count Bernhard von Bülow, declared Germany’s right to “our own place in the sun.” This suggested an impending conflict of interests with other colonial powers—especially with Great Britain, upon whose global maritime empire, it was boasted, the “sun never sets.” 

The kaiser was Queen Victoria’s grandson and had cultivated a love-hate relationship with the Royal Navy. Having witnessed fleet reviews off the Isle of Wight with his “Uncle Bertie”—the Prince of Wales—Wilhelm especially admired the symbolic power of the latest ironclad battleships. 4  

Throughout the bulk of the 19th century, Britain’s foreign and strategic policy vis-à-vis Europe was to maintain the balance of power by actively undermining the development of any one dominant military state. Closely associated with this was to guard against the rise of any powerful rival at sea. If France combined naval supremacy with her large army then the Royal Navy might lose command of the English Channel, and the British Isles would be threatened with invasion. Conversely, the French were more concerned with the Royal Navy overexerting British influence in the Mediterranean, blockading French Atlantic ports, and isolating French colonies—from Algeria to Indochina—in case of yet another Anglo-French conflict. Russia, too, developed her powers of naval defense to a point where British offensive threats by sea could be neutralized. 

All three major powers developed oceangoing battle fleets of ironclads as “capital ships.” But only Britain felt the need to counterbalance the traditional military strengths of France and Russia with something close to a “two-power” standard at sea. In other words, the Royal Navy had to feature enough powerful men-of-war to beat an allied coalition of powers against Britain, if need be. Here it was also expected that some form of clash at sea likely would be between battle fleets. The whole balance of power at sea, and across Europe, might thus be decided in a single afternoon.

This was the fleet that Wilhelm saw, and envied. If it did not place Great Britain in a commanding position worldwide, it at least guaranteed her “splendid isolation” from European and American affairs since the 1860s—when coastal assault had become too risky and rival powers were more concerned with protecting their own interests locally. Even so, the ship-of-the-line remained firmly embedded in the public mind as a diplomatic bargaining tool, like forts and armies. If the Royal Navy could hold Germany’s expanding global trade and colonies hostage during a crisis, its landlocked continental army was irrelevant by comparison. This was sea power at work. And it seemed to give proud Britannia the edge.

Despite his background in developing fast torpedo boats for campaigns against ironclad battleships, Captain Alfred von Tirpitz in 1890 became an ardent champion of a distinctly blue-water German navy. This new force, he argued, would naturally revolve around a core of several battle squadrons each with eight capital ships. Each vessel would also employ the latest advancements in heavy guns, armor plating, and speed. Tirpitz soon had the ear of Kaiser Wilhelm, and by 1897 he was appointed secretary of the Imperial German Navy. 

Both men had in the meantime become enthusiastic students of the writings of American Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose analytical masterpiece, The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660–1783 , had been published in 1892. Not only did Mahan stress that real national greatness could be exclusively achieved by “commanding the sea” and becoming a global maritime power (like Great Britain), but that the best way to gain this control was to build up a strong, well-trained battle-fleet navy and then aggressively seek out and smash the main enemy fleet as soon as possible. A long-term naval war, a guerre de course of commerce warfare, was not the key to victory, Mahan argued. 

Tirpitz and Wilhelm took this reading of Age of Sail history to heart. “Naval power is essential,” Tirpitz wrote the kaiser in 1899, “if Germany does not want to go under.” 5 In this light, Germany’s future survival as a dominant European land power now was seen as dependent upon her mastery of the seas. Not surprisingly, the German army thought this was a ludicrous waste of time and resources. So did the German Reichstag, which nominally controlled the imperial budget.

The subsequent Tirpitz Plan for overhauling the navy was similar to the alarmist Naval Defence Act that Britain’s Parliament had passed in 1889. The Admiralty had warned that unless the Royal Navy officially adopted a permanent two-power standard the British Empire would not be able to withstand a hostile Franco-Russian alliance. A whole new navy centered around 8 battleships of a single class (as opposed to a slowly accumulating “fleet of samples,” which had characterized the previous 40 years of armored warship designs), accompanied by 38 cruisers as well as torpedo boats, was approved in one lump gratuity vote of £20 million. The ship-of-the-line had evolved into the ironclad, which had evolved again into the Royal Sovereign –class battleship, armed with 13.5-inch breech-loading turret guns. 

Tirpitz pressed for a naval law that would also lay down a whole class of modern battleships at a time. Given Germany’s rapid growth in industry and trade, and thus the expansion of her own imperial interests, a navy “for defense” was desperately required. While France and Russia might be deterred by the German army, Great Britain would only respect a strong navy to contend with in diplomatic power plays. Here the German fleet only had to be strong enough to damage the British sufficiently in home waters to jeopardize their control elsewhere. Surely the Royal Navy would not risk the British Empire for the sake of commanding the North Sea, Tirpitz convincingly theorized. The law passed in 1898. Germany would become a modest naval power closer in scale to Russia than either Great Britain or France, which should be enough.

Nevertheless, well before any of their battle squadrons were afloat, the Germans soon found themselves at odds with British imperial interests over the Second Boer War (1899–­­­1902). The kaiser had already exacerbated Anglo-German relations by sending a telegram to Paul Kruger, the president of the Transvaal Republic, congratulating him on his repulse of the infamous Jameson Raid by British soldiers of fortune. The popular press in Britain responded by attacking German “meddling” in South Africa. 

When Royal Navy warships stopped three German merchant vessels off the coast of the war zone to look for contraband of war, the German public was equally outraged. Tirpitz saw this as the proverbial thin edge of the wedge; conflict with England was increasingly likely. To beat the Royal Navy, the Imperial German Navy would need many more battleships. The ensuing Naval Law of 1900 doubled the number of capital-ship squadrons and put Germany closer on a par with the French navy. This radically altered the balance-of-power equation in Europe. 

After a visit to the massive German naval dockyards and arsenals at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven in August 1902, an Admiralty official concluded Germany “must be regarded as a possible enemy” and that “it is no longer safe to dispense with a modern and powerful fleet in home waters. The maintenance of a large fleet in the Mediterranean and the China Seas does not guarantee us against German attack.” 6 Moreover, as Count Paul Wolff Metternich, the German ambassador in London, recounted to then–German Chancellor von Bülow, “those Englishmen who suspected the German fleet of no directly aggressive intentions against England had reflected that supposing England were entangled in a war elsewhere the German fleet could be used as a means . . . for obtaining British concessions to Germany.” German neutrality in future wars might come at a “high price . . . the cession of coaling stations, for instance.” 7 Despite his nephew’s protests, King Edward VII foresaw endless extortion of the highest order.

Britain’s response was twofold, and decisive. Under the auspices of Fisher’s own scheme the decades-old imperial squadrons stationed around the world were weaned off and the heaviest units concentrated in a Home Fleet. Closely aligned with this strategic redeployment was the diplomatic finalization of an Entente cordiale with France in 1904 and 1911. By offering immediate protection to France’s Channel coast against any German incursion, Britain could then concentrate its battle-fleet navy in the North Sea, while France could mass its own naval forces in the Mediterranean, from Toulon, against the other Triple Alliance powers, Italy and Austria-Hungary. 8 This was a major political realignment that Tirpitz had not anticipated. (In fact, he thought it impossible given the Anglo-French naval rivalry that characterized the previous two centuries.) Given this new arrangement, with the Triple Entente formalized in 1907 to include imperial Russia as well, it was practically impossible for Germany to win a naval arms race with Britain, much less wrest control of the North Sea or English Channel from the Royal Navy. Despite Russian naval losses in the Russo-Japanese War, the threat of new enemy battleships launched from Kronstadt, St. Petersburg’s naval port, and descending on the German Baltic coast meant that at sea Germany would be faced with a two-front war against Britain and her allies. The entry of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) as another Central Power in 1914 would hardly offset this difficulty, even as it opened a second front against Russia in the Black Sea. 9  

The race ought to have ended there. All talk in Germany of winning a naval war against Britain should have ceased. But of course it didn’t. Instead, Tirpitz persuaded the kaiser to intensify efforts to build an even larger, updated fleet that would hopefully help offset France and Russia’s “encirclement” of Germany by applying ever more naval pressure on Britain, as diplomatic leverage. The German army’s alternative to cope with a two-front war was the notorious Schlieffen Plan, which required an invasion of northern France through neutral Belgium.

By 1905 battleships featured a mix of heavy guns for fighting other battleships and faster-firing secondary turrets and barbettes to ward off torpedo craft. Battle ranges were still well under 10,000 yards. A hail of fire, even if mostly inaccurate, was still considered decisive at short ranges. At Manila Bay (1 May 1898) American Commodore George Dewey’s squadron engaged the Spanish as close as 2,000 yards—practically Civil War–era distances. And at Tsushima (27–28 May 1905) Japanese Admiral Heihachiro Togo pressed his attack at 6,000 yards (3.4 miles), although the 12-inch guns of his flagship Mikasa (which had been built in the U.K.) could feasibly reach targets at more than 15,000 yards (8.5 miles). By then it was clear that the battleship that could inflict damage at the greater range, with the heaviest possible shells, would quickly destroy her opponent. 

Britain’s King Edward VII –class battleships (1903–5) mounted four 12-inch guns in two main turrets. But HMS Dreadnought , ordered by the Admiralty in 1905 and briskly launched in 1906, abandoned previous battleships’ secondary array of 9-inch and 6-inch guns in favour of ten Vickers 12-inch guns with a host of 3-inch QF 12-pounders for defense against torpedo-boat attack. The Germans quickly followed suit. Their Nassau -class dreadnoughts mounted 12 11-inch Krupp guns. The race intensified over the next seven years, both sides dropping predreadnoughts and adopting all-heavy-gun dreadnought-type platforms as the new standard ship-of-the-line; coal-driven reciprocating engines likewise quickly evolved into oil-fueled steam turbines. However unwelcome the news of the Dreadnought was in Germany, Wilhelm later recalled, it also created a more level playing field for all sides since “England had robbed her enormous predreadnought force, upon which her great superiority lasted, of its fighting value.” Now the German navy was “forced, ‘nolens volens,’ to follow England along this road.” 10

J ust prior to World War I, the Admiralty was convinced the Anglo-German arms race in battleships was no longer a serious concern. “We could match every German Dreadnought battleship in the line—20 in all—by a British ship equal only as to the first three ships, superior in all others, without employing any British ship older than the Ajax [1912].” Some 18 dreadnoughts would be in surplus, “equal in strength to the whole German line of battle.” 11 In the end, not only was British shipbuilding still on top of Germany’s, but British political will had given the Royal Navy a blank check for home and imperial defense to ensure Britain’s naval supremacy. 

As storm clouds gathered over Europe, Tirpitz had already lost much of his influence (the kaiser too) and Germany’s limited resources were devoted once again to preparing the army for a two-front war against France and Russia. The Imperial German Navy manifestly had not kept the peace through counterdeterrence; it had made things worse. Germany was isolated, and Bismarck’s vision of his country acting as the great peace broker in world affairs had fallen by the wayside. Lines of German dreadnoughts, impressive as they were, had only destabilized the existing order, not rewritten it on German terms. Could they even win a fight against British sea power?

Winston Churchill would later pronounce that only Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commanding the British Grand Fleet, could “lose the war in an afternoon”—defeated in a clash with German dreadnoughts and battlecruisers in the North Sea. British strategy against Germany had already determined that the best course against that happening was not to rush in and attack under unfavorable circumstances, thereby rejecting Mahan’s ideas in many respects. 

In 1907 Fisher requested that resident British naval strategist Captain George Alexander Ballard outline several war-plan contingencies against Germany. A keen student of naval history, Ballard’s Plan A looked all the way back to the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century. By choking off Dutch commerce at the English Channel, the enemy fleet was obliged to come out and fight close to English shores and bases, thereby giving the Royal Navy a crucial advantage. 12

Ballard was convinced of the need of an “observational” blockade miles off the enemy coast, because of modern risks (mines, submarines, etc.). This was later expanded into a “distant” blockade anchored all the way across the North Sea off the Orkney Islands. British cruisers would similarly block off the English Channel and guard the vital supply lines feeding a British Expeditionary Force in France. If Germany, frustrated, attempted to interfere with British command of the North Sea or English Channel, then it would only give the Royal Navy “the much desired opportunity of fighting a decisive action,” noted one laconic report from 1911. 

Well after war with the Central Powers broke out, and the Western Front had ground down into trench warfare and strategic deadlock on land, naval analyst and historian Sir Julian Corbett also argued against the notion of “Bombardment of Coast defences with the object of forcing enemy fleet to sea.” 13 The way to hastily lose a maritime war against a continental enemy was with foolish naval frontal assaults.

The Royal Navy meanwhile would lose 5 battleships to Germany’s 1 in the North Sea (mostly to mines and torpedoes), 3 to 1 in battlecruisers, 9 to 2 in cruisers, 41 to 24 in destroyers, and 11 to 4 in armed merchant raiders. Only in submarines did Germany’s reported 77 losses exceed that of Britain’s 26. (In the Mediterranean, British and French forces lost 11 battleships to 3, and 6 cruisers to 2.) 

The battleships proved to be an expensive liability in modern warfare. “The creation of sea-power needed the labour of a whole generation,” Tirpitz bitterly complained after the war, “and this amount of time fate did not allow us.” 14 But clearly a blank check from the Reichstag would have only resulted in more dreadnoughts, not submarines—and these were the quieter, unseen men-of-war that seriously undermined Britain’s ability to sustain the war effort. 

While the Royal Navy’s distant blockade was winning the war at sea on the surface, the U-boat campaign nearly won it from below. Prewar German submarines such as U-21 had a range of more than 11,000 miles and were crewed by only 35 officers and men. By December 1915 a meeting of Britain’s Treasury Emergency Standing Committee approved funding that amounted to a crisis crash building program to cope with an unwelcome, unforeseen danger: £3 million for only 1 new battleship, but double that amount for 34 more destroyers and a further million for 12 “patrol boats or sloops.” 15

U-boats sent upward of 12 million tons of Allied shipping to the bottom—a seemingly impossible figure for an “accidental” weapons system that was modified to engage in full-scale commerce raiding after the war’s outbreak. Hence a February 1918 Admiralty report admitted “a great scarcity of suitable material and . . . imperfect knowledge of submarine warfare” going into the conflict. Unless “maximum output” of shipbuilding on the part of both Great Britain and the United States was realized, turning masses of unskilled men and women into educated workers, “not only will the losses continue to exceed production . . . but we shall never reach an equipoise. Such an eventuality can mean nothing less than losing the war.” 16  

All this only begs the question, what if Kaiser Wilhelm and Admiral Tirpitz had forgone the posturing show of force—of battleships on parade—and quietly invested in a ruthless, merchant-marine–killing force instead? Rather than attempting to clumsily overpower Britannia with superior guns and armor, Germany might have deftly kicked the legs out from under it. After all, Allied maritime, naval, industrial, and financial resources were even more staggering than Allied tonnage sunk. The Admiralty reported a strength of 22 dreadnoughts and 40 predreadnought battleships in August 1914, but despite war losses the Royal Navy ended the conflict with 33 dreadnoughts alone. Light cruisers had gone from 64 prewar to 89 in commission by the November 1918 armistice, while the number of destroyers nearly doubled, from 219 to 409. “Our view is that the resources of the Allies for production and transport are greater than those of the Germans for destruction,” noted Alan Garrett Anderson, the newly appointed controller of the Royal Navy, in August 1917. 17  

This was therefore not about limited conflict firmly resolving political differences in a single day with a greater number of superior weapons, something neither the British nor German people at home wanted to hear. Outspoken celebrities such as Rudyard Kipling had already sideswiped the Admiralty, for “had we used the Navy’s bare fist instead of its gloved hand from the beginning, we could in all likelihood have shortened the war.” 18

Instead it was about exhaustion. “War is not a game, my English friends,” concludes the victorious Germanic narrator in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s alarmist prewar short story, “Danger!” in which a small naval power forces Britain into submission by avoiding stately jousts between capital ships and ruthlessly torpedoing merchant vessels instead. “It is a desperate business to gain the upper hand, and one must use one’s brain in order to find the weak spot of one’s enemy.” 19

1. P. K. Kemp, ed., The Papers of Admiral Sir John Fisher (London: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne and Co. for the Navy Records Society, 1960), vol. 2 of 2, 258. Fisher to Rear-Admiral Sir William Henry May, 20 April 1904, The National Archives, Kew, England (hereafter TNA)/ADM 116-942.

2. Matthew S. Seligmann, ed., Naval Intelligence from Germany: The Reports of the British Naval Attachés in Berlin, 1906–1914 (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, for the Navy Records Society, 2007), 428–30.

3. ADM Reinhard Scheer, Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the World War (London: Cassell and Co., 1920), 190.

4. See for example, Robert J. Blyth, Andrew Lambert, and Jan Rüger, eds., The Dreadnought and the Edwardian Age (Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011). 

5. Ivo Nikolai Lambi, The Navy and German Power Politics, 1862–1914 (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1984), 139.

6. Signed ‘H.O.A.-F.’ (Hugh Oakeley Arnold-Forster) as Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty, TNA/ADM 116-940B.

7. Metternich to Bülow, 25 December, 1904, in E. T. S. Dugdale, ed., German Diplomatic Documents 1871–1914 , (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1969 reprint), vol. 3 of 4, 208–9. 

8. See “A Naval View of a Franco-British Alliance,” 2 July 1912, in TNA/ADM 116-866B.

9. Italy likewise refused to join the war with her Triple Alliance partners in 1914 and joined the Entente in 1915 with the aim of reclaiming Italian-occupied territory from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

10. The Kaiser’s Memoirs: Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany 1888–1918 (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1922), 240–1.

11.  “British & German Dreadnought Battleships—Relative Gun Power,” July 1914, TNA/ADM 116-3091. 

12. “War Plans—Historical statement,” 3 May, 1909, TNA/ADM 1-8997. Ballard was responding to criticism of his ideas by Lord Charles Beresford, admiral in command of the Channel Fleet.

13. “Distribution of British Naval Forces in outlying stations in relation to the Protection of British Maritime Commerce in War with Germany,” TNA/ADM 116-1043-B2. 16 July, 1917, TNA/ADM 1-8492-154.

14. Grand Admiral von Tirpitz, My Memoirs (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1919), vol. 2 of 2, 389–412. 

15. Admiral Sir Henry Jackson to First Lord (Arthur Balfour), 9 June 1915, TNA/ADM 1-8424-171. “Further Programme of New Construction,” 4 December 1915, TNA/ADM 1-8435-297. 

16. “World Tonnage and Submarine and Marine Losses” (Admiralty memorandum for the War Cabinet), 6 February 1918, TNA/ADM 1-8515-52. In 1905 an Admiralty committee appointed to examine commerce protection dismissed the idea of convoy as old-fashioned in a modern age of roving cruisers, though it proved invaluable in 1917 against U-boats; see The Protection of Ocean Trade in War Time, TNA/ADM 1116-866B, 34-5.

17. The British Naval Effort, 4th August 1914 to 11th November 1918 , printed, TNA/ADM 1-8547-336. U-21 herself sank two British battleships (HMS Triumph and Majestic , in 1915) and some 40 merchant ships during World War I. U-35 is credited with having sunk or damaged 226 Allied vessels, more than half a million tons of shipping; “Unsinkable Ships,” 13 August 1917, TNA/ADM 1-8507-280.

18. From Rudyard Kipling, Sea Warfare (London: Macmillan and Co., 1916), 89–90. Kipling’s only son, John, had been killed the year before at the Battle of Loos (25 September–14 October 1915). 

19. I. F. Clarke, ed., The Tale of the Next Great War, 1871–1914: Fictions of Future Warfare and of Battles Still-to-come (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995), 293–320.



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