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World War One and the Arms Race that Failed to Keep the Peace

April 29, 2014


German Ocean 1

A hundred years ago Great Britain was about to go to war, as we have been constantly reminded by the flood of commemorative books, TV documentaries and drama. Much of the material focuses on the land war – in France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy and Turkey. Aerial warfare was in its infancy in 1914, though it came into its own in the latter years of the Great War.

When we British think of the Great War, the dominant story is of millions of our soldiers caught in the murderous battles of Mons, the Somme, Amiens and Passchendaele. Like so many others, I have relatives buried in war cemeteries dotted around northern France and Belgium. I have the diaries of my grandfather, an artillery officer who served in the Western Front between 1916 and 1918. His account vividly portrays long periods of inactivity punctuated by days and sometimes weeks of terrifying violence.

We have no lack of material to draw upon. A few months ago I reviewed Catastrophe – Europe Goes to War 1914, Max Hastings’ account of the first year of the war, in which he places the blame for the war squarely on the shoulders of the German and Austro-Hungarian political and military elites. Over the past three years I have published several excerpts from my grandfather’s diary (here’s one of them). The Imperial War Museum in London is full similar accounts by survivors – and some who didn’t make it – of their small part in the war, unaided by knowledge of the big picture, only aware of what was happening in their small section of the trenches and dugouts that extended from Belgium to Switzerland.

The naval war is less explored – at least among historians and TV producers intent on capitalising on the interest generated by the anniversary. Yet the naval rivalry between Britain and Germany in the two decades preceding the war was at least as significant a factor in Britain’s decision to go to war on the side of France and Russia as the chain of events sparked by the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo.

To try to understand the naval dimension of the Great War, you could do worse than starting with Dreadnought – Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War.

Robert Massie – the author  of acclaimed biographies of Peter the Great, the great modernising Russian Tsar and founder of St Petersburg, and of Nicolas and Alexandra, the last Tsar and his empress who met their deaths at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1918 – published Dreadnought in 1992. It was one of many weighty tomes I inherited from my father, who died a decade ago. Since then it had been sitting in my library waiting for me to get round to it. Massie’s book shows why sometimes it’s good to step off the treadmill of keeping up with new books on your favourite subjects, and to go back to stuff you missed when it was first published.

Before I get on to Dreadnought, a little diversion. Whenever I can get away with it, I like to buy antique maps to hang on the walls at home. I usually have to overcome family objections that we have too many pictures already. But this little map tells an interesting story. It was printed in 1809, four years after the Battle of Trafalgar, in which Lord Nelson averted a possible invasion of Britain by defeating Napoleon’s fleet off the coast of south-west Spain. At that time our main continental rival was France. Victory at Trafalgar sealed British naval supremacy for the century that led up to the beginning of the Great War. And global naval supremacy enabled us to build and administer a far-flung empire that reached its fullest extent during that period.

Look at the area to the east of what the map calls South Britain, and you will notice that the area now known as the North Sea is referred to as the “German Ocean”. The current term started to be used in the 1830s. Just as the narrow strip of sea between Iran and the Gulf states is still a bone of contention between the Iranians who refer to it as the Persian Gulf, and the states on the other side who insist on calling it the Arabian Gulf, it’s almost inconceivable that imperial Britain in the late 19th century would tolerate calling the sea off their east coast after one of its main continental rivals.

But in 1809, Germany did not exist as a political entity, and the adjective German referred to ethnicity rather than nationality. How times changed in the intervening century.

The unifying theme of Massie’s account of the run-up to war was the importance of the sea and shipping in the geopolitics of the age. Britain relied on control of the seas for trade between the homeland and the empire. France mainly focused on the Mediterranean for the same reasons. French colonies were primarily in North Africa, but also in the Pacific, so it needed a strong navy to protect commercial traffic. Germany, however, only unified in 1871. It was a late entrant into the colonial stakes. Until the end of the century it relied on British warships to protect its commercial shipping between the Baltic ports and its colonies in east and south-west Africa.

But in the 1890s, under the young Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German political elite began to believe that the nation would only be recognised as a world power if it developed a navy to match its formidable land army. And hungry for more colonies, it chafed at the prospect of having to rely on British sea power to safeguard the shipping lanes.

Britain, on the other hand, saw very clearly that the security of both homeland and empire depended upon sea power, and was determined to no other nation should threaten its naval supremacy. It had a tiny army compared with Germany, and throughout the 1890s conducted its foreign policy on the basis of what Prime Minister Lord Salisbury called “splendid isolation” from the political machinations of the competing continental powers – Germany, France, Austria-Hungary and Russia.

The modernisation of the British fleet under Admiral John (Jacky) Fisher came at a time when the young Kaiser was beginning to get into his stride. The German Emperor ditched Bismarck, the Chancellor responsible for the creation of Germany from the hotch-potch of princely states under Prussian hegemony, and started to install his own men into the principal offices of state.

Fisher led the design of a series of heavily armoured battleships with formidable gunnery and increased speed. The prototype was HMS Dreadnought, hence the title of the book and the adoption of the generic term for large battleships. Not only were the new British dreadnoughts the largest and most powerful vessels ever constructed, but Fisher pioneered techniques that enabled them to be built in record time.

The strategic imperatives were twofold. First, to protect the British Isles from blockade and invasion, and second, to protect the  sea lanes between Britain and its empire. Unlike the continental powers, Britain felt particularly vulnerable as an island, so that in an age without air power its leaders saw naval supremacy as fundamental to national security.

As Britain’s formidable dreadnoughts started rolling down the slipways, Germany embarked on its own programme of capital ship construction. This in turn sparked an arms race that continued through to the outbreak of war. British naval doctrine demanded that fleet should always maintain a ratio of supremacy over the combined fleets of two of its largest potential enemies, which it took to be Germany and France. It had no doubt that the German programme was designed for hostilities against itself. Under Fisher and his successors on the British side, and Admiral Tirpitz, the architect of the modern German navy, an ever-escalating tit-for-tat naval construction race took place.

Britain ended up constructing 36 battleships and 10 lighter and thus speedier battle cruisers. Germany built 19 battleships and 8 battle cruisers. Both sides also invested heavily in destroyers, torpedo boats and submarines.

The cost of the British programme was massive. In today’s money, the dreadnoughts cost around £22 billion in the six years leading up to the war. Compare that figure with the £6.2 billion budgeted for the construction of the two aircraft carriers, that when completed will be Britain’s only ships comparable with the battleships in range and firepower.

When war came, the two fleets remained in stand-off save for the only major sea battle, the stalemate at Jutland in 1915. The Imperial Fleet surface fleet never put to sea thereafter, though German submarines caused massive damage to British merchant shipping.

Was the investment of so much treasure on floating steel monsters a justified expenditure? In terms of their active contribution to the war, you could argue not. But naval historians would probably contend that without the aid of a numerically superior fleet, Britain might have been unable to prevent a blockade. Its transportation of personnel and equipment to the Western Front might have been hindered, and a German Navy free to bombard the coasts of Britain and Northern France could have caused massive damage to the morale and fighting capabilities of the Anglo-French alliance.

There was another less obvious consequence of the massive military spend. As David Lloyd George, Britain’s finance minister of the time, observed with frustration, every pound spent on ships reduced the resources available to spend on solving the country’s urgent social problems. Had his Liberal Government been able to devote more funding to social institutions, the post-war collapse of his party might never have happened. The rise of the Labour Party as the natural opposite pole to the Conservatives might have been delayed, if not ultimately postponed. But that’s just one of many might-have-beens that still provide ample scope for exploration by modern historians.

As we have discovered over the past 70 years, investment in a deterrent that is never used is as potent a guarantor against war as Britain and Germany hoped their battleships would be. The difference was that war at sea was only part of the equation a hundred years ago, whereas nuclear conflict is the whole equation.

In any event Germany’s fleet ended up scuttled in Scapa Flow, and 25 years later the redundancy of battleships became abundantly clear as all sides in the Second World War sent numerous capital ships to the bottom of the sea by a combination of submarine attack and aerial bombardment. The era of the aircraft carrier and the attack submarine had well and truly arrived.

Massie’s book focuses on the rivalry between Britain and Germany in the run-up to the war, so you will not get the balanced panorama  of the dynamics within each of the participating powers that contributed to the conflict that you might from Hastings’ book. But Massie is much stronger on the arms race, and on the personalities that launched it, as well as on those who frequently tried to mitigate it.

One the German side he provides telling narratives on the character and roles of the politicians (Bismarck, Caprivi, Bulow, Holstein, Eulenberg and Bethmann-Holweg), the military men (Tirpitz and Moltke), above all, Wilhelm II. He does equal justice to the British protagonists: Admirals Fisher and Beresford, their political masters (Prime Ministers Salisbury, Balfour, Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith, and their ministers Joseph Chamberlain, Haldane, Grey, Lloyd George and Churchill) and the Kaiser’s uncle, King Edward VII.

He is particularly good on the Kaiser and his relatives, Edward and Tsar Nicholas II. It’s hard to imagine today a world in which the heads of state of three of the five major powers are close kinsmen. Though as monarchs Wilhelm and Nicholas exerted far more direct power than Edward and his son George V, Edward wielded much more influence than our current monarch. He was a major participant in the process that led to the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France, for example.

Of all the protagonists, the Kaiser comes over most strongly. Massie describes a man who is mercurial, vain, insecure and , desperate for affection and respect. Yet he is energetic, curious and with a high cognitive intelligence. Unfortunately his low emotional intelligence lets him down. He is seen by his own people as well as his adversaries as something of a loose cannon. In his arrogant and bombastic manner he provides a prototype for the caricature German that the British have loved to mock ever since. Here he is commenting on a report from Count Lichnowsky, his ambassador in London, on last-ditch negotiations with Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, to avoid the outbreak of war:

“England reveals herself in her true colours at a moment when she thinks that we are caught in the toils and, so to speak, disposed of! That mean crew of shopkeepers has tried to trick us with dinners and speeches. The boldest deception, the words of the King to Henry and me: ‘We shall remain neutral and try to keep out of this as long as possible.’ Grey proves the King a liar, and his words to Lichnowsky are the outcome of a guilty conscience, because he feels that he has deceived us. At that, it is as a matter of fact a threat combined with a bluff, in order to separate us from Austria and to prevent us from mobilising, and to shift responsibility for the war. He knows perfectly well that, if he were to say one single, serious, sharp and warning word at Paris and St Petersburg, and were to warn them to remain neutral, that [sic] both would become quiet at once. But he takes care not to say a word, and threatens us instead! Common cur! England alone bears responsibility for peace and war, not we any longer! That must be made clear to the world.”

Harsh words from a man who revelled in his visits to England, wept over the body of his grandmother Queen Victoria and reacted with child-like delight at his appointment as an honorary Admiral of the British Fleet by King Edward.

On the British side, the stand-out character sketches are of Jacky Fisher, the brilliant outsider who transformed the fleet, Winston Churchill, a bumptious, eloquent and hyperactive First Lord of the Admiralty, and Sir Edward Grey, who worked tirelessly to keep the rivalry between the great powers from spilling into war, yet in contrast to the travel-obsessed foreign ministers of our age, hardly ever ventured beyond his home shores. It was Grey whose words upon his ultimate failure to keep the peace summed up the sentiments of his generation as Britain’s war ultimatum to Germany expired: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Other historians more effectively explain the social and economic backdrop to the Great War. But Massie’s forte is in bringing the human protagonists alive. Whatever the monstrous outcome of their labours, the monarchs, politicians, and military men of Britain and Germany were not in themselves monsters. They were largely rational people, with physical and emotional frailties that informed their attitudes and decisions. Had they been able to anticipate where those decisions would lead them, it’s hard to imagine that any would have trodden the same path.

If you are interested in exploring the dawn of the first truly global conflict to afflict humanity, Dreadnought would be a compelling addition to your reading list.

From → Books, France, History, Politics, UK

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