The Naval Arms Race Before 1914

In 1914, the British Royal Navy (RN) had dominated the world’s oceans for over a century. There were, according to Paul Halpern, periods in the nineteenth century when the ‘innovative’ French navy was able to offer ‘a credible threat’, but this was no longer the case by the end of the nineteenth century.[1]

British naval strategy was based on the two power standard, meaning that the RN should be as strong as the next two navies combined. In 1818 Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, stated that a Franco-Russian alliance was the ‘only one that can prove really formidable to the liberties of Europe.’[2]

According to Arthur Marder, the two power standard dated back to 1770. It was not, however, clearly stated to be an official policy until the Naval Defence Act of 1889; the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord George Hamilton, then told the House of Commons ‘that our [naval] establishment should be on a scale that it should be at least equal to the naval strength of any two other countries.’[3]

The Admiralty insisted that the calculation of the relative strengths of navies was a complex exercise, involving many factors. However, it was easier for politicians and the public to gauge the two power standard by a comparison of the number of battleships possessed by the RN and the next two largest navies, which were then those of France and Russia.

The increase in the size of the German navy meant that in October 1902 Lord Selborne, the First Lord, asked for ‘equality plus a margin’, defined as an RN equal to the French and Russian navies plus six battleships and 14 armoured cruisers by December 1907.[4]

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was a keen reader of the works of the American naval theorist Admiral Alfred Mahan. Wilhelm believed that Germany needed a large navy in order to be able to be taken seriously as a world power. In 1897 he settled a dispute about the future shape of the German navy by replacing Admiral Friedrich von Hollman, an advocate of a fleet of fast commerce raiders, with Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz as Secretary of State for the Imperial Navy Office. Tirpitz’s preference for a battle fleet that could challenge the RN in European waters was in tune with Wilhelm’s own wishes.

The size of the German navy was determined by series of Naval Laws, passed in 1898, 1900, 1906, 1908 and 1912. Tirpitz believed that Germany could build a fleet that would certainly deter and perhaps even defeat the RN. Germany had a bigger economy, its use of conscription would mean that it could recruit more sailors than Britain, which relied on volunteers, and the RN’s global commitments meant that it could not keep all its fleet in home waters. Tirpitz aimed at a 2:3 ratio between the German navy and the RN.

Wilhelm and Tirpitz hoped that, even if the German navy was not big enough to defeat the RN, the Germans should be able to inflict such damage on the RN that it would not be to defend the British Empire. This should mean that Britain would make concessions in colonial disputes; German attempts to expand their overseas empire had run into the problem that they had little to offer the other colonial powers in negotiations about matters outside Europe.

Tirpitz failed to realise that the British would make sure that they maintained the margin that they needed in order to retain their naval supremacy. Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, appointed First Sea Lord in 1904, carried out a large number of reforms that made the RN more efficient. The Naval Estimates fell from £36.9 million in 1904-5 to £31.5 million in 1906-7, but the RN increased in fighting power.

One of Fisher’s innovations was the construction of HMS Dreadnought, the world’s first battleship with a main armament of a large number of big guns of the same size and the first with turbine engines. Previous battleships, henceforth called pre-dreadnoughts, had a small number of big guns and a greater mixture of gun calibres. She made all other battleships obsolete, which might appear to be a disadvantage for Britain, which was starting from a position of dominance.

However, all big gun battleships were being considered in other countries: the USS South Carolina was designed before Dreadnought, although built later; the Japanese HIMS Satsuma, laid down before Dreadnought, was originally intended to have an all big gun armament, but this had to be changed because of shortages of 12 inch guns; and the Italian designer Vittorio Cuniberti had published plans for an all big gun battleship.

By moving first, Fisher ensured that Britain seized an early lead. The RN had seven dreadnoughts and three battlecruisers, faster ships with the armament of a dreadnought but inferior armour, by May 1910, when the first two German dreadnoughts were completed. The United States Navy then had four dreadnoughts, two of which were inferior to any of the British dreadnoughts. No other navy had any.

The Liberal government elected in the UK in 1905 had hoped to cut defence spending in order to finance greater social spending. However, the growth in the size of the German navy meant that the British Naval Estimates had to be increased to £35.7 million in 1909-10, with further rises in subsequent years.

David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, increased taxes significantly in his 1909-10 budget. It was popularly known as the ‘People’s Budget’ because it was claimed that the higher taxes on the well off were intended to finance social reform. However, the tax increases allowed both social and defence spending to rise, meaning that the RN continued to maintain its margin over the German navy.

Christopher Clark argues that ‘British policy makers were less obsessed with, and less alarmed by, German naval building than is often supposed.’[5] Britain wanted to remain the dominant naval power and focused on all its potential naval rivals, not just Germany. The Entente Cordiale signed with France in 1904 and the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 were intended to iron out potential colonial disputes.

Since the passing of Tirpitz’s first Naval Law in 1898, the naval balance of power had changed. Britain signed an alliance with Japan in 1902, allowing it to reduce the size of its fleet in the Far East. The Russians then suffered disastrous naval losses in their defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5.

The French navy slipped to fourth place because of a lack of a coherent naval policy. Ministers of Marine did not stay long in office and Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships 1906-1921 notes that each one’s ‘chief aim in office was probably to undo their predecessor’s work.’[6]

In March 1912 Winston Churchill, the First Lord, announced that the strength of the RN would now be based on a 60 per cent superiority over the German navy. Eric Grove notes that ‘this is often seen as a concession of weakness but, given the size of other fleets, in effect was still a two power standard.’[7]

If the difference between the German fleet and the third biggest one, then the USN, was big enough, one + 60 per cent might put produce a larger RN than the two power standard. Moreover, the USA and Germany, unlike France and Russia in the 1890s, were unlikely to combine.

The month before Churchill’s statement, Lord Haldane, the Secretary of State for War, who had attended Göttingen University, had visited Germany in an attempt to negotiate an end to the Anglo-German naval race. His mission failed, because Germany wanted Britain in return to promise to remain neutral in any war between Germany and another European country in which Germany was not the aggressor. Britain had, according to Christopher Clark ‘an understandable disinclination to give away something for nothing: Britain was winning the naval arms race hands down and enjoyed unchallenged superiority.’[8]

The following table shows the average annual naval expenditure of the leading naval powers in the years leading up to the war. Germany and Austria-Hungary had shorter coastlines and fewer bases, so were able to spend a higher proportion of their total expenditure on construction. The USA had many bases, partly because of its long coastlines but mainly because, in the words of Phillips O’Brien, politicians ‘still looked upon the navy as a source of money for their constituents and not as a vital arm of national defence.’[9]

Great Powers Average Naval Expenditure p.a. 1910-14

Great Powers naval expenditure

Source: I. Johnston, I. L. Buxton, The Battleship Builders: Constructing and Arming British Capital Ships (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2013), p. 236.

The naval balance of power in 1914 is the subject of the next post in this series.

 

[1] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 1.

[2] Quoted in E. Grove, The Royal Navy since 1815 : A New Short History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 2.

[3] Quoted in A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. i, p. 123.

[4] Quoted in Grove, Royal Navy, p. 87.

[5] C. M. Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 149.

[6] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 190.

[7] Grove, Royal Navy, p. 102.

[8] Clark, Sleepwalkers, p. 319.

[9] P. P. O’Brien, British and American Naval Power: Politics and Policy, 1900-1936 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998), p. 65.

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3 Comments

Filed under Political History, War History

3 responses to “The Naval Arms Race Before 1914

  1. Pingback: The Naval Balance of Power in 1914 | War and Security

  2. Sorry about the table. I had thought that it was possible to copy and paste from MS Word or Excel into WordPress, but obviously not. I will correct it shortly.

  3. The table has now been corrected by uploading a photo of an Excel print out. WordPress tables are not very user friendly.

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