In 1914 the British Royal Navy (RN) remained the largest in the world. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, supported by Kaiser Wilhelm II, had attempted to create a German navy that could match the RN, but the British had comfortably maintained their lead in the subsequent naval arms race.
Britain had traditionally aimed to have a navy that was equal in strength to the next two in the world, the two power standard. In 1912 this was replaced by a measure of a 60 per cent superiority to the second largest navy. This was then the German navy; Germany was the only one of the world’s leading naval powers that Britain was then likely to fight.
The Press, public and politicians measured the strength of navies by the number of dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers. However, navies also had a large number of other types of warships.
Naval Strengths in August 1914
Source: P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 7-20.
British numbers include the Royal Australian Navy’s battlecruiser and three light cruisers and three dreadnoughts being built in Britain for foreign countries that were requisitioned for the RN at the outbreak of war; two that had just been completed for the Ottoman Empire and a Chilean one that was still under construction. There were fears that the Ottoman ones might be sold to Germany, which would have left the RN below its target of a 60 per cent margin over Germany. Another Chilean dreadnought under construction in Britain that was completed as a British aircraft carrier is not included.
German numbers include a dreadnought that was never completed and a battlecruiser and a light cruiser that were transferred to the Ottoman Empire just after the outbreak of war. The German SMS Blücher is classified as an armoured cruiser above because she was armed with 8.2 inch guns. In the words of Robert Massie, she ‘was the supreme embodiment of the armoured cruiser.’
Russia needed three separate fleets. Its Asian one was small and consisted mostly of old ships. The Baltic and Black Sea ones contained all the battleships, armoured cruisers and planned dreadnoughts. The Baltic fleet was the biggest.
One of the Japanese battlecruisers building was completed in August 1914. Nine small and old US submarines, based in the Philippines, that were suitable only for coastal defence are excluded. Some numbers are given as ranges because of doubts over the usefulness of some older vessels. The only other countries with dreadnoughts were Brazil and Argentina, with two each, and Spain, which had one in service and two more building.
Pre-dreadnought battleships carried a number of guns of differing calibres, which were intended to carry out different roles. They normally had a main armament of four 12 inch guns, although some had smaller but faster firing main guns. A secondary battery, most commonly of 6 inch guns, although some had smaller or larger guns, was intended to deal with smaller opponents. Some pre-dreadnoughts carried an intermediate battery of 8-10 inch guns in order to increase their firepower against enemy battleships.
Pre-dreadnoughts were made obsolete in 1906 by HMS Dreadnought, which carried an armament of 10 12 inch guns, supplemented by only 24 12 pounders to deal with torpedo boats. A single calibre armament was both more powerful than a mixed one and superior for fire control purposes. The range of guns was increasing, making the old tactic of overwhelming ships with a hail of fire from many guns at short range obsolete. She was the first battleship to be powered by steam turbines and the first to be constructed to burn a mixture of fuel and oil, although others had been converted to do so. She was capable of 21 knots, fast for a battleship.
Dreadnought’s secondary armament proved to be inadequate. The next British battleship, HMS Bellerophon, carried 16 4 inch guns and later dreadnoughts had secondary armaments of 6 inch guns.
Although Dreadnought made British as well as foreign battleships obsolete, the decision of Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, the First Sea Lord, to move first ensured that Britain maintained its naval supremacy. Most subsequent battleships were dreadnoughts, but some that took on many of Dreadnought’s innovations but retained a mixed armament were built. These were known as semi-dreadnoughts.
Armoured cruisers were large ships with an armoured belt protecting their sides and an armoured deck. They were faster than battleships, but had weaker armour and a main armament of 8-10 inch guns. Protected cruisers were an old and smaller type that had armoured decks but no side belts.
HMS Dreadnought was followed by HMS Invincible, generally regarded as the first of a new type, the battlecruiser. She had a battleship armament of 12 inch guns, but was faster and more lightly armoured. Fisher, who thought that speed was a better protection than armour, saw the battlecruiser as the eventual successor to the battleship. Nicholas Lambert and Jon Sumida argue that he intended to use torpedo armed destroyers and submarines for home defence, with battlecruisers protecting Britain’s global trade. This idea was not supported by his successors.
Invincible was originally rated as an armoured cruiser, but the term battlecruiser was later adopted because of the main armament of these ships was the same size as that of battleships. Previous armoured cruisers carried smaller guns than pre-dreadnought battleships. Only Germany and Japan followed Britain in building battlecruisers, although other navies planned to do so.
The RN, needing reconnaissance ships, built 4 inch gun armed scout cruisers for a period, but these proved to be too small and slow. They were succeeded by light cruisers, originally called light armoured cruisers because they had some armour. British ones had either a main armament entirely of 6 inch guns or a mixture of 4 and 6 inch guns. Germany moved from 4.1 to 5.9 inch guns as the main armament of its light cruisers in 1914.
Torpedo boats were introduced in the late nineteenth century as cheap vessels that could attack battleships with the newly invented motorised torpedo. The torpedoes used in the American Civil War were static weapons that were renamed mines after the development of the motor torpedo.
Destroyers, originally called torpedo boat destroyers, were developed to defend battle fleets. The two types eventually merged. The rapid development of warships in the early twentieth century meant that the oldest destroyers were slower than the newest battlecruisers.
Submarines were in their infancy and views differed over their utility and employment. Should they be used to attack enemy battle fleets, to raid enemy commerce or just for coastal defence?
Coast defence ships were small, slow and short ranged battleships. Navies also had many smaller vessels, not listed above, that were used for tasks such as minesweeping, trade protection, shore bombardment and colonial policing. The British used armed merchant cruisers for trade protection and blockade duties during the war, and the Germans armed merchantmen as commerce raiders.
The older ships were very vulnerable to underwater attack by torpedoes and mines and the older cruisers were too slow to perform scouting duties. However, the RN, which had a large superiority in older ships, found them to be very useful for blockade and trade protection and in secondary theatres.
The Royal Navy versus the German Navy
British dreadnoughts generally had larger guns than contemporary German ones, initially 12 versus 11.1 inch guns, then 13.5 versus 12 inch guns. Britain laid down its first 15 inch gun armed ships in 1912 and had 10 building at the start of the war. Germany followed in 1913, but had only three under construction at the outbreak of war, one of which was never completed. Most other countries armed their dreadnoughts with 12 inch guns, but the first 14 inch armed Japanese and US ones entered service in 1914.
British ships were mostly faster but worse protected than equivalent German ones. The German propellant was more stable than the British one and British shells had a tendency to break up on contact with armour. The British have often been criticised for the poor anti-flash protection for their magazines. However, the Germans initially made the same mistake, which they corrected after the battlecruiser SMS Seydlitz almost blew up at the Battle of Dogger Bank in 1915.
Before the war Arthur Pollen, a British civilian, had designed a fire control system using an analogue computer to predict ranges. Andrew Gordon describes it ‘as important a development for gunnery as John Harrison’s chronometer had been for navigation 150 years before.’ It allowed for frequent changes in range and bearing, so ships equipped with it would not have to remain in line ahead formation.
The British instead adopted a cheaper system designed by Captain Frederick Dreyer. It used parts of Pollen’s system to plot bearings mechanically, but still required manual input of ranges, meaning that ships had to stay in straight lines. The RN was also slow to adopt Admiral Sir Percy Scott’s system of director firing, in which one officer controlled the main armament. Only eight battleships had it at the start of the war and two of the Grand Fleet’s dreadnoughts still lacked at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
However, the Germans had nothing comparable to Dreyer’s system, never mind Pollen’s. They did have a system of director firing, but their main gunnery strength was their stereoscopic sights. These, according to Arthur Marder, required a man with ‘excellent and identical vision in both eyes’, but were superior to the British ones, especially in poor light.
Another British weakness was that the RN’s main bases of Plymouth, Portsmouth and Chatham were positioned for a war with France rather than Germany. A new major base at Rosyth, on the Firth of Forth, was not ready in 1914. For much of the war, it was used only by the battlecruisers. The anchorages at Cromarty and Scapa Flow had no protection against submarines and Harwich was suitable only for light forces. The Kiel Canal allowed Germany to quickly and safely move its ships between the North and Baltic Seas.
The RN’s biggest advantage, apart from numbers, was that its sailors were long service professionals and thus better trained and more experienced than the three year conscripts who made up a large proportion of German naval personnel. The large British merchant navy provided a further source of trained seamen. Tirpitz had thought that conscription would be an advantage for Germany because it would be able to recruit more sailors than Britain, but he was wrong.
 R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 381.
 N. A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1999); J. T. Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy: Finance, Technology and British Naval Policy, 1889-1914 (Boston MA, London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).
 G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), p. 351.
 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. 416.