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Admiral Fisher Resigns as First Sea Lord

On 13 May 1915 at a meeting at the Admiralty Field Marshall Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, criticised the Admiralty’s recent decision to recall the super dreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth from the Dardanelles. He argued that this would damage Allied morale and boost that of the enemy.[1]

The report of The Dardanelles Commission, later set up to investigate the campaign, noted that ‘[i]t is difficult to say why Lord Kitchener should have attached to much importance to the retention of the Queen Elizabeth.’[2] Kitchener by then was dead. The results of naval gunfire support to the army had been disappointing and the removal of Queen Elizabeth was more than compensated for by the despatch of other ships, including monitors, to the Dardanelles.

In return, Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, threatened to resign if Queen Elizabeth remained. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, backed Fisher, albeit reluctantly in the view of Major General Charles Callwell, the Director of Military Operations and Intelligence, who was present.[3]

The next day the War Council met. The Admiralty argued that it would not have agreed to a solely naval attack on the Dardanelles had it been aware that 100,000 soldiers would soon be available for an amphibious landing. The demands on the Royal Navy by the German U-boat offensive, the Allied Italian Naval Convention and the need to maintain the strength of the Grand Fleet meant that the campaign must now be a land one with naval support rather than the other way round.

The army, however, claimed that the presence of Queen Elizabeth and her 15 inch guns had been a major factor in its belief that it could see the fleet through to Istanbul. It could not see how a rapid victory could be achieved, but withdrawal was inconceivable at this stage. This left siege warfare as the only option, but it was unclear how many troops could be provided, given the demands of the Western Front and home defence.

Fisher had originally proposed a combined land and naval attack on the Dardanelles, which he hoped would have won a quick victory. He had been reluctant in his support for the naval only attack. He now feared that the ships that he had been constructing to use in operations in the northern waters would instead he sent to the Dardanelles.[4]

The War Council meeting left Fisher with the impression that more ships would be sent to the Dardanelles. He told Captain Thomas Crease, his Naval Assistant, that if operations in the Dardanelles were to continue ‘they should henceforth be directed on the naval side by somebody who believed in them.’[5]

On 15 May Fisher received a memo from Churchill that proposed sending far more naval reinforcements to the Dardanelles than the two men had agreed the evening before. Fisher had offered his resignation several times before, but this time he finally quit. He officially remained First Sea Lord until 22 May, but seems to have visited his office only once more, on 17 May to remove some personal items.[6]

The departure of Fisher, coupled with the revelation that the British Army lacked enough high explosive shells, led to the replacement of the Liberal Government with a Liberal/Conservative Coalition. It was certain that the Conservatives would insist that Churchill, who had left them to join the Liberals in 1904 over the issue of free trade, would be removed from the office of First Lord.

Fisher at first had a substantial degree of public support, with several newspapers, led by The Times, arguing that he should become First Lord. There were several precedents from the 18th and early 19th centuries for that position, a political rather than a military one, to be held by an Admiral.

However, Fisher made two mistakes on 17 May. Room 40, the Admiralty’s code-breakers, decoded signals indicating that the German High Seas Fleet was about to put to sea. Crease told Fisher that he should go to the Admiralty to supervise operations. but he refused to do so. Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Hamilton had to act as First Sea Lord. He was the Second Sea Lord, with responsibility for personnel and shore establishments, so was not sufficiently versed in operational matters to stand in for the First Sea Lord. As it happened, the High Seas Fleet was only covering mine laying operations and did not go far into the North Sea.

H. H. Asquith, the Prime Minister, said that ‘[s]trictly speaking, [Fisher] ought to be shot’ with King George V, who had supported Fisher until then, stating that his behaviour ‘was bound to have a deplorable, if not a disastrous effect upon the public, not only at home, but abroad.’[7]

Fisher’s second mistake was to say that he would stay as First Sea Lord subject to various conditions that no politician was likely to accept. He insisted that Churchill’s replacement should not be Arthur Balfour, the Conservative who did become First Lord. Fisher also wanted an increase in the responsibilities of the First Sea Lord at the expense of the First Lord and the other members of the Board of Admiralty.

Even then, it was not until 22 May that Asquith accepted Fisher’s resignation. A final attempt the day before to persuade him to stay failed because Fisher would not serve under Balfour. The Coalition took power on 25 May, with Balfour as First Lord. Churchill remained in the Cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a job without ministerial responsibilities usually given to inexperienced ministers.

The new First Sea Lord was Admiral Sir Henry Jackson. As he was ‘almost unknown to the nation, the appointment elicited a lukewarm response.’[8] The outstanding candidate, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, could not be spared from his current post as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet.

[1] 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. ii, p. 276.

[2] PP, The Final Report of the Dardanelles Commission. (Part II–Conduct of Operations, &C.) with Appendix of Documents and Maps (1919), p. 23.

[3] Marder, From. vol. ii, pp. 276-77.

[4] This and the two previous paragraphs are based on J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 408-10.

[5] Quoted in Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 277.

[6] The remainder of this post is based on Ibid. vol. ii, pp.279-91.

[7] Quotes from Ibid. vol. ii, p. 283.

[8] Ibid. vol. ii, p.291.

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The Naval Attack on the Dardanelles 1915 (1) Planning

From late 1914 onwards there was a dispute over British military strategy. The ‘Westerners’, including most generals, saw the Western Front as the decisive theatre. However, the ‘Easterners’, mostly politicians or admirals, thought that stalemate on the Western Front could not be broken, so wanted to launch an offensive elsewhere, probably the Near East, where they hoped to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war and persuade Italy and neutral Balkan countries to join the Allies.[1]

Admiral Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord proposed a number of schemes, including attacks on Zeebrugge. Borkum, Cuxhaven and the Baltic.[2] On 3 January 1915 he gave Winston Churchill, the First Lord and thus his political superior, a plan that he and Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the War Council, had devised for a major offensive against the Ottoman Empire. It involved attacks on Gallipoli and Istanbul: although then referred to as Constantinople in English, it has officially been called Istanbul since the Turks captured it in 1453.

It looked good on paper, but was impractical. It needed far more British troops than would have been released from France and assumed that Bulgaria and Greece, strong rivals and both neutral, would enter the war on the Allied side and co-operate.[3]

The day before, Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia had requested that the British carry out a ‘demonstration’ in order to distract the Ottomans who were attacking in the Caucasus; Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, told Churchill that the only place where such an action might succeed was the Dardanelles, but there were no troops available.[4]

By 4 January the Russians had forced the Ottomans to retreat from Sarikamish, but the British, apparently unaware of this, continued to look for ways to help their ally against the Ottomans.

Churchill was attracted by part of Fisher’s plan, which was for an attack by old battleships on the Dardanelles. He ignored Fisher’s requirement for the warships to be accompanied by troops, who would take the high ground along the Gallipoli side of the Dardanelles.[5]

The Royal Navy had always argued that warships could rarely attack forts successfully without support from land forces. Lord Nelson had argued that ‘any sailor who attacked a fort was a fool,’ and the former First Sea Lord Sir Arthur Wilson was the only senior officer of the early twentieth century who disagreed.[6]

On 3 November 1914 and Anglo-French squadron had bombarded the outer forts of the Dardanelles from 13,000 yards, damaging one of them. This led some to think that it might be possible to destroy them from a range at which they could not reply. However, it also alerted the Ottomans to the fact that they might be attacked. After the war, this was described as an ‘unforgivable error’ by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe and ‘an act of sheer lunacy’ by Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon.[7]

Hankey told Arthur Balfour, the former Conservative Prime Minister who would soon succeed Churchill as First Lord in a Coalition government, that:

‘from Lord Fisher downwards every naval officer in the Admiralty who is in the secret believes that the Navy cannot take the Dardanelles position without troops. The First Lord still professes to believe that they can do it with ships, but I have warned the Prime Minister that we cannot trust in this.’[8]

Balfour was one of the few that favoured an attack by only ships.[9] Churchill later admitted that he would not have gone ahead with a naval only attack had he known that 80-100,000 troops would be available by May. However, in January Kitchener had said that 150,000 men would be needed and few could be spared.[10]

Arthur Marder argues that in the end the ‘famed Churchillian impetuosity, eloquence and doggedness carried the day.’[11] Churchill argued, on the basis of the performance of German artillery against Belgian forts in 1914, that the Ottoman forts would not be able to resist the fire from 12 and 15 inch battleship guns. However, the Germans had forward observers to correct their fire, whilst the Allied ships would be firing on concealed positions from several miles away with no observers on shore. The Germans were also using howitzers with a higher angle of fire than battleship guns.

It had been hoped that seaplanes could act as spotters, but they found it difficult to take off unless the sea was very calm and could not fly high enough to safely and successfully spot the fire. The sea also affected the stability of the ships as gun platforms, another disadvantage compared with shore guns.

The risk from minefield was also ignored or under-estimated. The Ottoman shore batteries only needed to sink or force away the minesweepers, which were trawlers manned by peacetime fishermen who were members of the Royal Naval Reserve, to prevent the battleships from continuing.

Even if the battle fleet did manage to get past all the gun batteries, it was not clear what it was then supposed to do. It was apparently assumed that its appearance at Istanbul would cause a revolution, even though it would not have been accompanied by any land forces to occupy the city and its communications would be open to attack by any remaining forts.

Jellicoe later wrote in the margin of his copy of volume ii of Churchill’s The World Crisis:

‘Has anyone who wants to push battleships through the Dardanelles said what they propose they should do when through and how their communications are to be maintained and from what base are they to work?’[12]

Churchill assumed that the old battleships were of little value in the North Sea, so could be risked in this operation. However, before the Battle of Jutland, most British admirals thought that a major fleet action might cause such heavy losses amongst the dreadnoughts of both sides that the RN’s vast superiority in pre-dreadnought battleships would then become decisive.[13]

The next entry in this series will describe the actual attack.

 

[1] 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. ii, p. 202.

[2] T. Travers, Gallipoli, 1915 (Stroud: Tempus, 2001), p. 20.

[3] Marder, From. vol. ii, p. 204.

[4] Travers, Gallipoli, pp. 19-20.

[5] Marder, From. vol. ii, pp. 204-5.

[6] Quoted in Ibid., p. 200.

[7] Quoted in Ibid., p. 201.

[8] Quoted in R. A. Hough, The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 153.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Marder, From, p. 212.

[11] Ibid., p. 213.

[12] Quoted in Hough, Great, p. 152.

[13] Marder, From, pp. 214-19.

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The Naval Balance of Power in 1914

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

Naval strength 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.’[1]

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.

Warship Types

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.[2] 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.’[3] 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.[4]

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.

 

[1] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 381.

[2] 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).

[3] G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), p. 351.

[4] 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.

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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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