Dominance of the High Seas was paramount

12in guns on HMS Dreadnought
12in guns on HMS Dreadnought

by Dr Jack Binns

As long as the German empire remained only a continental military power, its dominance in Europe was guaranteed. French colonial competition with Great Britain distracted Paris from thoughts of a war of revenge to regain Alsace-Lorraine. Similarly, Russia’s quarrels with Britain in the Middle and Far East distracted St Petersburg from its Balkan interests which were sure to bring about a clash with Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungary. So only when the Germans went down the overseas colonial route and began to entertain naval ambitions that were required for its success did Berlin find itself at odds with the other great powers, especially the United Kingdom.

After the fall of Bismarck in 1890 and the emergence of the new kaiser, William II, as a principal influence, Germany adopted a new “Weltpolitik” (world policy) beyond Europe. Throughout the next decade the Germans toyed with the idea of a pact with Great Britain against the Franco-Russian alliance, but the Royal Navy was of little use to them and the British army, little more than a home guard, no use at all. As the kaiser observed, “a navy has no wheels” and the British were the only European power that did not have a big, conscripted standing army.

As a result, Weltpolitik inevitably brought Germany into repeated confrontation with the global British empire. Whether the Germans were building a railway through the Ottoman empire from Constantinople to Baghdad or another to give Transvaal access to the Indian Ocean; whenever they acquired colonies in Africa or Pacific islands, the result was always to arouse British suspicion and antagonism. Yet it was not until 1898, after the Reichstag parliament approved Admiral Tirpitz’s Naval Bill to lay down a new High Seas battle fleet, that Anglo-German relations were seriously jeopardised.

Ever since Trafalgar it had been a basic assumption that “Britannia rules the waves”. Without command of the oceans the British empire was indefensible, its overseas trade impossible and even its homeland open to invasion. Since most food was imported from abroad, a sea blockade would starve the country into surrender. British farmers could no longer feed British stomachs.

In the face of the Franco-Russian alliance of the second and third largest fleets in the world, the British government adopted a two-power standard: the Royal Navy’s fleet of its best battleships and cruisers must at least exceed in number with a safety margin the combined strength of the French and Russian navies. When Queen Victoria reviewed her fleet at Spithead in 1897, the year of her Diamond Jubilee, she could have counted no fewer than 165 warships which included 21 first-class battleships and 54 cruisers. With her that day was her favourite and eldest grandson, Kaiser William II.

In 1890, the American naval historian, Admiral AT Mahan, had published “The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783”. In it he predicted that the next war of global conquest would be decided at sea by fleets of battleships. One of his most avid and convinced readers was the new German emperor, William II. As a boy he had been fascinated by war ships and as he grew up he came to admire and envy his grandmother’s fleet.

The Kaiser’s appointment of Tirpitz as secretary of state for the navy was in effect an endorsement of the admiral’s intention to confront the Royal Navy on the high seas with the most powerful and advanced warships Germany could build. Not that Britain’s rulers were initially much alarmed by the Kaiser’s fleet: it would take many years to construct one that in numbers and quality might challenge the empire’s global superiority. Nevertheless, in 1902, for the first time, the Admiralty drew up a contingency plan in case of a war with Germany. Seven years later, after the understandings with the French and the Russians, the two-power standard was dropped in favour of one that would give the Royal Navy a 60 per cent margin over the German High Seas fleet in capital warships.

In the meantime, there had been a revolution in battle-ship design and technology. Launched in 1906, HMS Dreadnought was the first of a new type of all-big-gun vessel that made every existing battleship in the world obsolete. Yet far from cowing the Germans into conceding inferiority, Tirpitz began a new programme of dreadnought production the following year.

Not surprisingly, the Kaiser’s new war fleet was seen by the British government, press and public as a direct threat to the Royal Navy. As Winston Churchill said, for Germany a battle fleet was a luxury, whereas for an island nation it was a vital necessity. British pride and British safety were at stake. Though Asquith’s Liberal government was reluctant to spend so heavily, press, public and the Admiralty won the day. “We want eight [dreadnoughts] and we wont wait”, was the popular demand and the race had been won by 1914. At the outbreak of war, the Royal Navy had 20 dreadnoughts at sea and 12 being built to Germany’s 13 and seven respectively. In retrospect, the danger from German naval power was much exaggerated by British newspapers, Conservative critics and Admiralty lobbyists. In 1913, the Germans actually admitted defeat.

One factor fuelling anti-German paranoia in Britain was Germany’s spectacular industrial and commercial growth. In 1862, Prussia’s manufactures were a quarter of Britain’s: by 1913, Germany was the world’s second industrial producer, ahead of Britain and behind that of the USA, and just behind Britain in the value of its world trade.

Finally, the erratic and reckless Kaiser William had made repeated attempts since 1904 to test and weaken the Anglo-French entente. In particular, aware that the British had agreed that if the French allowed them a free hand in Egypt they would return the favour in Morocco, the Germans deliberately provoked crises in the latter. In 1905 William made a surprising visit to Tangier from his imperial yacht and six years later a German gunboat suddenly appeared off Agadir. Both diplomatic clashes served only to cement, not undermine the cross-Channel understanding.

How would the British react to a war between France and Germany? The answer was far from clear. The Cabinet “hawks”, Asquith, Grey, Haldane and Churchill, were outnumbered by the “doves”, some of whom were pacifists. Foreign secretary Grey conducted two contradictory policies: in secret, there was a plan to send an expeditionary army to support the French; in public he denied that there was any obligation to aid France in the event of German aggression. The Germans were kept guessing.