44: Naval Arms Race Pt. 1


In part 1 of our investigation into the Anglo-German Naval Arms race that would occur before 1914 we first have to look at the challenger, the Imperial German Navy and begin the story of how it went from a non-factor in European politics to the second largest navy in Europe in the span of just 20 years.


  • Arms Control and the Anglo-German Naval Race before World War I: Lessons for Today? by John H. Maurer
  • A Fleet in Begin: The Rise and Fall of Italian Sea Power, 1861-1943 by Brian R. Sullivan
  • Admirals versus Generals: The WAr Airms of the Imperial German Navy, 1914-1918 by Holger H. Herwig
  • From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919
  • The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command by Andrew Gordon and Paul Wilderson
  • Winning Cheaper Laurels: Borkum/Baltic, the Dardanelles, and Churchill’s Search for a Naval Offensive in the First World War, 1914-1915 by Graham Clews
  • Detente and Deterrence: Anglo-German Relations, 1911-1914 by Sean M. Lynn-Jones
  • ‘The Spirit of the Army’ at Sea: The Prussian-German Naval Officer Corps, 1847-1897 by Lawrence Sondhaus
  • The German Reaction to the Dreadnought Revolution by Holger H. Herwig
  • The German School of Naval Thought and the Origins of the Tirpitz Plan 1875-1900 by Rolf Hobson
  • Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1870-1914 by P.M. Kennedy
  • The Titan Refreshed: Imperial Overstretch and the British Navy before the First World War by Phillips Payson O’Brien
  • Krupp and the Imperial German Navy, 1898-1914: A Reassessment by Michael Epkenhans
  • Left-Wing Opposition to Naval Armaments in Britain Before 1914 by Howard Weinroth
  • The Unknown Effort: Theodore Roosevelt’s Battleship Plan and International Arms Limitation Talks, 1906-1907 by Frederick C. Leiner
  • Strategy, Tactics, and Turf Wars: Tirpitz and the Oberkommando der Marine, 1892-1895 by Patrick J. Kelly
  • Tirpitz: And the Imperial German Navy by Patrick J. Kelly
  • Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War by Robert K. Massie
  • The Failure of British Espionage against Germany, 1907-1914 by Nicholas P. Hiley
  • The Complexity of Strategy: “Jackie” Fisher and the Trouble with Submarines by Christopher Martin
  • Sir John Fisher and the Dreadnought: The Sources of Naval Mythology by Jon Tetsuro Sumida
  • The Force of Circumstance: Graf Spee’s Options for the East Asian Cruiser Squadron in 1914 by Peter Overlack
  • The Anglo-German Naval Rivalry and Informal Arms Control, 1912-1914 by John H. Maurer
  • Nation, Empire and Navy: Identity Politics in the United Kingdom 1887-1914 by Jan Ruger
  • Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 1887-1918 by Shawn T. Grimes
  • Steaming in the Dark? Rules, Rivals, and the British Navy, 1860-1913 by Richard J. Stoll
  • ‘Riches beyond the Dreams of Avarice’?: Commercial Returns on British Warship Construction, 1889-1914 by A.J. Arnold
  • Strategic Command and Control for Maneuver Warfare: Creation of the Royal Navy’s “War Room” System, 1905-1915 by Nicholas A. Lambert
  • Memories and Records Volume Two by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher
  • Germany’s High Sea Fleet in the World War by Admiral Reinhard Scheer
  • “Luxury” Fleet: The Imperial German Navy 1888-1918 by Holger H. Herwig
  • The Grand Fleet 1914-1916: Its Creation, Development and Work by Admiral Viscount Jellicoe of Scapa
  • The Great Naval Race: Anglo-German naval rivalry 1900-1914 by Peter Padfield


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium Episode number 44. The 15 years before the beginning of the First World War saw two of the most powerful nations in the world engage each other in an arms race. During those years the British and German Empires would invest colossal sums into expanding and improving their navies. This arms race would inevitably lead to antagonism between the two countries, with both navies claiming that they needed to expand due to the actions of the other. During this time Germany’s naval budget would double, and the Royal Navy’s would increase by 40%. For the British these events were unexpected and unwelcome. For a century, since the defeat of Napoleon, the Royal Navy had been the undisputed ruler of the seas around the world. No single country, or even multiple countries together, could match the Royal Navy during almost the entirety of the 19th century. However, this would change in the early years of the 20th century as first the Germans, and then later the Japanese and Americans, began to drastically expand their navies which would force the British to first attempt to match that expansion and then later to surrender their undisputed rule of the waves. In 1906 the answer to the growing challenge of the German Navy, led by First Lord of the Admiralty Admiral Fisher, would be to launch the Dreadnought, the ship that would change the first half of the 20th century and would leave its marks on 2 World Wars. The Dreadnought’s combination of speed, armor, and a focus on only the largest of guns would completely change the course of warship construction. It would cause all previous battleships to become obsolete almost overnight, and it would set the priorities for naval ship construction for the next 40 years, priorities that would only change during the Second World War due to the introduction of aircraft carriers. During these episodes we will trace the evolution of the Royal Navy from the middle of the 19th century, a period that one historian called “the long calm lee of Trafalgar” all the way to the start of the war in 1914. These decades would see a navy that had grown complacent in its dominance, only to be shaken awake by the German challenge. It would see an Empire struggling, even with its vast resources, to continue the pace of naval construction as shipbuilding grew ever more expensive, and it would see the Royal Navy reach the peak of its strength.

While the Royal Navy will be well discussed in this series of episodes, this specific episode will instead focus on the challenger, the underdog, the German Imperial Fleet. Instead of moving from a position of strength, and then having to evolve that strength before the First World War the German Navy would have to first create itself. In this creation it would be aided by a supportive Kaiser, who wanted more than anything to have a navy to rival the Royal Navy. Between 1897 and 1914 the Kaiser would be one of the most outspoken supporters of German naval expansion, sometimes perhaps too outspoken if you would have asked some of his naval officers who were trying to actually make it happen. These officers were led by Admiral Tirpitz. No person deserves more of the credit for building the navy, nor more of the blame for some of its shortcoming than Tirpitz. During the 17 years before the beginning of the War Tirpitz would control and shape the German Navy into what he believed was the best possible fighting force, given the limitations that he was working under. The limitations were imposed upon him from both an economic and political perspective. In both cases it basically came down to money, there was only so much that the German nation could spend on its navy and there was only so much that it was willing to. In retrospect, but perhaps not at the time, these efforts seem doomed to always be too small when faced with British naval superiority. The German Navy would never be able to match the ship building speed of the Royal Navy, even if it had the will to try the physical capacity of its shipyards would not allow it. The situation became much worse in the early 1900s when British relations with France and Russia began to improve, allowing the British to focus more of its naval strength against a possible German challenge. Add to this the technological lead that was held by the Royal Navy, exemplified by the Dreadnought, the Invincible, and the Queen Elizabeth class battleships that would launch just before the war, and the situation looks quite unfavorable for the Germans. This would forever be destined to play catchup, always reacting to British changes in construction and technology, never taking the lead themselves. The end result would be a navy that would simply be a smaller version of the Royal Navy and in the waters of the North Sea this would result in a war of inconclusive battles that always saw the German Fleet fleeing back to port after confronting larger British forces. Obviously that is not what the architects of the german Fleet wanted their policy to be, but before we get to discussions of the war we have to take the story back much closer to the start, with the state of the German navy before the Franco-Prussian War.

The German Navy, or as it was at the time the Prussian Navy was almost non-existent in 1850. The first permanent officer training school for naval officers would not be created until 1853 and then during the next two decades the navy would slowly expand. The first problem was acquiring ships, with most of the largest ships, mostly ironclads, used by the German Navy not actually built by German ports but instead acquired from the British. The second problem was finding enough men to man the ships that the Germans did have. A recurring problem for the German Navy throughout the last 50 years of the 1800s was simply finding enough men and officers that were willing to serve in the navy. The Navy would always, even at its height, play second fiddle to the Army, and so keeping a solid pipeline of officers and men would be a continual challenge. The place of the navy within the German armed forces would be questioned in the wake of the France-Prussian war. It would be in that war that the Prussian Army would march through Northern France, decisively defeating the French Army. At the same time that the Army was having these successes the Navy was…blockaded in port, unable to do anything against the French Navy which was the second largest in the world at the time. After the war the Navy would try to find a way to rehabilitate its image. While this would involve increased emphasis on shipbuilding efforts, the navy would not really be tested until the First World War. This meant that for the 40 years between the conflicts the most important leaders that molded German Naval policy had little real world experience. For the 25 years after the Franco-Prussian war these theorists would have to work within very specific goals of the German Navy. These goals were always defensive in nature, protecting Germany from invasion, from close blockades, or from coastal bombardment. However, in the late 1800s there would be a shift as many German leaders, influenced by foreign thought leaders like Mahan and others, started to believe that the German Navy should be used for imperialistic, and offensive, purposes. The German Naval leaders were as susceptible to influence by these imperialistic theories as any other naval leader all over the world, and it would eventually result in a change both in the goals for the German Navy as well as its role in German society.

Alfred Mahan would be a United States Naval Officer and historian and he was also one of the most influential people in maybe the history of naval warfare. His book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, originally published in 1890 would be at least part of the justification for every naval building program over the next 50 years. British, German, American, Japanese, Italian, and French leaders, just to name a few, would all refer back to Mahan either directly or indirectly as they tried to gain support for naval expansion and the importance of a strong navy for all world powers. At its core Mahan’s work used examples from throughout history, up to and including the Napoleonic Wars, to prove that the only way for nations to protect economic expansion and their position in the world, was to have a strong navy. This strong navy, Mahan believed had to be come in very specific forms, namely it had to be made up of the largest ships available at the time, and at the time of its writing that meant battleships. A thorough discussion of Mahan, and the problems with his theories, is beyond the scope of these episodes, however, given their influence on German and British naval leaders it its worth discussing them just briefly. One of the most important pieces of Naval Warfare, according to Mahan, was the great decisive battle. In this battle both sides would concentrate all of their strongest ships and they would meet at sea in a battle that would decide the fate of the conflict. He used examples that had occurred throughout history, culminating, of course, with the Battle of Trafalgar. However, by looking to the past Mahan did not properly account for the changes in technology that had occurred since the age of sail had passed. Never before had ships as well armored and well armed, or as expensive to create. Also, in the age of sail it was not always possible for a weaken enemy to run away from a stronger one, this was not a problem in the age of steam power. This would prove to be a decisive change in the structure of war at sea, and it made landing that decisive blow on the weaker navy almost impossible, if a fleet was at a disadvantage it would simply retreat as displayed during the First World War several times. The shortcomings of Mahan’s theories were not immediately apparent, and instead both the British and German fleets would prepare for what they believed would be a decisive battle, a confrontation that would never occur, although it would come close several times.

The overall importance of the Navy in Germany would not begin to truly rise until the end of the 1800s, but from an intellectual perspective it would begin in 1875 with the creation fo the Marine-Akademie which was created for the purpose of fostering advanced naval studies. This would bring together new generations of naval officers, who would go on to form the basis for German naval theory in the following decades. One of the benefits of the Navy being considered a far less important part of German society when compared to the Army is that the officers who would come through the academy were from a huge mix of backgrounds and they were entering into a service with almost no service memory or tradition preventing some of the issues that the British had in bringing their navies into line with new technologies when they arrived.

In 1882 a new head of the German Navy would arrive on the scene, General Caprivi. Caprivi came from an army background, and had basically no experience in naval affairs, and did not really show a huge amount of inclination to learn. For the next 6 years he would be the head of the Navy and during this time he would form some opinions that were not in line with some other German leaders. One of this beliefs was that Germany’s best path forward, given its relative newness to the naval game was to focus not on the large heavily armored and heavily armed ships that were seen as prestige items at the time. Instead he believed that it would be better to focus on smaller craft that utilized torpedoes as their primary weapon. This aligned nicely with Tirpitz’s views and experience at the time. Starting in 1887 Tirpitz would be put in charge of the Torpedo Section at the German Admiralty. During his time in the position he would be mostly focused on the tactical uses of the torpedo, but he would also play a role in the advancement of German torpedo technology and in the design of ships that would be built to deliver them. One fun little story that I think is interesting is that in 1888 Caprivi assigned some naval officers to answer 12 tactical questions about what they thought would happen in a fleet engagement of 12 German ships and an equal number of enemy ships. Tirpitz, never one to answer a question too briefly, would write 200 pages on the 12 questions before providing his answers back to Caprivi.

While Caprivi and Tirpitz were at this time firmly of the belief that smaller and cheaper ships were the best path forward this came into conflict with what the new Kaiser wanted out of his navy. Kaiser Wilhelm II would come to power in June 188 and he would bring with him some very specific ideas about what he wanted from his navy. Wilhelm wanted a navy to rival any other naval power, he wanted on that would be the showcase of German strength, and he wanted one that would allow Germany to be transformed into a global power which required that they be able to project power anywhere around the globe. These desires would come, and even he would admit this, from a desire to emulate what the British Empire had in the Royal Navy. This made him averse to Caprivi’s and Tirpitz’s ideas about smaller ships. Oddly enough he would also provide some resistance to Tirpitz’s later ideas on creating a large battleship heavy battle fleet in later years as well. Instead the Kaiser often wanted to focus most of Germany’s construction capacity on cruisers, which were at the time essential to controlling a world empire. Coal, and the difficulties of coaling at sea, made range incredibly important when it came to cruising around the world. Cruisers, designed specifically for their large cruising radius, were the perfect ship for the task. While his views would change several times over the 26 years before the First World War Wilhelm would constantly come back to wanting cruisers, and desire that would at times greatly annoy Tirpitz and the other naval leaders. In general their frustrations were mostly targeted at the fact that the Kaiser believed that he knew quite a bit about naval affairs, more than enough to believe that is own opinions were correct. This would be a problem for the naval leaders from time to time, but the German Navy, as it was constructed by Tirpitz and the admirals could not have happened without the support of the Kaiser, and while they at times disagreed on the exact types of expansion, Wilhelm would almost always support the expansion of his forces at sea.

That would be the situation when Tirpitz became the State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office. It was a fancy title that meant that he was, for all intents and purposes in charge of the German Navy, or at least he would be after a bit of political maneuvering. To take up the position he was recalled from his position as a member of the German Far East Squadron based in China. He would take up his position in June 1897 and with his arrival everything about the German and European naval landscape was about to change. Almost as soon as he took the position Tirpitz began to push for changes not just in the details but also in the very reason for the Imperial Navy’s existence. Before Tirpitz took control of the German Navy it had been primarily intended as a defensive force to ward off the possible aggression of Russia and France. Tirpitz wanted to transform it into an offensive force, and that meant adding the Royal Navy to the list of possible enemies.

These views were well known at the time, and Tirpitz did not surprise anybody when he announced them. For over a decade Tirpitz had been advocating for a German Navy that was greatly increased in size and one that was focused on one thing, mounting a strategic offensive that would force its enemies into one grand climactic battle. He would advocate for this not just as a way to win a war, if it should come, but also because he believed that it was essential if Germany wanted to achieve its economic and political goals even in times of peace. “If we intend to go out into the world and strengthen ourselves commercially by means of the sea, then if we do not provide ourselves simultaneously with a certain measure of sea power, we shall be erecting a perfectly hollow structure. When we go out into the world we shall run against interests everywhere that are either already established or to be developed in the future. How then does the most skillful policy think to attain anything without a real world power which corresponds to the many-sidedness of world policy.” Along with this desire to create sea power came a desire for a very specific type of fleet, not one for defensive purposes were torpedoes and smaller vessels may have been best, nor one focused on the colonies where cruisers were the best ships for the job. Instead Tirpitz wanted to build a battle fleet, made up of the strongest possible ships, battleships. It was only these types of ships that would be able to take the fight to Germany’s enemies. There was just one problem, there was a navy that already had battleships, a lot of battleships, and they were just across the North Sea. The dominance of the Royal Navy ini all things related to maritive power meant that Tirpitz had to have an explanation for how the Imperial German Navy related to the Royal Navy and he would come up with one that he called the Risk Theory.

To understand Tirpitz’s justification and reasoning for building up the German navy we have to talk about Risk Theory. The reality of the situation in the early 20th century was that no power could possible challenge the Royal Navy, at least in the short term, nobody could build ships fast enough. at the same time no nation could be totally secure in the maintenance of an overseas empire without at least reasonably good relations with the British, they simply controlled the seas and could close off any nation in the world in they wanted to. Tirpitz knew this, and he accepted it. He did believe that the Imperial Fleet had one major advantage over the Royal Navy. They were stretched out all over the world and for this reason Tirpitz believed that if the German fleet was built up it could defeat the British forces in the North Sea, and even if this was impossible, then it could be made strong enough to greatly damage the Royal Navy in a colossal battle that everybody planned on fighting in a war. This damage would be too great of a risk for the Royal Navy, a Navy with an entire world’s worth of commitments and responsibilities. Therefore, this risk, of a pyrrhic victory over the German fleet would mean that the British could not properly challenge the German Fleet. This would allow the Germans to in some way nudge British policy, and it would also make Germany a far more likely ally of the British Empire against continental powers since the British would want its naval power on their side instead of against them. Tirpitz would prove this explanation for his Risk Theory “In order to protect under the existing circumstances Germany’s world trade and colonies, there is only one means: Germany must possess a fleet so strong that a war, even for the strongest seapower, would contain so much danger that through such a war its own existence would be put into question. For this purpose it is not unconditionally necessary that the German battlefleet be as strong as that of the greatest seapower. Such a great seapower will in general not be in a position to concentrate its whole striking power against us. But even if it should succeed in meeting us with great superiority, the defeat of a strong German fleet would still so greatly weaken the opponent that in spite of the victory it achieved, then its own power position would no longer be succored by a sufficient fleet.”

One of the problems with the theory, or at least one of its known short comings was that it was unlikely that the construction of a German fleet would not cause a reaction from the British. This reaction could come in many forms, but the most disastrous for the Germans would be a pre-emptive strike by the Royal Navy. This could come in the form of a military strike with the goal of sinking the German ships or just a blockade of German ports to discourage further construction. Either case would likely end in disaster, and so Tirpitz believed that good relations with the British was essential during the period that he called the Danger Zone. The Danger Zone would be a period of years, lasting 5 or more, where the nascent construction program would not present a real challenge to the British militarily but the very fact that it existed would be a political challenge. It would also be at a point where the German Navy did not have enough ships to really protect itself from British aggression. There was really no good way around this problem, German shipyards could only build ships so quickly, and the British had a massive superiority at the start. What should have been foreseen, but was not properly accounted for, was that instead of launching military actions, the British simply increased their shipbuilding tempo. This caused the endpoint of the Danger Zone to continue to wander into the future, eventually disappearing entirely.

This is just one example of how the Risk Theory was very dependent on the diplomatic situation between the British Empire and German Empire. It was also dependent on the British diplomatic relations with other countries. At the turn of the century three of the largest navies in the world were the British, French, and Russians. At the time relations between the British and the other countries was not very cordial. The French were still seen as the traditional enemies of the Empire and the Russians were constantly at odds with the British in Asia. Because of this it seemed unlikely, from the German point of view, that the relations would change in the short term. This fact was built into the assumption about the Risk Theory because, due to Britain’s widespread empire, it had to maintain large naval forces all over the world to protect them. Gibraltar, Malta, and the Western Pacific all required strong naval forces, and there were many smaller ones in between. This was necessary due to the risk of war with France, Russia, or their colonies. This spread out the strength of the Royal Navy and reduced the number of ships that the Germans needed to have to challenge what was left in the North Sea.

As I have already alluded to there were some problems with the Risk Theory, some of which were only fully obvious in hindsight. The first problem was that it relied heavily on the diplomatic situation which forced the Royal Navy to spread their strength out all over the globe. If the diplomatic situation changed and relations between France and Britain improved or if alliances were made between the British and some other countries like the Japanese or if a new leader of the Royal Navy simply put more focus on maintaining a large home fleet many of the calculations of Risk Theory would go out the window. As it would happen, all three of the previous problems would actually occur, two out of the three of them in direct response to the German building program. That was really the core problem of the Risk Theory as it applied to the Naval situation in the North Sea in the early 20th century, it only worked under the assumption that the British either could not or would not appropriately respond. As would be made incredibly clear in the years that followed the British both could, and were very willing to, rise to the challenge presented by the German Navy construction program, kicking off a Naval Arms Race. Next episode we will dig into the specifics about the German expansion programs that were put in place in the late years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th.