45: Naval Arms Race Pt. 2



  • 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 45. In this episode we continue to track the creation of the Imperial German navy. Last episode we discussed the very beginnings of the German Navy, and then the arrival of Tirpitz as a leading figure in its further development. We then ended with a brief discussion of Tirpitz’s risk theory. This episode will be about Tirpitz trying to put that theory into practice, which means a brief review of what the theory was is in order. The Risk theory was based around the idea that the Royal Navy, with all of its global commitments, could not risk a conflict with a large naval power in Europe. All that a European navy had to do was be large enough to present the risk of a large loss of British ships, and if it could do so then the British would not, and could not, risk getting into a naval conflict with that navy. Tirpitz’s goal was to build up the Imperial Navy to a point of strength where it could present this risk. To do so meant that Germany had to start building ships, a lot of ships, which meant that Tirpitz had to get political and public support for an expensive naval building program.

While Tirpitz was good at many things, when it came to detailed financial and political planning Tirpitz was not the strongest. He knew what he wanted, and he could justify those beliefs, but he had little experience in the public arena of taking those believes and turning them into policy. Due to this inexperience it was fortunate for the German Navy that in 1897 he would meet Commander Eduard von Capelle. Capelle would prove to fill in some of the holes that Tirpitz had, like fiscal policy. The two would work together for the next 17 years, all the way until Capelle retired in 1915. Their relationship would be perfectly described by German Admiral von Trotha who would say “[Capelle] was at that time, because of his personality, a good moderating counterweight to the more free-wheeling Tirpitz. He would listen quietly to Tirpitz’s hard-driving plans without much response. Then, a few days later, he presented in a thoughtful and tactful way the difficulties, financial, and, above all, parliamentary, which the plans would meet. In the ensuing conversations, Tirpitz would then formulate the right policy.” Capelle’s role in determining the best path forward was critical, because to build a large navy meant that Tirpitz needed public and political support, and he would need an almost endless supply of it.

It would begin with the people. In June 1898 the German Navy League was created with the purpose of building up its membership and convincing the German people that a large navy was not only a good thing, but was actually essential for the future success of Germany as a nation. The League found financial backing from industrialists, who stood to gain the most from the large naval construction contracts. These industrialists would always be strong and consistent supports of Tirpitz’s naval plans. They knew that if the Germans wanted to build a fleet, a large one made up of the largest ships, then they would have to both sign large contracts with the industrialists, but they would also have to finance innovations and improvements to the factories and shipyards, which the manufacturers could then use for even larger contracts. It was really the perfect storm of positive changes for all of the heavy industries in Germany. Fritz Krupp would be one of the largest contributors to the German Navy League and it was through the financial backing from industry that the League of reach a membership of 600,000 just three years after it had been created. While the league was technically independent of the German government and the Navy, it would still behave as a propaganda arm for Tirpitz and his plans. There was also an official propaganda group within the service, called the Section for News and General Parliamentary Affairs. While the name would obfuscate its purpose a bit, the Section was created to launch a propaganda campaign targeting the German people. As much of a role as he would have in the future development of the German Navy perhaps Tirpitz’s greatest success was convincing them that they needed one at all. The country had for all of its recent history focused solely on its army and the conflict that was destined to happen on land. In his first years as the head of the German Navy Tirpitz managed to convince enough citizens of Germany that they needed a large navy, and those citzens began to put pressure on the politicians in the Reichstag to make it happen.

Beyond the relatively straight forward goal of building a large number of warships Tirpitz also ahd other objectives that he hoped to achieve that would help the German Navy sustain its growth and power. The Army would always be the most important arm of the German military, and in the days of Bismarck its funding structure had been changed to try and give it more autonomy and security. In 1893 the funding model for the Army had been changed, instead of having to request and justify funds every year it was instead budgeted five years at a time. This presented a kind of stability that Tirpitz hoped to achieve. He believed that it was essential for long term planning so that he did not have to constantly adjust Naval plans based on the whims of the politicians in Berlin. This long term planning was important based on the speed at which Germany could build warships. They would not be able to produce more than a few ships a year, at least initially, and so any large expansion of the German fleet would be measures not just in years but also decades. The one problem that Tirpitz would have with these long term funding lock-ins, which he would achieve in some ways, was that he was not prepared for the rapid increase in naval costs. The long term funding of the army worked out okay because the army’s costs were very well known, there was some expansion and technology enhancements, but the costs of these were generally quite small. This was the complete opposite of what would happen for the Navy, where the costs of ships would skyrocket in the 20 years before the First World War.

Tirpitz’s initial plan would actually call for a building program which would last a decade, with the goal of having a two squadron battlefleet at the end of the program. This would give Germany a total of 19 battleships, with 1 fleet flagship, 2 squadrons of 8 battleships, and 2 battleships in reserve. While this was the goal, Tirpitz would not draft the first naval law in a way that committed Germany to it, instead he just asked for a commitment to build 11 battleships over the span of 7 years. This would result in a building tempo of 2,2,1,2,1,1,2 with that number of ships launched each year. This would give the Germany Navy 11 battleships at or near completion in 1905. This initial set of ships, which would eventually comprise the 1898 Naval Law, would cost an estimated 410 million marks. Even this very large budget was only achieved by certain economies being introduced. For example the number of German sailors brought into the navy was actually decreased for many of those construction years, roughly cut by a third, to reduce salary, training, and supply costs. More pertinent to our story, the battleships that were being built were just 11,000 tons. This was certainly large by any normal standards, but by the standards of other navies being built around the world they were quite small. This would be the first instance where Tirpitz would prioritize the number of ships and not the quality of ships, it would not be the last. With the large cost of the construction program Tirpitz was forced to give assurances that naval technology was leveling off. This would give the German ships a longer effective lifespan. It would also make the large costs more, worthwhile. I am not sure that Tirpitz actually believed this, and of course we know today that it could not have been durther from the truth, even the pre-Dreadnought years of the 20th century.

One of the problems that Tirptiz would have over the coming years was the odd setup of the German Tax System. Before the First World War, and really until the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, the German constituent states had a large amount of autonomy within the country. For our purposes the most important feature of this autonomy was around the tax system and how the federal government and the Reichstag obtained money. At this time the Army was not a German Army, but instead was several armies that were controlled by the German constituent states. The Navy on the other hand was truly a national Navy, and that meant it got its funding not from the states but from the Reichstag. This was problematic because the taxing ability of the Reichstag had been intentionally reduced by Bismarck. Bismarck was concerned that the Reichstag would be damaging to the states and the elites within those states that largely controlled the state governments. Therefore he limited the federal income of Germany to be only tariffs, postal and telegraph services, and consumption taxes on items like alcohol and tobacco. Critically missing from that list is direct taxation. As the years went by even these taxes started to bring in far more money that expected, especially tariffs, and so a further change was made, which would be known as the Frankenstein Clause. This was a law passed by the Reichstag whereby any federal income over 130 million would be sent to the states. Then the Reich government could request some of it to be returned, which was then called matricular contributions. With an annual cost of 56 million the 1898 Naval Bill was heavily dependent on the matricular contributions for its funding and this dependence would grow substantially as the total cost of the German naval program skyrocketed. This put Tirpitz in a rather unfavorable position, the best way for him to get the money that he needed for his construction programs was to allow the Reich to levy direct taxes, which the states would simply not allow. And so, the Naval Bills would have to constantly play a balancing game between what they wanted to request in terms of budget, and what w as possible. This was force the German navay to be fiscally conservative, which would for many years result in the construction of ships that were strictly inferior to those of other countries, especially when compared to those of the Royal Navy.

Almost as soon as the 1898 Naval Law came into effect discussions would begin about alterations and expansions to its existing clauses. This would be called a Novelle, which is just German for amendment. We are going to be using that word a lot in the coming episodes, because the history of German Navy policy during these years is just a long series of Novelles as the size and cost of Germany’s fleet continues to increase. For the first Novelle Tirpitz was hesitant. The alterations would allow for a much larger fleet to be created, expansion that was necessary due to the construction policies in Britian. However, Tirpitz’s hesitancy meant that there would be some self-imposed financial limitations. The concern was that if he asked for too much the request would be rejected, which would undo much of the previous work done in 1898. Not for the last time, in his quest for Novelles and expansion, Tirpitz was aided by the actions of the Royal Navy. In 1899 the Brtish were deep in the Boer War, and as part of that conflict they had blockaded Delagoa Bay in South Africa. This action was done to prevent the Boers from receiving supplies from other European countries, including the Germans. As part of this blockade the Royal navy seized three German ships, which were on their way to South Africa. Two of these ships were searched and then released, however one of the ships would be held, with accusations that it was carrying contraband. This would bring the Bundeswrath Affair, with Bundesrath being the name of the ship. Even though Lord Salisbury would eventually order the ship’s release, offered compensation, and issued an official apology, the damage in terms of German public opinion had already been done. This event was a perfect time for Tirpitz. He was about to ask the German people to support further expansion of the navy, and the British ahd just given him the perfect example of why Germany needed a stronger navy if it wanted to be taken seriously around the world.

The final draft of what would become the 1900 Naval Law would basically double what the building goals of the Imperial Fleet had been. There would be another fleet flagship, two additional squadrons of 8 battleships each, and then 2 in reserve. There would also be a doubling of the number of cruisers and destroyers. This would cost a total of 1.3 billion marks, or about 81.6 million per year. That was just the cost of the new construction, and did not take into account all of the costs associated with the expanded navy. These costs included maintenance of the ships, the manning and training of the crews, and also the improvement to docks, harbors, and construction facilities that were required. When the cost of these items were added to the 1.3 billion construction costs the total would be a 3.7 billion dollar increase in expected expenditures. This was large, but would be spread out over several years and even those it was large, the passage of the amendment was never seriously in doubt. It would not have been submitted if passage was not assured. It would reach the Budget Committee, which after some discussions decided to enact a tariff on wine, brandy, and champagne to help defray the costs. The one meaningful change requested by the Reichstag was that instead of being just an amendment to the 1898 Law the previous one should just be repealed, due to some of the details and complications that had been included in the earlier legislation.

The 1900 Nval Law would prove to be the longest standing of all of the Naval Laws passed by the Reichstag before the war. For the following 6 years Tirpitz would attempt to obey its constraints, which were primarily of the financial variety, even though the cost of construction continued to increase. He believed that this was important so that the Naval Program was not questioned on an annual basis. He had to go back to the Reichstag every year to get the next year’s budget approved, but as long as he stayed within the general confines of the 1900 estimates this was an easy process. His concern was that if he went much larger than the budgets previously allotted to the navy then the political leaders might begin to question the program as a whole, which could be very problematic for the future of the navy. Tirpitz understood that he could only achieve his goals if he maintained the support of the political leaders and so in these early years of construction he spent much of his time and energy trying to stay on their positive side. However, events in Britain would eventually force his hands, and another novelle would be put in place in 1906, conversations for which would begin in 1901.

These conversations began because of the construction tempo that was in the 1900 law. Under the 1900 construction program there would be a three tempo for battleship construction, so three would be laid down every year until 1906. In that year the tempo would drop down to 2. Capelle initially suggested that a novelle be made that would add 5 additional battleships and 4 additional cruisers, these 5 battleships would be added to the years after 1906, which would extend the 3 tempo all the way to 1911. These would then be earmarked for service overseas, with the German colonies. However, Tirpitz remained hesitant to introduce these changes. Other changes would begin to be discussed in 1904, these being prompted by the Kaiser. After returning from some of his travels around Europe the Kaiser wanted to increase the tempo at which construction was occurring. Instead of a 2 tempo, he wanted a four tempo which would last from 1906 to 1909. This would allow for the completion of another squadron of battleships much sooner. Along with this increased tempo the battleship lifespan would be decreased to 20 years, which would require a faster tempo in the future to keep numbers up, but would result in a newer navy in the coming decades. Another problem that the next novelle would seek to address was the increasing costs of ship construction. As ships got more and more powerful they were also becoming increasingly more expensive. In 1900 the cost of each battleship was set at just 18 million marks, the novelle sought to increase this to 20 million. Quite an increase, but one required due to the changes in ship construction costs. The Kaiser actually wanted an even greater expansion, and in this case Tirpitz would be the voice of reason, talking the Kaiser down from his massively increased tempo and even the idea of adding a third double squadron of battleships. Events would eventually force a 1906 novelle, although it would be very different than what was expected in even 1904.

The German building program would force a reaction from the British, a reaction we will discuss in much greater detail in the next two episodes. However, it is important to consider what the Germans believed about the British position, and especially its diplomatic situation with other countries. Core to the German belief in 1900 was that the British and French would never be able to fully resolve their differences and work together. This was critical to the German Navy because the French were the second largest navy in the world in 1900 and if they were possible enemies for the British then a large portion of the Royal Navy’s thinking and resources had to be dedicated to the threat. However, in 1904 the British and French would sign an official agreement of understanding that seemed to turn the long-term rivals into something very close to friends. This allowed the Royal Navy to focus more of its strength against other possible enemies. This would completely wreck Tirpitz’s Risk Theory calculations, and it would cause the danger zone, during which the German Navy was not strong enough to present enough of a risk to the British but were large enough to be a concern, far into the future.

Before we end this episode I want to spend a bit of time discussing the ships that were being built under the 1898 and 19000 Naval Laws. I think it is important to discuss these now because they are kind of forgotten in history. While they were top of the line ships at the time, they would quickly be made obsolete by the Dreadnought and future ships of that type, and none of them would see action during the First World War. The important part to understand is that in the late 1890s the idea of what a battleship was and should be had in many ways settled down to the definition that it would be until 1906. This was a big change from the 1880s and before, during which there was a lot of ambiguity around what the battleship was. There were many problems involved with gunnery, and specifically making guns large enough and accurate enough to handle the amount of armor that was being placed onboard ships. This resulted in several ship generations where there was a belief that ramming might actually be the best method for ships to use in combat. This sounds completely absurd to us today, but during the time period the engagement ranges possible by naval guns was generally less than 800 meters. It would only be during the 1890s that the distances would really begin to stretch out. Even as gunnery became a greater emphasis it would take several years before ships began to mount a large number of large guns. The first four ships that the Germans would build after 1898 were the Wittelsbach class, These would mount just 4 24 cm, or 10 inch, guns, although they would have a large number of smaller calibers. At the same time the British were only using 28 cm, or around 11 inch guns, on their ships. This disadvantage in caliber would never really go away. By the time that the Branschweig class was laid down in 1902, with 28 cm guns, the British were already onto 30.5 cm. The last German pre-dreadnoughts, which would be the ill-times Deustchland class, would have the same 28cm guns, while the British would stick with their 30.5cm on their similarly timed Lord Nelsons. There was a good amount of controversy in Germany due to concerns that the Germans were wasting their time and money building ships that were inferior to their British counterparts. This would lead to the question of why both building them if they were inferior. This was Tirpitz’s greatest fear, and he would fight against that mindset throughout the entire expansion period.

Next episode we are going to focus on the British side of the Naval War, and so I cannot go into those topics without touching on the most famous German maritime weapon of the First World War, the submarine. Early in Tirpitz’s building plans, submarines played essentially no role. They were still very new technology at the time, and Tirpitz did not believe that they were worth the time, material, and money to build. He greatest concern was the short range of the early submarines, he would later say that “I refused to throw money away on submarines so long as they could only cruise in home waters, and therefore be no use to us.” In essence Tirpitz was taking the sure path to power, big ships and big guns, even though there was another navy that already had a monopoly on the space, the Royal Navy. We will discuss the Royal Navy next episode, and try to determine why, at the turn of the century the Royal Navy was looking, well, not so great.