46: Naval Arms Race Pt. 3


During the 19th century the Royal Navy would struggle with its legacy and its position in the world. Without a true enemy to fight the question the service tried to find a purpose and a path forward.


  • 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 46. After looking at the German Navy for the past two episodes it is time to turn our eyes across the North Sea to the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy was THE Navy, the largest, most prestigious, and most powerful during the 19th century. They had cemented this position during the Napoleonic Wars, and that advantage had never really dissipated. For almost a century the British would be the undisputed rulers of the sea. It would only be in the closing decades of the 19th century that other nations, spurred by Mahan’s works on the importance of sea power, would begin to even consider seriously challenging British maritime control. The two largest threats would be Germany and America, but there would also be other countries that were instituting naval building problems including Japan, France, and Russia. These new challengers had no hope, at least in the short term, of matching the Royal Navy numerically, but they could challenge it qualitatively. We have already discussed some of the efforts made by the Germans in this regard, but other countries were doing it as well, if perhaps not quite as antagonistically. These new challenges meant that for the first time in almost a central the Royal Navy would be facing ships that were qualitatively equivalent, and so they needed to be on their game. In the 1880s the question became, could they be? There would be criticisms of the Navy at the time, and this criticism has only been agreed to by historians. A few of the charges leveled against the Navy was that it was stuck in the past, it had let standards slip, and they had sacrificed war fighting ability and competency to make sure it looked good on fleet reviews. There would also be many others. These charges is mostly what this episode will be about, discussing the Royal Navy and its evolution between Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar and the point in 1905 when Fisher would become First Lord of the Admiralty and institute wide ranging reforms. This episode today is about a Royal Navy that spent several generations totally unchallenged, which caused it to lose its competitive edge and caused it to lose its way.

The story of the Royal navy in the 19th century, of course, starts with Nelson, and his shadow and his victories would stand over the service until well after the First World War. A Spanish tactician would write during the Napoleonic Wars that the Royal Navy was so potent during this period because “An Englishman enters a naval action with the firm conviction that his duty is to hurt his enemies and help his friends without looking out for directions in the midst of the fight; and while he thus clears his mind of all subsidiary distractions, he rests in confidence on the certainty that his comrades, actuated by the same principles as himself, will be bound by the sacred and priceless law of mutual support. Accordingly, both he and all his fellows fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgement on the spur of the moment, and with the certainty that they will not be deserted.” In this quote he might as well have been describing Nelson himself, he was known for his spontaneity and it would be the key to several of his victories. Nelson built his fleet around the idea that once the fighting started, the ships would be at least on some level on their own. Therefore before the fighting began the officers on all of the ships needed to discuss and decide what the best course of action would be in certain situations. Then this would allow them all to come to roughly the same conclusions when the fighting had started. This setup was good in theory and in practice, especially given the communication restrictions at the time. It was also particularly effective during the Napoleonic Wars due to their length. By the time of Nelson’s great victory at Trafalgar the Royal Navy had been in a state of war with the French for almost a decade. This provided a level of experience in both the men and the officers that would not even be approached until the Second World War. This experience would be one of the factors that would lead the Royal Navy to victory, first at Trafalgar and then in the wars with France. When those wars were over, the Royal Navy was left without a major war to fight. Without new threats and new action the experience advantage would decay and then disappear, and the Navy was left with a legacy, and would live for the next century in the shadow of great victories. They would also spend the next century looking back, re-litigating Nelson’s decisions and actions, instead of looking forward.

After the final defeat of Napoleon, the French navy would still be the second largest in the world, until almost the end of the 19th century. There would be a few threats from the French and others as they introduced new building programs, but British dominance was never seriously threatened. During the major wars of the 19th century, the Crimean War, American Civil War, Austro-Italian War of 1866, just to name a few, there would be no major fleet actions. This would cause a serious problem for the Navy, how did it continue to justify its own expense? The seriousness of the question would ebb and flow based on economic circumstances, but it would always be present. The area hit hardest by these budgetary questions was always innovation and modernization. This meant that by the 1880s the Royal Navy was a hodgepodge of different ship types, built in different eras, with different capabilities. Almost all of the major technological leaps since the introduction of ironclads in the 1860s were still represented. Such rapid changes meant that many of the ships which were theoretically in a fleet together had vastly different abilities in terms of speed, endurance, and striking power. This made coherent fleet actions a challenge, but since they were never really needed it would never be a big enough problem that justified the money to resolve it.

I really like this little quote from The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command by Andrew Gordon and Paul Wilderson, the first half of which functions as a lengthy critique of the Royal Navy during the 19th century. “By the close of the Victorian age Britain’s officer classes were increasingly the inheritors, rather than the winners, of empire.” The officers of the Royal Navy, without a major threat to face, moved into a lengthy period of complacency, which was not at all assisted by the fact that officer training was, well pretty bad during this period. The ineffective training was then combined with an overall lack of encouragement for people to learn anything about tactics and strategy, and this meant that generations of officers were focused on everything except for making sure their ships could perform well in a combat situation. The Royal Navy would also strongly adhere to a seniority system, which would be a problem as the pace of technological change accelerated in the late 19th century.

This acceleration would begin in the 1860s when the Royal Navy began to transition to steam-powered ironclads. This gave naval ships a powerful new set of abilities, like complete freedom of movement, but it was also a change that was resisted by many. The number one reason that admirals resisted the change over to steam power is because it tied them to ports where they could reload on coal. This cut down on the endurance of the ships either in cruising or on station. This was a huge change from sail based propulsion, which, given a few extra ships able to bring food aboard, allowed for almost unlimited duration at sea. For a number of decades the sail and steam would coexist. It would be at this point that you see ships that are both steam powered and have sails at the same time. The theory was that this arrangement would provide better endurance, because the ship could use its sails when the when was available, saving the coal for when it was not. This worked for awhile, but as ships became heavier and heavier, and then they started to be fitted with twin screws for propulsion, the drag just became too much for the sails to really help all that much even under perfect conditions. It would not be until 1887 that the British would stop allowing sails on their battleships, and they would persist on smaller ships for several more years. Along with all of the tactical ramifications of ships no longer depending upon the wind, there were also changes aboard the ships. During the age of sail there had been any number of tasks that took constant time and work by the crews, mending and fixing of sails and ropes were some of this busy work. With the introduction of steam engines the number of these busy work tasks was greatly reduced and so the ship captains tried to find another way to keep the men busy. This often resulted in an almost obsessive desire to keep the ship clean. Cleaning, painting, and polishing all became incredibly important. In this constant battle to keep the ship clean the men were fighting the long defeat against the coal fired engines, whose thick clouds of smoke would foul everything, but the fighting continued. They would polish the entire ship, only to see it almost instantly soiled by smoke or just from the sea spray, and so they cleaning and polishing would begin again.

Another problem when it came to keeping the ship clean was gunnery practice. Gunnery practice was not only not pursued with vigor by many captains in the Royal navy, it was often actively avoided. There are accounts of captains throwing shells overboard to prevent having to complete the requisite amount of test firing, while still being able to claim that the shells were used. The core of the problem was that the captain’s felt required, due to how ships were judged, to repaint their ships after large scale firing exercises, but these repaints often had to be paid for by the officers themselves. The Royal Navy did pay for three repaints a year, but those were often used in scheduled repaints, those from firing exercises were more frequent. With each repaint costing over 10,000 pounds for larger ships there was a real economic incentive for the officers to avoid firing the guns as much as possible. I do just want to make it clear here that, while I am certainly criticizing the officers for prioritizing painting, my greater criticism is reserved for the Royal Navy itself. These captains were being judged, both by their superiors and by the service as a whole, based on the cleanliness of their ships. Officers, or even just people, who are being judged will often change their actions to fit however they are being judged. If they are being judged based on how clean their ships are, and they can find a way to forego gunnery practice to keep the ship clean, then they will. If nothing else it shows that they were good at optimizing. Another fact that I found interesting about this gunnery practice is that even in the 1880s, it was very different than what would happen during the First World War. While the guns onboard ships in the 1880s had a range of several thousand meters, in a time before any form of fire control it was impossible to hit anything at such a distance and so the maximum effective engagement ranges was only somewhere around 1,000 meters. This was not much different than during Nelson’s time, but it would drastically change during the First World War, and at Jutland the ships would engage at over 17,000 meters. This massive increase in engagement ranges would be yet another factor that the Royal Navy would have to find a way to adapt to.

While the emphasis on keeping a clean ship would be one feature of the post-Napoleonic Royal navy, the larger and more pervasive emphasis was on increasing the amount of control that could be exercised both on the fleet as a whole but also upon individual ships. When looking back at the great victories over the Napoleonic fleets the British leaders of the Victorian age drew the less that the triumphs were due to the brilliance of a leader and superb execution by his subordinates. This was true, but not quite in the way that they expected. They generally believed that naval warfare could be perfected, that it could be perfectly directed and controlled by a central leader and through this control success would be guaranteed. The fact that this was completely against what Nelson believed, he being an officer that famously rebelled against orders several times, was beside the point. They chose the pieces of the legend that supported their case. This new tendency came not only from senior officers, but also from the political leaders in London. A major milestone in political control of the Navy would occur with the passage of the Military Discipline Act in 1864. This put limits on the ability of ship captain’s to discipline the sailors aboard their vessels. It would also be just one of many forms of control exercised by the leaders in London. These forms of control often came in the form of, well, forms, paperwork. Adding many levels of paperwork was seen as a way to control both the actions of the leaders at sea and in port. This came in many forms, with even simple things like requisition forms seen as a good way of keeping the power of captain, the navy, and the naval budget in check.

Into this well-entrenched tradition of control entered Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon. In 1891 Tryon would go to Malta to take command of the Mediterranean Fleet. At this point in history the Mediterranean Fleet was the senior most position in the senior most command in the Royal navy, this was a time before the creation of the clearly primary Home Fleet in the years before World War 1. Such a prestigious command being taken up by Tryon was important because Tryon was a reformer. Tryon would be deeply critical of the Royal Navy’s reliance on signaling. In the preceding decades there had been a growing movement towards exercising precise control of all of the ships in a fleet from the flagship. At the same time the only method of doing these communications were signal flags. This worked really well while the fleet was on maneuvers, the ships all knew to look to the flagship, they could generally see the signal, and there was no enemy to interfere with their receipt or execution. Tryon’s core concern was that these conditions were not indicative of what would be found during a combat situation. He would raise simple questions like “what happens if the flagships signal hoists are destroyed?” but also more important questions like “what if the admiral in charge does not have all available information?”

Tryon’s great disdain was leveled at the Signaling Book, which was a published list of signals from the admiralty that seemed to constantly be growing. It allowed for the precise movements of the fleet to be dictated from a central authority. These kinds of orders and their execution were known as steam tactics, and they were made possible due to the switch to steam powered ships. In the age of sail, precise movements were not always possible due to the vagaries of the wind, a problem that was no longer a concern in the age of self-propulsion. If an Admiral wanted Ship A to turn precisely 3 degrees to port and proceed at 5 knowns, while Ship B turned 12 degrees starboard and set speed at 12 knots, while Ship C did something different, etc. etc. all of that could absolutely happen. As long as the signalers did not collapse in exhaustion and they were given sufficient time, these kinds of insanely detailed orders could be given. If a specific type of maneuver was done frequently it was then codified in the signaling book, which by 1874 was 300 pages in length. Much like the cult of clean, the cult of precise manuever became not just an ability that was expected from captains, it became the most important showcase of a captain’s abilities. Specific orders and specific movements came to no longer be seen just as something done during exercises, but the only way that actions should be executed. As the combat experience of the Royal Navy began to approach 0 in the late 1800s, it also would become the only way that the fleet could execute fleet actions. In 1886 the Admiralty began a new revision of the Signal Book, when the draft was completed it had to be printed in 2 volumes, and had a combined length of 500 pages.

When he took command of the Mediterranean Fleet Tryon did not really question that the Signaling Book was needed, ships did need to know how to communicate with one another. His core complaint was that it was almost entirely useless in a combat situation. It would just take too long and was far too vulnerable to changes in visibility or enemy actions to be at all useful in the presence of enemy ships. He would write his opinion of the signal book, and how he planned to improve upon it like this “I regard the mass of these books as barrack-yard, goose-step, parade-drill books, most necessary and important as preliminaries leading up to other things – they teach principles necessary in manoeuvring, how ships can in very close order be safely manoeuvred, they inspire confidence to those not accustomed to ride fresh horses in company. Once outside the barrack-yard we come face to face with an opponent whose views may or may not be the same as our own custom; we should be in a position to take initiative and to force his hands, & the admiral who has his fleet best in hand & most mobile will have a great pull. In action the drill book should be put to one side & sat on. The compass only in use for navigation purposes.I don’t say it is perfect, nothing is, but I am convinced it is a step in the right direction. I don’t think men should be set to construct Signal Books or to formulate systems of manoeuvre without they are acquainted with what is wanted. We want Signal Books to give us what we want, we do not want to be dragooned by Signal Books.” This system of trying to reintroduce a captain’s initiative to fleet actions would be called the TA System. This was derived from the signal for TA that Tryon would hoist on his ship to let the others know that the fleet was moving from the detailed order mode to a far less detailed one.

While the fleet was in TA mode, the captains had to be a bit more observant of the situation around them, but they could still expect some orders from the flagship, just not orders that told them precisely what to do. There , for example, 8 one flag signals created for simple but frequent fleet actions like moving from abreast to in line left and right. It was expected that such a simple signal was all that would be required for a captain to judge his environment and take the proper actions. A good example of how this changed the course of communications was an exercise done shortly after the TA system was introduced. During this test the 1st Division of the Fleet was put through a series of 13 turns and formation changes, to do these movements by the signals book would have required 35 flags by the flagship, 93 flags from the surrounding ships to repeat it, and then 74 to answer it. Under the new TA rules it was done with 10 total flags, 10 instead of 202. Now this was not a completely fair test, as the movements had specifically chosen due to the ease of signaling in TA but that was also the point, to take some of the most essential movements that were expected in combat and distill them down to be as simple as possible.

Throughout 1892 the fleet would train under the TA system, and they got better. Experience was key in the TA system because it put so much power back in the hands of the individual captains. Instead of just following orders they now had to be in constant vigilance of their surroundings, and they were no more responsible for the safety of their ship. To go along with this new responsibility they were also given a much broader power to make more decisions themselves. This would prove to be too much for some officers who had spent their entire career under the old system. There would also be some officers who were fully in support of these changes, and others that only went along with them due to the fact that they were orders from a superior officer. Unfortunately for the future of the TA system, and decentralized command as a whole in the Royal Navy, in 1893, just as the fleet was reaching new levels of ability under the TA, a mistake would be made, a really really big mistake that would erase much of the forward progress made by Tryon, and it would also cost him his life.

The Mediterranean Fleet would leave its home of Valletta in Malta on May 27th, 1893 and for almost a month it would perform maneuvers. On June 22nd Vice-Admiral Tryon would have the ships arrayed in 2 columns, columns that were sailing 6 cables apart, a cable being about 1 tenth of a mile, so they were sailing about 6/10th of the mile apart, which is also roughly one kilometer. Tyron would give orders for the two columns to execute a simultaneous inward turn, this would bring them together, sailing the opposite direction but much closer together. The two officers who received the order brought up one small little problem, the two lines of ships required 7.5 cables in distance to execute this turn without colliding, but they were only 6 apart. Tryon confirmed the order and so it was sent. The outcome was inevitable, when the two lines of ships turned, the lead ship of the second column collided with the HMS Victoria, Tryon’s flagship. It was quickly clear that the Victoria was going to sink, and actions were taken to abandon ship. Unfortunately out of a crew of around 600 over 350 men would not be rescued. Among those were Tryon himself, one of the very few British admirals to go down with his ship on a training exercise. On June 23rd news would arrive in London that the collision had occurred, that hundreds were dead, and the Victoria had sunk.

The reaction to this news was shock. A court martial was setup in Malta for Victoria’s officers for the loss of their ship, and also to determine what had happened. One interesting feature of this new court martial was that it was well reported on in the press due to the ability of the people on the scene to telegraph information back to London. There were a few things that became very clear almost immediately, Tryon had miscalculated and it was his fault that the ships collided. Rear-Admiral Markham, who had been in command of the ship that had hit Victoria should not be blamed as it would be harmful to the future of the Royal Navy to blame an officer for carrying out the orders of his superior. Along with this official verdict, there were also other changes that were made by those that would succeed Tryon. Vice-Admiral Culme-Seymour would arrive to take command of the Mediterranean Fleet, and he would exercise a far more conservative command style with the fleet reverting back to sole use of the Signal Book. It is clear that this was motivated by those that disliked Tryon’s reformist nature because when the Victoria had been hit the fleet had not been sailing under TA rules, if it had been the collision may not have happened at all. This little detail did not really matter though, and with Tryon out of the way the other senior leader in the Navy sought to remove the TA system from the practices of the Navy. However, the ideas of Tryon would live on and the conflict between those who believed in a more fluid type of command and those who wanted to continue issuing specific orders would go on to play a crucial role over the next several decades, most famously at the Battle of Jutland. At the battle Jellicoe would represent the more conservative style of command, very precise orders, very precise control. On the other hand would be Admiral Beatty who generally just expected his captains to react to whatever he was doing, and to use their judgement when doing so. The difference in these command styles, and the unfortunate position of the 5th Battle Squadron and Rear-Admiral Sir Evan Thomas, would be much discussed in the months after Jutland.

That was all in the future though, and in the late 1890s the Royal Navy, even if its confidence was slightly shaken by the Victoria incident, was still the greatest Navy in the world. It outnumbered the next 5 navies combined, it held a lead in technology and ship building, but all of that was about to change and the Royal Navy woul dhave to change with it. To make these changes, and to lead a revolution in naval technology, would require a new leader and that leader would come in the form of Admiral Sir Jackie Fisher. Fisher would become First Lord of the Admiralty in 1905, and he would completely aflter the makeup of the Royal Navy, and the history of Naval warfare in just a few years. That will be our story for next episode.