50: Naval Arms Race Pt. 7


Fisher is replaced, the Agadir Crisis occurs, and the British realize that maybe they are not actually ready for war.


  • 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 50. After the implemenation of the 1908 Naval Law in Germany the Naval Arms race had begun. These were the two leading economies in Europe, engaging in a straight up head to head building content for battleships and battlecruisers. In this episode we will review the planned building tempo in Britain, and Germany’s reaction to it before discussing the removal of Fisher from the Admiralty. Fisher had just made too many enemies during his time as First Sea Lord, and he was already well past the normal age of retirement, this made his exit almist inevitable it was just a question of when. He would be suceeded by a series of First Sea Lords which would have to nevigate the Royal Navy through serveral political crises in the last years before the First World War. We will close out this episode by discussing the growing international support for some kind of arms limitation treaty, which would be sort of a precursor to the Naval treaties that would be negotiated during the interwar period.

Just as a reminder of what was happening in London. In early 1909, when news of the German plans to build 4 dreadnoughts in the next fiscal year became known, there were many who wanted to drastically increase the British building commitment. Instead of four, or six, the number started to be 8. This mindset, and the Navy Scare that caused it, was problematic because of the core election promises that the Liberal party had made was to reduce spending on armaments, not to double it. There was widespread support for these reductions, at least when the Liberal government came into power in 1908. The compromise that was put forward by Asquith was that four would be constructed in 1909, and then very early in 1910 four more would be added, if they were deemed necessary. These soon became necessary, but the reason for this had nothing to do with Germany. Instead it was the announcements in Italy and Austria that they planned to build 4 dreadnoughts each. 8 more dreadnoughts added to possibly enemy fleets in the Mediterranean was truly problematic for the Royal Navy. There were still many naval leaders in the Admiralty who believed that the Mediterranean was the most important area of operation for the Royal navy, and now there would be drastically more modern and powerful naval vessels to contend with. This removed any idea of not building the extra 4 ships, and so in 1909 the construction of 8 dreadnoughts would begin.

The German plan for building four ships for several years starting in 1909 was based on the idea that the British could not or would not match that number in the long term. The announcement of an 8 tempo for the year made it clear that they were determined to make a clear statement that the supremacy of the Royal navy, in capital ships, was a fact, regardless of what other countries decided to build. Tirpitz still believed that the British could not maintain a two power standard over the long term, and so he was betting on them slowing down. The problem for Tirpitz was that Germany’s own construction was scheduled to reduce down to a 2 tempo in 1911, which would be easy for the Briitsh to match and exceed. This would also be the period when Tirpitz and others in Germany began to seriously consider a possible future where an arms limitation treaty, or at least a self imposed construction limitation was put in place. At this point these discussions generally revolved around the German Navy accepting a 2-> 3 or a 3->4 ratio of Briitsh supremacy. The reasonsing that this was seen as sufficient was that the Briitsh had so many other commitments, like the Mediterranean they would be spread all over the world. When discussing the plans of the Germans to maybe work out a ratio of ships to build, or the British reacting to German building programs it is important to keep in mind that there was constant paranoia on both sides that the other country was building or preparing to build more than they were claiming publicly. It was very difficult to hide a ship that was building built, but the very noticeable and obvious part of the ship, the hull, was also not the part that took the longest. Instead the parts that took the longest were the guns, gun mountings, and some of the machinery all of which were far easier to hide. That meant that either side could be planning on an unannounced increase in building tempo, and they could have a stockpile of the most difficult pieces to manufacture to make it happen. This led to a bit of uncertaintly when trying to predict what the other side was going to do one year to the next.

When Fisher moved into the position of First Sea Lord and began to implement some of his reforms, there were always those who disagreed with his actions. The introduction of the Dreadnought was one of these reforms, that in hindsight is very easy to claim was necessary, but for many at the time it seemed like a needless action that squandered a Royal Navy advantage that had been built up over decades of pre-dreadnought construction. But the root of Fisher’s downfall would not be the Dreadnought, and it would instead by an inquiry into the admiralty prompted by none other than the Lord Beresford. Lord Beresford had been the Commander in Chief of the Home Fleet, and thought he was going to replace Fisher when he retired. But when this did not happen, and given the incredible rockiness of the relationship, Beresford went on the offensive very soon after he exited the navy officially, and his story was always the same. The redistribution of the forces by Fisher, which concentrated more power in home water, left the Empire vulnerable. Fisher was focusing too much on the big ships, and not enough on support ships like light cruisers and the destroyers. He also claimed that the Admiralty was simply not ready to go to war to protect the empire. In 1910 things would begin to be serious, on April 2nd, he wrote a detailed letter to the Prime Minister, stating that he would take his case public if the government did not do something to address his concerns.

Given this pressure, and concerns about a public argument reducing the prestige of the Navy, a new Sub-committee within the Committee of Imperial Defense was created to investigate the accusations. The committee would meet 15 times between April and July. During the very first meeting, Beresford would appear for questioning. According to many of the accounts of his discussions with the committee it quickly became clear that he could not really back up any of his accusations. It was also soon revealed that Beresford was receiving information, which should not have been shared with him, from sources in the Admiralty. During these meetings Fisher was not directly involved, and he only spoke to the committee when direct questions were asked of him. After all of the meetings the result was a statement by the committe that they did not feel that the arrangements made by the Admiralty had ever placed the Empire in any form of danger. The decisions made by the Admiralty were all very defensible, even if some people may not have agreed with them. The largest problem that was noted was that any situation where the Board of the Admiralty and the First Sea Lord, did not have a good relationship with the Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Fleet, which Beresford was, was not an agreement that was good for the Royal Navy. In one paragraph they would state “The Board of Admiralty do not appear to have taken Lord Charles Beresford suffi-ciently into their confidence as to the reasons for dispositions to which he took exception; and Lord Charles Beresford, on the other hand, appears to have failed to appreciate and carry out the spirit of the instructions of the Board, and to recognize their paramount authority.” This bit of the report is where Fisher drew issue, even though the entire report was without any further indictment of his actions. The report was generally considered a complete vindication of all of Fisher’s actions, but he still resented the fact that there was even the slightest shadow of doubt and that it was not a full throated support for everything he had done. This would be one of the causes for Fisher to discuss his resignation with Prime Minister Asquith and First Lord of the Admiralty McKenna. Arrangements were made and finalized on October 20th. The agreement was that Fisher would resign in November, and then he would be made a Baron. Fisher was hoping to be made into a Viscount, but he was not able to swing it, apparently after it was realized that not a single First Sea Lord in history had been given anything higher than a Barony. He would take the moto “Fear God and dread nought” on his coat of arms, which was and still is just fantastic. Fisher would depart after just 5 years as the First Sea Lord, and after having kicked off the most drastic changes in Naval construction since the end of the age of sail. He had also put in place important reforms that allowed the Royal Navy to make a shift into the next century. It was also maybe the right time for him to leave, Fisher had always been an abrasive individual, and over time that abrasiveness continued to build and build, this resulted in more resentment to Fisher within the leadership of the Royal Navy, even if most of it did not bubble out into the public like with Beresford. Fisher would not be gone very long, and he would be back at the Admiralty when the war started.

Fisher would be replaced by Sir Aurthur Wilson. Wilson was very close to the age of retirement for Admirals, but he was still brought in to replace Fisher by promoting him to Admiral of the Fleet which had a five year later retirement age. Wilson, well, he was not great at being First Sea Lord. To his credit even he knew that he had some deficencies where it mattered. During his time with the fleet he had actively avoided politicians, journalists, and all of the arguments that happened at the Admiralty, which made him almost unique acceptable to all parties. The problem was that even Wilson saw himself as a person who was far better as a commander afloat instead of working through the administrative tasks at the Admiralty. One of the largest problems in this regard was a failure to delegate, which when managing a fleet at sea could be functional, but in a position like the First Sea Lord where the work and decisions were endless, delegation was mandatory. Wilson would oversee the 1910 estimates, which were originally set at the number of four capital ships. This decision was made in November 1909, but just a month later the number would be increased to 6. One again the catalyst for this change was news from the Mediterranean where Austria had started 2 dreadnoughts. The move to six was accepted by the Liberals, but only with great reluctance as there was already the growing opinion that six would once again be required in 1911. This reluctance manifested in calls to begin some form of negotiations with Germany, something that would prevent the constant increases in naval construction. In July 1910 these negotiations would begin and they would continue, off and one, for almost two years and accomplish very little. The reason for this failure to come to an agreement mostly revolved around the refusal of the Germns to proactively reduce construction and the refusal of the British to enter into an agreement that traded their freedom of movement in a European conflict in exhcange for naval security. The negotiations were not assisted by the period of increased tensions which was kicked off by the Agadir Crisis in 1911.

The Agadir Crisis began with a revolt by the Sultan of Morroco against the French who controlled the region. This revolt would be partially precipiated by French actions over the previous years as they had tried to extend their power beyond the agreed upon limits in the treaty that had ended the First Morroccan Crisis in 1906. The French would then dispatch a military force to Fez in the hopes of putting down the revolt. This action was in itself a violation of the previously signed treaty, but probably would have have caused a huge problem with the other powers in Europe. In fact, this entire incident likely would have barely been worth of a footnote in history books except for the fact that a German ship appeared in Agadir. This ship was the German gunboat the SMS Panther, which had previously been on station in Southwest Africa and was on its way back to Germany. The decision had been made before it started its journey, and before the revolt in Morrocco became serious, that the Panther would stop in a Morroccan port on the way home, and in this case that port would be Agadir. The arrival of the ship did not please the French, and it caused great concern in London. The British had been, and always were, fearful of Germany establishing a large naval base outside of Germany or their far flung colonies. Any German Naval base anywhere in the world was an area that they could use to base commerce raiders out of, which in fact happened during the First World War. Agadir, if it became a German base, with its positioning on the Atlantic would have been perfect for this purpose. There was never any serious plans by the Germans to actually construct a permanent Naval Base in Agadir, but that did not really matter. Just the idea of such a threat caused great concern in London, which caused them, in retrospect to really overreact. In Berlin Tirpitz used this reaction to bolster support for another naval Novelle. The incident would eventually blow over entirely, with an agreement reached in October 1911 which did not make any serious changes to the situation either in North Africa or Europe.

The most important outcome of the Agadir Crisis, from the British perspective was that the nation did not appear to be as ready for war as previously thought. During the Agadir crisis there was real concern among many British leaders that war with Germany was eminent. Wislon saw no possibility of such a war occurring, and in fact at the height of the Crisis he had went off on a planned hunting trip to Scotland. When the British Cabinet enquired into the plan for the Royal Navy if a war were to start, they received the equivalent of a shrug. This caused great concern, and on August 23, Asquith called a secret meeting with the Committee of Imperial Defense. Representatives from the Army and Navy were also invited, with Sir William Nicholson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson, Director of Military Operations, and Sir Arthur Wilson, First Sea Lord all asked to present their plans in case of war with Germany. Sir Henry Wilson went first, presenting the Army’s plan of close cooperation with the French and for an Expeditionary Force to be sent to assist them. At this point these plans were very close to what would eventually happen in 1914. When the Navy’s plan was presented, it was a bit less impressive and coherent. Whereas Henry Wilson had presented details and very specific plans, the Navy had nothing but a vague outline. They knew that they wanted to start up a close blockade of Germany, believed that this would provoke the Germans into a large sea battle, which of course the British would win. When this was complete, and the German Fleet removed from the seas, the Navy then believed that the British Expeditionary Force, instead of going to France would instead be directed towards Heligoland. The Navy’s viewpoint was that the British Expeditionary Force was too small to get involved with the main fighting on the continent, and if it joined the French forces it would just get swallowed up by the German Army. Therefore it should be used in cooperation with the Navy to strike at places that only the Royal Navy could reach, perhaps the Baltic to threaten Berlin. These would all be huge operations, but the presentation made by Arthur Wilson at the meeting was very light on how the Royal Navy planned to actually make it happen. It also very quickly became clear that the Army plans and the plans of the Royal Navy were totally divergent, and if nothing else something had to be done to bring them to a unified strategy. Both sides did not want to give into the other’s plans.

Specifically the Royal Navy believed that the German Fleet had to be dealt with before the BEF was sent anywhere. This was a critical piece for discussion because the plans as designed by the Army had the BEF in France to meet the first German attack. Even if the heads of the Army and Royal Navy could not come to an agreement on even this first issue, the politicians present were more than willing to tip the scales. Arthur Wilson’s problem in this regard was that Henry Wilson had given a far better presentation of the Army’s Plan. Not only was their plan more detailed to begin with, Henry Wilson was just simply the better presenter. This meant that when the meeting ended, even though no official decision had been made between the two sets of military leaders, many of the members of the Committee were in favor of the Army’s plan. After the meeting was over the Secretary of State for War Haldane began to push for serious changes in the Admiralty. Up to this point the Navy did not have a War Staff, and instead the First Sea Lord like Fisher and Wilson had held complete control over the Royal Navy, with very little forced devolution of powers. In obht cases they wanted to keep that control themselves, it just so happened that while Fisher was the type of person that could make that arrangement work, Wilson was not. This meant that after the Agadir Crisis, Asquith was convinced by Haldane to force the Admiralty to create a War Staff, and both the First Sea Lord and the First Lord of the Admiralty would be replaced. This would be the point where Winston Churchill would get involved with the Admiralty, which is a story best left for next episode.

While the speed at which the German and British Navy’s were building capital ships had been increasing after 1905. Some leaders from around the world were beginning to push for some kind of international arms limitation agreement. These efforts were not wholely or even primarily focused on Naval armaments, but they were worth discussing now due to the groundwork that they would lay for later discussions that would be focused strictly on naval limitation. In April 1906, at the proposal of Russia, the Hague Peace Conference was reconvened. Initially there was an announcement made that there would not be any discussions of arms limitation at this conference. This announcement was made to secure support from all countries to attend, some of which probably would chosen to stay home if arms limitations were on the agenda. The British government, seeing an opportunity, joined the Italian and American leaders in calling for arms limitation to be added to the conference. Germany, Austria, France, and Russia all refused to discuss it, but this was still seen as a win by the British politicians, because they could claim that they had tried. Also in 1906 the American President Theodore Roosevelt began to openly discuss a battleship limitation plan. This plan was never taken seriously by the only powers that really mattered in this regard, Germany and Britain, but it is interesting to note because this proposal had all of the hallmarks of the interwar treaties, like tonnage limitations and armament size restrictions. Another Hague Conference was held in 1907, with the British still attempting to push for arms limitation, but the other powers studiously avoiding it. These discussions would be held before the 1908 Novelle, the point at which the naval arms race would escalate, and in fact it was the failure of the 1907 Hague Conference that caused the Germans to feel free to increase their building program, which the British would meet and exceed, kicking off all of the events that we have discussed over the last two episodes.