53: Naval Arms Race Pt. 10


In the final episode discussing the naval situation before we the First World War we end up with something of a grab bag of topics the status of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, the 1914/1915 Royal Navy estimates, and the German plans for the war.

This is the last episode in this series, I hope you have enjoyed it. When I first started researching for it I thought it would only be 4-5 episodes, and it turned into almost double that.


  • 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 53, This is the last episode on our series on the Naval Arms Race and the last episode that will be under the History of the Great War benner. Today our discussion will be broken up into three different sections, during the first we will discuss the British position in the Mediterranean, and the agreements that the British would reach with the French in the years immediately prior to the First World War. Then we will discuss the naval estimates immediately before the war, which were for the 1914/1915 fiscal year for the British Empire. These estimates would not be fully implemented before the war started in the summer of 1914 but some of the discussions that would lead to their acceptance would have important ramifications for the Royal Navy when the war began. The third part of this episode will be a discussion about what the Germans planned to do when the war started. They had spent a decade pouring an enormous amount of money into the German navy to prepare them for a war with the Royal Navy, and now that the war was going to start we need to look at what all of that money had bought them both from a ship perspective and in their strategic position, and then what they planned to do with their shiny ships.

The problem of what to do about the Mediterranean would vex the British government in the years leading up to both world wars. There was no denying that the sea was a critical link in the British Imperial chain, but with the increasing size of rival navies it was becoming more and more challenging to project enough strength into the theatre to secure it. In 1913 it was learned that the Italians were building 4 new capital ships, and this would mean that by the end of 1915 there would be 14 dreadnoughts between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian navies. This just made a deteriorating situation worse, and even before they learned about this new construction the Royal navy already felt that it was stretched quite thin. In May 1912 Churchill would write to Lord Haldane and say “We cannot possibly hold the Mediterranean or guarantee any of our interests there until we have obtained a decision in the North Sea.… It would be very foolish to lose England in safeguarding Egypt. If we win the big battle in the decisive theatre, we can put everything else straight afterwards. If we lose it, there will not be any afterwards.” This was precisely the problem that Tirpitz had been counting on when he first started building the German fleet, the British had obligations all over the world including in the Mediterranean, but they were not compelled to keep a large homefleet to guard against German aggression. With Germany projecting to have around 25 dreadnoughts in 1913 the Royal Navy felt obliged to keep almost all of its own, 41, in Home waters to provide the Home Fleet with a comfortable numeric superiority. Given these needs the Admiralty would tlel the government that in the event of war with Germany and either Italy or Austria-Hungary the Navy may not be able to guarantee the safety of British ships in the Mediterranean. It proposed three options, work more closely with the French, begin an even larger naval construction program, or do nothing and hope things worked out.

This problem, and the anxiety over finding a solution would lead to a meeting between Asquith, Churchill, Kitchener and various advisers at Malta, which was the base of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. Their goal was to determine what the Navy’s plan should be in the theater and how it could be balanced against concerns both at home and around the world. After several days of discussions they came to ana greement that there would only need to be a few battlecruisers permanently stationed in the Mediterranean. However, no permanent decision was made until the Committee of Imperial Defense evaluated the subject. The conclusion of the committee was ‘There must always be provided a reasonable margin of superior strength ready and available in Home waters. This is the first requirement. Subject to this we ought to maintain, available for Mediterranean purposes and based on a Malta port, a battle fleet equal to a one-power Mediterranean standard, excluding France.’ This meant that the Navy would have to maintain a set of battleships in the Mediterranean. The idea of keeping just a fleet large enough to meet Italian or Austro-Hungarian navies was based on the fact that the relations with both countries were quite good, and the two countries were far more antagonistic toward each other than toward Britain, even if they were technically allies.

This is right around the time that the French discussions began. The French had six pre-dreadnought ships that they kept at Brest as part of the French Atlantic Fleet. These would theoretically guard the French Atlantic and Channel coasts, but they were completely outclassed by the ships of the German High Seas Fleet. This resulted in the French announcing, in September 1912, that those ships would be moved to the Mediterranean. This opened up the French coasts in the north to an attack but it was seen as unavoidable. The French thinking ran like like: they did not have a large enough navy to be strong everywhere, they simply did not have that much money to spend on a navy given the more important risk from the German Army. Because of this it would be better to be strong somewhere, and strong where their ships could do the most good and protect their links to their African colonies in Africa. By moving the ships to the Mediterranean, they were trusting the British that they would be able and willing to protect them from the German fleet. This was still a bit of a gamble because the British government was quite adamant that a formal agreement had not and would not be made with the French. This refusal to admit that any discussions with France represented ‘an engagement that commits either Government to action in a contingency that has not arisen and may never arise’ would continue throughout the prewar years. During this same period the British and French Naval officials would meet and discuss joint strategy in the case of a conflict in which both were involved. This included strategic discussions about the positioning of the ships and also very detailed discussions like the creation of a join signals book. Both navies saw these talks as very productive, with the Royal Navy hoping that it would make it easier to intervene in a continental conflict both quicly and efficiently. The French Navy was happy to do anything that would tie the Royal Navy closer to France. These meetings and the resulting discussins craeted a kind of charade where the British government continued to insist that there was no actual agreement with France, when in fact very strong informal links and agreements had been created that would play an important role in the decisions of the British leaders in 1914.

1913 was a period when, in the wake of the Haldane talks that attempted to form an arms reduction agreement between the British and German officials, Tirpitz and the German Navy settled on the 16-10 capital ship radio. This was more than the British wanted, but it was the least that the Germans were willing to accept. This ratio was publicly announced in February 1913 in statements made by Tirpitz before the Reichstag, which was an important step since before this point the acceptance of any inferior ratio for the fleet was not public policy. The Kaiser began advocating for a new novelle, but Tirpitz was strongly opposed, partially due to the views of the political leaders, with both Bethmann-Hollweg and the Reichstag in general firmly against increased naval spending. The Kaiser wanted to add a third dreadnought to the building pgoram for the next year, and a few light cruisers, but even these modest increases did not have Tirpitz’s support. There was a firm recognition that any German increases would just give the British an excuse to increase their building program. This was a huge capitulation on the German part, a firm recognition that their attempts to push the British further than they could go in terms of naval spending had failed. The announcement of the 16-10 ratio, while counter to British wishes, did not illicit too much anger from the British, for example Foreign Minister Grey would say ‘what Tirpitz said does not amount to much, and the reason for his saying it is not the love of our beautiful eyes, but the extra fifty millions required for increasing the German Army.’ The eventual 1913 estimates for the Royal Navy were released about a month later and involved 5 dreadnoughts, 8 cruisers, and 16 destroyers with a total cost of 48 million, 1.2 million more than the previous year.

After the 1913 estimates passed through parliament resistance to further increases began to grow. This was mostly due to the growing information about the possible plans for the 1914 estimates which began to trickle out in the closing months of the year. By the end of November, as the estimates were being formulated, a growing number of more radical MPs were pushing for a drastic reduction in what they considered wasteful naval spending. It should be clear that there was never widepsread support for such a drastic reduction in naval spending during this period, and so this the eventual campaign within the commons was to put pressure on the Navy to keep spending roughly the same as the previous year with few increases. This resulted in some suggesting that 2 dreadnoughts would be a better number to build in 1914, instead of the 6 or 7 that were at the top end of the suggestions. This range of building programs, and the associated range in the cost of the two programs, would prompt many discussions between the Admiralty and the Treasury during the period in which the 1914 estimates were being formulated. These discussions would end up souring the relationship between Churchill and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George. Which Churchill presented the estimates to the cabinet on December 15 they were 3 million more than the previous year and breached 50 million for the first time. This also meant that the estimates had grown 8 million since Churchill had arrived at the Admiralty, a position he was given to keep costs under control. Churchill, of course, had elaborately detailed information about each piece of the estimate, which would result in lengthy discussions in the Cabinet after the estimates had been presented.

With the growing resistance to further increases in naval spending coming from the Commons there was much more time spent on discussions of the estimates than in the previous years. For three days these discussions would continue in the cabinet, with Churchill attempting to justify his requested increases. He did this by pointing out that due to the ever increasing German Navy, and also the greater number of ships that the Germans were keeping in full commission the British had to do the same. This meant more sailors at full pay and more ships ready to go at any moment. There was also a technological piece of the increase, which meant that not only were new ships more expensive, but money was also being spent on new technologies like aircraft and wireless systems. None of these arguments were convincing enough for the cabinet to allow the estimates to pass through. The final outcome of the meetings in December was to request that Churchill find a way to reduce them. After the holiday break the real focus of renewed discussions became the costs of the new construction that was contained within the estimates. The plan was for 4 additional dreadnoughts to be built, and these were much discussed since they represented an area that could be cut, and quite easily, which would have both the most drastic effect on total estimates and the least effect on naval readiness in the short term. The arguments eventually came down to Churchill on one side and Lloyd George on the other, but Churchill was greatly assisted in his arguments by two facts. The first was that he was very prepared, with very detailed information about exactly what money was being used for and why, which allowed for easy retreated into hard numbers during arguments. The second, and perhaps more important, was that the Navy still had widespread support among the people, and if push came to shove and Churchill threatened to resign things would be very problematic because he could claim that he resigned on the principle of making sure the navy could defend the country. After the discussions in January the tables actually turned and it was Lloyd Georges turn to threaten a resignation. This stand off would continue for all of January and it would not be until Feburary that an agreement would finally be reached. The eventual final figure for the 1914 estimates was just a bit under 52 million. Lloyd George was able to extract three concessions from Churchill and the Navy. The First was that three light cruisers and 12 torpedo boats would be cut from the construction list in the coming year. The second was a pledge from Churchill that there would be a reduction in the following year’s estimates, which would not end up happening due to the war. The final concession was that the Summer Maneuvers, which were very costly, were replaced with a test mobilization of the reserves which was a bit cheaper. This test mobilization would be very important to the status of the Navy when the war began. On February 11th the estimates were agreed to by the cabinet. This would be the last prewar estimates, with later planning being done in wartime and under a very different set of constraints.

We turn now one more time to the German navy. When the German naval building plan had really kicked into high gear they were building based on some assumptions about what the Royal Navy would do in a conflict. For example in 1906 the German navy believed that when a war started the British fleet would immediately move into German waters to try and force a battle. This caused decisions to be made about the ships that were built and their capabilities, here is future Admiral Scheer discussing these decisions: “the assumption that the English Fleet, which had kept ahead of ours in its construction at every stage, would seek battle in the German Bight in the North Sea, or would force its way to wherever it hoped to find the German Fleet. On that account we had attached particular importance to the greatest defensive and offensive powers, and considered we might regard speed and radius of action as secondary matters.” The Germans had to hope that the Royal navy executed this attack due to the completely unfavorable strategic position which they occupied. They were outnumbered, and due to their position they had little way of gaining good information about where the British battlefleet was, or where it was moving. In contraast the British would always known precisely where the German fleet was at the start of any operation because the coastline of the German north sea was veyr small and only had a few routes capable of supporting the large German ships. This limited the flexibility of the German navy and made it easy for the British to know the likely area of operation of the German fleet if it were to move out into the North sea. Technologically this would later make it easier for the British to put in place accurate range and direction finding equipment. The one hope for the German Navy was that the odds against it could be whittled away at by tactics like the usage of submarines, or just the attrition inflicted on the Royal Navy. Unfortunately the British would do everything in their power to prevent such attrition. The Germans also hoped before they war that they could work away at the British lead in ships and arrive at such a point where they could achieve at least a rough parity in the North Sea. It was then the intention of the Navy to launch an aggressive, all or nothing, fleet battle in the hopes that they could end victorious, and at the very least end in something close to mutual destruction.

These strategic limitations would prove very problematic for the Navy during the war, but it would also cause the German Navy to move into some political positions that were a challenge for the German political leaders. During the war there were many discussions about what the German War arims were, these were particually important whenever possible peace talks were suggested by either side or by the Americans. The frustration of the German Navy at its situation during the war caused the navy to have some very large demands such as the retention of the Belgian coastal ports, the acquisition of the Danish Faroe Islands in the North Sea, the addition of various strategically placed African colonies, and several other demands. The reasoning for all of these demands from Tirpitz and the Head of the Naval Staff Holtzendorff was that they hoped to better their strategic position in the understanding that a future war against the Royal Navy was inevitable. The problem with those war aims is that they also made it clear that many of the German assumptiosn from before the start of the war were completely incorrect. They believed that the British would make mistakes out of rashness, but instead the British chose the cautious approach of distant blockade. They believed that they would be able to force an engagement on roughly equal terms, but the inability of the German Navy to determine the position and strength of the enemy fleet always made the German admiral cautious. They believed that the worldwide commitments of the royal Navy would make it difficult for the Royal Navy to concentrate enough strength in the north sea, but the decision by Italy to avoid its obligations to Germany and instead to join in the war against them negated most of the demands of the Royal navy around the world. In many ways the plan for the German Navy was based on the hope that the British would commit several massive mistakes, which is something they simply would not do.

In the summer of 1914, in retrospect, the decision made in the cabinet earlier in the year to do a test mobilization of the Royal Navy was a stroke of genius. In October 1913 Churchill had suggested that a test mobilization might be done in the summer of 1914 instead of the usual summer maneuvers, both as a test of the mobilization process and also as a way to save some money. This would eventually be used in the negotiations with Lloyd George. After the estimates were signed most of the country forgot about the Anglo-German rivalry, and instead the British press had more important stories to cover with the Irish crisis reaching its pre-war height. Then in the middle of July the test mobilization began, with ordes sent out on the 10th and mobilization to begin on the 15th. 8 Days later, the Third Fleet, fully mobilized got orders to begin to disperse, but it would only be several days later that the ships would begin leaving, and even then only the smaller ships would leave. Then on the 26th, with news of Serbia’s rejection of the Austrian ultimatum, Battenberg, then First Sea Lord, stopped the demobilization and on the 28th the Nvy was placed on a ‘preparatory and precautionary basis.’ Admiral Jellicoe would describe the importance of the Navy’s quick reaction, and the effects of the test mobilization: “We were very fortunate in having the Fleet concentrated at the outbreak of war. People had often pictured war with Germany coming as a bolt from the blue, and even naval officers feared that when the occasion did arise, it would be found, as had previously been the case, the fear of precipitating a conflict might lead the Government to delay concentration with the result that our squardrons would be separated when war was actually declared. Fortunately, the Admiralty in the last days of July 1914, placed us at once in a strong strategic position.” It is almost humorous that after the mountains of money spent by the Royal Navy in the years befor the war in preparation for conflict with Germany, it was a measure designed to save money that would put it in the best possible situation when the war finally began.