The Naval Origins of the Great War

On the 21st June 1919 around 5pm, the major part of the Kaiserliche Marine was resting on the seabed in Scapa Flow, Scotland. So came the end of the dream of Kaiser Wilhelm II to create a navy to equal that of his English family. If at the time, it was the German army that was a threat to the security of France, during the second half of the 19th century and with the accession of Wilhelm II to the throne, the German Navy developed under the impetus of von Tirpitz to such an extent that it took the place of France as the second most powerful maritime nation. Much to the surprise of the Kaiser, this situation was perceived as a danger for Great Britain and pushed the country to seek new agreements and alliances with old enemies - France and Russia. Likewise, Germany formed the Triple Alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy. A naval race was initiated between Great Britain and Germany which would eventually lead to the confrontation of enemy fleets on all the seas and oceans of the World.

This presentation is organized into six parts. (1) The new Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted to develop a navy like the British Royal Navy. Vanity, pretentions and vague military though coupled with an erroneous strategy were all part of the reasons. (2) Captain Mahan's books introduced the thesis of maritime power and how to acquire it. (3) During this time, British naval policy consisted of policing the oceans and enhancing maritime commerce. (4) The building programme initiated by Germany was interpreted as a threat to British dominance at sea and (5) pushed Britain to form alliances with its previous enemies as well as alienating Germany as an ally at home and abroad. (6) A naval race began with the construction of battleships and cruisers by the leading maritime nations.

Starting at the end, by the evening of 21st June 1919, most the previously proud German High Seas Fleet was resting on the bottom of the sea in Scapa Flow, scuttled by its own officers and men.


Kaiser Wilhelm II had a life-long passion for warships - an emblem of power and force, with its codes of etiquette and gold-braided uniforms. As a boy - and the grand-son of Queen Victoria - he was taken to see the massed British fleet on many occasions and was always impressed. Was it his deformed left arm or his arrogant and forceful character but he felt snubbed by his English family? He decided that one day he would have a navy of his own to compete with the British fleet.

Top left:

The Kaiser, his wife and children with the boys dressed in sailor uniforms - one of whom serves to hide the deformed left arm.

Bottom left:

The Kaiser's Royal Yacht SMS Hohenzollern. Each summer, the Kaiser would take a selected group of naval officers on a cruise - to Scandinavian, the Mediterranean Sea... - and the Royal Yacht would be the scene of boisterous partying even though the Hohenzollern was said to roll like a bath tub.

Top right:

The Kaiser - just forward of the funnel - on board the light cruiser SMS Geier in 1884.

To achieve his end, the Kaiser "dropped the pilot" Bismarck who had guided the newly-established Germany through its early years with a policy of maintaining peace by diplomacy - called Realpolitik, searching to resolve international disputes by negotiation rather than war - and moved rapidly to an aggressive and nationalistic policy as regards Europe and the rest of the World - the Weltpolitik. To attain this policy required a strong navy and the instigator of the new German naval strategy was von Tirpitz. Left: Kaiser Wilhelm II in all his finery, the withered left arm resting on the hilt of his sword, in the company of members of the German Imperial Admiralty.

Captain Alfred Mahan was a strategist in the US Navy and his book entitled "The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660 - 1783" published in 1890 had a profound effect on naval thinking of the time. Based on numerous examples in history, he showed that a nation requires a strong navy to assert itself and to develop economically. This book was followed in 1892 by a second entitled "The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire 1793 - 1812". Here, he developed the thesis that a nation must have a navy capable of policing commercial maritime routes during peacetime and of threatening their integrity at time of war. Although the writings of Mahan ignored the role of diplomacy and land armies to obtain World power, the Kaiser was wholly taken in by the idea of gaining world power by developing his navy. In turn, von Tirpitz used Mahan's writings to support his own plan of obtaining funding to construct a navy powerful enough to threaten British domination of the oceans.

Mahan took as an example to illustrate his argument, the acquisition of naval supremacy by Great Britain and he established four main factors required to attain and maintain such supremacy. Prior to the coming to the throne of Wilhelm II, Great Britain and Germany had the two largest merchant navies in the World and Germany was content to let the Royal Navy maintain order on the seaways and to use British ports and bases overseas. These overseas bases were obtained by both negotiation - for example, in exchange for protection from an enemy - or by force, with the recalcitrant head of state being replaced by a more accommodating leader under the "guidance" of a British government representative. The three preceding factors would be financed by a prosperous industry transforming raw materials into manufactured products to be traded in countries far and wide.

Initially, trade routes and endurance were determined by the predominant winds for sailing ships to navigate from port to port. With the advent of the maritime steam engine, it became necessary to establish coaling stations along trade routes and at distances comparable to the endurance of the coal-burning ships. With its vast Empire, the trade routes used by the British merchant navy and the British naval ports stretched round the World. Although German ships used these ports for stores and repairs, Germany was not encouraged to establish similar trading posts and ports for itself. However, a strong bond existed between the officers and men of the two navies; training together, courtesy visits to British and German ports, combined exercises….The German nobleman Prince Louis of Battenberg made a naval career in the Royal Navy to attain the rank of Admiral of the Fleet and became First Sea Lord in 1912.

Britain intended to remain unrivalled in its domination of the seas and was particularly attentive to the ship construction programme of the second most powerful maritime nation, the hereditary enemy that was France. In reply to a Parlimentary question in 1883, Lord Northbrook made it clear - although he did not "wish in the least to say anything offensive to our neighbours across the Channel" - that Britain would always have a fleet greater than any other nation and this led to the Two Power Standard - that is, the British fleet must be at least equal to the combined fleets of the second and third most powerful navies.

Turning its back of European affairs during the latter part of the 19th century, Britain adopted a policy of "Splendid Isolation" and of not becoming involved in European strife. The cartoon from 1870 shows Britain ignoring the instability, menaces and wars within Europe. However, Britain maintained a strong navy, said to be defensive, and "secure from attack the highways of the sea". As we have already seen, this involved setting-up fortified coal stations in the colonies and dependencies.

The Weltpolitik aimed at confronting British maritime domination and its network of colonies to the advantage of Germany.

One can consider that the German Weltpolitik - and the associated confrontation with other European nations - was inevitable when considering the demography and industrial growth in Germany towards the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. A large part of the population left the countryside and moved into the ever-expanding towns and cities to work in factories. Industrial investment powered commercial expansion, raw materials had to come from somewhere and the finished products needed more and more new markets. During the time period in question, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) - as an indicator of economic growth - shot up in Germany (blue curve) and paralleled that of the United States of America (purple curve) whilst the economic growth of both France(red curve) and the United Kingdom (green curve) evolved at a much slower rate. In the early years of 1900, German GDP exceeded that of the United Kingdom.

Germany and the Kaiser wanted "a place in the sun" and began to acquire colonies and create zones of influence around the World. To some extent, Britain and France were willing to let Germany obtain colonies in minor countries that they themselves did not find desirable to occupy. Problems began when German hostility and attempts to ferment discontent and uprisings in British and French colonies and zones of influence - French North Africa and British South Africa, for example, - became evident.

To achieve its Weltpolitik, Germany began a large scale warship building programme. The Kaiser wanted his navy and von Tirpitz used coercion and sometime bullying to obtain the funding he wanted from parliament. Acceptance from the public for the massive spending was manipulated by a judicious use of the Press to encourage a new naval patriotism within the population. Up to then, the German public had favoured the land army and the past exploits of the Prussian army. The "Risk theory" of von Tirpitz was to have a navy of such strength that, in the event of war, it could threaten to weaken an adversary - the Royal Navy, for example - to such an extent that the adversary would not have sufficient warships left to defend its colonies and its use of commercial seaways, so important, again for example, to Great Britain. Should the adversary be the Royal Navy, there was a risk that British losses would be so great that it would no longer be in a position to maintain the Two Power Standard and would become vulnerable to attack and eventually defeat by other navies. For von Tirpitz, the Royal Navy was scattered around the World protecting the colonies whilst the new German Navy would be concentrated in the North Sea.

France, in the meantime, was unable to find the financial resources necessary to compete in the naval arms race. Increased construction of battleships only led to a similar increase in British battleship strength. A "Mahan-type fleet" was preferred, with the construction of cruisers and submarines (referred to, at the time, as "the poor man's battleship"), as an advertisement that in the event of a conflict, rapid long range French cruisers could attack the commercial routes on oceans far from the French coast so as to bring to its knees an enemy dependent on ship-borne imports of food and the export of revenue-generating goods.

Considering the previously favourable relationship with Germany yet wary of the fire of patriotism being so eagerly stoked-up by the Kaiser, von Tirpitz and their government, Britain made several attempts to form an alliance with Germany but each was flatly refused. In Germany, it was felt that sooner or later, the British would come round to accepting the terms most-favourable to Germany. And then the unimaginable happened! A climate more suitable to Anglo-French entente developed in both France and Britain. France had negotiated an alliance with Russia in the face of the German threat of invasion to both countries and Britain was on the point of signing an alliance with Japan to assure a friendly ally close to the Far East colonies. The governments of both countries, encouraged by King Edward VII and the French President Loubet, entered into talks but numerous problems existed, notably in North Africa, Egypt and French support for the Boers. The proposals for a simple agreement were nothing compared to the major and far-reaching terms of alliance that had been offered to Germany and the conditions of the Anglo-French agreement concerning Morocco enraged the German government. However, the enemies of yesterday became the allies of the future as a cascade of alliances were signed bringing together Britain, France, Japan and Russia. Germany had already signed the weak and fragile Triple Alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy. As the strongest partner, Germany hoped to use the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a political instrument in the German conflict with Russia.

For many years, the Imperial Japanese Navy had relied on foreign designs and shipyards to build major Japanese warships and a corollary of the Anglo-Japanese alliance was a large order for battleships, cruisers, destroyers and torpedo boats to form the basis of a new and modern navy. At the same time, Japan improved its potential for naval construction although materials continued to come from Britain if to a progressively diminishing extent. IMS Katori was laid down in 1904 at Vickers shipyard in Britain and was completed in May 1906. The photograph left shows "HIJMS" Katori at the fitting-out basin in February 1906. The text says "10-2-06- The two warships at present here under construction. On the left, the Japanese battleship "Katori" under the cranes. On the right, the English cruiser "Natal" with its guns fitted. Kind regards".

As an encouragement for the Anglo-French discussions prior to the signing an agreement, both the British monarch King Edward VII and President Loubet made reciprocal visits to each other's capital. King Edward VII, as the Price of Wales, was no stranger to Paris and won over the initially hostile public by positive and flattering remarks about France, Paris and the French ("A Divine Providence has arranged that France should be our near neighbour and, I hope, always a dear friend…"). Upper left: King Edward VII in a white-plumed cocked hat. Bottom stereo-photograph: The crowds are kept to the far side of the canal !

Following the signature of the Entente Cordiale, the French Atlantic Squadron visited the British naval base at Portsmouth. Here we can see a group of young women strolling along the quayside whilst a French sailor has his photograph taken in front of the Portsea Branch Post Office. The battleship Jauréguiberry, afloat in a dry dock, is open to visitors. British humour commented that it was the first time that so many French warships had been in a British naval base on their own accord !

The economic impact of the naval arms race for the nations involved was a playoff between the maintenance and modernisation of existing warships against the design and construction of new ones. German construction (orange curve) and maintenance (green blue curve) increased at varying rates from the beginning of the race with construction falling off just prior to the outbreak of war. French construction (light red curve) was slow then picked up rapidly in the years prior to war whilst maintenance (light blue) increased progressively to fall off sharply when construction was at its peak, the French economy could not support both. British construction (dark purple curve) always remained higher than any of the other nations under consideration - as required by the Two Power Standard - but fluctuated wildly. The greatest expenditure of all was that of maintenance (green curve) of the British fleet reaching its peak at a time when construction was declining just prior to the war. The United States of America was slow and hesitant to develop its navy with construction (dark red) having no real policy and maintenance (dark blue curve) of the existing fleet seemed to be the priority.

What was the state of the British, French and German navies when Kaiser Wilhelm II came to the throne and under the impetus of the naval arms race, how did these navies evolve?

The armoured cruiser Dupuy de Lôme was designed with the aim of putting into practice the thesis of Mahan concerning fast cruiser warfare on distant maritime trade routes. Laid down in 1888 and commissioned in 1895, she was capable of 20 kts but the pronounced plough bow made her wet in anything but the slightest sea, as this photograph shows.

HMS Camperdown was commissioned in 1889 and this photograph shows her in her original form. One of the first true barbette warships, this pattern was maintained for the following British battleships up to 1906 and the advent of HMS Dreadnought. Much of the displacement was taken up by the strong armour belt and the four 13.5-inch guns in barbette mountings. The gun crew had no protection in the barbette and, in this photograph, we can see a light tent-like structure over the breech…to keep the rain out?

When the Kaiser came to the throne, the German Navy was essentially a coastal defence force. With its limited coastline, Germany had little naval tradition and rather had invested massively to create a powerful and efficient land army.

An electric shock went through the Admiralty offices of the major maritime nations when HMS Dreadnought made her first public appearance. Other navies had considered the design of an all-big-gun ship - Italy, Japan, the USA, for example, and Germany had even built the Brandenburg class of battleships with three twin 11-inch turrets, the mid-ship turret having shorter barrels - but Admiral Sir John Fisher was the first to have a uniform all-big-gun ship built and at considerable risk, fitting steam turbines in such a large ship. Hailed as a revolution and making the existing battleships obsolete overnight, the design nevertheless had several flaws which took three more designs before being corrected. The tripod mast was sited aft of the forward funnel to easy the handling of the ship's boats but causing the control platform to be smoked out. It is as if the designers had not appreciated the need of a suitable platform for long-range gunnery control. The layout of the twin 12-inch turrets included two wing turrets with restricted arcs of fire, a broadside fired only eight of the ten guns available. At deep load and fully-coaled, the 11-inch armour belt was below sea-level leaving the hull protected only by a 4ft strake of 8-inch armour.

"She gave her name to a new breed of battleship, and epitomised the naval arms race between Great Britain and Germany" (Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1906-1921, Conway Maritime Press, 1985).

From then on, the naval arms race was in full swing and dreadnoughts came sliding down the slipways in Britain but also in Germany, France and the USA.

German Dreadnoughts also copied the error of wing turrets. In part, the fear was that the blast from firing an upper superimposed turret would kill those in the lower turret.

The 1906 construction programme for the French Navy included six Danton class battleships referred to as "semi-dreadnoughts" of which the Diderot shown here is an example. They were however, an out-of-date design compared to what was being built by the other nations.

The true French dreadnoughts had superimposed turrets fore and aft - which because of their weight made the foredeck wet in a rough sea - as well as two wing turrets. Until reconstruction in the 1930s, the Courbet class had pole masts with no effective control top.

The Bretagne class of dreadnoughts had a centreline turret arrangement as shown in this photograph of the Lorraine in its original form - note pole masts, a triple range finder atop the conning tower and a net defence against torpedoes.

The scene is set and although dreadnoughts and battlecruisers are still on the slips, here is the state of play. The proportion of battleships to cruisers gives an indication of the strategy of warfare that each belligerent envisaged. The German fleet is predominantly cruisers for distant water warfare on commercial trade whilst keeping at home a battleship fleet sufficient to threaten the British in the North Sea. The British fleet is massive but Admiral Fisher has started to cut into the stock of pre-dreadnoughts and obsolete cruisers to concentrate a battleship fleet in the home waters and thus nullify the Risk Theory of von Tirpitz. The remnants of the large armoured cruiser raiding fleet appear in the list for the French Navy which was weakened by political instability and lack of foresight in new naval construction. Harnessing the immense industrial resources available and with an eye on the growth of the Japanese Navy, the USA was rapidly catching up with the European nations in both dreadnoughts and cruisers which, when the USA entered the war, provided an extremely useful reinforcement for the allied fleets.

As Germany declared war on Russia, the arrangements of the previously agreed alliances came into force.

Hostilities began and the German Navy made the fishing grounds of the North Sea unsafe for British unarmed fishing vessels. Just one month after the declaration of war, my great grandfather was lost at sea when the steam trawler Nelson was mined. In the preceeding month, following the declaration of war, 18 other Grimsby steam trawlers had been sunk by German torpedo boats or mines and many more were to go down.