Was the Anglo-German Naval Race a Mirage?

This is the first in a series of posts connected to a King’s College First World War Research Group and Corbett Centre Event to mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. 


Matthew S Seligmann is Professor of Naval History at Brunel University London. He has written widely on Anglo-German relations before the First World War, including Spies in Uniform: British Military and Naval Intelligence on Germany on the Eve of the First World War (2006); Naval Intelligence from Germany: The Reports of the British Naval Attachés in Berlin, 1906-1914 (2007); The Royal Navy and the German Threat, 1900-1914 (2012); Military Intelligence from Germany 1906-1914 (2014) and The Naval Route to the Abyss: The Anglo-German Naval Race 1895-1914 (2015). His latest work on the Anglo-German naval race is available to view for free here.

Let’s begin with a clear statement: The Anglo-German naval race was a genuine contest. The two protagonists viewed each other with suspicion, recognized that their opponent could undermine their own policies and national objectives, and vied for naval supremacy to ensure this would not happen. To attain this clearly defined end, they built warships – principally battleships of ever greater size and power – in large and increasing numbers. On the face of it, this might not seem a particularly remarkable or even contentious point. After all, in the historiography of Imperial Germany there is little serious controversy over the fact that Kaiser Wilhelm II and his Secretary of State at the Imperial Navy Office, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, built their new navy with the clearly expressed purpose (in secret internal documents, at least, if not in public statements) of challenging British maritime power. Thus, such debate as there is falls on the question of the motive for this unprecedented act of naval rivalry rather than the fact of the challenge itself. Equally, on the British side, there has always been (and still is) a formidable body of literature that not only acknowledges the reality of the Anglo-German Naval Race but elevates it to totemic status as the archetypal, even paradigmatic, modern sea-borne armaments competition. Peter Padfield’s unambiguously titled work The Great Naval Race is a case in point. Both by name and in its broader content, this is a book that maintains that the pre-First World War naval building programmes of Britain and Germany – programmes that were explicitly aimed and measured against each other – represent the acme of great power maritime competition. Moreover, in making this case, Padfield not only epitomizes a major strand of modern historical thinking, he also mirrors the understanding of people at the time. Judging by the countless newspaper articles, the bitter party political debates, the striking metaphors found within popular literature, and the frequent public panics that all focused on the Anglo-German naval race, the contemporary British and German populations saw this competition in the same terms, namely as a major factor in the world of global diplomacy and also as the defining issue in the fraught and deteriorating relations between their two countries. The psychological consequences of this are well-known and precisely documented. A regular trope of German popular culture was the so-called ‘Copenhagen complex’, the fear that the battleships of the Royal Navy would appear unannounced off the German coast and destroy the nascent German fleet at harbour in much the same brutal manner as it had eliminated the Danish navy in the Napoleonic Wars. Equally, the idea that the German navy would support a ‘bolt from the blue’ invasion of the British Isles featured prominently in British popular discourse, most famously in the best-selling adventure fiction of Erskine Childers and the serialized disaster novels of William Le Queux. As these distinct but equivalent national neuroses illustrates, in the world of naval competition, both sides suspected each other’s motives, feared their capabilities and gauged their rival counter-exertions against those of their expected opponent.

Given how familiar the above analysis has become over many decades of research and writing the reader might well wonder why it needs to be restated so emphatically here. The main reason is that in recent times this assessment of the Anglo-German naval race has come under sharp attack from a small group of self-styled ‘revisionist’ historians who argue that the expansion of German maritime power, far from spurring the Royal Navy into determined counter-action, actually left the British naval leadership largely untroubled. It was France and Russia, or so we are told, that posed the real threat and it was their capabilities and naval force structures that drove British naval policy. In particular, it is suggested that as France and Russia had invested heavily in armoured cruisers (but Germany had not), they were the only powers with the ability to mount a determined assault on Britain’s lines of oceanic communication and trade and that this was the threat that really worried British officials. Accordingly, under the leadership of First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John ‘Jackie’ Fisher, the British Admiralty proposed to undertake a naval revolution in which battleships would be abandoned and the Royal Navy would instead defend the British Isles with torpedo craft and the high seas with battle cruisers. In this context, the German navy, composed of a battle fleet that could be bottled up in the North Sea, was little more than a defence mirage and the clamour surrounding the build-up of the German fleet was not a genuine sign of anxiety for the nation’s security, but simply ill-informed background noise exploited by a grateful Admiralty to extract ever greater budgets from a reluctant and otherwise parsimonious Treasury.

This argument is, to say the least, counter-intuitive. To start with, it is hard to see what kind of threat France and Russia actually posed, especially after the Russian Navy had been destroyed in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. By contrast the German menace was self-evident to all and sundry. This most definitely included the Royal Navy’s Naval Intelligence Department, which began to produce assessments of the potential danger posed by the German from the very start of the twentieth century. These reflected not only the scale of the German naval expansion, but also the perceived martial attributes of the German nation. In contrast to Tsarist Russia, the naval forces of which were a byword for inefficiency and incompetence, no one doubted either the excellence of German shipbuilding and engineering or the rigour and professionalism of the German navy’s trained personnel. In short, Germany was a rival to be respected and feared.

The accidents of history and geography added to the sense of danger. Britain’s Channel coast was well protected. Centuries of war with France had left a network of forts and defended harbours – Sheerness, Chatham, Portsmouth, Devonport and Pembroke – that provided secure anchorages that were admirably suited for operations during an Anglo-French confrontation. By contrast, Britain’s North Sea littoral was both long and poorly protected, with many coastal towns and dockyards there lacking anything but the most rudimentary armament and defensive facilities. Moreover, a considerable portion of this coast was nearer to the German navy’s ports than to the Royal Navy’s, making it dangerously exposed to sudden attack. In short, in the event of an Anglo-German conflict the east coast was both within easy reach of German forces and vulnerable to attack. While it might have been reluctant to admit this in public, Britain’s naval leadership was well aware of this in private.

For all these reasons, the build up of the German navy was hardly going to go unnoticed in Britain; nor was it likely to be ignored. But what was the nature of the response? Faced with a range of choices about the kind of maritime force they would construct, the German naval leadership decided to build a fleet of battleships designed to operate and fight in the North Sea. Such a fleet, they believed, would put genuine pressure on the British government. If Germany created a force of 60 battleships, the Royal Navy would need at least 90 to be certain of victory in battle. Tirpitz believed that such a force level was beyond the financial power of the British government to construct and incapable of being crewed, even if it should be built.

His calculation was wrong. The Royal Navy did not just respond in kind. It responded with vigour and determination. Tirpitz wanted a quantitative arms race only; the Royal Navy responded with a quantitative and a qualitative one. They not only built more ships than the Germans, they also kept making them bigger, faster, more technologically sophisticated and better armed with a continuous stream of incremental design improvements. In effect, the race that the Royal Navy imposed was both in increasing numbers and in growing unit cost. Most devastating of all for the now discredited revisionist case, it was not a race in torpedo craft and battle cruisers, but one largely conducted in battleships. A total of 32 of the latest dreadnought and super-dreadnought battleships had been ordered for the Royal Navy by the time that war broke out in August 1914 and all of them were stationed facing Germany in the North Sea. They did not arrive as a result of a ‘fit of absence of mind’, but as a deliberate act of policy to face down the German challenge.

Image: The launch of HMS DREADNOUGHT at Portsmouth dockyard in 1906, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

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