Imperial German Naivety The Arms Race at Sea

Imperial Germany in 1914 was a comparatively new country. Since the end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, Germany had not fought a war. There was pride in its army, pride in the new German Navy. The Germans had faith in their military and a firm belief in its capabilities. Wilhelm was the autocratic ruler and nominal head of German Armed Forces. He, and he alone was responsible for both the military and political direction of German policy. Bismark was long dead, naivety, coupled with a strong belief in self and autocratic rule would be the driving factors on the road to war. Across the North Sea was the world’s first and only Superpower(1)1 Britain and her Empire. The Empire the sun never sets on. Britain was a very different nation to Germany. Britain had no hesitation in sending in a gunboat. Pax Britannia was a myth. Britain was an expansionist imperial power. Anything and everything that could be done, was done to preserve, strengthen, and expand the British Empire. Germany and its Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II just did not understand that.

So what were the staging posts on the road to war? In croniclogical order they are:

  1. Circa 1895, the Schlieffen Plan
  2. 1897 Bernhard Von Bulow’s ‘Place in the Sun’ speech
  3. 1898 Lord Salisbury speech Primrose League at the Albert Hall
  4. 1898 The first of four German Fleet Acts
  5. 1900 Second German fleet Act
  6. 1901 Lord Selborne informs the British Cabinet about the German naval threat
  7. 1902 Cabinet Paper, Selborne expands on the presumed threat from the Imperial German Navy.
  8. 1904 Entente Cordial
  9. 1905 The construction of the first U-boat (2)2
  10. 1906 First amendment to German Fleet Act of 1900.
  11. 1906 H.M.S. Dreadnought is launched.
  12. 1907 Introduction of the German High Seas Fleet.
  13. 1907 Anglo-Russian Entente
  14. 1908 Second amendment to German Fleet Act of 1900
  15. 1911 Germany sends a warship to Morocco
  16. 1912 Third Naval Amendment, German Fleet Act of 1900
  17. 1912 The Kaiser and his advisers call off a planed preventative war against France and Russia.

The Schlieffen Plan, circa 1895, was a paper plan drawn up at the desk, a statement of the principle of how Germany would fight a war. Blitzkrieg before Blitzkrieg was invented. Germany could only afford to fight a war on one front. The manpower was simply not there. The population available to service the Armed Forces in Germany are insufficient The resources, materials and food, are also lacking. Imperial Germany was finding itself gradually encircled. Count Von Schlieffen came up with a master plan. Basically the plan was to knock out the more mediately ready military opponent, in this case France first. Russia was deemed to be a slower mobilising military power. Schaeffer proposal was for the armies of Imperial Germany to bypass the French line of defence, the French armies facing Germany, by attacking via Holland and Belgium. The German Armies would head straight towards the west of Paris, and then encircle the French Capital forcing a French surrender. This was to take place in just six weeks. Following the surrender of the French, Imperial German armies would then be withdrawn from French territory and rushed to the East to face and defeat the Russians. On paper it was obvious, but brilliant. Obvious because it was the only way Germany could maintain numerical superiority on the battlefield on two fronts. In reality there were problems with the plan as proposed by Schlieffen. It was a Paper plan. It is physically impossible to get the numbers of troops required for success in the geographical area known as Belgium. At the time a division required a vast amount of road space, the roads of Belgium were simply not of the required standard, by width or general condition to hold the necessary 45 Divisions. The Dutch and the Belgium’s might resist, and outsiders, noticeably Britain, may not see the plan as Lightning War, but as an attempt at a permanent land grab. Britain could not afford a hostile power to have the ready access to the Atlantic(3)3 that French Western ports would allow. Any invasion of France would bring Britain into the war.

A couple of years later in 1897, Bernhard von Bulow, Secretary of State at the German Foreign Ministry, in a debate in the Reichstag(4)4 remarked “We do not by any means feel the need to stick our fingers in every pie, but on the other hand… the days when the German happily surrendered the land to his neighbours the other the sea…those days are over… that while Germany did not want to put anyone in the shade, but we too demand our place in the sun.”(5)5 Germany wanted a Colonial Empire. It has almost been forgotten but in the Victorian age the British Empire was the Empire the sun never sets on. If a country wanted an Empire they could only acquire one with British acquiescence, or at Britain’s expense. While Bulow was speaking to a domestic audience, this speech raised markers in Britain, A year later Lord Salisbury gave a response, and a warning, in his speech to the Primrose League at the Royal Albert Hall. While not a direct reply, Salisbury warned that a clash between living nations in the scramble for colonies, the dying nations, would result in war between the civilised living nations. This was not a direct reply to Bulow, however it is clear the threat of acquiring colonies was going to increase tensions.

In 1898 Germany passed the first of four Fleet Acts, this Act was required the building of 19 battleships 8 heavy cruisers, 12 large, and 30 light cruisers to be constructed by 1904. Although opposed by some, (6)6 the Act passed easily. Germany had laid the foundations of an Arms Race with Britain. One wonders why a land power like Germany, wished to create a fleet. Britain guarenteed the freedom of the seas, and had allowed the Germans to create one of theworld’s largest merchant fleets. German justification was not long in coming. The Germans were supporters of the Boers. In January 1900 British cruisers stopped German merchant ships off the African coast, and accused them of aiding the Boers-no arms or materials destined for the Boers was found. Dispite British apologises, the Germans were outraged.(8)7 Imperial Germany rushed through a second Fleet Act in June 1900. Germany did not declare in writing Britain was now the enemy, but the introduction to the Act contained a key sentence. “To protect Germany’s sea trade and colonies in the existing circumstances, there is only one means: Germany must have a battle fleet so strong that even for an adversary with the greatest sea-power, a war against it would involve such dangers as to imperil its own position in the world.”(8)8 German was to make it self the world’s number two sea-power and by 1920 put its self in the position it could challenge the royal Navy on equal terms in open battle on the North Sea. An explanation as to how a smaller fleet could challenge the Royal Navy on equal terms on the North sea is, The Royal Navy is a seven seas blue water navy. Its ships have to be everywhere. The German High Seas Fleet, or indeed any smaller fleet, could concentrate all its ships in the North Sea. Britain, in theory, would not put its fleet at risk by trying to engage the German fleet first. In November 1901 Lord Selbourne informed the British Prime Minister of the grow world wide threat Imperial German Naval power presented. In a cabinet paper in October 1902 Selbourne elaborated on this. He explained that the more the German Naval plan was examined the clear it became that the Germans intended to contest the Royal Navy’s dominance at sea.(9)9 Between these two occasions Britain had started to come out of an extended period of “Splendid Isolation”, concluding an alliance with Japan. Primary directed at Russia, and Russian expansion, not German, in the Far East. The alliance is worthy of a mention here because it did free up Royal Navy ships for service elsewhere, including the North Sea. The next major event leading to British involvement in a European war was the signing of the Entente Cordial in 1904. This treaty was not a formal alliance, but an “understanding”. The Entente did resolve issues between the French and the British concerning Egypt, now in the British sphere of influence, Morocco which was in the French. In 1905 German Admiral Von Tirpitz was finally convinced of the offence capabilities of the submarine and £73,000 was set aside for the construction of the first U-boat. For the German Navy. Germany had already built submarines , in many ways they were more advanced than comparable designs in Britain or France. Twin propulsion units, Petrol for surface and electric for submerged. A configuration which apart from the substitution for diesel, remain unchanged until the nuclear age. The German periscope was superior to the Royal Navy’s as were the German torpedoes. The design of the U-boat was being broader and flatter made them better sea boats too. Germany had experience of building U-boats going back to 1890. Ironically Germany was builder four submarines for the Imperial Russian Navy. (10)10 In May of 1906 the Reichstag passed the First amendment to the Fleet Act, this increased the size of the foreign fleet and also the number of torpedo boats. Meanwhile, in Britain, that September “Jacky” Fisher became First Sea Lord. The Royal Navy was about to be overhauled by the greatest British peacetime Admiral. Better ships, better training, better run. Gunnery was improved and in 1906, Fisher upped the stakes with a new battleship, H.M.S. Dreadnought. From the launch of this ship, all battleships would be “Dreadnoughts” or “Pre-Dreadnoughts”. All other battleships in the world were now obsolete. Ironically the only Imperial German Navy vessel sunk by H.M.S. Dreadnought was a U-boat, the U29 on the 18th March 1915.(11)11

The accepted response to H.M.S. Dreadnought has been the building of the “Nassau” and her three sister ships by the Germans. However their hexagonal arrangement of their six gun turrets meant only four of the turrets could fire a broadside. The guns on the Nassau were also of a lesser calibre so the weight of the broadside was considerably less than Dreadnought’s. Compared to H.M.S. Dreadnought the German ships with their in-line engines were also slower both in top speed and in rate of acceleration. Despite their broad design the Nassau ships were also less sea worthy. Unless the Imperial Germany Navy was going for larger numbers of ships, the Nassau was a poor response. More likely they were an off the shelf design. German naval theory was to engage the Grand Fleet in a Nelsonic battle at sea. The descendants of Nelson’s Navy were planning on an extended distance blockade. Nassau, out gunned, slow, and as with most German ships lacking in range was not suitable for either future possibility.(12)12

In February 1907 Germany announced the formation of the High Seas Fleet, Imperial Germany’s battle fleet. This was the physical enshrinement Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz’s theory that the British would not dare to go to war if Germany had a large enough fleet to challenge Britain in the North Sea. It did not in Tirpitz’s theory matter that Britain had a larger fleet, if Germany could achieve either parity or even better local superiority over the Royal Navy in the North Sea. Trouble was the Royal Navy was planing to fight a different kind of war, that of blockade. Tirpitz naively assumed the Royal Navy would fight Tirpitz’s war and he had no plans for anything different. On the 31st August 1907 Britain and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian Entente in St Petersburg. This entente resolved many of the issues between Britain and Russia, notably over Persia, a few repetitively minor issues notably over Tibet did remain. However the entente did lay the groundwork for what became to be known as the Triple Entente. From the end of August 1907 Russia and Britain did partake in joint military manoeuvres. Germany was feeling encircled and the Schlieffen Plan, never more than a paper plan was continually under review. In 1908 Germany amended the 1900 Fleet Act, New cruisers were to be upgraded to “Battlecruisers”, one more heavy cruiser was to be built, and the replacement time for new battleships to be reduced to twenty years. The combination of the building of the Nassau, followed by the amendment to the 1900 Act caused panic in the British Admiralty. They asked for six Dreadnoughts to be built. The British Government would have liked the number reduced,.(13)13 In a remarkable example of British Compresses, were the Royal Navy wanted six, the Government would have liked only three, economists said only four were affordable, eight were ordered. The British public would not have accepted less.

Meanwhile in Morocco, trouble was brewing. The Entente Cordial between Britain and France had given the British a free hand in Egypt, in return Britain promised the French a free hand in Morocco. Germany had been helping Germans who had or wished to desert from the French Foreign Legion. The French had protested. Increasingly the French had been turning Morocco into a Protectorate. On the pretext of native unrest and a threat by them to German nationals, the Kaiser sent a gunboat, the Panther, shortly afterwards the Panther was backed up by a cruiser. The French were outraged. On a visit to England the kaiser had asked King George for British support. This was declined on the grounds that the French were only doing what the British had done in Egypt. The Kaiser sensing that Morocco was about to be divided up demanded a slice of the Moroccan coast with a harbour they could turn into a Navy base.. That or a Large piece of French territory next to the Cameroon’s as compensation. The French asked for support from Britain. Germany had no option but to back down. Small concessions were made to Germany. They got a bit of African swamp. Dreams of an Atlantic harbour for the High Seas Fleet were dashed. It is hard to see why the Germans thought a harbour would have been useful. Over one and a half thousand miles from the North Sea a German Navy base there would have been seen as a threat to Britain’s Imperial Empire. On the outbreak of war it would have been dealt with very swiftly. Germany saw the whole episode as a humiliation. The fault was deemed to be the lack of German sea power. The Germans felt they had no navy muscle to weld in the face of possible intervention by the Royal Navy. The result was the 1912 Amendment to the 1900 Fleet Act, which enlarged the Imperial German Navy yet again.

At the end of the first week in December 1912 the Kaiser held a meeting of the supreme war council. This is a controversial meeting. No clear evidence is available during the writing of this report as to what was a) actually discussed, and b) the weight each part of that discussion carried. The meeting was in response to two events. The Balkan War, and the recent Moroccan crisis. All meetings of war planners discuss various scenarios, some more seriously than others. It does not mean that they will be acted upon. Sufficient to say that any plans for Germany military intervention in the Balkan wars, or a preventative war with Russia and France were put on hold for another two years. The scene was set, the die cast, who out of the Great Powers would blink first?

Geography decided the nature of the war both countries would plan to fight.(14)14 Germany imported most of her food from the East, from the Russian Empire, the West, from France, and by sea. The south was blocked by the Alps a formidable mountain range. A victorious war for Germany had to be short, and on one front. Long two front wars would leave to starvation and defeat. A land grab may have become a war aim but it was not in the pre war Schlieffen Plan, or indeed the aim of the 1914 invasion of Belgium. An overseas colonial adventure was also a non starter, Britain would never allow it. A desire to develop a navy capable of challenging the Royal Navy’s superiority and protected an expeditionary force large enough to carry out any worth while colonial expansion would result in a rapid expansion of the Royal Navy’s capabilities and battleship building program. For Britain, a successful war was one were the Royal Navy retained its numerical advantage and the British Empire was, at the very minimum consolidated and that consolidation was brought about by an expansion of the Empire. The Kaiser, Tirptz and the German High Command collectively were politically naive. The Kaiser was ultimately responsible because he was an autocratic leader. in August 1914 by invading Belgium Germany gave Britain the excuse she was looking for. The argument that Britain was unprepared, her army to small are nonsense. the whole point of the Entente Cordial was Britain would be the main fighting force at sea, France on land. Also Germany failed to take into account Britain would always intervene in a European War if that war looked like there was even the slightest chance the French coast were to fall into the hands of a potentially hostile nation who had a large navy. The Imperial Germany Navy was never a deterrent to the British, it was a guarantee however, that Britain would join any future war in Europe and not on the side of the Kaiser.


Anglo Russian Entente

Bernhard Von Bulow

Castle’s of Steel, Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great war at Sea. Robert K Massie. Bllantine, 2003. ISBN 0-345-40878-0

Dreadnought, Britain Germany, and the coming of the Great War. Robert K. Massie. Ballentine edition 1992, ISBN 0-345-37556-4

German Navy Acts

The High Seas Fleet

The U-boat War 1914-1918, Edwyn Gray, Leo Cooper 1994, ISBN 0 85052 405 9

The Schlieffen-plan


1 Britain’s ultimate weapon was the Royal Navy, and Britain had no hesitation in using her ultimate weapon. The USA and USSR could not, and can not, use there ultimate weapons, This difference makes Britain the only true Superpower in History.

2 To the Germans all submarines are U-boats,(untersee boots), in the English speaking world the term has come to refer to only German submarines

3 Once free in the Atlantic a hostile fleet would be a direct challenge to Britain’s trade routes and a threat to Britain’s Empire.

  • 4 Reichstag, German Parliament

6 P179 Dreadnought, Britain Germany, and the coming of the Great War, First Ballantine edition 1992

7 P180 Dreadnought, Britain Germany, and the coming of the Great War, First Ballantine edition 1992

8 As quoted on P181 Dreadnought, Britain Germany, and the coming of the Great War, First Ballantine edition 1992

9 P184 Dreadnought, Britain Germany, and the coming of the Great War, First Ballantine edition 1992

10 The U-boat War 1914-1918.

12 At the end of the Great War Nassau and her three sister ships were not required to sail with the rest of the High Seas Fleet to Scapa Flow. They were simply not regarded very highly.

13 P499 Dreadnought.

14 War Plans, and War Aims, are prone to change over time, usually on first contact.


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