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The British-German naval rivalry as a contributing factor to the start of World War One

| January 21, 2017


One the main arguments that have been presented in order to understand the reasons for the beginning of World War One revolves around the growth of military capabilities in the European continent in the period leading up to the start of the conflagration. Among the immediate causes cited for the beginning of hostilities was the naval rivalry that unfolded between the United Kingdom and Germany, particularly in the 1960-1914 period (Churchill, 1923: 119). Upon the establishment of the German Kingdom in 1871, Britain was in possession of the biggest naval forces in the world (Kelly, 2011: 20). In order to entrench the position of Germany in the European political order, Emperor Wilhelm II launched a strategy that was centred around extending the projection of power of the German High Seas Fleet (Clark, 2012: 116). This policy was seconded by the German Imperial Naval Office which, under the stewardship of Admiral Alfred Von Tirpitz, became an influential force in expanding the country’s naval fleet to 2/3 of the size of the Royal Navy (Von Tirpitz, 1920: 134).

This essay argues that the British-German naval rivalry contributed the advent of the First World War due to the fact that it compelled London to enter the conflagration in order to maintain the balance of power in the European political order and to preserve its commercial interests in the wider world. These became seriously threatened by the expansion of German naval capabilities. The first part of the essay outlines the historical and geopolitical circumstances involved in the British-German naval rivalry. Particular attention is given to the way in which the United Kingdom reacted to the decision of the German Empire to extend its sea power to the wider world as well as the geopolitical implications involved in the decision to resist the expansion of Germany’s naval capabilities. The second part of the essay examines the way in which those considerations were brought to bear in the decision to enter World War One.

The British-German naval rivalry during the period leading up to the First World War

The plan for the expansion of German naval capabilities responded to the geopolitical situation that was taking place in Southern Africa in the context of the Boer War (Weir, 1992: 81). When British forces invaded Transvaal at the end of the nineteenth century, plans were put in place in order to place a blockade on Germany, catering for the possibility that the imperial forces may try to intervene in the conflict (Kelly, 2002: 1048). This move would have potentially resulted in severe dislocations to the German economy, which depended on foreign raw materials and markets for its continued expansion (Kelly, 2011: 29). The extension of German naval capabilities was therefore geared towards securing the conditions for the country’s long term economic growth (Grey, 1925: 17). From a technical standpoint, the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 exacerbated the intensity of the German-British naval race.  The Dreadnought became the first battleship that operated a synchronised main battery (Churchill, 1923: 188; Weir, 1992: 39). In addition, it also possessed the highest speed of any other vessel commissioned for military service due to the fact that it ran on steam engines (Wilson, 1985: 55; Lambert, 2002: 22). It is worth mentioning that the naval hegemony possessed by the United Kingdom became a more costly exercise with the rise of Germany and other revisionist states in the late nineteenth century (Neilson, 1995: 99; Kelly, 2011: 46). This state of affairs had prompted the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘Two-Power standard’, which provided that the British naval forces had to be at least as powerful as the next two strongest navies (France and Russia) (Clark, 2012: 122; Steinberg, 1985: 59).

In the period leading up to the advent of the First World War there was a great deal of popular support in both countries for a continuation of the policy of naval expansion. It is worth mentioning that in spite of the race for expanded naval capabilities, British sea power had been severely curtailed by the eve of the First World War. (Von Tirpitz, 1920: 136) There are a number of observations that can be made in order to explain this occurrence (Kelly, 2002: 1055). To begin with,  Britain was under severe financial constraints due its ever decreasing share of word trade and political unrest at home, marked by the demands for social justice exerted by the trade union movement and the Labour Party (Weir, 1992: 33; Kelly, 2011: 190). In addition, the expansion of the American Navy as well as the efforts of the German Naval Office to extend the country’s sea power contributed to the diminished capacity of the Royal Navy to project its capabilities in the wider world. In spite of these developments, it is safe to argue that the United Kingdom had the greatest naval power upon entering World War One (Grey, 1925: 23). Furthermore, the country ensured the continuation of its relative superiority in the sea by entering into an alliance with Russia and France, geared towards counterbalancing the emerging central bloc constituted by Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (Wilson, 1985: 59).

The Entente Cordiale, signed between Britain and France in 1904, came about as a result of the willingness of the German Empire to enlarge their commercial reach to the wider world, particularly in Africa where both nations had substantial colonial interests (Von Tirpitz, 1920: 130; Clark, 2012: 124). The establishment and preservation of a German colonial system was to be carried out through the expansion of the nation’s naval capabilities (Lambert, 2002: 25). The British Foreign Office was aware of the grand geopolitical designs of the German Empire. Some of its most prominent members distinguished a distinct revisionist stance on the part of Germany, which they likened to the hegemonic drive of France’s Napoleon a century earlier (Grey, 1925: 44). The preservation of naval superiority and the establishment of political alliances with like-minded nations were conducive to abandoning the policy of neutrality in European affairs and to engage in an act of balancing against Germany (Clark, 2012: 144). The threat of a German revisionist drive was outlined by Eyre Crowe, an official at the Western Department of the British Foreign office, in his famous memorandum of 1907. Crowe emphasised the need to maintain naval supremacy in order to preserve the freedom of the seas and international commerce,

‘In proportion as England champions the principle of the largest measure of general freedom of commerce, she undoubtedly strengthens her hold on the interested friendship of other nations, at least to the extent of making them feel less apprehensive of naval supremacy in the hands of a free trade England than they would in the face of a predominant protectionist Power’ (Crowe, 1907).

The British diplomatic establishment was aware of the dangers of a revisionist Germany for world peace. At the same time, there was an expressed preoccupation with the possibility that the extension of German naval resources may result in a diminution of British sea power (McDermott in Kennedy (ed.), 1979: 81). This is what transpires from a statement made to the House of Commons in 1911 by Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary,

‘Germany is rightly proud of her strength. She is building a big fleet. Surely it is natural and obvious that the growth of that fleet must raise apprehensions, or at least make other nations very sensitive to apprehensions, lest the Power which is becoming strong should have aggressive designs towards themselves. I do not believe in these aggressive designs. I do not wish to have it interpreted in that sense, but I think it must be realised that other nations will be apprehensive and sensitive, and on the lookout for any indications of aggression. All we or the other neighbours of Germany desire is to live with her on equal terms’ (Grey, 1911).

The geopolitical implications of the rise of Germany were tied to the establishment of a naval network capable of sustaining the growing commercial influence of the nation in the wider world. However, it should be mentioned that in 1912 the German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, approached the British authorities in order to put an end to the naval race between the two countries (Kennedy, 1983: 120). The Chancellor’s approach might have been motivated by the need to overcome the increasing isolation of Germany in the European political order. The British authorities responded by sending Richard Haldane, the Secretary of State for War, to negotiate the terms of the détente with Imperial Germany (Grey, 1925: 33). However, this mission failed due to the German proposal to accept the naval dominance of the United Kingdom in return for London’s neutral stance in the case of a general conflagration and the assurance that the Berlin would not be branded as the aggressor (McDermott in Kennedy (ed.), 1979: 86).

The visit of Lord Haldane to Berlin revealed some of the geopolitical concerns regarding the revisionist stance adopted by Germany (Kennedy, 1980: 60). Winston Churchill, who had been a member of the Liberal Cabinet, argued that whilst for Germany the maintenance of naval capabilities was a ‘luxury’, for Britain it a was a ‘necessity’ (Churchill, 1923: 144). Here we see an attempt by a prominent British politician to downplay the importance of the construction of naval resources on the part of Germany (Kennedy, 1980: 67). This was done in order to reinforce the notion that British naval superiority was a feature of the European and international political order that was not to be challenged (Kelly, 2011: 173). As we will see in the next section, the geopolitical considerations pertaining to the possibility of German supremacy in the continent constituted a significant factor in the British decision to enter into the First World War (Epkenhans, 2008: 122).

 The impact of the British-German naval rivalry in London’s decision to enter into the First World War

In regards to the outbreak of hostilities, it should be argued that the arms race that took place between the United Kingdom and the Germany drove both nations to enter into the war (McDermott in Kennedy (ed.), 1979: 99). Additionally, the inimical interests of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires in the Balkans made their participation in the war inevitable. France embarked upon the pursuit of war as a consequence of the invasion by the German forces and its alliance commitments to Russia (Kennedy, 1989: 91). It could be posited that one of the most salient aspects of World War One is constituted by the British participation in the war in order to balance the revisionist drive of the German Empire. From this perspective, the British entry into the war may be regarded as an attempt to maintain an equilibrium of forces in the European political order. This balance of power was tilting towards Germany in a decisive manner, since the country adopted the decision to build up its naval resources that severely threatened British supremacy at sea (Clark, 2012: 132).

There is an established consensus on a segment of the scholarship that is centred on the idea that the United Kingdom had become increasingly wary about the intention of the German imperial government to increase its naval capabilities (Massie, 1991: 20). The Reichsflotte Doctrine, propounded by Admiral Tirpitz, revolved around the notion that Germany was impelled to prop up its naval resources in order to be able to inflict damage to the Royal Navy in case of a war (Kelly, 2002: 1037). However, it should be mentioned that in 1912 the German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, approached the British authorities in order to put an end to the naval race between the two countries (Kennedy, 1983: 120). The Chancellor’s approach might have been motivated by the need to overcome the increasing isolation of Germany in the European political order. The British authorities responded by sending Richard Haldane, the Secretary of State for War, to negotiate the terms of the détente with Imperial Germany (Grey, 1925: 33).  This would force the United Kingdom to enter into an alliance with Germany. However, it may be stated that the position of the United Kingdom was one of the defiance, preferring the option of entering into the First World War in order to prevent the possibility that Germany may achieve geopolitical supremacy in the European continent and a broader projection of power into the wider world (Epkenhans, 2008: 101).

During the decade that preceded the advent of World War One, the United Kingdom made considerable preparations in order to cater for the eventuality of hostilities against Germany (Kennedy, 1980: 109). In addition to the signing of diplomatic treaties with France and Russia, the United Kingdom also entered into an alliance with Japan, in order to devote their attention to the emerging geopolitical scenario in the European theatre (Modelski and Thompson, 1988: 19). The acceleration of the naval race that took place during the 1908-12 period left an indelible impression on the mindset of British foreign policy makers (Clark, 2012: 141). The shift from a naval to an army doctrine by Germany in 1812 did not assuage tensions between the two countries, as it became another instrument to exert potential domination over the British allies: France and Russia (Massie, 1991: 50). Some alternative explanations to Britain’s entry into World War One gyrate around the idea that London did not just seek to contain the naval prowess of Germany but to attain a situation in which the other competitors would see their sea power diminished (Kennedy, 1989: 133). For example, the Russian Empire, which had experienced significant economic growth in the last two decades before the war, could have potentially threatened British interests in India (Kennedy, 1980: 11).

The British Raj could not have been defended by its tiny armed forces in case of an overland Russian invasion. This prompted London to seek an alliance with Russia, which was duly effectuated in 1907 (Steinberg, 1973: 201; Kennedy, 1983: 50). From this perspective, confecting a German naval threat would be conducive to reassuring France and Russia that only the Royal Navy could provide an equilibrium of forces in the seas (Massie, 1991: 56). Therefore, the British-German rivalry also has to be assessed in the context of British diminution of power due to the rise of revisionist powers such as Japan and Germany (Kelly, 2002: 1036). In addition, the rise of the United States as the largest economy in the world also played into the geopolitical considerations of British foreign policy makers on the eve of World War One (Modelski and Thompson, 1988: 21).The antagonism regarding the naval race between the United Kingdom and Germany has to be appraised in the context of the actual erosion of British power (McDermott in Kennedy (ed.), 1979: 93). Consequently, British policy revolved around the principle of avoiding the rise of a naval competitor that could threaten its imperial possessions, rather than a revisionist power that could attain supremacy in the continent (Epkenhans, 2008: 55). It could be stated that the strategy that led to British entry into World War One was centred around the maintenance of naval supremacy through the introduction of ships that would be able to rise to the challenge of an attack against any of Britain’s imperial possessions (Kennedy, 1989: 139). It was known at the time that Germany did not pose an immediate threat to British Empire. However, the United Kingdom was compelled to enter into World War One in order to prevent a situation in which a victorious Germany would be in a position to reconfigure the geopolitical map through the accumulation of naval forces with France and Russia (Steinberg, 1973: 199; Neilson, 1995: 55).  German supremacy in the European continent would have eventually resulted in naval dominance by an entente between Germany and the vanquished powers (Kennedy, 1983: 88).  The British-German naval rivalry was a significant factor in Britain’s entry into World War One due to the potential ramifications of a German victory in the continent, rather than as a response to its potential supremacy over the European continent (Kelly, 2002: 1034).


By way of conclusion, it should be noted that the naval rivalry between the United Kingdom and Germany exerted a significant amount of influence in the decision to enter into the First World War. Prompted by Berlin’s accumulation of naval resources, the United Kingdom attempted to preserve its relative superiority in the sea by forging an alliance with Russia and France (Clark, 2012: 155; Steinberg, 1985: 59). This was geared towards counterpoising the looming threat constituted by the associative framework between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. The Entente Cordiale originated from the need to counterbalance the German Empire’s to commercial and military reach into the wider world, especially in regions where both France and the United Kingdom had substantial colonial interests (Churchill, 1923: 213).

The British political establishment was well aware of the geopolitical constructs of the German Empire, which was compared to the hegemonic drive instigated by Napoleon in the early part of the nineteenth century (Steinberg, 1973: 196; Kennedy, 1989: 129). It may be argued that the motivations that led to British entry into the First World War were centred around the need to preserve naval supremacy through the retrofitting of the Royal Navy’s capabilities in order to fend off the challenge of an attack against any of Britain’s imperial possessions (Epkenhans, 2008: 81). For all the reasons to be cited above, it could be concluded that the United Kingdom entered into the First World War in order to avoid a situation in which German supremacy in the European continent would result in an eventual naval alliance between Germany and its former enemies (Neilson, 1995: 61).  Consequently, the British-German naval rivalry was an important factor in London’s decision to enter into World War One, as the potential geopolitical implications of a German victory would have involved an eventual threat to British possessions overseas. These were to be defended at all costs. Even at the expense of entering into a war that diminished the standing of the United Kingdom in world affairs and which did not manage to sort out the position of Germany in the European political spectrum.


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