Anglo-German Naval Rivalry 1900-1914.

~ Introduction
~ Imperial Germany
~ The Fleet Bill
~ The Turn of the Screw
~ The Kaleidoscope Shifts
~ Fisher
~ The Burden of Armaments
~ The Year Of Decision
~ Acceleration
~ Panthersprung!
~ Churchill
~ Summer 1914
~ Epilogue


"The decision for war against the three world empires of France, Russia and Britain was taken by a tiny handful of men [in Berlin] who seem to have had hardly any idea of the shattering consequences that their decision would have for Germany, for Europe and for the world down to the present day."
        - John Rohl, "The Kaiser and his Court"

The responsibility for the first world war is a historical issue of the first magnitude.

The clinching arguments for Berlin's war guilt come not so much from the December 1912 "war" council as from the events of July 1914. On the 5th Kaiser Wilhelm affirmed support for Austria-Hungary should Russia intervene in her quarrel with Serbia over the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian revolutionary anarchist. This is known as the "blank cheque". Russia had made it clear that any attack on Serbian integrity would be regarded as a causus belli. How is it possible to suppose that by encouraging Austria-Hungary to discipline Serbia, Berlin did not anticipate a Balkan conflagration into which Russia would be drawn, and thereby Germany in support of her client Austria, so igniting continental war? It is not credible. Subsequent secret mobilisation of the German fleet beneath an outward show of normality before Austria delivered her ultimatum to Serbia together with many other indications reveal that conflagration was anticipated.

The secret was reserved to the tiny circle in Berlin and Vienna; elsewhere no one had any inkling. International bankers in the City of London whose interests lay in Britain keeping out of any continental war and whose business depended on first-class intelligence had no premonition... this is proof of Wilhelm's guilt: the world's incomprehension. Not all the efforts of the British government could pull Berlin back from the brink.

Admiral Jackie Fisher was appointed First Sea Lord in October 1904 by a Conservative government in a period of fiscal crisis primarily to reduce naval expenditure. It is a corrective to the impression the focus of this book may give that he was appointed simply to rejuvenate a somewhat ossified Royal Navy specifically to meet the German threat. The radical all-gun battleship, HMS Dreadnought, with which Fisher rendered all previous battleships obsolete, was not the cornerstone of his material reforms. In the new strategic concept he brought to the admiralty, small torpedo craft, both surface and submarine, would replace battleships for the defence of the homeland and overseas bases, while all-big-gun cruisers, latter christened battlecruisers, with high speed and only light armour would protect oceanic trade; heavily armoured battleships would have no purpose, Fisher believed, snce they would not be able to operate in waters controlled by torpedo craft, and would disappear.


While the sea powes of western Europe carved the world between them and England, the greatest sea power of them all, took the lion's share, the Germans lingered in the realm of dreams. Divided into petty princedoms jealous of their sovereignty and mostly far from the sea, the high road for commerce and world influence, they made their contribution to European life in analytical thought, writing, immortal music. And when they awoke in the last quarter of the 19th century all the good places of the earth had been taken. This was how Germans looked at the world, and with some reason.

Prussia, kingdom of the eagle, whose stiff character had been formed on the sandy soil of the northern marches east of the Elbe and Oder. Lacking natural barriers, forced to maintain itself in battle, Prussia had become a nation of warriors united under the soldier kings of the house of Hohenzollern, with a Spartan code of self-sacrifice and individual subservience to the good of the state. The State was its own highest law and relations with other States were not governed by normal codes of morality, only by the will of the State. Armed might was a right, indeed the instrument of this will, and in the wars which, in the natural order of things, had to occue the only justification and the only judgement was success. The doctrine was given political reality by Bismarck in the second half of the 19th century. In a series of sudden, calculatedm skilfully localised wars directed against one opponent at a time he extended Prussian State power over all the German peoples except Austria, creating a new central European Empire under Wilhelm 1, the new Caesar - the Kaiser. Afterwards it became apparent that this had been Prussia's historic mission. Through the long German sleep, she had been preparing herself by privation and discipline to become the political teacher and tasmaster of the Germans.

"Only in war a nation will truly become a Nation. Only common great deeds together for the idea of the Fatherland will hold a nation together. Social selfishness must yield... The individual must forget himself and feel part of the whole."
 - Heinrich von Treistschke, chair of history at University of Berlin

Such an idealised concept of war was not unique to Prussian thought. But it took the Prussian genius to raise a worldwide fascination with the ancient qualities of heroism and self-sacrifice, as purgative for gross 'materialism', into a dynamic philisophy. Treistschke was first among the prophets. Year after year he preached this doctrine in University lecture halls filled to overflowing not just with students but with a cross-section of Berlin official, professional and Service life, Generals and Admirals among them... his language was an unrestricted as his delivery, ranging from paeans to the German 'Volk' to elemental shafts of hatred for peoples outside the mystic circle. Generations of students who came to wield immense power in Germany found their inspiration at his feet... Critics recognized that his lectures, while based on the denial of self before an all-mighty State and couched in mystical, lyrical language, ultimately appealed to the basest instincts of his audience. Everything came down to power. Power was the supreme force in the world. By according to the State and the acquisition of State power, which was the same thing, the sanctity of the highest moral law, he placed statesmen outside all other systems of ethics. The effect of Treistschke's teaching was to extract the evils, imperfections, ambitions and race hatreds of current European politics and raise them into the highest forms of political virtue. Taken to its logical conclusion - and new Germany prided itself on logic - it was a system which glorified any internal tyranny, any external aggression for the good of the State.

To some Prussian advisors, England's lust for power, unassuaged by possession of India and the great English-speaking dominions, was manifest in her bullying attacks on the Boers and her grand designs for an African Empire. This lust was all the more despicable since it was hidden behind a humanitarian mask. "Take up the White Man's burden, send forth the best ye bredd; go bind your sons to exile to serve your capitve's need." Kipling's naivety was easily penetrable by German intellect... everywhere it was the same: "advanced" nations spread their influence by force of arms and rationalised their conquests by reference to a "civilising" mission or glorification of the State. The only check the one nation's ambition was the superior armed power of other nations; there was no law except might. The Germans prided themselves on seeing the world as it was.

In contemporary terms "greater Germany" meant an extension of the Empire overseas through colonies and trade, spreading "Germanism" and German influence and power throughout the world. Here it was evident they must come up against Great Britain with her existing world Empire and her mighty navy whose battle squadrons were supreme in every ocean. Britain would never give up her supremacy voluntarily. Here, then, was the great struggle of the future.

This was the fare which nourished German imagination towards the end of the 19th century. It was a powerful vision and a driving force that began to mould the real world closer to its own image.

Warriors were in the saddle. But while they faced backwards the new Germany galloped away beneath them in the press of industrial nations pursuing material progress and profit; they held the reigns, but it was the industrialists, entrepeneurs and speculators who provided momentum and the real power behind Germany's position in the world. Not so much Prussian discipline as Krupp steel cannon outranging French field pieces which had cut down Napoleon III's soldiers at Sedan... the new Germany thundered on beneath them. It had come up too fast and too far behind to be halted by any reaction above, and could already see the winning posts in view. German steel production was double that of England; German exports and sea trade were growing rapidly.

[For the Admiralty] State Secretary of the Naval Office, Admiral Hollmann was a failure. He was too reasonable a person. Looking at the British Navy, substantially stronger than a combination of its two nearest rivals and probably equal to any three Powers allied against it, guided by Boards of Admiralty patently determined to preserve this measure of strength, it had seemed ridiculous to challenge it, particularly for a nation keeping the most powerful army in Europe to preserve her borders against France and Russia. The most that could be hoped for was a strong coast defence force of torpedo boats and small-displacement battleships to keep open the Baltic, meanwhile keeping a force of ocean-going cruisers to protect German trade. Tirpitz lacked Hollmann's brand of realism. His compulsion was to make reality conform to his images.

A naval war with the greatest sea power was not Tirpitz's aim, not in the short term. his immediate goal was to build up a battle fleet so that, in the spirit of von Stosch's own policy of giving "value for maritime allies", it would represent a political power factor which England could not ignore... Tirpitz was a subtle character. His methods were described by one subordinate as the deliberate creation of an atmosphere of fog out of which he could operate in any direction. For his fleet plans the fog had to extend to England. It would be fatal to alert the British to the full extent of German naval ambitions... the internal rationale of his scheme aimed at wresting financial control of the Navy from the Reichstag. The British, if alerted under a latter-day Pitt, might create a pretext for striking and destroying the infant rival before it could grow strong enough to defend itself. This was the "Danger Zone".

On the face of it this fear was irrational. All Powers were increasing their battle fleets: why should Britain single out the young German fleet for destruction? Since 1815 Britain now preferred to outbuild her rivals.
Fear of Britain and consequent absorption with the "Danger Zone" were only explicable in terms of 'guilt' about future intentions.

As Tirpitz expressed it, "The lever of our world policy was the North Sea." For here was England's weak point. With her main battle strength in the Mediterranean against the Dual Alliance of France and Russia, and her other squadrons scattered around the globe to protect her vast trade and possessions she would not be able to meet the new threat pointed at her heart without leaving other parts open to others.


Bulow told Wilhelm that the basic problem in foreign affairs would arise from Germany's need to build a fleet, yet not become involved in a war with England in the process.

Tirpitz's Law was remarkable for the assumotuin that Great Britain would allow Germany to mass a fleet to powerful close to her own shores without matching it by increased construction or recalling overseas squadrons, or both. After all, what was the Mediterranean or China compared with London and the English Channel? If history, military theory or common sense were any guides English would both outbuild and concentrate her forces to meet the vital threat. Or - in Tirpitz's and Bulow's nightmares - stage a preventive war and cut out the canker before it grew too large.

There were some signs of awakening in England: in the autumn of 1897 the first of a genre of stories about invasion of the British Isles by German forces - in collaboration with the traditional enemies, France and Russia - was serialised in the "Naval and Military Record".


Tirpitz faced the problem of how to convince the Reichstag of the necessity for adding to the fleet without at the same time alerting England to its real purpose, "All policy hostile to England must wait until we have a fleet as strong as the English".

An open minded examination of the question must have suggested that by pointing the guns of his battleships at London Tirpitz was inviting, indeed forcing the British to come down from their splendid isolation and take sides in the European struggle... Tirpitz couldn't quite see it, or didn't want to, he was not in the habit of putting himself in anyone else's position.

Tirpitz's "distant goal" he defined as an "Iron Budget"... he had in mind a battle line of 60 ships with a life span of 20 years. Once this was embodied in Law the Reichstag which could neither propose nor alter legislation, would be powerless to object to its financing and the fleet would be a permanent, self-perpetuating organism under the unfettered control of the Kaiser.

"The British find difficulty in believing in really evil intentions in others... If the British public clearly realised the anti-British feeling which dominates Germany just now, a great revulsion would occur in its conception of the relations between Britain and Germany."
        - letter from German Foreign Minister Bulow

Bulow tried to preserve the delicate balance of hostility necessary to rouse his own people but not the British.

Britain was dangerously isolate and was beginning hesitatinglty to search for friends, not additional enemies. Germany and America were the most obvious choices, and an attack on Germany was the last thing British politicians considered.

At the British Admirality the Director of Naval Intelligence listed the practical difficulties of disarmanent proposals: (a) Disarmament is impossible without the assuranec of a durable peace. (b) A durable peace cannot be assured without adjustment of all differences such as Alsace, China, Egypt etc etc (c) The adjustment of differences is impossible without a force to enforces the decress of Congress. (d) No such force exists. The fact is that after a long peace each Power is prepared to fight for what it considers its legitimate aspirations. It will only yield when exhausted by war.

Admiral Jackie Fisher seemed the very embodiment of British naval power and ruthlessness, with his uninhibited expression of the deterrent philosophy and its corollary that "the supremacy of the British Navy is the best guarantee for peace in the world".

Fisher went to take command of the Mediterranean Fleet. This was the Queen on the chessboard of British Imperial Strategy: it marked the main French fleet at Toulon and the Russian Black Sea Fleet to prevent them from either joining forces of breaking out via Suez or to the Straits of Gibraltar.

"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 her position in the world."
        - Bulow, passage justifying a "Risk Fleet"


"Our frontiers are the coasts of the enemy and we ought to be there five minutes after war is declared."
        - Admiral Jackie Fisher

"The sea is not to be looked upon as a means of transport between the different Continents, but as a territory, a British territory of course. The English fleet which owns the Empire of the Seas, places its frontiers at the enemy's coasts, and will dispose of all commerce beyond that frontier just as an army disposes of the resources of a conquered province..."
        - Contemporary French analysis of British strategy

Bulow failed to allow for the possibility that each move Britain made away from Germany would be a move towards Germany's Continental enemies. When Chamberlain and others hinted at this he dismissed it as a bargaining ploy, "a threatening apparition to scare us."

"Against England alone is such a weapon as the modern Germany Navy necessary; against England, unless all available evidence and all probability combine to mislead, that weapon is being prepared."
        - Confidential Memo prepared for British Admirality (1902)

Tirpitz failed to re-think his fleet plan... Reason was called in, not to analyze the plan in the light of the changing circumstances, but to serve it.

"In all essentials a naval battle is a fight of one ship against another; the decisive technical factor is rather the concentration of force in the individual ship than the actual number of ships."
        - Tirpitz, revising a 1904 opinion in 1919


"History is a record of exploded ideas."
        - Admiral Fisher

"No one can draw the line where the armoured cruiser becomes a battleship any more than when a kitten becomes a cat."
        - Admiral Fisher

"The battleship of olden days was necessary because it was the one and only vessel that nothing could sink except another battleship. Now every battleship is open to attack by fast torpedo craft and submarine... what is the use of battleships as we have hitherto known that? None! Their one and only function that of ultimate security of defence is gone."
        - Admiral Fisher, advancing plans for armoured or battle cruisers

"Speed is the weather gage of the old days. You then fight when it suits you best... the most demoralising and expensive and inefficient thing in the British Navy is the mass of small, isolated vessels which as known as the 'snail' and 'tortoise' classes, which can neither fight nor run away..."
        - Admiral Fisher

"Day and night Germany is preparing for war with England. She will strike only when she is ready to strike."
        - Vanity Fair article "A Navy Without Excuse"

Bulow's tactical success in removing the firebrand French premier Declasse had been achieved at the cost of total strategic defeat. England and France were closer together than before, alerted to their danger unless they stuck together, wanred of the need for coordination between their military and naval departments, actually conducting staff talks on joint war plans against Germany... as so often in Imperial Germany, facts were reversed and other countries' reactions to the German goad were elevated into causes, and the honest German Michael saw himself the object of unsolicited hatred and envy from all sides.
        - on the fallout from the Morocco crisis

Fisher delighted in being the most feared and hated man in Germany; he took it as his greatest compliment.

HMS Dreadnought was intended to shock. Having decided on the revolutionary all-big-gun cruiser-battleship, hence the relegation of all Britain's existing battleships to the second rank, Fisher knew he had to establish a lead in the new type to match his preponderance in the old. He had to keep the details of the design secret, then build her at great speed, carry out trials, learn the lessons, incorporate them into the next class, all before Tirpitz penetrated her secrets.

"Germany's avowed aims and ambitions are such that they seem bound, if persisted in, to being her into armed collision with us sooner or later."
        - War Office Intelligence Division memo (1906)


The Liberals had come to power on a pledge to put social benefits before arms, and many saw navalists and even the Admiralty itself as little more than the tools of the great armamements barons. The Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, was far too shrewd an old dog to take such a simple view. He hated the idea of war, but while war was a possibility he regarded the efficiency of the armed services as one of the most elementary cares of a government. Nevertheless, he also hated the 'jingo' expansionism of so many Britons.

Rational argument was as little use against disaffected British Admirals as it was against Tirpitz. Beneath their splendid uniforms and Olympian hauteur were human beings with their whole way of life under threat; they reacted humanly.

"In a country like ours, governed by discussion, a great man is never hanged. He hangs himself. Therefore pray be Machiavellian and play upon the delicate instrument of public opinion with your fingers and not with your feet."
        - Advice from Viscount Esher to Fisher

"The first aim in a naval war is to devise some means of forcing the enemy's fleet to expose itself to being struck by our own, and that in waters as unfavourable to him as possible."
        - Julian Corbett, discussing prewar British plans

Sir Edward Grey could not understand the German 'encirclement' argument... Britain could be starved into submission without a single enemy soldier landing on her shore. This was not the case with Germany, her equivalent was the greatest army in the world... in Parliament he expressed his depair as "what is almost the pathetic helplessness of mankind under the burden of armaments". And discussing the pressure from the Radical wing of his Party in favour of Great Britain setting a more vigorous example in disarmament, he said that while such courageous action might lead to reform "there is also a chance that it might lead to martyrdom. We must proceed at such a pace as will carry the leading countries of the world with us."

Some other social reformers never did realise that reason provided no arguments against men committed to force.


"A German fleet is a luxury not a national necessity, and is not therefore a fleet with a pacific object."
        - Winston Churchill

The British Admiralty knew that German battleships were not designed for world wide cruises on commerce protection, that they could not possibly protect German trade or colonies unless they first smashed the British fleet, and that the vast expenditure on the fleet was at the expense of the German Army, the only weapon appropriate against her Continental neighbours. Therefore the fleet was for use against England.

"The sort of supremacy that Napoleon dreamed of for Franec, and nearly achieved - commercial as well as political - the Germans desire as well as the former. And all their efforts are directed to that. The great obstacle is England."
        - Viscount Esher

"A defeat in the North Sea means the end of the British Empire. A lost battle on the Continent is a long way from the end of Germany..."
        - Report from German Ambassador in London

"England will strain every nerve to maintain her naval supremacy. But what if one day she wearies of her exertions and allows herself to be provoked into striking before it is too late?"
        - August Bebel, German Socialist leader

When Fisher saw the King next he resurrected his suggestion that the German fleet be 'Copenhagened'... "Fisher," the King said, after a moment, "you must be mad."

"I believe that at the bottom of every German heart today is rising a faint and wildly exhilarating hope that a glorious day is approaching... when Germany might even wrest command of the sea from England and thus become a member of the greatest Power by land or sea the world has ever seen."
        - Report by British naval attache


"No superiority of the British Navy over the German Navy could ever out us in a position to affect the independence or integrity of Germany... but if the German Navy were superior to ours, they, maintaining the army which they do, for us it would not be a question of defeat. Our independence, our very existence, would be at stake."
        - Sir Edward Grey, speech in Commons

The British government wished to come to an agreement which would end the naval competition, but here was the difficulty. It could not be on a basis of equality; it would have to be on the basis of the superiority of the British Navy.

And what of Germany, already burdened by heavy debt?Tirpitz's faith in her growing industrial strength was justified; on present trends she must overtake Great Britain. But the proportion of her defence budget - itself some 89% of the total Reich budget - which went to the Navy hovered between 19% and 26%, the rest went to the army. In Great Britain some 60% of defence spending was for the Navy, only 40% for the Army. While Tirpitz did not have to budget for a large cruiser force and world-wide presence like the Royal Navy, and could concentrate the greater part of his resources on the battlefleet and supporting destroyers... it must have been evident that to achieve anything like parity with the Royal Navy, either the German defence budget had to grow at least twice as large as that of the British Empire, or he had to wrest a much larger share of it from the Amy. Even on these two large assumptions he could not expect much more than parity with the British fleet. In a shooting war this would not be enough to overcome Germany's hopeless geographic position and the naval allies his policy had forced on England.

"We must have a large margin against lying!"
        - Fisher, concerned at Germany's public rate of shipbuilding


Wilhelm's choice of a successor for Bulow as Chancellor fell eventually on Bethmann-Hollweg, a Prussian of serious mind and forbidding exterior... Bethmann had a deeply analytical, but scarcely creative mind. His tendency was to see present difficulties in greater detail than ultimate aims... the very depth and independence and scrupulousness of his judgement almost ensured his failure, for as he realised too well, it needed a touch of wilful madness to break out of the iron cage in which the Junkers had locked themselves and the Reich. This he could not supply.

The optimism of the turn of the century when the 'new course' had been charted to steer the Reich to world power between England and France/Russia, and to use the resulting increase in material prosperity and growth in the national consciousness to bind all the separatist elements together under the Prussian banner had vanished, replaced by extreme pessimism. For the very opposite had been achieved. The drive for world power had only driven the other great Powers together to defend their interests... the huge expenses of the Navy had widened the rift between the established agrarian and the new industrial 'patriots' by creating a financial battleground on which to fight out their selfish aims and conflicting interests.

"The overflowing expenditure of the German Empire threatens every dyke by which the social and political unity of Germany is maintained... these circumstances force the conclusion that a period of severe internal strain approaches in Germany. Will the tension be relieved by moderation or snapped by violence?"
 - Winston Churchill, memo prepared for British cabinet

"I am convinced we are on the eve of the most dreadful war Europe has ever seen."
        - August Bebel

Bebel went on to say that even if the Social Democrats attained a majority in the Reichstag - impossible under existing electoral Laws - "we could not prevent a war against England."

Bebel's reason for sending a ceaseless stream of warnings and advice was not so much to help Britain deter the German government from its mounting armaments expenditure, nor to prevent the ruling classes in the Reich from unleashing the world war he felt inevitable, but to try to ensure that when the "striking time" came Great Britain would not be defeated; that, he believed, would be as much a calamity for Germany as for Britain as "all liberal and democratic ideas and institutions in Germany would be knocked on the head for a generation"... Despairing of reform through the ballot box... he saw defeat in a foreign war as the only chance of breaking the Junkers' hold on power. It is ironic that while he was thus working for a massive increase in British naval armaments, British Socialists, radical Liberals and pacifists strove in the opposite direction.

When Lloyd George was summoned to Prime Minister Grey's room to hear the German complaint [about his speech], he said to Winston Churchill, who was with him, "They may demand my resignation." "That would make you the most popular man in England," Churchill replied.


Winston Churchill took over as First Lord of the Admiralty on October 24, 1911.

Churchill saw his great fleet as the single chain binding the scattered British Empire and alone preserving it and its beneficient aims from the "iron grip and rule of the Teuton and all that the Teutonic system meant," himself as the one chosen for the high duty of ensuring that the chain would hold when the strain came.

For every ship that Germany added to her present Navy Law, Churchill was determined that Great Britain would lay down two. She intended to be able to meet at her "average moment" the full naval strength of an enemy at his "selected moment."

"The whole character of the German Fleet shows that it is designed for aggressive and offensive action on the largest possible scale in the North Sea or the North Atlantic..."
        - report prepared by British Admiralty

Balfour found it impossible to make sense of German policy unless they meant to make offensive war. Their system of strategic railways, many leading to small States which were no threat, the increases in naval and military power and preparation for instant readiness when they already possessed the greatest army in the world and the second largest Navy, and the "assiduous, I had almost said the organised advocacy of a policy which it seems impossible to reconcile with the peace of the world or the rights of small nations", left him in no doubt that she intended to redraw the map of Europe and the world.

The British and French naval Staffs had been discussing co-operation in case of war since the spring agreed on joint signal books and areas of command... as with earlier joint military planning no formulae could disguise the increasing moral commitment for Britain to support France in a Continental war. This was particularly evident in September when the French Northern Squadron was moved from Brest to concentrate with their Mediterranean Fleet in Toulon. Combined with Churchill's movement of British battleships out of the Mediterranean to strengthen the home fleets its effect was to place the defence of the Mediterranean against Austria and Italy in the hands of France, leaving Great Britain to deal with the German fleet - at the same time protecting France's northern coasts. So ended the process of concentration started with the Japanese alliance and the withdrawal of capital units from the China Seas.

Fisher noted September 1914 as the date "that suits the Germans... Both their army and Fleet then mobilised, and the Kiel Canal finished, and their new building complete."

Haldane told the German Ambassador that in the event of the Balkans conflict spreading to the Great Powers, England would find it impossible to remain neutral. She had formed links with France and Russia to preserve the European balance of power and no British government would be able to withstand pressure to come in on their side.

Wilhelm summoned his naval chiefs, Tirpitz, von Muller and von Heeringen together with General von Moltke, head of the Great General Staff, to an immediate meeting at the Palace... Von Moltke insisted that as the Continental war was, in his opinion, unavoidable, now was the best time to launch it before either France or Russia had completed their military preparations. There had never been a better time since the formation of the Triple Alliance. Tirpitz objected that the Navy was not ready. He would prefer it if the conflict could be postponed for 18 months when both the Kiel Canal works and the Heligoland would be finished. Moltke retorted, "The Navy will not be ready even then!" Meanwhile the Army's position would be growing progressively worse as French and Russian military programs matured.

Naval opinion at this counsel seemed to correspond exactly with the British Admiralty expectation of war in the summer of 1914 - when the Canal would be ready. Yet none of of the Admirals present really wanted it, least of all Tirpitz. Their chances would be slim.


Sinister preparations were afoot in Berlin and Vienna. The assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand was the excuse the central governments needed to set in train the long awaited continental war of decision. The opportunity to settle the Balkan question, restore Austria's waning prestige and command over the disaffected Slavs within her Empire, and at the same time allow the Prussian armies to strike and smash France and Russia before the military preparations of the Entente matured was there for the taking. The moment was ripe... The conditions agreed to wat the war council during the previous Balkan crisis in December 1912 had been, so far as possible, fulfilled.

The Foreign Office, even Chancellor Bethmann, had been convinced by the unrelenting pressure of the military that unless Germany provoked the conflict soon in these most favourable circumstances, before the French or Russian military preparations were complete, they would stand no chance when the Dual Alliance chose its own moment to strike - probably about 1916. This was as silly as most of Tirpitz's justifications for the course he wanted to steer: the German armies and people fighting on interior lines for the Fatherland could have stood for ever on the defensive against the whole world in arms. But Moltke, like Tirpitz, was the expert, his opinions were expert opinions, not to be criticised by civilians. Besides this, and perhaps decisively, relations with England were set fair. It was difficult to imagine her pacifist government, already torn by rebellion in Ireland, going to war over a dispute so remote from her ken and vital interests as the Balkans.

And yet the conspiracy in Berlin was more than a desire to use apparently favourable circumstances for a preventive strike, more than the simple, long-cherished dream of conquest. For the military and the Foreign Office, for Wilhelm and Bethmann it was release. They had come to the end of their emotional resourcesl was was the lightning discharge from the strains within the Empire and within the government... War was the one direct and final solution to all problems of direction and all difficulties, internal and external.

"One only needs to remember what sort of a policy Bismarck, as an Englishmen, would carry on against Germany and Russia."
        - Tirpitz

Grey sought to pull Europe back from the very edge of catastrophe. His task was rendered impossible by the strong pacifist wing of the Cabinet. Even if he had wished to give France the dangerous guarantees that she desired - ore more important give Germany the unequivocal statement of British intent to intervene which she feared, he could not. For he knew that neither Cabinet nor Parliament in its present mood would back him. Instead he tried to put pressure on Germany to pull back her weaker partner while the Powers talked the dispute out around a table. It was too late. While Wilhelm was locked in crisis Bethmann followed the military time-table for that war like a lawyer in a trance, proceeding from the briefest ultimatum to Russia to stop her mobilisation in reply, to a German declaration of war against Russia.

As it became clear that Germany would not be dissuaded from marching on France through Belgium, and that Belgium intended to resist to the utmost if she were invaded, all but the extreme pacifist wing of the British Cabinet moved towards the idea of British involvement. Grey had felt all along that they were committed to France morally and by self-interest, and he had made it clear that he would not continue in office if the government let France down. But it was the issue of Belgiaum neutrality and Britain's 1839 Treaty obligations to guarantee it that persuaded the majority.

"I was myself stirred with resentment and indignation at what seemed to me Germany's crime in precipitating the war, and all I knew of Prussian militarism was hateful, but these must not be our motives of going to war... the real reason for our going into the war was that, if we did not stand by France and stand up for Belgium against this aggression, we should be isolated, discredited and hated; and there would be for us nothing but a miserable and ignoble future... I do not believe for at the moment that at the end of this war, even if we stood aside and remained aside, we should be in a position, a material position, ro use our force decisively to indo what had happened in the course of the war, to prevent the whole of the West of Europe opposite to us - if that had been the result of the war - falling under the domination of a single Power, and I am quite sure that our moral position would be such as to have lost us all respect."
        - Prime Minister Grey, addressing the country


Great Britain's entry into the war came as a shock to Berlin, more profound for the tortuous hesitations that had preceded it. Everyone had know that she had to come in but all, except the Service departments, had tried to persuade themselves that the spirit of pacifism and non-intervention which had distinguished so much British Liberal and even Conservative opinion at the start of the crisis might prevail, at least until France had been crushed.

Wilhelm was crushed. Tirpitz was in despair. The Great General Staff of the Army was too confident of a quick victory over France; they had not assessed th meaning of war against England; they did not appreciate the slow strength of sea power; they had brushed aside his most recent pleas to wait for a further 6 to 8 years because they thought in Continental, not world terms. The General Staff obsession with the French and Russian military build-up, and the need to strike before the Russian strategic railways threatened their master plan had blinded them to the need for a strategy to take account of the war on three fronts. Confident that they would be in Paris by September and the war would be won before the following spring, they disregarded England. There had been no combined planning with Admiralstab.

The politicians saw no further. Neither Bethmann nor Jagow appreciated the need for real power at sea; both had sought to win England's neutrality at the cost of the German fleet. And having failed, they had been rushed in to the war by military arguments without giving a thought to the naval consequences... had the politicians only had the strength to resist the General Staff, in a few years everything would have fallen into their laps from the natural increase in German economic strength.

Although Admiral Scheer and the Navy propaganda machine claimed a victory at Jutland because three British battlecruisers were destroyed against only one German battlecruiser and one pre-Dreadnought battleship, it was a strange victor that left the vanquished in possession of the field and caused the victor to break off and make for home in desperation by the shortest route possible. No thinking German officer could consider challenging the Grand Fleet again.

After Jutland the Admiralstab pressed for an all-out unrestricted U-boat campaign against merchant shipping supplying England as the only means of bringing the war to a successful conclusion. The Great General Staff, bogged down on two fronts, supported them. The slow, strangling effect of sea power had been brought home; with a failure of the potato crop added to the effects of the British blockade it seemed that Germany could scarcely stand another winter. And against the pleas of the politicians, who feared the effects on neutral opinion, Wilhelm supported his Service chiefs, and the 'unrestricted' U-boat war was declared. Within a few months it came close to achieving all that the Admiralstab had predicted, but the mobilisation of neutral shipping and particularly the American entry into the war, which the politicians had feared most, finally made success impossible. Meanwhile the British blockade bit deeper. The calorie intake of civilian workers dropped to half the amount calculated to keep them as a productive level, and by the summer of 1917 to a third, a bare 1100 calories a day.

Finally in October 1918, as the officers ordered the fleet for one last, suicidal engagement with the British to retrieve the honour they felt they had lost while the Army and the U-boat Service fought for the Fatherland, mutiny flared in the open... Imperial ensigns were replaced by the Red Flag. And the ships remained in harbour. When they finally sailed out to meet the British it was after the Armistice had been concluded; the light-grey Dreadnoughts for which Tirpitz had laboured steamed with guns trained fore and aft between two columns of the Grand Fleet to internment in Scapa Flow; the following year their skeleton crews scuttled them as a belated act of defiance. So ended the Tirpitz 'Traum'.

Tirpitz had not only been outbuilt, but out-thought and out-designed. As the challenger, his part was to build the new type, the first Dreadnought, then to keep the technological lead so that his inevitably fewer ships might hold the long-range advantage over many more obsolete enemy and annihilate them. Yet he allowed Fisher the initial advantage and was forced thereafter to follow in his wake, never catching up... the Admiralstab did nothing with the Fleet because there was nothing for it to do save be beaten or wait for peace.

Features which had emerged in the battle of Jutland were taken in hand so that by 1918 the British Grand Fleet's effective power was double its 1916 level. Meanwhile British ship construction had increased, while German construction on major units had slowed almost to a halt as the Army and U-boat service gained the priority. For all these reasons it is difficult to imagine the German fleet, under the most favourable of circumstances and the most aggressive Commander-in-Chief doing more than win the first battle of the first few battles in a campaign they could never have brought to a successful conclusion. And even one victory may be thought doubtful.

As for the High Seas Fleet's frequently quoted effect as a 'Fleet in being' which denied the British access to the Baltic or to the German U-boat bases, this is fallacy... it was not the High Sea Fleet which caused Jellicoe to declare the south-eastern portion of the North Sea out of bounds to his battle fleet, but the unseen threat of submarine and minefield, and by night destroyer attack. Tirpitz's fleet was not only useless, but quite as counter-productive in the stress of war - diverting scarce resources from more potent arms and breeding disaffection and finally mutiny - as it was in the diplomatic tussle leading up to war, when it first alerted the British, then forced them into the opposing camp. His mistake was not to start the fleet program, in all the circumstances of 1897 that was inevitable and correct, but to continue it long past the point of military or diplomatic effectiveness or economic sanity.

Tirpitz's goal was unattainable. Had the politicians he despised granted him the 6 years he wanted he would not have caught up with the British let alone the Entente and Japanese alliance navies. But he cannot bear the blame for the German disaster: that must lie with Wilhelm who appointed him and supported him and the battle fleet against all political, economic and military arguments... he tried to lead Germany towards the world power and equal recognition with England's world Empire which he craved above all else, along several diverging paths at once. His Chancellors took one road, his Foreign Office others, his Army another and his Navy the most dangerous of all... In the absence of rational leadership, the Army took over the leading role - which it had always assumed in any case. In the summer of 1914 the Army reached the position from which it intended to launch the assault to gain the Continent for themselves - and Germanism. But Tirpitz, way out on the wing, had found other enemies, and although he couldn't help the Army in its battles *they* had to face his enemy, then other powerful enemies which the naval enemy called in. How easily - without Wilhelm - Germany could have achieved her destiny, either in peace with her irresistible economic development, or by the sword in easy stages.

As for England, she awoke in time. The Liberal government, despite being hanidcapped by its quota of pacifist Utopians, played a splendidly realistic hand. They first reduced naval construction when it was quite safe to do so, hoping that Germany might follow suit; but when this only spurred the Germans to greater efforts, the Liberals went ahead with naval programs aimed to deter, and were so successful that, on the evidence from within Germany, they *should* have deterred if rational men had been assessing Germany's chances. Unfortunately Wilhelm and his politicians decieved themselves about England's resolve, while they military, who had no judgement, gave the Liberal government just the excuse it needed to come in in time.

There was no British failure - save from those who encouraged German ambition by preaching peace as a higher value than integrity or self-preservation. One can only marvel at a golden age which could harness such diverse giants as Sir Edward Grey, Winston Churchill, Lloyd George, at a Navy which after a century of undisputed superiority could find such energy and such genius to adapt itself to new challenges, and at an Empire which could provide simultaneously the beginnings of a welfare state and the greatest Navy as an instrument for world peace.

>> Read On >> More quotes on British History >> Life at Sea
>> Read On >> Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery

>> Explore the website of the author Peter Padfield

>> Return to Quotes index, or Site homepage.