Anglo-German naval arms race

The size and power of battleships grew rapidly before, during, and after World War I: a result of competitive shipbuilding among a number of naval powers, including Britain and Germany, brought to an end by the Washington Naval Treaty and Treaty of Versailles

The Anglo-German naval arms race of the early 20th century preceded and was one of the several intertwined causes for World War I.

There were also other naval buildups in several other countries which were emerging as great powers, such as the United States and Japan, and in South America.


The United Kingdom had the largest navy in the world[1] In accord with Wilhelm II's enthusiasm for an expanded German navy and the strong desires of Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Secretary of State of the German Imperial Naval Office, four Fleet Acts from 1898 and 1912 greatly expanded the German High Seas Fleet. The German aim was to build a fleet that would be two thirds the size of the British navy.[2] The plan was sparked by the threat of the British Foreign Office in March 1897, after the British invasion of Transvaal that started the Boer War, of blockading the German coast and thereby crippling the German economy if Germany intervened in the conflict in Transvaal.[3] From 1905 onward, the British navy developed plans for such a blockade, which was a central part of British strategy.[4]

HMS Dreadnought, the ship that caused the Anglo-German naval arms race to reach its period of greatest intensity but also sparking other dreadnought races around the world

In reaction to the challenge to its naval supremacy, from 1902 to 1910, the British Royal Navy embarked on a massive expansion to keep ahead of the Germans. The competition came to focus on the revolutionary new ships based on HMS Dreadnought, which was launched in 1906.

By 1913, there was intense internal debate about new ships because of the growing influence of John Fisher's ideas and increasing financial constraints. It is now generally accepted by historians that in the first half of 1914, the Germans adopted a policy of building submarines instead of new dreadnoughts and destroyers, effectively abandoning the arms race, but since they kept the new policy secret, other powers would be delayed in following suit.


1909 cartoon in Puck shows five nations engaged in naval race

The naval race between Britain and Germany generated massive public support on each side. In the midst of the race, the British public coined the slogan 'We want eight and we won't wait!',[5] referring to the number of dreadnoughts that they wanted the government to build. With the surge of public support, the government commissioned more shipbuilding.

The British defense policy was to ensure that the British navy was at least the size of the next two largest navies[6] as outlined in the two-power standard. It was not the case as the war approached because of financial and logistical constraints and the speed of expansion of the German and the US navies. Britain, however, boasted the largest and most mighty navy when war broke out in 1914.

Britain managed to build HMS Dreadnought in just 14 months[7] and by the start of the First World War, Britain had 49 battleships, compared with Germany's 29.[7] Although the naval race continued, it was economically impossible for the Germans to close the gap before the war broke out.

Attempt at resolution[]

In 1912, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg ended the naval arms race. His aim was to secure an understanding with the British to end the increasingly isolated position of Germany. Russian military expansion compelled the Germans to prioritise spending on their army and therefore less on the navy. The initiative led to the Haldane Mission in which Germany offered to accept British naval superiority in exchange for British neutrality in a war in which Germany could not be said to be the aggressor. The proposal was rejected, as Britain felt that it had nothing to gain by such a treaty since its naval superiority was insecure, but the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey favoured a more assertive policy against Germany.[8]

The naval strength of the powers in 1914[9]
Country Personnel Large naval vessels
Russia 54,000 4 328,000
France 68,000 10 731,000
Britain 209,000 29 2,205,000
Total 331,000 43 3,264,000
Germany 79,000 17 1,019,000
Austria-Hungary 16,000 3* 249,000
Total 95,000 20 1,268,000
Grand total 426,000 63 4,532,000
*4th not commissioned yet.

See also[]

External links[]


  1. ^ "Royal Navy and the First World War". Archived from the original on 1999-10-07. Retrieved 2014-01-20. 
  2. ^ Andriessen, De andere waarheid, 1999, page 298
  3. ^ Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, 2012, page 148-149
  4. ^ Andriessen, 1999, De andere waarheid, page 304 e.v.
  5. ^ "Causes of WWI". 1912-12-08. Retrieved 2014-01-20. 
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on January 27, 2010. Retrieved January 13, 2010. 
  7. ^ a b "The Cause of World War I"
  8. ^ Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, 2012, page 318-319
  9. ^ Ferguson, Niall. The pity of war (1999) p. 85.