The War at Sea: On the Eve

The Royal Navy's Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow during the Great War (Painting by William Lionel Wyllie / National Maritime Museum)

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Note on Comparative Naval Ranks

Though flag officers’ rank titles varied from navy to navy, their overall rank structures were similar. The Royal Navy’s flag ranks were Admiral of the Fleet, Admiral, Vice-Admiral, Rear-Admiral and Commodore—the last entitled to fly the so-called broad pennant instead of a rank flag. In the German Navy the ranks were Grand Admiral (Großadmiral), Admiral (Admiral), Vice-Admiral (Vizeadmiral) and Rear-Admiral (Konteradmiral). Commodore (Kommodore) in the German Navy was not a rank but an appointment—typically of a Captain (Kapitän zur See) appointed to command a flotilla or group of ships. While holding such an appointment he was authorized to use the title Kommodore and to fly a broad pennant.

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One of the most consequential decisions of the Great War was taken by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, on 2 August 1914. Coincidentally with the Balkan crisis sparked by the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Admiralty had been conducting a test mobilization of the Royal Navy. This involved the recall of naval reservists to man ships in caretaker status, followed by the concentration of the fleet at its war stations in home waters. Anticipating that Britain would likely be drawn into the war just beginning, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Prince Louis of Battenburg, ordered the Fleet’s scheduled demobilization to be delayed. Churchill, reaching the Admiralty from his country home some hours later, confirmed Battenburg’s order. Thus when Britain did declare war on Germany (4 August), the Fleet was ready.

As with land warfare, modernity and the Industrial Revolution had revolutionized the naval scene between 1815 and 1914. The Royal Navy of the Napoleonic era, wooden-walled, sail-propelled, armed with short-range smoothbore cannon, was but a memory. Now steam, iron and steel, high explosives and long-range gunnery were dominant, embodied above all in the dreadnought battleship, which may well be said to have represented the pinnacle of military technology in 1914.

This class of warships took its name from the first of the breed: HMS Dreadnought, which was entered service with the Royal Navy in 1906. Dreadnought represented a revolutionary break with past practice. By the late nineteenth century battleship design had settled into a standard pattern. The typical battleship, circa 1900, displaced about 15,000 tons, had a maximum speed of about 18 knots, was propelled by reciprocating steam engines, and was armed with four guns of 12-inch caliber. These main battery guns were supplemented by a secondary battery of some dozen 5- or 6-inch guns plus smaller quick-firing guns for defense against torpedo boats. Many such battleships were additionally armed with torpedo tubes. The maximum effective range of the big guns was about 10,000 yards, though anticipated battle ranges were much shorter: 5,000 yards at most. The last British battleships of this type, the six ships of the “Duncan” class, were commissioned in the Royal Navy as late as 1903-04.

A typical battleship, circa 1900: the Imperial Russian Navy's Slava. On a displacement of 13,500 tons she carried an armament of 4 x 12in guns and 12 x 6in guns in turrets, plus 20 x 3in guns in hull positions and a pair of submerged torpedo tubes. Her best speed was 18 knots. (Imperial War Museum)

But even as the “Duncans” entered service, there was growing concern among senior British naval officers that their battleships lacked sufficient firepower. The latest foreign battleships were being armed with an intermediate battery of 8in guns in addition to their 12in and 5- or 6in batteries. An example was the Japanerse “Kurama” class, armed with 4 x 12in and 8 x 8in guns. Britain's reply was the “King Edward VII” class (eight units), laid down in 1902 and commissioned in 1905-07. These handsome ships displaced some 1,000 tons more than the “Duncans” and were armed with four 12in, four 9.2in and ten 6in guns. The 9.2in gun was a powerful weapon that nearly doubled the ships’ firepower—on paper. But this mixed main armament turned out to embody a serious flaw. Naval gunfire was adjusted by observing shell splashes and correcting the firing data accordingly. Unfortunately, it was found that 12in and 9.2in shell splashes were practically impossible to distinguish from one another at expected battle ranges, which made mixed-caliber salvo firing difficult if not impossible.

For some years, however, a much more revolutionary idea, the “all-big gun” battleship, had been circulating in naval circles. As envisioned by Admiral Sir John “Jackie” Fisher, Britain’s reforming First Sea Lord between 1904 and 1911, the new battleship would carry ten 12in guns, so disposed as to provide an eight-gun broadside. The only other armament would be some two dozen 12-pounder (3in) quick-firing guns for defense against torpedo boats. Fire control would be provided by an electrical transmission system that automatically converted data from the ship’s rangefinders into elevation and deflection settings for transmission to the gunnery officer’s plotting table and each main battery turret. This system, called director control, extended the main battery’s maximum effective range to more than 15,000 yards. The ship’s standard displacement would be over 18,000 tons; its four-shaft steam turbine engines would give a maximum speed of 21 knots. Protection consisted of an armored belt with a maximum thickness of eleven inches plus twelve-inch armor for the conning tower and the main battery turrets.

HMS Dreadnought as she appeared before the war (Imperial War Museum)

There were critics of the new design, particularly regarding its puny secondary armament, but Fisher with his typical energy and intemperance trampled them down. The construction of HMS Dreadnought commenced in October 1905 and she was commissioned for service in December 1906—instantly rendering every other battleship in the world obsolete.

The fallout from Dreadnought’s appearance was geopolitical as well as tactical and technical. In Germany the advocates of Weltmacht— world power—had long been agitating for the creation of a first-class navy. At the end of the nineteenth century the possession of overseas colonies and a powerful battle fleet were held to be prominent among the attributes of a great power. Germany, it was said, was entitled to its “place in the sun” alongside Britain, France, Russia and the United States. Colonies, overseas trade and a navy to defend them—these would secure for Germany the global power to which she was entitled.

For a long time, however, the presence of Otto von Bismarck at the head of the Kaiser’s government stymied such ambitions. Having engineered the country’s unification in 1871 the Iron Chancellor declared Germany to be a “satiated power,” and his foremost concern was continental diplomacy. United Germany, he said, needed time to knit together its new imperial institutions. Bismarck was particularly concerned to prevent another war. To that end he labored long and assiduously to ensure that France, defeated and humiliated in the war of 1870-71, could not acquire a powerful ally for a war of revenge. The most logical candidate for the position was Russia, which had grievances of its own. So his diplomatic priority was the maintenance of good relations with Russia—this despite the rivalry between the latter and Austria-Hungary over the Balkans and the Near East. It was a delicate balancing act and Bismarck thought that Germany’s acquisition of colonies and a big navy would only disturb that balance. He wanted no squabbles with Russia, France, Britain or anybody else over colonial issues. Asked in the mid-1880s about his preferred map of Africa he replied: “Here is France on one side, here is Russia on the other side, and here is Germany in the middle. That is my map of Africa.”

Only grudgingly did Bismarck permit the acquisition of German colonies in Africa and the Pacific. He did so as a political concession to the Weltmacht faction and showed little interest in colonies thereafter—even proposing at one point to sell German Southwest Africa to Britain. But with his dismissal by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890 Bismarck’s foot on the imperialist brake pedal was removed. Public opinion came strongly to favor an active colonial policy and, in particular, the construction of a powerful navy.

 Kaiser Wilhelm II in naval uniform (Wikimedia Commons)

After 1815 the Kingdom of Prussia had set about creating a navy of modest size to defend its Baltic and North Sea coasts, and to show the flag around the world. The Prussian fleet became the navy of the North German Confederation in 1867 and of the Imperial German Navy (Kaiserliche Marine) in 1871. Even so in Bismarck’s time it remained a small force, decidedly secondary in importance to the Army. But all this changed after 1888 when a new Kaiser ascended the throne. Wilhelm II was a naval enthusiast who both admired and envied Britain’s incomparably powerful Royal Navy. His dream of a German fleet equal to Britain’s harmonized with public opinion, though there were many in the political class who opposed the idea, arguing that more money and manpower for the Navy meant less money and manpower for the much more important Army. Therefore the Kaiser proceeded cautiously. In 1889 he reorganized the naval command structure, creating an Imperial Naval Office (Reichsmarineamt) responsible for planning and supervising naval construction, maintenance and procurement, and advising the Reichstag (imperial parliament) on naval issues. And slowly, the fleet began to grow, Germany’s first seagoing battleships being constructed and commissioned in 1890-94.


Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, architect of the Imperial German Navy (Wikimedia Commons)

The year 1897 was decisive for the Navy—and, as it proved, for Germany, Europe and the world. A dispute over the naval budget had led to the resignation of the State Secretary of the Reichsmarineamt and the post was offered to Rear-Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. It was he more than any other man who transformed the Kaiserliche Marine into a world-class navy—posing a threat that Britain, the world’s preminent naval power, could not ignore.

Shortly after his appointment Tirpitz submitted his First Naval Bill to the Reichstag. It envisioned the construction of a battle fleet of two squadrons, each with eight battleships, plus a fleet flagship and two reserve ships. This program, costing 408 million marks, was to be completed by 1905. Hitherto the Navy had grown piecemeal; now growth would proceed on the basis of a seven-year program. The annual cost—58 million marks—was not much more than the existing naval budget and though objections were again raised about funding the Navy at the expense of the Army, the bill was eventually passed with a comfortable majority. A Second Naval Bill followed in 1900, this one providing for a fleet totaling 38 battleships, the program to be completed in 1920.

Battleships of Germany's High Seas Fleet, circa 1910 (Bundesarchiv)

Tirpitz proved adept at public relations. He established a press bureau in the Reichsmarineamt that provided briefings and even pre-written articles for the convenience of journalists. Speakers were recruited from business and academic circles to promote the bill, explaining its necessity for Germany and its benefits for trade and industry. Tirpitz also sponsored the formation of the German Naval League (Deutscher Flottenverein) an interest group favoring a strong navy that did much to popularize the cause. And he took great pains to cultivate support in the Reichstag, patiently and good-humoredly lobbying its members, answering their questions and meeting their objections.

Though never mentioned by name, Britain was the clear target of Tirpitz’s naval program. Scant notice was taken in Britain of the First Naval Bill, but the passage of the Second Naval Bill seriously alarmed the Admiralty: The eight “King Edward VII”-class battleships, ordered in 1902, were intended as a reply to the German challenge. And the appearance of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 gave a tremendous boost to Germany’s burgeoning naval ambitions. By rendering existing battleships obsolete, the all-big gun design appeared to give the Kaiserliche Marine a real chance to achieve parity with Britain. The ensuing Anglo-German naval arms race and its diplomatic fallout were majors factor in the deterioration of relations between the two countries in the decade preceding the outbreak of the Great War.

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Copyright © 2020 by Thomas M. Gregg. All Rights Reserved

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