A bang or a whimper? Big ships, big guns, big ideas and World War One.

In 1914, the Great Powers of Europe went to war using outmoded strategies based on obsolete technologies. The politicians and military strategists of the day had opted for navalism – the idea of supremacy based on naval power. Navalism in the early twentieth century meant just one thing – big ships with big guns, the Dreadnought class battleships and heavy battle cruisers built by Britain and Germany. These weapons of mass destruction did not prevail when hostilities broke out, however. The submarine, torpedo and mine along with aircraft, wireless and tank became the major defence technologies of sovereign nations, and battleships faded into obscurity. How could the most powerful nations of the day have got it so wrong? Who made the decisions?

The key players on the British side were Admiral John Fisher, and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. Their principle opposition was Germany’s Prince Bernhard von Bülow and Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. And at a speech at Reval in 1904, Germany’s monarch – the erratic and mercurial Kaiser Wilhelm II – styled himself the “Admiral of the Atlantic”.

The British public, press and politicians’ concern to safeguard the burgeoning British empire reawakened interest in navalism. The publication in 1890 of American naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power on History, 1660 – 1783 kindled much of this renewed interest in navalism. Mahan’s thesis used history to support his argument that the security and prosperity of nations depended largely on the possession and projection of sea power. Mahan’s writings captured not just the imagination of the public and the press. In common with many powerful figures of the day, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II and Admiral von Tirpitz diligently studied the works of Mahan.

Although overshadowed in the public eye by Mahan, British geopolitician Halford Mackinder presented a paper to the Royal Society in January 1904 entitled ‘The Geographical Pivot of History’. Mackinder proposed the end of the four century Columbian epoch of colonisation and dominance of sea power and trade. With fewer options left for nations to expand globally, Mackinder saw the new locus of global power to be Eastern Europe and that – to remain powerful – nation-states needed industrial strength, railways and aircraft as well as sea power. The prescient Mackinder anticipated the rise of the twentieth century superpowers.

Britain’s ruling elite adhered to policies of orthodox navalism either because they did not understand or did not agree with Mackinder’s thesis. The innovative Admiral Fisher and others did understand this strategic shift, reorganising the Royal Navy and introduced radical new technologies in response. These innovators achieved only partial success in implementing their revolutionary naval technologies against the political reality of pre-war government and naval administration. Fisher and Churchill did, however, reduce costs and increase fighting effectiveness by converting the British fleet from coal-fired to oil-fired propulsion, a decision that went on to have profound geopolitical impact, particularly in the modern Middle East.

In the decades prior to World War One, five great European empires – each jealous of the other’s colonial dominions and wary of each other’s imperium – jockeyed for dominance. Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy formed the Triple Alliance and Russia and France entered into treaties of convenience. All courted the Ottoman Empire, Japan emerged as a power in Asia, and Great Britain remained in splendid isolation. An armaments race for supreme power proceeded apace, and Great Britain maintained the balance of power based on the strength of her navy. Germany’s naval build-up attempted to match that of Britain, and Germany’s erratic diplomacy exacerbated tensions to explosive levels.

Despite these machinations, naval power played an ambiguous role in World War One. The only major naval engagement – the Battle of Jutland – was inconclusive. In terms of numbers, the British lost 6,097 men, three battle-cruisers and three armoured cruisers, against German losses of 2551 men, one battleship and one battle-cruiser. Germany claimed Jutland a victory but in reality the conflict was indecisive and neither the British Grand Fleet nor the German High Seas fleet fought any further major action, bringing the big-ship war to a standstill. The submarine became king of the seas. Germany continued to build submarines at a great rate up to the end of hostilities and German U-Boats sunk eight million tons of allied merchant shipping, causing great distress to the British Empire.

One postscript to the role of the navalist strategies in World War One is Winston Churchill’s ill-fated attempt to force the Dardanelles by naval power in 1915. Turkish shore batteries sank the French battleship Bouvet and seriously damaged two others, while Turkish mines sank the British battleships Irresistible and Ocean and seriously damaged the battle-cruiser Inflexible. This disastrous campaign forced Churchill’s resignation from government, and in Australia is remembered on ANZAC day as Gallipoli.


5 comments on “A bang or a whimper? Big ships, big guns, big ideas and World War One.

  1. karen says:

    Great blog. World War One always seemed more fasinating than WWII. Not that it was any less important but that it signified the end of so much in the world, such as the end of Imperialism. Loved the you tube and hperlinks.

  2. alfredjohnson1707 says:

    Hi Ron,
    Great work with the background to the naval arms race. I did not realise so many theories (Mahan’s and Mackinder’s for instance) were involved in Germany’s and Britain’s thinking. Part of the problem, perhaps, was that the technology seemed too good and thus too high an investment to lose. British losses at Jutland demonstrated key flaws in some of the smaller battleships’ designs, but the best measure of who really won the fight is that the Germans kept their battleships at port from then until the Armistice. A pyrrhic victory for the Germans, perhaps? The debate continues… The sea played a much bigger role than anybody seems to realise – the British counterblockade of Germany starved the German home front out of the war.
    Any ideas?

    • Ron Chambers 40849783 says:

      Hi Alfred,

      Not sure about the blockade. It certainly made a major impact on Germany, but there is a school of thought that says Germany could’ve carried on. But the brutal fact about the European part of WW I was that all the major parties to the conflict simply ran out of young men. America’s entry of men and materiel tipped the balance – but only just.

      Thanks for your insightful comments.



  3. tifanycentelles says:

    Great blog Ron, really enjoyed it!

  4. kristyhulm85 says:

    Hi Ron,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. The rapid introduction of new military technological advancements in the early twentieth century put an end to traditional forms of warfare (e.g. the bayonet became obsolete in WWI). Although the naval war resulted in much smaller casualty numbers compared to the war on land, its impacts were also largely evident. Your point regarding the German U-Boat sinking 8 million tons of allied merchant shipping demonstrates how vital the roles of naval technologies were in the outcome of the war.

    Great job on a very interesting topic.

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