When one thinks of the term “arms race,” it is generally in the context of the Cold War struggle to amass larger stockpiles of newer and more effective nuclear weapons. However, in the years leading up to the First World War, Europe witnessed a very significant pre-nuclear arms race fought primarily between Britain and Germany, but effectively including all the major naval powers on the continent. This arms race dealt not with the production of weapons, but rather with the machines that used them.
Warships have historically been among the most advanced pieces of technology of their age, and for good reason. They enjoyed greater speed and maneuverability than pre-mechanized land travel, and possessed a combination of mobility, armor and firepower that would not be seen on land until the invention of the tank. In addition, water travel provided easy transportation of goods and people, which made them useful for both trade and war. Control of the seas was a key means of maintaining imperial power—as demonstrated by Britain—and failing that, possession of a powerful navy to defend one’s own holdings was a must. Warships carried some of the most modern artillery, employed advanced building techniques, and eventually enjoyed armor.
Imperial Germany was an unlikely participant in naval competition. It possessed what was arguably the most powerful army of the time, and it had little reason to try and compete with the superior navies of Britain, France and Russia. However, at the close of the 19th century, Kaiser Wilhelm II became obsessed with the concept of turning Germany into an overseas imperial power with a great navy of its own. Naturally, this alarmed the other European colonial powers, in particular Britain, who, as an island nation with a very small army, feared anything that could potentially disrupt its naval supremacy. The Germans laid down a number of new warships during the decade and a half leading up to the First World War under a series of “Naval Laws,” which could not be influenced later down the line by those pesky civilians in the parliament. In turn, the British were forced to respond.
The arms race entered into full swing in 1906, when the British launched the first of a new design of heavy warship, the HMS Dreadnought. The Dreadnought was a new kind of battleship built with heavy armor, high speed and extreme firepower. It was constructed on the radical “all-big-gun” design, whereby all of its main weapons were of a uniform high calibre intended to be fired at extremely long distances as protection again small and maneuverable torpedo boats, which could caused severe damage to battleships if they got in close. Other nations had experimented with the idea of the all-big-gun ship around the same time as the Dreadnought, but the British design utilized the most state of the art technologies available, including steam turbines for propulsion, improved hull design, thick steel armor, and even mechanized fire control that used analog computers to track the speed and range of targets.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 demonstrated that the superior firepower and range of large naval guns made short-ranged secondary weapons obsolete, as ships were unlikely to move close enough to engage using their smaller guns. When the Dreadnought arrived as the embodiment of this military advancement, the other naval powers scrambled to catch up. That the new designation of “dreadnought” was introduced to identify these post-Dreadnought ships is a clear indicator of its tremendous psychological impact.
What followed was a race between Britain and Germany to build the newest and most powerful dreadnoughts possible. Germany worked to close the gap in their respective naval strengths, while Britain struggled to maintain as large an advantage as possible. In the 19th century, Britain had endeavored to keep its naval strength greater than the two next largest naval powers, specifically France and Russia, which had both been significant enemies at some point during the century. But when German expansionism and naval construction drove Britain into friendly relations with the Russians and the French, Germany became Britain’s principle adversary in the naval arms race. As with Russia and the United States during the Cold War, tremendous amounts of money and effort were spent on keeping the superweapon stockpiles large and ultra-modern.
In the end, the arms race contributed significantly to the tensions that drove Britain in the First World War. With the two great naval competitors now at war with one another, it seemed evident that there would eventually be the greatest naval showdown of the age. In fact, the two fleets only met once, at Jutland in 1916, and this battle ultimately proved inconclusive. Otherwise, the most advanced weapons of the war sat out the conflict in their respective harbors, each acting as a deterrent against the other. They were simply too valuable to risk losing, and therefore were not used.
G. D. Falksen is a writer and student of history who has given lectures on the steampunk genre and subculture. He regards analog computers as nothing short of magnificent. Further details can be found on his website, www.gdfalksen.com