Oct 30 2009 2:21pm

The Steampunk Cold War, Part Three: The Dreadnought Arms Race, or “Kaiser Wilhelm gets a boat”

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,

This article is part of Steampunk Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. DemetriosX
It wouldn't surprise me to learn that one of the major factors keeping the dreadnoughts in port during the Great War was the development of submarine warfare (by the end of the war, aerial warfare as well). I envision a certain reluctance to send out these massive weapons in which a great deal of money has been invested when they could quickly be sunk by an enemy they never even saw.

As for Jutland being inconclusive, it should be noted that WWI saw precious few conclusive battles of any kind. Also, truly decisive naval battles seem to be few and far between. Off the top of my head, I can only think of 3 since the end of the Middle Ages: Lepanto, Trafalgar, and Midway. (Coral Sea was interesting and very indicative of the future, but not truly decisive.)
Rick Rutherford
2. rutherfordr
It's interesting that while the Dreadnaught may have been considered the pinnacle of military might, the weapon that made the most significant difference in World War I was the machine gun.
j p
3. sps49
One feature the Dreadnought didn't have was superfiring turrets. These were on the USS South Carolina, the first US all-big gun ship. The US ship traded speed for range (and reliability).

I personally think the generic "dreadnought" was used because it is a cool name. If Japan's Satsuma or the South Carolina had been rushed, I don't think anyone would refer to "satsumas" or "south carolinas".
4. Lsimi
I believe one of the main reason so many ground battles in the WWI were inconclusive lies in the ultimate failure of Germany in implementing their own, agressive battle plan for France, which required them to get 300K men and their gear to Paris in six weeks. This was simply impossible with the existing railroad/ road infrastructure, but this glaring flaw in the plan was never properly addressed (and Wilhem II gladly glossed over it when hostilities began). In the end, Hitler's blitzkrieg was the answer, but it would come only one generation later... and would demand technological breakthroughts WWI didn't provide (at least immediately).

For the naval camp, I also believe the submarine warfare was the key to explain the dreadnoughts sitting at harbor the entire war. In fact, I believe Germany's focus in it may have come precisely from the realization they would never be able to beat Britain in their own shipbuilding, all-big-guns game. So they decided to change the rules...
Alison Sinclair
5. alixsin
I have been interested in the German Imperial Navy since I visited Orkney years ago, where those ships came to an ignominious end after the German surrender in November 1918. After 7 months in internment, rotting at anchor in Scapa Flow, they were scuttled by their own officers on orders from the Rear-Admiral in command. Their whole story is absorbing: of a navy with twentieth century technology and nineteenth century standards, its officer corps divided by class and status struggles, the darling of the emerging middle class in the late decades of the nineteenth century, but whose eventual mutiny triggered the German Revolution and German's surrender.
Herb Schaltegger
6. LameLefty
Anyone interested in this subject could do far, far worse than spend a couple weeks reading James K. Massie's fantastic work, "Dreadnought," dealing with the rise of the German nation-state and the pre-WWI naval buildups, and its followup, "Castles of Steel," which is an in-depth naval history of WWI. Fantastic works, both of them.
Alison Sinclair
7. alixsin
Well if it's hats in the ring time, I'll chip in with a recommendation for '“Luxury fleet” : the Imperial German Navy, 1888-1918' by Holger Herwig.

"The grand scuttle : the sinking of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919." Dan Van der Vat.

John Keegan has a long, informative chapter on Jutland in "The Price of Admiralty: The evolution of naval warfare." (There are many other books, of course ...) Alexander Fullerton's "The Blooding of the Guns", the first of his Nicholas Everard series has a multi-chapter setpiece depicting the battle.

And another two-week read, "The Arms of Krupp: The Rise and Fall of the Industrial Dynasty that Armed Germany at War." William Manchester.
8. Simon J Bradshaw
LameLefty's already recommended Massie's excellent pair of books, so I'll put a word in for Andrew Gordon's "The Rules of the Game", which is not only a gripping narrative of the Battle of Jutland but also a fascinating social history of the Victorian and Edwardian Royal Navy.

To me, as an sf fan, something that came across very strongly from Massie's and Gordon's books was the extent to which Dreadnoughts were in the public eye as very much real-life equivalents of starships - fast, powerful, and emblematic of national technical and military prowess. As a relatively young First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill - long a technophile - manifested almost child-like glee at getting to play with the battleships and battlecruisers built by Admiral Jackie Fisher, who was a character straight out of a steampunk drama himself.
9. MudCrab
Massie is good. Castles of Steel is perhaps an easier read as it really only covers the war. Dreadnought is tricker. I am stuck at around page 600. I blame the fact that during the 1800s every man and his dog in Europe was called either Victoria, Albert or Wilhelm. That queen has a LOT to answer for :P

As pointed out above, the USS South Carolina brought in a fair few things that the HMS Dreadnought lacked and, if my 1am just home from the pub memory serves me, was actually laid down first.

However Dreadnought was completed first in a massive show of British ship building power (one year to launching which was unheard of for a ship of that size) and brought in the turbine engine. Steam turbines in a ship this size was a leap in tech equivalent to someone going up to NASA and telling them he has something called 'warp drive' to go in the new space shuttle.

However, getting back to sci fi, it is this level of history nerd that I have that is currently putting me off buying a copy of Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan. (sorry Scott if you are reading this).

It was the desire by the Kaiser to be like England with a powerful navy that caused England to fear Germany. A powerful German navy caused the end of the Splendid Isolation where England choose not to be part of mainland Europe. Also England in the 1900s was a major industrial power. My history geek can't see England and Germany going down two completely different tech trees and still competing.

Also have to disagree on the submarine theory. Sorry :)

Royal Navy/Grand Fleet spent a lot of time at sea during the war. U-boats were feared but not to the extent of preventing sailing. Royal Navy submarines were not in the strength of German ones which implies the High Seas Fleet should not of feared them and by the 'submarine' theory meant they should have been at sea a lot more. Instead them staying in port had a LOT more to do with the fact they new very well that the Grand Fleet was bigger, stronger and very capable of destroying them in open battle.

and... if you are still reading... DemetriosX - adding to your list... Nile, Copenhagen, Glorious 1st of June, Falklands, Yellow Sea, Leyte Gulf, North Cape, Cape Matapan...
j p
10. sps49
I thought the SoCal was laid down first, too, but Wikipedia disagrees. I'll have to dig out Friedman's U.S. Battleships: An Illustrated Design History and check.

Submarines were only part of the reason, yes. Mines were another, and cost the RN at least one battleship. The biggest reason may be limited endurance. Battleships on patrol consume a lot of coal, especially the turbine ships.
11. MudCrab
Bugger, just checked my Conways, South Carolina was laid down second, BUT was designed first.

Point being that most of the major navies were heading seriously towards the 'all big gun' battleship at this stage so the Royal Navy can't claim to have invented the concept, just to implement it.

The concept of the 'big gun' fascinates me. You have something moving at 50kmh, targeting something also moving at the same speed. You are on a surface that is constantly changing making you pitch, roll and heave. At over 20km away your target is a small object yet you open fire at this distance AND realistically expect to hit it. If this doesn't boggle your mind you may need to consult your medical professional :)

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