Royal Navy and German Navy in 1904 and the Dreadnought Term Paper

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¶ … Royal Navy and the German Navy in 1904 and the Dreadnought

By 1904, Great Britain was so concerned about German naval capabilities that it began to devote more and more of its national budget to military preparedness in general and expansion of its naval fleet in particular. What is the significance of the word 'Dreadnought' in this context? Who were some of the people involved in this issue?

In 1904 the British Royal Navy could look back over a century of effective supremacy across the oceans of the world. The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 had marked the end of the last serious attempt to challenge British sea power; since then the authority of the Royal Navy had acted as the rock upon which the imperial might of Great Britain, and the global Pax Britannica, had been built.

This is not to say that Britain was entirely unchallenged, or believed she faced no potential rivals. For much of the nineteenth century France had been the perceived danger, and during the 1870s a technological arms race had broken out between the two countries which had led to the rapid development of the ironclad warship, with the French Gloire ultimately being more than outweighed by the British Warrior. Russia, too, was seen as posing a potential threat to British supremacy, particularly in India and the East. It was increasingly believed that if Britain allowed these powers to outbuild her in naval tonnage the consequences would be disastrous. A prominent British Admiral asserted in 1894:

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There can be no greater danger to the maintenance of the peace of Europe than a relatively weak British Navy. It is abundantly clear that the aim for which France... makes such sacrifices to compete with England on the sea is directed by hostility towards England - the same may be said of Russia in her efforts to become a first class naval power.

Term Paper on Royal Navy and German Navy in 1904 and the Dreadnought Assignment

In 1893 the Admiralty based its requirements for new warships on the potential threat posed by the combined fleets of what it considered to be its most dangerous rivals, France and Russia, calculating that by 1898 a Franco-Russian force of 29 first-class battleships would outnumber the Royal Navy by a significant margin. The Franco-Russian alliance of 1894 simply served to cement British fears.

It is notable with hindsight that one country that did not feature in any of these late-nineteenth century British calculations of naval strength and potential threats was Imperial Germany. In contrast to the tension existing between Britain and the Franco-Russian alliance, British relations with Germany 'were mainly cordial' and were influenced by a 'widespread admiration in Britain for everything German'. There were important trade and cultural links between Britain and Germany, which were in many ways seen as natural allies against French and Russian power. Germany's essentially land-based power, resting in her continental position and her large army, was seen as complementary to Britain's maritime supremacy, resting on her island status, global possessions and large navy. Yet towards the turn of the century perceptions in Britain changed, and naval issues were the key to that change.

In 1897 the German Secretary of State for the Navy, Rear-Admiral Tirpitz, told Kaiser Wilhelm II that 'the military situation against England demands battleships in as great a number as possible.' 1898 Germany passed a Naval Law, the first of a series which sought to provide the finance and the organization for the construction of a large German ocean-going fleet. The root of this aggressive naval policy lay in Germany's rise as an industrial power. By the 1890s Germany, united since 1878 and rich in population and resources, was industrializing rapidly and outstripping Britain. German industrial output by value was half again as much as Britain during the period 1885-94, and twice as much in the period 1895-1904. Furthermore much of this production was in high-value and increasingly important, modern industries, such as chemicals, synthetic products and electrical engineering, in which Britain could no longer compete with her old-established and less flexible industrial base. As her population and industries grew, Germany looked outward at a world increasingly divided between European imperial powers, and became ever more concerned to secure for herself an overseas empire, overseas markets, and a military and strategic position that could not be challenged by other powers. Above all this meant equipping herself to see off any naval threat posed by Great Britain - not to defeat Britain at sea necessarily, but to become so militarily powerful at sea that London would consider any hostilities not to be worth the risk and would therefore come to favorable terms with Germany. This was the concept of the 'risk-fleet' that underlay early twentieth-century German naval expansion.

The architect of the risk fleet concept was the German Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who as we have seen was Secretary of State for the Navy in 1897. Tirpitz was born in 1849, the son of a Prussian civil servant, joined the navy of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1865, attended the Kiel Naval School, and was commissioned as an officer in 1869. He initially served as commander of a Baltic torpedo-boat flotilla, then became Inspector General of the torpedo-boat fleet. In this post he demonstrated his interest in modern technological developments and his considerable technical ability, and devised the novel tactical principles that he was to develop in his later career in the Navy High Command. He was promoted Rear Admiral of the Imperial Fleet in 1895 and was appointed commander of the East Asia Cruiser Squadron from 1896 to 1897. In that post he worked to establish the German naval presence in the Far East and was instrumental in the selection of the port of Tsingtao as the primary German naval base in China. His appointment in June 1897 as Secretary of State of the Imperial Navy Department marked the beginning of his 20-year-long program of modernizing and expanding the German fleet, in close collaboration with Kaiser Wilhelm II. Fundamental to this strategy was Tirpitz's conception of the fleet as an offensive weapon, capable of establishing the command of the sea that was essential to safeguarding the interests of the state:

state which has sea interests or - what is equivalent -world interests must be able to represent them and to make its power felt beyond territorial waters. National world trade, world industry, and to a certain extent high-seas fisheries, world transportation, and colonies are impossible without a fleet [capable of taking] the offensive.

This high concept of the navy required large, powerful battleships - ships of the line - rather than the fast, lightly-armored cruisers that, under French influence, were the preference of orthodox German naval thinking. Only big ships mounting big guns could truly win the command of the sea. The Kaiser was of the same mind, and the result was the series of Naval Laws which, from 1898, drove the construction of a modern, heavily armed, heavily armored German battle fleet capable of projecting German power and protecting German interests across all the oceans of the world. There was no doubt, also, about the chief adversary against whom this new fleet was aimed, as Tirpitz made clear in 1898: 'For Germany the most dangerous naval enemy at present is England. It is also the enemy which we most urgently require a certain measure of naval force as a political power factor.'

This policy gradually bore fruit during the early years of the twentieth century, with the completion of the five battleships of the 'Kaiser Friedrich III' class, carrying 4-9.4-inch guns as main armament and fourteen 6-inch secondary guns, and fitted with a 12-inch armor belt, the armored cruisers 'Blucher' (12 8.2-inch guns, 6-inch armor belt), 'Scharnhorst' and 'Gneisenau' (8-8.2-inch guns, 6-inch armor belt), and the lighter 'Prinz Adalbert' class (4-8.2-inch guns, 4-inch armor belt). These ships, however, along with every other armored fighting ship in the world's navies, were about to be rendered obsolete by a British vessel whose name was to become synonymous with modern naval warfare: HMS 'Dreadnought'.

The man behind 'Dreadnought' was Tirpitz's opposite number in the Royal Navy and the architect of Britain's response to the German naval threat, Admiral Sir John Fisher. Born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1841, Fisher entered the Navy at the age of 13. He was promoted Captain in 1874 and established a reputation as one of the fleet's brightest battleship commanders. After serving as Admiral of the Channel and the Mediterranean Fleets he became commander of the Navy's gunnery school and Director of Naval Ordnance and Torpedoes, reinforcing his strong interest in technological development and in gunnery, before becoming Third Sea Lord and Controller of the Navy in 1892, Second Sea Lord in 1902, and finally First Sea Lord (the operational head of the Navy) in 1904. Fisher who has been described as a 'brilliant, ruthless, demonic man', was a passionate reformer with a powerful vision of a modernized, efficient Royal Navy, and he wasted no time in bringing that… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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