World War I Centennial: Gathering the Fleets


The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the ninth installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

March 18, 1912: Gathering the Fleets

“We cannot conceal from ourselves the fact that we live in an age of incipient violence and strong and deep-seated unrest,” Winston Churchill warned the British House of Commons in a dramatic, defiant speech delivered in the gathering gloom of the late afternoon of March 18, 1912.

Churchill, the First Lord of the Royal Navy, was responsible for directing British naval policy in the face of German competition, and took the opportunity to reveal major changes intended to maintain British supremacy in its home waters.

Under the belligerent Kaiser Wilhelm II and his naval chief, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Germany had embarked on a military buildup on land and at sea, including the construction of a German navy composed of super-powerful “dreadnoughts” which would before long be able to contest British power on the high seas. This was unacceptable to Britain because, as Churchill noted in his speech, “We are fed from the sea,” adding: “These are facts which justify British naval supremacy in the face of the world. If ever any single nation were able to back the strongest fleet with an overwhelming army, the whole world would be in jeopardy, and a catastrophe would swiftly occur.”

To fend off this possibility, Britain undertook its own naval build-up, including even more new dreadnoughts. And on March 18, Churchill revealed an important change in the way Britain calculated its naval needs. Previously, Britain had committed itself to the “Two-Power” policy, which called for a Royal Navy large enough to defeat the combined navies of any two likely European adversaries. Now, Britain would recognize realities by focusing on Germany alone as its main naval competitor. While this was sure to infuriate hyper-nationalist Germans, Churchill justified it by pointing out that “the consequences of defeat at sea are so much greater to us than they would be to Germany.”

A New Standard

To maintain a comfortable margin of superiority over the German navy, Churchill revealed a new standard calling for Britain to outpace German naval construction by at least 60% -- meaning, for example, that if Germany planned to build 10 new dreadnoughts in coming years, the Royal Navy would build 16; if Germany planned to build 12, Britain would build 20. Churchill warned that the proportion might have to increase as older ships became obsolete, but left no doubt that Britain, long the world’s dominant sea power, had the resources and facilities to maintain its lead, whatever Germany might build. “There is absolutely no danger of our being overtaken unless we decide as a matter of policy to be so.”

Nonetheless, Churchill lamented the expense involved in what he characterized as a pointless naval arms race, and emphasized that if Germany were willing to slow or even stop her construction of new dreadnoughts, Britain would immediately follow suit -- one of several occasions when he offered Germany a “naval holiday,” similar to nuclear arms limitation treaties of later years. As on other occasions, the offer would be rebuffed -- despite the fact, as Churchill pointed out, that Germany could “wipe out” five British dreadnoughts for every three German dreadnoughts foregone, and so gain more from a “naval holiday” than a hypothetical victory at sea.

Perhaps even more important in the short term, on March 18, 1912, Churchill announced a major reorganization of the existing British fleets, with an eye to containing German naval power in the North Sea. The new deployment plan brought British ships back to home waters from Mediterranean outposts including Gibraltar and Malta, and organized them into three main fleets, composed of eight battle squadrons of eight ships each. This meant that Britain would have to rely on its French ally to guard the Eastern Mediterranean, including the critical Suez Canal, Britain’s lifeline to India and its Far East colonies. Churchill faced criticism for this move, but proceeded anyway -- an indication of how seriously the Royal Navy took the German threat.

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