The Anglo-German Naval Race

British Insecurity at the Turn of the Century

When Queen Victoria celebrated her Jubilee in 1887, the British Empire was at its apex and Englishmen of the late nineteenth century felt they were living in the most prosperous and powerful country in the world; a world in which the sun never set on the British flag.

But by the turn of the century all this had changed. The humiliation of the Boer War eroded British unity and left many Britons feeling that England had somehow gone soft. The nation was even deteriorating physically: According to the Army, 60% of Englishmen were unfit for military service, and in 1904, a government committee issued a report on “Physical Deterioration.”  1  In a sign of the public’s mood, in 1905 a pamphlet entitled “The Decline and Fall of the British Empire” sold 12,000 copies in six months.  2

Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar

Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar

One of the most outspoken critics of Britain’s military deterioration was Field-Marshal Lord Roberts, who had commanded British troops in South Africa and served as commander-in-chief of the Army from 1901 to 1904. Roberts was president of the National Service League, which advocated universal military training, and he wrote a series of books and articles, and prefaces to thirty other books, on the subject of military preparedness. 3

In May of 1905, Roberts told the Commons, “I have no hesitation in stating that our armed forces… are as absolutely unfitted and unprepared for war as they were in 1899-1900.” 4

Anglo-German Rivalry

Edwardians felt threatened not only by internal rot but by foreign hostility as well.  While England was suffering military embarrassment, other nations, particularly Germany, were strengthening their armed forces and exhibiting imperial ambitions. In 1909, the “Daily Mail” printed an article by an Army officer who warned, “The risks of Britain’s position unarmed in the face of a Europe armed to the teeth cannot be too clearly realized by the British public.”  5


Britons were especially disheartened when they compared their nation to Europe’s emerging power, Germany. The author of Britain at Bay, a contemporary book advocating a return to nationalism and the concept of duty to country, expressed this sense of surprise and disappointment.

The Englishman…remembers from his school lessons or reads in the newspapers of England in past centuries, and naturally feels that with such a past and with such an Empire existing today, his country should be a very great Power. But as he discovers what the actual performance of Germany is, and becomes acquainted with the results of her efforts in science, education, trade, and industry, and the way in which the influence of the German Government predominates in the affairs of Europe, he is puzzled and indignant, and feel that in some way Great Britain has been surpassed and outdone.  6

Germany was the nation most clearly seen as the enemy.   Robert Blatchford, the Socialist politician and editor of “The Clarion,” wrote a series of articles on the German threat and prefaced them: “I write these articles because I believe that Germany is deliberately preparing to destroy the British Empire, and because I know we are not ready to defend ourselves against a sudden and formidable attack.”  7

German Naval Rearmament

If any one issue was most responsible for British anxiety over Germany’s ambitions it was the German naval rearmament program.   In the late 1890’s Germany began a massive program of naval building, and clearly announced its intention to create a fleet “of such strength that a war against the mightiest power would involve risks threatening the supremacy of that power.”  8

The development of a navy to rival that of England became a prime focus of German policy around the turn of the century. The driving force behind the German naval program was Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who was appointed secretary of the Reichstriarineamt, the Imperial Naval Office, in 1897. Tirpitz was able to convince not only the Parliament of the need for a new navy, but the German middle class as well. In 1898 the German Navy League was founded, with substantial financing from the Krupp industrial interests, and by 1900 it had over 600,000 members.9

Kaiser Wilhelm II and Alfred von Tirpitz

Kaiser Wilhelm II and Alfred von Tirpitz

One of the League’s most active chapters, understandably, was the one in Hamburg, which in 1900 called for the construction of a fleet “strong enough to protect Germany’s growing overseas trade and its fledgling colonies with force and might, and at all times watch over the honor of the Empire in distant seas.10

The Hamburg Amerika Line, which itself had a great financial stake in colonial shipping, was an important supporter of the League: In addition to contributing financially the Line made its steamers available for special cruises on the Elbe for League conventions.

The Navy Law of 1898 was the first important step in the construction of the new German Navy. It provided for a fleet of 19 battleships, 12 large cruisers, 30 small cruisers, and assorted smaller ships. Two years later, the Navy Law of 1900 authorized the further expansion of the Imperial Navy, to be organized around two flagships and four squadrons of 8 battleships.11

To Britons it was clear that Germany intended to challenge England’s traditional mastery of the sea, and perhaps were planning an actual military attack.

British Invasion Literature

Britain’s fears about military vulnerability expressed themselves culturally through the “invasion literature” popular in England at the time.

In the years before the Great War, England was flooded with novels and plays with the theme of foreign invasion. Many appeared in mass circulation newspapers, and most identified Germany as the enemy.  12

Erskine Childers' "Riddle of the Sands"

The Riddle of the Sands, written in 1903 by Erskine Childers, was perhaps the best known work of this genre, and remained popular late into the century; the book was turned into a movie in 1979.

William Le Queux also wrote several invasion novels, including The Invasion  of 1910. Written in collaboration with Lord Roberts, The Invasion of 1910 was serialized by the “Daily Mail” in 1906.  And one of the most important works of invasion literature was a play, “An Englishman’s Home,” written by Major Guy du Maurier and produced in 1909.

Next Page: The Threat to England’s Maritime History

  1. Samuel Hynes. The Edwardian Turn of Mind. (Princeton: 1975). Page 23.
  2.   Hynes. Page 26.
  3. Hynes. Page 39.
  4. Hynes. Page 40.
  5. “Twells Brex”. Scaremongerings. Page 63.
  6. Spenser Wilkinson. Britain at Bay.    (New York:    1909). Page 61.
  7. Scaremongerings. Page 66.
  8. Christian Gauss. The German Emperor, as Shown in His Public Utterances. (New York: 1915). Page 148.
  9. E. L. Woodward. Great Britain and the German Navy. (Oxford: 1935). Pages 25-26
  10. Lamar Cecil. Albert Ballin. Business and Politics in Imperial Germany: 1888-1918. (Princeton: 1967). Page 26.
  11. Woodward. Pages 25-29, 47.
  12. Hynes. Page 35.

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