I just finished a book entitled Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War by Robert K. Massie (author of Nicholas and Alexandria and Peter The Great).
As the title suggests, it covers in great detail the relationship between Britain and Germany beginning with Bismarck’s unification of the German states under the Prussian Imperial banner. It ends with the mutual declarations of war in August, 1914. There is not much on military horse activities (except that some RN officers were avid polo players and the German Naval Staff rode every morning). This lack makes it a bit off topic, but it gives valuable insights into the roots of the The Great War.
It is a substantial read, at 900+ pages. It is quite well written and extensively researched. For those with an interest in World History this is a “must read.” WWI is a seminal event in World history, not just in European history. It ranks with, or exceeds, Thermopylae, Tours, Lepanto, The Alamo, and Pearl Harbor in its influence on subsequent events.
The pace of the book is not even, but then the events it explores were also uneven. The reader will learn more about British and German court politics and intrigues than they might like but understanding the personalities and relationships of the time is critical to understanding the flow of events. He spends a fair amount of time on the character of Wilhelm II, somewhat less on Edward VII. Wilhelm was a major factor in the actions of authoritarian Germany; Edward was less a factor in parliamentary England. Bismarck is prominent, as is Churchill. Tirpitz and Fisher get major attention. There are a couple of dozen other leaders in both countries that hold important roles at different times as the narrative progresses.
Britain, the premier sea power of the day, and Germany, the premier land power of the day, come into direct conflict when Germany decides to become a major sea power. This is not a decision made in isolation. By the end of the 19th Century Germany had established an overseas empire with colonies in Africa, China, and the Pacific. She had the second largest merchant marine in Europe. Britain had, on multiple occasions, enabled German overseas expansion by protecting German commerce; actively supporting German expansion (within limits); and generally adopting a friendly attitude towards German commercial development. In part this was due to the close connection between the German and British Royal Families (Queen Victoria was the mother of Victoria, Princess Royal, who was the mother of Wilhelm II; he was the nephew of Edward VII). Britain also saw a vigorous Germany as a counterbalance to two of its traditional enemies, Imperial Russia and Republican France. Britain at this time had no peacetime alliances with any power. Its foreign policy was based on maintaining a “balance of power” in Europe.
Britain was able to maintain this independence of action because the Royal Navy allowed gave them the flexibility to act, or not act, as they chose based upon their interests. They were never in a position to get “dragged into a war” by the actions of a ally.
The Second Boer War was a major factor in Germany’s decision to become a major naval power. Germany was an ally of the Boers. Due to their lack of effective naval power they could do little to provide aid to the Kruger government. They did provide moral support. The German press excoriated the British policies, especially “resettlement” (interestingly enough, the French press was even more hostile to the British). Wilhelm II was an avid admirer of the RN. He knew what naval power cost and the benefits it would bring. He fully backed ADM von Tirpitz and his attempts to create a modern, German Navy.
This meant the building of the most powerful weapon of war of the time, the battle ship. Prior to HMS DREADNOUGHT a capital ship carried a wide mixture of large, medium, and small caliber guns. DREDNOUGHT carried only big guns. This made her dangerous to an adversary but vulnerable to newest technology of the day, the fast torpedo boat. To deal with this threat the British significantly increased their destroyer force to provide escorts. A second major type of ship was in use, the battle cruiser. For a colonial power like Great Britain the battle cruiser was an ideal compromise between firepower and speed and range. It could outrun what it couldn’t out fight.
The German decision to begin battleship construction caused great concern in Britain. At that time the only major naval rival was France. The RN was largely scattered around the globe. The Home Fleet was relatively small. The major RN force was the Mediterranean Fleet. As the German Navy expanded the RN began to move larger numbers of capital ships to the Home Fleet. They also began building new DREADNOUGHT type ships at an increasing rate. Eventually a “race” developed. Prior to DREADNOUGHT the RN policy was to maintain a fleet significantly larger than its two closest competitors. As the German Navy grew maintaining this level was catastrophically expensive. The Liberal government had campaigned on a promise of reducing military and naval expenditures. Attempts at arms limitation failed.
By the late19th Century it was clear that Germany and its major ally, Austria-Hungary, were the dominant land force in Europe. To counter this France and Russia had formed the Duel Entente in 1894. Both Germany and France had made overtures to Britain to join their union. The British, following their traditional “balance of power” foreign policy, declined and stayed independent. This changed in the early years of the 20th Century when Britain became alarmed by German naval development. German domination of France would upset the balance of power and harm British interests. While they refused alliance with France they began to have discussions about military and naval cooperation. Colonial disputes were resolved with much less rancor. As the years progressed they became much closer until, in 1912, they entered a secret agreement that called for the French to move the bulk of their navy into the Mediterranean Sea and the RN assumed the task of protecting the northern French coast from attack by the German Navy. This allowed the RN to transfer even more capital ships to the home waters.
Germany viewed these developments with disdain. In their view Britain would never conclude an alliance with France, a traditional enemy. Britain also had a long history of conflict with Imperial Russia, particularly over Russian attempts to expand its influence in Asia. The RN had been a major architect of the Imperial Japanese Navy as a counter-weight to Russian activity. In the view of mainstream German diplomacy, there was no chance that Britain would risk war to aid France or Russia.
This view turned out to be a tragic error. Germany, fearing “encirclement” by the Dual Alliance, determined to break it. They saw France as the most dangerous immediate threat. The German war plan was based upon a dramatic, decisive blow against France with the bulk of the German Army, defeating it in about six weeks. The German Army would then re-deploy to the east and defeat Russia. The German problem in the west was that the French frontier was highly fortified. A direct attack would cause major German casualties and might take longer than the time allotted. So they determined to attack through Belgium. The difficulty was that Belgium was a long time interest of Britain, who had guaranteed their independence since the creation of the Belgian state in 1839. German diplomats warned that while Britain would not fight for France, it would for Belgium. The Kaiser and the German General Staff disregarded these warnings.
The stage was set and now Germany needed only a provocation. It came with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Austria decided to settle accounts with its old enemy, Serbia. That would bring Russia, long time ally of Serbia, into war with Austria. Germany would back Austria, France would back Russia, and Germany would have the war they wanted to humble both powers. The “wild card” was Britain. What would they do? Up until the very last moment the British frantically tried to “mediate” the problems on the Continent. Their efforts came to nothing as Germany had long since decided on war. When the Belgians, with their six divisions, defied the Kaiser with his 90, the British declared war on Germany.
The book ends with the mutual declarations of war.
This is a good read. It provides a reasonable answer to the question “who was really responsible for WWI?” It debunks a lot of the mythology that the Great War was a colossal “mistake.” It also gives insights into the Victorian and Edwardian Eras that explain the decisions made and allows the reader to better understand the actions of the victorious Allies at Versailles. I highly recommend it.
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