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 fifth installment in the series. See all entries here.
February 8-12, 1912: The Haldane Mission
With tensions mounting in Europe, the British government tried to head off an arms race with Germany through diplomacy – specifically, a proposal which would limit the number of ships both sides could build. The British overture was delivered by Secretary of State for War Richard Burdon Haldane (pictured, holding hat) during a secret visit to Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin from February 8-12, 1912.
There’s no question Germany’s naval construction program put it on a collision course with Britain’s Royal Navy. The world’s preeminent sea power, Britain relied on its massive navy to protect its far-flung colonial empire and guarantee its security against European aggression. Britain’s position as an island nation protected by a large navy meant it could avoid spending a lot of money on a large standing army in peacetime, in contrast to continental powers like Germany, France, and Russia. But it also meant the British were extra-sensitive to any attempt to create a rival naval power – which is exactly what Germany set out to do.
Under the belligerent Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany planned to build a high seas battle fleet that would eventually be able to contest British naval supremacy in the seas around Europe. Beginning in 1908 this included an intensive construction program for “dreadnoughts” – the most powerful vessels then afloat, first introduced by Britain in 1906, comparable to aircraft carriers today.
After building eight modern dreadnoughts from 1908-1910, Germany added three in 1911 and another two in 1912, with no intention of stopping there. In fact, by 1914, Germany would have 17 modern dreadnoughts in service, compared to Britain’s 29 – and would be on course to surpass the British navy sometime around 1920, if construction continued as planned.
The British certainly felt the pressure, and launched a new naval construction program to ensure the Royal Navy maintained its margin of superiority over the German navy: spending on new ships rose from £7.4 million in 1908-1909 to £9.6 million in 1909-1910, and £13.1 million in 1910-1911. Meanwhile over the same period spending on the rest of the navy, including operations and maintenance, jumped from £32.2 million to £40.4 million.
The naval expansion put considerable strain on the budget, prompting First Sea Lord Winston Churchill to warn: “There is no prospect of avoiding increases in the future… unless the period of acute naval rivalries… comes to an end.” On that note Churchill condemned the naval arms race as “folly, pitiful folly,” adding that “concerted effort to arrest it or modify it should surely rank among the first of international obligations.”
Slowing Down the Arms Race
It was in this context that Haldane attempted to persuade the German government to accept voluntary, bilateral limits on dreadnought construction. But his visit to Berlin came to nothing, as Kaiser Wilhelm II – with his usual diplomatic finesse and impeccable timing – had chosen to present an ambitious new naval construction bill to the Reichstag the day before Haldane arrived.
Whether or not it was deliberately intended to spike the British negotiations, the new naval bill was almost certainly part of a long-term strategy to extract even more concessions from the British government. The German government, including Kaiser Wilhelm II and his advisors, believed that the naval arms race would eventually force Britain to agree to a sweeping “grand bargain,” basically allowing Germany to dominate Europe in return for a German promise not to interfere with Britain’s overseas colonial possessions.
However this strategy was based on a serious misunderstanding of British motivations: while it was certainly crucial to hold on to the empire, it was equally important to maintain a balance of power in Europe. Based on its historical experience, Britain simply couldn’t afford to let a single country dominate Europe, as France had under Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte, with disastrous consequences for Britain. German incomprehension of this guiding principle of British policy was yet another factor pushing the continent towards war.