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 22nd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

June 19, 1912: Even Bigger Battleships

The naval arms race between Britain and Germany (along with smaller naval arms races between other European powers) was precipitated by a new ship, the HMS Dreadnought, which revolutionized naval weaponry. Her size, armor, and firepower essentially made every other ship in the world obsolete when she entered service in 1906. In fact, “dreadnought” soon became shorthand for any battleship built along similar specifications, as well as a unit of measure for comparing naval strength and building programs -- with endless attention paid to how many dreadnoughts each navy would boast by a certain point in the future.

Of course, none of this meant that dreadnoughts represented a final, definitive stage in naval design; as in any kind of arms race, you could always go bigger and better. Thus when Britain found its naval dominance challenged by Germany’s own naval construction program (which envisioned, by 1916, a High Seas Fleet composed of three active battle squadrons, including 25 dreadnoughts and eight battle cruisers, versus 28 dreadnoughts and nine battle cruisers for the Royal Navy), the Brits took the competition to the next level.

On June 19, 1912, the Royal Navy Admiralty, headed by First Lord Winston Churchill, approved the design for a new, even bigger battleship, called the “Queen Elizabeth” class after the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first ship in the series. These “super-dreadnoughts” boasted guns capable of lobbing a 1,920-pound explosive shell, measuring 15 inches in diameter, to a range of 18.5 miles; by comparison, the 13.5-inch guns carried by the previous intermediate (“Iron Duke”) class of dreadnoughts could send a 1,400-pound shell to a distance of 13.5 miles. The Admiralty initially planned to build four of these monsters, with the first scheduled to launch in 1913.

Thanks to the influence of a key Churchill advisor, the (temporarily) retired Admiral Jackie Fisher, the new Queen Elizabeth class battleships would also be powered by oil rather than coal, allowing them to go faster than their coal-powered predecessors and rivals, with a maximum speed of 24 knots (27.6 miles per hour) versus 21.25 knots (24.4 mph) for the Iron Dukes.

The only problem was that, unlike coal, there was virtually no oil to be found in the British Isles (the discovery of North Sea oil lay decades in the future), raising the question of how to secure a steady supply. Reluctant to rely on foreign suppliers like U.S.-based Standard Oil, Churchill once again tapped Fisher to figure out a solution, resulting in the British government buying a majority share in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later known as British Petroleum, in 1913.

Russia’s Naval Program

As noted, the British-German naval race was just the most prominent of a number of naval rivalries unfolding around Europe: to the east, Russia embarked on a program to build up its naval forces as part of a strategy to contest German control of the Baltic Sea and Turkish control of the Black Sea. On June 20, 1912, the Russian Duma approved an extremely ambitious naval construction program which was projected to cost $245 million (in contemporary U.S. dollars) over the next five years. Few big ships were actually completed before the outbreak of the Great War forced the government to divert money to land forces, but Russia’s plans for a big navy still contributed significantly to growing international tension in the pre-war years.

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