Origins of the First World War, part I

The dominant myth of the First World War is the myth of German war guilt. The allies, in a self-serving spirit in the 231,st article of the Versailles Treaty, stated that:

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.1

Since that time countless court historians and self-seeking shills have repeated this pabulum. There are many aspects of this narrative that are in need of revision, but I will restrict myself to two points: (1) the naval arms race with Britain and (2) French Revanchism. In both cases I will show that it was not the Germans that escalated the conflict, but the French and British which rendered the war inevitable.

A rather conventional account of the naval arms race between Britain and Germany can be seen in the Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare:

It is hard to see much purpose in the policies pursued by Germany over the next two decades. In 1894 the Kaiser read the work of the American prophet of naval power, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and immediately concluded that Germany’s rise to the status of a world power could only occur through creation of a grand fleet. The Kaiser’s enthusiasm was undoubtedly fueled by his love-hate relationship with his British cousins. Not until 1897 did he find an admiral, Alfred von Tirpitz, who possessed both the ambition and political acumen to carry out his dreams…

He (Tirpitz) argued both that construction of a great fleet would force Britain to respect the Reich’s worldwide interests and that, because Britain and the Franco-Russian alliance held mutually hostile interests, Germany could create such a fleet without fear of British interference…

Tirpitz’s greatest mistake lay in his failure to recognize that geography had given Britain an almost unassailable naval position: the British Isles lay astride Germany’s path to the Atlantic, and it would be an easy matter for the Royal Navy to block Germany in the English Channel and across the exits from the North Sea, whilst Britain’s position also shielded its own trade routes. But nothing deterred the Germans form their course…

The continuing German naval build-up prompted Britain to form an entente with France in 1904 that resolved outstanding disagreements between the two countries. The Germans replied by causing a major diplomatic crisis over Morocco, intended to break up the growing Anglo-French friendship; instead, they only drove the two powers more closely together. … None of this caused the Germans to desist from an armaments program that endangered the Reich’s long-range strategic interests, but the increasing tense European situation did lead in 1912 to a change in emphasis.2

This nauseating self-congratulatory propaganda is par for the course when it comes to the history of the First World War. In reality, rather than an evil and or incompetent German cabal seeking to find a cause for war against Britain, it was an ugly British triumvirate of business, politics, and the navy. The whole naval arms race was a premeditated deception on the part of this triumvirate to do three things: (1) ensure British economic dominance, (2) increase naval funding, and (3) enrich well-connected businesses.

Firstly, we must understand that after the Naval Defense Act of 1889, whereby the Royal Navy was pledged to have as many as or more battleships than the next two powers, and that the British were committed to a conflict with any rising naval power, no matter how irenic their intentions.

Secondly, the sheer idiocy of claiming that German expenditures drove the arms race can be debunked by this graph:

Year Great Britain France Russia Germany
1909 £11, 076, 551 £4, 517, 766 £1, 758, 487 £10, 177, 062
1910 14, 755, 289 4, 977, 682 1, 424, 013 11, 392, 856
1911 15, 148, 171 5, 876, 659 3,215, 396 11, 701, 859
1912 16, 132, 558 7, 114, 876 6, 897, 580 11, 491, 187
1913 16, 883, 875 8, 093, 064 12, 082, 516 11, 010, 883
1914 18, 676, 08 11, 772, 862 11, 098, 613 10, 316, 264


JFC Fuller offers a fine commentary on these figures:

When the cost of Austrian and Italian new construction for 1914, respectively £4,051,976 and £3,237,000, is added, to the last on the above German figures, it will be seen that when war broke out the Triple Entente was spending on construction two and half times the amount spent by the Triple Alliance, and when France and Russia approximately two and a half times as much as Germany. How anyone could say that German naval expansion threatened England is difficult to understand; yet from 1909 on it was said again and again.4

The commentary provided by Francis Neilson, British Liberal MP provides more insight:

Now, no fair-minded Britisher can look at these figures and say that they prove in the slightest degree that Germany intended to smash Britain. The wildest notions of German naval expansion have been sedulously sown in this country for years.5

To be continued… favicon


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1 Treaty of Versailles

2 Geoffrey Parker, Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare (Cambridge University Press, 1995), 257-8.

3 * this is a reproduction of a graph found in JFC Fuller, Military History of the Western World, Vol. 3: From the American Civil War to the End of World War II (Da Capo Press, 1956), 177.

4 Ibid

5 Francis Neilson, How Diplomats Make War (B. W. Huebsch, 1915), 146.

6 thoughts on “Origins of the First World War, part I”

  1. An excellent book that drives home all of the above points, and more, about the naval arms race between Britain and Imperial Germany is Robert K. Massie’s “Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the coming of the Great War”. Massie does an excellent job shattering the myth that somehow Britain (and to a lesser extent France) were “innocent” victims of German/Austro-Hungarian aggression. His follow-up to “Dreadnought” is “Castles of Steel” which details the naval actions of Britain and Imperial Germany throughout the war. It’s almost humorous that, after all the money spent on building battleships by the scores, both sides were so deathly afraid of losing them that, besides the single fleet on fleet action at Jutland, they spent most of the time at anchor or steaming up and down friendly coastlines doing nothing more than burning up resources and labor hours.
    I highly recommend both books, read in sequence.

  2. Germny wanted to build up her fleet to rival the British fleet, yes? Not to smash Britain, but to give herself naval freedom of action. But British policy then was the same as American now – to prevent the emergence of a peer competitor (Britain’s was naval-only, while America’s is full-spectrum).
    From what I can tell, both nations were pursuing bad policies; Germany should not have built up her fleet, and Britain should not have switched to opposing Germany. Germany should have done everything necessary to keep friendship with Britain, and Britain should have done everything necessary to keep friendship with Germany. British interests would not have suffered from a strong Germany hegemonic in Europe & rivalrous to weaker France & Russia, while British friendship would have secured German access to her colonies and inhibited France from trying to challenge Germany.
    Finally, Germany should not have attacked France in 1914, but been ready to defend herself if attacked – for good practical as well as moral reasons.

  3. “Germany should not have built up her fleet”

    That is a totally wrong headed view of things. Germany built her fleet to rival a combined Franco-Russian fleet. By British logic Britain should have gone to war against the US and France who posed a greater naval threat than Germany. Furthermore fleet expansion was vital for protecting commerce. Germany had to have a navy and even the American’s believed so as you shall see in the next installment of my article, in the White-Balfour conversation.

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