Big Battleship Arms Race

History of ship that launched pre-WW I British-German naval duel

EVEN the weather appeared to cooperate with HMS Dreadnought. It was raining on the morning of Feb. 10, 1906, but the clouds lifted by noon in time for Britain's King Edward VII to christen the world's biggest, fastest, and most heavily gunned battleship.

The huge steel hull decked with flowers slid easily down the way into the waters of the Royal Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth, England. By the time the enormous ship was completed, British engineers could also boast of finishing the state-of-the-art ship in record-breaking time - less than 12 months from laying her keel to the finished sea trials.

With Dreadnought, the age of the super battleship was born. And with it, too, began this century's first arms race - a race for naval supremacy between Great Britain and the German Empire. Robert Massie attempts, in this ambitious historical account, to portray the key personalities involved in an episode that he contends is of fundamental importance in understanding the origins of World War I.

In writing about the events leading up to World War I, Massie invites comparison with works by other first-rate historians who have tackled the complicated pre-war era: Barbara Tuchman's "The Proud Tower" and works such as "Europe Transformed" by Cambridge historian Norman Stone. What sets Massie's "Dreadnought" apart is his attempt to focus on the naval buildup as a means of putting into context the marked change in peoples' attitudes as Europe moved from the Victorian era into a new century.

Dreadnought was a forceful display of the new era's technical might. It turned the naval world on its head by increasing the standard of speed and firepower for modern battleships.

Perhaps more important, the huge ship sent a message to the world about Britain's determination to remain unequaled as a sea power.

For centuries the Royal Navy was both the island nation's defense against invasion and the protector of vital maritime trade routes that connected the homeland to its worldwide empire.

The message was aimed squarely at the German Empire, which, led by Kaiser William II and Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, had decided to challenge British naval superiority. In building a strong Navy, Germany was asserting its desire to become a true Weltmacht - world power.

At the turn of the century, the self-interests of Great Britain and the German Empire converged. The two countries slid into a ship-building race that spiraled upward into larger and larger ships with bigger and bigger guns at a cost that severely strained each nation's budget.

There are uncanny resemblances between the race for more powerful ships and more recent races for nuclear superiority. Instead of "missile gaps" there were "naval scares." Then, as well as more recently, military planners sometimes became enthralled with developing the latest technology instead of dealing with threats posed by an enemy power. Inevitably, too, there were complaints about cost overruns and increased defense budgets cutting into funds for social programs.

The power politics and rapid progress in naval technology are intriguing, but Massie never loses sight of the personalities who prompted the naval duel. Using a series of well-crafted biographical sketches, he depicts the complex relationships between the key decisionmakers in both countries. Eventually a climate of opinion emerges that places national antagonisms in a human context.

Chief among the portraits is Massie's depiction of the British and German royal families. Connections could not have been closer. Queen Victoria, descended from the House of Hanover, was actually more German than English. Her oldest daughter, Vicky, married Kaiser Frederick III of Germany. Their first son, who became Kaiser William II, was King Edward VII's nephew.

The two ruling families' relationships verged on the tragicomical. Young Kaiser William II yearned for the affection and approval of his English relatives - in particular from his grandmother Queen Victoria. Struggling with the limitations of a physical handicap, William II competed fiercely in yacht racing against his uncle, King Edward VII. A hypersensitivity developed between the family members, causing uncle, nephew, and grandmother to inflate minor personal squabbles into near-international incident s.

Massie draws in other characters too: Prince Otto von Bismarck, the creator of the German Empire; Admiral John (Jacky) Fisher, designer of the Dreadnought and chief sponsor of Britain's modern Navy; Admiral von Tirpitz, the strategist behind the German Empire's naval buildup; and Winston Churchill, who, as the youngest Lord of the Admiralty, crusaded loudly for more battleships.

Naval history fans may be disappointed in the lack of technical detail. This is no Tom Clancy techno-thriller. Instead, Massie shows the people behind the revolution in naval engineering. He devotes an entire chapter, for instance, to explaining how converting from sail-powered wooden ships to turbine-driven steel behemoths - virtually in one generation - affected the tradition-bound officers of the Royal Navy.

Ironically, the author's strongest talent is also the book's biggest drawback. Pulitzer Prize-winning Massie, author of "Nicholas and Alexandra" and "Peter the Great," is a respected and skillful biographer. But "Dreadnought" often digresses into too much background material on minor characters.

Indeed, at more than 900 pages of text, many readers may flounder on the shoals of some of the more heavily silted chapters or otherwise be swamped by the flood of excessive detail. Still, readers who do undertake the entire trip may well find the voyage highly instructive and worthwhile.

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