Pictures of World War I

Each Worth 1000 Words…

My Fleet’s Bigger Than Yours: The Race For Naval Supremacy in WW1

Naval warfare was as big a psychological factor in determining the outcome of the Great War as it was a physical one.  To understand the role of the navy and war-at-sea, one has to understand the players, psychology, and actions that preceded 1914.

Kaiser Wilhelm and His Ships

Britain started the 20th century with the largest and most powerful navy in the world.  Ships, shipbuilding and naval glory weren’t only on the radar when Kaiser Wilhelm II became ruler of Germany but they became his principal obsession.   Wilhelm realized that in order to have a slice of global dominance in trade, business, and conquest outside of largely landlocked Germany, a strong naval fleet was not only vital, but a necessity.

Wilhelm, along with the enthusiasm of his generals began strategizing an multi-stage expanded German High Seas Fleet.  This rapid expansion would include frenetic shipbuilding from 1898-1912 in the hopes of rivaling the British navy in comparable size.  The British saw this rapid expansion as a threat to their supremacy of the seas so a naval race began which would see Britain launching it’s own fleet expansion over the same period to keep ahead of German ambitions.

The Germans were building dreadnoughts and destroyers in large numbers, but not so large as their submarines which they had pinned the hopes of their naval future on.  It’s important to note that at the time, none of the Allies were aware of just how large an emphasis the Germans placed on their subs.  The Germans even abandoned their other shipbuilding efforts in order to boost submarine inventory.

British-German Naval Arms Race

The naval arms race was well known and played well to the public with propaganda and patriotic pressure on governments to build more and continue expanding the size of their fleets.  So how did they add up when the First World War began?   Judging by dreadnoughts (the larger naval vessels and most obvious display of naval power), the Central Powers had 21 ships compared to the 43 from the3 Allies (Russia, Britain, and France).  It should be noted that Britain along had 29 ships ready.

Even before the war began, Germany abandoned the aggressive shipbuilding efforts in favour of more ground war military spending.  From the German perspective they achieved a respectable naval might but would never be able to catch up to Britain.  Interestingly, the whole alliance agreements between nations that pitted the Central Powers against the Triple Entente fell into place largely due to Britain’s decision to join the Entente in response to Germany’s naval aggression.   It is theoretically possible that Britain could have been much more reluctant to join the Entente and even perhaps remain neutral had Germany not placed so much pre-war focus on expanding their navy.

Finally, it should be noted that Wilhelm’s deep interest in ships and navy led him to develop and revise his own ship designs.  He took a very personal and hands-on approach to Germany’s shipbuilding efforts.


World War 1 Naval Artillery and Shipyard Pictures