Was the Accelerating European Arms Race Responsible for the Outbreak of the First World War?

The European arms races which characterised military life after the turn of the century could certainly be stated to have increased tension, fed into a culture of militarisation, and provided impetus for the increasingly aggressive actions of national governments in the run up for the war. There are many other factors, however, which also could be said to have made war either more likely or even, possibly, inevitable.

The most obvious example of a pre-war arms race was the competition between Britain and Germany with regard to naval power, and battle fleets particularly, as per the naval thinking of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the author of The Influence of Sea Power upon History. This race gained particular importance in light of the Riskflotten strategy of Admiral Tirpitz, in which the German naval chief advocated creating a fleet large enough to threaten Britain that Germany might impress her, and force into existence a new and advantageous alliance; he was to be unsuccessful in that aim. Rather, the result of such maritime jockeying was to create a climate of press hysteria in Britain, one which lobbied incessantly for the manufacture of more Dreadnought-class battleships and spurred the government into a pledge to match and exceed German naval building. These ships, promised in light of the press slogan ‘We Want Eight, and We Won’t Wait’, were met with reciprocal measures in Germany, where the influential German Naval League had gained much popular support. It is argued that this mutual hostility, and the way in which public opinion re-orientated against the other nation, laid the foundation stones for future conflict.

But the course of the naval race itself belies that suggestion. After the initial frenzy of activity, spurred on by the creation of the Dreadnought in 1906, relative rates of naval construction began to slow after 1912; Britain, it seemed, had won. This belies the suggestion that arms races – and this one in particular – caused the First World War; the naval race could not have been responsible for the beginning of the Great War if its own end preceded the outbreak of hostilities by over two years. Similarly, the subsequent abandonment of the largest German plans for ship-building could be seen as an active attempt to de-escalate the situation. Tacit acknowledgement of British naval superiority could not have been the cause of all pre-war tension, for example.

There are, however, small examples of the way the naval race influenced policy during the climax of the July Crisis of 1914. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty in the Asquith government, mobilised the fleet – or, rather, he did not allow it to demobilise following practice manoeuvres – using many of the ships built in the naval race with Germany. This escalatory measure, one which helped convince the war party within cabinet that hostilities were likely to erupt, could be seen as an indirect consequence of the naval race, and thus a reason for its having led to the outbreak of war in 1914.

The refutation of this argument, though, is that this measure, minor as it was, only affected the fortunes of Britain; without this particular happening, the continental war would very possibly have broken out in almost the exact same fashion. Thus it cannot be seen as a major factor in the outbreak of war for the continent. And, even further, it does not appear to have been a significant action even when placed in a British context. Far more important than Churchill’s naval manoeuvres – though they were given a foreboding gloss in his history of the war, The World Crisis – was the speech given by Sir Edward Grey in the House of Commons in the ensuing week; in it, the Foreign Secretary laid out Britain’s treaty obligations to protect Belgian neutrality and to defend the French coastline in the event of German attack. These obligations, as well as the web of other alliance treaties which governed the relations countries had towards one and other, were a far more significant factor in creating the scenario in which war could occur out of a relatively small and isolated tussle in the Balkans – as Christopher Clark has it, ‘The Third Balkan War became the First World War’.

There is another arms race to consider, though, when deciding whether the influence of arms races led to war or made it more likely. That was the continental arms race, one which began after the Russian government initiated its ‘great military programme’ and Germany as a whole became worried about the coming power of her eastern neighbour. For many German leaders, the geopolitical school to which they subscribed stressed the importance of preventing the fatherland from becoming encircled. The supposed ‘Nightmare Coalition’ to Bismarck’s mind was an alliance between France and Russia – it came to pass in 1894. With talk of encirclement making Berlin twitchy, the news that St. Petersburg would be spending upwards of 800 million Roubles on defence, backed up by French loans targeted towards the construction of railways near the Prussian frontier, was not an easy one to take; this reinforced a combative mood in Germany – occasioning the famous 1912 remark of Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger) that a war would be ‘better sooner than later’ – and increased the planning for, and likelihood of, a general European conflagration. This view seems the most credible, and could be the reason that Germany saw it necessary to declare war on Russia first, all the better to fight France on the western front before the supposedly mighty arms of the Czar could be brought to bear.

In conclusion, while the familiar claim that that Anglo-German naval antagonism precipitated the First World War can be almost entirely dismissed by chronology alone; the impact of Russian military expansion, and the effect it had on the psyche of both the German political class and public, was severe; and this, it can be claimed, cements the importance of arms races in the motivation for the chain of events which led the First World War. Without a pre-emptive German declaration of war, the shape of events to come would have been dramatically different, and the century since would have unfolded in an entirely unforeseen way.