NAVAL RACE BEFORE WORLD WAR I
The naval race of World War I was an important competition between Britain and Germany for naval supremacy. Each nation raced to build more ships and capabilities, which led to an extreme increase in tensions between them. As such, historians consider the naval race between these two major European nations to be a main cause of World War I. In fact, along with the arms race between France and Germany, the naval race of World War I was part of a major build up in the military across Europe.
Historians have identified four main long-term causes of World War I: Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism and Nationalism. Militarism can best be understood as the buildup or expansion of the ability of a country’s military to wage war. In the decades before World War I many European countries began to practice militarism and worked to expand and strengthen their military forces. For example, there was an intense arms race and naval race between several European nations in the buildup to World War I. Specifically, France and Germany were heavily involved in an arms race in which each country doubled their armies between 1870 and 1914. As well, there was a competitive naval race between Britain and Germany that centered around the construction of new naval ships.
At the time, Britain had the largest navy in the world. This was due in part to the Age of Imperialism and Britain’s vast colonial empire. For example, at the outbreak of World War I, Britain had the largest colonial empire in the world with a particular focus in Africa and Asia. As such, Britain required a powerful navy in order to maintain supply lines to its colonies. As well, since Britain was an island nation it needed a strong naval force to ensure it had the ability to carry out trade by sea. As stated above, Britain’s naval power was threatening to other European nations and caused many to build up their own naval forces.
Germany viewed the British navy as a threat and sought to develop its own navy to match. Mostly Germany needed a strong navy to challenge British ships in the North Sea, which was located to the north of Germany and to the east of Britain. The North Sea was Germany's only coastal access but was difficult for Germany since the North Sea was connected to Britain and the British navy dominated the area.
One of the key areas that this naval race between Britain and Germany can best be seen is in the construction of new battleships referred to as ‘dreadnoughts’. The dreadnought was a class of battleship that existed in the timeframe of World War I. However, the first dreadnought was the HMS Dreadnought from the British Royal Navy. The name is meant to refer to a sense of ‘fearlessness’. It was first launched in 1906, and completely changed the history of naval warfare at the time.
Naval ships before the HMS Dreadnought were generally smaller, slower and had a smaller array of main guns. The HMS Dreadnought was such a leap forward in naval technology that it caused other nations to copy the British. In response, Germany developed its own version of the dreadnought and worked to challenge the power of the British. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Britain had 29 dreadnoughts and Germany had 17.
The naval race between Germany and Britain was a major cause of World War I due to its role in increasing tensions between the two nations. Britain and Germany were in opposing alliance systems and were competitive in nature in terms of their colonies in Africa. For instance, Britain was a member nation of the Triple Entente, while Germany was a member nation of the Triple Alliance. As such, the two nations did not always get along, and the naval race before World War I highlighted their sense of competition and lingering tensions. This caused World War I, because it pushed the two nations (and other nations such as France) to participate in the war.
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