World History 2 171 - 11.1.4 The Growth of Militaries

Naval power assumed a greater role in world affairs in the late nineteenth century. As more of the industrialized nations embarked on empire building, and as reaching international markets became an expected part of their strategy, the value of having strong navies to protect commercial trade only grew. Maintaining supply and fueling stations around the world to service these navies and fleets of merchant ships became a key argument in favor of developing more colonies.

At the start of the twentieth century, Great Britain was still the unmatched naval power in the world. Kaiser Wilhelm II was determined to counter Britain’s sea power by building up the German navy. In this, he was ably assisted by Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. Tirpitz had similarly grand dreams for the navy, and through his various positions in the naval high command, he set out an ambitious building program for new battleships.

Link to Learning

This website has statistics on the naval ships that Britain and Germany possessed prior to World War I. England contended that it saw Germany as a viable threat. Do the numbers back up its claim?

Germany’s fear of naval inferiority became especially strong after 1906. In that year, Britain debuted an entirely new class of ship when the HMS Dreadnought set sail. What made this ship different was its ten 12-inch guns, some of them mounted on rotatable turrets, and its faster speed, powered by steam turbines. Other ships of the period had only a handful of guns and not all of this size. No other warship could match it in battle. Germany tried to keep pace by constructing ships similar in size, but although it clearly hoped to one day outbuild Britain, at no point before or during the war did its fleet ever match the British numbers (Figure 11.6).

This is a chart which compares British and German Naval Power. The top portion of the graph is labeled Destroyers, Torpedo boats, submarines, Dreadnoughts in construction, and Battlecruisers in construction. Britain has a little over 400 vessels in this category, compared to Germany’s, which is a little less than 250. The middle portion of the graph is labeled coast defense ships, armored cruisers, protected cruisers, scout cruisers, and light cruisers. Britain has about 125 vessels in this category and Germany has about 50. The bottom portion of the graph is labeled Dreadnoughts, Pre-dreadnoughts, and Battlecruisers. Britain has about 75 of these vessels and Germany had a little under 50.
Figure 11.6 This graph compares British naval power to German naval power at the start of World War I. The Germans were never able to match the numbers of the British. (data source: P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, (London: UCL Press, 1994); attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

In Their Own Words

A German Perspective

In 1911, General Friedrich von Bernhardi, a German military commander, published a book entitled Germany and the Next War in which he asserted that Germany was correct to establish itself as a major power and defend its rights in Europe and the world. This translated passage addresses the situation in which Germany believed itself to be in the years before the war.

When a State is confronted by the material impossibility of supporting any longer the warlike preparations which the power of its enemies has forced upon it, when it is clear that the rival States must gradually acquire from natural reasons a lead that cannot be won back, when there are indications of an offensive alliance of stronger enemies who only await the favourable moment to strike – the moral duty of the State towards its citizens is to begin the struggle while the prospects of success and the political circumstances are still tolerably favourable. When, on the other hand, the hostile States are weakened or hampered by affairs at home and abroad, but its own warlike strength shows elements of superiority, it is imperative to use the favourable circumstances to promote its own political aims. The danger of a war may be faced the more readily if there is good prospect that great results may be obtained with comparatively small sacrifices. [. . .]

Thus in order to decide what paths German policy must take in order to further the interests of the German people, and what possibilities of war are involved, we must first try to estimate the problems of State and of civilization which are to be solved, and discover what political purposes correspond to these problems.

—Friedrich von Bernhardi, Germany and the Next War

  • What does it sound like Germany is contemplating? Explain your answer.
  • Who are the “hostile States” Bernhardi mentions? What are the “warlike” preparations to which he refers?

Germany’s army, however, was much larger than Britain’s. Compulsory military service was the norm in Germany and Austria-Hungary. Germany placed high reliance on its active military units, which totaled close to four million soldiers, and had numerous units on reserve as well. Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary had a smaller force of under 500,000. In reaction to the growth and power of the German army, other nations also built up their armies.

In Russia, military service was required. Although its armies were poorly trained and outfitted, its peacetime forces numbered nearly 1.5 million, and millions more could be called up as part of military mobilization. France had also adopted compulsory service (at the time it required three years of service from all men) and fielded an active army of almost 1.3 million. Those who had already done their compulsory service were classified as reservists and could be mobilized as well.

The British army, which relied on volunteer troops, was still relatively small at the onset of the war. The Old Regulars, as they were known, numbered only a little over a quarter-million. The strength of Britain lay rather in its navy. The British reveled in what they called the “splendid isolation” of their island, an acknowledgment that issues on the European continent did not directly touch it.

The United States, which did not enter the war until 1917, had also chosen to keep a small military force, numbering fewer than 130,000. It had built up its navy beginning in the 1890s, when its imperial advances necessitated a more efficient and up-to-date force, though it did not have the ship numbers that European powers possessed. For the United States, keeping a small force was compatible with the isolationist tendencies it had maintained through the 1800s. With oceans on two sides, the country was relatively protected from overseas entanglements and had diplomatically tried to avoid them.

Besides building up their armies and navies, military planners in several European countries also began designing how operations would occur in the next war. Germany anticipated that, encircled by enemies, it would have to fight on two fronts—against Russia on one side and France on the other. Developed by Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen in the early 1900s, the Schlieffen Plan held that Russia would be slow to mobilize, so Germany should use that time to attack Belgium and France and then pivot to fight Russia. This plan would make the conflict a short one. The French designed Plan XVII, which called for a major French offensive through Alsace-Lorraine to target the industrial heartland of Germany. Russia developed Plan 19, which would order Russian attacks on East Prussia once Germany was engaged against France.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax