Book Review: Dreadnought

Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War
By Robert K. Massie
New York: Ballantine, 1992. ISBN 978-0-345-37556-8.

Britain and Prussia were natural allies through most of the 19th century. There were strong ties between the British royal family and the Prussian royal family. The future British King Edward VII had two godfathers: the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian King Frederick William IV. Queen Victoria's eldest daughter married the Prussian Crown Prince Frederick, and she picked out Alexandra of Schleswig-Holstein as a candidate to be her sister-in-law. Many upper-class Prussians spoke English and admired Britain. Bismarck read the works of Walter Scott and William Shakespeare, and had a "certain sympathy for England and its inhabitants." (p. 54) Moltke the Elder was married to an Englishwoman. Tirpitz admired the British navy and fondly recalled visits to Portsmouth.

Then things started to go wrong. Alexandra's father became King of Denmark in 1863, triggering the Second Schleswig War. Queen Victoria favored the Germans, who proved victorious, but British public opinion favored the Danes. Alexandra would never forgive the Prussians for taking the duchy away from her family. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, most of Europe favored the Germans and hoped that they would give Napoleon III a proper thrashing. But once Napoleon III was gone, the newly united nation of Germany upended the European balance of power. Kaiser Frederick III reigned for less than a year before dying of throat cancer in 1888, eliminating the liberalizing influence that might have come out of the "English match." Next came a buildup of naval armaments, clashes over colonies in Africa, and a hardening of the European alliance system.

In just 51 years, from 1863 to 1914, Britain and Germany went from natural allies to resolute enemies. This book is the classic chronicle of that transformation.

Missed chances

By no means was this sequence of events inevitable. The Prussians had shown some diplomatic flexibility during the 19th century. For example, after the Battle of Königgrätz, William I had wanted to march into Vienna and throw the Hapsburgs out. But Bismarck wanted an immediate and generous peace with Austria, and he was supported by Crown Prince Frederick. As the Franco-Prussian War drew to a close, Molkte wanted Alsace and Lorraine as buffer states. Bismarck didn't mind taking Alsace but wanted no part of Lorraine. Why force so many Frenchmen to live under German rule? The Germans compromised amongst themselves: They annexed half of Lorraine.

William I favored Russia and was opposed to an Austro-German alliance. William threatened to abdicate; Bismarck threatened to resign. But the future Frederick III favored an Austrian alliance, so William I could not achieve his goal by abdicating. As usual, Bismarck got his way. Bismarck wanted an ally that he could control, and Russia remained friendly as long as he was steering the ship. But only Bismarck could manage to be allied to both Austria and Russia at the same time. Later, Russia was eager to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Germany, and the Russian Ambassador secured assent from William II. But Caprivi could not manage to juggle as many balls as Bismarck, and Russia turned to France as the only other Great Power willing to enter a Russian alliance.

Part of the problem was that the role of Chancellor had been created for Bismarck. The constitutional relationship of Chancellor to Kaiser had been tailored to the personal relationship between Bismarck and William I. The Chancellor was appointed only by the Kaiser, and he answered only to the Kaiser. There was no further constitutional framework that constrained or guided the Chancellor's actions. Still, the German Empire was a constitutional monarchy, and a federal one at that. Bismarck had a habit of sitting in the Reichstag, working on state papers as he listened to the speeches, ready to reply to any speeches that attacked the government's actions. In contrast, Tirpitz would sit down and cry after returning from a bruising session at the Reichstag. To lobby for his Navy bill, Tirpitz instead focused on the Reichsrat, visiting the monarchs of Saxony, Bavaria, and Baden to lobby for its passage.

An Anglo-German alliance?

Even then, British diplomats were still favorably disposed towards Germany. And why not? After unification, Germany had no further territorial ambitions in Europe. Salisbury thought that France "is, must always remain, England's greatest danger," while the Germans were friends "by sympathy, by interest, by descent." When Joseph Chamberlain feared Russian advances into China, Bülow came to London to negotiate an alliance.

William II was vain and impetuous. He would make grand proclamations of alliance and friendship to ambassadors in the morning, but his ministers would explain later that day that the alliance was impossible. He took offense at even unintentional slights, and he made highly aggressive speeches when he got into a military mood. German soldiers sent to China during the Boxer Rebellion behaved horribly. British officers were told that "the Kaiser, in his farewell speech told the men to act this way." (p. 286)

But Massie also explores the other side of William II, fleshing out this character beyond the caricature that is found in English-language histories. William II wanted to be loved. Part of the break with Bismarck came when William took the miners' side in a mining strike. Bismarck threatened to shoot them en masse, but William did not want to begin his reign with a bloodbath. When the Reichstag was working on legislation to restrict working hours, as well as labor by women and children, William convened a Crown Council meeting and proposed a grand gesture to coincide with his own birthday. Bismarck convinced all the ministers to oppose the Kaiser and support him instead, a Pyrrhic victory that only served to infuriate William.

When Queen Victoria became ill, Bülow warned William II against visiting her, knowing that a visit would be unpopular in a Germany that sympathized with the Boers. But William insisted on going and, to the surprise of the British royals, acted in a studiously considerate manner the whole time. The Queen mistook him for his father Frederick III, and William remained by her beside as she died. He stayed through the funeral. William enjoyed this extended taste of English life, and he effusively praised a potential Anglo-German alliance at his departure lunch. Upon his return, German Army officers were surprised to find him in a civilian suit instead of his usual uniform.

The end of the Anglo-German alliance comes with stunning rapidity. Just a few months later, Germany overplayed its hand by moving from a defensive treaty to full membership in the Triple Alliance. Salisbury felt that an Anglo-German alliance would antagonize France forever and risk dragging Britain into an Austro-Russian war. When Chamberlain made an offhand defense of British concentration camps in South Africa, it blew up into a huge row in the British and German press. The realities of hostile public opinion had gotten lost amidst all the diplomatic shuffling.

Massie feels that Chamberlain's pursuit of a German alliance violated the fundamental precept of British foreign policy: that it must always ally with the weaker continental power against the stronger. The other, unstated lesson seems to be: You cannot arrange an alliance between two countries whose people hate each other …

Anglo-French entente

… Or can you? Anglo-French relations took the opposite trajectory. Britain and France had been traditional enemies through the eighteenth century, but relations became more cordial after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. However, conflict soon reared its head again. Queen Victoria was so upset about the Dreyfus Affair that she wrote Salisbury demanding "severe retribution." The French felt the insult keenly at Fashoda, and for a time the French hated the British even more than the Germans did. The excitable Jackie Fisher hatched a scheme to attack Devil's Island, rescue Dreyfus, and land him in France.

When Edward VII visited Paris in 1903, he was greeted by a sullen crowd that shouted provocations about the Boers, Marchand, and Joan of Arc. But the King ignored all the shouting, remained ostentatiously polite, and turned his visit into a triumph. The French government knew that it needed allies, and they'd waited patiently for the Anglo-German talks to break down. Britain never bound itself to defend France, just like it refused to commit to military action in support of Germany. However, the French were willing to accept an informal alliance that the Germans had rejected.

Naval buildup

The diplomatic maneuverings in Europe took place amidst the famous naval rivalry between Britain and Germany. This book is, after all, entitled Dreadnought. The German navy was a small and insignificant affair until Tirpitz became Navy Minister in 1897. He immediately decided to abandon the traditional strategy of building cruisers to protect German seaborne trade, turning instead to the construction of a battleship fleet. His secret memorandum to the Kaiser specifically names the British fleet as the enemy.

In many ways, the Anglo-German naval race foreshadowed the missile race of the Cold War. Germany's published naval plans were discounted and disbelieved, because they had the shipyard capacity to build more. This led to the famous Naval Scare of 1909, when Britain doubled its building program from four dreadnoughts to eight. The British had to raise taxes to pay for their ships, helping to create the Parliamentary standoff of 1910-1911 that destroyed the House of Lords. The Germans also had to raise taxes. Bülow proposed to raise 80% of the money through regressive sales taxes, leaving 20% to be raised by an unprecedented inheritance tax on property. When the inheritance tax was defeated by conservative elements in the Reichstag, Bülow had to resign as Chancellor.

Thus did the two greatest industrial powers of Europe commit their national treasure to building what Massie would later call "castles of steel." As the naval arms race grew more fevered, the European fleets took drastic measures to concentrate their forces for the upcoming war. The British got their colonies of Australia, New Zealand, and Malaya to pay for ships. Britain recalled all of its battleships from colonial stations to put its entire battleship strength in the North Sea. France stripped bare its Channel and Atlantic coasts to concentrate in the Mediterranean, facing Italy and Austria-Hungary. This left the French coast undefended against the Germans in a future war, unless the British decided to intervene.

The politicians began to look for a way out of the arms race. Tirpitz had previously insisted on a 3:2 ratio between British and German naval tonnage, and the British had countered with a 2:1 ratio. Churchill now offered a 1.6:1 ratio and suggested a naval holiday. There was talk of limitations on ship size, as well as mutual inspections of shipyards to guard against secret construction. Four British dreadnoughts paid a friendly visit to Kiel in June 1914. Churchill wanted to accompany the fleet to talk with Tirpitz, but the visit could not be arranged. The Kaiser himself showed up at the fleet visit and was racing yachts when the news arrived from Sarajevo.

August 1914

The Russians felt they had been humiliated in previous Balkan crises, so they were unwilling to compromise once more. The Austrians were now obstinate and wanted to finish off the Serb menace once and for all. There had been cases in the past where Germany had been forced to back Austria against its own wishes. When Austria annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, it did so without consulting Germany, which considered Turkey to be a friendly country. However, Germany had only one real ally, and it had no choice but to back Austria to the hilt.

William II was sent on a cruise vacation to the coast of Norway. He was kept in the dark about political developments, and had to read in a Norwegian newspaper that an ultimatum had been sent to Serbia. He returned to Berlin, read the Serbian reply the next morning, and declared "A great moral victory for Vienna; with it every reason for war drops away."

Serbia had accepted 9 of the 10 Austrian demands. It even committed to amend its constitution to establish stricter censorship of the press, and it offered to refer the one remaining point to the International Court at the Hague. But the Austrians weren't interested in Serbian submission. They wanted to find a pretext for war, and they wouldn't accept anything except full compliance with the ultimatum. That very evening, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Yet nobody wanted a general European war. There had been several wars in the Balkans before, and all of them managed to be contained to the Balkans. The British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey proposed to the Germans that Austria-Hungary submit the matter to mediation once they'd taken Belgrade. The Austrians refused even this offer. Grasping at straws, Bethmann-Hollweg proposed that Britain stay neutral if Germany guaranteed the territorial integrity of metropolitan France after defeating them! The British refused. Russia mobilized its forced, and Germany reacted with its own mobilization.

Even after the war had expanded to Russia and Germany, there were still attempts to limit its scope to the four combatants. Grey asked the German ambassador if Germany would respect a French declaration of neutrality. William II seized on this query and declared that Germany could now concentrate its forces against Russia. Of course, this was not an actual offer, but only a last-ditch effort to explore the remotest possibilities. The Franco-Russian alliance was firm, and France had no intention of remaining neutral in a Russo-German war. To top it all off, Austria-Hungary did not declare war on Russia until five days after Germany declared war. Austrian intransigence had plunged Europe into a cataclysmic war, but they did not actually want to go to war with Russia.

The inexorable logic of the alliance system came into play. To fight Russia successfully, Germany had to first defeat France. To defeat France, it had to violate Belgian neutrality. Many British Liberal MPs opposed a war to support those "Serbian murderers," but they were willing to fight for Belgium. Here, the dreadnoughts make one last appearance. With the French fleet in the Mediterranean, the Channel coast of France was exposed to German naval bombardment. It would be up to the British navy to keep the Germans out of the Channel. The Germans had other things on their mind. Moltke the Younger told Tirpitz not to try to prevent the British Expeditionary Force from landing in France. Supremely confident of their military abilities, the Germans gave up the opportunity to keep the BEF off their right wing.


Massie is a biographer at heart, and this book is a great collector of personalities. The initial meeting between councillor Eckardstein and Chamberlain in pursuit of an Anglo-German alliance was arranged by the Double Duchess, a Hanoverian countess who became a duchess by marrying two British dukes in succession. There is a whole chapter on Lord Charles Bereford, an admiral who frequently took time off to be a Member of Parliament. The Kaiser befriends Albert Ballin, the Jewish managing director of HAPAG. He stays on Ballin's ships, and he visits Ballin's Hamburg home so often that it became known as the Little Potsdam. But the Kaiserin could not overcome her prejudices; she never accompanies the Kaiser to visit his Jewish friends.

Jacky Fisher gets many pages, full of his irrepressible exclamation points and eagerness to fight. He admired the Kaiser for his naval buildup, but saw the German fleet as the greatest menace to British security. Among his proposals: an Anglo-French attack on the Kiel Canal, to "Copenhagen" the German fleet with a surprise attack. (The Royal Navy had sunk a Danish fleet at Copenhagen during the Napoleonic Wars without a declaration of war. Today, we would call it "Pearl Harbor." The Japanese evidently learned from their British mentors.)

And of course, there's Winston Churchill, a poor student who was hopeless at Latin and Greek. Denied admission to a prestigious infantry regiment, his father berates him for his lack of effort and complains that his cavalry commission cost him an extra £200 a year. After losing a watch that his father had given him, Churchill hired some soldiers from an infantry regiment to divert a stream, pump out a deep pool, and recover the watch. Bored by the routine of the peacetime army, Churchill shows up in various war zones, participates in the last great cavalry charge at Omdurban, and parlays his work as a wartime correspondent into fame and a Parliamentary seat. He rose quickly to Home Secretary, then gave up that post for the less prestigious one of First Lord of the Admiralty, just in time for the First World War. An impetuous fellow, he twice recommended to the King that a dreadnought be named HMS Oliver Cromwell.

The book is also filled with striking anecdotes that complete the picture of the times. Edward VII notices the royal standard at half-staff upon the death of Victoria, and insists that it be raised: "The Kind of England lives!" (p. 299). Campbell-Bannerman acquired his double-barreled name when an uncle left him money in his will, on condition that he adopt his name. When the French President visits Aldershot in 1909, Edward VII insists on the full Marseillaise being played, instead of the first four bars, "as had been customary." (Massie seems to have gotten the British national anthem confused with the French national anthem. The program listed in the Times of London for July 6, 1903 states "the first six bars of the National Anthem, to be followed by the first four bars of the Marseillaise") Jacky Fisher is invited to Sandringham by Edward VII, who asks him where his valet is. "Never had one, Sir; couldn't afford it." (p. 458)


The book is richly endnoted, but only direct quotes are cited. Paraphrases are not endnoted, so we cannot track them down to primary sources. Massie also relied heavily on secondary sources, causing a lot of inadvertent paraphrasing. For example, he has Bismarck juggling three balls, while other sources have him juggling as many as five. Parliamentary speeches are quoted, but the specific source is not given. Massie has Lloyd George speaking of "substantial economy in naval expenditure" in the House of Commons on July 23, 1914, while Hansard only has "substantial economy." Is he getting the Parliamentary speeches from newspapers?

Massie is careful to note the language in which contacts took place. Kitchener and Marchand both spoke French at Fashoda. Paul Cambon and Edward Grey could not speak each other's language, but Cambon understood spoken English and Grey understood spoken French. Thus, they each spoke their own language and the other could follow along. When Bülow visited London to negotiate with Chamberlain, Queen Victoria spoke German to him.

This is a traditional book, where Hapsburg is still spelled with a "p." The names of monarchs are Anglicized: William instead of Wilhelm, Humbert instead of Humberto. However, Germany has a Kaiser and not an Emperor.


Despite its length, this book is a page-turner for those interested in the time period. Due to the complexity of the narrative, events are sometimes covered twice, from different angles. But Massie writes with fluidity and economy. He never overwhelms with detail, selecting only those that are interesting or important to the narrative.

Massie has written more of a diplomatic history than a naval history. The revolution in naval gunnery is mentioned but not described. The entangling alliances had already been arranged when the Anglo-German naval race began in earnest. The dreadnought race may be the defining feature of the Anglo-German rivalry, but it was not the main reason they went to war.

In the end, the dreadnought race left the strategic balance unchanged. Germany could not outbuild the British, for the British were determined to pay any price to retain their naval superiority. The British ended up with almost the 2:1 advantage that they had originally insisted on. The fleets simply stabilized at a higher level of expenditure. The only thing that was accomplished was to waste money and encourage enmity between the two peoples.