British Naval Expansion and the Naval Scare of 1909


            Germany, in a supplementary naval law of 1908, had proposed laying down the keels of four Dreadnoughts that year, four more in 1909, and to lay plans for more in 1910 (1).  This alarmed some members of Parliament and the Admiralty in Britain who viewed the German fleet as a dagger pointed at the

very heart of the British Empire. To counter this threat, Mr. Reginald McKenna,  First Lord of the Admiralty, introduced his navy estimates to Parliament on March 16, 1909. These estimates were the proposal for the expansion of Britain's navy, the purpose of which was to counter a corresponding increase in the German navy. The Naval Scare of 1909 and a greater expansion of the first modern arms race in history was on.


            Governments usually do not like to spend millions on armaments, for such expenditures usually come at the expense of social and domestic programs which are often seen to have a more beneficial impact on the  lives of the ordinary taxpayers. However, governments are also responsible for the security of the people and the maintenance of the country's sovereignty. If those responsible for security and sovereignty believe a buildup of military strength is necessary, then it is easier to justify large expenditures for armaments and military expansion. In Britain's case, the armaments referred to were naval; the threat was Germany. Diplomatic negotiations were ongoing throughout 1909 in an effort to head off any further increase on the part of the Germans. On Jan. 4,1909, Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, wrote to his Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Edward Goschen, of the details of the meeting he held with the German Ambassador to London, Count Metternich. During the meeting, he asserted that just as "...we should not complain of Germany's right to build as many vessels as she pleased, she must not take it amiss if we built the number of ships which we thought necessary for our own protection." What Grey is saying is that the Germans should not be alarmed if Britain must build more ships if the Germans continue to expand their navy, for it is Britain's superior numbers in warships which assure its security. He also stated that Britain would be willing to slow down its rate of building if Germany were also to do so (2).  Grey's point of view was that the German Dreadnoughts were a threat to commerce on the open sea (3) and that "...there was a risk of invasion should there be any unfavourable turn in

the relations between this country and Germany" (4). This too was said to Metternich and Goschen.


            Many industries, such as the steel, coal, shipbuilding, and armaments industries, saw such naval expenditure as beneficial. An article written on Jan. 1, 1909 in the Fortnightly Review argued on behalf of what it believed to be the "Blessings of Naval Armaments." Economically speaking, during the manufacturing of a ship of war, "...many different trades carried on in various parts of the United Kingdom are concerned; different classes of mechanics are required for the manufacture of armour and armaments...steel plates...all fittings...and the general sanitary equipment" (5).  The statements made in the article are supported by the union employment statistics. The unemployment rate in the Engineering, Metal, and Shipbuilding Unions dropped dramatically from 13% in 1909 to 6.8% in 1910, a huge 48% decrease. An associated union employing carpenters and joiners saw a 29% decrease in unemployment (6). Although the article seems to be slanted towards conservative minds, the reference to the employment figures were sure to please most Labour Party members who at least could try to take some credit for creating jobs. An editorial written on Feb. 1 stated, "The equilibrium of great armaments gives stability to peace and prevents a plunge into the dread unknown of conflict." (7).  Peace through strength is clearly not a modern concept. It should also be noted that these articles were written before McKenna's speech. Given the tone of the articles, it is probable that they were written to gain the attention of government officials as well as for public consumption.


            The Germans appeared interested in defusing any potential problems with the British in regard to shipbuilding plans drawn in compliance with their Naval Law. On Feb. 3, 1909, Count Metternich met with Grey and argued that German shipbuilding was preset by law, that any monies for extra ships would have

to be voted upon by the Reichstag, and that allusions in the press and foreign embassies to a competition between German and British shipbuilding were not true (8).  I believe that Metternich was clearly trying to say that the naval buildup is simply a matter of course for Germany and that there is no reason for the British to be alarmed.


            On Feb. 16, King Edward VII made his opening address to the House of Commons. He maintained that "...the expenditure of the year will be considerably in excess of that of the past twelve months." (9) (Although

Edward did not set the budget, he still commanded a considerable amount of prestige; thus, his words did carry some influence). This did not sit well with many Liberals, who came to power partly on the promise to keep military expenses lower in order to concentrate more money towards social programs. Mr.  Arthur J. Balfour, Leader of the Conservative Opposition, commented to Parliament that " must be a matter of the deepest disappointment to those who, when they constituted the independent Members of an Opposition,

were never tired of denouncing expenditure on the Navy, that they have been compelled by necessity to put in a paragraph which states that the expenditure this year will be considerably in excess of the expenditure in

the last twelve months..." (10).


            Many Liberals were alarmed by the alleged need to increase naval expenditure. Mr.  Arthur Henderson, M.P., shot back to Balfour during the debate on Edward's speech that "...  I am justified in coming to the conclusion that this House is going to be asked again to vote increased expenditure for Navy purposes.  We on these benches view with considerable alarm any suggested increase for that purpose" (11). Henderson reached the conclusion that the House was going to be asked to authorize more money for naval armaments. I believe his last sentence is a warning from the Liberals there would be considerable resistance on the floor before any additional money was released.


            Metternich and Grey met again during the first week of March, with the latter trying to avoid an increase in tension between Britain and Germany. This can be seen by the number of meetings Grey had with Metternich between February and March of 1909 and in the follow-up letters Grey sent to Goschen detailing those meetings. In his letter to Goschen dated March 5, he stated that Metternich told him that "...considerable  comment was made in conversation here [Germany] in political circles and in society upon the quickening of the German program of construction [naval].  Metternich wished to explain... materials had been collected in advance because...the designs were not settled" (12).  There was some confusion at this point which centered on the exact ships to which Metternich was referring. Grey then proposed a reciprocal agreement which would allow each country's Naval Attache to see the number of ships which were actually being built. The proposal was quickly dropped when Metternich told Grey that "...he had not started the conversation with the intention of proposing any arrangement" (13). This rejection of Grey's proposal could indicate that Metternich had something to hide. It could also mean that he did not have the authority to open such talks without first consulting his government.


            On March 10, Grey again met with Metternich and once again wrote to Goschen to tell him details of their dialogue.  Much of the same ground regarding building, inspection, and British security was covered. It was at this meeting that Grey told Metternich of the House debates on Naval matters that were to take place on March 16. Grey asked outright the number of "Dreadnoughts" that Germany would have by 1912.  Metternich replied that Germany would have no more than 13 by the end of 1912, and that she would not accelerate her program (14).


            Although the Naval Scare had begun at the end of 1908, it was now about to reach new heights. On March 16, 1909, McKenna shocked the House with his budgetary estimates for 1909-10. The monetary amount was sure to upset many Liberals.  McKenna knew he would face severe opposition, thus his speech was a masterful weaving of his agreement with "... the policy of the present Government...of Peace, Retrenchment, and Reform..."(15) and his appeal to the needs of the British Empire. Said McKenna "...the safety of the Empire stands above all other considerations.  No matter what the cost, the safety of the country must be assured" (16). His last statement illuminates a dilemma which many men representing the military as a Government servant have faced; mainly, the cost of providing for the safety of a nation based on potential external threats vs. the needs for such expenditure to be used for the betterment of the people in such spheres as education, social reform, and economic growth.


            The next shock was when McKenna declared, "...  I select that Power [Germany] as the standard by which to measure our own requirements" (17). This meant that Britain was no longer on the two-power standard which stated that Britain's navy should be equal in strength to the combined strength of the next two strongest naval powers; the enemy was now clearly defined as Germany (18).


            The building schedule proposed by McKenna was for four ships to be laid down in 1909 and for four more ships to be laid down if needed. This would allow Britain to keep a numerical lead over Germany in Dreadnoughts. Balfour and Henry H. Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister, supported McKenna while the Liberals David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill opposed him.  Though McKenna estimated German Dreadnought strength as 13 by the end of 1911, Balfour's own estimates indicated that the Germans might have 17 by July 1911! This caused a disbelieving Churchill to stand up and say "No, no" to Balfour's numbers (19).


            Some very lively debating took place, with Liberals and Conservatives arguing the merits of increased Naval expenditure vs. the need for social programs. With the issue of national security in the forefront, it is not surprising that political affiliations were obscured. Money, safety, and the number of "Dreadnoughts" were some of the issues. Mr. Arnold Lupton, a Liberal M.P., asked, "If it is necessary to increase one part of the

Estimates why not reduce another part?" (20). He also asked, "Is it to be supposed that a vessel of 16,000 or 17,000 tons is of no use because it is not a 'Dreadnought'? and "...I am sure Germany is perfectly friendly to

us...", "We never had any war with Germany" (21).  Lupton is bringing out two points: that the Navy still has many ships that are not yet obsolete and that those vessels should not be forgotten and secondly, the bold fact that Britain has never had a war with Germany.  Why assume that it would be in one soon?


            Conversely, Mr. Samuel Roberts, a Conservative M.P., said, "The first and foremost reason why we should have a supreme Navy is our island home." He says "Then there is our food supply. We require annually at least 33 million quarters of wheat...and we only grow 7-1/2 ourselves.  Where would our country be in case of attack?  We should be starving in three weeks if the supply of food should not come in" (22). Roberts is pointing out Britain's biggest vulnerability: the trade routes which Britain depended upon for so much, especially food. In a related context, Mr.  John Ward, a Liberal M.P., asked "...why is it necessary for this great Continental Power [Germany] to build a navy almost equal to that of a purely island kingdom...?" (23). Ward

is questioning the need for a strong German Navy since Germany, unlike Britain, only needed a strong army for national defense; therefore, the only reason Germany would need a navy would be for offensive purposes.


            The political battle lines were drawn, with Liberals, Little Englanders, who were isolationist and wanted little involvement in foreign affairs (led by Gladstone), Churchill, Lloyd George, the Little Navy Party, and a few

Conservatives stating the case for those who wished to keep naval expenditure down. Those who supported the increase in expenditure were Henry H. Asquith (the Liberal Prime Minister), Balfour, the Sea Lords, who were a group of high ranking naval officers and officials (led by First Sea Lord J. A. Fisher), a few Liberals, and most Conservatives, including the Unionist Party whose slogan,  "We want eight and we won't wait" referred to the fact that they wanted all eight ships laid down in 1909.


            The tone and context of the March 16 debate did not go unnoticed by Germany.  Grey, in a dispatch sent to Goschen, gave details of a meeting he had with Metternich on March 17.  Metternich took offense to the fact that his statement that 'Germany would have only 13 Dreadnoughts by the end of 1912' went unmentioned in the House (24). He insisted that our estimates were simply wrong. I replied '...the only way to prevent such

misunderstandings from arising was to put all their cards on the table, and to let the Naval Attaches see all the yards in which ships were being built...'(25). Again we can see that Grey is pushing unilateral naval inspections as a possible solution to the uncertainties which surrounded the assessment of British and German naval strength. On March 22, Goschen said, "The being followed with the deepest interest here and is the

subject of discussion not only in the Press but also in the Budget Committee of the Reichstag..." (26). He also noted German awareness of the Naval Scare (called the "panic" in Germany) "...which has suddenly seized the British nation" (27).  As for the issue of unilateral inspection of naval yards, Goschen wrote to Grey on March 26, saying "...the Naval Authorities were for many reasons strongly against such permission..."(28). This could suggest either the Germans had something to hide or that they simply didn't wish to divulge their true naval strength to a potential future belligerent.


            The apex of the "Scare" was to take place on March 29.  Though many in Parliament remembered that in January, most expected the Navy to ask for four ships, it asked for six.  However, in the March 16 presentation of Naval estimates to the House, McKenna asked for four definite ships and four to be authorized for building if deemed necessary (29).


            On March 29, Mr. Arthur Lee, a Conservative M.P., made the famous motion "That, in the opinion of this House... the declared policy of His Majesty's Government respecting the immediate provision of battleships of the newest type does not sufficiently secure the safety of the Empire" (30). He continued "In rising to propose the Motion which stands in my name-although, of course, it is the Motion of the Leader of the Opposition [Balfour]-I fully realize the gravity of the step which we are taking. It is technically a Vote of Censure on His

Majesty's Government in the vigorous terms which are considered proper on these occasions." (31) Lee had just stated the major concern of the Conservatives: mainly, by not immediately authorizing the construction of

all eight Dreadnoughts, the Navy might not be able to carry out its mission in a wartime situation.


            Lee summed up his arguments. He wanted to show that the government's "...reduction of naval expenditure during the last three years and its latest speeches, that the present state of affairs, which is due to the Government's vacillating policy, has [sic] placed an intolerable strain not only upon our relations with Germany, but upon our private dockyards and arsenals...that the declared programme of the Navy is not adequate to ensure the complete safety of the country... that the recommendations which we venture to press upon the Government ...are in no sense impracticable" (32). Again, Lee is saying that the government, by not building all eight ships, is making the country more vulnerable in case of war. He is also saying that this is needless since we can afford to buy the security the country needs. The motion for Balfour's vote of Censure passed.


            Sir Edward Grey was the principle speaker for the government. He did not try to refute Lee's arguments, but instead presented the situation as it applied to domestic and foreign policy. "I see a wide space in which both [Germany and Britain] may walk in peace and amity. Two things, in my opinion two extreme things, would produce conflict. One is an attempt by us to isolate Germany...Another thing which would certainly produce a conflict would be the isolation of England attempted by any great Continental Power so as to dominate and dictate the policy of the Continent" (33).  He spoke of possible arms reductions as a way to ensure peace. He saw no probable cause for war as long as both countries respected each other's interests. Grey then stated the fact that the Germans did not plan on building more than was necessary to reach 13 Dreadnoughts by the end of 1912. Grey's position suggests that Germany and Britain could have remained on good terms so long as each country respected the interests of the other.  He does not want either country to dominate European affairs.  And again, he is pushing the idea of arms reduction as a means of reducing the possibility of future

conflict (although he wishes Britain to maintain naval superiority).


            The debating which took place after Grey's speech reflected the concerns of national security, aggression, war, and social responsibilities toward the country [Britain].  The debate, which began to break along party lines (Liberal and Conservative) showed that the majority believed that four ships would be enough, although many would have voted for all eight ships if they felt that there were sufficient funds available for such construction.


            Finally, Balfour asked the Speaker to put the Censure up for the vote. The answer, along Liberal and Conservative party lines, was Ayes, 135; Noys, [sic] 353.  The Motion of Censure asked for by Balfour was defeated. The decision to build four ships now and to build four more later in the year if necessary was accepted. The decision showed that the majority of House members felt that Britain's security was not yet at risk and therefore there was no need to spend money needlessly. Fiscal responsibility had prevailed.


            With the defeat of the Vote of Censure, the Liberals seemed to have brought the matter to a close. However, the true end of the crisis was soon to unfold.  Ironically, this was due more to events in Austria-Hungary and Italy rather than Germany. Goschen, in a letter to Grey written April 11, told Grey of a desire by both of these German allies to begin a buildup of their own naval strength (34).  On April 14 another letter to Grey reiterated the same, as well as including a note in reference to the success of Count Zeppelin in building an new type of airship (35).  The concern over these increased building programs put new pressures on the navy. These developments helped McKenna reach a decision on the further buildup of the

British Navy.


            On July 26, 1909, McKenna went before the House with his intention to build the four ships which were provided for in the March debates (36). Again there was heated debate over the issue.  McKenna stated, "Two

countries-Italy and Austria-[Hungary] have now declared a definite programme of four large armoured ships of the latest type" (37).  What may have helped carry the moment was the fact that one of the ships McKenna asked for had already been started. Asquith fulfilled his earlier promise on the building of the four ships 'if necessary' by supporting McKenna. That sealed it; the ships were to be built. With the Conservatives now happy (they got their eight ships after all), the rhetoric and the Naval Scare were now over.


            What were the results of the Naval Scare? First, it was a blow to a Liberal government which came to power on the promise to reduce military spending. Secondly, it marked the end of the Two Power Standard. This makes sense to me, since at the time the third largest navy in the world belonged to the United States, a power no sane person could see as an enemy of Britain. The decision to build eight expensive ships in one year certainly upset the budget of David Lloyd George. To pay for the ships, he would be forced to raise taxes. These proposals would lead to a very heated and momentous confrontation between the Houses of Parliament.  Finally, it did nothing to halt an already expensive arms race, a race which became one of the reasons for WWI.


            But what does all of this show? It shows that during the time before World War I, military power may have counted more towards "Great Power" status than economic strength. Contrast this with the reality of 1992. Japan and Germany have gained stature in today's world not through military might but through economic strength. Hopefully, leaders the world over will see the potential significance in economic investment as opposed to military expenditures which are beyond the needs of peaceful countries. History is rife with examples of arms races, but wouldn't be nice to see gun barrels and warships changed into bushels of wheat and medicine?



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