Exercise 1: Document analysis

On 9 February 1912 Churchill, newly appointed as First Lord of the Admiralty (Cabinet Minister in charge of the Admiralty and with responsibility for the Royal Navy), made a public speech in Glasgow about the naval race. It laid out, in very frank language, the arguments in favour of British expansion and rejected those put forward in favour of a larger German fleet.


Extracts from text of speech as reported at the time.

Crown copyright. A copy of this speech can be consulted at the Churchill Archives Centre. Reference: Churchill Papers, CHAR 9/43/41-4.)

“The purposes of British naval power are essentially defensive. We have no thoughts, and we have never had any thoughts of aggression, and we attribute no such thoughts to other great Powers. There is, however, this difference between the British naval power and the naval power of the great and friendly Empire – and I trust it may long remain the great and friendly Empire – of Germany. The British Navy is to us a necessity and, from some points of view, the German Navy is to them more in the nature of a luxury. Our naval power involves British existence. It is existence to us; it is expansion to them. We cannot menace the peace of a single Continental hamlet, no matter how great and supreme our Navy may become. But, on the other hand, the whole fortunes of our race and Empire, the whole treasure accumulated during so many centuries of sacrifice and achievement, would perish and be swept utterly away if our naval supremacy were to be impaired. It is the British Navy which makes Great Britain a great power. But Germany was a great power, respected and honoured all over the world, before she had a single ship…As naval competition becomes more acute, we shall have not only to increase the number of ships we build, but the ratio which our naval strength will have to bear to other great naval Powers, so that our margin of superiority will become larger and not smaller as the strain grows greater. Thus we shall make it clear that other naval Powers, instead of overtaking us by additional efforts, will only be more out-distanced in consequence of the measures which we ourselves shall take.”


  1. Explain in your own words what Churchill sees as the difference between the significance of the German and the British fleets.
  2. Look carefully at the language Churchill uses in describing the German fleet. What impression of the German fleet does his choice of language give?
  3. What does Churchill mean by “the ratio which our naval strength will have to bear to other great naval Powers”?
  4. How exactly is Churchill threatening Germany in this speech?
  5. This speech was studied very carefully by the German government (as Churchill knew it would be). Which parts of it might give the German government grounds to complain to the British government? What do you think was the effect Churchill intended this speech to have in Germany?
  6. Churchill is here committing the British government to substantial expenditure on naval expansion. What does this speech tell us about:
  • Churchill as a politician?
  • the state of public opinion in Britain?
  • the Liberal government’s view of the German naval threat?
  • the actual German naval threat to Britain by 1912?