Document A

Extract from the Westminster Gazette, 18 May 1908.

It discusses the state of opinion in Germany and Britain about naval expansion.

“The German general public seem to be following their leaders in taking umbrage, because British writers draw more attention to the tremendous shipbuilding activity of the German Navy and to the rapidly increasing fighting strength of the German Navy concentrated in the North Sea immediately opposite the coast of Great Britain. They feel themselves hurt, even indignant and embittered, because Germany is the Power pointed at, and little comment is made at the steady naval progress of other Powers, such as France, the United States, and Japan. We know that the most exalted in the German Empire, as well as German naval officers, without exception reproach British statesmen, the British Admiralty, and British writers for what is described as “injustice”. …

They submit, and I fully acknowledge the truth of what they say, that they are not building with aggressive designs against Great Britain; but, on the other hand, Great Britain should be considered entitled to show that the German programme is excessive, and that it is inconvenient because it necessitates superfluous expenditure on the part of Great Britain. The Germans retort that they commenced to build “Dreadnought” type ships because they were forced to follow the example of England, and that, therefore, Britain’s reproaches are unjust! They add that they drew up their naval programme in 1900, and that no addition whatever to the demands then made by their Admiralty has been introduced, the changes as regards fighting strength and expenditure being the result of the introduction of the new type of battleship.”

Reference: McKenna Papers, MCKN 3/4/8

Document B

Extract from report by A J Dawson, director of Vickers, 3 May 1909.

The British armaments firm. Dawson had been in Germany and had many dealings with the German government, and he was reporting on his impressions of the mood and attitude he encountered.

“In very high circles in Germany it is considered to be a question of national existence to possess large and useful colonies for the emigration of the constantly increasing population of the country and for the purpose of creating markets for German exports. The best Colonies in the world are in the hands of England, and the only means of obtaining colonies is to take them from England. This idea is a most popular one in Germany and gains ground every day.

The plan of action, from a German point of view, is to win a second Trafalgar against England in order to be able to land in England the powerful German Army and dictate conditions from London as they did in 1870 from Paris.

To build 50 Dreadnoughts in five years is a matter of little moment to Germany from an industrial point of view, the only difficulty being a financial one, but allowing the cost of each Battleship to be £2,000,000, the total cost will be £100,000,000. If we double this figure to allow for general charges, equipment, target preparations, etc. we get £200,000,000, which is not a very important sum of money for the object in view, because Germany well knows that by the defeat of the British Navy she could have this money provided in the form of a war indemnity, and the possession of English Colonies would well compensate her for the money expended, in the same way as she obtained compensation in 1871 from France.”

Crown copyright. Reference: McKenna Papers, MCKN 3/14/19 B

Document C

Extracts from a memorandum to Fisher, the First Sea Lord, from A W Bethell, Director of British Naval Intelligence, 22 May 1909.

Bethell was writing to Fisher because in a speech at a public banquet Fisher’s great rival, Lord Charles Beresford, had said that the launch of HMS Dreadnought ought to have been kept secret. Bethell laid down a number of reasons why it had been right to make it public.

“Germany by the Fleet Bill of 1900 established a building programme which placed her Navy at the following strength by the year 1920 – 38 battle-ships – 14 armoured cruisers – 38 unarmoured cruisers and 96 destroyers. The age battle-ships were to be replaced was fixed at 28 years from the date of laying down and that of cruisers at 23 years – no period being named for the replacement of destroyers. The 1906 Fleet Bill increased the number of armoured cruisers to 20 by 1920 and the destroyers to 144; it also allotted to the latter an age limit of 12 years.

The 1908 Bill reduced the life of battle-ships by 5 years making the period after which they are to be replaced 23 years from the time of laying down.

It is therefore absolutely incorrect to say the “Dreadnought” caused Germany to set to work on a definite naval programme of its own. As regards the “Dreadnought” or “all big gun battle-ship” type it was the natural development the battle-ship was bound to take, but no doubt it appeared earlier than would otherwise have been the case on account of the Japanese-Russian war. …Was it not far wiser to be ourselves the pioneers and reap the advantage we gained of at least 2 years start on any one else? But this is not the only advantage we obtained over Germany. We have forced her to spend money she can ill afford on the extra cost of her ships: to spend £11,000,000 and probably more on the enlargement of the Kiel Canal besides large sums at Wilhelmshaven and possibly to build a new Naval base at Brunsbuttel.

And more important than anything we have made it practically certain she will not force a war on us before the completion of the Kiel Canal or at earliest before 1915, unless she fights at a great disadvantage as her Fleet will have to be concentrated on the North Sea side of the Canal as her Dreadnoughts cannot pass through it and we therefore have only one exit to watch for her Fleet to come out.”

Crown copyright. Reference: McKenna Papers, MCKN 3/4/24


  1. Look at Documents A and B. Compare the views they give on: a) German public opinion; b) the views of Germany’s leaders.
  2. The British government in 1908-09 needed to know about German attitudes and German policy. Which of these two documents might they have taken more seriously?
  3. Now consider the same question, but this time from the point of view of a modern historian: a) which of Documents A and B is the better historical evidence of German attitudes? b) what do they tell us about British attitudes?
  4. Compare the arguments in Documents B and C about Germany’s likely ability to bear the cost of naval expansion. Which argument do you find more convincing?
  5. How strong is the evidence in Document C against the German case stated in Document A, that Germany only began to build dreadnoughts in response to British moves?
  6. To what extent, and why, do Documents A and B differ in their views of whether or not Germany was planning to attack Britain?
  7. Describe the language and tone which these three documents use to describe the Germans. How important do you think this is?
  8. To what extent do these documents support the theory that British policy towards German naval expansion was based on a mixture of unreasonable fear and anti-German prejudice?