The End of “Splendid Isolation”

[T]HE QUEEN CANNOT help feeling that our isolation is dangerous.1


January 14, 1896

Isolation is much less dangerous than the danger of being dragged into wars which do not concern us.2


FOR AS LONG AS he had served the queen, Lord Salisbury had sought to keep Britain free of power blocs. “His policy was not one of isolation from Europe…but isolation from the Europe of alliances.”3 Britannia would rule the waves but stay out of Europe’s quarrels. Said Salisbury, “We are fish.”4

When the queen called him to form a new government for the third time in 1895, Lord Salisbury pursued his old policy of “splendid isolation.” But in the years since he and Disraeli had traveled to the Congress of Berlin in 1878, to create with Bismarck a new balance of power in Europe, their world had vanished.

In the Sino-Japanese war of 1894–95, Japan defeated China, seized Taiwan, and occupied the Liaotung Peninsula. Britain’s preeminent position in China was now history.

In the summer of 1895, London received a virtual ultimatum from secretary of state Richard Olney, demanding that Great Britain accept U.S. arbitration in a border dispute between British Guiana and Venezuela. Lord Salisbury shredded Olney’s note like an impatient tenured professor cutting up a freshman term paper. But President Cleveland demanded that Britain accept arbitration—or face the prospect of war with the United States.

The British were stunned by American enthusiasm for a war over a patch of South American jungle, and incredulous. America deployed two battleships to Britain’s forty-four.5 Yet Salisbury took the threat seriously: “A war with America…in the not distant future has become something more than a possibility.”6

London was jolted anew in January 1896 when the Kaiser sent a telegram of congratulations to Boer leader Paul Kruger on his capture of the Jameson raiders, who had invaded the Transvaal in a land grab concocted by Cecil Rhodes, with the connivance of Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain.

These two challenges, from a jingoistic America that was now the first economic power on earth, and from his bellicose nephew in Berlin, Wilhelm II, revealed to the future Edward VII that “his country was without a friend in the world” and “steps to end British isolation were required….”7

On December 18, 1897, a Russian fleet steamed into the Chinese harbor of Port Arthur, “obliging British warships to vacate the area.”8 British jingoes “became apoplectic.”9 Lord Salisbury stood down: “I don’t think we carry enough guns to fight them and the French together.”10

In 1898, a crisis erupted in northeast Africa. Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand, who had set off from Gabon in 1897 on a safari across the Sahara with six officers and 120 Senegalese, appeared at Fashoda in the southern Sudan, where he laid claim to the headwaters of the Nile. Sir Herbert Kitchener cruised upriver to instruct Marchand he was on imperial land. Faced with superior firepower, Marchand withdrew. Fashoda brought Britain and France to the brink of war. Paris backed down, but bitterness ran deep. Caught up in the Anglophobia was eight-year-old Charles de Gaulle.11

In 1900, the Russian challenge reappeared. After American, British, French, German, and Japanese troops had marched to the rescue of the diplomatic legation in Peking, besieged for fifty-five days by Chinese rebels called “Boxers,” Russia exploited the chaos to send a 200,000-man army into Manchuria and the Czar shifted a squadron of his Baltic fleet to Port Arthur. The British position in China was now threatened by Russia and Japan.

But what awakened Lord Salisbury to the depth of British isolation was the Boer War. When it broke out in 1899, Europeans and Americans cheered British defeats. While Joe Chamberlain might “speak of the British enjoying a ‘splendid isolation, surrounded and supported by our kinsfolk,’ the Boer War brought home the reality that, fully extended in their imperial role, the British needed to avoid conflict with the other great powers.”12

Only among America’s Anglophile elite could Victoria’s nation or Salisbury’s government find support. When Bourke Cockran, a Tammany Hall Democrat, wrote President McKinley, urging him to mediate and keep America’s distance from Great Britain’s “wanton acts of aggression,” the letter went to Secretary of State John Hay.13

Hay bridled at this Celtic insolence. “Mr. Cockran’s logic is especially Irish,” he wrote to a friend. “As long as I stay here no action shall be taken contrary to my conviction that the one indispensable feature of our foreign policy should be a friendly understanding with England.” Hay refused even to answer “Bourke Cockran’s fool letter to the president.”14

Hay spoke of an alliance with Britain as an “unattainable dream” and hoped for a smashing imperial victory in South Africa. “I hope if it comes to blows that England will make quick work of Uncle Paul [Kruger].”15


SO IT WAS THAT as the nineteenth century came to an end Britain set out to court old rivals. The British first reached out to the Americans. Alone among Europe’s great powers, Britain sided with the United States in its 1898 war with Spain. London then settled the Alaska boundary dispute in America’s favor, renegotiated the fifty-year-old Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, and ceded to America the exclusive rights to build, operate, and fortify a canal across Panama. Then Britain withdrew her fleet from the Caribbean.

Writes British historian Correlli Barnett: “The passage of the British battlefleet from the Atlantic to the Pacific would now be by courtesy of the United States,” and, with America’s defeat of Spain, “The Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico, now American colonies, were gradually closed to British merchants by protective tariffs, for the benefit of their American rivals.”16

Other historians, however, hail the British initiative to terminate a century of U.S.-British enmity as “The Great Rapprochement,” and Berlin-born Yale historian Hajo Holborn regards the establishment of close Anglo-American relations as probably “by far the greatest achievement of British diplomacy in terms of world history.”17

With America appeased, Britain turned to Asia.

With a Russian army in Manchuria menacing Korea and the Czar’s warships at Port Arthur and Vladivostok, Japan needed an ally to balance off Russia’s ally, France. Germany would not do, as Kaiser Wilhelm disliked Orientals and was endlessly warning about the “Yellow Peril.” As for the Americans, their Open Door policy had proven to be bluster and bluff when Russia moved into Manchuria. That left the British, whom the Japanese admired as an island people and warrior race that had created the world’s greatest empire.

On January 30, 1902, an Anglo-Japanese treaty was signed. Each nation agreed to remain neutral should the other become embroiled in an Asian war with a single power. However, should either become involved in war with two powers, each would come to the aid of the other. Confident its treaty with Britain would checkmate Russia’s ally France, Japan in 1904 launched a surprise attack on the Russian naval squadron at Port Arthur. An enraged Czar sent his Baltic fleet to exact retribution. After a voyage of six months from the Baltic to the North Sea, down the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean, the great Russian fleet was ambushed and annihilated by Admiral Heihachiro Togo in Tshushima Strait between Korea and Japan. Only one small Russian cruiser and two destroyers made it to Vladivostok. Japan lost two torpedo boats. It was a victory for Japan to rival the sinking of the Spanish Armada and the worst defeat ever inflicted on a Western power by an Asian people.

Britain had chosen well. In 1905, the Anglo-Japanese treaty was elevated into a full alliance. Britain now turned to patching up quarrels with her European rivals. Her natural allies were Germany and the Habsburg Empire, neither of whom had designs on the British Empire. Imperial Russia, Britain’s great nineteenth-century rival, was pressing down on China, India, Afghanistan, the Turkish Straits, and the Middle East. France was Britain’s ancient enemy and imperial rival in Africa and Egypt. The nightmare of the British was a second Tilsit, where Napoleon and Czar Alexander I, meeting on a barge in the Neiman in 1807, had divided a prostrate Europe and Middle East between them. Germany was the sole European bulwark against a French-Russian dominance of Europe and drive for hegemony in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—at the expense of the British Empire.

With Lord Salisbury’s blessing, Joe Chamberlain began to court Berlin. “England, Germany and America should collaborate: by so doing they could check Russian expansionism, calm turbulent France and guarantee world peace,” Chamberlain told future German chancellor Bernhard von Bulow.18 The Kaiser put him off. Neither he nor his advisers believed Britain could reconcile with her old nemesis France, or Russia, and must eventually come to Berlin hat-in-hand. Joe warned the Germans: Spurn Britain, and we go elsewhere.

The Kaiser let the opportunity slip and, in April 1904, learned to his astonishment that Britain and France had negotiated an entente cordiale, a cordial understanding. France yielded all claims in Egypt, and Britain agreed to support France’s preeminence in Morocco. Centuries of hostility came to an end. The quarrel over Suez was over. Fashoda was history.

The entente quickly proved its worth. After the Kaiser was persuaded to make a provocative visit to Tangier in 1905, Britain backed France at the Algeciras conference called to resolve the crisis. Germany won economic concessions in Morocco, but Berlin had solidified the Anglo-French entente. More ominous, the Tangier crisis had propelled secret talks already under way between French and British staff officers over how a British army might be ferried across the Channel to France in the event of a war with Germany.

Unknown to the Cabinet and Parliament, a tiny cabal had made a decision fateful for Britain, the empire, and the world. Under the guidance of Edward Grey, the foreign secretary from 1905 to 1916, British and French officers plotted Britain’s entry into a Franco-German war from the first shot. And these secret war plans were being formulated by Liberals voted into power in public revulsion against the Boer War on a platform of “Peace, Retrenchment, and Reform.” Writes historian Robert Massie,

[O]n January 16 [1906], without the approval of either the Prime Minister or Cabinet, secret talks between British and French staff officers began. They focussed on plans to send 100,000 British soldiers to the Continent within two weeks of an outbreak of hostilities. On January 26, when Campbell-Bannerman returned to London and was informed, he approved.19

AS CHURCHILL WROTE decades later, only Lord Rosebery read the real meaning of the Anglo-French entente. “Only one voice—Rosebery’s—was raised in discord: in public ‘Far more likely to lead to War than Peace’ in private ‘Straight to War.’”20 While praising Rosebery’s foresight, Churchill never repudiated his own support of the entente or secret understandings: “It must not be thought that I regret the decisions which were in fact taken.”21

In August 1907, Britain entered into an Anglo-Russian convention, ending their eighty-year conflict. Czar Nicholas II accepted Britain’s dominance in southern Persia. Britain accepted Russia’s dominance in the north. Both agreed to stay out of central Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet. The Great Game was over and the lineups completed for the great European war. In the Triple Alliance were Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. Opposite was the Franco-Russian alliance backed by Great Britain, which was allied to Japan. Only America among the great powers remained free of entangling alliances.


BRITAIN HAD APPEASED AMERICA, allied with Japan, and entered an entente with France and Russia, yet its German problem remained. It had arisen in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war. After the French defeat at Sedan and the abdication of Napoleon III, a united Germany stretching from France to Russia and from the Baltic to the Alps had emerged as the first power in Europe. Disraeli recognized the earthshaking importance of the unification of the German states under a Prussian king.

The war represents the German revolution, a greater political event than the French revolution of the last century…. There is not a diplomatic tradition, which has not been swept away. You have a new world…. The balance of power has been entirely destroyed.22

BISMARCK HAD ENGINEERED the wars on Denmark, Austria, and France, but he now believed his nation had nothing to gain from war. She had “hay enough for her fork.”23 Germany should not behave “like a nouveau riche who has just come into money and then offended everyone by pointing to the coins in his pocket.”24 He crafted a series of treaties to maintain a European balance of power favorable to Germany—by keeping the Austro-Hungarian Empire allied, Russia friendly, Britain neutral, and France isolated. Bismarck opposed the building of a fleet that might alarm the British. As for an overseas empire, let Britain, France, and Russia quarrel over colonies. When a colonial adventurer pressed upon him Germany’s need to enter the scramble for Africa, Bismarck replied, “Your map of Africa is very nice. But there is France, and here is Russia, and we are in the middle, and that is my map of Africa.”25

As the clamor for colonies grew, however, the Iron Chancellor would succumb and Germany would join the scramble. By 1914, Berlin boasted the world’s third largest overseas empire, encompassing German East Africa (Tanganyika), South-West Africa (Namibia), Kamerun (Cameroon), and Togoland. On the China coast, the Kaiser held Shantung Peninsula. In the western Pacific, the House of Hohenzollern held German New Guinea, German Samoa, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Marshall, Mariana, and Caroline islands, and the Northern Solomons, of which Bougainville was the largest. However, writes Holborn,

Not for a moment were Bismarck’s colonial projects intended to constitute a revision of the fundamentals of his continental policy. Least of all were they designs to undermine British naval or colonial supremacy overseas. Bismarck was frank when he told British statesmen that Germany, by the acquisition of colonies, was giving Britain new hostages, since she could not hope to defend them in an emergency.26

By 1890, Bismarck had been dismissed by the new young Kaiser, who began to make a series of blunders, the first of which was to let Bismarck’s treaty with Russia lapse. This left Russia nowhere to turn but France. By 1894, St. Petersburg had become the ally of a Paris still seething over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. France had broken free of the isolation imposed upon her by Bismarck. The Kaiser’s folly in letting the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia lapse can hardly be overstated.

While Germany was a “satiated power, so far as Europe itself was concerned, and stood to gain little from a major war on the European continent,” France and Russia were expansionist.27 Paris hungered for the return of Alsace. Russia sought hegemony over Bulgaria, domination of the Turkish Straits to keep foreign warships out of the Black Sea, and to pry away the Austrian share of a partitioned Poland.

More ominous, the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894 stipulated that a partial mobilization by any member of the Triple Alliance—Austria, Italy, or Germany—would trigger hostilities against all three.28 As George Kennan writes in The Fateful Alliance,

A partial Austrian mobilization against Serbia, for example (and one has only to recall the events of 1914 to understand the potential significance of this circumstance) could alone become the occasion for the launching of a general European war.29


THOUGH BOASTFUL AND BELLIGERENT, the Kaiser had never plotted to bring down the British Empire. The eldest grandson of Queen Victoria, proud of his British blood, he had rushed to her bedside as she sank toward death and “softly passed away in my arms.”30 He had marched in the queen’s funeral procession. The new king, Edward VII, was deeply moved. As he wrote his sister, Empress Frederick, the Kaiser’s mother who had been too ill to travel to the funeral, “William’s touching and simple demeanour, up to the last, will never be forgotten by me or anyone. It was indeed a sincere pleasure for me to confer upon him the rank of Field Marshal in my Army.”31 At the luncheon for Edward, the Kaiser rose to declare:

I believe that the two Teutonic nations will, bit by bit, learn to know each other better, and that they will stand together to help in keeping the peace of the world. We ought to form an Anglo-Germanic alliance, you to keep the seas, while we would be responsible for the land; with such an alliance not a mouse could stir in Europe without our permission.32

“[B]y dint of his mother’s teaching and admiration for her family, [the Kaiser] wanted only good relations with Britain,” writes Giles MacDonogh, biographer of Wilhelm II.33 It was a “British alliance for which [the Kaiser] strove all his professional life….”34

Why did the Kaiser fail? Certainly, his ministers who goaded him into collisions with England with the Kruger telegram and in the Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911 bear much of the blame. But MacDonogh lays most of it on British statesmen and their haughty contempt of the Kaiser and Germany:

Faced by his Uncle Bertie [Edward VII], or high-handed ministers such as Lord Salisbury or Sir Edward Grey, he felt the British put him down; they treated him as a grandson or nephew and not as the German emperor. Germany was never admitted to full membership of that board of great powers. He and his country were patronised, and he took it very personally.35

When the Kaiser once inquired of Lord Salisbury where he might have a colony that would not be in the way of the British Empire, the great peer replied, “We don’t want you anywhere.”36

When Edward VII paid a visit to Kiel during the Russo-Japanese war, and the Kaiser suggested “that Russia’s cause was that of Europe, and that a Japanese victory over Russia would bring the world face to face with ‘the Yellow Peril,’” Edward had laughed in his face, “and for eighteen months thereafter the personal relations between uncle and nephew sank to the lowest point which they ever reached.”37

Yet on the death in 1910 of Edward VII, who detested the nephew he called “Willy,” the Kaiser again sought reconciliation with a grand gesture. He sailed to England and marched in Edward’s funeral—in the uniform of a British field marshal. As he strode behind Edward’s casket, the Kaiser’s feelings, Barbara Tuchman writes, were mixed. There was nostalgia for the great royal family to which he, too, belonged, but also

a fierce relish in the disappearance of his uncle from the European scene. He had come to bury Edward his bane; Edward the arch plotter, as William conceived it, of Germany’s encirclement. Edward, his mother’s brother whom he could neither bully nor impress, whose fat figure cast a shadow between Germany and the sun. “He is Satan. You cannot imagine what a Satan he is.”38

As his clumsy courtship failed, the Kaiser tried to force Britain to pay heed to him and to Germany with bellicose intrusions in African affairs. But where the British chose to appease the Americans, with the Kaiser they took a different course. And beyond the enmity between Wilhelm II and Edward VII, the Kaiser had, even while Queen Victoria was alive, committed one of the great blunders in German history. He decided to challenge Britannia’s rule of the waves with a High Seas Fleet. “The building of the German Fleet,” writes Massie, “ended the century of Splendid Isolation.”39


SEVERAL FACTORS LED to the fateful decision. Soon after he ascended the throne, the Kaiser was mesmerized by an 1890 book by U.S. naval captain A. T. Mahan, “a tall beanpole of a man, with a great bald dome rising above calm hooded eyes.”40 Mahan was more scholar than sea dog. His thesis in The Influence of Sea Power Upon History was that it had been the Royal Navy, controlling the oceanic crossroads of the world, that had ensured the defeat of Napoleon and made Great Britain the world’s preeminent power. Navalists everywhere swore by Captain Mahan. It was at Mahan’s recommendation that Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt had put Admiral George Dewey in command of the Pacific Squadron of six battleships and three cruisers that steamed into Manila harbor in 1898 to sink the Spanish fleet before breakfast.

The Japanese had made The Influence of Sea Power a textbook in their naval and war colleges. But nowhere was Mahan more a “prophet with honor” than in Imperial Germany.41 “‘I am just now not reading but devouring Captain Mahan’s book and am trying to learn it by heart,’ the Kaiser wrote in 1894. ‘It is on board all my ships and constantly quoted by all my captains and officers.’”42 When France was forced to back down at Fashoda, the Kaiser commiserated, “The poor French. They have not read their Mahan!”43

It was in 1896 that the Kaiser came to appreciate what it meant to be without a navy. After he had sent his provocative telegram to the Boer leader Kruger, congratulating him on his capture of the Jameson raiders, which had enraged the British, the Kaiser discovered he was impotent to intervene to help the Boers. Any German convoy ordered to East Africa must traverse the North Sea, the East Atlantic, and the Cape of Good Hope, or the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. Its sinking would be child’s play for the Royal Navy. Rudely awakened to German vulnerability at sea, the Kaiser wrote bitterly to Chancellor Hohenlohe,

Once again it becomes obvious how foolish it was to begin our colonial policy a decade ago without having a fleet. Our trade is locked in a life-and-death struggle with the English, and our press boasts loudly of this every day, but the great merchant marine which plies the oceans of the world under our flag must renounce itself to complete impotence before their 130 cruisers, which we can proudly counter with four.44

Thus, on the strong recommendation of his new naval minister, the Anglophobic Prussian admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the Kaiser decided to build a world-class navy. Purpose: Defend the North Sea and Baltic coasts, break any blockade, protect the trade on which Germany depended for a fourth of her food. The Kaiser saw his navy both as an instrument of his world policy and a force to counter the Russian and French fleets. But Admiral Tirpitz left no doubt as to its principal purpose. “This intention was conveyed,” writes British historian Lawrence James, “in the belligerent preamble to the 1900 Navy Law which insisted that ‘Germany must have a Fleet of such strength that a war, even against the mightiest naval Power, would involve such risks as to threaten the supremacy of that Power.’”45

This was the “risk theory” of Tirpitz. While the German fleet might be defeated in war, it would be strong enough to inflict such damage on the Royal Navy, shield of the empire, that Britain would seek to avoid any war with Germany rather than imperil the empire. Thus, as the German fleet became stronger, Britain would appease Germany and not interfere as she grew as a world power. A great fleet would also enable the Kaiser to play the role of world statesman commensurate with his nation’s stature. Tirpitz believed the more powerful the fleet, the greater the certainty Britain would stay neutral in a Franco-German war. Of Britain’s haughty attitude toward him and his country, the Kaiser said, “Nothing will change until we are so strong on the seas that we become valuable allies.”46 Tirpitz and the Kaiser were mistaken.

Oddly, it was a British blunder that convinced many Germans that the Kaiser and Tirpitz were right: Germany needed a High Seas Fleet.

In December 1899, in the first weeks of the Boer War, the Cabinet authorized the Royal Navy to intercept and inspect foreign ships to prevent war matériel from reaching the Boers in the Transvaal and Free State. Three German passenger ships, the Bundesrath, the Herzog, and the General,were stopped and forced into port, where they “suffered the humiliation of being searched.”47 As Thomas Pakenham, the historian of the Boer War, writes,

The search was negative in all three cases, and this only fed the flames of anglophobia in Germany. How dare the British Navy stop our mail steamers, cried the German Press. And how convenient it all was for the German government, whose great Navy Bill steamed majestically through the Reichstag…. Who could have guessed that these earth tremors of 1900 were to lead to the earthquake of 1914?48

Understandably, Britain only seemed to see the High Seas Fleet from her own point of view, never from the vantage point of Berlin. To the Germans, it was not Britain that threatened them, but giant Russia and revanchist France. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, both powers had spent far more on warships than Germany. By 1901, the combined naval armaments expenditures of Paris and St. Petersburg were three times that of Berlin.49 And if Britain could claim the right to a Royal Navy greater than the combined fleets of the next two naval powers—“The Two-Power Standard” written into British law by Lord Salisbury in 1889—was not Germany entitled to naval supremacy in her home waters, the Baltic Sea? As Tirpitz told the Reichstag, “We should be in a position to blockade the Russian fleet in the Baltic ports, and to prevent at the same time the entrance to that sea of a French fleet. We must also protect our ports in the North Sea from blockade.”50

Was this so unreasonable? By the twentieth century, Germany’s trade and merchant marine rivaled Britain’s, and Germany was under a far greater potential naval threat.

Still, writes Roy Denman, “The balance of power in Europe was under threat. The High Seas Fleet based on the Channel ports would have been for Britain an unacceptable danger.”51 But had not Britain survived secure for centuries with its greatest rival, France, having warships in the Channel ports? One British critic of his nation’s anti-German policy argues that the Kaiser’s Germany could make a far more compelling case for a world-class navy than the Britain of Victoria and Edward.

And why should Germany not have a fleet to protect her commerce? Surely, she had more reason to build one than Great Britain. The island power had no Russia at the mouth of the Humber, nor had she a France impinging on the beach of Cardigan Bay. All the avenues to the Atlantic were open for England. It was very different for German maritime service.

No one knew this better than the chiefs of the British admiralty.52

NOR WERE GERMAN fears of the Royal Navy misplaced. British war plans called for a blockade of Germany. Some at the Admiralty were avidly seeking an opportunity to stalk and sink the German fleet before it could grow to a size and strength to challenge the Royal Navy.

In 1905, a European crisis was precipitated by a provocative stunt by the Kaiser. Goaded by his foreign office, he interrupted a Mediterranean cruise to appear suddenly in Tangier, riding a white charger, to support the independence of Morocco, an open-door policy in that North African nation, and Germany’s right to equal treatment in commercial affairs. This was a direct challenge to French hegemony in Morocco, agreed to in the British-French entente. It was during this crisis that the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Fisher, wrote to Lord Lansdowne, the foreign secretary, urging him to exploit the situation to foment war with Germany:

This seems a golden opportunity for fighting the Germans in alliance with the French, so I earnestly hope you may be able to bring this about…. All I hope is that you will send a telegram to Paris that the English and French Fleets are one. We could have the German Fleet, the Kiel Canal, and Schleswig-Holstein within a fortnight.53

In his Memoirs, Fisher, a confidant of the king, confessed “that in 1908 he had a secret conversation with his Majesty [Edward VII]…‘in which I urged that we should Copenhagen the German fleet at Kiel a la Nelson, and I lamented that we possessed neither a Pitt nor a Bismarck to give the order.’”54 “Copenhagen” was a reference to Nelson’s charge into the Danish harbor in 1801, where, in a surprise attack, the intrepid British admiral sank every Danish ship in sight.

“My God, Fisher, you must be mad!” said the King.55

German admirals feared “Jackie” Fisher was neither mad nor joking. The idea of a British fleet steaming into Wilhelmshaven and Kiel and sending the High Seas Fleet to Davy Jones’s locker—in a surprise attack without a declaration of war, as Japan had done at Port Arthur—had been raised by other Admiralty officials and a Germanophobic British press.

Indeed, in November 1906, an “invasion scare…convulsed Germany” and “was followed, in January, 1907, by a fantastic rumour that Fisher was coming, which caused panic in Kiel for two days.”56 The Kaiser, “beside himself over the English threat,” ordered his naval expansion accelerated.57

What the Kaiser and Tirpitz failed to appreciate, however, was that the High Seas Fleet threatened the indispensable pillar of the British Empire. That empire’s dependence on seaborne commerce, a result of Britain’s half-century commitment to free trade, made the supremacy of the Royal Navy on the high seas a matter of national and imperial survival. For generations Britain had lived by an iron rule: The Royal Navy must be 10 percent stronger in capital ships than the combined fleets of the next two strongest sea powers.

Moreover, the Kaiser failed to see the strategic crisis he had created. To reach the Atlantic, German warships would have to traverse the North Sea and pass through the Channel within sight of Dover, or sail around the Scottish coast near the naval base of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow.

It was an irrevocable fact of geography that the British Isles cut athwart all German overseas routes…. Mahan in 1902 described the situation very clearly. “The dilemma of Great Britain is that she cannot help commanding the approaches to Germany by the very means essential to her own existence as a state of the first order.” Obviously Britain was not going to surrender the keys to her islands and empire.58

The Kaiser’s decision to build a great navy represented a threat to Britain in her home waters. Should Germany achieve naval superiority in the North Sea, it was not only the empire that was imperiled but also England and Scotland. British statesmen found this intolerable.

“Germany’s naval policy was suicidal,” writes Holborn.59

By forcing Britain to take sides in the alignment of the European powers, German naval policy completed the division of Europe into two political camps armed to the teeth and ready to take up open hostilities; for any misunderstanding could seriously affect the precarious balance of power on which the European nations had staked their security.60

As Germany began building dreadnoughts every year, the young new First Lord of the Admiralty spoke in Scotland in 1912, in pointed words of warning to the Kaiser and Admiral Tirpitz. Said Winston Churchill:

There is…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 the British Navy which makes Great Britain a great power. But Germany was a great power, respected and honored, all over the world before she had a single ship.61

IN GERMANY, the deliberate mistranslation of Churchill’s word “luxury” as “‘Luxusflotte,’ suggesting that Tirpitz’s fleet was a sensual indulgence, stoked the fires of public outrage.”62

The German Naval Laws of 1898 and 1900 that laid the foundation of the High Seas Fleet had historic consequences. By constructing a great navy, four hundred nautical miles from the English coast, the Kaiser forced the Royal Navy to bring its most powerful warships home from distant waters to build up the Home and Channel Fleets. “[I]n 1896 there had been 74 ships stationed in home waters and 140 overseas,” writes James, “fourteen years later these totals were 480 and 83 respectively.”63 With the British Empire stripped of its shield, Britain was forced to resolve conflicts with imperial rivals Russia and France—the two powers that most threatened Germany.

Rather than enhance German security, the High Seas Fleet sank all hope of detente with Britain and pushed her into de facto alliances with France and Russia. The Kaiser’s decision to challenge the Royal Navy would prove a principal factor in Germany’s defeat and his own dethronement. For it was the arrival of a British Expeditionary Force in France in August 1914 that blunted the German drive into France, leading to four years of stalemate war that ended with Wilhelm’s abdication and flight to Holland.

“German foreign policy ought to have been mainly concerned with keeping England preoccupied by her overseas interests in Africa and the Near and Far East,” writes German historian Andreas Hillgruber.64 By building a great fleet to challenge the Royal Navy, Germany “tied England to Europe.”65

But the fault lies not with the Germans alone. The British were never willing to pay the Kaiser’s price for calling off Tirpitz’s challenge. During the 1912 Haldane mission to Germany, Britain could have gotten limits on the High Seas Fleet in return for a British pledge of neutrality in a Franco-German war. “The Germans were willing to make a naval deal in return for a neutrality statement,” writes British historian Niall Ferguson, “[I]t was on the neutrality issue that the talks really foundered. And arguably it was the British position which was the more intransigent.”66


BRITAIN’S REFUSAL TO GIVE a neutrality pledge in return for limits on the High Seas Fleet demonstrates that beneath the Anglo-German friction lay clashing concepts of security. To Britain, security rested on a balance of power—a divided Europe with British power backing the weaker coalition.

To Germany, bordered east and west by nations fearful of her power, security lay in unifying Europe under her leadership, as Bismarck had done. British and German concepts of security were irreconcilable. Under Britain’s balance-of-power doctrine, the Kaiser could become an ally only if Germany were displaced as first power in Europe. Historian John Laughland describes the Kaiser’s rage and frustration:

When the British Lord Chancellor, Lord Haldane, tried to make it clear to the German ambassador in London on 3 December 1912 that Britain would not tolerate “a unified Continental Group under the leadership of one single power,” the Kaiser, on reading the report of the conversation, covered it with the most violent marginal comments. In a characteristic attack of anger, he declared the English principle of the “balance of power” to be an “idiocy,” which would turn England “eternally into our enemy.”67

THE KAISER WAS CORRECT. As long as Germany remained the greatest power in Europe, Britain would line up against her. Britain’s balance-of-power policy commanded it. Britain thus left a powerful Germany that had sought an alliance or entente, or even British neutrality, forever frustrated.

The Kaiser roared that Haldane had revealed British policy “‘in all its naked shamelessness’ as the ‘playing off of the Great Powers against each other to England’s advantage.’”68 British doctrine meant England “could not tolerate our becoming the strongest power on the continent and that the latter should be united under our leadership!!!”69 To the Kaiser, the British policy amounted to a moral declaration of war on Germany, not because of what she had done, but because of who she was: the first power in Europe.70

To British statesmen, maintaining a balance of power was dogma. In 1938, Lord Londonderry, back from a meeting with Hitler, wrote Churchill, “I should like to get out of your mind what appears to be a strong anti-German obsession.”71 Churchill replied that Londonderry was “mistaken in supposing that I have an anti-German obsession,” and went on to explain:

British policy for four hundred years has been to oppose the strongest power in Europe by weaving together a combination of other countries strong enough to face the bully. Sometimes it is Spain, sometimes the French monarchy, sometimes the French Empire, sometimes Germany. I have no doubt about who it is now. But if France set up to claim the over-lordship of Europe, I should equally endeavour to oppose them. It is thus through the centuries we have kept our liberties and maintained our life and power.72

TWICE THIS POLICY would bring Britain into war with Germany until, by 1945, Britain was too weak to play the role any longer. She would lose her empire because of what Lord Salisbury had said in 1877 was “the commonest error in politics…sticking to the carcass of dead policies.”73


THE STATESMAN MOST RESPONSIBLE for the abandonment of splendid isolation for a secret alliance with France was Edward Grey. When the Liberals took power in 1905, he became foreign secretary, would serve a decade, and would become the leading statesman behind Britain’s decision to plunge into the Great War. But this was not what the Liberal Party had promised, and this was not what the British people had wanted. “Grey’s Germanophobia and his zeal for the Entente with France were from the outset at odds with the majority of the Liberal Cabinet,” writes Ferguson:

[W]ithin half a year of coming into office, Grey had presided over a transformation of the Entente with France, which had begun life as an attempt to settle extra-European quarrels, into a de facto defensive alliance. [Grey] had conveyed to the French that Britain would be prepared to fight with them against Germany in the event of a war.74

Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman and his successor, Herbert Henry Asquith, had approved of the military staff talks, but neither the Cabinet nor Parliament was aware that Sir Edward had committed Britain to war if France were invaded. In 1911, two new ministers were brought in on the secret: Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George and the thirty-seven-year-old Home Secretary, who soon moved over to the Admiralty: Winston Churchill.

In 1912, Churchill and Grey persuaded France to shift the bulk of her fleet to the Mediterranean to counter the Austro-Hungarian and Italian fleets. While the 1912 exchange of letters on the redeployment of the French fleet stated that Britain was not committed to defend France, Grey and Churchill knew this was exactly what France expected. Should war break out, the Royal Navy was to keep the High Seas Fleet out of the Channel and away from the coast of France. Lord Esher, adviser to George V, told Asquith that the plans worked out between the general staffs of Britain and France “certainly committed us to fight, whether the Cabinet likes it or not.”75


BY 1914 THERE WAS a war party in every country. In May of that year, Col. Edward Mandell House, the eminence grise of the White House, whom Wilson once described as “my second personality…my independent self,” visited the great capitals of Europe to take the temperature of the continent.76 House came home with a chilling assessment:

The situation is extraordinary. It is jingoism run stark mad. Unless someone acting for you [Wilson] can bring about a different understanding, there is some day to be an awful cataclysm. No one in Europe can do it. There is too much hatred, too many jealousies. Whenever England consents, France and Russia will close in on Germany and Austria.77

Germany saw her situation exactly as did Colonel House.

British hawks looked to a European war to enhance national prestige and expand the empire. A war in which French and Russian armies tore at Germany from east and west, as the Royal Navy sent the High Seas Fleet to the bottom, rolled up the Kaiser’s colonies, and drove German trade from the high seas seemed a glorious opportunity to smash the greatest rival to British power since Napoleon. And the cost of the victory, the dispatch of a British Expeditionary Force to fight beside the mighty French army that would bear the brunt of battle, seemed reasonable.

Yet, as the summer of 1914 began, no one expected war. The naval arms race had ended in 1913 when Tirpitz conceded British superiority by telling the Reichstag Budget Committee he was ready to accept a 60 percent rule, a sixteen-to-ten ratio in favor of the Royal Navy. Germany could not sustain a buildup of both her army and the Kaiser’s fleet. In the end, the High Seas Fleet had nothing to do with Britain’s decision to go to war, but everything to do with converting Britain from a friendly power aloof from the alliances of Europe into a probable enemy should war come.

On June 23, 1914, the Second Battle Squadron of the Royal Navy, including four of its newest dreadnoughts, Audacious, Courageous, Ajax, and King George V, sailed into Kiel. And this time, unlike 1906, there was no “invasion scare,” no panic in Kiel. A large and excited crowd awaited. The British officers were received at the Royal Castle by Crown Prince Henry and Princess Irene. Admiral Tirpitz arrived the following day from Berlin, boarded his flagship Friedrich Karl, and invited all senior British officers to his cabin for a briefing on the High Seas Fleet. That afternoon, every British and German warship in Kiel fired a twenty-one-gun salute as the royal yacht Hohenzollern entered the harbor. The British admiral and his captains were invited aboard by the Kaiser, who donned the uniform of a British Admiral of the Fleet and inspected King George V.

That day, the Kaiser’s yacht regatta began. British and German naval officers visited one another’s warships and attended parties together. Tensions between the two nations had eased. On June 28, the Kaiser was aboard his racing yacht Meteor when an urgent telegram was brought out. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne of the octogenarian Emperor Franz Josef, whose only son had committed suicide, and his wife Sophie had been assassinated in Sarajevo.

“The character of Kiel Week changed,” writes Massie. “Flags were lowered to half-mast, and receptions, dinners and a ball at the Royal Castle were canceled. Early the next morning, the Kaiser departed, intending to go to Vienna and the Archduke’s funeral.”78 As the British warships sailed out of Kiel, the masts of the German warships flew the signal “Pleasant Journey.” King George V responded with a wireless message,

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