Dreadnought and the race to war

On 10 February 1906 the Royal Navy’s latest battleship was launched by King Edward VII. She was christened with an Australian wine in a bottle that famously failed to break on its first brush with the ship’s impressive stem. With this ritual, HMS Dreadnought was launched into Solent, stirring up waves that would be felt around the world.


Once every so often a technology develops that marks such a radical improvement that it renders everything that preceded it obsolete. Gunpowder would eventually produce reliable guns and cannons, displacing everything from longbows to catapults. Land battles would never be the same when tanks were perfected, shunting cavalry from being the army’s top offensive units to a purely decorative military ornament.

HMS Dreadnought in 1906 By U.S. Navy (U.S. Naval Historical Center) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsSuch a sea-change (pun unfortunately intended) would occur at the turn of the 20th century with the launch of HMS Dreadnought. Although naval technology had steadily improved over the nineteenth century, HMS Dreadnought brought a step change that was so marked it forced rival navies to emulate the design of a ship whose name was soon to become the generic term for this class of battleship.

Fast, powerful and clad in heavy armour, the dreadnought would become an iconic symbol of great power rivalry, First World War naval clashes and the Royal Navy’s claim to rule the waves. HMS Dreadnought certainly boasted some impressive statistics. She displaced over 18,000 tonnes, could slice through the waves at 21 knots and was the first capital ship to be powered by steam turbines and had armour that was in some places over three metres thick.

Perhaps the most important of her features were five twin 12 inch guns, which, along with 54 other guns, ensured that HMS Dreadnought could deliver deadlier salvos than any other ship afloat at the time. This meant she was easily able to live up to her name and five Royal Navy antecedents – she would ‘dread nought’ else but god.

Photograph showing 2 QF 12 pounder 18 cwt guns mounted on the roof of X turret, HMS Dreadnought (1906).

HMS Dreadnought cost £1,783,883 in 1906, which would be £177 million in 2010 terms (although the economic cost was £1.28 billion and gives a better idea of the importance of the project. She served as the flagship of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet until 1911 when she herself was displaced by HMS Neptune.

Britain was not alone in planning and building much larger, better armoured and more powerful battleships. What became known as a dreadnought type of battleship had three key elements: (a) speed; (b) unprecedented numbers of heavy-calibre guns; and (c) thick armour. Although HMS Dreadnought was the first to launch, the Imperial Japanese Navy and the U.S. Navy were both building ships of similar capacity (the Satsuma and the USS Michigan respectively).

The new designs were not reserved for Britain, the USA and Japan; as Europe and the world plunged towards the abyss of the First World War, similar programmes were in place across the world. The major powers of Germany, France, Russia, Austria and Italy were joined by the Ottoman Empire, Argentina, Brazil and Chile. This latter group lacked the shipbuilding capabilities at home and so ordered their ships from British and American dockyards.

USS Texas in San Jacinto State Park, October 2006. The battleship is painted as it was in 1945 with Measure 21, Navy Blue System Camoflage. The camoflage was intended to make the battleship more difficult to detect from the air By Self-made photo by JacobstJacobst at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

The most famous naval race, between Germany and Britain, occurred soon after the launch of HMS Dreadnought and is taken by some historians to be a significant contributing factor in the outbreak of the First World War. Of course, Britain had an initial lead in being the first power to launch such a ship. Germany looked like catching up when it launched 4 Nassau class battleships in 1908 and a further 3 Helgoland class battleships in 1909. By this point, Britain’s lead had narrowed to just one.

Ultimately, Germany’s naval developments spooked the Royal Navy, the British government and the British people. A slogan was coined by the Navy League, ‘We want eight and we won’t wait!’, and this, combined with Conservative agitation and public support, forced the Liberal Party into a new naval policy. It also contributed to one of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George’s most famous quotes when he was faced with House of Lords opposition:

“A fully equipped Duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts, and Dukes are just as great a terror, and they last longer”.

George V and Admiral Callaghan onboard HMS Iron Duke By Photographer unknown, main editor of the volume: Major General C.O. Nordensvan. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With the surge of public support, the British government oversaw a massive expansion of its ship-building programme. Ultimately, this policy was anticipated by the Naval Defence Act 1889 which mandated that the Royal Navy was to be kept as least as strong as the next two largest navies combined – the so-called ‘Two Power Standard’.

As a result, its initial steady build up was superseded by a rapid acceleration of production so that Britain built 15 dreadnoughts from 1911 to 1913 against Germany’s 8.

On the eve of the First World War, Germany’s navy was impressive – it boasted 17 dreadnought-sized battleships and a further 7 battle-cruisers. But Britain had outspent and out-built its new rival. In 1914, the Royal Navy had 29 dreadnoughts and a further 9 battle-cruisers. Altogether, the Allies (Russia, France and Britain) had 43 dreadnoughts to the Central Powers’ 21.