This week, as is my wont, I have chosen the big, thick book to read to while away the hours of enforced idleness of the Christmas season.
This time out, I have chosen Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War.
I have chosen this particular book not just for its heft, but for two equally substantial reasons: First, it has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas (a holiday I respect as a religious event but abhor as a social occasion); second, it appeals to my long-standing interest in the impressive but socially disastrous technological development of the early 20th-century battle ship.
The development and demise of the Dreadnought-style battleship in the dawning years of the last century marked the advent of the military technological arms race in modern world – a race that, though it at the moment appears to have only one runner left in it, keeps going on, out of its own, mad momentum.
When the first of these big-gunned, heavy-armour monsters was launched by the British in 1906 – the Dreadnought, which came to give its name to the class of ship nationally and internationally – it set off a technological detonation different in kind but not much in nature from the atomic bomb explosion almost 40 years later.
In the pre-airplane age, control of the seas was as important to the world’s military powers as control of the air is today.
It was the means by which you could project your power across the globe, and deter rival powers from directing their power against your national security.
It made a sense, then, that two of the major players in the development of new, sea-dominating battleships would be two highly industrialized and militarily powerful island nations, Great Britain and Japan.
It also made sense that the third initial player in this field would be the United States – a country which, though it was the overwhelming continental power in North America, historically operated more like a very large island nation, with shore lines on two different oceans.
Each of these countries had space enough between them to conquer, and imperial ambitions different enough, that they had no immediate animosity with each other.
Had those three players remained the sole dominant ones in the mix, the development of the Dreadnought, while inherently economically expensive, might have been a relatively benign event in human technological history, with technology spin-offs that, over time, would have outweighed its negative effects.
Unfortunately, there was a very different, very aggressive, and very unpredictable player at the table as well: the newly unified, imperially ambitious state of Germany.
By the opening of the 20th century, Germany was already the most powerful nation in continental Europe, with the largest population (aside from Russia), the most prosperous economy, and the most fearsome army.
For all that, though, it had no significant naval tradition, and only a few, scattered and unprofitable overseas imperial possessions in Africa and the Samoan Islands.
Unfortunately for all concerned, though, the willful and improvident Kaiser of the day, William II, admired the British Empire and fleet so much he wanted the same toys for himself, and insisted they be put in his sand box.
The entry of Germany into the Dreadnought competition set off an arms race that was as economically destructive as it was politically and militarily pointless.
Over the 10 or so years leading up to the Great War, these four nations led the way in creating bigger, faster, longer-shooting, more heavily armoured battleships, often at tremendous cost to their own homeland interests, as social programs and domestic economic development were sacrificed to military expediency.
Ironically, all this economic sacrifice and technological competition amounted to a hill of beans, when the Great War – fuelled in part by the suspicions and animosities caused by the arms race itself – finally came.
Though the war dragged on for four miserable years, it was almost entirely a land-locked affair, in which the battle fleets played only a very insignificant part
There was only one indecisive sortie made by the German fleet, in the Battle of Jutland, fought over two days in the early summer of 1916.
The actual naval war between Germany and Britain was what we would now call an “asymmetric” war, with Germany resorting to the submarine to counter Britain’s domination of the ocean surface.
When that war ended, so did the era of the battleship.
By the time the next war started, it was the airplane, not the battleship, that showed itself to be the decisive strategic weapon in projecting military force – ultimately, in the form of a single super-bomb – against your enemies.
Though it produced hull and propulsion designs that ultimately benefited marine trade around the world, the great Dreadnought arms race was one of the most spectacularly wasteful and pointless technological competitions in history.
It is rivaled in its stupidity only by the military-technology race the United States is currently conducting against nobody but itself – a race which produces a military force so powerful no nation can dare face it in the field of battle, so they just fight in with the asymmetr ic devices of the AK 47 and the IED (improvised explosive device).
Merry Christmas, everyone. Too bad war is not over, this year, or any time soon.
Rick Steele is a technology
junkie who lives in Whitehorse.