Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 4, Issue 3  /  

Strategy and Arms Races: The Case of the Great War

Strategy and Arms Races: The Case of the Great War Strategy and Arms Races: The Case of the Great War
To cite this article: Echevarria, Antulio J. II, “Strategy and Arms Races: The Case of the Great War,” Infinity Journal, Volume 4, Number 3, spring 2015, pages 23-26.

British Mark I male tank Somme 25 September 1916 Ernest Brooks, via Wikimedia Commons

The centennial of 1914 has given rise to a great many publications, some insightful, some less so concerning the causes and consequences of the First World War. It has also renewed the perpetual debate over the value of history for present-day soldiers and diplomats. Can an understanding of what really happened in the run up to 1914 help us avoid a similar catastrophe a century later? One answer is a loud and unequivocal no: history holds few, if any, lessons because the conditions of the past will never be replicated to the degree necessary to make those lessons applicable again. The proverbial “devil is in the details,” and the nature of those details makes it unwise to transfer insights from one time and place to another. It is not easy to “get history right” in any case; we are, one hundred years later, still correcting our understanding of what happened in 1914. So, how can we have any confidence in whatever history decides to teach us? The contrary answer is an equally vocal yes: some, perhaps most human knowledge is believed to be generalizable; entire academic disciplines are in fact founded on that assumption. History’s details notwithstanding, humans and their political, military, social, and economic institutions are said to have behaved in similar ways over time, and these generate continuities which can prove instructive. In other words, for proponents of this view, it is not necessary for all past conditions to be replicated, only those that matter. It is not even necessary for the next war to be yet another “Great War,” only that it be both sudden and avoidable.

Perhaps a more reasonable answer to the debate is both yes and no: neither devilish details nor virtuous continuities hold sway over the past; history is about both. It may well be a devilish virtue to know how to use one to improve our understanding of the other. In any case, human knowledge, whether drawn from the humanities or the sciences, has always been imperfect and has always required revision. Imperfect knowledge is probably the state of nature, and yet empires have risen and fallen on less. Nonetheless, the events of the past are too important, too dear in terms of the human suffering they inflicted, not to examine them. If, as Socrates reportedly said, the unexamined life is not worth living; then the examination of lives, our own and others’, has value, even if our conclusions are neither universal nor final.

One such “life” requiring closer examination is the phenomenon of an arms race, that is, a competition among rival powers to keep pace with, or surpass, one another militarily. The literature concerning such competitions is extensive, and much of it contends arms races take on “lives” of their own. They create a sense of urgency within political and military leaders, causing them to act in ways that are not always in their or their states’ best interests, while at the same time blinding these leaders to the full range of options available to them.[i] In some cases, arms races are said to exercise more “agency” than human actors, since they are the cause rather than the effect.

The Great War is viewed as one of the classic examples of this phenomenon. Germany’s two key decisions are said to have been driven by fear of falling behind the Entente in the armaments race then underway. The first of these decisions was to back Austria-Hungary fully with the infamous “blank check” during the July crisis; the second was to launch a “preemptive” attack against France in August 1914.[ii]

However, a closer look at some of history’s details suggests this arms race was driven by another force or cause, namely, the great powers’ use of the strategies of deterrence and coercion (or armed diplomacy) to intimidate or outmaneuver their rivals. Each of these strategies was a traditional and essential part of great power politics. In the thirty years or so before the outbreak of the First World War, these strategies, or rather the great powers’ use (or misuse) of them, caused the arms race to escalate at various times. Put differently, political and military leaders saw the arms buildups not just as threats or security dilemmas, but as opportunities; the arms race was as much a tool of policy, as was the potential or actual use of force. As a consequence, state armaments programs became more like the grammar to policy’s logic.

Strategy is nothing if it is not the art of reducing our adversary’s physical capacity and willingness to resist, and continuing to do so until our aim is achieved.[iii] This holds true for any level of strategy, and whether we are at peace or at war; strategy can be effective in either environment, as well as the gray area between them. For purposes of this essay, deterrence is simply making people decide not to do something, such as launching an attack or smuggling illegal substances across our borders. The converse of deterrence is coercion, which is simply compelling people to do a particular thing, such as conceding territories or privileges.[iv] Deterrence requires being strong enough to make an adversary believe an act of aggression will be defeated or will cost more than it gains. Coercion, or armed diplomacy, implies using force to intimidate, punish, or deny.[v] In the decades prior to the First World War, armed diplomacy sometimes took the form of threatening an adversary by mobilizing one’s forces, conducting maneuvers or training exercises at or near a rival’s borders, or ratcheting up one’s armaments’ programs.

The arms race that preceded the Great War is a particularly interesting case study as it involves naval, land, and—for the first time—air power. It played out in obvious quantitative dimensions, as well as some less visible qualitative ones. It also benefited from the full infrastructure and techniques of the Industrial Revolution, as well as the late nineteenth-century Technological Revolution which spurred innovation on an unprecedented scale. It was, unquestionably, the world’s first modern arms race.[vi] Two examples serve to illustrate how deterrence and coercive diplomacy worked through the medium of an armaments program.


The first is Great Britain’s naval bill of 1889 which formally announced the two-power standard—meaning the Royal Navy would maintain a fighting power at least equal to the strength of any two other countries. Historians agree the bill was aimed at deterring rivals from competing for naval supremacy. At the time, the Royal Navy was already as strong as the next two largest navies, the French and Russian. However, both countries increased their naval expenditures in direct response to British measures. Britain, in turn, added 3 more battleships to its original target of 10, and by implementing a new five-year plan designed to add 12 additional battleships and 20 cruisers by the end of the century.

The Japanese and Americans, too, soon entered the race in part to protect their own maritime interests and in part to aspire to great power status.[viii] By 1905, the Japanese navy listed 6 battleships, 17 cruisers, 24 destroyers, and over 60 torpedo boats.[ix] By 1898, the United States had expanded its navy from a handful of obsolete vessels to a modern fleet of 6 battleships, 2 armored cruisers, and several light cruisers.[x] The US victory in Spanish-American War had essentially established America as the preeminent power from the Philippines to the Caribbean.

By 1906, Jane’s Fighting Ships, a popular yet authoritative military science publication, ranked Britain first among major naval powers; the United States, France, Japan, Germany, Russia, Italy, and Austria-Hungary followed in order.[xi] By 1913, Jane’s Fighting Ships still ranked Britain first by a wide margin; however, Germany had moved into second, displacing the United States, which dropped to third; France and Japan were tied for fourth; while Russia, Italy, and Austria-Hungary had fallen much lower.[xii] In other words, the bill of 1889 had indeed set in motion a naval arms race; but the dynamics driving it were as much the desire for great power status as insecurity. The British empire had meant to discourage competition by setting the bar too high for others to reach; but at the same time it had enhanced the prestige associated with being a great power, and thus encouraged competition.


The second example concerns coercion. Undoubtedly, the most infamous instance is the so-called risk theory (Risikogedanke) introduced by Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office in the years before the Great War. Tirpitz’s intent was to intimidate Britain into a power-sharing relationship that might include access to bases and other markets by building a fleet strong enough to pose an unacceptable risk to London’s overseas interests.[xiii] It was hoped such a relationship would enhance German influence and prestige, a metaphorical “place in the sun.” It was also hoped a ratio of 2:3 German to British capital ships would suffice. Accordingly, Germany’s naval bill of 1898 appropriated funds for a navy of 19 battleships, 42 cruisers, and sundry supporting vessels; this bill was followed two years later by a second that set a seventeen-year deadline for building a fleet of 2 flagships, 36 battleships, and 45 cruisers.[xiv]

However, as historians have noted, the assumptions underpinning Tirpitz’s theory were too rigid for the fluid nature of the strategic environment. His first assumption was that Germany’s growing industrial capacity could successfully challenge Britain’s and achieve a 2:3 shipbuilding ratio. That belief was reasonable given Britain’s substantial cost outlays in the Second Boer War (1898-1902), and Germany’s skyrocketing economic growth: between 1889 and 1913, its gross national product had doubled, while that of Britain had grown by only two-thirds.[xv] By 1914, Germany was second only to the United States in industrial power. Even so, it struggled to match Britain’s vast ship-building complex. Second, Tirpitz assumed Britain would not become allies with another naval power, given its express goal to maintain naval supremacy relative to the two-power standard. However, London did conclude an alliance with Japan in 1902, which would endure until 1921 and engaged the Russians in a formal entente in 1907. These arrangements essentially secured the Royal Navy’s flanks in the western Pacific and in the Mediterranean Sea and invalidated the risk theory. Third, Tirpitz did not take into account the bleed-over demands that would come from the arms race’s land and air dimensions, each of which required increasing expenditures and detracted from Germany’s ability to keep pace with Britain in ship building.[xvi]

By mid-1913, the naval arms race between Britain and Germany ended, albeit rather anticlimactically; the Kaiserreich had failed to coerce its way to a “place in the sun,” as it desired.[xvii] While Germany had moved into second place in surface ships, it had not achieved its strategic goals.[xviii] Several opportunities for formal arms-control agreements between Germany and Britain arose between 1906 and 1912; these included the 1907 Hague conference, British efforts to negotiate an understanding from 1908 to 1911, and the Haldane mission of 1912.[xix] However, as is so often the case when one party senses a better bargain can be had by holding out, no formal agreement was reached; instead, Germany had “coerced” Britain into a stronger position.

A few more examples show how coercion or armed diplomacy helped “spike” the arms race. During the Bosnian Crisis of 1908-09, Austria and Serbia each attempted intimidate the other by initiating partial mobilizations and military demonstrations. In the end, the Russians and Serbs backed down, but it was largely because they had that they resolved to be stronger next time, and thus added to their arms expenditures. Germany attempted to use armed diplomacy during the First and Second Moroccan Crises, 1905 and 1911, respectively; but succeeded in merely rallying other states to stand against her. Stung by their humiliation in the Second Moroccan Crisis, Germany’s leaders resolved to be stronger next time, and the Reichstag subsequently passed two army bills (1912 and 1913), which collectively added 166,000 troops to the army and authorized several technological, organizational, and logistical improvements.[xx] These measures were as much a reaction to Germany’s run of diplomatic setbacks from 1905 to 1911, perhaps more, than her concern over Russia’s military resurgence.[xxi] She and the other powers had every reason to believe armed diplomacy would remain a viable strategic tool for the foreseeable future. It was only prudent to ensure that instrument was as strong as possible.


This brief examination of the “life” of the arms race that preceded the Great War shows that it was less a cause than an effect. The strategies driving it were developed and used by the political and military leaders of the day. It may well be that further research will revise this knowledge by showing how, in other times, and other circumstances, the players involved were controlled by, as much as they controlled, the very arms races they put in motion. However, that was not the case with the world’s first modern arms race. This time the devilish details win.

Today, we assume the goal of deterrence is to preserve peace, and the goal of coercion is to get something short of going to war for it; but that was not always true of either strategy.[xxii] “A state’s aim with either strategy was just as likely to be a stronger position and greater influence, and it may well have been prepared to back up its maneuvering with the actual use of force, despite the era’s concerns that war might soon become “impossible.” The great powers, and those that were not great but wished themselves to be thought of as such, played much the same game of intimidation and coercion as they had for generations. One key difference by the dawn of the twentieth century was that they now played that game with some new pieces. However, the same rules still applied. The strategies of deterrence and coercion were instruments of policy every bit as much as armed conflict. It was great power politics, even if not all the players were great. In 1914, just as always, some of the players misjudged others, misread situations, overplayed their hands, and otherwise mismanaged the game they were playing. That is one continuity not likely to be undone by history’s details.


[i] Compare: Toby J. Rider, Michael G. Findley, and Paul F. Diehl, “Just Part of the Game? Arms Races, Rivalry, and War,” Journal of Peace Research 48, no. 1 (January 2011): 85-100; Joseph Maiolo, Cry Havoc: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931-1941 (New York, 2010); Craig Etcheson, Arms Race Theory: Strategy and Structure of Behavior (New York, 1989); Paul M. Kennedy, ed., The War Plans of the Great Powers, 1880-1914 (Boston, 1985); Teresa Clair Smith, “Arms Race Instability and War,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 24 (June 1980): 253-84; A.J.P. Taylor, How Wars Begin (London, 1979); Lewis F. Richardson, Arms and Insecurity (Pacific Grove, CA, 1960); Samuel Huntington, “The Arms Race Phenomena,” Public Policy (1958): 1-20.
[ii] Annika Mombauer, Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War (Cambridge and New York, 2001); Niall Fergusson, Pity of War (New York, 1999); David Stevenson, Armaments and the Coming of the War: Europe, 1904-1914 (Oxford, 1996); David G. Herrmann, The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War (Princeton, 1996). Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War (New York, 1992); A.J.P. Taylor, War by Time-Table: How the First World War Began (London, 1969). Recent interpretations prefer contingent explanations over causal ones; representative is Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (New York, 2014).
[iii] For further elaboration, see Antulio J. Echevarria II, Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, forthcoming).
[iv] See Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman, The Dynamics of Coercion: American Foreign Policy and the Limits of Military Might (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2002). Four types of deterrence are commonly recognized: direct, discouraging an attack on oneself; extended, dissuading an attack on a friend; general, deterring a potential but not imminent threat; and immediate, dissuading an imminent threat. Paul K. Huth, Extended Deterrence and the Prevention of War (Yale: Yale University, 1991).
[v] Some define coercive diplomacy as a form of mediation or negotiation, and thus as an alternative to war rather than a type of military strategy. Alexander L. George, Forceful Persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War (Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace, 1997).
[vi] Antulio J. Echevarria II, “The Arms Race: Qualitative and Quantitative Aspects,” in War. Volume IV: War and the Modern World, Roger Chickering, Dennis Showalter, and Hans van de Ven, eds., (Cambridge, 2012), 163-80.
[vii] Compare: JonTesuro Sumida, In Defense of Naval Supremacy: Finance, Technology, and British Naval policy 1889-1914 (Annapolis, 2014); Lawrence Sondhaus, Naval Warfare, 1815-1914 (New York, 2001), 161; Roger Parkinson, The Late Victorian Navy: The Pre-Dreadnought Era and the Origins of the First World War (Suffolk, 2008). Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (London, 1991 [1976]). The bill added 10 battleships, 42 cruisers, and 18 torpedo gunships to be built over the next five years.
[viii] Japan’s naval victory over the Chinese established it as Asia’s preeminent power. US Secretary of the Navy, Hilary A. Herbert, remarked that “Japan had leaped, almost at one bound, to a place among the great nations of the earth.” S. C. M. Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Power, Perceptions, and Primacy (Cambridge, 2003), 3.
[ix] David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887–1941 (Annapolis, MD, 1997); R.M. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear—A Military History of the Russo-Japanese War 1904–5 (London, 1988); J.N. Westwood, Russia against Japan, 1904-1905: A New Look at the Russo-Japanese War (Albany, 1986).
[x] Al Nofi, The Spanish-American War 1898 (Conshohocken, PA, 1996), 100-11.
[xi] Fred T. Jane, Jane’s Fighting Ships (New York, 1906-07). In the same year, the naval arms race took a qualitative turn when the British commissioned the HMS Dreadnought, which rendered all previous designs obsolete, including some 50 capital ships already in service in the Royal Navy. In 1905, a state-of-the-art battleship displaced 13,000 tons, and was armed with four 12-inch guns with a range of 6,000 yards. The HMS Dreadnought displaced 18,000 tons, was armed with ten 12-inch guns, and could reach speeds of 21 knots. Nicholas Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (Columbia, 2002).
[xii] Fred T. Jane, Jane’s Fighting Ships (New York, 1912-13).
[xiii] Paul M. Kennedy, “Tirpitz, England, and the Second Navy Law of 1900: A Strategical Critique,” Militärgeschichtliche Mitteilungen 8 (1970): 38; Mombauer, “German War Plans,” 66.
[xiv] Annika Mombauer, “German War Plans,” in War Planning 1914, Richard F. Hamilton and Holger Herwig, eds., (Cambridge, 2010), 65-66; Michael Epkenhans, “Wilhelm II and ‘His’ Navy, 1888-1918,” in The Kaiser: New Research on Wilhelm II’s Role in Imperial Germany, Annika Mombauer and Wilhelm Deist, eds., (Cambridge, 2003); and Die Wilhelminische Flottenrüstung, 1908-1914. Weltmachtstreben, Industrieller Fortschritt, Soziale Integration (Munich, 1991). Rolf Hobson, Imperialism at Sea: Naval Strategic Thought, the Ideology of Sea Power, and the Tirpitz Plan, 1875-1914 (Boston, 2002).
[xv] While steel production grew by 350 percent in Britain, it increased almost 1,500 percent in Germany (and by more than 8,600 percent in the United States); coal output rose by 650 percent in Germany, compared to 250 percent in Britain. S.B. Clough, The Economic Development of Western Civilization (New York, 1959), 377, 385; W.O. Henderson, The Rise of German Industrial Power, 1834-1914 (Berkeley, 1975), 233-4; B.R. Mitchell, European Historical Statistics 1750-1970 (London, 1975), 818-26.
[xvi] In fact, the Reich’s production of heavy battleships actually declined after 1912, as the focus of German armaments shifted to land power via the army bills of 1912 and 1913. German investments in fixed-wing aircraft also skyrocketed, increasing from 36,000 marks in 1909 to 26 million marks by 1914.John H. Morrow, German Airpower in World War I (Lincoln, 1982), 7.
[xvii] Germany had put into service 46 capital ships (17 dreadnoughts, 21 pre-dreadnoughts, and 9 cruisers); however, Britain had built 103 capital ships (29 dreadnoughts, 40 pre-dreadnoughts, and 34 cruisers). Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise of Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860-1914 (London, 1987).
[xviii] Furthermore, it had fallen behind in other areas, such as submarines. By 1914, Britain had 88 submarines; the French owned 76; the United States had 32; and the Kaiserreich had produced only 22, the bulk of which were by then obsolete. Robert Hutchinson, Jane’s Submarines: War Beneath the Waves from 1776 to the Present Day (New York, 2005).
[xix] John H. Maurer, “Arms Control and the Anglo-German Naval Race before World War I: Lessons for Today?” Political Science Quarterly 112 (1997): 285-306.
[xx] Herrmann, Arming of Europe, 161-66; for more context see Gordon Craig, Germany 1866-1945 (Oxford, 1978); Hew Strachan, The First World War. Vol. I: To Arms (Oxford, 2004), 1-34.
[xxi] In fact, the Russian military recovered relatively quickly given its losses in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), the fracturing caused by revolution of 1905, and the chaos induced by the mutiny within its officer corps. Dennis Showalter, Tannenberg: Clash of Empires (Hamden, 1991), 125-38.
[xxii] Hence, the famous quote: “If you want peace, be prepared for war.” (Si vis pacem, para bellum). Its origins are unclear, but it is usually attributed to the Roman military writer Flavius Vegetius Renatus.