When I was younger (so much younger than today?), I used to collect many things. Old coins, bus tickets, soldiers, Doctor Who novelisations and old battleship postcards. I recently scanned those very cards so that I might share then on this site and save the images for posterity amongst a similarly nerdy community.
I also used to read books about warships but the ones that especially caught my interest were 20th Century battleships, starting with the eponymous HMS Dreadnought (1906).
The arms race between Britain and Germany before the WW1 produced many huge ships - battleships, battlecruisers - as Britain sought to maintain her naval dominance and Germany sought to catch up. This race is classically cited as one of the causes of World War One along with the tinderbox of the Balkans, the Great Power alliance system, colonialism and German military ambitions.
I've just finished Robert K Massie's book Dreadnought, a history so stately and magisterial you want to salute it as it hoves into view and leaves you bobbing in its wake. This near 1000 page book recounts the road to war told principally, though not exclusively, through the lens of the unfolding naval arms race. Thus we get to know characters such as Tirpitz, Jackie Fisher, a young Winston Churchill, the mercurial Kaiser Wilhelm 2.
The book dwells on the interconnected European royal families - how through marriage the crowned heads of Britain, Germany and Russian were grandmothers, uncles and cousins to each other. Famously, the Kaiser was half British, spoke English without an accent and revered his grandmother Victoria (he was present at her death). He was also an honourary admiral of the British fleet and often used to wear his admiral uniform.
The book describes how the scramble for colonies - a scramble that Germany came late to the party - led the Kaiser to want to protect trade routes which then generated a demand for a navy. Add Admiral Tirpitz into the mix and you have an arms race in the making.
Britain never had much of an army. As an island we always relied on the navy to defend our shores and so any acceleration of building plans would inevitably lead to Britain building more herself. This was - in British minds - not a nice-to-have but existential. First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher - an explosive character - also used this time to design a ship so far advanced of all previous ships, it made the others immediately obsolete. Once Dreadnought was built, the arm race started from zero again. Game on!
However, I left the book feeling somewhat depressed. The road from Sarajavo to the trenches (July / August 1914) is a slowly evolving car crash. How did the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Balkans lead to the slaughter of the Western Front?
1) Austria wanted to punish Serbia. Humiliate her.
2) Russia would not allow Austria to take over Serbia.
3) Germany would step in if Austria and Russia went to war.
4) France was bound to an alliance with Russia.
5) The German General Staff devised a two front war with Russia and France where the German army went through Belgium and took out France in six weeks (not unlike the previous war 40 years earlier) before starting on the Russians.
6) Britain was bound by treaty to protect Belgium's neutrality. Moreover, Britain did not want a potential hostile power with naval bases just across the channel. The German fleet would not be allow to parade in the English Channel shelling the Northern coast of France.
So there we have it. A shot triggered an escalating series of 'if you do this, I will do that' responses. Reading through the book as it gets to its climax one is left with the sheer inevitability of war and the powerlessness of politicians (Grey and Bethmann-Hollweg for instance) who couldn't prevent the outcome though seemingly they were in charge. A sobering lesson.
So did the big ships cause war? No. No they didn't. Although the one large naval action Jutland was a score draw that favoured Germany on the day, in the end the superiority of the British fleet kept the German High Seas Fleet at port. And then, after the war, the captured High Seas Fleet scuttled themselves at Scapa Flow where some of them still rest to this day - permanent reminders of the pre-war arms race.
USS Texas a pre-war Dreadnought of course still floats as a permanent museum.