May 1914

Arms Race

By Gustavo Corni

"In the decades preceding the Great War, industrial development and the ambitions of the great powers generated an exponential growth of the armed forces and the arms industry. The arms race caused a situation of growing tension, which led to the outbreak of war."

The arms race that marked the three decades prior to the Great War was one of the major causes of the conflict. Governments had a modern military tool at their disposal, which in some respects "had" to be used. In fact, the logic of weapons and armies is that they are made to be used in war. The dramatic and extremely costly arms race that began in the late nineteenth century can be compared to the atomic arms race that, in turn, characterised the Cold War.

Many elements converged to justify this military competition and the importance it would hold. First, not only coal and steel manufacturers, but also the mechanical industries encouraged armament. They had a material interest in serving the governments, and produced increasingly lethal and expensive weapons.

To name but a few examples, German battleship costs increased from 38-40 million marks to 44-45 million per unit within a few years. British shipyards, for their part, turned out battle cruisers, the cost of which rose from 1.6 million pounds sterling (for Invincible in 1906) to 2.08 million for the Lion three to four years later. Within a few years, companies such as Krupp in Germany, Vickers in England, Škoda in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ansaldo in Italy had become giants. Although the manufacturing world undoubtedly had a biased interest, the arms race could not be attributed exclusively to the will of the major industries.

A more important reason can be found in the opposing alliances that were formed in those years. The Triple Alliance was signed in 1882 between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, which was opposed by the Franco-Russian Agreement (1892), later joined by Great Britain. Although these coalitions relied heavily on defence and on mutual fear, they also contained offensive elements. They all feared the military potential of Russia, which had 170 million inhabitants, more than those of the three countries of the Triple Alliance put together. Its enemies sought, therefore, to acquire increasingly numerous armies. A German law of 1913 called an additional 100,000 soldiers to arms to respond to the potential Russian threat. This decision in turn provoked a French law, which increased the conscription period from two to three years, thus increasing the size of the army by 50%. France had a desire for revenge (revenge, from which the term "revanchism" is taken) against Prussia/Germany, which it had defeated in 1870; compared to the German Empire, the French Republic had, however, a far smaller population and industrial capacity.

The arms race led to the development of increasingly powerful artillery and armoury capable of resisting their shots. A new, efficient, mobile weapon was also developed: the machine gun.

The most striking point of the arms race, however, was the fleets. All of the great powers had colonies overseas, and it was widely believed that a nation's strength was measured by its ability to control shipping routes.

In the book The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890), American Admiral Alfred T. Mahan developed the idea of "navalism.” From that moment on, all the powers (including Italy) sought to acquire large fleets. In particular, starting from 1897, German Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Secretary of State of the German Imperial Naval Office, proposed that Germany could instigate global politics in open competition with Britain. The latter, jealous of its colonial empire and naval dominance, could not accept any rival. According to London, its navy was supposed to be stronger than the total of the second and third most powerful. At the centre of this competition were battleships: enormous, powerfully armed and defended ships. They increased from 20,000 tonnes to a tonnage of over 30,000, with double or triple 450-500 mm calibre guns in rotary turrets. These ships had crews of more than a thousand men, and travelled at a speed of almost 30 knots.

Despite the use of enormous resources, the German Weltpolitik did not succeed in overturning English supremacy. There was, however, a side effect: it convinced all small and medium-sized powers to produce increasingly powerful and expensive battle fleets.