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Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War

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If you read a book on the First World War at Sea, there’s a good chance that it will list the numbers of battleships that both the Royal Navy and the Kaiserliche Marine (the Imperial German Navy) had available to them at the outbreak of war. There’s also a good chance that if you read another book, it will give you a different set of figures. Why are there these variances in number and how have they come about?

The confusion in numbers seems to be a result of different admirals, historians and authors counting ships that had been launched whilst others counted ships commissioned into the fleet. It could be a whole year between a ship launching from the slips in a shipyard to it being fully armed and equipped and accepted into service, so the difference is important. Other errors seem to occur when deciding whether a ship is a battleship, Dreadnought battleship, pre-Dreadnought battleship or, in the case of the battlecruisers, the differences with armoured cruisers in the German Navy.

Both navies had been building large ships, which took the descriptive name of battleships, throughout the latter half of the 19th century. However, in 1906, HMS Dreadnought was launched and commissioned into the Royal Navy. Her design revolutionised capital ship design and her name was used to describe the subsequent rush of similarly designed warships – known as Dreadnought battleships. Generally speaking, battleships and Dreadnoughts amount to the same thing, but pre-Dreadnought big ships (anything launched before HMS Dreadnought) were still officially called battleships. Even though they were of a weaker design and were obsolete at the outbreak of the war, both navies had considerable numbers in their fleets. These included HMS Formidable (lost in the Channel on 1st January 1915) and HMS Hood (scuttled as a blockship in Portland Harbour in 1914). Several German pre-Dreadnought battleships even saw service in the Second World War.

To aid the confusion, battlecruisers are often mixed in with battleships. To the eye they look identical, but sacrifice armour for speed, hence the different classification. Many authors and books will class them and Dreadnoughts together under one title (usually as battleships).

The actual number of ships that both the Royal Navy and the Kaiserliche Marine had available on 4th August 1914 is listed in the table below. As you might expect, some of the ships already launched and still undergoing trials in July 1914 were commissioned very quickly – this table would therefore look quite different at the end of August 1914.

These totals tally with Robert Massie’s research in his book Dreadnought. His only error is classing the armoured cruiser Blucher as a battlecruiser. In fairness, the German navy liked to call it a battlecruiser, but in fact it was an older vessel and not comparable with true battlecruisers.  

                                                  

 In commission 

Launched (but not yet commissioned)

Under construction

British

 

 

 

Dreadnought

20

 

8

Battlecruiser

8

1

 

Pre-Dreadnought Battleship

41

 

 

 

                                            

 

 

German

  

 

 

Dreadnought

14

3

2

Battlecruiser

4

2

 

Pre-Dreadnought Battleship

22

 

 

As can be seen, the Royal Navy had a significant advantage in capital ships, which were, at the outbreak of the war, still considered the basis of any fleet. Four years later, the Royal Navy and Mercantile Marine’s experience in the English Channel would demonstrate that the days of the big gun ship were numbered and that the submarine (and soon the aircraft) would be the dominant elements of a fleet.

 

Written and researched by Stephen Fisher (MAT HLF Forgotten Wrecks Research Officer).