Between 1900 and 1914, Germany became identified by Britain as the chief foreign threat to its Empire. This was, to a large extent, the outcome of the policies pursued by Germany's leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II – most notably his eagerness to build a battle fleet to rival Britain’s.
The Royal Navy was by far the most powerful of the world’s fleets. It kept the British Isles immune from invasion and was also primed to blockade enemy ports in time of war. Fundamentally, however, its purpose was the protection of trade. Britain relied upon imports, and its economic prosperity rested on seaborne trade, financed by the City of London. Any threat to Britain’s naval supremacy was a threat to the nation itself.
A scale model of the British battleship HMS Canopus. When HMS Canopus was launched in 1897, Britain's naval power had no serious rival.
From 1898 onwards, Germany began to create a battle fleet. A shipbuilding arms race with Britain soon began. From 1906, this naval race became focused on the construction of a new class of battleship developed in Britain – the dreadnought. Designed around the firepower of heavy guns and powered by steam turbines, these huge vessels made all earlier warships obsolete. In both countries, the public – encouraged by the press, popular authors and naval pressure groups – demanded more battleships.
In fact, Germany could not hope to match the Royal Navy in the short term and, in 1910, began to redirect much of its defence spending to the Army. However, the damage to Germany’s relationship with Britain proved irreversible.