Why World War One?

The long Failure of Western Arms.

1906-9 Mulliner Panic

Background to the Dreadnought Panic – enter Mr. Mulliner.

Now we move to look at the other naval firms. Vickers and Armstrong, whom we have already met, were the strongest companies and the advances in technology associated with the Dreadnaught building programme lay with them. But the Dreadnought panic was created by quite a desperate figure in the naval munitions business - Mr. H. H. Mulliner. Three big shipyards, John Brown, Cammel Laird and Fairfield were also building warships, but needed a good artillery factory to build the great guns necessary to complete world class battleships. John Brown bought the Coventry Ordnance Works in 1904[i] and then set up an agreement with Cammell Laird and Fairfield Shipbuilding for joint production of naval guns at Coventry together with a big erecting department at Scotstoun. John Brown owned half, and the other two yards a quarter each, of the Coventry firm.[ii] The Coventry Ordnance Works were tooled up with big lathes and the other machine tools needed to make the biggest naval guns. This would enable these three yards to compete with Armstrong and Vickers in the full production of the most advanced battleships. However, it did not quite work out that way. With the Russian and French navies off the radar, the need for naval expansion slackened, and business was not so buoyant in the shipyards and ordnance factories. In fact John Brown, Cammell Laird and Fairfield received no orders for battleships or cruisers and the main plant at Coventry remained completely idle. The new Managing Director at the Coventry Ordnance Works was Mr. Mulliner, who now becomes a chief actor in the drama.


Mr. Mulliner faced an uphill task. He was dependent on John Brown, Cammell Laird and Fairfield getting orders and they were not receiving them. He would calculate that in a while these three companies would find a Managing Director doing no work a luxury they could not afford. We can sympathise with him as he twiddled his thumbs. But he did not stay twiddling his thumbs. Mr. Mulliner desperately needed some orders through 1905 and the beginning of 1906 and he set out to create them. In May, 1906 he wrote to the War Office and to the Admiralty. In his letter he said that there was an “enormous expenditure going on at Krupp’s for the purpose of manufacturing very large naval guns and mountings quickly.”[iii] He estimated the investment figure at £3 million. He went on, “their whole scheme seems to be speed of production. For instance they are making immensely powerful lathes which will bore and turn a 12 inch gun simultaneously, which they estimate will save at least half the time. They seem to have ordered five machines for turning up the roller paths and turntables for very large mountings, each of these machines costing £5,300; there is nothing nearly so good in this country. These extensions etc. will give them a possibility of output far in excess of the whole capacity in Great Britain.” Here was the letter of a desperate man. We note that Krupp, obsessively secretive since the time of Alfred, were not going to explain their technological developments to anybody, let alone Mulliner. We also note that German Dreadnought production remained stubbornly slow right through and into the War. The speed was entirely imagined. This was clearly scare talk about a massive German Dreadnought fleet to drum up orders for the Coventry Ordnance Works.

Where did Mulliner’s supposed information come from? It seems to be from one of his employees, Mr Carpmael. Consider, for example, the number of machines. Sir Reginald Bacon, Director of Naval Ordnance, was also approached by Mr Mulliner. His version reported to the Royal Commission in 1935 was: “Mr Mulliner came back from Coventry and told me that Krupp had got orders for – I think I am right in saying – four circular planes, particular machines with very big base dimensions.”[iv] So was it five or four? Also reporting later was Mr Carpmael in 1934 in a letter to the Times when the issue became controversial. He reported having gone to Krupp’s works to see a large boring machine for machining gun turn-tables before purchasing it for the Coventry works. “I visited the works of the German firm, and saw parts of six machines in course of construction for Krupp’s.” So was it four, five or six? Since Carpmael saw only the parts, some confusion might be understandable, but this had all the signs of a cobbled together story. Carpmael, no doubt under Mr Mulliner’s instructions, also said: “Krupp’s with these machines, and other machines to balance the output, could have turned out the armaments for more than six Dreadnoughts a year.”[v]

Whether Mr Mulliner primed Mr Carpmael or however he constructed his scare story, we do not know, but the main question was whether it was true or not. First we consider the speed of construction, which Mr Mulliner expressed as the key to the process. Using Andrew Toppan’s total list of German Dreadnoughts with their specification, the average time from laying down the keel to the warship becoming operational was over three years right through into the War. Given the original British Dreadnaught was built in a year and a day between 2nd October, 1905 and the 3rd October, 1906, German warship building remained very much slower and probably more thorough than the British. [vi] We also know the very outcome of the ships Mulliner was talking about. Von Tirpitz in June 1906 felt compelled to ask for an increased budget in the Navy Bill to move to Dreadnought type, naval construction. The keels for four such ships were laid down in June to August 1907 and they were completed three years later, the earliest in May, 1910, and then not with turbine engines. Three years remained the time taken to build German battleships right up to the World War, and so there does not seem to be any increased speed of output or advanced planning for expansion in May 1906 when Mulliner wrote his letter. Further, we know that Krupp’s workforce actually declined around this time. It was 64,353 on 1st January, 1907, had fallen to 63,171 on 1st January, 1909 and increased by 3,200 by the end of November in 1909.[vii] The supposed expansion of work at Krupp’s asserted by Mulliner did not happen during the period concerned, but only in late 1909.

Mulliner pestered the Admiralty, the War Office, the Imperial Committee of Defence and many others with his supposed information during 1906, but no-one would believe him. His claims were investigated by the Admiralty, a sophisticated and well-informed organization, and by a Cabinet Committee, but they did not find in 1906 any evidence of German expansion beyond what they knew about, as Lloyd George noted earlier. They had their own reliable informants and spies and knew Mulliner was being inaccurate in the hope of generating orders. He got no-where. Meanwhile, in 1907 Cammell Laird, one of Mulliner’s contributing firms, was charged with “irregularities” in their dealings with the Admiralty and the War Office and were struck off the list of Navy contractors until they reformed their management and working practices. The chairman and other directors resigned and Cammell Laird were making losses. Mulliner was in a very difficult position.


The 1909 Dreadnaught Panic.

By this time Mulliner was desperate. Between 1906-9 Cammell-Laird, John Brown and Fairfield had no battleship or cruiser orders and Mr. Mulliner was the Managing Director of a vast new munitions factory which was completely idle. In early 1908 he tried again to increase the navy’s spending. He approached the Admiralty, seeing Admirals Fisher, Jellicoe and Bacon, but they failed to respond, although there was a further German increase in naval spending announced in November. Fisher was still confident and biding his time. Yet now the Beresford camp was gunning for Fisher, hoping that the First Sea Lord would be replaced by Beresford himself. Mulliner went public with letters to The Times and with a series of visits to politicians. He set out to create a monumental scare, buoyed up by the increase in German armaments that had occurred eighteen months after his allegations, while pretending that he had been accurate all along and was acting in the national interest. In the Spring and Summer of 1909 there was storm of propaganda promoted by Mulliner and taken up by others. 

This time the exaggerations stuck. The opposition leader, A.J. Balfour, fed by an MP, Mr. Samuel Roberts, who happened to be a Director of Cammell Laird’s, raised an alarm and demanded that eight Dreadnoughts be put on the blocks as soon as possible. The newspapers were a big part of this scare. The Daily Express ran a serial about a possible German invasion of England, and a play about a German invasion of England was a great success in the West End. Soon, the Daily Mail was saying that the Germany can now turn out one Dreadnought a month, fully equipped and armed.[i] Three years actual building time but one month asserted in the Daily Mail, a time scale of only 2.8% of the actual time needed – so much for its accuracy. It was the scare to end all scares. The Germans were coming and the famous demand for eight Dreadnoughts – “We want eight and we won’t wait” was repeated like a mantra by the military backing press. The Government and everybody else capitulated and the eight Dreadnaughts were ordered.

We need to be aware of how these events must have appeared to the Germans at this time. We must remember that Kaiser Wilhelm was Queen Victoria’s grandson and quite warm towards Britain. He wanted a strong navy, but not one to rival Britain’s and von Tirpitz saw a navy not in terms of conquest or invasion, but as helping maintain the balance of power and guaranteeing that Britain would not fight Germany. The Dreadnought launch had been a shock to the Germans, because it was completed in a year and also because there were statements in the English press that this one ship could wipe out the entire German navy. That made them touchy and worried about a possible first strike against their navy. It underlines why there was pressure for Dreadnought level German shipbuilding. But then the Mulliner naval scare was especially astonishing to the Germans because they did not know it was insinuated by Mulliner. From their point of view it was a British naval move, stirring up untrue statements about German naval building. Von Tirpitz conveyed how the British were coming over to them. “The Navy Scare, which Fisher now set going, offended in our opinion against good manners in international relations, because the Admiralty and many members of the Cabinet did not hesitate to stir up their country with exaggerated and false statements regarding our building programme… In the Spring of 1909 Admiral Fisher even admitted quite frankly to our naval attaché that the Navy scare was nothing more than one of the usual manœuvres to prepare Parliament and the nation for the acceptance of bigger Naval estimates.”[ii] Actually, of course, Fisher was saying that the scare had been mounted against him by his opponents, but it was interpreted as a deliberate British Government and Naval lie.

The Kaiser and von Tirpitz were non-plussed by the situation. Here was misunderstanding which would help to start a World War. The Kaiser’s commented on notes of a meeting between Metternich, the German Ambassador, Sir Edward Grey and Lloyd George. The Kaiser’s private comments on Metternich’s notes were as follows: He describes England’s “tendency to see phantoms”.. Ship building “has not been speeded up” On naval rivalry: “Does not exist! Ours is limited by law.” On British determination to preserve naval superiority: “They have it three times over already.” A powerful German fleet: “Will never be powerful compared with England!” On slowing the tempo of German fleet building: “we have no fast tempo.”[iii] Those are the comments of a man who is not thinking of undertaking rivalry with the English fleet in July 1908. We will see why the date matters later. This was the point at which German trust of the British broke down, for obvious reasons.

Meanwhile in Britain the naval scare ran its course. Key was Arthur Balfour, the defeated Conservative Prime Minister and in this episode a small man. He predicted that “there is no doubt” that the Germans will have 13 Dreadnaughts by the 1st of April 1911. Actually, they did not have 13, but 5. This is even a bad throw on a darts board. He also said the probability is that on 1st of April, 1912, the Germans would have 21 or perhaps even 25. Actually, they had 9. The claims were wild and dangerous. At this stage the Admiralty fell in with the campaign. They claimed that 17 German Dreadnoughts in March 1912 were a possibility and 13 a certainty. Nine was the certainty. The British Naval League kept the campaign going until the Government fell in line. Churchill gives a laconic commentary on the process.

In the end a curious and characteristic solution was reached. The admiralty had demanded six ships: the economists offered four: and we finally compromised on eight. However, five out of the eight were not ready before ‘the danger year’ of 1912 had passed peacefully away.[iv]

His further commentary on the episode was,

The gloomy Admiralty anticipations were in no respect fulfilled in the year 1912. The British margin was found to be ample in that year. There were no secret Dreadnoughts, nor had Admiral Tirpitz made any untrue statement in respect of major construction.[v]

This was true, but when the panic really took hold the Government gave in and did expand its Dreadnaught programme drastically so that even Cammell Laird got orders. The panic had succeeded, the Naval Lobby won, and it communicated to the Germans that the British could not be trusted.

There is a sequel to the history of Mr. Mulliner. The Admiralty was so angry at the falsehoods he had stirred up that they made clear to the Directors at the Coventry Ordnance Works that the company would get no orders until he left the works. Their tenders had been turned down in 1907 and 1908. As Mulliner himself said, “There seemed no alternative but for me to retire”. He did, and the Coventry Ordnance Works and the parent shipyards then did get big orders from the Admiralty. Clearly, the Admiralty was determined that Mr Mulliner himself did not benefit at all by naval expansion. They must have been genuinely disgusted by his campaign.[vi]

This great scare was important, because it marks the point when trust was destroyed and the possibility of a stable military situation was gone. Later, Churchill proposed a naval holiday when both sides just stopped building Dreadnaughts. It was a good idea and honestly meant, but it was too late. It was now impossible for Germany and England to agree because mistrust had been sown and was bearing its bitter fruit. There were no secret Dreadnoughts. So why were the British inventing them? The British navy was going to be totally dominant for the foreseeable future. The scare weakened the diplomatic position of Metternich (who later strongly opposed the Armenian massacres) and the diplomatic descent into the First World War was in place with the politicians really defeated by the process. “We want eight and we won’t wait” was British jingoism at its worst, manipulated by the arms dealers, who now, for real, were going to be the merchants of death.


[i] The Daily Mail 15th December, 1909

[ii] Noel-Baker PMOA 441

[iii] Noel-Baker PMOA 412-6

[iv] ibid 37

[v] ibid 37

[vi] Noel-Baker PMOA 504-5



[i] See John Brown plc history.

[ii] This section is mainly dependent on Noel Baker PMOA 449-510

[iii] PMOA 463

[iv] Again Noel-Baker PMOA 464

[v] The Times 17th February, 1934

[vi] World Battleship List: German Dreadnoughts compiled by Andrew Toppen http://www.hazegray.org/navhist/battleships/germ_dr.htm

[vii] These figures were verified by the Chairman of Krupp’s, and John Leyland , editor of The Navy and co- editor of Brassey’s Naval Annual.