In August of 1914, as war unexpectedly loomed over both sides of the English Channel, the Royal Navy was unquestionably the most modern and powerful force ever to ply the world's oceans. Though challenged over the previous decades by an upstart Imperial Germany for maritime dominance of the Baltic and North Seas, in 1914 it was still the Union Jack which flew at the top of the mast of world naval power.
The famous postcards depicting the Royal Navy Fleet Review in July of 1914 showed most (but not all) of the twenty-three dreadnought battleships and nine battle cruisers then in commission. (Also shown were the 40 obsolescent pre-dreadnought battleships commissioned between 1896 and 1908.) Not shown, of course, were the ten additional dreadnought battleships and five battle cruisers nearing completion, each more modern and far more powerful than their namesake.
The dreadnought battleship in 1914 was considered rightly the ultimate measuring stick of a nation's sea power. The potential of such ships, individually and in squadrons or even fleets, to wreak destruction on an enemy fleet, seemed without limit. But their immense cost, both to build and operate, increased the asymmetry of the means by which these "castles of steel", as Churchill's called them, might be destroyed. The evolution of the torpedo from a short-range nuisance to a long-range ship-killer, and the concomitant development of ocean-going ships and submarines on which they would be employed, accelerated apace with the evolution of the dreadnought battleships. And that old nemesis, the naval mine, remained a very vexing problem.
In the course of the Great War, the dreadnought, both in its battleship and battlecruiser incarnation, proved both a fulfillment of its awesome potential, and a disappointment. In the Falklands in December 1914, two RN battlecruisers destroyed Graf von Spee's Südseegeschwader in a running fight, without damage to themselves, despite abysmally poor British gunnery. At Scarborough and Hartlepool, the High Seas Fleet bombardment presaged the possible destructive power of long-range artillery against cities and towns. The Battle of Jutland, though a bitter disappointment and tactical reverse for the Royal Navy, was very much a strategic victory. The outcome decisively determined that the High Seas Fleet would not be able to loosen the Royal Navy stranglehold that was slowly starving Germany. However, the Allied naval effort at Gallipoli to break the domination of the Turkish forts over the Dardanelles was an utter failure, and highlighted the limitations of dreadnought power, and their vulnerability to mines and torpedoes.
When the war ended in November 1918 as suddenly and unexpectedly as it had begun, Great Britain was bloodied, exhausted, and economically prostrate. With the High Seas Fleet interned at Scapa Flow, and the Austro-Hungarian Navy reduced by combat loss to insignificance in the Adriatic, the only other powerful navies on the globe were those of the United States, France, and Japan, all British allies. It was clear that retaining the massive wartime Royal Navy was not sustainable. Additionally, technological developments in fire control, gun power, armor plate composition and distribution, propulsion, and watertight integrity had accelerated ever faster since 1906, when HMS Dreadnought had made the world's capital ships obsolete at a stroke. Dreadnought herself, as well as her immediately succeeding classes of dreadnoughts, were hopelessly outdated, no match for the newer and more powerful "super-dreadnoughts" which were faster, better protected, and capable of accurate very long-range fire with 15-inch guns.
The Royal Navy had lost five dreadnoughts during the war. HMS Audacious had struck a mine in the Irish Sea not long after the war began. At Jutland, three of Beatty's battlecruisers had fallen victim to magazine explosions resulting from German fire. And HMS Vanguard had in 1917 suffered an internal explosion while in port. Not long following the armistice, the dissolution of the Royal Navy's battle line began. The older dreadnoughts were almost immediately decommissioned or placed in reserve, and were soon sold for scrap or otherwise tagged for disposal. Others of some combat value were retained for a few years, a handful were employed as training ships, but these also passed quickly out of commission and to the shipbreakers.
Between 1921 and 1928, an astounding twenty-three Royal Navy dreadnoughts were disposed of, representing more than half a million tons of warship strength. One, HMS Canada, was sold to Chile (her original destination when impressed by the British in 1914). Another, HMS Monarch, was disposed of as a gunnery target. The other 21 were scrapped. Dreadnought herself had been in service for just thirteen years. Two others, HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin, were but eight years old.
I will note here that the Washingon Naval Treaty of 1922 is often credited as the impetus for the mass dismantling of Britain's dreadnought fleet. This is not an accurate portrayal. The agreement was instead a boon to the Exchequer, who was searching frantically for ways to staunch the economic bleeding. The Washington Treaty provided a justification for the disposal of a great number of capital ships of questionable combat use, and the cancellation of those battleships still on the ways determined to be in excess of Royal Navy requirements for the post-war world. While it is true that the 1922 treaty indeed stifled future construction for more than a decade, the vast majority of the decisions to dispose of the Grand Fleet's dreadnoughts had been made before the Washington Conference had even begun.
The massed scrapping of Royal Navy dreadnoughts did have some very positive effects for Britain's shipbuilders. Shipbreaking companies at Faslane, Inverkeithing, Troon, Clydebank, Rosyth, and many other locations, kept skilled work forces employed, and shipyards and equipment in active use. The market for high-quality scrap steel also provided an inject of capital into a British economy desperately short of liquidity.
The list of Royal Navy dreadnoughts disposed of between 1921 and 1928 is long and impressive. Such a collection would have been the strongest force of capital ships in the world in 1914. The original HMS Dreadnought, plus Bellerophon, Superb, Temeraire, St Vincent, Collingwood, Neptune, Colossus, Hercules, Orion, Conqueror, Thunderer, King George V, Ajax, Agincourt, Erin, Inflexible, Indomidable, New Zealand, Lion, and Princess Royal all were broken up. Canada was sold to Chile, Monarch sunk as a gunnery target. Mounted on these battleships and battlecruisers had been a staggering 128 12-inch and 86 13.5-inch guns, with a total broadside weight of more than 212,000 pounds.
Following the decommissioning of the four Iron Dukes (and HMS Tiger), to comply with the London Treaty of 1930, the Royal Navy retained just fifteen dreadnoughts, the five Queen Elizabeths, the five Revenges, the two 16-inch post-war Nelsons, and battlecruisers Renown, Repulse, and Hood.
At Jutland, it was the concentrated fire of 24 Grand Fleet dreadnoughts, steaming in line-ahead, creating the vision of "a horizon aflame", that had had such a powerful psychological effect on the sailors of the High Seas Fleet. It was that image, and a sense that they had escaped the noose of certain destruction once, that played no small part in the mutinies in Kiel and the Jade in 1918, when they were ordered once again to face the Grand Fleet in a last, sacrificial gesture.
Of Jellicoe's fearsome Jutland battle line, by 1931 only Royal Oak remained, along with the four veteran battleships of Evan-Thomas's 5th Battle Squadron. The cutting torch had accomplished what no other force on the world's oceans could manage, the dismantling of the might of the Royal Navy, and the near extinction of the British Dreadnought. (URR here.)