Winston Churchill is best remembered as a valiant leader in times of war. He should also be remembered, however, for his efforts to prevent the catastrophic great wars that would scar the history of the twentieth century. While it is largely forgotten today, on the eve of the First World War Churchill made a remarkable attempt to halt the head-to-head competition in naval armaments that was setting Great Britain and Germany against one another as adversaries. In a bold and unconventional initiative, Churchill invited Germany's rulers to take a "holiday" from the competitive building of battleships. As the civilian head of Britain's Royal Navy, Churchill made public appeals for a naval holiday on three separate occasions before 1914. Behind the scenes too he pressed for the opening of negotiations with Germany, using the holiday proposal as the starting point for discussions. It was Churchill's earnest hope that the naval holiday would stop the action-reaction dynamic of the arms race--what statesmen of that era called "the sea war waged in the dockyards"--and reduce the antagonism between Britain and Germany. (1) Rather than letting Britain and Germany be arrayed in opposing camps, he wanted to promote cooperation between Europe's two leading great powers.
But these hopes were to be disappointed. While Churchill's advocacy of a shipbuilding holiday generated a great deal of commentary in the press and discussion among statesmen, it utterly failed as a practical measure to arrest the naval arms race. Germany's rulers rejected the proposal. The holiday scheme also came under heavy criticism at home, from opposition political leaders, a hostile press, and even within the British government. The Conservative political opposition labeled Churchill's plan unworkable, while Britain's foreign-policy decision makers stood against arms-control negotiations with Germany. Confronted by stiff opposition both at home and abroad, Churchill's holiday proposal was stillborn.
In retrospect, it appears that a naval holiday stood little chance of success. The noted historian A. J. P. Taylor held the view that "probably only Churchill took it seriously." But that was not the case. Germany's leaders saw the proposal as a challenge to their attempt to build up a powerful navy to rival that of Britain. The German ambassador in Britain, Prince Karl Max Lichnowsky, reported that Churchill "meant the naval holiday to be taken completely seriously and he considered the idea as entirely practicable." (2) Churchill was a realist, recognizing that serious impediments stood in the way of achieving his aim. Nonetheless, he argued that it was "a profound British interest to procure a halt" in the arms competition. (3)
Winston Churchill became first lord of the Admiralty during the autumn of 1911, a time when the rise of German naval power posed an immense threat to Britain's security. The previous summer, when Germany had provoked an international showdown with France over Morocco--the so-called Agadir (or Second Moroccan) Crisis--Britain's leaders had even feared at one point in the confrontation that a war might erupt, with the German navy launching a surprise attack on the...