This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and my attention this week was drawn to a copy of J. Griffin and Company’s The Naval Annual 1913. It is a sweeping 520-page review of the state of the world’s navies with details on individual ships. The naval arms race of the early twentieth century saw investment in large battleships and Great Britain aimed to keep naval superiority by having a navy equal to the size of the next two largest navies – in this case it was Imperial Germany and the United States. These ships were not cheap to build and an interesting comparison is how did the size of these navies correspond to national output.
A table on page 94 of the Annual provides a convenient summary of effective fighting ships (both built and under construction) for the major powers on the eve of the war: Great Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, France, Russia and the United States. Figure 1 ranks the countries in terms of the number of battleships and then also presents the numbers for the other categories: cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats and submarines. At 77 battleships, Great Britain ranks first followed by Germany (46), the United States (38), France (32), Russia (21), Italy (16) and Austria-Hungary (13). Britain also had the most cruisers and the most destroyers. However, France boasted the most torpedo boats and the most submarines.
Figure 2 uses per capita GDP numbers (in 1990 international Geary-Khamis dollars – i.e., a US PPP dollar estimate) from Angus Maddison for these great powers for 1913 and ranks them. The United States ranks first in per capita GDP followed by Great Britain, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy (an average of Austria and Hungary) and finally Russia. It should be noted that these ranking don’t change much in the early twenty-first century (though Austria ranks much higher on its own both in 1913 and the present).
So does fleet size correlate well with per capita GDP? It depends on the type of ship. Figure 3 plots the number of battleships against per capita GDP and there is a strong positive correlation. Based on the linear regression line – the British, Russians and Germans have fleets somewhat larger than their per capita GDP would predict while the Austro-Hungarians, French, Italians and Americas are smaller. I would draw from this that the Austro-Hungarians, French, Italians and Americans were not as engaged in the naval arms race as the other three countries. Similar positive correlations also hold for cruisers, destroyers and submarines. Interestingly enough, there is no positive relationship between per capita GDP and the number of torpedo boats. They were relatively cheap to build compared to the other types of ships and thus not as correlated with the national resource base. I would also venture that as a result, the French with their emphasis on torpedo boats had a more cost-effective fleet.