According to some historians, Britain’s stance in WWI can be mostly explained by the German navy. The line of thinking goes like this:
Britain basically only feared one thing: a single nation or alliance powerful enough to threaten British security. Britain’s foreign policy, therefore, mostly hinged on trying to maintain a balance of power in Europe.
For centuries, France’s status as the most powerful nation in Europe had therefore made it Britain’s enemy automatically.
After the fall of Napoleon, Russia became the natural enemy for a time, as Britain allied with France against Russia in the Crimean war of the 1850s.
So when Prussia/Germany emerged as a continental power in the 1870s, some may have looked on with concern, and yet Britain and Germany maintained a healthy alliance, even Queen Elizabeth’s daughter was married to the first Kaiser’s son.
The tipping point came in the late 1890s when Kaiser Wilhelm II declared that his goal was to construct a High Seas Fleet large enough and modern enough to challenge the British Royal Navy. Being an island nation, this would be a direct threat to the security of the British nation. Amazingly, Kaiser Wilhelm II was simply too immature to see this:
“At once jealous and admiring of a United Kingdom ruled in succession by his grandmother, his uncle, and his cousin, he entertained fantasies in which Britain would embrace Germany as its equal on a world stage that the two would govern to the benefit of everyone, including the ‘natives’ of backward and faraway lands.”
~G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918 (New York: Delacorte Press, 2006), 248.
Though the German navy expanded exponentially in the pre-war years, it still remained markedly inferior to the British in its numbers of capital ships. The Germans would have to be careful with their navy, a feeling made even more prominent after a Battle at Heligoland Bight (in the southeastern corner of the North Sea).
The British plan of action was simple: sail into Heligoland Bight in order to tempt the Germans out of their naval bases there, then lure them out into the open where a larger section of the British navy could rush in and crush them . . . if it worked properly, the plan would function simply as bait and trap.
The “bait,” commanded by Reginald Tyrwhitt, included the two light cruisers Fearless and Arethusa. Though they began the day by sinking three German torpedo boats, they soon found themselves outgunned by six German cruisers partially concealed in a nearby mist. Tyrwhitt quickly began a withdrawal and called upon the “trap,” commanded by Sir David Beatty, for assistance.
At the end of the day, the Germans had lost three cruisers, with three more heavily damaged, and the British had only suffered one cruiser heavily damaged.
A clear victory for the British, the Kaiser was furious, and demanded that the German navy be used more conservatively.