The Sailor Suit before World War I and the Kaiser's Navy (Kaiserliche Marine)

Figure 1.--This Austrian image is typical of royal families throughout Germany. Virtually all the boys wore sailor suits from a very young age, not unlike George V's sons. This was even the case in Austria with a small fleet and Bavaria, a land locked portion of the German Empire. The mother here is the Archduchess Elizabeth--the only daughter of Crown Prince Rudolf who killed himself in one of the great love stories of the 19th century. It was his death that brought Franz Ferdinand in line to become Austrian Emperor--the same Franz Ferdinand whose assasination launched World War I. Franz Ferdinand also dressed his sons in sailor suits.

It is a little known fact that the boys' sailor suit had a role in preparing the ground work for the calamity of World War I. Fashion is generally viewed by HBC as a reflection of larger historical an societal trends. We remained convinced that this is essentially the case. It is interestng however, to reflect on the impact of the boys' sailor suit in the years leading up to World War I. It certainly reflected the temper of the times, but there is reason to believe that the sailor suit was a factor, of course among many others, in leading the great European powers to war.

The Sailor Suit

The sailor suit as a boy's garment was inspired by Queen Victori dressing the young Edward VII in the 1840s, subsequently his bothers, in an enlistedman's sailor unifom. The style soon spread throughout Europe, although the chronological trends and to some extent uniforms styles varied from country to country. The remarkable similarity of the sailor suit throughout Europe was in part due the similarity in naval uniforms.

Europe at the mid-19th Century

England had, since the destruction of the Spanish Armada in the 16th century, seen France as its greatest threat. First Louis XIV and then Napoleon posed major threats to the British nation. Even after Britain established its naval supremecy at Trafagur in 180? and Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815, most Britons continued to view France as the greatest threat. The Germany were perceived as allies. Germans also views Britain with great admiration. It was General Blücher and his Prussian troops that had saved Wellington at Waterloo. Britain and France conducted a naval arms race at mid-century. England even built massive defensive forts at Portsmouth--to defend against the French. Finally the construction of HMS Warrior convinced the French that they could not compete with the British in a naval building competition.

Power Shift

The European power balance shifted significantly in 1860-70 with the unification of first Italy and then more importantly Germany. From this development Germany emerged as the dominate continental power and Briton as the primary naval power. There was no history of eminity betwwen the two powers. On the contrary there was a history of cooperation as werll as family ties. A series of British kings had been German. Even more importantly, Victoria's elest daughter had mairred the Prussian Crown Prince Frederich. Thus their son, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II, was Queen Victoria's grandson. The Queen was very favorably dispossed toward the Germans. Her relatives in fact were Germans from Hannover. Her husband Prince Albert was a German from Saxe-Coburg. Some of her daughters married Germans. The Queen would often get upset with her Danish daughter-in-law the Princess of Wales Alexandra for her anti-German opinions.

European Royalty

The sailor suit became almost a required uniform for European royalty. The sailor suits worn by Euopean royals are reviewed in detail in the HBC royalty satellite site. Virtually all the German princes wore sailor suits, even land-locked principalities and those whose only navy was a row boat on a mountain lake.

Wilhelm II

Wilhelm I played a key role in changing attitudes in Britain from viewing France as their major strategic threat to seeing Germany as a threat. HBC believes that Wilhelms early childhood eperiences, including the sailor suits he wore are a major cause leading to the rivary which developed between the two countries. Briton seeme cntent with the power situation as it stood in 1870. Germany was dominate on the Continent. But the Low countries were independent and neutral and Germany had virtually no navy. Wilhelm the second was to change all of this and the navy was to become known as the Kaiserliche Marine (the Kaiser's Navy).

Wilhelm's sailor suits

The young Wilhhelm was dressed in sailor suits by his English mother. He vacationed with his sailor-suit clad English cousins. He no doubt had the primacy and power of the British Navy drilled into him. Wilhelm grew up greatly respecting the British--and enying his British cousins and their Royal Navy. Looking back on his boyhood, the Kaiser wrote, "When as aittle boy I was allowed to visit Portsmouth and Plymouth ... I admired the proud English ships in those two superb harbors. Then there awoke in me the wish to build ships of my own like those some day when I was grown up to possess as fine a navy as the English." His brother Prince Henry was similarly affected, so much that he chose to make a career in the navy--very unusual for a Prussian prince. He seems to have loved his grandmother Queen Elizabeth, but not his English mother. He also seems to have acquired the idea that Germany should follow the British example, acquire colonies and more significantly build a navy. This despite the family ties was, more than any other development, to change Britain's view of Germany.


Wilhelm became kaiser as Wilhelm II in 1888. Only 2-years later he dimissed Chancellor Bismarck who was acing as a restrining influence. It was the Chancellor of course who had played an important role in forming the Young Prince's caracter. This left Wilhelm free to persue a more agressive foreign policy. Wilhelm's reading of Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power Upon History helped to rationilze his interest in a German Navy. A relatively unknown German naval officer, Admiral Tirpitz even provided a ratinale for a modrn German fleet. The Kaisser by the mid-1890s committed to building a major naval force which could ribal the Royal Navy. Bismarck would have never countenenced this. At the time there was little interest in Germany for a navy. Germany and Prussia before it was a land power with no naval tradition. Most Germans viewed it as unpractical, if not impossible, to challenge Britain's naval supremecy. There was no enthusiasm for appropriating the huge sums that would be required.

Admiral Tirpitz

An obscure German naval officer, Alfred Tirpitz, was to change this and give Wilhelm II a feasible naval strategy. Tripitz argued that Germany could compete with the British Navy without matching them ship for ship--which was infeasible. He pointed out that the British had worlwide responsibilities. Thus a future German fleet could concentrate on the home fleet. More significantly, Tirpitz conceived of the principle of "sufficient risk". Tirpitz reasoned that Germany could build a sizeable fleet that although smaller than the British Navy could present enough of a challenge to make the British reluctant to risk their navy. Tirpitz insisted that this threat would prevent the British from moving to check power on the continent. Few naval thinkers have been so disastrouly wrong. It actualy was the building of a German Navy that was to convince British strategic thinkers that Germany had to be opposed. The name Tirpitz was to appear again in World War II. The sistership of the Bismarck sunk in 1941 on its maiden voyage was the Tirpitz, one of the most powerful battleshops ever belt. The British finally sank it in a Norwegian fiord after repeated attacks.

German naval building program

The Reichstag was still reluctant, but the Kaiser and the German Navy launched a campaign to win over the German populace. They were very successful and popular opinion promoted the Reichtag to vote to build a major navy. Faced with a naval challenge as well as the war plan of the German Army to strike France through the Low Couuntries (Belgium). The German naval armaments program was impessive. From a virtually non-exisent navy, Germany surpased the U.S. Navy in 1907 as the world's second largest navy. Many of the German battleships were in fact superior to British ships, as demonstrated at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 during World War I. But Germany's building a highseas fleet was a tremendous strategic blunder. When the German Army entered Belgium in August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force was sent to joined the French. After the French Army stopped the Germans at the Marne short of Paris, a long bloody stalemate occurred on the Western Front. Rather than a quick military victory, the Germans found themselves in the vast killing machine of World War I facing enemies with larger resources of men and material.

World War I

Germany by 1914 had the most powerful army in the World. They also had the second most powerful navy in the world. Even so the impact of the German highseas fleet on the German war effort was catastrophic. It was used primarily to carry out North Sea raids. It could not be used to interdict British sea lanes because, unlike the U-boats, it could not break out of the North Sea. The German highseas fleet played almost no role in the War. The German high seas fleet which so enflamed British opinion spent most of the War in port. In return, the German navy was a major factor in bringing the British into the war to assist France in 1914. Later in 1917, the declaration of unrestricted simarine warfare brought America into the war.

Naval Developments

Several subjects should be noted concerning the Wilhelm II and naval aspects of World War I.

German highseas fleet

It was the construction of battleships for the German highseas fleet which was of great concern to the British and was a major factor in bringing Britain into War to support France. Germany by 1914 had built the world's second most powerful fleet. The German ships were the equal if not superior to the British battleships. The Grand Fleet, heavily, outnumbered the Germans and as a result the German fleet spent most of the war bottled up in port. There were small engagements, but the major battle was at Jultland in 1916. While the German fleet inflicted disproprtionate damage on the British fleet the outcome was inconclusive and the Germans never again carried out a major fleet action against the British. In essence the huge expenditutes had succeeded in making an ememy, but proved of no positive benefit in the War.

Submarine warfare

The Kaiser approved the plans to reintroduce unrestricte submarine warfare in 1917. HBC is unsure at this time as to what extent the Kaiser actually approved this or simply acceeded to demands from the military. We suspect the later was the case. Whoever was responsible, the result was that the United States entered the War, joining France and England. The Germans hoped that an expanded U-boat campaign would close the sea lanes making American envolvement meaningless. The Germans U-boats failed in their effort to close the sealanes as the American and British navy effectively employed the convoy system. The result was that in 1918 when men and material freed from the Eastern Front after the collapse of Russia were transferred West to break France and Britain on the Western Front, a powerfuk new American army was poised to act.


The German Navy in the months moving toward German capitulation conceive of a last virtually suicidal forray against the British Grand Fleet. The Navy had been acuse of cowardice for remaining in port after Jutland as the Allies began to slowly grind Germany down on the Western Front. Thus the Imperial Navy conceived of a last forray in October 1918. The individual German sailor, however, had been reading the newspapetrs. They knew that Germany was about to capitulate. Thus when ordered to sea the sailors mutinied. This happened on several occassions. Finally the Imperial Navy staff on November 9 had to inform the Kaiser that he could no longer depend on the Navy's loyalty. This was apparently the last straw for the Kaiser. Abandoned by his beloved Navy, Wilhelm II abdicated and fled to the Netherlands. Two days later on November 11 the Armistace was declared.


A HBC reader raises an interesting question, "Very interesting article again, well-researched. I have my doubts that the wearing of sailor suits by royal and upper-class boys contributed much to the course history has taken, but you might be right in the sense that it created sympathy in Germany and Britain for their naval forces." HBC rather thinks that fashion is mostly a reflection of historical and social trends rather than a causitive agent. Here we believe that the humble sailor suit may have been a factor, but one that is hard to assess. First we need to explain two concepts. First, it is our contention that individuals play a huge role in historical developments. Ofcourse this is a major issue in history, but we fall into the camp that maintains that individuals do play often desisive roles. Certainly large-scale economic and social trends are primary movers, but at ceratin moments individuals step forward with dramatic consequences. There are countless such examples in history: Alexander, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth, Luther, Washington, ect. Without Churchill it is very likely the British would have made a deal with Hitler. Without Hitler it seems unlikely that the Hollocaust or perhaps even World War II would have never occurred. Second, boys in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were very impressed with uniforms. They wanted to wear them. This is a little difficult to understand today as most boys except for the very youngest want no part of uniforms. The uniform was one of the allures of both Scouting and the Hitler Youth. We believe that Kaiser's Wilhelm's personality played a major role in unleassing World War I on Europe. He cerainly was not solely responsible, but as Clemanseau said when asked about the War, "One thing I can tell you history will not say is that Belgium attacked Germany." Also the Kaiser's diplomacy and his naval building program ensured that when war finally came that Germany was not facing France alone, but this time Russia and Britain as well as America later in the war. Now there are obviously a host of factors that go into forming a person's personality and charcter. A exhaustive study would be needed to reasonably address that question. We do suggest that young Prince Wilhelm must have been impressed when brought to England to see Grandmama with the poweful English naval vessels and all the officers and men in splendid uniforms. We know as an adult that he loved to wear uniforms. Surely he must have liked uniforms as a boy as well. His brother Prince Henry after all was so impressed that he made a career in the German Navy, the first member of the Prussian royal family that I know of ever to do such a thing. One wonders what must have gone through the boys' minds, dressed in their sailor suits and viewing the British ships with their English cousins. Surely Prince Henry and Wilhelm must have been envious of their English cousins as small boys often are. There is no way of knowing how much this affected the Kaiser's decissions as an adult, but we believe that it played an important role in his thinking.


Massie, Robert K. Castles of Sea: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (Random House, 2003), 865p.


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Created: March 11, 2001
Last updated: 7:44 PM 12/12/2004