Lord Hankey: How we planned the Great War

Who was Maurice Hankey?

Lord Maurice Hankey gave unparalleled service to the State he served over more than three decades. He was much more than just a Senior Civil Servant. It would be no exaggeration to say that he kept the British State together over a generation.

‘The Supreme Command’ (1961) by Hankey, though largely ignored today, is the most complete inside description of Britain’s Great War on Germany. It contains details of the planning for that war by the person who oversaw it, coordinated it and put it into operation from August 1914.

Hankey’s career began in the Royal Navy and it went into the Admiralty’s Intelligence Department. He became Naval Assistant Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1908, before being appointed the Secretary of it in 1912. Within this body he observed much of the planning that went into the War on Germany, supervising it and doing much of it himself.

As Hankey said in ‘The Supreme Command’: “There were few secrets with which I was not acquainted. There were few questions of war policy which did not at some stage and in some manner pass through my hands.” (p.4)

When the War that Hankey helped plan was declared in August 1914 the Committee of Imperial Defence, having successfully performed its function, was suspended. It was replaced by the War Council, of which Hankey was appointed Secretary.

Hankey also became Secretary to the Dardanelles Committee (June – October 1915) and the War Committee (November 1915 – November 1916). These bodies were “in turn the supreme British authority for the direction of the war under Asquith’s ministries” (Stephen Roskill, Hankey – Man of Secrets, Vol. 1, p.17)

When Lloyd George replaced Asquith as Prime Minister he made Hankey Secretary to his War Cabinet and then to his Imperial War Cabinet (the one that incorporated the leaders of the white colonies). Hankey played the key role in co-ordinating the efforts of the politicians and the military chiefs directing the War. His talent lay in absorbing information and opinions from a wide variety of people within the state, synthesizing it, and then acting as a conduit to the Prime Minister. He did this until the Imperial War Cabinet was dissolved in October 1919, when Britain felt its War was won.

Hankey was also Secretary to the Imperial Conferences, and served on the British Empire delegation at Versailles and the very important Washington Conference in 1921 which was something of a watershed in the history of the Empire.

However, it was the job Hankey rejected that was of such historical significance that it deserves noting.

In early 1919 Hankey was considering taking the position of Secretary General to the emerging League of Nations. He consulted important figures within the Imperial State to gauge whether this was going to be a good move and most importantly, with regard to Britain’s real attitude to the thing it was supporting.

Lord Esher (a very important figure in the hinterland between the Crown and Executive in the British State) replied that “the future of the League was entirely nebulous” and if Hankey joined it he would be “a wasted force for England” (Roskill, vol. 2, p.65). Lord Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, wrote to Hankey also advising him to reject the League: “I am very doubtful whether the League of Nations is going to be a great and potent and world-pacifying instrument that its creators desire.” Curzon said that although in becoming Secretary General Hankey would “more likely to make a success of it than any living man” he would just become an “international official.” Instead Curzon and Esher urged Hankey to remain in England where the real power would remain (The Supreme Command, p.66). In April 1919 Hankey rejected the offer of the position.

Hankey’s rejection of the Secretary General’s position signalled Britain’s rejection of the League – or rather the rejection of its desire to see the League acting as something of independent substance with regard to international law and justice in the world. From then on Britain merely used the League as its instrument to justify non-intervention and the shirking of its responsibility to the world as the predominant power when it deemed it appropriate. And when it decided to act it ignored the League, getting on with things as it always had.

So after the War Hankey continued his career as Cabinet Secretary to the cabinets of Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Baldwin, Ramsay McDonald and Neville Chamberlain, resuming his Secretaryship of the revived CID between the wars. During this time he established the Cabinet office system on which modern British Government operates.

Hankey was a part of Chamberlain’s War Cabinet in 1939 but was sacked by Churchill in March 1942. Hankey had his doubts about Churchill as a leader of the Empire. He considered Churchill too volatile for the effective running of the Second War on Germany and had fundamental disagreements with his War policy. Hankey was opposed to the employment of large formations of four-engined aircraft for the provocative bombing of German cities and argued that they should have been used instead to protect the Atlantic convoys from U-Boats. He also opposed the demand for unconditional surrender of Germany that Churchill adopted, which Hankey believed was only lengthening the war by making it impossible for the Germans to concede without the Soviet Union, which was doing the bulk of the fighting, absorbing half of Europe.

Another important point of difference between Hankey and Churchill was on the issue of war crimes. In a book published in 1950, ‘Politics Trials and Errors’, Hankey argued against the Nuremburg Trials and for a general amnesty for those accused of war crimes. In this book Hankey revealed that he had opposed Lloyd George’s misguided attempt to ‘Hang the Kaiser’ in 1919 and was explicit that Germany did not start the war of 1914 and therefore could not be justly held solely responsible for it, or what happened in it.

War crimes trials were included in the manifestos of all three British parties for the General Election after the 1914 war. However, the Kaiser had already been pushed into Holland by his Generals and the Netherlands Government made it clear that they took the principle of asylum very seriously and would not hand him over to the Allies. The Peace Conference sent a demand for his surrender but the Dutch replied that they had not remained neutral in the War to become mere accessories to the Allied Powers after it. If an international jurisdiction was established to try war crimes they would be part of it but would not be implicated in a partial and temporary tool of Allied policy dressed up as law and justice.

Hankey fully supported this position, opposing war crimes trials on a range of arguments including the proving of actual responsibility, the one-sided nature of the justice, the lack of an international court and the destabilising effects that such show trials would produce in the world.

Germany was then, under Allied pressure, encouraged to do the job itself. The Weimar Government conducted some Trials in Leipzig, in a half-hearted way during 1921 – something which could only have been damaging to the Weimar State at its foundation.

This fiasco, argued Hankey, should have deterred the Allies in repeating a similar exercise after World War 2. But it didn’t.

Part Two to follow

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