Admiral Fisher (Part Four of How we planned the Great War)

In the winter of 1906-7 Admiral Fisher appointed Maurice Hankey as secretary to a committee he established to work out a naval strategy for a war on Germany. Fisher did not generally like the idea of setting plans down in writing. He preferred to keep them in his own head – a thing that made him indispensable to the State. But now he entrusted Hankey to do the thing he had always thought better of in the past.

Hankey had a good relationship with Fisher. He had won Admiral Fisher’s essay competition on Naval improvement and it was this that secured him a place in the Naval Intelligence Department that led him to his appointment to the staff of the CID. (He initially served under Prince Louis of Battenberg, an Austrian related to the Royal Family, who later became First Sea Lord, and changed his name to Mountbatten during the Great War, because of the Anti-German fever that had been worked up in the masses to justify war in the democratic era.)

Hankey himself gives the credit to Admiral Fisher for being a man ahead of his contemporaries in planning for a war in Germany.

England’s governing class, saturated in the Classical World as a result of the character of the education provided by its Public Schools, began, in the 19th Century, to conceive itself as the new Rome. But Rome had ultimately fallen and perhaps Britain faced the same fate. So the problem came to mind about how to avert it by preventative action. This process is evident in the vast volume of writing that occurs across the Imperial publications from around 1871 to 1914. 1871 is a significant year because it marks the emergence of Germany as a state.

Germany began to be singled out as the Carthage to Britain’s Rome largely for reasons of commercial rivalry. German goods were outselling British goods in the world’s markets and it was capturing a greater and greater share of world commerce. Its goods had a competitive edge over British products both in price and quality and it was felt that Britain ultimately could not compete in its own Free Market with the Germans. In some publications it was said that the Germans were ungrateful upstarts who should know their place in the thing that England created for the benefit of all. But being Anglo-Saxons, and therefore alike England in character, they surely and inevitably could not. They would aspire to be top-dog and that was just not on.

The Royal Navy was the creator of the world-market and its arbiter in the sense that in having the command of the seas it had the ultimate say in the market it maintained. Hankey understood from the beginning that any war with Germany would be built “round our sea-power; it is only the instruments of that power that vary.” ((The Supreme Command, pp. 9-10)

Hankey makes it clear that the preparations for the War began even before the establishment of the Committee of Imperial Defence, with Admiral Fisher and the Navy and his “great reorganisation, amounting to a renaissance of the fleet…” (p.11)

Fisher decided when he was Second Sea Lord, in 1903, that, given his understanding of the way Germany was going and the nature and history of the British State there would be a war. From the following year he instituted his policy of preparing the Royal Navy for it when he became Naval Commander in Chief at Portsmouth and then First Sea Lord (in October 1904).

Hankey says this about Fisher in The Supreme Command:

“Fisher, that far-seeing administrator, reorganised the fleet and the whole chain of naval bases and coaling stations on which the Navy and the Mercantile Marine depend for their mobility in time of war. This reorganization, bitterly criticized at the time, was necessitated by the reorientation of our foreign policy resulting from the Entente with France and Russia and the rise of the German menace, the full significance of which Fisher was among the first to discern.” (p.21)

Fisher was a self-made man. He completely overshadowed, through his great charisma, the ministers who were in theory his superiors. No Admiral approached his power and influence after him. He later left his position but was reappointed Admiral when War came.

Fisher wanted to destroy the German fleet if that was the threat to the British peace and if that was unacceptable he wanted unambiguous signals sent to Germany to prevent war.

From 1904 to 1907 there was a revolution in British Foreign policy in which England made a strategic readjustment to direct its Balance of Power strategy away from its former enemies, France and Russia, toward a new enemy Germany.

Fisher began his naval re-orientation against Germany around the time of the Entente Cordiale in 1904 but he would have been aware that the next stage of the revolution in British Foreign Policy involved an agreement with Russia. This and many of the details of it had been signalled in Leopold Maxse’s National Review during 1901-2, in a series of articles supervised by Edward Grey and his future Foreign Office staff.

In response to the increase of its commerce and in joining the world market in which it became necessary to import food to supply its industrial workforce Germany began to construct a navy. It was a much smaller navy than Britain’s but England saw this as a potential long-term threat to its command of the seas.

There seems to be an acceptance these days in Ireland that Germany was mistaken to build a navy to protect its sea-borne commerce and food supply by the same people who believe that it was quite natural for Britannia to have done the same and attained the ruling of the waves. That kind of presumption can only be the result of a collapse into the moral ambit of Britain in which what England does in the world is considered natural and unquestionable and what the foreigner does is always malevolent.

Admiral Fisher did not see it like that. He saw that it was natural and inevitable that Germany should build a fleet to protect her food supply and commerce and that it was natural and inevitable that England should destroy it before it could do so.

In response to Germany’s building of a navy Admiral Fisher, threatened to “Copenhagen” the German naval development – i.e. destroy it in port before a formal declaration of war was made (as Admiral Nelson did to the Danish fleet a century before). He communicated this thought to the King and it was widely reported across Europe. And Fisher did not give a fig, believing himself to be speaking in the spirit of Nelson and firmly in the tradition of the Royal Navy.

But Fisher also believed that it was a good thing to warn the Germans of their foolishness so that they might desist, or at least if they persisted, as inevitably they would they would know the rules of the game and be it on themselves if they broke them. And could see no reason in encouraging them otherwise.

During the decade up to 1905, when Fisher took over as First Sea Lord, Britain had doubled its spending on naval construction until it reached a quarter of all state spending and represented three times what Germany was spending.

Fisher was able to accomplish his reorganisation because he actually saved the Government money through his reorganisation. The re-orientation from treating France as the Balance of Power enemy to treating Germany as it saved the Admiralty because, despite what was being said by politicians and press in England, Germany was less of a threat to the Royal Navy command of the seas than France – the traditional focus of its animosity. As Hankey explains:

“France had ports on the Atlantic, which could not be continuously masked by our fleets, as well as naval bases all over the world. Such was not the case with Germany. The German coasts in time of war would be hemmed in by Britain, stretching like a giant mole across the North Sea with a sufficiently powerful fleet to watch both exits. With few good naval bases abroad Germany was far less formidable in the outer seas than France had been with her long coastline and numerous ports on the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and her widespread colonial empire with a system of bases and coaling stations inferior only to our own. Moreover, we should probably have the assistance of the French Fleet and coaling stations if ever we went to war with Germany. All this… facilitated a saving in personnel.” (p.35)

This estimation of Germany’s weakness is confirmed in relation to the Hague Conference. The Hague Conference of 1907 was empowered to alter and enlarge the Law of nations, and the most important of the prospective alterations in the Law was a proposal, that all private property should be immune from maritime capture.

Prior to the second Hague Conference the British Admiralty gave assurances to the Government that German commerce could be driven from the sea, and that the German fleet would not seriously interrupt the movement of British commercial cargoes:

“In a war with Great Britain, the numerical inferiority of Germany at sea, and her disadvantageous geographical position, render it extremely improbable that she could wage effective war upon British commerce. The British Islands lie like a breakwater, 600 miles long, athwart the German trade stream, and nothing should elude our vigilance when once war on German trade is established.” (A.C. Bell, A History of the Blockade on Germany, p.10)

Fisher revealed after the War in a newspaper how he had begun organizing the Navy for war without reference to the British democracy which, he felt, could not be trusted to do such a thing itself:

“Admiral Mahan… suddenly discovered that 88% of the guns of the British Navy were trained on Germany. Does anyone in his senses believe that the weak-kneed people and opportunists who, as a rule, have governed the British nation without the courage of a louse or the backbone of a slug, had they known the plan, would have permitted its execution? To train 88% of the guns of the Royal Navy on Germany and make the North Sea into its regular cruising ground? ‘Your battle ground should be your drill ground,’ said Nelson.” (Lord Fisher, Northern Advocate, 27.11.19)

Fisher called in the outlying parts of his Navy and concentrated the vast bulk of the Royal Navy’s resources at Germany and made the North Sea its main drilling ground in preparation for war. Hankey comments:

“This concentration was not effected in a day, and the fleet passed through many changes of name and form, before it emerged as the Grand Fleet which fought the war in 1914. But it was in 1904 that this great scheme really took its birth.” (The Supreme Command, p.27)

Fisher’s reorganisation of the Navy was maturing by the end of 1906. The outlying naval squadrons had been recalled from other parts of the Empire and the fleet was by that time concentrating in the positions to wage war on Germany. Naval bases had been rearmed and overhauled; dreadnoughts had been commissioned; gunnery had been improved and new training instituted; new battle-cruisers were commissioned; submarine mining was in hand; a War College was established at Portsmouth and the Admiralty had begun to produce detailed plans for the war on Germany.

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