Developing Strategy (Part Five of How we planned the Great War)

From 1901, during the Boer War, a Trade Division of the Naval Intelligence Department had been established to collect data on British shipping and cargoes to plan for defence of these in time of war. But from August 1906 when the Trade Division was taken over by Captain Henry Campbell it began to painstakingly collect statistics and draw up graphs on increasing German market penetration.

Captain Campbell decided that German commercial expansion, whilst being a cause for concern, also meant that Germany presented itself as a bigger target for British sea power. Campbell produced diagrams on German dependence on imports of raw materials and foods over a two year period to calculate the vulnerability of it to Blockade.

The growing German working class was a specific target of the calculations being made. This came from the British realization that the unrest of its own working class could make England itself vulnerable on the food supply.

From 1906 to 1908 Captain Campbell worked on this thought. In July 1908 Campbell submitted a report that suggested a British Blockade would “reduce the German workman to a state which he feels to be intolerable; want of employment, high costs of living are the first steps towards financial embarrassment, once the latter is achieved it is believed that no nation can continue to struggle for long.” (ADM 137/2872)

Hankey’s predecessor as Secretary to the Committee Imperial Defence was Rear Admiral Sir Charles Otley. He had replaced Sir George Clarke (Lord Sydenham) in 1907 and served until 1912, when he handed over to Hankey.

Writing to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Reginald McKenna, in December 1908, Sir Charles Otley, assured him that the policy of blockading Germany had been

“constantly under investigation during the whole 3 years I was D.N.I. (Director of Naval Intelligence), and Admiral Slade tells me he has given particular attention to it since he succeeded me. Throughout the whole period that I was D.N.I. the Admiralty claimed that the geographical position of this country and her preponderant sea power combines to give us a certain and simple means of strangling Germany at sea. They held that (in a protracted war) the mills of our sea power (though they would grind the German industrial population slowly perhaps) would grind them ‘exceedingly small’ – grass would sooner or later grow in the streets of Hamburg and widespread death and ruin would be inflicted.” (A.J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, p. 379)

After the Great War of 1815 the British Parliament had passed the Corn Laws as a barrier to foreign imports of grain. In wartime the masses had to be fed by the domestic supply and many of the aristocratic Parliament were big landowners. However, the Royal Navy’s dominance of the seas now meant that the large commerce captured by it could be defended by the Navy very cheaply and cheap grain could be got from abroad to feed the proletarianised workers of England. The 1832 Reform brought the new industrial bourgeoisie to power and influence and the Corn Laws were repealed.

After the Corn Laws had been repealed in the 1840s Britain began to establish a global system of free trade to supply the industrial masses of British capitalism with cheap food. It made the country dependent on foreign food to supply its masses and therefore on the maintenance of the supply of food, and therefore on the Royal Navy. And this, in time, forced the other industrializing powers to follow the British example.

Major Stewart Murray had raised an agitation around the vulnerability of the British food supply in a number of pamphlets around 1900. This culminated in a great campaign in 1903 involving MPs, Lords, Admirals and Senior Army Officers leading to Balfour conceding a Royal Commission on the subject.

Major Murray was a Social Imperialist who believed that the working class could only be kept happy by social reform brought about by Imperialist expansion and Colonialism. Murray set out to convince the Royal Commission on Food Supply of the social consequences brought about by a short-fall in the food supply to the masses. However, the Commission found that there was little to worry about. The Royal Navy was more than capable of protecting the food supply against all-comers.

However, the other question that emerged was: could the navies of England’s competitors do the same when their working classes expanded through the same process of industrialisation? It was therefore seen that the working class could be Germany’s weak link.

The thing required was an overall strategic plan to exploit this perceived weakness of the commercial competitor. Admiral Fisher formed another committee to construct this. The committee got down to work under Hankey, beneath Fisher’s inspection, in the new Naval War College in December 1906. Those involved included Captain G.A. Ballard and Captain Slade. Hankey revived his knowledge of German to read original sources about the country and understand what made it tick – and what it would require to make the ticking stop.

A 60 page plan was drawn up in 5 or 6 months of intensive effort. Hankey recalls:

“We were greatly impressed as a result of our studies with the importance of the susceptibility of Germany to economic pressure, though we could not judge whether it would be possible to squeeze her into submission, or how long it would take, particularly in view of the assistance she could obtain from her continental neighbours… The strategy which we recommended… for adoption on the outbreak of war closely resembled the plan actually adopted by the Admiralty in 1914…. To me this proved an invaluable experience. There was hardly a problem that arose in connection with the naval side of the war… which we had not probed and investigated on this Committee.” (The Supreme Command, p.40)

It should be noted that this was a deliberate innovation in British Naval policy. In the past Britain’s great rivals had been continental powers who could not have equalled the Royal Navy at sea, unless their fleets combined. The preoccupation of the Royal Navy was, therefore, usually, to prevent a union of the fleets of France and Spain, or to break up any combination that might be thought dangerous to England’s command of the sea. The British Navy this time was directed toward destroying a sole enemy and taking away its commerce and markets.

The Report contained a historical essay called ‘Some Principles of Naval Warfare’ written by Julian Corbett, the writer on naval affairs. Then there is a paper called ‘War Plans – General Remarks on War with Germany – a Preamble for Reflection and Criticism’ which was a revised version of an essay written by Captain Slade in 1906 which was called ‘War on Germany.’ This essay was couched in Social-Darwinist terms seeing Germany’s commercial expansion as having “followed a natural law” that “was inevitable” and could not be stopped even if that were desired. Captain Slade suggested that Germany’s expansion “must go on until it meets a force stronger than itself, or until the policy directing the state ceases to be of a sufficiently virile nature to stimulate growth and encourage prosperity.” (Peter Kemp, The Fisher Papers, Vol. 2)

A third part of the Report contained plans for a close naval blockade of the North Sea and Baltic ports of Germany and a summary of some war games conducted by the Navy.

In Hankey’s ‘Notes on Attached War Plans’ at the end of the Report Slade’s view is emphasised:

“That the continued development of the power and resources of the German empire will render further expansion inevitable, that subsequently the balance of power will be upset and Germany will become predominant on the Continent unless we are prepared to check her progress.”

A reading of the Report reveals that what concerned Hankey was the “master problem” of whether Germany could hold out against a close British Naval Blockade that would ultimately enter the Baltic to press down on Germany. If it could then large land armies would also be required to destroy the German progress.

Hankey found that the question be posed was difficult to answer through historical analysis because there was no precedent of a Blockade being mounted against the “modern industrial situation” which Germany represented. So Hankey advised that this question needed thorough investigation not just by the usual naval officers and the Trade Division of Naval Intelligence but also by “the highest financial and commercial experts” present in England and which should be held “in secret council.” (‘Notes’, ADM 116/1043D)

The Admiralty War Plans file from 1907 contains another paper by Hankey describing the logic of British Blockade of Germany in 7 concise points:

“1. German trade is growing rapidly.
2. The consumption of wheat per head is rising
3. Germany is becoming more and more dependent on overseas carriage for food and raw materials.
4. There are not sufficient neutral ships to replace British and German ships (trading to Germany) laid up by a war.
5. German trading ports are so placed geographically as to be readily closed by an enemy strong to the sea.
6. A great deal of the money lost to Germany by stoppage of trade would necessarily find its way into England…
7. Even supposing Germany obtained wheat etc. by land the prices would be very high.”

In view of the above, and postulating as we must, a very large fighting superiority for the British Fleet… it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in such a war the strangulation of her commerce would be a deadly blow to her.” (ADM 116/1043B)

The logic was that although Britain was dependent on the sea for its supplies in the same way as Germany was the island State had the advantage of its geographical position and the vastly superior navy. It was noted that “Germany would suffer much more loss from a war than we should.”

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