The Committee of Imperial Defence (Part Seven of How we planned the Great War)

In the series of lectures delivered by Hankey in 1945 to Trinity College Cambridge he said that “the Committee of Imperial Defence has been the main instrument of Government Control both for preparation for war in time of peace, and of Higher Command in time of war, although in the latter case under a different title and with suitable adjustments.” (Government Control in War, p.23)

The Committee of Imperial Defence was established by Arthur Balfour, the Unionist Prime Minister, after pressure was whipped up by the Liberal Imperialists over Imperial inefficiency in the wake of the Boer War. The CID was advocated by a Liberal Imperialist manifestation, the National Efficiency Movement, which campaigned for “specialists” directing policy and being invested in government, instead of democratically elected politicians who knew little about the things they were put in charge of by the vagaries of the electorate. The argument was that Admirals should be First Lords, Field Marshals should be War Ministers, and Imperial Proconsuls should be Colonial Secretaries in order to give expertise to the State and more continuity to policy.

Balfour made the Committee of Imperial Defence into a regular Department of State with a permanent secretariat composed of Army and Navy representatives, who could enforce conformity to a single policy. The initial idea behind this was to protect it against future Liberal Ministers who might wish to divert it from its work or run it down.

But Balfour need not have worried on this score because the Liberal Imperialists, Haldane and Grey, were given the key Ministries of War and Foreign Affairs in the new Cabinet in 1906 by the new Liberal Prime Minister, Campbell-Bannerman, as the price for Party unity.

While it was Balfour who facilitated England’s strategic re-orientation; it was the Liberal Imperialists who carried it forward and the Liberal administration that gave substance to the ending of the traditional English alliance with Prussia and the establishment of one with the old enemies, France and Russia.

The CID ultimately became the organiser of the future war on Germany. But at the time it was established it took it that Britain’s main rival in Europe was France and it had to be redirected to view Germany as the enemy.

Hankey says this about the role of Balfour in establishing the Committee:

“No one has ever seriously contested that Balfour was the founder of the Committee of Imperial Defence. Others made valuable contributions and suggestions, but it was Balfour, then Prime Minister, who in 1904 took the initiative and the responsibility, in the teeth of much opposition, of bringing the Committee into existence, and who, in office and out of office, in peace and in war, watched over its destinies for some thirty years… But for Balfour’s far-seeing initiative in 1904 our defensive preparations could not conceivably have been brought to the pitch that was attained in 1914, and it is probable that the governmental machinery for the difficult task of controlling our war effort would never have reached a reasonably efficient standard. That is why Balfour is mentioned first among the three Supreme Commanders to whom this work is dedicated.” (The Supreme Command, p.45)

The first report of the CID in January 1904, written in light of the experiences of the war on the Boers, demanded that in future “a definite war policy, based upon solid data, can be formulated.” (p.46)

The CID was to have the Prime Minister as President with “absolute discretion in the selection and variations in its members”; there was to be a Permanent Secretariat. The main Ministers of State attended including the Chancellor, Foreign Minister, War Minister, First Sea Lord, Naval Intelligence, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, etc. Despite existing in embryo for a year and a half it was brought into formal existence on May 4th 1904. Hankey immediately aspired to be its Secretary when he read about it in the morning papers.

Influential supporters later helped Hankey to become secretary of the CID and he recreated the position into something never imagined by his predecessors. Hankey utilised the fact that knowledge is power and made it his business to produce the knowledge needed to wage the War so that he was indispensable in the situation he knew would come about. And he formed an important axis with Admiral Fisher and Lord Esher to advance both his ideas and career.

The CID met 60 times in its first 2 years of operation. It was an advisory and consultative body and was supposed to be subordinate to the Cabinet. What that meant was that it was, in theory, subordinate to the Cabinet and Parliament. However, it got on with its work mostly without reference to the Cabinet for many years and to Parliament right up to the vital hour in August 1914.

The CID had no executive powers within itself but its members possessed plenty of executive power themselves in the State. It was the assembly of such high profile figures from the most important branches of the British State that gave it its great significance. When Britain went to war in August 1914 it was the CID’s plans, combining and co-ordinating all the military branches’ efforts that were put into operation to the letter.

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