The Secret Conversations (Part Eight of How we planned the Great War)

Hankey recounts that in December 1905 “a small group of naval and military officers began to meet informally at 2 Whitehall Gardens, to study the proper utilization of the forces of the United Kingdom in the event of our becoming involved, alongside of France, in a war with Germany.” (The Supreme Command, p.62)

This was just after the Entente Cordiale, something that was publicly declared to be in the nature of a simple understanding reached with a former enemy.

In December 1905 as the Liberal Government was in the process of formation Colonel Repington, who had already began conversations with Major Huguet, the French Military attaché, reported to the new Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey, that what France required from England was not words but deeds to show commitment to the alliance against Germany that dare not speak its name. On 18 November Major Huguet communicated to Paris the size, composition and speed of mobilisation of a possible British Expeditionary Force (David Owen, The Hidden Perspective, The Military Conversations 1906-1914, p.30)

One of the first decisions made by Grey was to put the military conversations that had begun informally through Lord Lansdowne in the Unionist Ministry onto a formal basis. It was made clear to the French, however, that the British Cabinet would not be informed of these and no pledge given to go to war due to the possibility of it being discovered by Parliament, which would result in the fall of the Government.

Grey used the scattering of his colleagues in the course of the General Election to give the go ahead for this on his own initiative, without any consent from the wider Government-in-formation.

Hankey notes that a bit of a crisis in the war planning arose when Campbell-Bannerman, the Gladstonian Liberal, became Prime Minister at the beginning of 1906. Campbell-Bannerman was suspicious of the CID and was inclined to close it down but Haldane, who he appointed as his War Minister, persuaded him to tolerate it and give it a stay of execution. The Prime Minister grew increasingly troubled about the course of the military conversations but he allowed them to proceed – presumably because he feared the breakup of his administration through a Liberal Imperialist walk out if he pushed the matter in Cabinet.

The Committee of Imperial Defence discussed the military conversations in 3 meetings during January 1906. However, between 1906 and April 1908 (when Campbell-Bannerman died) the CID was at a low ebb and war planning took place elsewhere – within Admiral Fisher’s Naval Intelligence Department and Haldane’s War Ministry. Here, at the same time as the Naval preparations there was a parallel reorganisation of the Army. and the creation of a British Expeditionary Force for continental purposes, along with the military conversations with France, conducted by Colonel Repington and General Henry Wilson.

Haldane reformed the British Army and created a British Expeditionary Force of 160,000 that could be transported in 2 days to the left of the French line for engaging in a war with Germany. This was a revolutionary change in British military affairs.

As Hankey notes the British Army had traditionally been a small force, projected to various parts of the globe by the Navy. England had been impregnable in its island behind its Navy and had no necessity for a large standing army, as the countries on the Continent had with their extensive land frontiers. At the outset of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701 (the first Balance of Power war England launched) Parliament voted for an army at a level of 40,000 soldiers with only 18,000 being British and the rest to be foreigners in English pay. At that time the English standing army numbered only 7,000 men.

The biggest army Britain put on the continent was in the Peninsular Wars and at Waterloo in 1815 – one of 30,000 men. The British Army, half a century later, at the time of the Crimean War, numbered 28,000. It had been a thing of long-standing not to commit large numbers of soldiers to the continent, but to leave most of the fighting there to be done by allies.

Haldane changed this situation through an increase in the size of the army and a commitment to employ it on the Continent. And he also militarised British society through the promotion of gun clubs, the development of territorials, and popular military lectures.

The Expeditionary Force seems to have been initially conceived of as an expeditionary force for India, rather than Europe, according to Hankey. However, at the same time as Haldane was building this force of 160,000, military conversations were going on in France involving Colonel Repington and General Wilson with the French General Staff which involved landing this new army there for a future land war with Germany. So it is most probable that the Indian story was a ruse to throw any interested Liberal backbenchers off the scent of what was happening.

Admiral Fisher withdrew his naval representative from the CID when he found out it was planning a continental commitment. Fisher was deeply opposed to war on the Continent and was keen to maintain the primary role of the Senior Service in British warfare.

Edward Grey, Foreign Minister and Haldane, War Minister, did not seek Cabinet approval for these military conversations between British staff officers and the French, justifying this secrecy by suggesting that these conversations did not involve an actual solid commitment to fighting in any war that might occur, and therefore others did not need to know.

And so, as Hankey notes, they “took place in the utmost secrecy”. (p.62) As he explains:

“No reports were made to either Cabinet or Committee of Imperial Defence about them. Plans drawn up by the General Staff as a result of these secret conversations were communicated to the Committee of Imperial Defence but the conversations themselves were never alluded to. It was not until six years later and after two general elections had taken place, that Grey in 1912 took the Cabinet into his confidence in the matter.” (p.63)

Hankey notes that:

“Grey and Haldane in their memoirs make a strong technical case for these conversations, without which military co-operation on the Continent could only have taken place in an improvised form and with disastrous loss of time.  But the better the case the easier it should have been to carry the Cabinet in the decision. As it was, a considerable amount of suspicion was aroused among members of the Cabinet who were not ‘in the know’, and some of this was directed against the Committee of Imperial Defence, which was completely innocent in the matter; Morley frequently cross-examined me on subject but, as I had no precise knowledge, I was unable to inform him.” (p.63)

Asquith, Grey and Haldane denied all knowledge to Parliament of the arrangements being made, using very careful language that conveyed the impression that nothing was being done that committed England to war on Germany in conjunction with France (and Russia).

John Dillon of the Irish Party and some Liberal backbenchers subjected Grey and Asquith to scrutiny on the matter in the Commons but the Home Rule alliance encouraged Dillon and the Liberal backbenchers who were suspicious, to drop it after they had been rebuffed.

Despite the secrecy Hankey reveals that by 1908 a considerable body of planning and preparation for war with Germany had been undertaken, albeit in an independent manner with the Admiralty and War Office working on their own parallel rival projects, without any reference to each other.

Hankey concludes:

“We are now in a position to summarize the general situation of our war-preparedness at the beginning of 1908, when the Supreme Command, working through the Committee of Imperial Defence, began to formulate its policy for the contingency of war with Germany. The Navy had been reorganized; the redistribution of the fleet had made great progress; the rearrangement of its bases and coaling stations had been approved and was in hand, together with the necessary defences. Naval war plans had been worked out and sent to the naval Commanders-in-Chiefs concerned for their remarks, but neither the Cabinet, the Committee of Imperial Defence nor the War Office were aware of their existence. The Army had been reorganised… Technical plans for the despatch of an Expeditionary Force to France in the event of war with Germany had been discussed between the British and French General Staffs, but without the knowledge of the Cabinet or of the Committee of Imperial Defence.” (p.64)

Hankey notes that the problem, as he saw it, was that “the naval and military plans were as yet being worked out almost in complete isolation… No central body was privy to both plans and able to give a guiding hand. The Committee of Imperial Defence had done some invaluable preparatory work, but was still far from fulfilling the task prescribed for it…” (p.64)

Hankey knew everything there was to know about the planned naval war on Germany, but apparently little, at this point, about the military arrangements being made with France in the “utmost secrecy”.

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