Continental vs. Atlanticist (Part Nine of How we planned the Great War)

After Asquith, the Liberal Imperialist, replaced Campbell-Bannerman, the Gladstonian, as Prime Minister, things began to change and the coordination that Hankey thought necessary was able to take place. This is when the Committee of Imperial Defence began to come into its own.

Balfour, the founder of the CID and Leader of the Unionist Opposition, called for an Inquiry to be held about the possibility of a German invasion. This prompted the CID to finally begin to fulfil the purpose Balfour had established it for in relation to co-ordinated war planning.

Hankey relates what this Inquiry did:

“Comparisons of the respective fleets over a long period of years were worked out; the possible moves and counter-moves at sea were explained; the importance of an important intelligence system was emphasized; the possibilities of the rapid and secret mobilization of an expeditionary force by Germany and of its consequences in her ports were examined; elaborate tables were worked out to show the amount of merchant shipping which could be made available in German ports at the selected moment; the capacity of the German ports in such matters as railway facilities and wharfage, and the limitations in passing great numbers of ships out of the lock-gates and down the tidal rivers were investigated; the difficulties of marshalling and escorting fleets of merchant ships, unaccustomed to keep station in a convoy were duly weighed…” (The Supreme Command, p.67)

This was much more than just an investigation into the possibility of German invasion (which Fisher called the “invasion bogey”) and on that count, as Hankey notes, the answer “was never seriously in doubt.” (p.67) A German invasion was entirely ruled out as a possibility.

However, that issue, for which the Inquiry was established, seems not to have been the real point of the exercise:

“The Invasion Inquiry of 1908 focused the attention of our statesmen and the naval authorities, on one of the most important problems which they would have to face in the event of war with Germany. It defined the respective responsibilities of the Admiralty and the War Office, and laid down the broad lines of policy on which their plans would have to be based… It brought our statesmen and our leading sailors and soldiers into intimate personal contact, to their mutual advantage. The whole subject was lifted out of the sphere of party politics by Asquith’s decision to send the whole of the evidence to Balfour, the Leader of the Opposition, and to hear his views before adopting the report.” (pp. 68-9)

In March 1914 Balfour, whilst vigourously contesting the issue of Home Rule with Asquith, sat with the Prime Minister on the Committee of Imperial Defence that was coordinating the final plans for war on Germany. In November 1914 when Asquith set up his War Cabinet he took the unusual step of including within it Balfour, from the Opposition benches. As Hankey noted this was not an “unprecedented step”, given Balfour’s work in establishing the CID and working formally within it during 1907-8 and 1913-14 (Government Control in War, p.36)

This information should be emphasized due to a point that was made in a recent debate over the origins of the Great War in the Cork Evening Echo.

This came in relation to a 1910 conversation between Arthur Balfour and Henry White, the United States Ambassador in London, which is included in a book of White’s experiences written in 1930:

“Balfour: We are probably fools not to find a reason for declaring war on Germany before she builds too many ships and takes away our trade.

“White: You are a very high-minded man in private life. How can you possibly contemplate anything so politically immoral as provoking a war against a harmless nation which has as good a right to a navy as you have? If you wish to compete with German trade, work harder.

“Balfour: That would mean lowering our standard of living. Perhaps it would be simpler for us to have a war.

“White: I am shocked that you of all men should enunciate such principles.

“Balfour: Is it a question of right or wrong? Maybe it is just a question of keeping our supremacy.” (Henry White and Allan Nevins, Thirty Years Of American Diplomacy, p.257.)

It was suggested by a naive Irish defender of Britain’s Great War that Balfour was by this time inconsequential in relation to what the British State was doing with regard to its war planning.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Balfour knew more of what was going on from the Opposition Front Bench than most of the Liberal Government and certainly the vast majority of Liberal M.P.s on the government benches or the British Parliament as a whole.

Despite being in formal Opposition at this time he worked on the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1907-8 and 1913-4 and, alone among the Opposition Front Bench he was invited onto and joined Asquith’s War Cabinet in 1914. It appears that for only one year (1912) did Balfour not have some membership of the CID and during that year he was apparently kept fully informed of its doings by Winston Churchill.

And all this whilst the two parties of State were heading toward a new English civil war over Irish Home Rule!

In its report of December 1908 the Committee of Imperial Defence recognised that a Blockade alone would be too slow acting in supporting France during a war on Germany, so it was agreed that the British Expeditionary Force that was in construction would need to consist of 5 divisions to beef up the French lines to hold the Germans back in order that the Royal Navy could do its work.

Having revealed the military plans to the gaze of the Navy the CID instituted a new inquiry authorized by Asquith. This Inquiry brought the issue of Continental warfare into the open and brought on a conflict between Admiral Fisher and the War Office.

Fisher was opposed to military adventures on the Continent that might lead to an unlimited commitment, distracting Britain’s Senior Service from its primary task. The Navy was concerned at this military intervention since it implied a commitment to land warfare in conjunction with allies and a relegation of the Senior Service to a role as an adjunct. It signified something unprecedented in British history – a definite military plan that bound Britain into Continental warfare apparently on the insistence of the French, threatening the Royal Navy’s freedom of action.

Fisher maintained that his Navy could destroy Germany on its own, given that country’s vulnerability to economic warfare that he and his officers had investigated. However, after a number of meetings of the CID the plan developed in the secret conversations, within which the General Staff had assured the French of a 160,000 strong expeditionary force, was approved. It had, of course, the caveat that the contingencies made with the French were subject to a decision made at the time by the government of the day – a proviso which Grey used to later insist that he had kept “Britain’s hands free”.

But to all intents and purposes a war that would involve both an expeditionary force to the continent and Royal Navy economic warfare to destroy Germany was planned for by the British State.

Fisher opposed continental involvement at the Military Needs Committee in December 1908. He argued that he had no concern about France falling to Germany and believed such an eventuality would enable his navy to produce a greater tightening of economic pressure on Germany, through a Continent-wide Blockade. Geography had blessed England with a predominant position for this.

Fisher wrote to Hankey:

“You see my beloved Hankey… Providence has arranged for us to be an island and all our possessions to be primarily islands and therefore 130,000 men provide an invincible armada for the unassailable supremacy of the British Empire whereas it takes 4 millions of Germans to do the same for Germany!”(Avner Offer, The First World War An Agrarian Interpretation, p.287)

Fisher and Hankey believed that Britain, by waging war on Germany purely through its Navy, could ensure that its industries need not be denuded of workers, as the Germans would have to do in order to defend their land frontiers. And only a foolish mistake involving a large Continental land commitment, by necessity fed in time by the imposition of military Conscription, would upset this scenario.

Hankey regarded the Continental expedition being secretly planned by the Government as a dangerous gamble that would backfire on the Liberals and ultimately enable the Unionists to lever in the military Conscription, they favoured. From the Boer War there had been a division in politics in which Unionists had began to desire a large Conscript army as a necessity of the age, for the first time in the history of the British State. On the other side remained the traditional anti-Conscriptionism – something that later brought Liberalism into alliance with the Navy and made the lovers of peace into cheerleaders for the Blockade on civilians.

The Atlanticist orientation of the Navy and the opposition of the Liberals to military Conscription meant that the British war had an anti-civilian focus in the Blockade. The Liberals’ War meant the Royal Navy killing German civilians whilst France and Russia did the bulk of the fighting. And when the military forces of Britain’s allies were not enough to see off Germany neutral countries were enticed into the War with irredentist promises, to avoid Compulsion in England, despite the “war for civilisation.”

Hankey championed the traditional, indirect approach to war – limited liability and commitment on Britain’s part that made military disengagement possible, as in the past, retaining the possibility of damage limitation. He understood England’s limitations in war making, which were not always seen at the high point of Imperial swagger. He knew that the English made up a small number of humanity, who were no longer breeding at a great enough rate for further colonial conquest. And he realised that although the nation was at ease with war it was not particularly good at the military art, itself. So he wished to bleed Germany to death slowly, at minimal risk, so as to be safe rather than sorry.

Admiral Fisher thought similarly. He regarded the Continental commitment as “suicidal idiocy” and dreaded the consequences of “British Redcoats on the Vosges frontier”.

Despite all of this Hankey was clear about one thing:

“Our policy may have been good or bad; there may be room for argument on this. But there are two criticisms to which Asquith’s Government is not open – that it had no policy or that its policy was not arrived at after the most thorough investigation.” (p.76)

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