The Empire’s War – The Final Part of How we made the Great War

One of the most important elements in preparing for a world war was the necessity of getting the rest of the Empire to embrace the grand strategy against Germany. Hankey’s strategy involved a full utilisation of the Empire in the War and this meant the innovation of informing the Dominion governments of the War Plan (that was still being kept from the British Cabinet).

This was accomplished during the Imperial Conferences of 1907 and 1909 when military cooperation between London and the White Dominions was discussed and finally in 1911 when the Colonies were “taken into our entire confidence in such questions”. (Supreme Command, p. 128)

The Colonies were vital to economic warfare on Germany since they supplied an amount of Germany’s supplies and were well placed to capture its commerce and its small overseas territories. Hankey had an Empire state of mind. His parents were Australian and his wife was a South African.

To get the White Dominions involved in the War Plans became his objective in order to produce the ‘War Organization of the British Empire’. He wanted the establishment of Colonial intelligence services to track German commerce and shipping so that the Navy, and that of the Dominions, could destroy its overseas trade. Hankey’s ideas were fully outlined to the Colonial representatives by Asquith, Grey and McKenna at the 1911 Imperial Conference. Edward Grey also made a very significant speech to the leaders of the Dominions that produced in them the desire to go back to their Colonies and prepare for military operations to be undertaken against Germany in Africa and the Pacific on the Declaration of War.

Hankey significantly notes that in Grey’s speech to the Imperial Conference “we find the underlying cause of our intervention in the Great Wars of 1914 and 1939.” (p.129)

The gist of Grey’s speech is the Balance of Power: He said that Britain would always wish to involve itself in a war with a European Power or group of Powers who had the ambition of a “Napoleonic policy”. By this he meant that a preventative war would be waged against any Power that England believed was attempting to unite Europe so that Britain no longer had any allies on the Continent to use in its traditional Balance of Power policy. The development of what Grey called “one great combination in Europe, outside which we should be left without a friend” was a situation which he was not about to allow develop without war.

He also gave a good Liberal argument for acting in an aggressive preventative way: If the situation were to occur without British intervention to prevent it England would have to pay for ships not to a Two Power Standard but a Five Power Standard to “keep the command of the sea.” (Britain in taking Grey’s gamble subsequently lost the command of the sea and dramatically increased its balance of payments deficit by ten-fold, crippling it financially for the action required to police the world it had gained after it had won its Great War.)

But in 1911 everyone in the room understood that Grey was talking about a war on Germany.

Hankey related what the Prime Minister did next:

“Asquith then gave a detailed account of the Committee’s main inquiries, including a lurid description of the War Book, which had only been begun a few weeks before” and asked the Colonies to take “similar steps” in preparation for war. (p. 131)

Hanley saw this moment as of the “greatest importance” when the Empire “was taken into the fullest confidence on foreign, naval and military policy. They had been offered a seat on the body which in practice exercised the Supreme Command in the work of defensive preparations.” (p.132)

Hankey noted that “In all the Dominions defence preparations were made before the war to correspond, mutatis mutandis, with our own.” (Government Control in War, p.28)

Of course, when Hankey said “defence preparations” he meant preparations for war. In the Imperial lexicon attack was the best and only form of defence and prevention was superior to cure.

Hankey then described the Liberal Imperialist war plan revealed to the White Dominions;

“The Continental Inquiries had indicated that the small but efficient force we could send to France… would be by no means negligible when thrown into the scale of nearly balanced forces, and that, psychologically, it’s influence would be very great in proportion to its size. Various other Inquiries had emphasised how great would be the influence of sea-power in exhausting our enemy’s resources by blockade and shutting off his supplies.” (The Supreme Command, p.137)

The Declaration of London Controversy

From 1907 the Liberal Government made an effort to engage in codifying the law of the sea, placing it under an international tribunal. This began at the Hague Peace Conference of 1907 and continued at the London Naval Conference of the following year, which issued the Declaration of London in 1909. The Declaration provoked a great debate in Britain between those who believed it was a useful step in protecting British trade and food supplies in time of war and those who felt it potentially shackled the Royal Navy’s power against an enemy.

A strange situation developed in which Parliament, through the House of Lords, rejected the Declaration the Liberal Government indicated it felt itself under legal obligation of abiding by it since it had negotiated it.

Grey felt that existing maritime law suited British interests and was keen to strengthen it. Having become the dominant power in the world England had conceded maritime rights in the Declaration of Paris during the 1850s. The exclusion of food from contraband suited England more than any other nation since it depended more for its food than any other state in the world at this time.

At The Hague Conference the British Declaration won support for an International Prize Court and sought to define the law of contraband in a more systematic way.

Grey felt that it was in Britain’s interest to reinforce neutral rights particularly because they envisaged being provisioned by neutrals (particularly the U.S.) during a war. There were three perspectives needed considering: the neutral, defensive and offensive. In two of these the bolstering of neutral rights were in England’s interest. In the offensive scenario of Blockading an enemy they were not. Many Liberals wanted a strengthening of protection for trade whilst others saw it as an impediment to British sea power – which was British power.

The Royal Commission of Food Supply in 1905 had only considered the neutral and offensive viewpoints in drawing up Britain’s attitude to these questions. It took place before war with Germany was fully formulated. Admiral Ottley, secretary of the CID before Hankey, was of the belief that as narrow a definition of contraband as possible was good for Britain. German trade, due to its access to neutral ports, the development of railways and its land borders could access goods over land. There was also the danger of a clash with the U.S. which England had begun to defer to by 1910 over neutral rights, to consider.

So the Committee decided to retain Blockade but limit contraband. The British negotiated this in 1907 at The Hague. Grey’s position was dictated by General Policy. He believed that sea power was not going to be solely decisive in a war and had began making provision for Continental involvement. In such a situation a curtailing of offensive naval capability was not so crucial and it was felt worth while to trade some of the Navy’s punching power for security of trade and food provision.

But there was a seeming contradiction in the Navy’s position. Admiral Fisher, who did not believe there was anything but aggressive and unrestrained war, was opposed to Grey’s desire to codify the law of war at sea. During the previous centuries England had broken any rules that existed as soon as war commenced, particularly in relation to neutrals. For instance, it went to war with the U.S. and burnt Washington to put neutrals in their place in 1812.

Admirals Ottley and Slade argued for full Blockade in planning for War on Germany but conceding restriction in their roles as diplomats in negotiations. It seems that the Admiralty helped to negotiate a new law of the sea with every intention of breaking it during the war they were planning for.

It appears that the Admiralty went ahead with negotiating the Declaration to please the Liberal Government whilst knowing that if England remained neutral it would benefit from the new law and insist upon it, but if it went into the war it would simply find the opportunity to break it. As the Admiralty noted in Notes on Contraband in 1908:

“When Britain is belligerent, she can be safely trusted to look after her own interests, but the dangerous time for her is when she is neutral and does not wish to take such a strong line as to render herself liable to be drawn into war. At such a time, the existence of a well reasoned-out classification of goods will be of enormous advantage.” (p.279)

However, a very public opposition emerged in Britain to the Declaration which threatened to unhinge all the subterfuge.

Thomas Gibson Bowles began asking very pertinent and unwelcome questions. Bowles, surveying the situation in England, concluded that the British Empire was determined on having a war with Germany and was obviously making plans for one, albeit in secret.

This led Bowles to take the view that England’s re-orientation from vigorous asserter of the rights of the belligerent in war to those of seeming defender of the neutral was a mistaken development brought about by generations of peace. England, Bowles reasoned, had had to attain its state of predominance in the world in the first place through unbridled belligerence and it was giving every sign of having to, and intending to, do so again.

Bowles thought that Manchester Capitalism had established a kind of immunity for English commerce from the inconveniences of war through its signing of the Declaration of Paris at the time of the Crimean War. This provided for the extension of rights of private property at sea. But for Bowles this immunity applied to the private property of the few and not to the public property of the many and raised the possibility that whilst the rest of the nation was at war the trading classes could profit by continuing commercial relations unmolested with the enemy. Bowles concluded that the national fighting power of the Royal Navy had been traded in by the Free Traders in the interests of profit-making.

The Declaration of Paris, for Bowles, represented a kind of pivot point between the former era of unrestricted British expansion and the latter period which involved the mere defence of the global spoils, in the interests of the few.

Bowles warned the Empire that the progress it had instituted to facilitate the expansion of Free Trade would have to be set aside to fight a big war to preserve predominance in the world. Bowles’s book ‘The Law of the Sea’ was written to prevent further guarantees being given to private property on the sea based on the misapprehension that England could indefinitely pursue life in her Free Trade idyll.

Bowles complained that the Liberal Government declared that the ratification of these proposals (which had been negotiated and settled in secret) needed no sanction from Parliament. But Parliament could not be entirely passed by because the proposals involved the supersession of British Courts, the Admiralty Prize Courts and the Judicial Committee of Privy Council, and the abolition of their final jurisdiction in matters of naval prize, and the submission of them and their decisions to a new foreign court sitting at The Hague.

A Naval Prize Bill was therefore introduced in order to effect the proposals.

In December 1911 the Bill was rejected by the House of Lords, despite Grey’s insistence that it would be forced through by the two-year mechanism introduced under the Parliament Act. And although it was reintroduced into Parliament it was handily allowed to fail before the War began.

Thomas Bowles had rounded off his popular book with these pertinent questions:

“If Peace is cried more loudly, War is more constantly and secretly prepared and more suddenly sprang; that Ambition stalks the earth no less predatory than ever but only smoother spoken; and that Force is but more completely cloaked in Fraud.

Any day we too, with little or no warning, may have to fight for our own.

In that day what alone will avail us will be our sea power and our maritime rights; what alone will check our enemy, their full exercise. As they sufficed before, even against all Europe, so they would still suffice. For nothing essential is changed. In that day it will avail us nothing that we have the most powerful fleets, if by our own folly we have in advance suffered them to be protocolised and declared out of their effectual powers, and subjected to a foreign court.

Is that day so remote that we need now and henceforth think only of our neutral profits in Peace, and not at all of our risks, rights, and powers in War?

If so, why all these Dreadnoughts? Why this present concentration in the North Sea of British fleets recalled from all quarters of the globe? Why Rosyth? Why this sudden, feverish, ruinous race in armaments? Is it all for nothing?

Is that day so far off? Is it not rather, quite manifestly, believed by those who know most and are most responsible to be near at hand?” (The Law of the Sea, pp.223-4)

Hankey’s Opposition

Hankey agreed with Bowles that Blockade could not be effective without the power to stop neutral ships and capture their cargo. Admiral Ottley defended his stance on the basis that a declaration for full blown economic war against a civilian population would be impossible for Grey within his Liberal constituency. He assured Hankey that once the German shipping was driven off the sea the Declaration could be discarded and England could do as she pleased. There is also some entries in the diary of Major Adrian Grant Duff’s diary relating to what Hankey told him about a significant conversation he had with Reginald McKenna, the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, which revealed the true British intentions with regard to the Declaration of London:

“22 February 1911: The ‘worry over the Declaration of London’ still goes on – and Hankey has now turned against it and denounced it as equivalent to tying up our right arm in a war with Germany.

“Fisher apparently allowed it to be negotiated with the deliberate intention of tearing it up in the event of war. Characteristic.

“24 February: McKenna’s standpoint seems much the same – the Germans are sure to infringe it in the early days of the war, then with great regret we tear it up – if they don’t infringe it we must invent an infringement.” (Offer Avner, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation, p.280)

The British signing of the Declaration of London was characteristic of the whole process of deceiving the Germans (and Liberal backbenchers in England) of the honest intentions of Britain whilst altogether different plans were hidden with clear objectives. The Liberal Government went ahead with the Declaration to produce false confidence in Germany.

And international law was gradually manoeuvred around by Britain when the gloves came off.

A.C. Bell of the CID has a section about Hankey and the Declaration of London controversy in ‘The Blockade of Germany.’ Bell notes that many of Hankey’s arguments against the Declaration could not influence the public debate that was being led by Bowles because they were being, from necessity, only expressed in private.

However, they were highly significant because Hankey knew the nature of the new war that was been planned against Germany that could not be put in the public sphere that was making these international agreements irrelevant in many ways, save for being an inconvenience that needed to be got around, when the war plans were activated:

“Hankey noticed that no code of law produced at London could have made allowance for the changes that he foresaw. The declaration of London could not, in the circumstances that obtained, have been anything but a code of customary law, that is, a body of customs and precedents made orderly. The customs and precedents that the Declaration reduced to order were a century old and out of date.” (The Blockade of Germany, pp.20-2)

Bell takes issues with the view that the Declaration was a dangerous and unnecessary appeasement of the Continental powers on Britain’s part, for a country about to launch a war on Germany in which restrictions on the Royal Navy’s activities were most unwelcome. Bell argues his position on the grounds that Hankey was planning an altogether more extensive war on Germany than the Royal Navy had ever waged through mere blockades of the past:

“The truth is, that the British navy had never exerted decisive economic pressure against France, or against any other enemy, that our enemy’s commercial systems made it impossible to do so, and that the British statesmen, who had conducted the great wars of the eighteenth century, had never hoped that a continental enemy could be brought to terms by stopping its commerce. They, after all, were more competent judges than Mr. Gibson Bowles or Captain Mahan.

“The real weaknesses of the Declaration were never properly exhibited by its critics, who maintained that the declaration was an unsound statement of law, and a wholesale adoption of continental doctrines. It was neither the one nor the other: it was merely a body of rules for regulating naval operations against commercial systems that had disappeared.

“Captain M. P. A. Hankey in particular, perceived somewhat vaguely, but in the main justly, that economic warfare would be a gigantic operation of which we had no previous knowledge or experience, and, that the body of rules in the declaration made no allowance for changes in the conduct of naval warfare, which would alter our bare conceptions of blockade and contraband. This was an accurate forecast of what actually occurred.

“First as to blockade, Captain Hankey assumed, that the British fleet would defeat the German, and subsequently blockade the German coasts. This was too hopeful; but Captain Hankey foresaw, that the blockade imposed would not be a blockade of known pattern, but would, on the contrary, be a new operation.”

Bell then quotes a report of Hankey’s to the CID that was very hostile to an acceptance of the Declaration of London:

“Although the declaration of London still permits blockade it has hedged it in with rules and restrictions which, taken in conjunction with recent developments of naval weapons, renders it an inefficient, and easily evaded instrument.

“The negotiators of the declaration of London seem to have forgotten the fact that the torpedo boat, the submarine, and the mine have made blockade, and specially close blockade a very much more difficult matter in the future than in the past. This difficulty is accentuated in the case of ports situated in narrow seas. For example, after we had established a definite and general command of the sea it would be extremely difficult to blockade ports in the Baltic or the Adriatic, for in such narrow seas the torpedo boats and above all the submarines of even a defeated enemy would inflict terrible losses on a blockading fleet… In the opinion of many naval officers, therefore, a close blockade of ports in such narrow waters is a sheer impossibility.

“Such being the case, it is necessary to consider what substitute can be found for a close blockade. Under existing conditions many means can be thought out not for entirely stopping the enemy’s commerce, for that is impossible in the case of a continental power, but for so restricting it, and handicapping it, as to raise the price of every imported commodity, or raw material, and so to cause great suffering on the people. If the declaration of London is ratified, however, it is difficult to see how our sea power is to be used as an effective weapon.

“Let us assume war with Germany; the German main fleet defeated; the German mercantile flag driven off the high seas; and a blockade established on the North sea coast of Germany… a blockade of the German Baltic coast is an extremely hazardous and in all probability an impossible operation of war. Under the existing (pre-declaration of London) conditions several substitutes for a close blockade of the German Baltic coast can be thought out.

“For example a blockade of the German ports might be declared, but rendered effective at the entrance to the Baltic…Those bound for or containing cargo consigned to German ports would be sent back. Those bound for neutral ports such as Copenhagen or Riga would be warned that, in the event of their proceeding to a German port they would be considered to have broken the blockade and would be liable to capture when they left the Baltic. It would be necessary, of course, to place British agents in all the principal neutral ports to give notice if such ships, ignoring the warning, sailed to German ports. Recent developments of wireless telegraphy, and the completeness of cable communications render such a course perfectly easy to carry out, though no precise precedent of a similar procedure in past wars can be quoted, as without these modern inventions it would not be practicable.”

Bell concludes:

“Captain Hankey’s principal contention was well reasoned: we were obliged to impose a blockade by squadrons stationed as no blockading forces had ever been stationed before, and we were obliged to supplement our naval control of the North sea by a vast network of watching posts in neutral harbours.

“Again, Captain Hankey’s abstract contention that the old operation of blockade was being merged into the greater operations of economic war, was quite sound.”

Bell quotes Hankey again:

“There is no instance to be found in modern history of a war in which commerce has played a vitally important part, owing to the fact that recent wars have not been fought between nations susceptible – as are Great Britain and Germany – to attack through their commerce, and there are no data on which to calculate what means it will be necessary to adopt in such a war. The difficulties of blockade, due to modern inventions, suggest that even greater latitude may be necessary in the future than in the past. The negotiators of the declaration of London have made the fatal error of basing their agreement not on the experience of past wars (for in the Napoleonic wars and all previous wars, when commerce was an important consideration, the greatest latitude was claimed and exercised) and not on a scientific appreciation of possible future wars, but have rested themselves on the experience of a few very recent wars in which the weapon of sea power, as a means of putting pressure to bear on the inferior naval power, had no scope for exertion.”

Bell commented:

“Captain Hankey noted, against Mahan and Bowles, that economic pressure had not been decisive in the past against France; but it might be made so in the future, against Germany, if it were exerted by more than one engine of pressure. This proved true, and on the question of contraband, Hankey also foresaw, that inasmuch as economic warfare was inevitable, so, contraband would inevitably be assimilated to all substances that are essential to modern industries.”

Bell quoted Hankey again:

“It will now be shown that the severe limitations placed by the declaration of London on the articles which can be declared contraband will have a most important effect in counteracting the results of our efforts to produce economic pressure on Germany by naval means. The articles included in the list of conditional contraband and in the free list comprise to all intents and purposes the whole of Germany’s seaborne trade. That is to say that all these articles can be conveyed during war into or out of any German port in neutral bottoms unless we have declared a blockade of that port. The only remedy is to establish a blockade of the whole German coast. So far as the ports in the North sea are concerned this should present no insurmountable difficulty. In the case of the Baltic ports it is far otherwise…

“How then is economic pressure to be exerted? What becomes of the stoppage of Germany’s income derived from import duties? How are the shrinkage of capital, the closing down of factories, and the simultaneous raising of prices to be effected, when the whole of Germany’s trade can be carried by neutral vessels… entering Hamburg “through the back door,” viz., the Kiel canal, to say nothing of the Baltic ports?

“From the above it would seem that those critics of the declaration of London who state that the declaration ties our right arm have good grounds for their assertion.

“Now let us examine what the position would be if the declaration did not exist. In that case our obvious course, to be adopted as soon as the naval situation permitted, would be to declare a blockade of the North sea ports, and simultaneously to make a sweeping declaration of what was contraband, including all the principal raw materials on which German manufactures depend as well as her main articles of export. Neutral vessels would be rigorously held up and examined outside the Cattegat; the doctrine of continuous voyage would be rigorously applied; a system of agents in Swedish, Danish and Russian ports would apprise us as to how trans-shipment was taking place and measures would be taken to deal with offenders; these steps would probably be supplemented by raids by destroyers and light craft into the vicinity of Baltic ports with which trade was known to continue. These measures would not absolutely stop trade from the outside world with German Baltic ports – even in the Napoleonic wars trade with the continent never ceased altogether – but the trade would be diminished and harassed as was the trade of France in the wars of a century ago.” (pp. 22-7)

The New Naval Strategy

And so the Admiralty abandoned its plans for a close Blockade of Germany for a distant one:

“As the new high command considered, that, if any attempt were made to execute the existing war plan, the fleet would sustain severe and even dangerous losses, during the first weeks of the war, it was natural, that they lost no time in cancelling it, and superseding it by another. They did, indeed, prepare a new project very quickly; for the first draft was ready in May, 1912, and this draft, after many alterations in points of detail, but few or none in points of principle, became the orders under which the fleet took up its war stations in August, 1914.

“The great novelty in these orders is, that, henceforward, there is to be no watch upon the German bight, and that no coastal operations are to be attempted, until the German fleet has been fought and defeated. The fleet and the cruiser squadrons were, therefore, all withdrawn to the outer edges of the North sea, and frequent sweeps into German waters were substituted for the permanent patrol of previous projects. In these orders, therefore, the blockade of the German coast was specifically abandoned. Admiral Troubridge, who was then chief of the staff, seems to have hoped that the watching forces now stationed at the head of the North sea could be vested with the rights of a blockading force, if the declaration of London were not ratified. This was, however, quite untenable; it was not the declaration of London, but the declaration of Paris that made this impossible.

“The project of blockading the German coasts, which had been examined so frequently during the previous four years, was thus abandoned in May, 1912. From that date, the economic objects of the war plan were to stop all trade that was being carried under the German flag, and to confiscate all contraband that was on its way to the enemy.” (The Blockade of Germany, p.30)

Bell describes the new plan:

“The general idea upon which the initial stage of operations will be based is to utilise our geographical position to cut off all German shipping from oceanic trade. The situation will offer a parallel to that which prevailed in the Anglo-Dutch wars, and the same strategy will be applicable. Investigations have shown that such a proceeding would inflict a degree of injury upon German industrial interests likely to produce serious results upon the economic welfare of the whole State. A close commercial blockade is unnecessary for this purpose provided that the entrances to the North sea from the westward are closed.” (The Blockade of Germany, p.30)

A line of 70,000 mines were to be laid across from the Royal Navy base in Scapa Flow to the coast of Norway. In front of that sat squadrons of British cruisers barring the way. This sealed the sea route to and from Germany in the North. In the South the English Channel was sealed by the Dover Patrol in front of a double line of mines and nets.

This was not a blockade as would be recognized by international law. Blockades from far-off were illegal. The Declaration of London only restated the established position that a blockade must not extend beyond the ports and coasts of an enemy, and had to be effective in order to be binding. A fleet sealing off the North Sea and English Channel did not constitute a blockade of the enemy and therefore had no right to seize naval prize beyond what constituted ‘contraband.’

The British Admiralty was aware of this and the fact that it would have to make an effort to subscribe to international maritime law due in particular to considerations of satisfying America. Therefore, in the absence of a legal blockade the fullest extension of ‘contraband’ would have to be instituted, despite the Declaration of London, to make Royal Navy operations against German trade effective.

As a result the Order in Council of 20th August 1914 abolished the difference between ‘absolute contraband’ (recognised war material that could be seized on the way to any destination) and ‘conditional contraband’ (material that had not a specifically military application and which could only be seized if intended for an enemy but not if destined for a neutral port).

A recent book has appeared suggesting that there was another British strategy that ran parallel with the one that was developed and put into practice. The book is ‘Planning Armageddon’ by Nicholas Lambert. Lambert claims that Britain intended to launch another form of economic and commercial war to destroy the German economy quickly by disrupting its credit, insurance provision and commercial infrastructure. This was a kind of economic cataclysm that, it was thought, with the aid of the City of London, work much faster than the traditional blockade of the Navy to bring Germany to melt-down.

Lambert shows that an attempt to implement it was made but upon putting it into practice it threatened to engulf the entire financial system, endangering the City itself, and was quickly abandoned. The pre-existing plans, developed over a decade by the Navy and CID were fallen back on.

The Naval Blockade was the traditional way of war for England for historical reasons. It was an immensely flexible form of warfare because it could be loosened or tightened as seen fit, as needs must. In the Great War certain products like coal and cotton were allowed by England to find their way through neutral countries to the enemy in the initial stages. Later the Blockade was ratcheted up when German trade was captured. When the U.S. entered the War in April 1917 this removed the main neutral consideration and the gloves really came off.

British wars were slow acting affairs because they were aimed at crushing continental opponents and taking their commerce in the most destructive way possible. They were designed to grind an opponent into the dust in a way that made the maximum impression upon them and others who might be tempted to step into their shoes. Short wars fought by land armies were effective at militarily defeating an enemy but they were not suitable for British purposes in the world. They were for the more stylish Continentals who did not find war a normal way of life and who wanted to finish with it as soon as possible, so that normal life could resume. War, as long as it remained in this form of limited liability, was normal life for England.

The length of the Great War was determined by the unexpected ability of the Germans to resist. But it was also affected by the objectives of the Great War on Britain’s part. Those Liberals and Irish who supported it imagined the war would be quick because they convinced themselves that it was just about the defeat of evil. They refused to accept it as a Balance of Power commercial war that needed more time to run its course and achieve its objectives. Those who understood its real character and took the moral froth as no more than necessary dressing understood it as an attritional project. And when the Liberals who started the war showed themselves unwilling to wage it fully they were replaced by those who were.

But they did not expect how attritional it would actually be. It was meant as a British Naval Blockade with Russia and France, supported by a small British Expeditionary Force, doing most of the fighting and dying. But England had to take on more of the fighting and dying than imagined, volunteering was amazingly successful under the moral propaganda and then there was Conscription. And so England expended far more blood and treasure in winning its War than was good for it, or the Empire, and its position in the world.

Hankey Reveals All

By 1912 all the elements of Britain’s Great War on Germany were coming together. Hankey described these openly in The Supreme Command;

“Let it be placed to their credit that, having taken their decision and having adopted a clear and definite policy, the Government worked it out in full detail so that… The country was in many respects well prepared… The naval plans were fully elaborated, and the Admiralty had ready alternative plans to meet developments in the situation. The dispositions of the various elements in the fleet had been predetermined. The fleet rendezvous were decided on… Rapid mobilisation was ensured. The Army was equally ready. Every detail had been worked out for the mobilisation of the Regular Army and its transport to a place of concentration in France prearranged with the French General Staff… The railway and shipping and embarkation arrangements were complete. The rapid mobilisation of both the regular and territorial forces was organised,,, Behind the naval and military preparations much had been done by the Committee of Imperial Defence to organise the resources of the nation. The maximum of secrecy both of naval and military movements had been provided for by the various means of censorship… Provision had been made for cutting the enemy’s cables. World-wide systems of naval and military intelligence had been preconcerted… In all parts of the British Empire plans had been worked out for seizing and detaining enemy ships in our ports on the outbreak of war and for intercepting those on the high seas. A commercial policy, based on the old rule against trade with the enemy, and designed to increase the pressure of the blockade upon him and to preserve our own essential supplies, had been decided upon… The general lines of our policy on all these questions were known to the Governments of the Dominions, and corresponding arrangements had been throughout the British Empire. Every detail had been thought out and every possible safeguard provided for ensuring that, once decided on, these arrangements should be put in operation rapidly and without a lurch. The responsibility for all action was fixed, and there was neither hiatus or overlap between the departments. The necessary instruments – legislation,

Orders-in-Council, Proclamations and Instructions – were drafted and set up in type and in the hands of those who would have to act on them. From the King to the printer, everyone knew what he had to do.” ((The Supreme Command, pp. 137-9)

The fleet was mobilised to battle positions prior to the Declaration of war on Germany on August 4th 1914. The British and French had divided up the theatres of operation against the Germans with the Royal Navy taking the primary position in the North Sea and the French Navy, the Mediterranean.

In March 1914 it had been decided to place every available Royal Navy warship in home waters and on a war footing during July and the 30,000 strong reserves was called out. On 29th July, 6 days before the declaration of war on Germany, a force of 150 battleships, cruisers and destroyers, accompanied by a large force of ancillary vessels, steamed out of their ports to take up battle positions for action against Germany. They began to sweep the seas clean of German commerce.

The British Expeditionary Force was landed in less than 48 hours in France after Asquith’s gave the order. The planning for this operation had been taking place over 8 years.

The Royal Navy cut the German undersea cables on the opening day of the war making the Germans reliant on the British cables for communicating across the Atlantic and to other parts of the world.

Hankey’s work at the Committee of Imperial Defence was revealed in a series of Royal Proclamations on the day after war was declared: It was made an act of treason for any British subject to trade with any German individual or organisation; owners of British merchant ships were warned that their ships would be confiscated if they carried ‘contraband’ between foreign ports (with ‘contraband’ being defined by the Admiralty); exporters were warned not to sell ‘contraband’ to any foreign buyers.

This had resulted from a key investigation involved the issue of ‘Trading with the Enemy’ and how to counter it through the law and the use of severe sanctions against anyone who persisted in it after it was declared illegal. The ‘Trading with the Enemy’ Inquiry of 1911-12 produced a 500 page report based on how much commercial intercourse could be tolerated with Germany in wartime but dealing with the Blockade in its entirety. Its conclusion was that despite loss of business the war would have to be a total one with no toleration of trading with the enemy.

The War Room which had been monitoring and plotting the position of every German naval vessel and large merchantman at eight hourly intervals since 1907 communicated its information to the Royal Navy. Within a week all German maritime trade was driven from the seas (see Nicholas Lambert, Planning Armageddon, p. 211-2)

Another Committee of Imperial Defence contingency was put into operation when Lloyds of London issued an order for all ships to proceed to the nearest British port or lose insurance cover. Any carrying foodstuffs and proceeding east were seized and their cargoes confiscated and declared ‘prize.’ All German owned ships were declared ‘prize’. Neutral ships were prevented from leaving British ports unless they surrendered their cargoes.

The Blockade of Germany and Europe began.

Britain’s Colonial allies who had been informed by Grey of the War against Germany in the years prior to its declaration and who had been involved in planning for the event as part of the War put their forces at the Empire’s disposal. Within weeks of the British declaration of war South African troops moved against German possessions in Togo, and South West Africa. Australian and New Zealand armies occupied German bases in the Pacific e.g. Samoa. The Indian Army descended on Mesopotamia even before a declaration of war on the Ottomans in November 1914.

Within a few weeks the British Government began to ignore the Declaration of London seizing cargoes bound for Germany regardless of the flag that carried them. Food was then treated as absolute contraband after the German Government nationalised its food production as a defence mechanism against the Blockade.

Hankey’s work at the Committee of Imperial Defence began to bear its fruit.

In his lectures at Cambridge in 1945 Hankey quoted Sir Julian Corbett from his ‘Official History. Naval Operations’ (p.18) as “summing up the position very fairly” when he wrote:

“Amongst the many false impressions that prevailed, when after a lapse of a century we found ourselves involved in a great war, not the least erroneous is the belief that we were not prepared for it. Whether the scale on which we prepared was as large as the signs of the times called for, whether we did right to cling to our long-tried system of a small Army and a large Navy, are questions that will long be debated; but given the scale that we deliberately chose to adopt, there is no doubt that the machinery for setting our forces in action had reached an ordered completeness in detail that has no parallel in our history.” (Government Control in War, p.28)

Edward Grey’s famous 3rd August speech had three times referred to England’s sacrifice in entering the War as being primarily an economic one and as having been much the same if she had decided to stay out. It was anticipation, therefore, of Blockade plus small expeditionary force as Britain’s War on Germany. It was intended as a blending of continental and Atlanticist strategies – Hankey’s Blockade and Haldane’s British Expeditionary Force. There was no Liberal intention of fighting a large extensive land war or any plans for it – although others in the British State, who now took command of the War Office, had every desire and intention of doing so.

Grey presented the War he had had planned by Hankey as an easy option for England – a kind of sure bet. And he totally believed it himself.

Prime Minister Asquith appointed Lord Kitchener to the War Office and he began to make contingencies for large volunteer armies almost immediately. Hankey’s and Admiral Fisher’s fears that an escalation of commitment was inevitable were proved to be correct – although the infusion of a great moral dimension to the War by the Liberal and Irish converts to war-mongering that led to large scale volunteering staved off conscription for 2 years.

Hankey wrote in The Supreme Command:

“On the night of August 4th-5th, once the War Telegraph had been dispatched, nothing that I could do could influence the situation. I felt no great anxiety about the ultimate result of the war. Years of saturation in the subject had led to the conviction that in the long-run sea-power must bring us victory. My belief in sea-power amounted almost to a religion. The Germans, like Napoleon, might overrun the Continent; this might prolong the war, but could not affect the final issue, which would be determined by economic pressure. Hence, on that eventful night, I went to bed excited but confident.” (p.165)

(The full series plus the plans for war on Ottoman Turkey are now available in hard copy from Athol Books in ‘Problems no.19-20, Lord Hankey: How we planned the Great War’)

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