The most widely praised book of the centenary of the Great War is Christopher Clark’s ‘Sleepwalkers’. The gist of it, as the title suggests, is that the Great War was sleepwalked into.
Not in England it wasn’t. It was planned for about a decade.
There is ample evidence to prove this from the writings and records of both Lord Maurice Hankey and Lord Reginald Esher – two men who were at the centre of its planning. If someone had suggested to them that Britain had sleepwalked, unprepared for the Great War, they would have taken great offence.
In fact, in a letter to “L.B” on February 26th 1923 Lord Esher stated:
“I am looking up all my papers on the preparation for the Great War. This began in 1905-1906. By 1908 we had made great strides. I have documentary evidence of this.”
Below, from Lord Esher’s Journal, October 4th 1911, is an entry in which the Permanent Member of the Committee of Imperial Defence is telling the Prime Minister, Asquith, how his State intends to fight the Great War:
“The Prime Minister came to my room this morning to discuss the Admiralty… Then we talked about the General Staff scheme of landing an army in France. The Prime Minister is opposed to this plan. He will not hear of the despatch of more than four Divisions. He has told Haldane so.
“But, I reminded him that the mere fact of the War Office plan having been worked out in detail with the French General Staff (which is the case) has certainly committed us to fight, whether the cabinet likes it or not, and that the combined plan of the two General Staffs holds the field. It is certainly an extraordinary thing that our officers should have been permitted to arrange all the details, trains, landing, concentration etc., when the Cabinet have never been consulted.
“I asked the Prime Minister if he thought that it would be possible to have an English force concentrated in France within seven days of the outbreak of the war, in view of the fact that the Cabinet (the majority of them) have never heard of the plan. He thinks it impossible!… Altogether the Prime Minister showed that he had thought a good deal of these problems.”
I should mention that both Asquith and Esher seem to have been against the War Minister, Haldane’s plan to supply 120,000 men to the French left at the start of the War on Germany, something which had been promised to the French by General Henry Wilson and others in the military conversations which took place after the Entente Cordiale in 1904.
There was a view in England that Britain should fight its Great War against Germany as it had done its great war against Republican France a century previous. Allies in Europe (France and Russia) should do the fighting on land while the Royal Navy contributed to the war effort by sea. This was the traditional form of warfare waged by England in its Balance of Power wars on the continent. It was primarily a maritime power, with a small non-conscript army, and if things went wrong it could safely withdraw to its island, behind its undefeatable navy. And if that left its allies in the lurch, then tough! It could maintain a war with its navy until more allies could be procured and something turned up in the future (as happened in 1940).
Esher preferred to retain some of the continental army Haldane had built up from 1906 for war on Germany, with the territorial forces to replenish it, for amphibious landings in conjunction with the Royal Navy and not have it wasted with the French forces. And it seems Asquith was of a similar mind.
They were both of a mind that a war had to be fought. It was just a question of how? Esher was reminding the PM that plans made are difficult to depart from when the moment comes.
Of course, the cat had to be let out of the bag at some stage by those who had known about the military conversations and the military that accompanied them. The Cabinet had to be told because after all, Britain was a democracy!
Asqith needn’t have worried. It all went to plan in July/August 1914. The Cabinet was told and only a couple of ministers resigned. The Liberal Party and the country then followed and the Great War on Germany that had been planned for a decade was on.