Lord Esher had much to do with the formation of the Committee of Imperial Defence, the body which organised the planning of the Great War on Germany.
In September 1903 the Prime Minister offered Esher the position of War Minister, which he declined. There is a series of correspondence from this time between Esher and Balfour in which the Prime Minister is being advised how to reform the war fighting machinery of the British State by Esher, in the aftermath of the Boer War shock. Out of this comes the idea of the Committee of Imperial Defence. Credit for the idea is given to Balfour but it is clear that it is through discussing things with Esher that the idea comes. Esher is definitely the founder of the CID Secretariat and he afterwards exercised a position of general surveillance over the War Office, being provided with confidential information by the Prime Minister and Sir George Clarke, the Secretary to the CID. The Esher Commitee, a sub-committee of the CID was also set up by Balfour, recommended “a Defence Committee under the Prime Minister.” Esher joined the CID officially in October 1905.
Balfour made the CID into a regular department of state with a permanent secretariat composed of Army and Navy representatives. The 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 by Campbell-Bannerman when the government changed hands in 1905/6.
Something which has not been commented upon, perhaps because British historians have assumed it to be in the nature of things that England needed to fight Germany, is that this idea seems to have taken root in the period when the government of the State was being handed over from Balfour to the Liberals. All the evidence suggests that there is suddenly an understanding within the British State that England needs to fight a Great War on the continent against Germany and needs to get organised to do so.
Balfour resigned in December 1905 but the protracted General Election and formation of the new government, which took up the early months of 1906, allowed the State to begin organising itself for this project without political interference. Lord Esher seems to have been the main driving force in this, as the CID continued to meet, and he was also involved in the political manoeuvrings that put the right men, who were in favour of the project, in the right offices, to see it through.
Although Balfour founded the CID, it was the Liberal Imperialists who actually developed it and gave substance to the ending of the traditional English alliance with Prussia. When the CID 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. However, Balfour, in addressing Lord Roberts’ desire for conscription, lets slip the fact that such thinking had begun by 20th November 1904 when he told Roberts “I am… quite ready to admit that our army is wholly insufficient in point of numbers to carry on a great continental war, unaided by Continental forces…”
The CID began to entertain the idea of the employment of the British Army with the former French enemy within a year of the 1904 Anglo-French Entente. The French logically interpreted the agreement as the opening of the door to a military understanding aimed at fighting a war against Germany.
Lord Esher had this to say in a letter to “M.V.B” (his son, Maurice) on 4th September 1906 after Lord French had conducted joint military manoeuvres in France:
“The entente is getting on. Not before it is required either. There is no doubt that within measurable distance there looms a titanic struggle between Germany and Europe for mastery. The years 1793-1815 will be repeated, only Germany, not France will be trying for European domination. She has 70,000,000 of people and is determined to have commercial pre-eminence… France contains 40,000,000 of people. England about the same. So even combined, the struggle is by no means a certainty…
“In 1814 Holland and Belgium were nearly added to Prussia as a defensive measure against the ambition of France. Luckily Castlereagh and the Duke of Wellington held out against this. Fancy if they had been overcome by the fears and arguments of Metternich! Now, a century later, these countries, instead of being a buffer against France, are fulfilling that function against a far more dangerous power. The great fear is that war may come before we are ready; this is precisely what happened to Prussia in 1806, and the Germans, having had that bitter experience themselves, may well wish to inflict it upon us.
“It will take five years yet to get our people screwed up to compulsory service. Perhaps longer…”
That is the Balance of Power Policy which England used since 1688 to keep the continent of Europe at odds with itself. It was always presented as a question of domination but really what right had England to say how Europe sorted itself? It really was about cutting the strongest European power down to size in case Europe became stable and capable of development free from war.
In the Balance of Power England could make a limited commitment to war on the continent of decisive importance by making an intervention in support of the second strongest Power or group of Powers against the strongest Power, hampering the strongest Power and making the second Power or group of Powers temporarily the strongest. Then the process could start all over again, ad infinitum.
By following its Balance of Power policy, Britain was able to play a decisive role on the continent, keeping Europe divided and embroiled in war, and achieve dominance with a limited commitment of its own resources, leaving a considerable energy available for expanding trade and Empire overseas. And Britain’s unique advantage of having security through its control of the sea was one of the main factors which allowed Britain its stability to develop a parliamentary system, civil liberties, and its great economic wealth.
It did this with marvelous skill for two centuries, from 1688 to 1914.
While Europe was occupied with the Balance of Power the British ruling circle obtained its wealth first through piracy as the world’s foremost “rogue state” and then through the operation of a vast slaving system which it organised as a virtual monopoly through the Navigation Acts. By 1834 a vast system of profit had been established in which 46,000 English citizens were slave owners and had to be compensated to the tune of 17 billion pounds when their 800,000 assets were discontinued (or made to work 45 hours a week free for their former masters for 4 years to ease the transition). By then British ships had transported more than 3.5 million Africans to the Americas.
In 1906 Lord Esher saw the necessity of waging a Balance of Power war again – only against Germany this time and began the planning of it within the Committee of Imperial Defence. He wrote to “M.V.B” on September 8th:
“L’Allemagne c’est l’Ennemi – and there is no doubt on the subject. They mean to have a powerful fleet, and commercially, to beat us out of the field, before ten years are over our heads.”
Back in 1875, when Germany first became a worry to England, after defeating the French aggression in 1870 and unifying itself in the process, Esher had confided to Lady Brett (May 10th):
“In the interests of Europe and mankind I would prefer a revolution in Germany to a war, for in the ultimate pre-eminence of Teutonic races I have firm belief, and were Germany crippled ‘twould be but to rise again, and freedom and peace be deferred perhaps a century beyond the time at which they may be hoped for.
“… England should be ready always to defend the weak and unambitious people, who do not seek to be the ‘cock’ countries. But it is ridiculous to suppose that France is weak, and were she to beat Germany, would be every bit as ready to bluster as her neighbour is now, and much more likely to act up to her threats, to judge from former experiences… Germany will not go to war unless she is forced to it by the spirit of revenge in the French people; for she has nothing to gain and everything to lose by war.”
Germany, it seems, became worth a world war (or two) because it reminded England too much of itself.