Further Thoughts of Lord Esher (1906)

The following letters of Lord Esher in 1906 reveal his thoughts about the problems faced as he began to prepare England for the Great War that he and his colleagues in the Committee of Imperial Defence felt would have to be waged on Germany.

They reveal that the Great War was seen as inevitable, because Germany would be forced to develop as England had done and that would create an unavoidable collision. Geopolitical and economic imperatives were thought to be backed up by the social Darwinist notions of “ethnographic” evolution. The Anglo-Saxons were seen as the highest racial type and the fact that Germany were more youthful and vigorous Anglo-Saxons made them the most dangerous race of all, in the English mind.

It was just a matter of time before conflict would come unless England was prepared to cede a share of the world economy to the rising Anglo-Saxons. And that was unthinkable. A world war was a much more thinkable option. And the main enemies – Germany and Turkey – had already been identified.

However, England needed adjustment to fight such a war. It had spread out of its island and across the world to such an extent that it had become over-exposed. It had been a maritime power which built an Empire on the seas with an invincible navy. But the Empire had spread so much that it had come into contact in many places with armies of the land powers. And an invincible navy was therefore no longer adequate to the situation. So the long standing aversion to conscription had to be overcome to prepare for the war to come.

England was an oligarchy operating behind a democratic facade. It was not really a democracy, since more than half the adult population could not vote. But it liked to present itself as such, despite waging its previous world war of 1793-1815 against democracy. So the people planning the war had to proceed through subterfuge, carefully working up the masses in fear of Germany whilst denying to Parliament and even to the Cabinet their intentions.

Here are Lord Esher’s thoughts nearly a decade before the War:

“… the laws of historical and ethnographical evolution… require that we shall fight one of the most powerful military empires that has ever existed. This is certain, and we have a very short period of preparation. I fear that proficiency in games, or in the hunting-field, will not help our poor lads much when they have to face the carefully trained and highly educated German officers.” (Letter to the Duchess of Sutherland, September 7th 1906)

In the following letter to Lord Knollys Esher talks about the problem of bringing about conscription in England:

“As you know, I am a confirmed believer in compulsion; but until a final experiment has been tried to get the youth of the Nation… to volunteer for what is called Home Defence… and until the experiment has proved a failure, there is not much hope of getting Parliament or the Country to agree to the Compulsory principle. I am strongly in favour of Haldane’s “County Associations” scheme…

“As I have so often repeated, at the risk of boring you, we are precisely in the position of Prussia in 1806. Between 1800 and 1806 the Prussians were worrying over “Army Reform.” They possessed a small highly trained, beautifully dressed, finely drilled Army; but utterly inadequate to their needs. Their statesmen and soldiers were aware of this. But in the midst of their endless quarrels over the form which expansion should take Napoleon came down like an avalanche, and Jena followed.

“The foreign policy of E.Grey, or any other Secretary of State, might land us any day in a similar plight. We have an Army in excess of our requirements for “small wars” – and wholly inadequate to the demands of a great war.

“It was pathetic on manoeuvres to see a “position” five miles in length occupied by the Aldershot Army Corps, and to think of an attack on such a position by German or Turkish troops, when three times the number of troops would be certain to be employed. We are still living under the conditions which governed British policy at the time of Queen Anne. We delude ourselves that we are an Island State. We are an Island Race, but we have ceased to be an Island State. The King’s Empire has got frontiers co-terminus with the land frontiers of some of the greatest military Powers on earth. Russia. Turkey. And the United States. In addition, the commercial and naval superiority of Great Britain is threatened by (not the Kaiser nor any man) natural forces, which require the expansion of Germany to sea frontiers. No greater Empire has ever remained cooped up, without outlets to the sea. Kiel and the Elbe are utterly inadequate.

“Germany must stretch out her limbs seawards. This means perpetual threats to Belgium and Holland. It is only a question of time. Are we to depend upon “alliances” or upon ourselves. That is the question. (Letter to Lord Knollys, September 30th 1906)

It should be noted that Esher knew the campaign to recruit an army for “Home Defence” being conducted by the War Minister, Haldane, was a necessary fraud in Liberal England for working toward the larger aim. In another letter Esher had noted:

“The Army is not maintained for Home Defence. The enquiries of the Defence Committee prove, that for such a purpose, an Army, however large and well equipped would be useless; for if the command of the sea is maintained, such an army would not be required, and if the command of the sea is lost, it would be starved into submission. The Army is maintained for purpose of re-inforcing British troops in India and in Egypt, and for relieving troops wherever they are quartered abroad.” (Letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, 22nd May 1908)

In the following letter to Sir John Fisher, First Lord of the Admiralty Lord Esher explains the purpose of the “Naval Scare” in England for the command of the sea. Jackie Fisher was continually being annoyed by statements that the Royal Navy was not big enough to deal with the growing German Navy and having to engage in pointless discussions about the matter. Admiral Fisher knew the truth – that the German Navy was no match for the British one, and he had a mind to say it. Esher, however, advised him to keep quiet, in his own interest, since a popular sense of fear gave the First Sea Lord his big Navy:

“It is the discussions which keep alive popular fears and popular interest, upon which alone rest the Navy Estimates. A Nation that believes itself secure, all history teaches is doomed. Anxiety, not a sense of security, lies at the root of readiness for war… An invasion scare is the mill of God which grinds you out a Navy of Dreadnoughts, and keeps the British people war-like in spirit.” (October 1st, 1907)

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