The Royal Navy in the Mediterranean 1900-1915


"The Millstone"

The "Straits" Trilogy by Geoffrey Miller



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Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher
Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher

British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War

At half past two on the afternoon of Sunday, 2 August 1914, Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, informed the French Ambassador of the decision just reached by the British Cabinet — despite not yet being at war with Germany, if, nevertheless, the German High Seas Fleet ventured out from its base, the British fleet ‘would intervene … in such a way that from that moment Great Britain and Germany would be in a state of war.’ What led to the giving of this pledge? Was there an obligation on Britain’s part, or merely a commitment, moral or otherwise, to intervene in certain circumstances? The Foreign Secretary subsequently declared in his own defence that the promise to the French ‘did not pledge us to war.’ Grey was, however, wrong — once the promise was made, British entry into the war was certain. Despite this, a group within the Cabinet spent the afternoon of Sunday 2 August desperately searching for an issue around which they could group, and which would provide a more convenient excuse for British entry into the war than one based upon a moral commitment to France; that excuse was to be Belgian neutrality.

Two things virtually guaranteed British entry in the war: the secret Anglo-French military and naval talks, which commenced in 1906, and the naval position in the Mediterranean. With Austria and Italy both constructing dreadnoughts, and facing the German naval challenge, British command of the Mediterranean could no longer be guaranteed. Similarly over-extended, the French were unable to protect both their Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines. From strategic necessity came political expediency. The Millstone will show:

  • That Grey was more aware of what was settled by the secret military conversations than he pretended to be.
  • That the situation created by the German naval programme gave Britain no option other than to evacuate the Mediterranean.
  • That Anglo-French naval co-ordination and strategic planning remained chaotic.
  • That the Cabinet could not have prevented Britain’s entry into the war; all they could have done was to prevent the formation of a coalition Government.
  • That the pledge to France and consideration of British interests were the sole determinants of Britain’s entry.
  • That the German promise in August 1914 not to attack the French coast was irrelevant.
  • That, far from informing the German Government of the pledge given to Cambon as he claimed, Grey was determined to conceal this fact until Monday, 3 August.
  • That the issue of Belgian neutrality was used in August 1914 to assuage consciences and prevent the formation of a coalition Government, but was not crucial to the decision to intervene.
  • That the Continental policy, committing British troops to fight in Europe, was decided upon in August 1911 by a small inner circle of the Cabinet who knew precisely what it would entail.  




"…I don’t like the Mediterranean! However, there’s no mistake about it that the Mediterranean is the tip-top appointment of the Service, and, of course, if there’s war, there’s a peerage or Westminster Abbey. But it’s pretty sure to be Westminster Abbey."
Admiral Sir John Fisher
23 March 1899

"The Mediterranean is of necessity the vital point of a naval war, and you can no more change this than you can change the position of Mount Vesuvius, because geographical conditions, Sebastopol and Toulon, and the Eastern question, will compel the Battle of Armageddon to be fought in the Mediterranean."
Admiral Sir John Fisher
1 December 1900

"As to the policy of reducing the Mediterranean Fleet, the matter is most simple. The margin of power in the North Sea is irreducible and requires this addition of the Mediterranean battleships … We cannot have everything or be strong everywhere. It is futile to be strong in the subsidiary theatre of war and not overwhelmingly supreme in the decisive theatre. The moral effect of an omnipresent fleet is very great, but it cannot be weighed – at least in the Cabinets of the Powers – against a main fleet known to be ready to strike and able to strike hard."
Admiral Sir John Fisher
24 June 1912




Please click to go to "The Millstone" web-site The Millstone
British Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France

and British Intervention in the War
xv + 611 pages
Full bibliography, notes and index
Laminated card cover, 5" x 8"
ISBN 0 85958 690 1
Published 1999

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HMS Dublin
HMS Dublin (Captain John Kelly)
Light cruiser, First Cruiser Squadron, Mediterranean Station, 1914


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HMS Berwick : Original artwork  2004 Geoffrey Miller
HMS Berwick
[Original artwork 2004 Geoffrey Miller]


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