The Royal Navy in the Mediterranean 1900-1915


"The Millstone" Summary

The "Straits" Trilogy by Geoffrey Miller



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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
Card cover, 5¾" x 8¼"
ISBN 0 85958 690 1
Published 1999



Given below is the final chapter of The Millstone. This is provided as a service to those who may be interested in the subject. It gives an indication of the scope and content of the book but please note that, in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright Act 1988, it may not be reproduced without the prior permission of the author or the University of Hull Press. The footnotes which appear in the original have not been included but can be supplied on request.

Please be aware that this is a long document.

Summary and Conclusion
The Moral Commitment

I have contended in the preceding chapters that, on occasion, what matters is not the so-called facts (for these, in themselves, are capable of differing interpretations depending upon the perspective of the viewer), but the perception of the facts by the various participants. Nowhere is this more apparent than in trying to answer the question of whether there was a moral commitment to France in August 1914 and, if so, how binding was it? Writing in 1911, the German General, Friedrich von Bernhardi, declared that ‘England can never be involved in a great continental European war against her will.’ It could not be argued that Britain went to war on 4 August 1914 with the Cabinet absolutely united. Indeed, the deep divisions of only a few days previously appeared, by Saturday 1 August, to have ruled out immediate British intervention. When, apparently against the odds, the Cabinet reluctantly came round to Grey’s position on Sunday, the accusations subsequently levelled by the likes of Loreburn and Ponsonby would reverberate and intensify, centring on the person of the Foreign Secretary. Grey, it was claimed, either actively, by encouraging Cambon and the French, or passively, by his failure to control the military and his unwillingness to impose himself upon his own permanent officials, was, at the very least, responsible for a moral commitment to France. And it was this commitment to France, rather than the obligation to Belgium, which first (and decisively) caused the Cabinet to shift from its non-interventionist stance.


This is a deceptively simplistic argument which must, in so far as Grey himself is concerned, be heavily qualified. Was the need for French diplomatic or military and naval support so great that Britain’s freedom of action was constrained? Would another Foreign Secretary have followed an altogether different line? Grey, who was, after all, not in office when the Anglo-French Entente was negotiated, was always loathe to enter into conversations unless pressed by the French. The requests for closer co-operation in 1906, 1908, 1911 and 1912 were all at the instigation of Paris. Furthermore, if not in 1906, certainly by the time of the Agadir crisis of 1911, Grey was in control of the Foreign Office and its officials rather than the reverse. The influence, for example, of Eyre Crowe has consistently been over-stated, while Nicolson was a spent force. Grey’s greatest failure was allegedly the free rein given to the military planners. Did he not appreciate the hostage to fortune he was creating, or did he in fact realize and not want to be confronted with the logic of the situation? A third interpretation is also available: that Grey knew more or less what the military planners were up to but, to protect his own position, feigned ignorance in the knowledge that, should France be threatened with unprovoked aggression, British interests alone would necessitate that she should be supported.

Two themes run consistently through pre-war Anglo-French relations: in an Entente, just as much as an alliance, the stronger partner is at the mercy of the weaker. The French were able to capitalize on the fact that Grey assumed office committed to the maintenance of the Entente. Any attempt by Grey to limit the military and naval conversations was met with the French charge that the Entente counted for nothing. The second theme is a corollary of the first: the British fear, which became pronounced after 1911, of French military weakness in a Franco-German conflict. It was widely believed at the time that a French defeat at the hands of Germany would be an unparalleled disaster for Britain. This fear was particularly acute following the dreadnought scare of 1909, when serious questions were raised regarding British naval supremacy. The certainty of 1906 had given way to doubt and anxiety. If France was successfully to be used as a buffer between Britain and Germany therefore, the French army had to be strong enough to hold back the German legions until such times as newly raised British divisions could be dispatched to reinforce the small Regular army. Grey had been warned in 1906 that ‘80,000 men with good guns is all we can put into the field in Europe to meet first class troops’, and this, he appreciated, would not ‘save France unless she can save herself.’ The perceived French weakness, and the German attempts to exploit it in Morocco, threatened not only to negate the very basis of the Entente — the settlement of colonial differences — but also to drag Britain into a Continental war. It would be a heavy price to pay for the avoidance of Anglo-French friction in North Africa unless there was some deeper rationale underlying the relationship.

The first German attempt to drive a wedge through the burgeoning Anglo-French Entente came as early as the spring of 1905, following the Kaiser’s visit to Tangier at the end of March, eight months before Grey acceded to the position of Foreign Secretary. Intent on fomenting trouble, on the evening of 10 June 1905 the German Chancellor, Prince Bülow, claimed to have proof that ‘England had made an offer to France to enter with her into an offensive and defensive alliance against Germany’, but that the French had refused.. The German accusation sent Lord Lansdowne, then the Foreign Secretary, and Thomas Sanderson, the Permanent Under-Secretary, scurrying to find evidence to refute the charge. Eventually (in the form of a dispatch from Lansdowne to Frank Bertie in Paris) Sanderson came upon a record of Lansdowne’s interview with the French Ambassador, Paul Cambon, on 17 May 1905. Lansdowne had then informed Cambon that: ‘ …our two governments should continue to treat one another with the most absolute confidence, should keep one another fully informed of everything which came to their knowledge, and should, as far as possible, discuss in advance any contingencies by which they might in the course of events find themselves confronted.’ This, Lansdowne supposed, ‘was the origin of the offensive and defensive alliance’ to which Bülow referred. Indeed, there is evidence that, following an expression of gratitude by Cambon on 24 May, Lansdowne realized that his statement had been conveniently misinterpreted by both Cambon and Delcassé who believed it to imply, if not an offer of alliance, that British support would be forthcoming in a Franco-German war. Lansdowne immediately attempted to put matters straight with Cambon, by repeating the declaration of the previous week, which had arisen, he maintained, during a discussion of ‘the attitude assumed by the German Gov[ernmen]t in Morocco and in other parts of the world’.

I do not know [Lansdowne added] that this account differs from that which you have given to M. Delcassé, but I am not sure that I succeeded in making quite clear to you our desire that there should be full and confidential discussion between the two Gov[ernmen]ts, not so much in consequence of some acts of unprovoked aggression on the part of another Power, as in anticipation of any complications to be apprehended during the somewhat anxious period through which we are at present passing.

Lansdowne had sought to place a limit upon the extent to which a ‘full and confidential discussion’ would commit either Government. Yet who was to say whether a heightening of the ‘somewhat anxious period’ would not result in an act of ‘unprovoked aggression’? The division between the two categories as framed by Lansdowne was, to all intents and purposes, invisible. Writing in 1922, Sanderson attempted further to refine the extent of the commitment by contending that Lansdowne had done no more than lay stress ‘in conversation on the need for frank and intimate communication and consultation with a view to harmonious action in opposition to any designs of Germany to acquire a port on the West coast of Morocco.’ However, this is nowhere made clear in the records of the conversations. There was never any intention, Sanderson alleged, ‘to supplement the Entente of 1904 by an agreement of the nature of the Franco-Russian Alliance’, although it was possible ‘that M. Cambon may have taken down in writing the phrases used by Lord Lansdowne’. The French desire to ‘have something in writing’ would be, with one exception, in distinct contrast to the prevailing attitude in London. Through most of the following years there would be a marked reluctance on the British side to put anything in writing, until constant French pressure resulted in the Grey-Cambon letters of November 1912. Perhaps, in view of the French propensity to misinterpret statements to suit their own cause, this was no bad thing. If Lansdowne, who negotiated the Entente, could not avert such a misapprehension at so early a stage, it boded ill for his successor. The confusion of motives would bedevil the covert Anglo-French conversations until the outbreak of war.


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The other major cause of concern was centred upon the surreptitious activities and hidden agendas of the Admiralty, the War Office and the Committee of Imperial Defence. Initially, Admiral Fisher was not interested in the subject of closer Anglo-French co-operation. When, during the crisis in the summer of 1905, the Director of Naval Intelligence advocated an exchange of views with the French to avoid misunderstandings, Fisher was content to ignore the advice. This was certainly not the case at the War Office. Deeply antagonistic to the Admiralty proposals to divert German troops from the French frontier by a threatened invasion of Schleswig-Holstein, Captain Grant-Duff compiled a report on "British Military Action in the Case of War With Germany", while Major Fasson prepared two pages of objections to the Admiralty scheme. With domestic political considerations (the imminent fall of Balfour’s administration) impinging upon the formulation of naval and military policy the field was left open for these relatively junior officers, whose actions might then commit the General Staff — and the Government. Also getting in on the act was Sir George Clarke, the Secretary of the C.I.D., who, following Balfour’s resignation in December 1905, convoked a series of secret meetings to examine the subject of direct military aid to France. Symptomatic of the belief that politicians (and politically motivated staff officers) were best excluded from such discussions, Clarke privately admitted that it was ‘very necessary to do nothing that would alarm the Govt. and besides the W.[ar] O.[ffice] would balk’.

A separate strand of discussions also ensued following the ‘chance’ meeting between the Director of Military Operations, Major-General Grierson, and Victor Huguet, the French Military Attaché in London, in whom Grierson confided his personal belief that a small British force could be landed at Calais to ‘unite with the French forces, of whom it would, for example, form the left wing.’ Thus, in the political hiatus caused by the General Election called by the interim Liberal administration, by the beginning of 1906 a military camarilla was meeting to determine policy without, as yet, the knowledge of ministers. The extent of the rapidly developing covert continental commitment was made clear when the Director of Naval Intelligence, who was attending Clarke’s extramural meetings, reported on 13 January that ‘It was settled between the Military Officers that, in the event of our being forced into war (by a German violation of Belgian neutrality or otherwise) — our proper course would be to land our Military forces at the nearest French ports’. With these various clandestine discussions occurring in difficult political circumstances, it was a singularly inopportune moment for the new Foreign Secretary to step into Lansdowne’s shoes. Faced with these behind-the-scenes contacts, once he had been admitted into Clarke’s confidence, the dilemma for Grey was whether or not to confirm Lansdowne’s assurance of British support of the previous May, which the French had chosen to misinterpret. Indeed, indicative of the continuing French desire to read more than was justified into the unofficial conversations, Huguet would later maintain that, as he believed Grierson’s initial meeting was not a chance occurrence, the subsequent talks carried the Government’s imprimatur.

Paul Cambon also was not going to let the opportunity slip of utilizing the prevailing disorder caused by the January 1906 election campaign. On 10 January the Ambassador put ‘the great question’ to Grey by inquiring whether Britain would underpin her diplomatic support of France with force if necessary. It was only on the previous day that Grey had been made aware by Clarke, however imprecisely, of the unofficial conversations. Unfortunately, Grey agreed with Clarke that it was ‘impossible to approach the French through official channels to ascertain what their views on co-operation are, as this would give the idea of an offensive and defensive alliance which does not exist.’ How much this was genuinely Grey’s own view, and how much he was being led by Clarke (or Sanderson, for that matter), is open to question. It would have required a sure sense of the possible pitfalls for Grey to have ignored the advice of the Secretary of the C.I.D. Grey therefore authorized the continuation of the unofficial talks, and, at Clarke’s prompting, both men agreed that it would be best, at this preliminary stage, not to inform Campbell-Bannerman.

With the military talks in progress, and remembering the German accusation of the previous summer, Sanderson was anxious to prevent a recurrence of the rumours of a possible alliance. It was for this reason that he objected to the involvement of ‘intermediaries’ (specifically, Colonel Repington) in the ‘unofficial communications’ which the French might take ‘as being authorized by our General Staff.’ However, what Sanderson was apparently objecting to was not the unofficial communications per se so much as the impression which would be created by Repington’s association with them. Sanderson immediately contacted Grierson, who denied that there had been any official contact other than the ‘chance’ meeting, and who urged that ‘informal communication should be opened between the General staffs on both sides’. He saw ‘no difficulty in such communication being made on the express understanding that it commits the Government to nothing.’ Grey thereupon sanctioned the opening of the military conversations. Once under way, Sanderson, as Lansdowne before him, then attempted to set restraints upon Cambon. First, Sanderson informed the Ambassador, there should no secret agreement which pledged London and Paris ‘further than that if a certain policy agreed upon with another Power were in any way menaced, the two Powers should consult as to the course to be taken.’ Second, ‘it was not wise to bring before a Cabinet the question of the course to be pursued in hypothetical cases which had not arisen’, as a ‘discussion on the subject invariably gave rise to divergences of opinion on questions of principle’. Third, the Cabinet could give no ‘pledge which would morally bind the country to go to war in certain circumstances,’ without informing Parliament.

In the circumstances Grey may have decided to withhold knowledge of the talks from the Cabinet in the hope that the current crisis would soon abate and the pledge would not have to be redeemed. In this he had the tacit support of the Prime Minister, Campbell-Bannerman, who remained resolutely unperturbed by what had transpired, and who showed no inclination to encourage a broader debate on the subject. Grey was subsequently to regret this omission which, in view of subsequent events, tended to indicate that he had something to hide. S. R. Williamson has summarized the most frequent explanations advanced to account for Grey’s secretive behaviour:

Grey was an inexperienced Cabinet minister in the midst of an election campaign and did not realize the full importance of the French demands;
the conversations were merely a logical extension of the terms of the 1904 accord and thus involved no question of policy;
the conversations had begun in the Lansdowne period;
Campbell-Bannerman as Prime Minister, not Grey, had the final responsibility for bringing the talks before the Cabinet;
the death of Grey’s wife on 1 February detained him so long at Fallodon that the issue was forgotten when he returned to London; and
the talks were purely departmental matters and thus permissible if the responsible ministers were informed.

A further reason, clearly foreshadowed by Sanderson, was the expectation of the opposition which would surface in the Cabinet. This was certainly the impression formed by Cambon, who believed that, if the matter was brought before the Cabinet, ‘certain Ministers would be astonished at the opening of official talks [another French misapprehension?] between the military administrations of the two countries and of the studies which they have worked out in common.’ In another instance of perception playing a crucial rôle, in addition to the twin strands of clandestine activity (Clarke’s and Grierson’s) Grey believed, erroneously, that Admiral Fisher was also engaged in talks with his French counterparts. The fact that such conversations had not taken place is irrelevant. By mid-January, it was Grey’s belief that the Admiralty, the War Office and the C.I.D. were all engaged in discussion with the French for the purpose of the formulation of joint war plans which could commit the Government. Such ignorance was especially dangerous, as it appeared already that the talks were out of control — Clarke admitted on 18 January that Grierson may have ‘been permitted to go further than is considered wise’. This had serious implications for, as Clarke also noted, ‘one department of state commits all.’

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By 13 January Grey had spoken to Haldane, who also consented to the commencement of ‘non-committal’ talks. Quoting Haldane’s autobiography, John Terraine notes that the Minister for War was asked ‘whether it could be made clear that the conversations were purely for military General Staff purposes and were not to prejudice the complete freedom of the two Governments should the situation the French dreaded arise.’ Haldane then ‘undertook to see that this was put in writing’ and a letter was duly signed to the effect that ‘the conversations were to leave us wholly free’. Terraine continues: ‘There is something pathetic, even at this distance, in this belief in the virtues of putting peculiar arrangements "in writing" — something odd in the fact that an acumen like Haldane’s should accept such a device. No amount of ‘writing’, no signature to a piece of paper, could alter the impression of the transaction on the second party — France.’ In support of his argument, Terraine uses as evidence the opinion of the very same French officer, Huguet, whose chance meeting with Grierson first provided the impetus for the talks. After agreeing that it ‘was understood that the (British Government) retained full liberty of action and that … the Government of the day would be the sole judge of the line of action to be taken, without being tied in any sense by the studies which might have been previously undertaken’, Huguet then tries to have it both ways. ‘Nevertheless,’ he continues, ‘we were somewhat surprised in 1906 to see the readiness with which the authorisation asked for by the French Government was granted. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Sir Edward Grey and Mr Haldane were all three, as politicians, too shrewd and wary not to realise that the studies which were being entered upon — no matter what the reservations — constituted nevertheless an undertaking of sorts, at any rate a moral one.’

Trevor Wilson profoundly disagrees with Terraine’s analysis. What Huguet’s claim seemed to show, according to Wilson, was that ‘the French had formed, not one impression but two, and that these impressions flatly contradicted each other. That the French should then have attached importance only to the impression which suited their book, and ignored the other which did not, is no cause for wonder. What is surprising is the assumption that the British were bound to accept the French view, even though this meant rejecting an equally plausible impression and one which "conforms to the traditional British attitude to foreign affairs" ’. This ‘equally plausible impression’ was the one referred to by Huguet: ‘There was nothing surprising in this reservation [to attempt to preserve freedom of action] which’, Huguet declared, ‘conforms to the traditional British attitude to foreign affairs — a policy which has always and which will always consist in finding a means to keep the balance of power between any and every possible Continental alliance or agreement so that in this way her own security may be guaranteed.’ This reservation was outlined by Grey:

Diplomatic support [for the French] we are pledged to give and are giving. A promise in advance committing this country to take part in a Continental war is another matter and a very serious one: it is very difficult for any British Gov[ernmen]t to give an engagement of that kind. It changes the entente into an alliance and alliances, especially continental alliances are not in accordance with our traditions. My opinion is that if France is let in for a war with Germany arising out of our agreement with her about Morocco, we cannot stand aside, but must take part with France. But a deliberate engagement pledging this country in advance before the actual cause of the war is known or apparent, given in cold blood goes far beyond anything that the late Gov[ernmen]t said or as far as I know contemplated. If we give any promise of armed assistance it must be conditional.


Conditional upon what? Certainly British support would not have been forthcoming if France herself committed an aggressive act. Was there something which would have made the provision of armed assistance acceptable? What did Britain hope to gain from the Entente? Was it the guarantee of ‘her own security’ referred to by Huguet? How can this have been when, as Grey noted on 15 January 1906 (less than month before the launch of HMS Dreadnought), ‘We can protect ourselves of course for we are more supreme at sea than we have ever been.’ What other benefit, therefore, might accrue to Britain? Within days of Cambon’s approach Grey was actively engaged in seeking a reciprocal engagement. Writing privately to Bertie, he admitted: ‘I think too we should have some quid pro quo such as a promise that, if we get into war with Germany over any question of our own France will at least remain neutral if she cannot support us, and keep other European Powers neutral.’ If French aggression was viewed as unlikely, in return for a pledge of British support which Grey probably appreciated would be automatic in case of a German attack, the Foreign Secretary was seeking to limit any hostile combination which Britain might have to face. Grey was, however, unable for the present to go any further: ‘all this must remain in the air’, he noted, ‘till the elections are over: all my colleagues are fighting their own or other election contests and I am alone in London and cannot consult them or get them together.’ And, when the election was over, the death of Grey’s wife in February understandably distracted him.

There was no doubt that Grey realized the moral force created by the talks. ‘The Entente’, he argued in the following month, ‘and still more the constant and emphatic demonstrations of affection (official, naval, political, commercial Municipal and in the Press), have created in France a belief that we should support her in war. The last report from our naval attaché at Toulon said that all the French officers took this for granted, if the war was between France and Germany about Morocco. If this expectation is disappointed the French will never forgive us.’ However Grey’s proposal ‘to find out what compensation Germany would ask or accept as the price of her recognition of the French claims in Morocco’ immediately ran into opposition and was shelved. These tentative musings of early 1906 would appear to be the only serious attempt Grey made to confront the logic of the situation. Similarly, Campbell-Bannerman also appreciated the difficulties which might arise: ‘I do not like the stress laid upon joint preparations,’ he declared, for it came ‘very close to an honourable understanding’.

German suspicions did not evaporate following their diplomatic defeat at Algeciras. Speculation that an Anglo-French military convention had been concluded continued throughout 1906. Yet, having forced the issue, the French themselves were not entirely satisfied with the outcome. ‘The present elastic situation’, Hardinge (the new Permanent Under-Secretary) declared in September, ‘is more satisfactory for us although the fact that we are not bound hand and foot to the French makes the latter nervous and suspicious.’ As the international situation quietened in 1907 and naval attention focussed on the German naval build-up, the Admiralty began to contemplate the contribution which the French navy could make in any future war. Already, the increasing threat posed by Germany was dictating naval strategy; it was time to declare an Entente dividend. In contrast to the desire of the General Staff to assist the French, the Admiralty had suddenly realized that the addition of the French ships could make the position absolutely secure. No longer wary, the subsequent naval War Plans noted that an ‘arrangement by which France could be entrusted with the responsibility of conducting operations in the Mediterranean, and Great Britain those in northern waters, would provide a satisfactory division of labour by giving to their respective navies separate and distinct spheres of activity.’ If, therefore, complications of a serious nature arose, the French could undertake – with the full use of British bases – all offensive operations in the Mediterranean as well as the protection of their own and British interests; of the British Mediterranean Fleet only the torpedo boats would be left on station. Whatever validity lay behind Churchill’s subsequent charge that Anglo-French naval dispositions had been arrived at independently, here was a clear example of a proposal for a reciprocal, and mutually beneficial, arrangement. A further strengthening of the commitment was being advocated. The extent of this new commitment was made clear late in 1908 following a succession of new crises in North Africa and the Balkans.

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As he was wont to do in moments of international tension, the French Ambassador spoke to Grey on 24 November 1908 (at the height of the Bosnian annexation crisis) to urge the resumption of the desultory naval conversations. Grey’s refusal to meddle in naval and military matters (could it be that he was in awe of Fisher?) was to continue to have unfortunate repercussions. As the first tangible result of the 1908 talks, the French were presented with the "three conventions": the French Fleet would be concentrated in the Mediterranean, responsible for the defence of the western basin. All British ships would be withdrawn for operations in the North Sea and Baltic. Not content with this division, Fisher then proposed that the French should assume responsibility for the whole of the Mediterranean. Although the French Admiralty eventually balked at the suggestion, it was indicative of the state of mind which had arisen following the opening of the military talks. Fisher’s bizarre conversion owed more to his paranoia regarding the North Sea and his desire to circumvent any detailed investigation of his Baltic schemes, yet the alluring logic of the French guarding the Mediterranean while the British patrolled the North Sea was to ensnare both the Foreign Secretary and a future First Lord of the Admiralty.

Persuaded at the time to appoint a sub-committee of the C.I.D. to examine the "Military Needs of the Empire", Asquith, by now the Prime Minister, showed as little interest in the surreptitious activities of the War Office as his Foreign Secretary. The General Staff had not deviated from their earlier conclusion ‘that the only feasible option was to afford direct support to the French Army’. Asquith gave grudging approval to the General Staff’s plans but attempted to maintain the fiction of freedom of action by declaring that, ‘in the event of an attack on France by Germany, the expediency of sending a military force abroad, or of relying on naval means only, is a matter of policy which can only be determined when the occasion arises by the Government of the day.’ Naval and military planners could continue to formulate schemes to allow for the contingency, but this would not commit the Government until the Government of the day had determined that it wished to be committed. Presumably, while it was coming to a decision, German troops would already be on the move through Belgium and Northern France. According to this scenario the French were to base their own War plans on the half expectation of British assistance, and, while half an expectation may be better than none, not only would the French be unsure of military assistance until a political decision had been made in London; even then, it was still up to the British Government to decide to wage war by ‘naval means’ alone. Thus, the French logically would have to develop plans to provide for the contingency of fighting Germany unaided, or with British naval assistance, or with British military and naval assistance. Each plan would then have to be held in readiness until after a German attack as it was only then, according to Asquith, that the matter of policy could be determined. In view of this refusal to face the issue squarely, the basic premise that the Continental strategy would prevail in time of war was not seriously questioned.

Could Grey (or Asquith) have prevented the War Office hegemony of strategic thinking? Or, as the pusillanimous conclusion of the sub-committee indicated, were they already aware of the commitment created by the ongoing military contacts — a commitment they did not want questioned? With Fisher’s concern about the North Sea position permeating the higher echelons of Government, the prospect of French naval assistance was seductive, so long as the concomitant was appreciated: the call which would be made for British assistance should France be threatened by unprovoked German aggression. The failure to control the military element was serious enough; yet Grey always appeared content to leave Fisher to his own devices, for whatever reason. This hardly mattered in January 1906 when Grey mistakenly believed that the non-existent naval talks were supposedly shadowing the military talks. It was altogether different when Fisher, apparently on his own initiative, proposed a move (the British evacuation of the Mediterranean) which the French must have assumed had official backing. In the discussions of December 1908 the French would have had every reason to believe that, as soon as they were able, the command of the Mediterranean would fall to them.

Following a run-in with the C.I.D. sub-committee, Fisher wrote querulously on 15 March 1909, ‘Are we or are we not going to send a British Army to fight on the Continent as quite distinct and apart from coastal raids and seizures of islands, etcetera, which the Navy dominate?’ By virtue of Asquith’s conclusion this question remained unanswered — officially. Unofficially, a plan for intervention was to be worked out by the General Staff, ‘in which the British Army shall be concentrated in rear of the left of the French Army, primarily as a reserve.’ The arrangements made with the French Army would be accelerated by Henry Wilson when he became Director of Military Operations in 1910. Asquith meanwhile was as content as Grey to let matters drift. Whenever quizzed about the existence of a secret Anglo-French convention, as he was in the House on 21 March 1910, Asquith was able to reply, in a correct formal sense, that ‘no treaty or convention of the nature specified … exists between this country and France.’

The following year (on 30 March 1911) Grey, as Asquith had done, would provide a similarly contrived answer in the House on the nature of the British commitment to France. This time, however, the French, again wishing to consolidate the Entente, refused to let Grey off as lightly as his parliamentary colleagues. Cruppi, the French Foreign Minister, approached Frank Bertie on 5 April 1911 to inform the Ambassador that he intended to read a statement in the Senate to the effect that Britain and France ‘would remain friends and united in the presence of every eventuality, and they would entrust to their respective Governments the care of giving a precise form to their entente when the moment came.’ When Bertie objected to the proposed language, Cruppi surmised that there was no longer whole-hearted support in Britain for the Entente. In another of those ‘coincidences’ which punctuate the history of the conversations, General Foch chose this very moment to engage the British Military Attaché in a lengthy discussion which revolved around the extent to which the French depended upon a guarantee of British assistance. On a purely practical level, argued Foch, rolling stock would have to be specially reserved for the transport of British troops, but this could not be done unless the French Government ‘had received a previous assurance that it could count with certainty on the arrival of the British contingent.’

Having thus laid the groundwork, a further approach was made to Bertie on 12 April requesting that matters should be carried further ‘as regards possible co-operation in certain eventualities than had hitherto been done.’ Grey faced a predicament — he had no desire to be constrained either by renewed French ardour or by a repeat of his earlier actions in January 1906, when he failed properly to disclose the opening of the military talks. He therefore informed Asquith, Morley and Haldane of the renewed French approach, reminding them also what had happened in 1906 when the ‘French then urged that the Mil[itar]y Auth[orit]y should be allowed to exchange views — ours to say what they could do — the French to say how they would like it done, if we did side with France. Otherwise, as the French urged, even if we decided to support France on the outbreak of war we shouldn’t be able to do it effectively. We agreed to this.’ The use of "we" by Grey denoted a collective responsibility which was wholly absent. Despite this, the argument, by itself, was hardly contentious if Grey had decided to keep a tight rein on the War Office; however, the opposite was the case. In an apparently staggering admission, Grey then declared that the ‘military experts then convened. What they settled I never knew — the position being that the Gov[ernmen]t was quite free, but that the military people knew what to do if the word was given.’ Unless, he added, ‘French war plans have changed, there should be no need for anything further, but it is clear we are going to be asked something.’ Was Grey really this lackadaisical? Not according to General Nicholson. By October 1906, Nicholson subsequently recounted, the original scheme for embarkation of the B.E.F. needed revision on account of changes in the organization of the Home Army. Intimation had also been received of certain changes in the French plans of mobilization and concentration, which affected the ports of disembarkation and the railway transport therefrom. A revised scheme was therefore prepared, but before communicating it to Colonel Huguet Sir Neville Lyttleton, then Chief of the General Staff, approached the Foreign Office and on July 26th, 1907, submitted a covering memorandum indicating the action which it was proposed to take. In this memorandum it was clearly laid down that the scheme was not binding on the British Government, but merely showed how the plans made in view of the situation in 1906 would be modified by the changes made in the organization of the Home Army in 1907. The memorandum with a few verbal amendments was approved by Sir Edward Grey, and Colonel Huguet was informed accordingly.


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Furthermore, Grey was a permanent member of the C.I.D. He was present at the 103rd meeting, on 24 July 1909, when the Report on the Military Needs of the Empire was tabled. He would be present at the 144th meeting, on 23 August 1911, when the principal topic was ‘Action to be taken in the event of intervention in a European war’. Was Grey really as innocent as he claimed? Although Grey did refuse to meddle in military affairs, this should not be construed as implying that he was unaware of what was going on; the confusion between these two distinct positions has worked to Grey’s benefit ever since.

What the French wanted was ‘something more visible to Germany and useful to France than the existing Entente.’ For the time being, however, Grey remained immovable on the subject and the French feelers ceased until the crisis at Agadir that summer prompted another inquiry into Britain’s ‘vital interests’ in the Mediterranean. Once more confusion was evident. Did the Panthersprung really affect British interests, or was the genuine scare in London simply a reaction to perceived French military and naval weakness? When pressed by C. P. Scott, for example, Lloyd George could provide no clear answer to the question as to ‘what interests had we for which in the last resort we were prepared to go to war and was the prevention of a German naval station at Agadir one of them’? Asquith admitted that it would not be ‘worth our while to go to war about Agadir’ but that ‘we should strongly resist the acquisition by Germany of a port on the South Mediterranean coast’, while Grey was apparently unconcerned about the prospect, so long as the proposed base remained unfortified. The net result of Scott’s investigation was that Lloyd George objected to a German naval base at Agadir; Asquith would not object to a German port at Libreville, but did not think it worthwhile to risk war over Agadir; while Grey was relatively unconcerned at the prospect of a German presence at Agadir but would strongly resist any attempt by Berlin to obtain a Mediterranean base.

In view of this strategic ineptitude, perhaps the underlying cause of the fear felt in London was the opinion ‘repeatedly’ voiced by Lloyd George, namely, ‘France’s weakness and terror in the face of Germany.’ France, according to the Chancellor, ‘had her eyes fixed on "those terrible legions across the frontier … [which] could be in Paris in a month and she knew it." The result would be the end of France as a Great Power, leading possibly to German hegemony in Europe on a scale similar to Napoleon’s.’ Lloyd George with the wind up was not an attractive sight — did he have cause to be anxious this time? General Bernhardi wrote, soon after the crisis, that Germany

must defeat France so decisively that she would be compelled to renounce her alliance with England and withdraw her fleet to save herself from total destruction. Just as in 1870-71 we marched to the shores of the Atlantic, so this time again we must resolve on an absolute conquest, in order to capture the French naval ports and destroy the French naval depots. It would be a war to the knife with France, one which would, if victorious, annihilate once for all the French position as a Great Power. If France with her falling birth-rate, determines on such a war, it is at the risk of losing her place in the first rank of European nations, and sinking into permanent political subservience. Those are the stakes.


Even Churchill, who might have been expected to take a more relaxed view of the matter, asserted that ‘One cause alone c[oul]d justify our participation — to prevent France from being trampled down & looted by the Prussian junkers — a disaster ruinous to the world, & swiftly fatal to our country.’ In January 1906 Grey had declared ‘We can protect ourselves of course for we are more supreme at sea than we have ever been.’ By 1911 this was no longer the perceived reality. The dreadnought scare of 1909 had come and gone, but the residue lingered. Lists were endlessly being drawn up as to which country would have how many dreadnoughts by which date. And, which ever way the lists were drawn up, the British position was in no way as secure as it had seemed in 1906. In the final analysis, French military weakness had not mattered as much in 1906 when the German fleet was unable to mount a creditable challenge to the Royal Navy. By 1911 the strategical position had been transformed by the German naval challenge. If Germany ever could establish hegemony in Europe she could then devote all her energies to an even more rapid naval build-up.

Another indication of the extent to which foreign policy was being dictated by military considerations was provided by the actions of Henry Wilson who, with his ‘perfect obsession for military operations on the continent’, hardly needed a spur such as Agadir to confirm his belief that ‘we must join France.’ Already Hankey was warning that, at the forthcoming meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence on 23 August 1911 to which only the inner core of the Cabinet had been invited, if Wilson could get a decision ‘in favour of military action he will endeavour to commit us up to the hilt.’ It was hardly surprising then that the principle recommendation of the General Staff was that Britain ‘should mobilise and dispatch the whole of our available army of six divisions and a cavalry division immediately upon the outbreak of war, mobilising upon the same day as the French and Germans.’ This would compel Britain at once to follow an inescapable course of action in any Franco-German dispute which threatened to escalate and was a clear advance upon the 1909 formula in which the political decision was to be made following the first clash of Franco-German arms. The more that politicians such as Churchill and Lloyd George could be made to accept the necessity for the British Expeditionary Force to operate on the Continent, whether in conjunction with the Belgian army, as Henry Wilson would have preferred, or on the flank of the French army, which was still the preferred War Office option, the more that policy would become subservient to the technical aspects of military planning. Such was the size and detailed nature of the military commitment that, once the finer points of either military strategy were settled, the question of policy would become irrelevant. Henry Wilson, following up his success in the C.I.D., redoubled his efforts to ingratiate himself with the French, travelling to Paris at the end of September 1911 for consultations with the new Chief of the General Staff, Joffre, and his staff. ‘They were most cordial and open’, Wilson confided to his diary: ‘they showed me papers and maps … showing in detail the area of concentration for all our Expeditionary Force … In fact, by 12.30 I was in possession of the whole of their plan of campaign for their northern armies, and also for ours.’


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Conversely, following Fisher’s eccentric approach to the French in 1908, Anglo-French naval talks had again lapsed. Only on the day after the August 1911 C.I.D. meeting was Admiral Wilson apprised of the three conventions which had arisen from the 1908 meeting. Since then, the French Naval General Staff had issued new instructions that the point of concentration for the French Navy should be Brest, on the Atlantic coast — the German Navy was to be defeated first before the victorious French navy then re-entered the Mediterranean to deal with the Austrians and Italians. Only if the British were active allies, which they were singularly reluctant to become, would the French revert to the original plan of a Mediterranean concentration. This policy remained in force until the impressive French naval manoeuvres of 5 September 1911 rekindled visions of Mediterranean dominance. A French emissary was thereupon dispatched to London to propose an amendment to the three conventions: now confident of their command of the sea, the French themselves sought to extend their zone to cover the whole of the Mediterranean, including operations against both Italy and Austria. Arthur Wilson accepted the new proposal. In furtherance of this, on 31 October 1911, the French First and Second Squadrons were ordered to Toulon leaving only the Third Squadron of obsolete battleships still based at Brest. These new dispositions, which would have condemned the Third Squadron to certain destruction should it encounter modern warships, lasted only a few months. In February 1912 it was accepted that the position of the Third Squadron was isolated and vulnerable and the dispatch of the elderly ships to the Mediterranean was soon sanctioned.

The radical elements in the British Cabinet realized soon after the August C.I.D. meeting that something was afoot. ‘I greatly fear that France expects our military and naval support’, Loreburn warned Grey some days after the meeting. Aware of their activities, but unable to control the naval and military factions, Grey attempted to fall back on the notion of collective responsibility — an irony, given the selective attendance of the C.I.D. meeting, which was probably not lost on Loreburn. Although Grey’s own opinion was that ‘an assurance that in the case of war between Germany and France we should remain neutral would not conduce to peace’, the Foreign Secretary added that ‘Even if I thought such a statement should be made either to Germany or France it could not be made except as the result of a Cabinet decision.’ The Cabinet, which had not yet been informed of the military conversations, was now the only body which could veto what, the Radicals may have reasoned, was the logical outcome of those talks. Loreburn begged Asquith to broach the matter with Grey, which the Prime Minister did on 5 September. Either from a recognition of his own unease, or in response to the disquiet evidently agitating radical consciences, Asquith had now decided that the military conversations ‘seem to me rather dangerous’. The French, he argued, ‘ought not to be encouraged, in present circumstances, to make their plans on any assumptions of this kind.’ Had Asquith dozed off during Henry Wilson’s exposition on that hot August Wednesday? Grey replied that it ‘would create consternation if we forbade our military experts to converse with the French. No doubt these conversations and our speeches have given an expectation of support. I do not see how that can be helped.’ So long as the Entente remained an Entente, this problem would prove intractable. The only solution was either to have formalized relations by virtue of an alliance, or else to proclaim neutrality which, by destroying the value of the Entente to both France and Russia, was not a feasible option. While the French could have done little in the circumstances, problems would almost certainly have soon arisen with regard, for example, to Russian encroachment in Persia.

It was not just the Radicals who entertained misgivings with regard to the continental policy. McKenna, as he had done throughout the summer, argued with Asquith on 20 October 1911 that the very fact of the conversations encouraged the French, who might then provoke Germany. ‘If we failed to join them’, McKenna contended, ‘we should be charged with bad faith. If we joined in fact we should be plunged into war on their quarrel.’ McKenna contended ‘that there certainly might be cases in which we ought to join in the war but that in no case should our troops be employed in the first instance and the French should never be encouraged by such a promise’. Asquith insouciantly replied that the French would receive no encouragement ‘while he was there’. McKenna then made the mistake of saying that the War Office or the Admiralty might ‘jump the claim’, at which Asquith protested that he was not ‘a figurehead pushed along against his will and without his knowledge by some energetic colleagues.’ Such sentiments could not abate the swell of Radical anger. On 1 November 1911 Morley again raised ‘the question of the inexpediency of communications being held or allowed between the General Staff of the War Office and the General Staff of foreign States, such as France, in regard to possible military co-operation, without the previous knowledge and directions of the Cabinet.’ This, however, was an argument over a different matter: not that the talks should not take place, but that the Cabinet should be informed beforehand and given the chance to impose ‘directions’. Any such attempt to impose pre-conditions would inevitably come up against Grey’s almost impregnable position — the Foreign Secretary was the one member of Asquith’s Cabinet who might justify the description ‘indispensable’. Additionally, Grey also had powerful allies within the Cabinet. He had always been able to rely upon Asquith and Haldane; now Churchill, in particular, had also come on board. The First Lord, whose position had changed as a result of the Agadir crisis, urged Grey to take a strong line regarding the military conversations: the Cabinet, Churchill insisted, should have ‘an absolute right to have a free choice between peace and war’, which they could not retain ‘without constant and detailed communications between the British and French military authorities.’ But this was a different argument still, based firmly on Churchill’s belief that war could only erupt through a German violation of Belgium and the invasion of France in ‘undisguised aggression.’

The meeting of the Cabinet on 15 November 1911, during which Grey animatedly sought to defend the conversations, was decidedly acrimonious. Grey again ‘made it clear that at no stage of our intercourse with France since January 1906 had we either by diplomatic or military engagements compromised our freedom of decision and action in the event of war between France and Germany.’ On the other hand [Asquith noted] there was a prevailing feeling in the Cabinet that there was a danger that communications of the kind referred to might give rise to expectations, and that they should not, if they related to the possibility of concerted action, be entered into or carried on without the sanction of the Cabinet. In the result, at the suggestion of the Prime Minister, unanimous approval was given to the two following propositions:
(1) That no communications should take place between the General Staff here and the Staffs of other countries which can, directly or indirectly, commit this country to military or naval intervention.
(2) That such communications, if they relate to concerted action by land or sea, should not be entered into without the previous approval of the Cabinet.
But how could this be? As John Terraine has argued, ‘Staff talks must constitute an undertaking, practical and moral because … if they are at all fruitful they must inevitably dictate actual plans.’ For Terraine, General Huguet’s conclusion regarding the moral imperative was ‘the heart of the matter.’ This led Terraine to a threefold indictment against the Liberal Government: ‘first, their failure to perceive the real meaning of the step they had taken prevented them from recognising its significance abroad — which in turn prevented them from exploiting it. They had placed their country in one of the two opposing camps — but they could never bring themselves to say so firmly. Secondly, arising from this, they did not (could not) alert the nation to what had been done and what it might mean … Finally … the great defence programmes of the next few years (Fisher’s modernisation of the Navy, Haldane’s of the Army) were robbed of their full fruition. Much was being done, but because the nation was never frankly told for what reason it was being done, the work was carried out not in an atmosphere of patriotic urgency, but in one of materialist complacency.’ Terraine’s indictment is, however, flawed. First, there was no failure of perception. Grey, if not immediately, knew what he was doing by the time of Agadir. This is clearly demonstrated by the attempt to bring Haldane, Morley and Asquith into line. As Grey admitted in July 1911, his policy was ‘to give France such support as would prevent her from falling under the virtual control of Germany and estrangement from us.’ This would break up the triple Entente, he warned, ‘and we should again be faced with the old troubles about the frontier of India.’ The result would be ‘the complete ascendancy of Germany in Europe’, so that ‘some fine day we might have the First Lord of the Admiralty coming to us and saying that instead of building against two powers we had to build against six.’ Second, the nation hardly needed alerting: the evidence was plain to see. Grey’s foreign policy, for example, was consistently criticized in both left- and right-wing journals. Third, Government parsimony and the need to divert resources to other areas (primarily social expenditure) was the principal reason for the failure of the ‘great defence programmes’ to reach fruition. When a scare developed, as it most famously did in 1909, Government action was secured. ‘We want eight, and we won’t wait’ was no mere slogan, but a real attempt to inform the Government of a genuine, if imagined, fear.

The attempt by the Radicals to assert themselves came too late. As was to be a common feature of Asquith’s premiership, the Cabinet resolutions altered very little; and especially not for so long as Henry Wilson remained on the scene. The other factor to be contended with was Churchill’s move to the Admiralty. This was a crucial development. The new First Lord’s position was clear — the Cabinet had a right, before deciding between peace and war, to have all the salient facts laid before it and this could only be accomplished by ‘constant and detailed’ Anglo-French communications. Indeed, for much of 1912, Churchill would be preoccupied with the Mediterranean naval position and the situation created by the news of the planned increased German building tempo. ‘In order to meet the new German squadron,’ Churchill informed Grey, ‘we are contemplating bringing home the Mediterranean battleships.’ Obviously, in this eventuality, Britain would have to rely upon France in the Mediterranean and, as Grey was no doubt privately aware, another strand in the Entente web was being spun. This was confirmed by Grey’s permanent officials, who maintained that the ‘consequences [of a British evacuation] could to a certain extent be averted if the place of the British Mediterranean squadron were effectively taken by a powerful French fleet’; or if ‘Anglo-French co-operation were assured in the case of either country being at war with the Triple Alliance…’


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The proposed British withdrawal again sent Cambon hurrying to the Foreign Office where, citing the excuse of Haldane’s failed mission, the Ambassador once more exploited British unease at German intentions. This time the ploy failed — he was informed that, for the time being, the Anglo-French ‘understanding’ could not be placed under any strain. Cambon did not press the matter; with the Admiralty intent on evacuating the Mediterranean, he could afford to wait, until the naval situation made British dependence upon France in the Mediterranean a certainty. However, Cambon’s gamble was threatened following an announcement by Asquith that, despite news of the latest German naval programme, Anglo-German relations were sufficiently amicable to allow for discussion of mutual interests. On this occasion using the pretext of a Russian approach to conclude a naval convention with France, Cambon returned to the Foreign Office to request the renewal of Anglo-French naval conversations. As Cambon understood it, the desire of the French Government was that Britain should look after the Channel and northern coasts of France while the newly ‘renovated’ French fleet would take ‘care of the whole of the Mediterranean.’
Nicolson, to whom Cambon made the approach, was dumbfounded. He told Cambon that he knew ‘nothing absolutely about all these arrangements’ and made no other remark, saving his ire for the real guilty party in his view: the Admiralty. ‘I think’, he wrote innocently to Grey later that day, ‘that these inter Admiralty discussions or conversations should not have been undertaken without the knowledge and approval of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs at least. Indeed I should have thought Cabinet sanction should have been solicited. We shall have confusion if the Departments intervene in what are important foreign questions.’ Nicolson’s report was also seen by Asquith, Churchill and Haldane, each of whom bore some responsibility for the lamentable state of affairs it described; but none of course as much as Nicolson’s own boss. Grey’s weak response was to fall back on the standard formula: ‘…it was always understood’, he minuted, ‘that [the conversations] did not commit either Government to go to war to assist the other.’

Once Nicolson’s fury had abated, he realized that Cambon’s approach ‘would bring to a head the question which has been preoccupying me for some time past, and that is, that we really must come to some understanding with France in regard to our naval matters.’ Nicolson’s personal opinion had long been at variance with Grey’s; he now feared that there would be a continuation of the drift in foreign policy which he had been warning about for some time. Nicolson privately voiced his apprehensions on 7 May:

The idea, I believe, is that France should safeguard our interests in [the Mediterranean] until we should be in a position to detach vessels from our forces in home waters. If we ask France to do this, she will very naturally request that there should be some reciprocity in the arrangement, and that we should undertake ourselves to assist her on her eastern frontier. I do not think that we can continue for an indefinite time to sit on the fence, and the Government will have to make up its mind as to what policy they intend to adopt.

Writing in similar vein to Bertie in Paris, Nicolson could see that only two courses were available if ‘the naval people’ insisted upon a Mediterranean evacuation. First, to construct a new purpose-built Mediterranean fleet; but this was out of the question in view of the heavy addition it would add to the Estimates. Second, ‘to come to an understanding with France on the subject which would, I do not deny, be very much of the character of a defensive alliance. I think certain members of the Cabinet see this very clearly and would be disposed to agree to it, but I do not know if they would be able to carry all their colleagues with them. In fact I doubt if such would be the case.’ Nicolson avoided all mention of the specific term ‘defensive alliance’ to the Foreign Secretary. Rather, he suggested, there should be an ‘understanding with France whereby she would undertake, in the early period of a war and until we could detach vessels from home waters, to safeguard our interests in the Mediterranean.’ As a quid pro quo, she ‘would naturally ask for some reciprocal engagements from us which it would be well worth our while to give. This to my mind offers the cheapest, simplest and safest solution.’ What Nicolson was proposing, by automatically assuming that Britain and France would be conjoined ‘in the early period of a war’, was a defensive alliance by any other criteria. Although, after six years in the post, Grey was now very much his own Foreign Secretary, the concerns of Nicolson and Crowe still had to be faced, and answered if possible. While Grey did not need Nicolson to act as his conscience, an occasional reminder of the covenant which was being created should have served to warn Grey of the perils of an Entente whose main foundation rested not on a concrete political understanding but the shifting sand of military and naval conversations.

Would Nicolson’s formula have worked? What precise ‘reciprocal engagement’ did Nicolson have in mind — simply a guarantee of France’s Atlantic seaboard, solely a naval task; or, as he intimated to Goschen, assistance on France’s eastern frontier — a combined military and naval task, and a much more serious undertaking? Superficially, a specific commitment to safeguard the Atlantic coast of France in return for a guarantee of British interests in the Mediterranean might appear to have been the answer to the problem faced in August 1914. Could the French have coped? Certainly not in the opinion of General Bernhardi who believed that ‘England could hardly leave the protection of her Mediterranean interests to France alone.’ Also, how could British warships engage German warships in defence of French interests without being at war with Germany? A useful analogy was provided by the anomalous position of Austria-Hungary in the first days of the war. The British declaration of war on 4 August was against Germany alone; however, as Grey noted, it was hardly possible that British ships in the Mediterranean ‘should look on and take no part if an Austrian warship and a French warship were firing at each other.’ And what of the situation which did arise when, on the morning of Tuesday 4 August 1914, the British ship Isle of Hastings was seriously damaged during the shelling of the French North African ports by Goeben and Breslau? Grey again was to find an ally in the shape of the First Lord. ‘The War-plans for the last 5 years’, Churchill declared, ‘have provided for the evacuation of the Mediterranean as the first step consequent on a war with Germany, & all we are doing is to make peace dispositions which approximate to war necessities.’ Churchill at least still held out for the notion of ‘freedom of action’, which is more than can be said for Eyre Crowe who, according to Henry Wilson, insisted on the imperative of an alliance with France and maintained that ‘Grey seems to be coming to believe this, but says such a step would break up the Cabinet.’


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Grey not only had to endure attacks from his own colleagues and permanent officials but from the Opposition as well. The former Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, added to Grey’s discomfiture by forwarding him a memorandum on 12 June 1912 in which he argued that the present position was such that Britain bore ‘the risks and burdens of an alliance without the full advantage which an alliance would secure.’ The Mediterranean situation was a perfect illustration of this. Balfour ruled out two options aimed at eliminating these ‘risks and burdens’ (increased naval expenditure or the total abandonment of the Mediterranean) before deciding upon a third: securing the co-operation of the French Fleet, which he admitted, would involve ‘the substitution of a formal alliance for an informal Entente.’ An Entente, he maintained, was ‘the natural prey of the diplomatic intriguer’; therefore the immediate announcement of an Anglo-French alliance would relieve international tension rather than aggravate it. Balfour concluded: ‘(1) that the capacities of the much tried "Entente" are now almost exhausted. (2) That the advantages … of a treaty are great and growing. (3) That its dangers, though real, are not unavoidable; and (4) that in a judicious use of the modern machinery of arbitration may perhaps be found the best way of avoiding them.’ In conjunction with the planned changes to the British Mediterranean Fleet, and with knowledge of the Franco-Russian naval talks, this would have been an ideal opportunity to renegotiate the Entente and either strengthen its terms or decide once and for all to hold out for the complete freedom of action which only a declaration of neutrality would bring. Instead, Grey replied blandly that the ‘Mediterranean position will oblige this or any Government to consider our relations with France very carefully.’

Churchill had already done this. ‘The influence and authority of the [British] Mediterranean Fleet is going to cease’, he argued with some justification, ‘not because of the withdrawal of the Malta battleships, but because of the completion of the Austrian and Italian Dreadnoughts.’ His solution was to come to ‘an arrangement with France and leave enough ships in the Mediterranean to give her undoubted superiority’. McKenna, embittered and a confirmed critic of Admiralty policy, insisted that ‘I do not think I am misinterpreting Mr Churchill’s strategy when I say that an alliance with France is its essential feature. Without such an alliance I cannot think that his naval advisers would recommend the distribution of the fleet which he now proposes. It is, of course, for the Cabinet to decide whether we should allow ourselves to be forced into this alliance, but, for my part, I should view with the gravest concern any action being taken which must necessarily lead to such a conclusion. I would far rather – if it were necessary, which I hesitate to believe – give my vote for an addition to our fleet in ships and men, than be driven by our weakness into dependence on an alliance with any European power.’ Churchill had already refused to accept this contention; the new arrangements, he declared,

stand by themselves, and are put forward as the best we can make in the present circumstances. The situation would, however, become entirely favourable if France is taken into account. The French fleet, supported by an adequate British naval force, and enjoying the use of our fortified and torpedo-defended bases as well as their own, would be superior to any Austro-Italian alliance. An Anglo-French combination in a war would be able to maintain full control of the Mediterranean, and afford all necessary protection to British and French interests, both territorial and commercial, without impairing British margins in the North Sea. A definite naval arrangement should be made with France without delay. This arrangement would come into force only if the two Powers were at any time allies in a war. It would not decide the question of whether they should be allies or not. No sound or effective dispositions can be made without it, and many obvious contingencies must be left unsatisfied.



Churchill’s solution had the same inherent flaw as that of Asquith’s two years’ previously — naval action was to be made dependent upon political action. However, in the absence of a guarantee, how could ‘sound and effective’ dispositions be made? The very act of arranging the fleet dispositions in the manner clearly anticipated by Churchill presumed that the political decision would be a foregone conclusion. Having so distributed the fleet in the expectation that co-operation would be affirmed (for surely this was Churchill’s intent), how could the Cabinet realistically decide otherwise?


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What was Grey’s stance during the Mediterranean debates? Arthur Nicolson attempted, none too successfully, to find out. Nicolson informed Grey on Sunday 30 June 1912 that he was ‘puzzled as to the next meeting of the C.I.D. at which the Mediterranean question is to be discussed. The F.O. paper enumerating our objections is on the Agenda, and to my mind, Churchill’s recent minute does not weaken or remove any of the objections. I do not know if you are of a different opinion, and whether you are ready to support Churchill’s proposals as affording at least a provisional solution of the problem. Your opinion is naturally and properly decisive as regards F.O. affairs — I feel myself therefore in a dilemma supposing you consider that the F.O. objections have been satisfactorily met by what I will term the Malta compromise.’ And this was the rub: by 1912 Grey’s opinion was decisive. Indeed, the great debate of the summer of 1912 revolved around those recent protagonists, Churchill and McKenna, so that at times Churchill himself almost appeared as de facto Foreign Secretary; and, like all genuine Foreign Secretaries, he wanted no limits upon his powers, as would happen should the Entente develop into an alliance. Churchill’s opinion was unalterable: ‘the Admiralty had never assumed an alliance with France’, he insisted. ‘Their view was (1) that we must maintain a continuous and certain superiority of force over the Germans in the North Sea, and (2) that all other objects, however precious, must, if necessary, be sacrificed to secure this end.’ This was a convenient assumption which begged many questions. Grey’s contribution to the debates was minimal, and was confined to an acknowledgement that Britain had ‘given up command’ of the Mediterranean to the French, but that if a one-Power standard were to operate, this, in conjunction with British diplomacy might be able to ‘prevent too powerful a combination against the country being brought about elsewhere.’ Grey’s wish was granted with the decision to accept one-Power Mediterranean standard, excluding France.

Following the adoption of the new standard, it did not take long for Cambon to seek to re-open the spasmodic naval staff talks. If the French had learned of the Cabinet’s resolution they were keeping quiet: the ostensible spur on this occasion was the decision to transfer the Third Squadron into the Mediterranean which effectively rendered the Atlantic coast defenceless. With Churchill committed to the principle of ‘freedom of action’, it had to be made clear that such a decision would not have been taken with the presumption of British assistance. At the Cabinet the following week it was agreed in light of the French move that, ‘in continuing the communications which had taken place in the past between French naval and military experts and our own, it should be plainly indicated to the French Government that such communications were not to be taken as prejudging the freedom of decision of either Government as to whether they should or should not co-operate in the event of war.’ Churchill saw the French Naval Attaché the following morning to bring up to date the arrangement for joint action which had been agreed to the previous autumn. As usual in these negotiations, the ‘full freedom of action possessed by both countries’ was to remain unfettered by the conversations which were to remain ‘purely hypothetical’; and, further, ‘nothing arising out of such conversations or arrangements could influence political decisions.’ Churchill outlined the British changes in the Mediterranean, explained that these were being made in pursuance of British interests and maintained that the arrangements were ‘adequate in our opinion to the full protection of British possessions and trade in the Mediterranean.’ For his side de Saint-Seine confirmed officially that the French were to leave ‘their Northern and Atlantic coasts solely to the protection of their torpedo flotillas…’

As a result of the French move the British reservations regarding freedom of action were delineated in a draft Anglo-French Naval Agreement. While acknowledging that ‘France has disposed almost the whole of her battle fleet in the Mediterranean, leaving her Atlantic sea board to the care of Flotillas’, and that Britain ‘has concentrated her battle fleets in home waters, leaving in the Mediterranean a strong containing force of battle and armoured cruisers and torpedo craft’, the agreement tendentiously maintained that ‘These dispositions have been made independently because they are the best which the separate interest of each country suggests, having regard to all the circumstances and probabilities; and they do not arise from any naval agreement or convention.’ Nicolson at once perceived the objection in the draft agreement: the unilateral French withdrawal from her Atlantic coast, would leave them undefended and nominally under the protection of Britain but with no absolute responsibility on the latter’s part to render assistance. Although Nicolson was careful to avoid any reference to a moral obligation he added, in a letter to Grey, that this same objection might conceivably occur to the French, who would require a more definite assurance. Grey did no more than hope that the French would not ‘raise the point’; however, if they did, they would have to be accommodated without altering the first article of the Draft agreement which enshrined the notion of ‘political freedom’. ‘This kind of difficulty’, Asquith minuted wearily, ‘is inherent in all such contingent arrangements.’

Grey had already been warned by Frank Bertie that the French might expect a quid pro quo, following a British withdrawal from the Mediterranean. Bertie suggested that an exchange of notes should take place, ‘defining the major interests of England and France and stating that in the event of any of those interests being in the opinion of either endangered the Governments of the two Countries would confer together as to what steps, if any, should be taken to defend those interests.’ This formula was anathema to Grey and was eventually rejected by the Cabinet. Aware that Bertie was not above following his own line when in Paris, Grey evidently felt it necessary to add that he, personally, would not remain in the Cabinet ‘if there was any questioning of abandoning the policy of the Entente with France.’ Grey had spoken to Cambon on 22 July to emphasize the non-binding nature of the naval talks. During the discussion the Foreign Secretary had remarked that there was ‘no formal "Entente" ’, which prompted Cambon to reply that, if not, there was certainly a moral Entente, ‘which might however be transformed into a formal "Entente" if the two governments desired, when an occasion arose.’ Cambon would now re-double his efforts to achieve that end. Formal ententes, informal ententes, moral ententes, diplomatic ententes, strategic ententes — some ententes were apparently more equal than others. Grey must have realized that a formal Entente, if such a thing existed, was no more nor less than a defensive alliance disguised by a diplomatic euphemism. Furthermore, who was to say that Cambon’s ‘moral Entente’ corresponded with Grey’s definition of the same beast? If the Entente had to have a descriptive qualifier, undoubtedly the British would have insisted it was a strategic Entente. Until the partners could at least agree on what type of Entente they wanted such confusion would continue.


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French objections to the proposed naval agreement centred on the stipulation that the ‘dispositions have been made independently’. Churchill argued that the naval arrangements had been made not as the result of any agreement ‘but because these are the arrangements best suited to the separate interests of either Power.’ In other words, the French had independently concluded that their own interests were best served by being strong in one sea rather than weak in two, and this just happened to tie in precisely with British strategical dispositions but did not come about as a result of them. Even if, as is evident, Churchill himself believed this, Cambon reminded Grey of the long history of the negotiations which had, in addition, always been conducted with Grey’s tacit approval; in particular, he mentioned the 1908 conversations at which Fisher had wanted the French to undertake the defence of the whole of the Mediterranean. It was, Cambon clearly intimated, a consequence of these conversations that France had concentrated in the Mediterranean, and not out of self-interest. However, as Williamson has noted, ‘France’s initial decision to concentrate in the Mediterranean had come in 1906 solely as the product of the Conseil Supérieur de la Marine’. The unofficial 1908 talks ‘had simply reaffirmed earlier French assumptions about British help along the northern coasts. Moreover, if Cambon’s analysis had been accurate, then why the long French delay in asking for a coastal guarantee?’ Exploiting Grey’s ignorance as to the extent of the naval conversations, it was a simple matter for the French Ambassador to misrepresent them and endow the talks with a significance they did not possess. Cambon also argued that article one (the non-committal proviso) was out of place in a purely technical agreement and, if it were to remain, ‘it would be essential that there should be some understanding between the two Governments that they would at least communicate with each other if there was a menace, and concert beforehand.’ This formula was of course exactly what Grey and Churchill desired to avoid. Churchill continued to insist: ‘I still think the non-committal proviso desirable and perfectly fair. The present dispositions represent the best arrangements that either power can make independently. It is not true that the French are occupying the Mediterranean to oblige us. They cannot be effective in both theatres and they resolve to be supreme in one. The Germans would easily defeat them at sea.’ This denial of the moral commitment, in the hope that it would not be questioned, was a comforting if irresponsible delusion that Churchill did not share alone.

With Cambon clearly intransigent, an attempt was made to get the message across direct to Poincaré. ‘It must be clearly understood’, he was admonished by Bertie, ‘that any communications between the naval or military experts of the two countries were not to be taken as prejudicing the freedom of decision of the two Governments so as to commit either Government to come to the assistance of the other in time of war.’ It was, Bertie continued, ‘necessary to be clear about this because, though the Governments might be cognisant of the fact that the experts were arranging details for co-operation, they could not be sure of everything which passed between the experts and Governments ought not to be committed by them, but only what passed directly between Governments themselves.’ (The threat posed by Henry Wilson was therefore fully appreciated.) Bertie also emphasized Churchill’s opinion as to the basis behind the French naval concentration in the Mediterranean. Cambon must have been under a misapprehension, observed Bertie, ‘in regard to the reasons for the transfer of the greater portion of the French Fleet from the Channel and Atlantic to the Mediterranean.’ The transfer, in fact, ‘was a spontaneous decision of the French Government and not in consequence of the conversations between the British and French experts in the same way as the decision of His Majesty’s Government to withdraw for the present from the Mediterranean some of the British ships hitherto stationed there.’

Poincaré admitted that, although the French move was ‘quite spontaneous’, it would not have been taken without the supposition that Britain would stand by the French in the face of an unprovoked attack. If the Entente did not even mean that England would come to France’s assistance in the event of a German attack on the northern French ports, its value to France, Poincaré insisted, was ‘not great’. If a political formula was to be introduced, or reservations made, this could only be done through direct inter-Governmental talks. Poincaré suggested therefore ‘some form of declaration’ which would allow the technical discussions to continue but would, when danger threatened, entail mandatory conversations between the two Governments to initiate the naval and military arrangements. In other words, something approaching a formal definition of Anglo-French relations. Bertie, however, advised Poincaré ‘not to press his views regarding the discussions between the experts for the present’ and warned that even the mild declaration proposed would be unlikely to meet with unanimous Cabinet approval in London. This final warning was superfluous: Poincaré had already been informed by Cambon of the Cabinet splits in London. Grey’s supposedly continuing struggle with the Radicals continued to provide a convenient excuse for postponing the contemplation of awkward decisions.

Churchill complained that the offending article in the draft convention was not a Cabinet requirement but had been inserted on his own initiative ‘to preserve in its integrity our full freedom of choice.’ He offered to redraft the offending section ‘in a more general form’, which addressed the problem semantically if in no other way; yet Bertie was sure that Poincaré would not find it acceptable. ‘What the French Government would like best’, Bertie informed Grey, ‘would be an exchange of diplomatic notes defining the joint interests of France and England and stating that in the event of any of those interests being in the opinion of one of the two Powers endangered it will confer with the other as to whether any and if so what steps should be taken to defend those interests, and if they be agreed that combined armed action should be taken the naval and military arrangements already agreed upon between the French and British experts will come into force…’ Churchill continued to insist that the French move was, in itself, unilateral — ‘If we did not exist, the French could not make better dispositions than at present’. By attempting to view matters with a modicum of objectivity, Churchill was finally led to utter a prophetic warning:

how tremendous would be the weapon which France would possess to compel our intervention if she could say "on the advice of and by arrangement with you naval authorities we have left our Northern coasts defenceless. We cannot possibly come back in time." Indeed it would probably be decisive whatever is written down now. Everyone must feel who knows the facts that we have the obligations of an alliance without its advantages and above all without its precise definitions.


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This was too close to the truth for comfort. The intense debates in the summer of 1912 had settled the wartime dispositions of the British and French fleets in the Mediterranean. And, from this, it is clear that the French counted upon British military and naval assistance. Indeed, Poincaré confided to the Russian Foreign Minister that,

while no written agreement between France and Great Britain was in existence, the General and Naval Staffs of the two States were nevertheless in close touch with one another … This continual exchange of ideas had led to a verbal agreement between the Governments of France and Great Britain in which Great Britain had declared her readiness to come to the aid of France with her land and naval forces should France be attacked by Germany. Great Britain had promised to support France on land by a detachment 100,000 strong sent to the Belgian frontier, in order to ward off an invasion of the German army through Belgium, which was expected by the French General Staff.



Ironically, the issue had been forced by the movement of six obsolete ships whose absence from the northern coasts of France, or presence in the Mediterranean, would have made little if any difference to the overall naval balance. From Churchill’s point of view, the Mediterranean was the best place for the Brest Squadron for precisely the same reason that he had ordered the withdrawal of the Malta pre-dreadnoughts in the face of the new Italian and Austrian building programmes — operating alone, the pre-dreadnought simply could not stand up to a modern ship. Tactically, the best course for France was to have relied upon the torpedo in the Channel and there was clearly some justification for Churchill’s belief that the French move was governed in part by pure self-interest; the difficulty for Churchill was that it was not possible to separate completely the political considerations from the strategic. Cambon was playing a weak hand the best way he knew how. If Grey remained in office, Cambon could be reasonably assured that the obligation would be honoured; but how could his country’s fate rest upon the whims of the current Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary or the fickleness of the British electorate?

The Liberal Cabinet met on 30 October 1912 to debate the French request for ‘some sort of declaration’: the suggested formula was rejected as ‘vague and open to a variety of constructions’. Mindful that something had to take its place, a letter drafted by Grey was eventually agreed upon. The Foreign Secretary had taken care to embody in the draft three cardinal points: that naval and military consultations had taken place; that these were non-binding; and that the Governments would consult in the face of aggression to decide upon the action to be taken. Missing from the final form of the letters was any acknowledgement that the British and French fleet dispositions had been reached independently: the point upon which Churchill had been so insistent. Whether from an admission of the sophistry of the argument, or weariness at the prospect of the continuation of the tiresome debate (presupposing that the French would object to such a statement), the omission was to have grave consequences in August 1914. Furthermore, despite apparently being cast in stone, Grey’s letter itself was still ‘open to a variety of constructions’: it mentioned, for example, consultations in the event of either Government having ‘reason to expect an unprovoked attack by a third Power, or something that threatened the general peace’. That ‘something’ might be viewed quite differently in London than in Paris.

Once the letters were exchanged, however, the matter was all but forgotten — at least so far as the British were concerned. The following year was to prove a relatively quiet one for Anglo-Franco-German relations, as attention was diverted yet again to the Balkans. By April 1914 the Grey-Cambon letters, and the rancorous debates, were a distant memory. There was no enthusiasm for a revival of the debates or a re-examination of the policy — with either Entente partner. When a Russian approach was made to George Buchanan on 3 April 1914 for an Anglo-Russian alliance of a purely defensive character, or, failing this, some arrangement similar to that existing between Britain and France, it had to quashed as firmly as possible. Not even the temptation offered by the prospect of eight Russian dreadnoughts in the Baltic by 1917 was sufficient inducement. Symptomatic of the desire to let sleeping dogs lie, Nicolson mendaciously informed Buchanan that ‘What we have done with France goes very little further than an interchange of views between our naval and military staffs and those of France, and indeed in respect of any military co-operation with France matters are still in an undecided state.’ These interchanges, Nicolson argued, were non-binding and had ‘little real practical value’. If that was not discouragement enough for the Russians, Nicolson added that ‘the likelihood of our despatching any expeditionary force is extremely remote, and it was on such an expeditionary force being sent that France at one time was basing her military measures.’ France, he believed, had ‘gradually abandoned the hope of ever receiving prompt and efficient military aid from us’.


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While Nicolson doubted the resolve of his political masters, General Friedrich von Bernhardi had earlier questioned the military benefit accruing to France from the possible dispatch of the expeditionary force. Unlike Nicolson, he foresaw that the main impediment would not be a failure of political will, but the realization that the small British Regular army counted for little. Nevertheless, Bernhardi declared, it was probable ‘that England will throw troops on the Continent, in order to secure the co-operation of her allies, who might demand this guarantee of the sincerity of English policy’. Despite this, the ‘greatest exertions of the nation’, he believed, ‘will be limited to the naval war. The land war will be waged with a definitely restricted object, on which its character will depend. It is very questionable whether the English army is capable of effectively acting on the offensive against Continental European troops.’ In this analysis, the sole purpose of the B.E.F., more used to fighting colonial wars, was the maintenance of Entente unity.

Political interference, wishful (if not devious) strategic thinking: was there anything else the British Cabinet was guilty of? Paul Kennedy has argued that the ‘greatest misperception of those (like Grey and other Liberal-imperialist ministers) willing to offer military aide to France and Belgium in the event of German aggression lay not in their judgment of Germany’s capabilities or intentions … but in their naive belief that only a limited amount of support would be necessary. To assert that German expansionism posed the greatest threat to Europe since Napoleon, yet could be checked by a minuscule British army, was not merely questionable, it was also contradictory …’ This resulted, in Kennedy’s opinion, from the failure of both Grey and Asquith to probe the assertions made by Henry Wilson or to question the alleged fact that a few British divisions could preserve the balance of power. This is too sweeping an indictment. General Wilson himself made quite clear in his exposition in August 1911 that, ‘although the Germans could deploy 84 divisions against the French 66 and the garrisons of their frontier fortresses, the Germans could not concentrate their superior force against any one point. Our 6 divisions would therefore be a material factor in the decision. Their material value, however, was far less than their moral[e] value, which was perhaps as great as an addition of more than double their number of French troops to the French Army would be. This view was shared by the French General Staff.’ Grey was under no delusion; the dispatch of the B.E.F. would be, first and foremost, a political gesture, not necessarily a strategic one.

Was the British belief in the utility of the B.E.F. really shared by the French in 1911, as Wilson wanted the politicians to believe? And, if so, bearing in mind that in April 1914 Nicolson was primarily concerned with deterring the Russian approach, was there any validity to his hypothesis that France had, by then, abandoned hope of British military assistance? Perhaps ‘abandoned’ is too strong a description. The French, according to Williamson, ‘interpreted the military conversations for what they were: arrangements that facilitated British intervention but did not guarantee it.’ For this reason it was significant that ‘none of the orders for [the French] Plan XVII made any mention either of a British zone of concentration or of the possibility of British help.’ Sir William Robertson was subsequently to lay the charge that, since there was no ‘undertaking the French authorities were forced to frame their plan of campaign not knowing whether they would or would not receive British assistance, while we, on our side, were not able to insist upon our right to examine the French plan in return for our co-operation. When the crisis arose there was no time to examine it, and consequently our military policy was for long wholly subordinate to the French policy, of which we knew very little.’ This, in Trevor Wilson’s view, was a flawed analysis:

It may be argued [Wilson contended] that the French military staff, as a result of their conversations with the British, had so comported their strategic arrangements that their entire plan of campaign depended on British co-operation, and would fall in ruins if the British failed to participate. In these circumstances Britain might feel obliged to act alongside the French. But such a hypothesis runs up against two serious difficulties. In the first place, it presumes stupidity on the part of the French high command that they would render their strategy dependent on a power which stated that it could not be relied on. Secondly, given the relatively tiny numbers of the British Expeditionary Force, it is hard to imagine a strategy which could have assigned to the British so crucial a position in the French plan of campaign.



However, to base an objection on the presumption that high commands are incapable of stupidity is tenuous at best. In so far as intelligence assessments were concerned, the French high command was guilty of not so much stupidity as imbecility. What, then, was the French plan of campaign?

On 28 July 1911 Joseph Jacques Césair Joffre, not the first (nor even the second) choice, an engineer by training with little appreciation of grand strategy, and a firm believer in the power of the offensive over the defensive, was appointed to the new position of Chief of the General Staff and assumed command of the French army saddled with a scheme of operations (Plan XVI) he disliked. Although the main emphasis was still on a great offensive move into Alsace and Lorraine, the overall approach was too defensive and the French left, in Joffre’s opinion, was not adequately well protected. With the possibility of a sudden German flanking attack through Belgium in the wake of the Agadir crisis, three hundred and fifty thousand men were hurriedly assigned — on paper — to guard the Franco-Belgian border. This force would consist of the French Fifth Army, based on Mézières, supported by three cavalry corps, the Algerian Corps, and the B.E.F., which would be concentrated around Hirson and Mauberge. Thus, a sizeable proportion of the troops assigned to this prominent weak spot would only take the field under certain conditions: in the case of the Algerian Army Corps, this depended upon the successful ferrying of the troops from North Africa, a task which would be made more difficult in succeeding years in the face of Austrian and Italian dreadnoughts and the German Mittelmeerdivision; in the case of the B.E.F., the principle determinant would be the resoluteness of the British Cabinet.

Such a conditional arrangement was doubly irresponsible in view of a contemporaneous estimation of German intentions. In the opinion of the French General Staff:
The concentration of numerous embankments and yards along the German railway lines between Trier and Aix-la-Chapelle indicates that our adversary would like to prepare for a possible swing of his right wing through Belgium. An offensive in the general direction of Mézières would allow the Germans to avoid the fortified frontier of the Meuse River and to outflank our left wing. If successful, [this offensive] would open the most direct roads to Paris. It will be in the Germans’ interest to limit their offensive to the land south of the Meuse, all the more so because an invasion north of the river would force them to make a big detour and thus divide their troops into two groups, completely separated from each other by a fortified barrier [Belgian fortresses]. How that may be, in our strategic plans we shall have to take into account the possibility of a German attack through Belgian Luxembourg and to move our armies slightly westward from Mézières to Hirson.


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The great miscalculation of pre-war French planners stemmed from the failure of intelligence accurately to predict German intentions and capabilities. While recognizing that a German attack through Belgium was almost certain, the General Staff failed to appreciate that this would constitute the main German thrust. It was, after all, something the Germans could not do without using reserve troops in the front line. And, although there was evidence available that this was precisely what the Germans intended to do, it did not fit French assumptions and was ignored. This faulty appraisal was strengthened in 1913 following the Reichstag vote to increase the size of the German army, which the French interpreted as indicative of an intention not to utilize reserve troops in offensive operations. As reports to the contrary continued to be received in Paris, the Deuxième Bureau still asserted ‘that it did not know "what the direction of [Germany’s] main effort will be" and that it did "not possess any really reliable information concerning the operational plans of our adversaries." ’ When new intelligence was received late in 1913, the French General Staff refused to recast Plan XVII or depart from its out-and-out offensive doctrine.

Joffre had initially planned to counter any German move through Belgium by advancing to Namur, from where he could launch an attack on the German flank. Forbidden by Poincaré for obvious political reasons — the risk of alienating Britain — to plan for the launching of a French offensive through Belgium, as he would have preferred, throughout 1912 and 1913 Joffre had, perforce, to cast around for an alternative strategy. The result would be in the notorious Plan XVII. The main French effort would still be directed against the Franco-German frontier. Of the five French armies, four would concentrate between Verdun and Belfort in anticipation of an immediate offensive directed at Lorraine and the Luxembourg Ardennes. The Fifth Army, not required for the initial offensive, would guard the Belgian Ardennes from Montmédy to Mézières. Concern over the presence of enemy dreadnoughts in the Mediterranean capable of disrupting its passage caused the zone of concentration of the Algerian Corps to be shifted south, to the area between Toul and Epinal. Joffre’s left flank was now more exposed than ever: the hundred and ten mile sector from Mézières to the coast was to be defended only by the B.E.F. upon whose presence on the battlefield Joffre could not definitely count. By 1914 Joffre had finally abandoned any lingering hope of a French offensive through Belgium. Continued uncertainty regarding the possibility of any British military assistance, the size of the available force, and when it might become available gave Joffre little option other than to declare: ‘We will thus act prudently in not depending upon English forces in our operational projects.’ But how was it prudent, when, despite continued warnings, Joffre continued to insist that his left flank, the site of the actual German invasion, would only be defended by a contingent force? ‘Admittedly’, Williamson notes, ‘British sensitivity over Belgian neutrality prevented French offensive action in the one area where it might have stalled the German drive. Yet London’s attitude did not force the General to plan an attack against the heavily fortified area of Lorraine, nor to neglect the elementary requirements of security. Nor did it cause him to relegate twenty-five reserve divisions to secondary functions. For these decisions the allure of the "offensive" school remained the culprit.’ To this should be added an over-optimistic French reliance on the prospect of Russian assistance.

Despite Joffre’s so-called prudence, was there, at the very least, a British moral commitment to France? In view of the expectations built up from years of military conversations, and which should have been subject to more rigorous political control — yes. Could the Cabinet have refused to honour it? Yes. Did this commitment — whether moral or not — entail an obligation? In a strict sense, no — Britain could have refused to fight in August 1914. The November 1912 letter, after all, specifically repudiated the notion of a commitment and sought instead to enshrine the principle of freedom of action. This counted for little on the afternoon of Saturday 1 August when Paul Cambon confronted Sir Arthur Nicolson with his ‘petit papier’. ‘M Cambon pointed out to me this afternoon’, Nicolson informed Grey soon after, ‘that it was at our request that France had moved her fleets to the Mediterranean, on the understanding that we undertook the protection of her Northern and Western coasts.’ This was deliberately to misrepresent the 1912 letter; however, as was evident the following day, the strategy worked. In the sense applied to it by Cambon and Nicolson the letter was irrelevant as it did not reflect the perceived state of affairs. Realistically, could Britain have remained out of the war? Almost certainly not. Within days of the outbreak of the Franco-German war, some incident such as the shelling of a British merchant ship by a German man-of-war (as happened on the morning of Tuesday, 4 August), or the destruction of a British ship on the German-laid minefield in the Channel, would so have inflamed public opinion in Britain as to compel British entry. The difference would have been that, with the dispatch of the B.E.F. even further delayed, in all probability the Germans would have won at the Marne. If the commitment had been formalized, and replaced by a specific obligation, would the same decisions have been taken in the last week of July 1914? Probably not: Asquith, for example, would have found it almost impossible to refuse a request for the mobilization of the B.E.F.; Belgium would no longer have remained the excuse it always was. The one great imponderable is the effect this might have had on the other warring states. Russia might have become, as Grey and Asquith feared, more bellicose; the French might not have been as scrupulous in respecting British feelings. Either of these occurrences would have negated any calming influence which the assured prospect of British entry might have exerted on Berlin.

The essence of government by Cabinet is the notion of collective responsibility. For so long as the knowledge of the Anglo-French talks remained confined to a few members, the remainder could justifiably claim to have been innocent of any charge regarding the pledging of a commitment, moral or otherwise. However, by 1911, the circle of those in the know was widening; by 1912 it was complete. No excuses could then absolve them of responsibility. As G. M. Thomson has stated:
Some ministers, Lloyd George among them, felt the resentment of men who had allowed themselves, through stupidity, lazy-mindedness or excess of trust, to be cheated out of their full liberty of decision. They claimed that a web of obligations, which they had been assured were not obligations, had been spun around them while they slept. But they knew they had not slept all the time. Like Grey, who had deliberately stayed "ignorant" of the outcome of the military talks with France, they had deliberately shut their eyes. But not all of them, and not all the time. Morley might insist on his innocence, but Lord Haldane could produce from a red box of Committee of Imperial Defence papers a memorandum of General Ewart’s of 1910 discussing a proposed concentration of the British expeditionary force at Mauberge. And at the foot of the paper was the minute: ‘Doubtful if I ought to approve of this. But I suppose it’s in the interests of European peace.’ It was in Morley’s handwriting.


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Similarly, Grey’s famed remoteness from military matters was a sham. The Foreign Secretary knew more of the outcome of the 1906 military talks than he admitted to and was a permanent member of the C.I.D. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty from late 1911, also had no excuse and was largely confined to waging a war of words to justify a policy decision he was forced to make, while recognizing all the while that there was no alternative. Lloyd George was an intimate of Churchill and Henry Wilson and an enthusiastic, if amateur, dabbler in military strategy. Asquith and Morley were certainly alive to the danger. What can explain this unwillingness to face facts? The answer can be found in the realization that Britain could no longer face new and growing threats unaided. The Entente with France (and even more with Russia) was a necessary evil. This attitude was doubly irresponsible in that it prevented a British appraisal of the French Plan XVII. By denying the General Staff an overt rôle in the formulation of Anglo-French strategy, the Cabinet also denied its military planners the opportunity to question certain of the conditions upon which the plan was based. Perhaps, in view of the evidence of a loss of nerve on his part, Henry Wilson would not have wanted too close an examination of the French plan; perhaps British intelligence regarding German intentions was as inept as the French and could not have added much; perhaps the French, in view of the limited scope of initial British assistance, would not have taken kindly to interference. But who is to say that a joint planning committee might not have highlighted at least some of the dangers involved in the offensive assumptions inherent in Plan XVII?

Britain, above all, went to war in August 1914 in defence of British interests. This much was made clear by Sir Edward Grey in the House of Commons on the afternoon of Monday, 3 August:

I would like the House [Grey declared] to approach the crisis in which we are from the point of view of British interests, British honour (loud Opposition cheers), British obligations (renewed cheers), and free from all passion … But I want to look at the thing also without sentiment from the point of view of British interests (cheers), and it is on that that I am going to base and justify what I am presently going to say to the House. If we are to say nothing at this moment, what is France to do with her Fleet in the Mediterranean? If she leaves it there with no statement from us on what we will do, she leaves her northern and western coasts absolutely undefended at the mercy of a German fleet coming down the Channel … I say that from the point of view of British interests we felt strongly that France was entitled to know and to know at once (cheers) whether or not in the event of attack upon her unprotected northern ands western coasts she could depend upon British support … Now, Sir, I ask the House, from the point of view of British interests, to consider what may be at stake [if] France is beaten in a struggle of life and death, beaten to her knees, loses her position as a Great Power …


In other words, in Grey’s less than disinterested opinion, French interests were also British interests. The convergence which had commenced in 1904, which had been tested in 1906, which had been strengthened in 1908, which had been forced upon Paris and London in 1911, was now complete.
The new century had brought with it new enemies and new areas of dispute. For Cabinet Ministers of a Victorian frame of mind, immersed in the concept of the balance of power, the Entente had seemed a logical way to approach the situation. Colonial differences could be settled immediately; in the longer term, as Grey candidly admitted in 1906, ‘An entente between Russia, France and ourselves would be absolutely secure. If it is necessary to check Germany it could then be done.’ But with the Entente came obligations. These needed to be faced or disowned. Neither happened; instead backs were turned, though it is doubtful if Grey, in particular, was as ignorant of what was going on as he sometimes made out. It has been written of what occurred in January 1906 that:
Promises were declined but expectations were created. Whatever the verbal limitations, a momentous change in the orientation of British policy had taken place. The era of unfettered self-determination was over, the era of Continental attachments and entanglements had begun. The Entente Cordiale was the half-way house between isolation and alliance; and such relationships tend to grow more intimate with the passing years.

The failure to admit unpleasant facts at the time severely narrowed the options available to the Cabinet in the first days of August 1914. And this failure could be attributed to an unwillingness to acknowledge that, in the face of new threats and without assistance, Britain was no longer in a position to safeguard her global interests — it was impossible, as Fisher had realized in 1912, to be ‘strong everywhere’. Nowhere was this more so than in the Mediterranean, once the Austrians and Italians had commenced the construction of dreadnoughts. After the decision was reluctantly made, and the British battleships were withdrawn from the Mediterranean, it was open to the French to contend that a deal had been struck. When the final crisis arose, this specious argument was used to devastating effect by the French and accepted uncritically by the Cabinet who had come to realize, if they did not know already as a result of Grey’s special pleading, that, since the Entente had come into being, British and French interests in fact coincided. France had unwittingly become the key partner of the Triple Entente. Russia needed French capital; Britain, always wary of renewed trouble on the Indian frontier and in Persia, needed to keep the Russians as content as possible with the current strategic situation. France was the linchpin. Realistically, and despite the many pre-war invasion scares, Germany could not threaten Britain; France was another matter. The French had to be supported, even though it went against the grain, by the promise of an expeditionary force and by the unstated, though implied, commitment to safeguard the exposed Atlantic coasts. Naval resources could only be stretched so far; this was recognized by some in 1912 even if others fought a desperate rearguard action against the policy of concentration in the North Sea. It was also at this time that Balfour’s advice (amongst others) should have been followed: the Entente should have been converted into an alliance. Unwilling to accept this solution, or face the predictable outcry, the Cabinet gambled on the Grey-Cambon letters keeping the Entente afloat, hoping that the bluff would not be called.

The gamble was on its way to being lost when the Russians attempted to come to a similar arrangement in the spring of 1914. If there was reluctance to face realities in 1912, the Russian approach was greeted with dismay. The problem of avoiding the pitfalls created by the passing years and growing intimacy would prove intractable. Notwithstanding the difficulties, an Anglo-French alliance, if agreed to in 1912, would have allowed for full and unfettered naval and military co-operation. By being defensive in nature and peaceful in intent such an alliance might not necessarily have provoked Germany, but could have made certain members of the Government in Berlin think twice in July 1914 before irrevocable steps were taken. The greatest difficulty would concern the position of Russia; the prospect of an Anglo-Russian alliance was viewed by many with anathema. Perhaps the solution was to be found in a series of bilateral agreements, all defensive in nature. Finally, only an Anglo-French alliance would have provided the wherewithal to aid in the defence of British interests by freeing additional British forces, particularly in the Mediterranean. Instead, for Britain in August 1914 the Mediterranean remained what it had been for a number of years — and certainly since the advent of the German naval challenge — a millstone.


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HMS Berwick
[Original artwork © 2004 Geoffrey Miller]


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