SUPERIOR FORCE : The Conspiracy Behind the Escape of Goeben and Breslau © Geoffrey Miller



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SUPERIOR FORCE : The Conspiracy Behind the Escape of Goeben and Breslau © Geoffrey Miller




Chapter 2




Opening Moves




 Admiral Sir Archibald Berkeley Milne

Admiral Sir Archibald Berkeley Milne

On 27 July the Admiralty telegraphed to Milne that war was be no means impossible and he should be prepared to shadow hostile men of war. It was emphasized that this was NOT the Warning Telegram and Milne was directed to return to Malta, at ordinary speed, and remain there while completing with coal and stores.

 Troubridge, at the time still at Durazzo in Defence, was to be warned to be ready to rejoin the force with dispatch.[1] In accordance with the programme of his cruise, Milne was then at Alexandria in Inflexible, together with Indefatigable, the armoured cruisers Warrior and Black Prince, the light cruisers Chatham, Weymouth, Dublin and Gloucester, and 13 destroyers. With Defence at Durazzo, Milne’s fourth heavy cruiser, Duke of Edinburgh, was at Malta having just completed an annual refit[2] while his third battle cruiser, Indomitable, which was four months overdue for a refit, had parted company from the Squadron off Beirut on 21 July to return to Malta ahead of the squadron for the refit to begin. Her Captain, Francis Kennedy, had been complaining to Milne since March 1913 regarding the state of the electrical wiring in particular and the ship was placed in dockyard hands immediately upon her arrival on 23 July. By the time Milne received the preparatory telegram Indomitable had already had a great deal of machinery removed, but the refit was quickly forgotten and work commenced at once to prepare the ship, replenish the magazines and fill the empty bunkers with 1,800 tons of coal.[3]

                With the attitude of Italy still uncertain, with Goeben known to be then at Pola, and aware also that Milne was under strength by one battle cruiser (Invincible), Churchill asked Battenberg on 28 July to consider whether or not the battle cruiser New Zealand should be sent out to join the squadron;[4] however, it was decided at an Admiralty conference that afternoon not to reinforce Milne.[5] As the Admiralty pondered thus, Milne’s squadron left Alexandria, having insouciantly, if punctiliously, waited there for over 12 hours so as to be able to depart at the time published in the programme. Even then there seemed no particular urgency and this relaxed attitude was reinforced by an erroneous W/T message received via Dublin at Port Said to the effect that Serbia had accepted the Austrian demands and there would be no war. The larger ships calmly practised range-keeping in the forenoon and only after that were they ordered to raise steam for extra speed.[6] Such repose was no longer evident in London. On 29 July the Cabinet considered its position in case Belgian neutrality should be violated and decided that, in this eventuality, the British response would be determined by policy rather than legal obligations. Grey was authorized to inform the French and German Ambassadors ‘that at this stage we were unable to pledge ourselves in advance, either under all conditions to stand aside, or in any condition to join in.’ Churchill then described the naval precautions that had been taken and it was resolved that the ‘preliminary stage’ had arrived and the ‘warning telegram’ should be sent. This was done shortly before 2 p.m., immediately after the Cabinet rose;[7] meanwhile Milne’s squadron had arrived at Malta during the day. That evening the official warning telegram was in the C-in-C’s hands at a minute after 10 o’clock — in the event of war, Milne’s War Orders No. 2 would come into force.[8]

                The following afternoon, in his room at the Admiralty, Churchill sat down to draft a telegram to Milne which would set in motion the train of events leading to Troubridge’s fateful course of action and which would gain notoriety as the “superior force” telegram. As such, it is essential to study Churchill’s original draft to discover the changes he made and to try to ascertain the reasons for those changes. In the following, the words struck through were deleted in the final version, and the words in square brackets were added. Churchill wrote, initially:

Shd war break out and England and France engage in it, it now seems probable that Italy will remain neutral and that Greece can be made an ally. Spain also will be friendly & possibly an ally. The attitude of Italy is however uncertain and it is especially important that your squadron shd not be seriously engaged with Austrian ships before we know what Italy will do. Your first task shd be to aid the French in the transportation of their African army by covering and if possible bringing to action fast German or Austrian ships [particularly Goeben] wh may interfere with that transportation. You will be notified by telegraph when you may consult with the French Admiral. Do not [at this stage] be brought to action against superior forces in any w except [in combination with the French] as part of a general battle. The speed of your squadrons is sufficient to enable you to choose your moment. We shall hope to reinforce the Mediterranean and you must husband your forces at the outset. W.S.C. 30.7[9]


With the first draft, Churchill’s intentions become somewhat clearer than a reading of the final telegram as sent would indicate, and it is a pity he did not take the time to compose a fresh draft instead of tinkering with the first. This might possibly have avoided the awkward construction of the central sentence: as Churchill removed the reference to Austrian ships, to avoid contradicting the preceding sentence (which warned Milne not to become “seriously engaged” with Austrian ships until the attitude of Italy was clarified), the following sentence now referred only to Goeben and Breslau and should have said as much. All of Churchill’s subsequent alterations occur in the sixth sentence. As originally drafted it read: ‘Do not be brought to action against superior forces in any w[ay?] except as part of a general battle.’ As it stood, this was hopelessly ambiguous, failing to define what constituted either “superior forces” or “a general battle”. The addition of the qualifying clause “in combination with the French” after “except” tends to indicate what Churchill later admitted he had clearly meant: do not engage the Austrians single-handed.[10] However, the weight of the additional clause fell on the first half of the sentence, leading to the possible interpretation that “superior forces”, whatever they might be, could be engaged with French assistance. The sentence, as Churchill meant it, was, in any case, superfluous: Milne had already been warned off the Austrians. Had Churchill simply deleted the sentence, instead of altering it in three instances, Troubridge’s torment on the night of 6/7 August could have been avoided. The outcome might not have changed – as Souchon could still have declined battle if he chose – but Troubridge’s reputation would have remained intact.

                The perils of letting loose a headstrong politician in the Admiralty were also illustrated by the confusing advice regarding Italy: first, it ‘now seems probable’ that she would remain neutral but then, in the following sentence, the attitude of Italy was ‘uncertain’. Similarly, why did Churchill assure Milne that ‘we shall hope to reinforce the Mediterranean’ when he knew that Battenberg had already decided against such a move? There remains also the possibility that Churchill was influenced in drafting the telegram by the presence of Admiral Fisher at the Admiralty that day: whether Fisher had a hand in its composition or whether Churchill sought to impress his mentor is problematical. What is certain is that Fisher admitted to having had ‘a very exciting time’ with Churchill on the 30th and that, unusually for him, he ‘did not get back till late & did not sleep a wink last night in consequence! I can’t leave here while war is likely’, he blissfully declared, ‘as apparently I am wanted…’[11]


Milne replied to the Admiralty that, in order to carry out his primary duty of assisting the French to protect their transports, and in view of the greater strength of the Austrian and Italian fleets, he would keep his force concentrated at Malta until he received permission to consult the French Admiral. This meant that he could not afford to spare cruisers to protect trade in the Eastern Mediterranean basin but he would detach a single cruiser to watch the southern entrance of the Straits of Messina. The contingency that Italy would side with the Triple Alliance had to be allowed for but already, by the last day of July, the rumour had spread throughout the ships gathered in Malta that Italy would not participate. ‘This came as a surprise to nobody’, wrote one of the Defence’s midshipmen, ‘and it is assumed she will chip in on the winning side a little later on.’[12] His only other worry concerned the whereabouts of the German cruiser Strassburg – last reported in the Azores – and possibly heading for the Mediterranean.[13] The Director of the Operations Division, Rear-Admiral Leveson, minuted that Milne appeared ‘to be carrying out the spirit of his orders and no reply seems required other than informing him that Strasbourg is in the English Channel.’ Battenberg approved.[14]

                Milne lost the services of one of his cruisers, temporarily, when Black Prince departed at 7 a.m. on Saturday, 1 August to collect Kitchener and his staff from Marseilles with instructions to convey them to Alexandria; however, the order was cancelled the following day when it was decided that Kitchener should remain in London as a member of the Cabinet.[15] Late that Saturday night the first tenuous clues as to the movements of the German ships were received in London when it was reported (erroneously) from Rome that Breslau was coaling in Brindisi, but that it was thought she would be returning to Albania. This information was updated some hours later when the Admiral Superintendent at Malta, reported (again incorrectly) that both Goeben and Breslau were coaling in Brindisi.[16] Meanwhile, Troubridge’s ship buzzed with activity in preparation for war:

All loose gear was bundled out of the ship into empty coal lighters. Officers and all hoisting the stuff out. It was quite heavy work lumping the sea chests about the place. There was not time to stow the lighters at all carefully so everything was just jumbled on pell mell…[17]

                The feverish activity in Malta was mirrored in London on Sunday 2 August. The attitude of Italy had now become clearer and it seemed increasingly likely that she would adopt a course of neutrality: in this eventuality Churchill instructed that Battenberg and the new C.O.S., Vice-Admiral Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee, should consider whether the four ships of Troubridge’s First Cruiser Squadron and one battle cruiser or, alternatively, two heavy cruisers and two battle cruisers, should not return home. ‘The French should be consulted about this, and as to their plans’, the First Lord added, continuing: ‘You may do this as a piece of staff work — making it clear that we cannot decide questions of policy.’[18] So much for Churchill’s earlier promise to Milne that the Mediterranean would be reinforced.

                Battenberg, clear in his own mind at least as to the direction that Admiralty policy had taken during his tenure, first stated the position simply: ‘England massed in the North, safeguarding French interest against Germany. France massed in Meditn., safeguarding British interests against Austria.’ The First Sea Lord immediately had second thoughts with regard to the French task and replaced “British interests” with the more politic “joint interests”; interestingly, the corresponding change was not made to the unselfish British task, which seemed to be solely concerned with protecting the French. Battenberg concluded that France was overwhelmingly superior to Austria in battleships, armoured cruisers and torpedo craft, but quite deficient in light cruisers. And as, in any case, Goeben and Breslau had to be covered by the British, Battenberg proposed that Indefatigable (the newest of the three British battle cruisers) and Dublin should remain on station to tackle Goeben and Breslau and that the light cruisers should remain to assist the French but that the remainder – two battle cruisers and the First Cruiser Squadron – should return to the North Sea.[19] Sturdee, as his name almost seemed to imply, was far more cautious — and realistic. ‘I rather hold that an open mind be kept on making any reduction’, he informed the First Sea Lord, adding,

The situation will have to be very clear before doing so. Even against Austria and the Goeben. If French and English squadrons do not work well in combination the reduction could not be made. In any case I should prefer leaving for a time First Cruiser Squadron with the Inflexibles on the station. First Cruiser Squadron might prove a valuable asset for our trade either in Mediterranean or from Gibraltar.[20]


Was Battenberg seriously of the opinion that a single battle cruiser and light cruiser could guarantee the destruction of Goeben and Breslau, or was it simply a case of his writing what he thought the First Lord wanted to hear? In any event, Sturdee’s wiser counsel prevailed and at 1.30 on the afternoon of Sunday, 2 August, Battenberg drafted a signal to Milne (no. 196) ordering that: ‘Goeben must be shadowed by two battle-cruisers. Approaches to Adriatic must be watched by cruisers and destroyers. Remain near Malta yourself.’ To this, Churchill added: ‘It is believed that Italy will remain neutral. You cannot yet count absolutely on this.’[21]

                In Malta, one of Milne’s first duties that morning had been to interview Captain Kennedy of Indomitable who had been off duty, ill, for a week. Kennedy assured Milne he was fit to put to sea, then returned to Indomitable to address the ship’s company on the subject of being prepared for action both morally and physically.[22] At 11.50 a.m. leave was granted throughout the squadron (until 10 p.m. for men and midnight for officers); however, this proved short-lived in the case of Indefatigable, Indomitable, Defence, Warrior and the 1st and 2nd Division destroyers as, just after 2 p.m., a recall signal was made and the order given to raise steam immediately for full speed.[23] Meanwhile, Troubridge had been shown a copy of Churchill’s “superior force” telegram by Milne at 9 a.m. after breakfasting with the C-in-C following which Milne left Troubridge for half an hour so that he [Troubridge] could study the situation while Milne was engaged with his secretary on other business.[24]

                Although both officers later agreed that a conversation then ensued as to the definition of superior force there was to be also a further crucial misunderstanding as to whether the two battle cruisers were to be attached permanently to Troubridge’s flag or only temporarily, for the purpose of shadowing Goeben. Troubridge also subsequently maintained that his views as to the relative merits of the armoured cruiser type (none of which had been laid down since the Minotaur class early in 1905, which included Defence, now his own flagship) were well known, as was his opinion that a single battle cruiser was a superior force to a whole cruiser squadron ‘on a day of perfect visibility.’ There is some evidence that Churchill himself shared Troubridge’s misgivings on this subject — at least in so far as the smaller cruisers were concerned. In March 1913 Fisher, in his customary language, referred to Churchill’s argument ‘about the small cruisers who will all be gobbled up by “Goebens” like the Armadillo gobbles up ants and the bigger the ant the more placid the digestive smile’;[25] naturally, in the face of prospective battle in 1914, this sentiment was soon forgotten.

                Troubridge had been asked by Milne in October 1913 to lecture the officers of the fleet, aboard Inflexible, on the relative merits of these types of ships; he had also been involved in the 1913 manoeuvres where he first saw battle cruisers in action. In these manoeuvres, Troubridge’s heavy cruisers chanced upon the new battle cruiser Lion from the opposing fleet. As Lion appeared to be ‘almost out of sight’ Troubridge never dreamt of opening fire yet, he later complained, ‘in a moment half of my squadron were adjudged by the Chief Umpire to be out of action to her fire.’[26] The Admiralty’s own report on the principal cruiser work carried out in 1913 tended to support Troubridge with one possible, yet crucial, exception. Although the report’s author, Vice-Admiral Sturdee, maintained that the exercises had clearly shown that armoured cruisers ‘have been disclassed [sic] by the introduction of the fast and powerful battle cruisers’, he did enter one important caveat: ‘Still, the armoured cruisers possess a good armament, but insufficient speed…In combination, the later classes might hold their own against one battle cruiser, but when spread beyond concentrating distance they will fall an easy prey to an enemy’s battle cruiser. From the experience gained during these exercises armoured cruisers should not be unduly separated, but they should work in squadrons when they may execute most valuable work as cruisers...’[27] The report might almost have been written with Troubridge’s later predicament in mind; however, although it had been completed by July 1914 and 16 copies had been dispatched to Malta, they did not arrive till 8 August, two days too late to have any effect on Troubridge’s actions.[28]

                On the question of what constituted superior force, Troubridge later recalled his conversation with Milne that humid Sunday afternoon after the receipt of Battenberg’s telegram: ‘I hope, Sir, that this is left to my judgement’, adding, ‘You know, Sir, that I consider a battle-cruiser a superior force to a cruiser squadron, unless they can get within range of her.’ In this version Milne allegedly replied that the situation would not arise, as Troubridge would have the two battle cruisers with him.[29] For his part, Milne remembered that Troubridge did speak of the difficulty his armoured cruisers might encounter in engaging Goeben but that they agreed that it would be possible to fight a successful action if Goeben could be caught unawares, or in a situation where manoeuvring would be difficult for the German ship. Milne, however, was adamant that Troubridge ‘did not leave me with the impression that he would not engage, although he said it would be difficult’,[30] while, with regard to the question of superior force, Milne was equally convinced that this part of his orders applied only to the Austrian fleet alone and not to the German squadron.[31]

                When Battenberg’s telegram no. 196 arrived that afternoon, Milne thereupon framed his Sailing Orders to Troubridge. According to these, Chatham was to depart as soon as possible to watch the Straits of Messina (she would leave at 5.12 p.m.), while Defence, Indomitable, Indefatigable, Warrior, Duke of Edinburgh, Gloucester and the 1st and 2nd Division of Destroyers would carry out the orders contained in Battenberg’s signal: during the night the destroyers would push forward to watch the entrance to the Adriatic, during the day they would retire to the Greek coast to save coal and rest the crews while the four cruisers took over; the two battle cruisers were to remain in the rear to lend support though, if Goeben were sighted, she was to be shadowed by the two battle cruisers and a light cruiser. Milne also passed on the latest – dubious – information, that Goeben and Breslau had apparently coaled at Brindisi on the 1st, and that it had been reported that Breslau had left to return to Albania.[32] Although not in the sailing orders, Milne had received two further pieces of information that afternoon: the consul at Brindisi wired that Goeben had now been sighted off Taranto[33] and the Greek Government had reported that the Austrian Ambassador at Constantinople had been inquiring as to the quantity of coal at Salonica which, it was believed, might be required for an Austrian Squadron trying to intercept Serbian stores at that port.[34]

                Troubridge’s sailing orders also contained the following admonition from Milne: ‘The Admiralty have informed me that, should we become engaged in war, it will be important at first to husband the naval force in the Mediterranean and, in the earlier stages, I [Milne] am to avoid being brought to action against superior force. You are to be guided by this should war be declared.’ This was Troubridge’s last opportunity to clear up any lingering doubt about the question of superior force; he did not take it.


By attaching the two battle cruisers to Troubridge, Milne was acting in accordance with Admiralty telegram no. 196 – which instructed that Goeben should be shadowed by two battle cruisers – and this was stated in his sailing orders to Troubridge. As far as Milne was concerned, the detachment was a temporary measure to shadow, and possibly deal with, Goeben, however, his primary duty still remained the protection of the French transports and the watch on the Adriatic. As ordered, Milne would remain near Malta in Inflexible co-ordinating his forces but, he maintained, it should have been obvious to Troubridge that the Admiralty did not intend him (Milne) ‘to remain alone with my flagship during the War.’[35] Troubridge later implied that he had not been shown Admiralty telegram no. 196, but only his sailing orders — the tenuous importance of this alleged omission supposedly being that, whereas Battenberg’s telegram suggested that the main reason for the dispatch of the two battle cruisers was to shadow Goeben, Milne’s sailing orders to Troubridge appeared to downgrade this to an ancillary function by merely instructing Troubridge that ‘Should the Goeben be sighted you are to cause her to be shadowed by the two battle cruisers.’ This was a distinction fine enough to be invisible.

                Recalling his time at the Admiralty as C.O.S., when he had been involved in the Anglo-French naval talks, Troubridge knew that the French C-in-C would assume supreme command in the Mediterranean, placing Milne who – as a result of Fisher’s legacy – was senior to Lapeyrère, in an impossible position. Therefore, Troubridge assumed, the Admiralty would have no option but to order Milne, in Inflexible, to return to England while placing the remainder of the Squadron under Troubridge’s permanent operational control, subject to the overall supervision of the French C-in-C. Troubridge further maintained that, reinforcing this impression, was his mistaken belief that the sailing orders Milne had shown him originated from the Admiralty, rather than being Milne’s interpretation of Admiralty orders.

                Was Troubridge aware of Admiralty telegram no. 196 or not? At first, he testified that Milne had shown him ‘what I thought was an Admiralty telegram [referring to the sailing orders], but I now find it was not’. He repeated this shortly afterwards: ‘he [Milne] pulled out of his drawer what I though was a telegram from the Admiralty, but I see now it was not’.[36] But later still, at his Court Martial, Troubridge declared that, ‘My sailing orders are before the Court. I was to take under my command a certain force…and I was to carry out the orders contained in an Admiralty telegram attached’.[37] This last admission was forced out of Troubridge as the sailing orders he was given by Milne clearly refer to the instructions received in Admiralty telegram no. 196, ‘of which a copy is attached’.[38] There can be no doubt then that, despite the earlier orders to the C-in-C,[39] Troubridge was aware that for the time being Milne had not been ordered back to England and, from this, it follows he should have realized that, as Milne was to remain in the Mediterranean, the detachment of the battle cruisers to his flag was temporary.

                Troubridge took his misconception with him and returned to his ship. As Defence would soon be ready to depart, he flashed a signal to Milne at 4.52 p.m. to inquire whether he should wait for the battle cruisers. Milne agreed that Defence should delay her departure but that the destroyers should be dispatched immediately at 10 or 11 knots to save coal, with the remainder of the squadron catching them up later.[40] At 5.45 p.m. Troubridge signalled the other captains of the ships assigned to him and beckoned them to a meeting where he outlined the orders he had just been given and ended by emphasizing that if Goeben and Breslau were sighted, even though war had not been declared, they were to be shadowed very carefully. When he asked if there were any questions, Captain Kennedy of Indomitable sardonically inquired, ‘How is it proposed that 22 to 24 knot ships shall shadow 27 to 28 knot ships that don’t want to be shadowed?’ Kennedy subsequently recounted that his brother captains scoffed at such a question, while Troubridge answered for them by saying it was common knowledge ‘that Goeben was drawing a foot and a half over her proper draught and so could not nearly steam the speed she was supposed.’[41] At least on this point Troubridge and Milne agreed: Milne had been informed by the Harbour Master at Alexandria that when Goeben had visited the port in 1913 she had only one foot to spare under her bottom. ‘It was generally known or rumoured’, Milne later recalled, ‘that she drew more than she was intended to draw.’[42] Kennedy remained unconvinced.

                At 6.07 p.m. Troubridge informed the ships under his command that he would organize them in two divisions, the first comprising Defence, Warrior and Duke of Edinburgh, the second Indomitable and Indefatigable, with the two light cruisers Chatham and Gloucester acting separately.[43] Finally, at 9.15 p.m. on 2 August, the ships slipped and proceeded from harbour on course N.58º E. at 15 knots until they had caught up with the destroyers which had left an hour earlier; then the fleet slowed to the cruising speed of the destroyers, 10 knots.[44] That first night the squadron went to ‘night defence stations’, the guns being loaded with common shell.[45]

                Milne informed the Admiralty of his dispositions but – in the first intimation the Admiralty would receive of the confusion caused by Churchill’s ‘superior force’ telegram – Milne wanted to know whether, if Goeben and Breslau emerged from the Adriatic, he should concentrate all Troubridge’s forces against them, or just the battle cruisers, leaving the remainder of the squadron to continue watching the entrance to the Adriatic. This confusion was echoed in London and was a direct result of both Churchill and Battenberg drafting ambiguous orders. Battenberg’s annotation on Milne’s telegram stated ‘Watch on mouth of Adriatic should be maintained as well as shadowing Goeben[46] giving equal preference to both objectives, however Churchill’s telegram to Milne later that night read: ‘Watch on mouth of Adriatic should be maintained, but Goeben is your objective. Follow her and shadow her wherever she goes and be ready to act on declaration of war which appears probable and imminent.’[47] Churchill had thus altered the emphasis.[48]

                Milne was also authorized that evening to enter into communication with Admiral Lapeyrère. Four days earlier, on the afternoon of 30 July, the French Naval Attaché, the Comte de Saint-Seine, had seen Churchill and Battenberg at the Admiralty to suggest that it was time for the joint signal books, held in readiness in sealed packets by the French and British Cs-in-C, to be distributed amongst the individual ships of the fleets. In view of his past exertions to maintain ‘freedom of choice’ Churchill remained hesitant and was able to stall the Attaché by arguing that it was a matter for the two Cabinets and not the two Admiralties: ‘such action was premature’, Churchill declared to Sir Edward Grey when notifying him of Saint Seine’s approach, as ‘our strength and preparedness enable us to wait.’[49]


While strength and preparedness were on Britain’s side, morality was not — at least as far as the French were concerned. All the glorious talk of ‘freedom of action’ would shortly be replaced by accusations as the French Ambassador, Paul Cambon, was made aware that he could not automatically count on British support: in the coming struggle his main weapon would be a humble piece of paper — the November 1912 letter from Grey.[50] But it was not the only weapon in his armoury. On the afternoon of Friday 31 July Grey had had a ‘rather painful’ interview with Cambon at which, in Asquith’s words, he ‘had of course to tell Cambon (for we are under no obligation) that we could give no pledges, and that our action must depend upon the course of events’.[51] That evening, Cambon informed George Lloyd, a Conservative M.P. who had spent some time as an honorary attaché at Constantinople, that:

‘I have just been to see Sir Edward Grey and he says that under no conditions will you fight.’ Cambon’s voice almost trembled as he went on to say: ‘That is what he said. He seems to forget that it was on your advice and under your guarantee that we moved all our ships to the south and our ammunition to Toulon. Si vous restez inertes, nos côtes sont livrés aux Allemands.[52]

While this argument by itself was spurious, Cambon then made a far more serious accusation: that Grey had said his hands were tied because the Conservatives would not support the Government. Despite the hour, Lloyd went to see General Sir Henry Wilson, no friend of the incumbent Liberal administration, who apparently confirmed the charge.[53] Cambon’s allegation set in motion a series of events, orchestrated by Lloyd and Wilson, which culminated in the delivery of an Opposition pledge of support for the Government on Sunday, 2 August.[54]

                The morning of Saturday, 1 August began early for Sir Arthur Nicolson, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. Just before midnight the previous night an erroneous report had been received from the French Embassy that the French frontier had been violated; Nicolson summoned Sir Henry Wilson at 7 a.m. on Saturday to show him a dispatch ‘indicating that the Germans were about to assume the offensive on both frontiers’ and, together, they went to see Grey, who was staying at Haldane’s house in Queen Anne’s Gate. The Foreign Secretary was still asleep and Nicolson, loathe to wake him (for Grey had been dealing with dispatches till 3.30 a.m.) returned to his own home for breakfast before walking to the Foreign Office where the news was uniformly bad.[55]

                The Cabinet met that morning from 11 a.m. to 1.30 p.m. and it was ‘no exaggeration’ recorded Asquith, ‘to say that Winston occupied at least half of the time.’ The First Lord was ‘very bellicose & demanding immediate mobilisation’ which the Cabinet refused – for the moment – to sanction. Indeed, no sooner had the session commenced when Grey telephoned the German Ambassador to seek an assurance that, if France remained neutral in a Russo-German conflict, Germany would not attack the French. On his own responsibility Lichnowsky gave the assurance sought.[56] Asquith also wrote to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff at 11.30 a.m. to put on record the fact that Britain had never promised to send an expeditionary force to France.[57] Notwithstanding this faintheartedness, Grey declared (and, given his personal responsibility in the matter, he had but little option) ‘that if an out & out & uncompromising policy of non-intervention at all costs is adopted, he will go.’[58] Despite making this stand, Grey’s refusal to countenance non-intervention was not, of course, the same thing as holding out the hope of immediate participation.


                Grey saw Cambon again after the Cabinet and told him that, in the event of a localized Russo-German conflict, Germany had agreed not to attack France if she remained neutral. If France, he added, ‘could not take advantage of this position, it was because she was bound by an alliance to which we were not parties, and of which we did not know the terms. This did not mean that under no circumstances would we assist France, but it did mean that France must take her own decision at this moment without reckoning on an assistance that we were not now in a position to promise.’ The Ambassador, with justifiable truculence, replied that he ‘could not and would not’ transmit such a message.[59] ‘After all that has passed between our two countries’, Cambon exclaimed,

after the withdrawal of our forces ten kilometres within our frontier so that German patrols can actually move on our soil without hindrance, so anxious are we to avoid any appearance of provocation; after the agreement between your naval authorities and ours by which all our naval strength has been concentrated in the Mediterranean so as to release your Fleet for concentration in the North Sea, with the result that if the German Fleet now sweep down the Channel and destroys Calais, Boulogne and Cherbourg, we can offer no resistance, you tell me that your Government cannot decide upon intervention? How am I to send such a message? It would fill France with rage and indignation. My people would say you have betrayed us. It is not possible. I cannot send such a message. It is true that agreements between your military and naval authorities and ours have not been ratified by our Governments, but you are under a moral obligation not to leave us unprotected.[60]

Cambon thereupon suggested that he should reply to his Government that the Cabinet had not yet taken any decision, at which Grey replied ‘that we had come to a decision: that we could not propose to Parliament at this moment to send an expeditionary military force to the Continent. Such a step has always been regarded here as very dangerous and doubtful. It was one that we could not propose, and Parliament would not authorize unless our interests and obligations were deeply and desperately involved.’ Nevertheless, Grey at least held out the hope that a German attack upon the French coast or the violation of Belgian neutrality ‘might alter public feeling here’ and he promised that he would ‘ask the Cabinet to consider the point about the French coasts.’[61]

                Cambon, ‘white and speechless’, staggered into Nicolson’s room muttering, ‘Ils vont nous lâcher, ils vont nous lâcher.’ After being seated by the Permanent Under-Secretary, Nicolson went to see Grey, whom he found ‘pacing his room, biting at his lower lip.’[62] When informed of the Cabinet decision, Nicolson similarly was left to exclaim, ‘But that is impossible, you have over and over again promised M Cambon that if Germany was the aggressor you would stand by France.’ Grey replied, ‘Yes, but he has nothing in writing!’[63] When Nicolson returned to his own room, Cambon had recovered his composure and suggested that the time had come to produce ‘mon petit papier’ — the 1912 letter. Nicolson urged the Ambassador not to send an official Note and, instead, wrote himself to Grey that ‘M Cambon pointed out to me this afternoon 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. As I understand you told him that you would submit to the Cabinet the question of a possible German naval attack on French Northern and Western Ports it would be well to remind the Cabinet of the above fact.’ To this Grey minuted that he had spoken to Asquith and attached ‘great importance’ to the point being settled the next day, Sunday 2 August.[64]

                Churchill dined alone at the Admiralty on Saturday night devouring, in addition to his meal, for his appetite was whetted by the prospect of war, the foreign telegrams as they came in. The lamps were still not completely extinguished, but flickered dimly; peace hung by a thread until another box of dispatches arrived containing the news that sent a gust down Whitehall: Germany had declared war on Russia. Churchill walked across Horse Guards and entered 10, Downing Street by the garden gate, going up to the drawing room where a knot of ministers was gathered. After discussing the latest news, Churchill and Grey left together when, according to Churchill, Grey said ‘You should know I have just done a very important thing. I have told Cambon that we shall not allow the German fleet to come into the Channel.’ Upon hearing this, Churchill ‘went back to the Admiralty and gave forthwith the order to mobilize.’[65] If true, Grey’s action would have pre-empted the Cabinet discussion the following day; however, the Foreign Secretary’s account of the conversation differs crucially from the First Lord’s. According to Grey, he told Churchill that:

The French might be sure that the German fleet would not pass through the Channel, for fear that we should take the opportunity of intervening, when the German fleet would be at our mercy. I promised however to see if we could give any assurance that, in such circumstances, we would intervene.[66]

This was a different thing altogether.

                Sunday’s Cabinet lasted from 11 a.m. to almost 2 p.m. during which the position was, to some extent, clarified. ‘We agreed at last, (with much difficulty),’ wrote Asquith, ‘that Grey should be authorised to tell Cambon that our fleet would not allow the German fleet to make the Channel the base of hostile operations.’[67] It was Grey’s recollection that this pledge had originated from an ‘anti-war’ member of the Cabinet along the lines of, ‘Of course we can’t have the German fleet come knocking down the Channel, we must stop that.’[68] On the other hand, Crewe – who could hardly be described as anti-war – claimed the honour of first raising the point.[69] Naturally, Grey would not have been a disinterested spectator during these discussions; it was he, after all, who would have to face Cambon again, and he thereupon made his position perfectly clear. Perhaps the fairest account is that of Walter Runciman, who had ‘no record of the guarantee to France of the English Channel being a suggestion due to the anti-war party. Everyone who thought about it felt that we could not tolerate the German army at the ports of the North of France, or the German fleet in the Channel. I never felt that the Belgian Security Treaty was the big fact. My thoughts were always centred on the importance to us of the free passage of the English Channel, both for the purpose of our supplies to London and for the purpose of our easy communication with the Continent.’ Runciman did not believe that there was either a binding or a moral obligation to France, but that, simply, ‘a victory for Germany would be disastrous for us.’[70]


                Runciman recalled that the Cabinet was split three ways, between those determined to resign rather than go to war (Beauchamp, Morley, Burns and Simon), those who followed what he called the ‘Grey-Asquith view’ which, other than the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, included Churchill, Crewe, Pease and himself, and a middle section that was still, by Sunday morning, not entirely committed. Typical of the latter group was Herbert Samuel who now chose to express his own conviction ‘that we should be justified in joining in the war either for the protection of the northern coasts of France, which we could not afford to see bombarded by the German fleet and occupied by the German army, or for the maintenance of the independence of Belgium’.[71] The conversion of this middle section, at least to the extent of sanctioning Grey’s pledge to Cambon, was a crucial determinant in the Cabinet’s later decision to intervene.[72] An ancillary, though not unimportant factor (as indicated by McKenna), was that by Sunday public opinion had turned and was no longer opposed to Britain’s entry into the War.[73] Asquith, who was ‘quite clear in my own mind as to what is right & wrong’, set out his thoughts for his paramour, Venetia Stanley:

(1)  We have no obligation of any kind either to France or Russia to give them military or naval help.

(2)  The despatch of the Expeditionary force to France at this moment is out of the question & wd serve no object.

(3)  We mustn’t forget the ties created by the long-standing & intimate friendship with France.

(4)  It as against British interests that France shd be wiped out as a Great Power.

(5)  We cannot allow Germany to use the Channel as a hostile base.

(6)  We have obligations to Belgium to prevent her being utilised & absorbed by Germany.[74]

Was there ever a more muddle headed piece of thinking? Asquith penned a similar list for the benefit of the Opposition leaders, which differed only in admitting that ‘Both the fact that France has concentrated practically their whole naval power in the Mediterranean, and our own interests, require that we should not allow Germany to use the North Sea or the Channel with her fleet for hostile operations against the Coast or shipping of France.’[75] As Asquith calmly attempted to reconcile the irreconcilable, the irony was that Cambon’s ‘petit papier’, which the Ambassador had threatened to use to devastating effect, contained the following sentence: ‘The disposition, for instance, of the French and British fleets respectively at the moment is not based upon an engagement to co-operate in war.’ Clearly, either Grey shamelessly used Cambon’s threat to railroad the rest of the Cabinet, or the 1912 Agreement was not worth the paper it was written on. Even Churchill, who had warned so forthrightly in 1912 of the dangers of voluntarily surrendering ‘freedom of choice’, now became swept up, exhilarated, by the events unfolding around him; and as for his senior naval adviser – Battenberg – it is evident from the note he submitted to Churchill on Sunday morning that the notion of ‘freedom of action’ was chimerical.[76]


Grey saw Cambon at 2.30 p.m., after the Cabinet had adjourned, to impart the good news[77] and, at the Admiralty shortly thereafter, Churchill (in the presence of Battenberg and Sturdee) informed Saint-Seine of the Cabinet’s decision. This was by no means the end of Cambon’s worries though, as Churchill apparently informed the French Naval Attaché that Grey had also spoken to the German Ambassador concerning the pledge to France. The Foreign Secretary had to rush to reassure Cambon that this was quite wrong and nothing would be said to any other foreign representative until he had had a chance to make a public statement.[78] Saint-Seine was told that the general direction of the naval war would rest with the British Admiralty, however, ‘In the event of the neutrality of Italy being assured, France would undertake to deal with Austria assisted only by such British ships as would be required to cover German ships in that sea, and secure a satisfactory composition of the allied fleet. The direction of the allied fleets in the Mediterranean to rest with the French, the British Admiral [Troubridge] being junior.’[79] As vague as this was, it was formalized four days later when a convention was signed in London by Battenberg and the Assistant Chief of the French Naval Staff. Section (ii) of this convention stipulated that the French would have general direction of operations in the Mediterranean, though it was intended that eventually Troubridge would have some latitude to conduct independent operations.

                The immediate problem, according to Battenberg, remained the two rogue German ships: ‘So long as the Goeben and Breslau are not destroyed or captured, the British naval forces at present in the Mediterranean will co-operate with the French fleet in their destruction or capture. When this operation has been completed the 3 English Battle-Cruisers and 2 or 3 of the Armoured Cruisers will be released for general service’, while the remainder of the British forces would be placed directly under the command of the French C-in-C.[80] Clearly, Troubridge was correct in his assumption that Milne, being senior to Lapeyrère, would eventually have to be recalled; however, until this happened (after the German ships had been disposed of), Milne was still in charge and Troubridge – not privy to the Admiralty decision – had no valid justification for his opinion of 2 August that the battle cruisers had been attached to him permanently.[81] At the meeting with Saint-Seine on the afternoon of Sunday 2nd, Churchill had also stated that the package containing the secret signal books could be distributed and opened — but not yet used. Although this was an advance over his position the previous Thursday, it was hardly conducive to the fostering of active co-operation.


                The Cabinet reconvened at 6.30 p.m. that evening, at which time it was learned Germany had invaded Luxembourg.[82] A last minute appeal by the Counsellor from the German Embassy could not alleviate the effect of the latest war news: Kühlmann had gone to see Haldane after the morning Cabinet adjourned to advise ‘England to stand out at first, and then, after the first shock of arms, to dictate peace by a threat of intervention.’ Haldane seemed interested by this suggestion but then Grey appeared and replied, in effect, ‘that he had an honourable obligation to France.’[83] The mood at the evening Cabinet had changed: Asquith now ordered the mobilization of the Army and, with Cabinet approval, Churchill returned to the Admiralty where, at 7.06 p.m., he sent a signal to Malta authorizing communication between Milne and Lapeyrère ‘in case Great Britain should decide to become ally of France against Germany.’[84] Milne’s War Orders No. 2 – which had been sent to him in May 1913 – stipulated that a book of signals, labelled “Secret Package A”, had been prepared for the purpose of joint communication and that, during a period of strained relations, a cypher telegram would be sent ‘that in the event of war these arrangements are to become operative.’ Manifestly, according to these orders, Milne could only open Secret Package A in the event of war actually breaking out, which had not occurred when he received the Admiralty telegram on Sunday evening. In view of this, as he had no other way of communicating safely with the French, he sought permission to use the contents of the Secret Package as a cypher immediately, before the formal declaration of war; in so doing, he was exercising the same caution that Churchill had shown to Saint-Seine earlier that afternoon.[85] A signal was duly sent from London at 9.40 the following morning (3 August) authorizing the use of the cypher; despite this Milne remained unable to contact Lapeyrère by wireless.

                Wireless telegraphy was still in its infancy and Milne’s abortive attempts to raise the French C-in-C were not untypical: in Defence, for example, the W/T room was ‘a funny little iron caboose by the funnels…in the charge of a Lieutenant of the Royal Marines.’ In this tense period, senior officers milled around outside wanting to know if the operator could hear anything. ‘Obviously’, a junior officer recorded, ‘they were hoping to get something direct from the Admiralty which had never been achieved before.’ At this stage, most of the information came in ‘by land wire and via various consuls’[86] and, indeed, there was so much to decode that three watches had to be formed to handle the task.[87] Milne continued to send his message to Lapeyrère, detailing the forces available at his (Milne’s) disposal and wanting to know how best he could assist the French C-in-C. Having failed to get an answer by the afternoon of Monday 3 August, Milne dispatched the light cruiser Dublin to Bizerta with a letter for the Senior Naval Officer there, to be forwarded to the elusive French Admiral; Dublin would not arrive till 9.43 on the morning of Tuesday the 4th.[88] Having delivered the letter and departed, Dublin picked up the reply from Bizerta at 3.30 p.m., while at sea, and relayed it to Milne. The French fleet, it said, consisting of all their forces, had just left for the Algerian coast.[89] It was the first hard news Milne had had of the French and it was incorrect as regards the time: the French fleet had actually departed from Toulon at 4 a.m. on Monday, 3 August.


Hovering uncertainly above the heads of the principal French participants was the tiresome question of the transportation of the XIXth Army Corps, a subject of controversy between the opposing ministries for over 40 years[90] until, finally, in May 1913, the Supreme Council of National Defence decreed that, the arrival of the troops being of paramount importance, the transports should sail independently, each steaming at its highest speed. A special division, comprising an obsolete pre-dreadnought and seven old cruisers would be stationed just to the east of the line Algiers-Toulon, approximately half-way along the route to be used by the transports, to provide a limited form of close cover. The main protection for the transports though would be provided by immediate offensive operations against the enemy by the bulk of the French fleet: ‘if the enemy were so engaged’, wrote Vice-Admiral Bienaimé, who would later emerge as one of Lapeyrère’s severest critics, ‘he would not be free to detach ships to attack the transports; and, in any case, by these vessels passing singly and at high speed they would be safe, for the target they presented was small, and the risk to the enemy incommensurate with the gain.’[91] This would hold true in the case of offensive operations against the Italian or Austrian fleets, but did not address the problem caused by the presence of Goeben and Breslau — fast and powerful raiders with, apparently, one specific function: disrupting the transportation of the Algerian Corps.

                The most onerous task would devolve upon Rear-Admiral Darrieus, in command of the special division, patrolling the midway point of the transports’ route. Darrieus was hardly over-enamoured of his task, realizing that if Goeben did break through the offensive cordon his obsolete ships would be the last line of defence; he therefore requested first that his division be strengthened and then, in contravention of the long standing arrangement, that the transports be arranged into convoys to embark from two (not the planned three) ports, Oran and Algiers. Lapeyrère forwarded these proposals to Paris where they must have landed like a bombshell upon the desk of the unstable Minister of Marine, Armand Gauthier, a doctor of medicine knowing next to nothing of naval affairs and who had achieved his post after a political scandal had caused the removal of his predecessor.[92] Gauthier’s increasingly erratic behaviour, which included at one point a demand that Goeben be attacked before war had been declared, led to his replacement within days; however, his reaction to Lapeyrère’s wire was predictable enough. The Admiral had been involved in all the recent discussions, at which he had made plain he could not spare ships to escort convoys, and now he wanted to alter a carefully thought out plan on the very eve of war. Lapeyrère was therefore ordered on 30 July to institute the plan as originally conceived.

                The following day continuing anxiety about the German ships resulted in the C-in-C seeking permission to send three old ships of the Division de Complément (Suffren, Gaulois, Charlemagne), which he had earlier proposed should reinforce Darrieus’ division, to Bizerta instead to guard against a surprise attack by the Germans. Not receiving a reply quickly enough to satisfy him, Lapeyrère telegraphed again that day to the effect that he would dispatch the division on his own authority unless he received orders to the contrary. Gauthier refused the request and reiterated his opposition to the formation of convoys.[93] Although he had agreed to the 1913 plan, Lapeyrère was not an enthusiastic proponent of it, especially where, in his opinion, the insistence on a timetable of sailings for the transports hindered his freedom of action and detracted from the all-out offensive at the outset.

                The flaw in the plan had always been that the troops were to be sent before French command of the seas had been guaranteed. Lapeyrère now had to weigh in his own mind the consequences of a disaster befalling the XIXth Army Corps – upon whose presence at the front the army apparently set so much store – against the possible lost opportunity of an early victory at sea. The final version of the French Army’s infamous Plan XVII, effective from 15 April 1914, stipulated that the 37 steamers to be used to transport the troops were to leave between the third and seventh days of mobilization; convoys could be formed if adjudged essential but only if no significant delay resulted.[94] It was this let-out clause that Lapeyrère now wanted to utilize. His position was undoubtedly complicated in late July by the ambiguity of the attitudes of Italy and Britain: although he could, in all probability, count on the former declaring neutrality and the latter coming in as an ally of France, he could not be absolutely sure. And, by the first days of August, the clarification of this situation had been offset by the confusion reigning in Paris which in turn was exacerbated by the command structure, by friction between the C-in-C and the Naval Staff, and, above all, by the forlorn figure of Dr Gauthier. The hapless Minister, having ‘forgotten’ to order torpedo boats into the Channel, now wanted, on 2 August, to attack the Germans immediately, then proceeded to challenge the War Minister to a duel and finally broke down in tears, leading the President to conclude, somewhat euphemistically, that Gauthier’s nerves were on edge.[95]

                In the crisis the situation in the Mediterranean was overlooked until the Cabinet, having regained some of its composure later in the afternoon, drafted a telegram to Lapeyrère on the basis of the latest information of the German ships, which placed them at Brindisi on the night of 31 July/1 August. These orders, received by Lapeyrère at 8.50 p.m. on Sunday evening, 2 August, instructed him to set sail to try to intercept Goeben and Breslau and reiterated the necessity to have the transports proceed independently. So important was this deemed that the Minister of War, Messimy, accepted responsibility for all risks.[96] Despite this generous offer, Lapeyrère remained unhappy; uncertainty surrounded him. As early as 30 July the Cabinet had voluntarily withdrawn all French troops ten kilometres from the frontier: this order had been reaffirmed by Messimy on 1 August while German mobilization continued apace. Only on the 2nd, that perilous Sunday, did the arguments of General Joffre prevail: the territory abandoned would, if captured by the Germans, have to be retaken later with great loss of life. Even so, French desperation to portray Germany as the aggressor led Joffre to declare on 3 August that no French troops must cross the frontier; any ‘incidents’ must arise as a result of German provocation.[97]

                Lapeyrère’s position was more difficult: the enemy he had planned to oppose, Italy, showed no signs of joining the fray, while he could not afford to let the German ships make the first move as, in all probability, this move would be not some minor incident but the sinking of a troop transport. In the circumstances, despite his earlier willingness to allow independent sailing, he had now convinced himself that only by convoy could the XIXth Army Corps be transported safely. Late on the night of Sunday 2nd he telegraphed Paris again, setting out a virtual list of demands: his fleet would sail so as to be off the African coast on the afternoon of the 4th; he had ordered the transports to stay in harbour; and convoys were essential. As Sunday became Monday Lapeyrère received accurate information that Goeben had been in Messina on the previous day; finally, some hours later, at 4 a.m. on 3 August, the main body of the French fleet weighed anchor and proceeded majestically, if hardly noticed, out of Toulon harbour.

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[1]    Admiralty to C-in-C, Medt., no. 176, 27 July 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19.

[2]    Milne to Admiralty, 20 August 1914, para. 2, PRO Adm 137-879; Lumby, p. 213.

[3]    Statement by Captain Francis W Kennedy, HMS Indomitable, 20 October 1914, King’s College Centre for Military Archives, Kennedy 3 [this important source was written by Kennedy when he feared he might be made a scapegoat for the Goeben affair after hearing certain rumours to that effect; hereinafter referred to as “Kennedy”]. See also, Journal of Midshipman (later Vice-Admiral) B B Schofield, HMS Indomitable, 27 July 1914, IWM BBS 2.

[4]    It was only in December 1913 that Churchill had announced that, during 1914, four battle cruisers would be ‘kept based on Malta’, but that ‘If the Germans continue to keep their battle-cruiser Goeben in the Mediterranean, the British force there will be re-inforced by the New Zealand as soon as the Tiger joins the 1st. Battle-Cruiser Squadron at the end of 1914.’ Navy Estimates, 1914-15, Memorandum by Churchill, 5 December 1913, PRO Cab 37/117/86; Lumby, p. 116.

[5]    Churchill to Battenberg, 28 July 1914, First Lord’s Minutes, Naval Historical Library; World Crisis, p. 120.

[6]    Journal of Lieutenant Parry, HMS Grasshopper, Wed., 29 July 1914, IWM 71/19/1.

[7]    Asquith to the King, 30 July 1914, PRO Cab 41/35/22.

[8]    Admiralty to C-in-C, Mediterranean, Senior Naval Officer, Gibraltar, Admiral Superintendent, Malta, 29 July 1914; Admiralty to C-in-C, no. 179, 29 July 1914. PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, p. 145.

[9]    Admiralty to C-in-C, Medt., no. 183, 30 July 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, p. 146 gives the final version. Note: Dan van der Vat, The Ship that Changed the World, (London, 1985) pp. 65-7, makes too much of the slightly altered version appearing in The World Crisis and, in particular, the change from “Goeben which” – clearly what Churchill intended – to “Goeben who” which appeared in the telegram Milne received. Churchill was in the habit of always abbreviating “which” to “wh” — either the Admiralty code clerk did not understand this, misread what Churchill had written, or decided to improve on the grammar. As first drafted, the offending piece read: “ German or Austrian ships wh may interfere...”. This called for “which”. Churchill then altered it to read: “ German ships particularly Goeben wh may interfere...”. This again called for “which” though it is easy to imagine the code clerk substituting “who” in the belief that it referred to Goeben alone; but, whatever else Churchill may be held responsible for, this particular error was not his.

[10]  ‘These directions on which the First Sea Lord and I were completely in accord,’ Churchill wrote in The World Crisis [p. 131], ‘gave the Commander-in-Chief guidance in the general conduct of the naval campaign; they warned him against fighting a premature single-handed battle with the Austrian Fleet in which our battle-cruisers and cruisers would be confronted with Austrian Dreadnought battleships; they told him to aid the French in transporting their African forces, and they told him how to do it, viz. “by covering and, if possible, bringing to action individual fast German ships, particularly Goeben.” So far as the English language may serve as a vehicle of thought, the words employed appear to express the intentions we had formed.’

[11]  Fisher to his daughter, Dorothy Sybil Fullerton, 31 July 1914, Fullerton mss., NMM FTN 7/2.

[12]  Journal of Midshipman A de Salis, HMS Defence, 31 July 1914, IWM 76/117/1.

[13]  C-in-C, Medt. to Admiralty, no. 375, 31 July 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, p. 146.

[14]  Admiralty minute sheet, 31 July 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19.

[15]  Milne to Admiralty, 20 August 1914, para. 8, PRO Adm 137/879; Lumby, p. 214; Sir Julian Corbett, Naval Operations, vol. I, p. 35.

[16]  Rome to Admiralty, no. 43, 1 August 1914, rec’d 9.41 p.m.; Ad. Supt., Malta, via S.N.O. Gibraltar to Admiralty, no. 47, 1 August 1914, rec’d 1.20 a.m., 2 August. PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, p. 147. Breslau had stopped at Brindisi to disembark Dönitz on his mission to organize colliers; Goeben’s attempt to coal later the same day was forestalled by the Italians.

[17]  Captain’s clerk Lawder quoted in, Liddle, The Sailor’s War 1914-1918, p. 29.

[18]  Churchill to Battenberg and Sturdee, 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/879.

[19]  Minute by Battenberg, ibid.

[20]  Minute by Sturdee, ibid.

[21]  Admiralty to C-in-C, Medt., no. 196, sent 1.30 p.m., 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, p. 147.

[22]  Midshipman’s Journal, B. B. Schofield, 2 August 1914, IWM BBS 2.

[23]  Kennedy, p. 2.

[24]  E. C. T. Troubridge, Rough Account of “Goeben” and “Breslau”, Lumby, p. 417.

[25]  Fisher himself disagreed with this contention. See, Fisher to Churchill, 31 March 1913, WSC Comp. vol II, pt iii, p. 1937. Large armoured cruisers had become obsolete with the introduction of the battle cruiser, but this left a gap for scouting and patrol work which was duly filled with the laying down, in 1909, of the Bristol class of light cruiser. Subsequent classes followed and, despite his misgivings, Churchill sanctioned the construction of a further eight in the 1913 Estimates. Soon after, the First Lord developed his own theory as to how these light cruisers should be deployed: ‘It is suggested’, he informed Admiral Sir Henry Jackson, ‘that the light cruiser squadrons … should work with the battle cruiser squadron, and that in observation or scouting the battle cruiser should be in the front line with the light cruisers of his group perhaps 5 or 6 miles in rear of it. At any rate the battle cruiser would be an essential part of the very front line in the closest contact with the enemy; the armoured cruiser squadrons lying distinctly further back in support.’ Churchill to Jackson, 3 April 1913, WSC Comp. vol II, pt iii, pp. 1721-2.

[26]  Minutes of the Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry, 22 September 1914, Lumby, p. 253.

[27]  Vice-Admiral Sir F. C. D. Sturdee, Report on the Principal Cruiser Work Carried Out by the Home Fleets During 1913, Admiralty War Staff, Operations Division, July 1914, PRO Adm 1 8388/227.

[28]  Troubridge recorded in a statement, presented to the Court of Inquiry in September, that: ‘Admiral Sturdee in his book which is issued that I received about a fortnight ago, says that the day of the armoured cruiser is gone. From the result of the experiments in the North Sea he deduces that they must never separate, and all he will permit himself to say is that they will do some useful cruiser work under the aegis of a Fleet and they might do something against a battle-cruiser, showing the great risk in his opinion, which is considered very authoritative.’

[29]  Minutes of Proceedings at a Court Martial, held on board HMS Bulwark at Portland, 5-9 November 1914. Statement for the Defence; Lumby, p. 367.

[30]  Court Martial, qu. 5, Lumby, p. 247.

[31]  Court Martial, qu. 169, Lumby, p. 294.

[32]  Sailing Orders, Rear-Admiral, First Cruiser Squadron, 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/879; Lumby, pp. 149-50.

[33]  Decypher, Mr Sinclair, Brindisi, no. 7 urgent, 2 August 1914. PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, p. 147.

[34]  Admiralty to C-in-C, Medt., no. 198, 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19.

[35]  Court Martial, qu. 5, Lumby, p. 247.

[36]  Court of Inquiry, statement by Troubridge, Lumby, p. 254; qu. 27, Lumby, p. 266.

[37]  Court Martial, Statement for the Defence, Lumby, p. 368.

[38]  Note: this appears in the original, PRO Adm 137/879, p. 62, but is excluded from the extract given in Lumby, pp. 149-50.

[39]  On 22 July Milne had been ordered to assume command at Admiralty House, Chatham, on 30 August.

[40]  Wireless Telegraph Signal Log, HMS Defence, IWM MISC 64 ITEM 1009.

[41]  Kennedy, p. 2; see also, E Keble Chatterton, Dardanelles Dilemma, (London, 1935), pp. 19-20.

[42]  Court of Inquiry, qu. 13, Lumby, p. 250.

[43]  W/T Signal Log, HMS Defence, IWM MISC 64 ITEM 1009.

[44]  Log of HMS Indefatigable, PRO Adm 53/44809.

[45]  Midshipman’s Journal, B. B. Schofield, 2 August, IWM BBS 2.

[46]  C-in-C to Admiralty, no. 386, 2 August 1914, rec’d 7 p.m.; pencil annotation by Battenberg, 2 August, PRO Adm 137/HS19.

[47]  Admiralty to C-in-C, Medt., no. 204, sent 12.50 a.m., 3 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19, Lumby. p. 150.

[48]  Churchill later argued, in The World Crisis, that ‘it happened in a large number of cases that, seeing what ought to be done and confident of the agreement of the First Sea Lord, I myself drafted the telegrams and decisions in accordance with our policy and the Chief of the War Staff took them personally to the First Sea Lord before despatch.’

[49]  Martin Gilbert, Winston S Churchill, vol. III, pp. 18-9.

[50]  Nicolson subsequently informed Hardinge: ‘On Saturday Cambon pointed out that at the request some time ago of our Admiralty the French had sent all their fleet to the Mediterranean on the understanding that we would protect their northern and western coasts. This was a happy inspiration on the part of Cambon and to this appeal there could be but one answer…’ Nicolson to Hardinge, private, 5 September 1914, Nicolson mss., PRO FO 800/375. Only one answer there may have been, but it had nothing to do with the 1912 letter which specifically denied the pledge Cambon was now trying to redeem.

[51]  Asquith to Venetia Stanley, 31 July 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 111, p. 138.

[52]  Charmley, Lord Lloyd, p. 33.

[53]  Ibid., pp. 33-4.

[54]  For the part played by the Conservatives, see appendix i.

[55]  Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 153; Nicolson, Lord Carnock, pp. 418-9; Cameron Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, (London, 1971), p. 91.

[56]  Lichnowsky to Jagow, tel. no. 205, 1 August 1914, given in, Geiss (ed.), July 1914, no. 170, p. 343. Note, however, that Lichnowsky himself later referred to a ‘misunderstanding’ in this telegram as ‘Sir Edward Grey had meant that Germany should then remain altogether neutral, even in a war between Austria and Russia.’ Lichnowsky, Heading for the Abyss, p. 414, n. 1.

[57]  Sir Henry Wilson, diary entry for 1 August 1914, quoted in Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 154. See also Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, p. 90 which tries to make some sense of Asquith’s “impenetrable” intentions.

[58]  Asquith to Venetia Stanley, 1 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 112, pp. 139-40; Narrative by Professor Temperley, Spender mss., BM Add MSS 46386.

[59]  Grey to Bertie, tel. no. 299, 1 August 1914, BD, XI, no. 426.

[60]  Conversation between Grey and Cambon quoted in, Henry Wickham Steed, Through Thirty Years, vol. II, pp. 14-5.

[61]  Grey to Bertie, tel. no. 299, 1 August 1914, BD, XI, no. 426.

[62]  Nicolson, Lord Carnock, p. 419.

[63]  Diary of Henry Wilson, quoted in, Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, p. 88. Note: this record of the conversation was excised in Callwell’s biography.

[64]  Nicolson to Grey, private, 1 August 1914, BD, XI, no. 424.

[65]  Churchill, World Crisis, p. 127.

[66]  Narrative by Professor Temperley, Spender mss., BM Add MSS 46386 [my emphasis].

[67]  Asquith to Venetia Stanley, 2 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 113, pp. 145-7. ‘Was ever anything heard like this?’ recorded Sir Henry Wilson. ‘What is the difference between the French coast and the French frontier?’ Diary entry for 2 August, Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 155.

[68]  Notes of an Interview between Grey and Temperley, Spender mss., BM Add MSS 46386.

[69]  Crewe to Temperley, 8 May 1929, Spender mss., ibid.

[70]  Runciman to Temperley, 4 November 1929, ibid.

[71]  Samuel to his wife, 2 August 1914, in Lowe & Dockrill, Mirage of Power, vol. III, pp. 489-91.

[72]  For an examination of the various factors, including the part played by the Opposition, see Wilson, The Policy of the Entente, chapter 8.

[73]  McKenna to Spender, 8 May 1929, ibid. Sir Henry Wilson recounts that, by 10 o’clock that evening, cheering crowds had gathered outside Buckingham Palace: diary entry, 2 August 1914, Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 155.

[74]  Asquith to Stanley, 2 August 1914, Asquith Letters, no. 113, pp. 145-7. See also, Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, pp. 96-7 and, in particular, his comment that, ‘The bland disingenuousness of the first and third points, and the breathtaking strategic ignorance of the second, reveal the extent to which the cabinet’s deliberations had resulted in a convergence of views.’

[75]  Memorandum by Asquith, 2 August 1914, quoted in, Blake, The Unknown Prime Minister, pp. 223-4. The following day, the German Foreign Minister pledged that the northern coasts of France would not be threatened so long as Britain remained neutral. By then, it was too late. Jagow to Lichnowsky, tel. no. 216, 3 August 1914, German Diplomatic Documents, no. 714, p. 520.

[76]  This was when Battenberg declared that British forces were massed in the North safeguarding French interests, while French forces in the Mediterranean helped to safeguard British interests. Battenberg to Churchill, 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/879.

[77]  Cambon was informed: ‘In case the German fleet came into the Channel or entered the North Sea in order to go round the British Isles with the object of attacking the French coasts of the French navy and of harassing French merchant shipping, the British fleet would intervene in order to give to French shipping its complete protection, in such a way that from that moment Great Britain and Germany would be in a state of war.’ Cambon to Viviani, 3 August 1914, given in, Geiss (ed.), July 1914, no. 183, p. 356.

[78]  Grey to Cambon, 2 August 1914, Grey mss., PRO FO 800/55.

[79]  Précis of conversation, Admiralty, 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/988; WSC Comp. vol. III, pt. i, pp. 11-12.

[80]  Anglo-French Convention, London, 6 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/988; Lumby, pp. 431-2; Halpern, Naval War in the Medt., pp. 26-7.

[81]  Milne was subsequently recalled on 12 August.

[82]  After the morning Cabinet, Samuel, Lloyd George, Simon, Morley, Harcourt, Pease and others lunched at Lord Beauchamp’s and discussed the situation where, according to Samuel’s letter that day to his wife, they all agreed with his formula that British intervention would be dependent upon a substantial violation of Belgium neutrality. See, Samuel to his wife, 2 August 1914, Lowe & Dockrill, Mirage of Power, vol. III, pp. 489-91. However, some years later, Samuel maintained that, in the informal afternoon discussions, ‘no definite conclusions were reached. It had become fairly clear that the Belgian issue would arise in the most acute form.’ See, Samuel to Temperley, 24 June 1929, Spender mss., BM Add MSS 46386. In either event it had become obvious that Asquith would stand or fall with Grey.

[83]  Interview with Kühlmann, 22 February 1929, in G P Gooch, Studies in Diplomacy and Statecraft, (London, 1942), pp. 82-3.

[84]  Admiralty to C-in-C, Malta, C-in-C, Hong Kong, no. 200, sent 7.6 p.m., 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, p. 148.

[85]  C-in-C to Admiralty, no. 387, 2 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, p. 149. Note: van der Vat, The Ship that Changed the World, pp. 68-9, accuses Milne of being at fault for sending this telegram when it ‘should have been obvious from his general orders’ [i.e. War Orders No. 2]. However these specifically prohibited Milne from using Secret Package A until war had been declared.

[86]  G. H. Warner, Recollections of a Junior Officer on HMS Defence, IWM P389.

[87]  Captain’s clerk Lawder in, Liddle, The Sailor’s War 1914-1918, p. 33.

[88]  C-in-C to Admiralty, no. 392, 3 August 1914, PRO Adm 137/HS19; Lumby, p. 153. Log of HMS Dublin, PRO Adm 53/40233.

[89]  Admiral, Bizerta to C-in-C, via Dublin, sent 1.50 p.m., rec’d 3.30 p.m., 4 August 1914. Naval Staff Monographs, vol. VIII, the Mediterranean, 1914-15, appendix B. Operations Signals extracted from the logs of various ships. PRO Adm 186/618 [hereinafter referred to as NSM,B].

[90]  This dispute is summarized in Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, pp. 135 ff.

[91]  Vice-Admiral Bienaimé, quoted in The French Fleet in the Mediterranean, August 1-7, 1914, The Naval Review, 1919, vol. 7, p. 494.

[92]  Barbara Tuchman, August 1914, (London, p’back, 1980), p. 91.

[93]  Captain Voitoux, writing in Revue Politique et Parlementaire, quoted in Naval Review, 1919, vol. 7.

[94]  Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, p. 144.

[95]  Tuchman, August 1914, pp. 149-50.

[96]  Capt. Voitoux, op. cit.

[97]  Brigadier-General E L Spears, Liaison, (London, 1930), pp. 10-11.


First Class Armoured Cruiser HMS Hogue

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SUPERIOR FORCE : The Conspiracy Behind the Escape of Goeben and Breslau © Geoffrey Miller

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