THE MILLSTONE: British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War © Geoffrey Miller





THE MILLSTONE: British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War © Geoffrey Miller



Please click for details of e-book versions


The Millstone


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

Please click to order a copy of "The Millstone"




Chapter 12




The Numbers Game






At 11 o’clock on the morning of Thursday, 4 July 1912 the 117th meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence commenced. Present for the Navy were: Churchill, the First and Second Sea Lords (Bridgeman and Battenberg), the Chief of the War Staff (Troubridge), and Admirals Arthur Wilson and, attending his first meeting for eighteen months, Sir John Fisher. The Army was represented by the new Secretary of State for War (Seely), the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (General Sir John French), the Director of Military Operations (General Sir Henry Wilson), and General Sir Ian Hamilton. Grey and Nicolson took the Foreign Office whip, while other members of the Government included Lloyd George, Haldane, Morley, Harcourt, McKenna, Crewe and Buxton, with Asquith, as usual, in the chair. Lastly, as anticipated, Esher had conquered his pessimism and decided, after all, to attend. Asquith and Esher sat side by side and directly opposite them, also side by side, were Admirals Wilson and Fisher. For the latter this was ‘a position of great advantage, as we can see both sides of the table and the light is full on our faces.’

                Churchill began by declaring that the various papers prepared by him, or at his request, put the Committee in possession of all the fact and there was little he could add. In spite of this promising beginning, much previous ground was covered anew. McKenna repeated his demand for eight King Edward’s to go to Malta; Churchill complained they would be no match for the four Italian and two Austrian dreadnoughts thought likely to be ready by late 1913. McKenna doubted the Italians and Austrians would fight together; Churchill, with perhaps a trace of exasperation, argued that the expense of shifting the base of the King Edward’s to Malta would be considerable — and so on. Lest the impression should be gained that this was all good-natured badinage, Fisher (not, of course, an objective witness) reported to his son that ‘McKenna and Winston were tearing each other’s eyes out the whole time.’ The ambiguous position of Italy within the Triple Alliance, and the possibility of an attack without warning by all three members of the Triple Alliance, were also discussed, after which McKenna inquired, ‘whether, if all idea of an alliance was ruled out, these dispositions were considered by the Board of Admiralty to be those most suitable. They did not appear to take account of the necessity for protecting the trade routes.’ Churchill replied

that the Admiralty had never assumed an alliance with France. 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. When mobilization was complete we should certainly be stronger, and after the first battle probably very much stronger, than the Germans; but it was essential that we should at all times be ready to accept battle if offered, with no shadow of doubt as to the result. After the first :fight we might know better how we stood. At present there were too many unknown factors: but the salient fact was. that we now had within twelve hours' steaming distance across the North Sea this great concentrated fleet of Germany. The stakes were so tremendous for us, though not for Germany, that we must always have a large margin in hand.

So, countered McKenna, ‘it was the policy of the Admiralty to leave all our trade exposed to attack until the German fleet was brought to action.’ Harcourt then took up the baton from McKenna: the proposal to evacuate the Mediterranean, he contended, ‘would necessitate a complete revision of our system of Imperial defence.’

The prospect of such a review would have been enough to make Asquith blanch; fortunately, soon after, at 1.30 p.m., the Committee adjourned for lunch during which Esher approached Asquith to suggest a compromise with what he termed a “rough conclusion”. When the Committee reconvened at 3 p.m. Haldane and Seely were absent and it devolved principally upon Sir John French to present the view of the General Staff. It was French’s opinion that the papers prepared by the General Staff had been put together hurriedly; now, with further consideration, he concluded that the strength of the garrisons for Malta and Egypt consequent upon a British withdrawal of the fleet had been underestimated. Malta, he argued, would require not seven or eight battalions but ‘probably a division’, while Egypt would require four. Harcourt, immediately interjected that these additional troops could not come from South Africa while Churchill considered French’s estimate excessively generous to repulse an invasion of Malta particularly if enemy transports were exposed to torpedo attack. (Sir Ian Hamilton, presumably without prompting, volunteered that, at the recent manoeuvres in Malta which he had attended, HMS Suffolk playing the part of an enemy troopship had been torpedoed twice by submarines before she could get close enough to land the battalion of troops she carried.)

The mere mention of torpedoes inevitably bought Fisher into the fray. The former First Sea Lord had written a memorandum on 24 June which had commenced by stating that the ‘immense development of the submarine precludes the presence of heavy ships of war or the passage of trade through the Mediterranean Sea.’[1] Although intended for the Cabinet, Churchill realized the danger of making use of such a document and withheld it from circulation. It was, therefore, probably with a degree of exasperation that Churchill greeted Fisher’s entry into the debate. Fisher declared that he ‘had absolute confidence in the power of the submarine, and did not believe that any heavy ships were safe from them in narrow waters.’ If that were true, retorted McKenna, the North Sea would be equally unsuitable for battleships. Not so, Fisher maintained: ‘our battle fleet would not be in the North Sea. It would be off the North Coast of Scotland or outside the Straits of Dover. If the German Fleet came out it would be attacked by submarines and destroyers, and if it came out enough it would then have to fight our battle fleet.’ Seeing an opening, McKenna, a barrister by training, was quick to pounce: if that were so, it ‘seemed to dispose of the conception of any sudden danger … In these circumstances a sudden onslaught by the whole German Fleet upon our unmobilised fleet seemed a remote contingency.’

Please click to go to the top of this page

                Churchill, realizing the old Admiral was doing more harm than good, sought to portray Fisher’s opinion as purely a personal one — the Board of Admiralty ‘did not entirely accept’ Fisher’s views on submarines. The Mediterranean for example would become precarious as a trade route but the Board did not think submarines alone could deny the Mediterranean to battleships. The argument was moving around the table to little effect and the long day was drawing to a close. Finally, Harcourt introduced the diplomatic aspect. What would the effect be, he inquired, of abandoning the Mediterranean upon Britain’s relations with the Dominions and ‘upon our prestige in Africa — for example, among the Mahommedan population of Nigeria?’ According to Grey,

As regards the protection of the United Kingdom itself, diplomacy could be of no help. There, protection must depend entirely upon the navy; but it was possible to rely upon diplomacy to prevent too powerful a combination against the country being brought about elsewhere. If the Mediterranean were denuded of ships – that was, if diplomacy had no effective power behind it – it could do nothing to ward off such a combination – for instance, a combination of Austria and Turkey. We had given up command of that sea as against France, but if we had a one-Power standard against any other Power there, diplomacy could probably guard against any such combination as suggested being brought about. That fleet must be free to operate in the Mediterranean as required. It would be better based on Malta, but that was not essential; freedom of movement was, and its freedom of movement should be emphasized on every occasion.

                As Grey spoke, Asquith jotted down a resolution, along the lines of Esher’s lunch time conclusion, and passed it to Esher asking if it would “do”. Esher passed it on to Grey, and from there it went to Lloyd George and Morley. Asquith then put it to the Committee as a whole. Churchill made a final protest: any ships definitely earmarked for the Mediterranean must be left out of North Sea calculations and he also threatened to rouse the country if the Committee failed to agree to the Admiralty’s North Sea margin. This direct threat, unrecorded in Hankey’s official minutes, ‘clinched the matter’ in the view of General Wilson.[2] Others were not so sure: Charles Hobhouse noted that, ‘During the proceedings Churchill repeated before naval & military officers his threat of leaving the Govt. and stumping the country if he could not get his way. But here as at the Cabinet this ultimatum fell quite flat, except that one or two muttered, as all felt, that they wished to goodness he would go.’[3] The conclusions agreed upon, based on Esher’s suggestion, were that:

There must always be provided a reasonable margin of superior strength ready and available in Home waters. This is the first requirement. Subject to this we ought to maintain, available for Mediterranean purposes and based on a Mediterranean port, a battle fleet equal to a one-Power Mediterranean standard, excluding France.[4]

‘This was so much better than what I thought would be the outcome’, noted Henry Wilson that evening, ‘that I was quite pleased, though not quite satisfied.’[5]

Please click to go to the top of this page

                Fisher and Admiral Wilson raced away from the meeting to catch the 6:37 p.m. train to Thetford. ‘It really is great sport’, Fisher recorded, ‘but I was just dead-beat.’ Esher, on the other hand, was elated. A few days earlier he had stared defeat in the face, now he was able to write immediately, if prematurely, to the King that the Mediterranean was to have a fleet of battleships, which was a different thing altogether from a one-Power battle fleet. Having made the breakthrough, more perhaps as a result of Asquith’s attempts to impose a compromise to end the interminable naval debate, Esher clearly thought he could build upon the platform provided by the flexible conclusion. ‘McKenna, Harcourt and L. George were all very staunch’, he declared while at the same time recording privately, that, although Winston had done his part very well he was ‘deficient in imagination.’ And so also, for that matter, was Battenberg. But Churchill also had some reason to celebrate as the C.I.D. had accepted ‘a reasonable margin’ of superiority in Home waters, which was also a very elastic definition.[6] Although both sides were able to twist the unhappy compromise to extract some comfort, it was Churchill who would brood over what he saw as the defeat of his Mediterranean policy by the C.I.D. Asquith reported to the Cabinet the following day (5 July) that ‘ultimately a unanimous conclusion’ had been reached at the C.I.D.; this was provisionally accepted by the Cabinet, consequent upon Churchill preparing, before the next meeting, ‘a detailed statement showing what changes in construction and distribution the adoption of the rule would involve.’[7]

                This did not give Churchill much time, as he was due on board the Admiralty yacht on Sunday for the Spithead review the following week; however, not even his enemies could deny the First Lord’s restless energy and he duly completed the memorandum on Saturday, 6 July.[8] The critical period was identified by the Admiralty as being the spring of 1915 when, it was anticipated, the Austrian and Italian building programmes would reach fruition. By that time Austria should have four dreadnoughts, three semi-dreadnoughts and three “good” pre-dreadnoughts. The figures for Italy were five dreadnoughts and six good pre-dreadnoughts.[9] To match either of these forces in pursuance of the proposed one-Power standard Churchill suggested that the force which Britain must aim for should comprise four dreadnoughts, two semi-dreadnoughts and two battle cruisers; he thought it inadvisable to proclaim publicly the one-Power Mediterranean standard so as to prevent arm-chair naval strategists computing tonnage, gun-power and other invidious comparisons. The reformed Mediterranean Battle Squadron should comprise four of the best dreadnoughts available, capable of using the Malta dock,[10] but when these ships left the North Sea in 1915 the sixty per cent. standard there would, ‘of course’, be swept away. The Admiralty calculated that, as a result, the relative dreadnought position in Home waters for that year would be thirty-four British to twenty-three German, or five ships short. As, however, the British ships which would then become available would be of greatly increased power, Churchill announced that he would be ‘prepared to be responsible if only 4 new ships are added, but these 4 must be begun at once.’

Please click to go to the top of this page

                Anticipating a demand for the two semi-dreadnoughts (Lord Nelson and Agamemnon) to be dispatched immediately, Churchill refused to countenance sending out a Battle Squadron of less than six modern ships. Instead, he argued, superior strength should be met ‘with a force of an entirely different character’, for which he turned to the battle cruiser and the latest armoured cruisers. In the interim therefore Churchill proposed ‘to occupy the Mediterranean with a containing force of battle-cruisers. For this purpose 4 battle-cruisers – Indomitable, Inflexible, Invincible and Indefatigable – will be based on Malta in April 1913, and 2 of them will go out in November this year … It is proposed, further, to replace 3 ships in the Armoured Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean by stronger vessels, so that it will consist of Shannon, Duke of Edinburgh, and Hampshire. This is as fine a cruiser force as there is in the world, and steams at such a speed that whatever may happen in the Mediterranean, and, however unfavourable the combinations, it can take care of itself.’[11]

                Having finished his paper, the First Lord rushed off with Troubridge to the Enchantress, at Spithead, where they were joined by Asquith and a contingent of Canadian ministers. As well as attending the Naval Review, they also witnessed “Waterplane Flights” and “Attacks on Fleet by submarines and destroyers” before Churchill made his reluctant departure in Cassel’s special train on the morning of Wednesday, 10 July to return to London for the Cabinet meeting that day[12] and a further C.I.D. meeting the following day.[13] There could well have been a further reason for Churchill’s reluctant return to London. Admiral Bridgeman, the First sea Lord, received on the same day his first visit from the French Naval Attaché that year, seeking to re-open the spasmodic staff talks. De Saint-Seine also had some news to impart. The new Chief of the French Naval Staff, Vice-Admiral Aubert, had succeeded to his post in February 1912 convinced that the French Fleet should be concentrated wholly in the Mediterranean, and that the current plan, keeping the Third Squadron at Brest, did no more than create a hostage to fortune. By May 1912 Aubert was resigned to the fact that there would not be an Anglo-French alliance, which would have constituted ‘a strong argument in favour of sending the Third Squadron into the Mediterranean.’[14] However, within two months, Aubert had convinced Delcassé of the need for the transfer of the Squadron. This information was imparted by de Saint-Seine to Bridgeman, who concurred that the Channel arrangements agreed the previous September would now have to be revised.[15]

                The Canadian ministers had also been invited to attend the C.I.D. meeting though not, it should be said, for entirely altruistic reasons. In recent years the Australian Government had undertaken the responsibility of the Australian Station following the formation of the Royal Australian Navy, whose flagship would be the battle cruiser Australia. New Zealand’s contribution to Imperial Defence had been the provision of the eponymous battle cruiser for service with the Royal Navy. Later in the year (on 18 November) the Federated Malay States would offer the sum of £2¼ million for the construction of a battleship. Yet no similar largess had been forthcoming from Canada, one of the richest dominions. The Canadian ministers, now being so royally treated, were being softened up.

Please click to go to the top of this page

                At the special C.I.D. meeting Grey began by explaining the diplomatic position for the benefit of the Canadians;[16] he was followed by Churchill who presented a potted history of the German naval threat from the Fleet Law of 1897 to the current time. The prevailing bogy of a surprise attack by the German fleet was uppermost in his mind. Unlike an army, whose mobilization was a vast operation which would be immediately apparent, the ships which the Canadians had seen at Spithead ‘or which are now assembled at Kiel or Wilhelmshaven’, Churchill added ominously, ‘can begin fighting as soon as they bring the ammunition up from below to the gun.’ At present there were two “safety signals” and the First Lord’s tone left the colonials in no doubt that they were about to become privy to a secret of the greatest magnitude. First, the German fleet was largely demobilized during the winter and, second, as the latest German dreadnoughts could not traverse the Kiel Canal some security was provided when these ships were spotted in the Baltic, as the Admiralty knew ‘that if any great enterprise were on foot it would be very unlikely that units of the greatest consequence would be left on the wrong side of the canal.’ But both these safety signals were in the process of being extinguished: the novelle provided not only for permanent full commission but also the deepening of the Kiel Canal. When Churchill outlined the counterpoise – thirty-three British ships in full commission – Borden, the Canadian Prime Minister, inquired if that figure was in accord with the present construction programme. It was either a naïve inquiry or else Borden had been conveniently primed by Churchill in prior, secret, conversations.[17] ‘No,’ replied Churchill, ‘I am coming to construction in a moment.’ The First Lord had orchestrated proceedings so that the sting was to be in the tail. Resuming his narrative, Churchill shifted from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, concentrating on the unnatural alliance between Italy and Austria. The latter country, for whatever reason, and with a coastline of some three hundred miles only, had begun building dreadnoughts, ‘and a more sinister stroke was never devised, because the consequences of these ships being built is to provoke building on the part of Italy on a similarly large scale.’ It was the Admiralty’s view that Austria had built the ships at the instigation, and for the eventual use, of Germany as a pay-off for German help during the Austria annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908.

                The position in the Mediterranean, the First Lord added, was most unsatisfactory and after long consultations at Malta, in the C.I.D., and Cabinet, the conclusion was (and it must have been unpalatable for Churchill to admit it), that ‘in the face of these difficulties, we cannot recede from our position as a great Mediterranean naval Power.’ Although the stopgap would comprise the four battle cruisers already earmarked, when the reformed Mediterranean Battle Squadron was eventually dispatched in 1915, the navy would be ‘three or four ships short’. The burden on the British people imposed by the Naval Estimates was already onerous and laying down an additional three vessels would be financially ‘inconvenient’. Ostensibly, Churchill’s real worry was that this would spur Germany to even greater construction but, he maintained, if ‘the new fact was that Canada had decided to take part in the defence of the British Empire’ no invidious comparisons could be made; in fact, it would be ‘absolutely inoffensive to any of the Great Powers of Europe.’[18]

                Borden, while sympathetic, stated privately that the promise of any Canadian ships would have to be contingent upon a declaration that an ‘emergency’ existed because of the tempo of German shipbuilding. It was vital, according to Borden, that ‘an unanswerable case for an immediate emergency contribution by Canada could, and would be made out by the Admiralty’ and that this case should be made ‘in two-fold form; one confidential and in detail for the Cabinet, the other and more general in character for Parliament and the people.’[19] Churchill duly drafted a memorandum for Borden[20] which, with amendments dictated by Asquith to Sir Francis Hopwood, who recorded them while leaning over the billiard table at Balmoral,[21] was used to justify the introduction of an emergency naval bill in the Canadian Parliament on 5 December 1912 to build three super-dreadnoughts which would be maintained by the Royal Navy. It appeared as if one of Churchill’s greatest worries was about to be lifted; but the respite was to be short-lived. The first hint of trouble came in January 1913, when Churchill heard ‘disquieting rumours’ from Canada. ‘It is possible,’ he noted, ‘that a dissolution may be forced either by the Senate rejecting or by the Lower House obstructing the measure. It is by no means certain that Mr Borden would not carry the country and his policy. But in any case there would be delay, and the chance of a contrary result must always be faced.’[22] Passed only after acrimonious debate in the Canadian Lower House in February 1913, the bill was, as Churchill feared, rejected by the Liberal opposition in the Senate in May. Instead of offering a solution the Canadian contribution quickly became a running sore leaving the Admiralty in an uncertain and difficult position.[23]


The new British Mediterranean policy was becoming increasingly known outside official circles. Churchill’s stricture to the Canadians – ‘I need not say how very secret these observations are’ – rang hollow when, two days earlier, the Pall Mall Gazette reported ‘on the best authority that in the great meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence last week [4 July] the policy of abandoning the Mediterranean suffered a decisive defeat. It is believed that a British fleet is to be maintained at a one-Power standard – that is, at a strength equal to that of any other Power in the Mediterranean.’[24] Although France was not here excluded, in the Commons on the 10th Grey announced that the Mediterranean would not be abandoned and intimated that, in future, the British Mediterranean Fleet would be superior to that of Italy or Austria separately, but not combined.[25] Nevertheless, Cambon required reassurance from Grey, which he received on 11 July, the day of the C.I.D. meeting.[26]

Please click to go to the top of this page

                After the show for the Canadians in the C.I.D., the debate returned to the Cabinet the following day; but McKenna was still unhappy and the sitting ended inconclusively, forcing Asquith to adjourn for the weekend knowing it would start all over again on Monday.[27] If Asquith enjoyed a quiet weekend, the same could not be said of Sir Henry Wilson: mention has already been made of Churchill’s attempt to enlist the aid of the former Conservative Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, in support of his cause. Wilson also believed that the matter was too grave to be pursued along party lines; he had already contacted the Leader of the Opposition in June and now, on Sunday 14 July, he had a long discussion with a leading Conservative M.P., Walter Long, to urge him to approach Asquith ‘and suggest a Round Table conference.’ Wilson ‘pointed out that the hands of the Conservatives are very clean in this matter, [and] that they have never made a party business of it …’ To reinforce his “suggestion” Wilson, like Churchill the previous week, threatened to go to the country if Asquith refused. Although, clearly, he thought strongly about the issue, whether the Director of Military Operations should have been canvassing the support of the Opposition in such a matter is another question.[28]

                McKenna duly arrived on Monday to argue a new case in Cabinet against holding the Mediterranean with only a cruiser squadron, no matter how powerful. His objections were twofold: first, that in the event of war with Germany the battle cruisers would have to be withdrawn at once as they would be needed in home waters; and second, that if the war spread to the Mediterranean, even the battle cruisers could not hold their own against an Austrian squadron containing dreadnoughts. The argument that the Gibraltar Squadron could reinforce the Mediterranean Squadron was, he contended, spurious, as the former was regarded as an essential unit in the firing line in home waters in the event of war with Germany. The only solution was to base on Malta a battle squadron which, for the time being, would give a good account of itself against any Austrian formation.[29] McKenna did not state how it was proposed that this squadron, which would have to include dreadnoughts, could be detached without vitally affecting the position in the North Sea. His proposal also appeared to put paid to any idea of dispatching the King Edward class pre-dreadnoughts, which, realistically, could not hope to compete single-handedly against the new Austrian dreadnoughts. Implicit in McKenna’s statement was his belief that pre-dreadnoughts in the North Sea retained some fighting value, and that the Admiralty continued to be overly pessimistic with regard to comparative numbers of dreadnoughts. This was not sufficient to convert his colleagues.

The next day, Tuesday 16 July, was Churchill’s turn. According to Asquith, the First Lord ‘satisfied his colleagues (1) that there would be no need to withdraw the 4 battle cruisers from the Mediterranean in the event of war with Germany, unless to meet some unlikely and unforeseeable emergency, and (2) that, in the opinion of his best expert advisors, the proposed cruiser squadron would, during the next 2 years, be more than a match in the Mediterranean for any force that Austria could oppose to it.’ With the lack of a credible alternative from McKenna, it was no surprise that, ‘After a full discussion the Cabinet unanimously approved the proposals of the Admiralty.’[30] And it was to his “best expert advisors” that Churchill now turned: there is no better illustration of the pliant nature of the Admiralty in the hands of Churchill than the opinions obtained from the Sea Lords or the War Staff to support whatever line Churchill happened to be pushing at the time. When trying to denude the Mediterranean completely the First Lord could claim the weight of expert opinion behind him; when the reluctant concession of two, then three, and finally four, battle cruisers was forced upon him, but his critics continued to cry for still more (or more powerful) ships, new “opinions” were produced to support Churchill’s altered stance.[31]

Please click to go to the top of this page

                Following McKenna’s continued opposition on Monday 15 July, the First Lord had, by Tuesday morning, two further minutes to hand. The first, prepared under the direction of the weak First Sea Lord, Bridgeman, by Captain Ballard (the Director of the Operations Department), argued the case against Austria alone and calculated that up to the end of 1914 Austria would possess (for offensive operations) two dreadnoughts and three semi-dreadnoughts. Compared to the four British battle cruisers and four armoured cruisers there would be little difference in armament while the Austrians would have a slight advantage in armour. In speed and manoeuvring power, the British would be greatly superior. Although the two fleets would be well matched tactically, Ballard reasoned that the disablement of a ship would be a more serious blow for the Austrians. Strategically, however, if Austria attempted to strike at British interests, all the advantages would lay with the British: the main Mediterranean trade route was 650 miles from the Austrian base at Pola, and if shipping were ordered to hug the African coast this range could be increased to 800 miles. At that distance, the Austrian fleet would usually be one ship short, absent coaling, and would be beyond the support of their destroyer flotillas, while the British Squadron, at that point only 150 miles from Malta, would usually be at full strength. ‘Taking all these circumstances into consideration’, concluded Ballard, ‘and bearing in mind that the British ships are intended as a defensive rather than an offensive force, it is reasonable to regard a squadron of 4 battle cruisers, backed by 4 armoured cruisers, as an adequate provision for the year 1913-14.’ Bridgeman concurred fully in Ballard’s report.[32]

                The second paper produced on demand was Troubridge’s. Unsurprisingly the C.O.S. gave his unstinting support to the new line emanating from on high at the Admiralty but evidently thought it necessary to couch his arguments in what he assumed to be the language of Mahan or Corbett. The result was not edifying:

The most difficult problem in naval strategy is so to dispose of the forces at command as to ensure that you have a pronounced superiority in that part where the enemy have designs to execute, which, if successful, would most injure you [sic]; while retaining in distant waters a sufficient force to guard remote possessions and national interests. In the former situation the course to be pursued is clear. It is necessary only for those who are responsible to decide what superiority suffices and to maintain it at all costs. But in the latter situation, unless the total forces are in overwhelming strength against all enemies, another course must be pursued. A force must be provided of a different character.

His prose was indigestible; the conclusion was the same — the Mediterranean Squadron, Troubridge maintained, should consist of four battle cruisers, four armoured cruisers and two fast protected cruisers. ‘Both upon the general principles of distribution of forces in war, and upon a close study of the forces at disposal,’ he confidently asserted, ‘I consider that our correct policy is to partition our fleets as above described.’[33]

                It was a claim scarcely anyone would admit before the opposition of McKenna and others forced it upon a reluctant and unwilling Admiralty; now it was enshrined a principle of war.[34] Furthermore, despite Troubridge’s unequivocal analysis, when he was approached by Sir Henry Wilson at this time and asked, point blank, ‘whether the War Office could, or could not, count on being able to reinforce Malta and Egypt in time of war, and to send troops through the Mediterranean to and from India’, Troubridge was forced to admit that, in each case, the answer was “no” — so much for ‘general principles’.[35] Nevertheless, with Cabinet sanction now forthcoming, a force of battle cruisers would be on station at Malta for the critical period – 1914 – long anticipated to be the year when Germany would be in a position to back her claims with force. ‘We accepted Churchill’s declaration’, Charles Hobhouse recorded, ‘that except in the event of some unforeseen emergency in a war with Germany, the battle cruisers should not be withdrawn from the Mediterranean’. This ‘unforeseen emergency’ was ‘defined by Grey and accepted by Churchill as being (a) the torpedoing of our battleships by Germany or (b) a declaration of neutrality by Austria or Italy or both.’[36]

Please click to go to the top of this page

At the Cabinet on 16 July it was further agreed 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.’[37] Asquith’s insouciance might have suffered a severe jolt had he known that in Paris, on the same day as the British Cabinet was proclaiming its disinterested stance and attempting to maintain the fiction of freedom of action, the Franco-Russian Naval Convention was being signed. Secret talks between high-ranking French naval officers, led by the Chief of the General Staff of the French Navy, Vice-Admiral Aubert, and the Russian party consisting of Aubert’s opposite, Prince Lieven, assisted by the Russian Naval Attachés in London and Paris, had taken place early in July. Once more, all those concerned earnestly declared (officially at least) that the talks were non-binding. The French had formerly been reluctant to regard the Russian navy as anything more than a liability — who could easily forget the disasters of Port Arthur and Tsushima? Yet progress had been made, particularly after 10 October 1911 when the Chief of the Admiralty Staff, who had previously received his orders upon the whim of the Tsar, was placed under the authority of the Minister of Marine. This in turn allowed a new five year programme to be formulated for 1913-17, which was then placed before the Duma and overwhelmingly accepted in June 1912.[38]

                This Act, authorizing the expenditure of £80 million, was approved without alteration by the Council of the Empire on 30 June 1912 and, with the Imperial assent, Prince Lieven was able to travel to Paris to begin negotiations. Uppermost in his mind was the maintenance of Russian naval supremacy in the Black Sea, for which Russia intended to apply a margin of fifty per cent. over the Turkish fleet. As generous as this sounded, it would not cover the eventuality that, with Turkish connivance, the Italian or Austrian fleets might pass through the Straits and into the Black Sea. French assistance to prevent this would be of the greatest help, yet the Russians could offer little in return: although great things were being planned, the current state of the Black Sea fleet would not allow it to operate in the western basin of the Mediterranean.[39] The French, in turn, could conveniently fall back on the arrangements made with the British which stipulated that France should be responsible only for the eastern basin. Lieven made the bizarre suggestion that the Russian Baltic fleet might steam to the Mediterranean and operate, once there, from the French base at Bizerta; ultimately, however, it was decided that the most useful assistance the French could render would be themselves to concentrate at Bizerta on the outbreak of hostilities and thereby act as a threat on the flank of the Italians and Austrians.[40]

                Alexander Isvolsky, the disgraced former Foreign Minister and now Russian Ambassador in Paris, was ecstatic. ‘Prince Lieven told me’, he reported to St Petersburg, ‘that he was convinced that the exchange of views … had had very advantageous results for us. [Aubert] had entirely agreed that it was necessary in the common interest for the two Allies to help us to maintain our predominance in the Black Sea by putting pressure as required on the fleets of our conceivable enemies, especially, that is, Austria-Hungary, and possibly Germany and Italy. To this end France had declared her readiness to concentrate her naval forces in the Mediterranean even in time of peace more towards the East, that is, towards Bizerta. This decision … represents in Prince Lieven’s view a great success for us, all the more since it is not conditional by any undertaking on our part.’[41] As French strategy was already predicated upon a concentration at Bizerta, a fact determined by the Italian’s choice of Taranto as their main base rather than Russian exigencies, it was, perhaps, a hollow success for Lieven.[42] The Naval Convention of 16 July contained just four articles of a general nature plus a concomitant convention for exchange of information between the two navies.[43]

Please click to go to the top of this page

                As Churchill had now seen off the Cabinet opposition on the 16th, the following morning in London he saw the French Naval Attaché, the Comte de Saint-Seine; Bridgeman was also present. It had been a week since the Comte had informed Bridgeman of the proposed French naval concentration. Churchill now desired 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 (in complete contradiction to Troubridge’s private opinion) that the arrangements were ‘adequate in our opinion to the full protection of British possessions and trade in the Mediterranean.’ For good measure Churchill freely offered Saint-Seine his advice that France should aim at a standard of strength equal to Austria and Italy combined. In reply to this the Comte replied that this was the standard the French ‘had set before themselves, and he confirmed officially that they had already decided ‘to move their 6 remaining battleships from Brest into the Mediterranean to form a 3rd squadron there, leaving their Northern and Atlantic coasts solely to the protection of their torpedo flotillas…’[44] The renewal of the talks between the naval contingents was to be upon the basis that they should deal with various technical questions involved in the co-ordination of the two fleets, for which job Churchill delegated Bridgeman; it was agreed that the First Sea Lord and the French Naval Attaché should meet again the following week.[45]

Grey subsequently informed Cambon of the renewal of conversations and by 23 July – the day after Churchill announced the new Mediterranean policy in the Commons – Bridgeman had combined his proposals into a draft Anglo-French Naval Agreement:

1.  The following agreement relates solely to a contingency in which Great Britain and France were to be allies in a war, and does not affect the political freedom of either Government as to embarking on such a war.

2.  It is understood that France has disposed almost the whole of her battle fleet in the Mediterranean, leaving her Atlantic sea board to the care of Flotillas.

                Great Britain on the other hand has concentrated her battle fleets in home waters, leaving in the Mediterranean a strong containing force of battle and armoured cruisers and torpedo craft. 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.

3.  In the event of a war in which the Governments are allies the following arrangements are agreed upon between the respective admiralties.


General Principles

British objective.

Protection of Anglo-French interests in the Eastern Basin of the Mediterranean i.e. East of Malta:

French objective.

Protection of Anglo-French interests in the Western Basin of the Mediterranean i.e. West of Malta

Combined action if possible for the purposes of general engagement.

The ships of the two Nations to make use of each other’s Ports as required…[46]

                The Draft Agreement was handed to Saint Seine who hoped to present it to the French Naval War Staff early in August and return with their reply about the middle of September. In the meantime, he showed it to Cambon who, in turn, mentioned it to Nicolson on 24 July. It was the second time the Permanent Under-Secretary had been caught out: Nicolson had, of course, only learned in May (again through Cambon) of the full extent of the conversations and his annoyance was once more plain to see. He was especially aggrieved by the second article of the Draft providing for the unilateral French withdrawal from her Atlantic coast, which would then be undefended and nominally under the protection of Britain but with no obligation 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. ‘This kind of difficulty’, Asquith minuted wearily, ‘is inherent in all such contingent arrangements.’

Please click to go to the top of this page

                Grey had already been warned by his Ambassador to Paris that the French might expect a quid pro quo, following a British withdrawal from the Mediterranean. Bertie, who clearly was not aware of the latest proposals to dispatch a battle cruiser squadron to Malta, saw Grey personally on 17 July and again on the 23rd. At the first interview, he 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 was anathema to Grey, who was perhaps relieved to inform Bertie at their second meeting that the Cabinet had rejected his suggestion. 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.’ When Bertie replied that it should be the Dissenting Ministers ‘who would have to drop out and they would not be a loss’, Grey answered that ‘he did not wish to break up the Cabinet and that it would be he that would go’.[47] Bertie’s biographer has noted that, ‘It was an answer that must have left Bertie wondering what satisfaction the French might derive from the personal commitment of a foreign secretary who would resign rather than risk splitting the cabinet on the issue of Britain’s loyalty to France.’[48] In fact Grey had spoken to Cambon on 22 July to emphasize the non-binding nature of the naval talks. During the discussion Grey 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.’[49] Cambon would now re-double his efforts to achieve that end.

                Churchill’s guiding hand behind Bridgeman’s effort was exposed when the First Lord complained that the offending passage in paragraph two of the Draft Agreement ‘has been understood in the exactly opposite sense to what I intended.’ Churchill argued disingenuously 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.[50] Even if, as is evident, Churchill himself believed this, Cambon quickly saw through this argument and 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[51] 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. Exploiting Grey’s ignorance of the extent of the naval conversations, it was a simple matter for the Ambassador to misrepresent them and endow the talks with a significance they did not possess.[52] Further, he 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.’[53] This formula was of course exactly what Grey and Churchill desired to avoid and the issue would bedevil them in the coming months.

                Cambon left the following day (27 July) for Paris to begin his holidays; Churchill, apprised of the details of the discussion between the Ambassador and the Foreign Secretary, waited till after the weekend before penning a limp reply: ‘I was not aware of the extent to which the Admiralty had been committed under my predecessor’, he noted, thereby lending a legitimacy to the McKenna talks that he would normally have been the first to disavow. As precious little was recorded officially, in London at least, how were these talks any more of a commitment than Churchill’s own technical agreement between experts for co-operation in war? Besides, in flat contradiction to Churchill, McKenna later claimed that when he left the Admiralty in October 1911 he ‘insisted upon the whole French negotiation up to that date being disclosed to the Cabinet. The discussion took place and from that date onwards every negotiation with the French was reported to the Cabinet.’[54] Nevertheless, Churchill continued to maintain: ‘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.’[55] The 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.  Please click to go to the top of this page






[1]     Battleships and Trade in the Mediterranean, memorandum by Fisher, 24 June 1912, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 469 and note 2, p. 468.

[2]     Wilson, diary entry for 4 July 1912, quoted in Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 115. Wilson added that ‘After a long talk – we sat from 11.30 to 5.30 – Asquith read out what he said was the sense of the meeting.’

[3]     Charles Hobhouse, diary entry for 6 July 1912, in David (ed.), Inside Asquith’s Cabinet from the diaries of Charles Hobhouse, pp. 116-7.

[4]     Minutes of the 117th meeting of the C.I.D., Strategical Situation in the Mediterranean, 4 July 1912, PRO Cab 38/21/26; Lumby, pp. 60-83; Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, pp. 37-40; Esher, Journal entry, 5 July 1912, Esher, Journals and Letters, p. 100; Fisher to his son, 5 July 1912, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 470-1; Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, pp. 293-5.

[5]     Wilson, diary entry for 4 July 1912, quoted in Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 115.

[6]     There was no elasticity in the opinion of Henry Wilson for whom what he termed the ‘necessary margin’ meant only one thing — ‘33 of our capital ships to 25 Germans.’ Ibid.

[7]     Asquith to the King, 5 July 1912, PRO Cab 41/33/56.

[8]     Although prepared for the use of the Cabinet, the memorandum was not circulated.

[9]     The fourth Austrian dreadnought was actually ready only in November 1915.

[10]    Churchill suggested St Vincent, Superb, Vanguard & Collingwood.

[11]    Memorandum by Churchill, 6 July 1912, (not circulated), PRO Cab 37/111/89; Lumby pp. 83-5; WSC Comp vol. II, pt. iii, pp. 1588-91.

[12]    At the Cabinet Churchill apparently wanted to alter the 60% margin of superiority over the next strongest fleet, to one of 40% over the next two strongest fleets combined. However, his only support came from Haldane and, to a lesser extent, Asquith, and the proposal was dropped. Hobhouse, diary entry for 10 July 1912, in David (ed.), Inside Asquith’s Cabinet from the diaries of Charles Hobhouse, p. 117.

[13]    Log of Enchantress, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. iii, p. 1705. Churchill’s wife was ill at the time, recovering from an operation, however the First Lord felt he could not abandon the Canadian Ministers nor, one suspects, the limelight at the Review to be at her side: ibid., p. 1592.

[14]    Memorandum by Aubert, 7 May 1912, quoted in Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 285.

[15]    Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 286.

[16]    As Grey spoke, Sir Henry Wilson fumed in silence: the General was particularly indignant that Grey ‘entirely and absolutely ignored the military problem.’ Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 115.

[17]    Gilbert, Lloyd George, Organizer of Victory, p. 68.

[18]    Minutes of the 118th meeting of the C.I.D., 11 July 1912, PRO Cab 38/21/27; Lumby, pp. 86-90 (extract); WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. iii, pp. 1595-1607 (extract).

[19]    Borden to Churchill, 28 August 1912, given in, Tracy (ed.), The Collective Naval Defence of the Empire, Navy Records Society, volume 136, no. 91, p. 165.

[20]    The first memorandum did not satisfy Borden, necessitating a further effort by Churchill, who complained that, ‘I do not know how the case for immediate action on the part of Canada as set forth in the Memorandum can be strengthened, but, if there are any directions in which you feel it has not been sufficiently made out, and will indicate them, they shall receive careful attention.’ Churchill to Borden, 29 August 1912, ibid, no. 92, pp. 165-6.

[21]    Sir Francis Hopwood to Lord Stamfordham, 5 January 1914, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. iii, pp. 1842-3.

[22]    Churchill to Bridgeman and Sir Henry Jackson, 17 January 1913, , given in, Tracy (ed.), The Collective Naval Defence of the Empire, Navy Records Society, volume 136, no. 110, p. 183-4.

[23]    “Canadian Naval Proposals” in The Naval Annual, 1913, pp. 489-502; see also, Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, p. 298.

[24]    Fisher to Esher, 6 July 1912, regarding a leak in the C.I.D. F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 471 and note 1.

[25]    Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, p. 295; Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, p. 40.

[26]    Grey to Carnegie, 11 July 1912, PRO Cab 37/111/90; Lumby p. 90.

[27]    Asquith to the King, 12 July 1912, PRO Cab 41/33/57.

[28]    Wilson, diary entry, 14 July 1912, quoted in Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 116. Wilson asserted in his defence that the Conservatives ‘can claim as a right to be posted in the matter and to have the views of sailors and soldiers put before them.’

[29]    Asquith to the King, 15 July 1912, PRO Cab 41/33/59.

[30]    Asquith to the King, 16 July 1912, PRO Cab 41/33/58. Churchill, in the opinion of one of his colleagues, was ‘most abusive and insulting to McKenna. He [Churchill] is really a spoilt child endowed by some chance with the brain of a genius.’ Charles Hobhouse, diary entry for 17 July 1912, in David (ed.), Inside Asquith’s Cabinet from the diaries of Charles Hobhouse, p. 118.

[31]    As Charles Hobhouse noted, ‘In the end on Tuesday he [Churchill] read us certain opinions of some of his naval experts …’ Hobhouse, diary entry for 17 July 1912, in David (ed.), Inside Asquith’s Cabinet from the diaries of Charles Hobhouse, p. 118 [emphasis in original].

[32]    Captain Ballard, Mediterranean Requirements, 16 July 1912, Masterton Smith mss., PRO Cab 1/33

[33]    Rear-Admiral E C T Troubridge, Mediterranean requirements, 16 July 1912, Masterton-Smith mss., PRO Cab 1/33.

[34]    This was not necessarily the view from within the service. Captain Richmond complained that, in thinking the main danger to the country came from an attack on its trade rather than an invasion, the Admiralty had its priorities the wrong way round. Invasion was a more immediate and deadly blow: ‘it is the disposition for preventing invasion that guards the trade, not the disposition for guarding trade that prevents invasion.’ Richmond to Dewar, 15 July 1912, Dewar mss., NMM Dew 34.

[35]    Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 116.

[36]    Charles Hobhouse, diary entry for 17 July 1912, in David (ed.), Inside Asquith’s Cabinet from the diaries of Charles Hobhouse, p. 118. Hobhouse does not specify precisely how many battleships the German would have to torpedo before a recall would be altered.

[37]    Asquith to the King, 16 July 1912, PRO Cab 41/33/58.

[38]    The Naval Annual, 1913, pp. 55-6.

[39]    Lieven did mention the possibility of Russian operations in the Mediterranean but only on the proviso that one side of the Straits could be occupied to guarantee his line of communications.

[40]    Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, pp. 303-6.

[41]    Isvolsky to Neratov, 18 July 1912, quoted in Friedrich Stieve, Isvolsky and the World War, (London, 1926), pp. 83-4.

[42]    Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, p. 306.

[43]    The text is given in Michael Hurst (ed.), Key Treaties for the Great Powers, Vol. II, 1871-1914, (Newton Abbot, 1972), pp. 827-8.

[44]    De Saint-Seine also informed Churchill that the French had seven dreadnoughts building and that Delcassé ‘intended to accelerate the laying down of 4 more ships next year, of which 2 would be begun in April, and 2 not later than September.’

[45]    Churchill to Asquith and Grey, 17 July 1912, PRO Adm 116/3110.

[46]    Draft Anglo-French Naval Agreement, 23 July 1912, PRO Adm 116/3109; Lumby, pp. 92-3.

[47]    Memorandum by Bertie on conversations with Grey on 17 and 23 July 1912, given in, Lowe and Dockrill (eds.), The Mirage of Power, vol. III, pp. 457-8.

[48]    Hamilton, Bertie of Thame, p. 291.

[49]    Quoted in, Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 287.

[50]    Nicolson to Grey, 24 July 1912, minutes by Grey, Asquith and Churchill, Grey mss., PRO FO 800/94; Lumby, pp. 93-4.

[51]    Cambon actually referred to the fact that ‘as long ago as 1907 there were verbal communications with Sir John Fisher, in which the French had said that they could assure only the western part of the Mediterranean’; however, he was clearly referring to the 1908 conversations.

[52]    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 talks of 1908, not 1907, 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?’ Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 288.

[53]    Grey to Carnegie, 26 July 1912, Lumby pp. 95-6.

[54]    McKenna to Spender, 8 May 1929, Spender mss., BM Add MSS 46386.

[55]    Churchill to Grey, 29 July 1912, Grey mss., PRO FO 800/87; Lumby, pp. 96-7.



THE MILLSTONE: British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War © Geoffrey Miller

The Links Page :

As the range of our activities is so diverse, we have a number of different websites. The site you are currently viewing is wholly devoted to the third of the three non-fiction books written by Geoffrey Miller, and deals specifically with the political and diplomatic imperatives behind the British decision to enter the war in August 1914. The main Flamborough Manor site focuses primarily on accommodation but has brief details of all our other activities. To allow for more information to be presented on these other activities, there are other self-contained web-sites. All our web-sites have a LINKS page in common, which allows for easy navigation between the various sites. To find out where you are, or to return to the main site, simply go to the LINKS page.


Please click to go to the top of this page



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

  Geoffrey Miller can be contacted by:
Telephone or FAX
01262 850943  [International: +44 1262 850943]
Postal address

The Manor House,
East Riding of Yorkshire, YO15 1PD
United Kingdom.




Secondary Navigation Copyright © 1995-2013
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be further reproduced by any means without the prior permission of the author, Geoffrey Miller, who has asserted his right in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Click to go to top of page
Home ContentsSearch Feedback Preface Introduction Superior Force Straits Chapter 1
Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10
Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19
Chapter 20 Summary Resurgam Bibliography Index Ordering Order Form Biographies Links

Web-site design & content Copyright © 1995-2013 Geoffrey Miller