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



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The Millstone


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

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Chapter 13




The Obligation




 Austrian naval base at Pola

The Austrian naval base at Pola


The resolve of the French to be supreme in their own backyard was being tested to the limit as, increasingly, the Austro-Hungarian navy became the critical factor in the Mediterranean. Part of the fear it engendered lay in its apparent lack of motive yet, while the officers of “proper” navies might be dismissive of the fighting qualities of this curious fleet, the Admiralties in London, Paris and St Petersburg could not afford to ignore it. The Russians, for example, although decreeing that their Black Sea fleet was to be built to a standard of fifty per cent. superiority over the Turkish navy, feared the Austrians most of all. To the British and French, Italy appeared at best a half-hearted member of the Triple Alliance whose fleet at least had a rationale, even if only to wrest part of Ottoman North Africa and the Dodecanese islands out of Turkish control. Who, therefore, was Austria building against? According to the Austrian Foreign Minister, Count Leopold von Berchtold, it was the Italians; indeed, Berchtold could not conceive of any circumstances under which a collision could arise between the navies of Austria and Britain (whose patch of the Mediterranean covered the Adriatic). The British Ambassador in Vienna reported privately at the end of July 1912 that the Austrians were actually aiming at a fifty per cent. margin against the Italian fleet, below which they would feel at the mercy of the Italians at sea. Notwithstanding that the Triple Alliance would, in all probability, be renewed it was felt generally in Austrian circles that Italy was ‘an ally whom any unforeseen incident may suddenly turn into an enemy.’[1] The perverse situation had arisen, then, where Russia was building against Germany in the Baltic; Germany against Britain in the North Sea; Britain against Germany; France against Italy and Austria in the Mediterranean; Italy against Austria; Austria against Italy; and Russia, in the Black Sea, against Turkey and Austria. A morbid momentum had developed which only economic or personnel constraints – or war – could stop. And, if war came, the French would need all the naval help they could get.

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Having left London after making his views known to Grey, Ambassador Cambon did not begin his holidays immediately: instead, directly after arriving in Paris, he saw Premier Raymond Poincaré.[2] No sooner had Cambon finished his interview than the Premier was visited by Francis Bertie, who had been fully briefed by Grey, and who was anxious to inform Poincaré of Grey’s reservations in case, as the British Foreign Secretary evidently suspected, these had not been adequately explained by Cambon. ‘It must be clearly understood’, Bertie lectured Poincaré, ‘that any communications between the naval or military experts of the two countries were not to be taken as prejudicing the freedom of decision of the two Governments so as to commit either Government to come to the assistance of the other in time of war.’ It was, Bertie continued, ‘necessary to be clear about this because, though the Governments might be cognisant of the fact that the experts were arranging details for co-operation, they could not be sure of everything which passed between the experts and Governments ought not to be committed by them, but only what passed directly between Governments themselves.’ Perhaps Bertie had Sir Henry Wilson in mind? The Ambassador also emphasized Churchill’s opinion as to the basis behind the French naval concentration in the Mediterranean. Cambon must have been under a misapprehension, observed Bertie, ‘in regard to the reasons for the transfer of the greater portion of the French Fleet from the Channel and Atlantic to the Mediterranean.’ The transfer, in fact, ‘was a spontaneous decision of the French Government and not in consequence of the conversations between the British and French experts in the same way as the decision of His Majesty’s Government to withdraw for the present from the Mediterranean some of the British ships hitherto stationed there.’ Poincaré was apparently converted, if only in part, by the British Ambassador’s locquaciousness, to the point of admitting that, although the French move was ‘quite spontaneous’, it would not have been taken without the supposition that Britain would stand by the French in the face of an unprovoked attack. If the Entente did not even mean that England would come to France’s assistance in the event of a German attack on the northern French ports, its value to France, Poincaré insisted, was ‘not great’. As such, Poincaré was obviously anxious to pin the British down; the Entente would have been less than useless to France if it encouraged, by denuding her Channel or Atlantic coasts, the very thing it was supposed to prevent, namely, German aggression.

The redistribution of the two Entente fleets, now almost completed, must have appeared to Poincaré as the ideal solution to the problem of countering the naval threat posed by the Triple Alliance; yet, he complained, the British Admiralty’s proposed Naval Convention began ‘by saying that it means nothing so far as the Governments are concerned’, a sentiment which was ‘superfluous and quite out of place in such a Convention.’ Such a Convention as the one proposed should ‘deal only with military or naval matters so long as it was a Convention between experts and not one between Governments.’ If a political formula was to be introduced, or reservations made, this could only be done through direct inter-Governmental talks. Poincaré suggested therefore ‘some form of declaration’ which would allow the technical discussions to continue but would, when danger threatened, entail mandatory conversations between the two Governments to initiate the naval and military arrangements. In other words, something approaching a formal definition of Anglo-French relations. Bertie, however, advised Poincaré ‘not to press his views regarding the discussions between the experts for the present’ and warned that even the mild declaration proposed would be unlikely to meet with unanimous Cabinet approval in London. This final warning was superfluous: Poincaré had already been informed by Cambon of the Cabinet splits in London. Grey’s supposedly continuing struggle with the Radicals continued to provide a convenient excuse for postponing the contemplation of awkward decisions. The interview was at an end and Bertie had carried out his instructions; not wishing to allow the impasse over the nature of the declaration to ruin the holidays, the matter was conveniently put off until September.[3]

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                Poincaré himself could not immediately escape the burdens of high office; he was scheduled to travel to St Petersburg for negotiations with the other fractious member of the Entente. Following these talks Sazonov, the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs, reported that:

British-French relations were the subject of a particularly candid exchange of views between M. Poincaré and myself. The French premier mentioned that latterly, under the influence of Germany’s aggressive policy towards France, these relations had assumed the character of quite special intimacy, and he confided to me that while no written agreement between France and Great Britain was in existence, the General and Naval Staffs of the two States were nevertheless in close touch with one another … This continual exchange of ideas had led to a verbal agreement between the Governments of France and Great Britain in which Great Britain had declared her readiness to come to the aid of France with her land and naval forces should France be attacked by Germany. Great Britain had promised to support France on land by a detachment 100,000 strong sent to the Belgian frontier, in order to ward off an invasion of the German army through Belgium, which was expected by the French General Staff. M. Poincaré begged me urgently to preserve absolute silence about this information, and not to give even the British the ground for suspicion that we were informed of it. When we spoke of the mutual assistance which Great Britain and France contemplated rendering to one another at sea, M. Poincaré touched on the possibility of simultaneous co-operation between the Russian and British naval forces. Under our naval convention, France has undertaken the obligation to help us by diverting the Austrian fleet in the Mediterranean from us and preventing its penetration into the Black Sea. In Poincaré’s view the British naval forces could undertake the same rôle in the Baltic, to which the French fleet is unable to extend its activity. Accordingly, he asked me whether I would not take advantage of my impending journey to England to raise … the question of joint co-operation of the Russian and British fleets in the event of a conflict with … the Triple Alliance.[4]

By planting the idea in the fertile brain of Sazonov, Poincaré hoped so to enmesh the Entente in military and naval conventions that individual freedom of action would become impossible, if it could be said ever to have existed at all. Even so, there was an undeniable logic in the overall conception of the divided and weak, though growing, Russian fleets being simultaneously shielded by the French drawing the Austrians away from the Black Sea and the British drawing the Germans away from the Baltic. The symmetry was not quite complete, however, as the linchpin remained Britain; for, while the Royal Navy was strong enough not to have to depend on the French or Russians, the reverse was not the case.

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                This continued to be Churchill’s argument: he complained to Grey that the second article in the draft convention was not a Cabinet requirement but had been inserted on his own initiative ‘to preserve in its integrity our full freedom of choice.’ He offered to redraft the offending section ‘in a more general form’, which addressed the problem semantically if in no other way;[5] yet Bertie was sure that Poincaré would not find it acceptable. ‘What the French Government would like best’, Bertie informed Grey, ‘would be an exchange of diplomatic notes defining the joint interests of France and England and stating that in the event of any of those interests being in the opinion of one of the two Powers endangered it will confer with the other as to whether any and if so what steps should be taken to defend those interests, and if they be agreed that combined armed action should be taken the naval and military arrangements already agreed upon between the French and British experts will come into force…’[6] Although Churchill continued to maintain that the French move was, in itself, unilateral – ‘If we did not exist, the French could not make better dispositions than at present’ – he then proceeded to the next argument by declaring that one consequence of the alleged British freedom of action would be the ‘power to influence French policy beforehand’. It was becoming increasingly doubtful as to whether anyone else accepted this sophistry. Nevertheless Churchill himself was personally convinced that Grey and Asquith (to whom he stated the position frankly) at least acquiesced in the principle of freedom of action. Bertie, about whom the First Lord entertained serious doubts, was another matter:

I am not at all particular how it [freedom of choice] is to be given effect to [Churchill declared] and I make no point about what document it is set forth in. But I don’t think Bertie understands it a bit, nor how tremendous would be the weapon which France would possess to compel our intervention if she could say “on the advice of and by arrangement with you naval authorities we have left our Northern coasts defenceless. We cannot possibly come back in time.” Indeed it would probably be decisive whatever is written down now. Everyone must feel who knows the facts that we have the obligations of an alliance without its advantages and above all without its precise definitions.[7]

This was too close to the truth for comfort; adopting the mentality of the ostrich Grey and Asquith were more than happy to postpone matters until Cambon returned in September, while Churchill, who had now had his say, had other things on his mind that August, primarily the search for a new Chief of the War Staff.

                Rear-Admiral Troubridge, the first C.O.S., was due to go to sea and was probably relieved at the prospect; his temperament, though not his ego, was unsuited for Admiralty work. Churchill, however, could find no officer to recommend as Troubridge’s successor. ‘I am sorry to say’, he wrote to Asquith, ‘that I cannot find one who possesses fully the qualities necessary for this most important post.’ In an illuminating example both of Churchill’s opinion of the calibre of naval officers and of his delusion that he would allow the War Staff to function as a completely autonomous unit, the First Lord added that, although a brave start had been made, the War Staff required ‘more brain and more organizing power at the top.’ There was an enormous amount of work still to be done ‘if we are to avoid a series of preventable misfortunes in the early days of the war.’ Unfortunately, Churchill’s prescience was not matched by his common sense on this occasion, as his nominee for the job was Sir Charles Ottley, last seen leaving the C.I.D. to accept a directorship at Armstrong’s. Churchill had talked to Ottley and discovered that he was neither happy ‘nor very proud of himself’ for taking the job. Ottley’s pride had a price though, and his terms were onerous: £2,500 a year plus a house and a pension of £1,000 a year. Churchill envisaged difficulties with the Treasury and the Navy who ‘will be inclined a little to sniff at an officer from the retired list being appointed’; but he hoped to buy both off, the latter by ‘various small improvements’ in officers’ pay.[8]

                Fortunately, nothing came of Churchill’s proposed replacement which would have sent the worst possible signals to the Navy: that no up-and-coming officer was felt suitable. Whether, on the other hand, Ottley could have exercised some restraining influence over the First Lord’s tendency towards increasing centralization is debatable. Churchill had already been warned against this inclination as early as January 1912, within months of his arrival at the Admiralty, when Sir Francis Hopwood, the Additional Civil Lord, cautioned him that ‘Fisher was a great & jealous personality — he gathered everything into his hands & hated outside communication with the First Lord. It seems to me that now you have the centralization in the First Lord without the Fisher willing to share the responsibility.’[9] Eventually, with no successor in sight, Troubridge continued as C.O.S. until 6 January 1913 while Churchill bemoaned to Sir Henry Wilson of the ‘want of a staff and superior leaders.’ If only, Churchill mused wistfully, he could have the General Staff that Wilson had ‘he would have the finest navy in the World.’[10]

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As mentioned, at his meeting with Churchill in July the French Naval Attaché had informed the First Lord that a decision had been made to move the six remaining French battleships from Brest to the Mediterranean where they would form the Third Squadron. Unfortunately, the details of the move were prematurely leaked to the French press on 10 September to the consternation of both Churchill and Cambon. To Le Temps, the first to publish the news, the transfer was indicative of an assumed Triple Entente naval agreement.[11] Churchill saw, at once, the danger now that the northern coasts of France were to be protected by flotillas only: France would forthwith be in credit, morally, to Britain and the account needed somehow to be balanced. The First Lord therefore instructed Bridgeman that it was ‘desirable that our scheme for reinforcing the Mediterranean should be published at an early date. The new dispositions of the French Fleet will lead to all sorts of speculation and surmise, unless we indicate at the same time that we are looking after our own interests. As we have to provide the ships we may as well make the most of it.’[12] A week later Churchill instructed Battenberg that ‘the scheme for reinforcement of the Mediterranean … [should] be published in tabular form’ on the following lines:– [note. Battle cruisers are underlined; the remaining ships are heavy cruisers.]                                              

August 1912

January 1913

April 1913

July 1913  













Good Hope









Duke of Edinburgh

Duke of Edinburgh

Duke of Edinburgh



Black Prince

Black Prince  





It was not necessary, Churchill added, ‘to deal with the smaller vessels, nor should we commit ourselves in the matter of destroyers and submarines.’[13]

                The astute Counsellor at the German Embassy in London, Richard von Kühlmann, reported to Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg on 16 September 1912 that the French move had not been widely discussed in the British press; instead, the British editors remained content to quote opinions from their French counterparts to the effect that the move was unthinkable without an understanding with Britain. The one exception was The Times whose leader of that day was so remarkable as to lead Kühlmann to believe that it probably represented official opinion. The article followed the Admiralty line closely in that it argued that the French concentration did not necessarily imply the existence of an Anglo-French naval arrangement since French strategical considerations alone necessitated the move. An alliance implied armed assistance as a matter of definite obligation; an entente only armed assistance in any given case if the interests of the two parties were identical. In Kühlmann’s opinion ‘this definition of the Entente represents the views of leading Englishmen. The best political observers do not believe in the existence of binding Anglo-French arrangements regarding the distribution of the naval forces of either party or co-operation between the navies in the event of war.’ Despite this denial, the German Emperor, in whom paranoia was raised to an art, was convinced that an agreement did exist, and, as for the rest, it all smacked of ‘casuistical sophistry’.[14]

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                Following the premature announcement of the move of the six obsolete battleships, Cambon was more concerned that France had thrown away a bargaining card; he had hoped that the mere promise that the move might be made could be used to extract from Britain a more definite written understanding. But now it was all out in the open, and he saw Nicolson on 17 September to try to salvage something tangible. Although Cambon was aware himself that the move was permanent – but perhaps forgetting that his Naval Attaché had already informed Churchill of this fact – the Ambassador accused the press of being too hasty in drawing conclusions regarding the transfer which was, he bluffed, ‘merely a temporary measure taken in order to enable those vessels to take part in certain manoeuvres in the Mediterranean, while there was no intention, for the present in any case, of definitely transferring them.’ There were indeed manoeuvres scheduled; however, following their completion, the commander of the six old battleships had been ordered to place himself under the command of the Mediterranean C-in-C, Boué de Lapeyrère.[15] In any event, the Admiralty in London had been aware since January 1912 that Boué de Lapeyrère had refused to guarantee the safe passage of the Algerian Army Corps unless he was reinforced by the battleships of the Third Squadron.[16]

                Cambon saw Grey two days later to repeat his mendacious theory about the transfer and to present his ‘personal suggestion’ as to the form a written understanding might take:

Dans le cas où l’un ou l’autre des deux Gouvernements aurait des raisons d’appréhender un acte d’agression de la part d’une tierce Puissance ou des complications menaçantes pour la paix, ils se livreraient ensemble à une discussion sur la situation et rechercheraient les moyens d’assurer de concert le maintien de la paix et d’écarter toute tentative d’agression.[17]

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

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                There was little Grey could do immediately, as Asquith was just about to go abroad and Grey himself was scheduled to travel north to Balmoral, though he did promise Cambon that he would discuss the matter with the Prime Minister upon Asquith’s return. It was not until 11 October that Asquith finally found time to reply, seeing no harm in Cambon’s proposed formula; ‘indeed’, he added patronizingly, ‘it is almost a platitude.’[18] It could, of course, have been Cambon’s intention to present, initially, a deceptively mild formula as an opening gambit. Cambon then arrived at the Foreign Office on 25 September with a new formula, drafted this time by Poincaré himself. In Grey’s absence Nicolson could do no more than forward it to Grey at Balmoral, with the observation that it was predicated upon a defensive alliance, a prospect, he presumed, would be rejected by the Cabinet. ‘We shall have to sign something’, admitted Nicolson candidly; however, he had thought that Cambon had only asked for an ‘interchange of views’ in certain circumstances, which would have been acceptable.[19]

Even at Balmoral the Foreign Secretary could not escape the seemingly interminable debate on the naval aspects of Entente co-operation. Worse, when Cambon’s latest proposal reached him, Grey was also having to deal with Sazonov, who happened to be staying at Balmoral. Grey was forced to discuss ‘that wearisome subject’ Persia with the Russian Foreign Minister in addition to British naval assistance in the Baltic. Although by no means a strategist, Grey was able to deflect Sazonov by admitting that, although the British fleet could easily penetrate into the Baltic, its stay there would be very risky; the greatest assistance Britain could render to Russia would be the total control of the German North Sea coast by the Royal Navy. This would, as a corollary, ‘set the French fleet entirely free for the Mediterranean.’[20] Diverting Sazonov had been reasonably effortless; Cambon, however, was not so easy to brush aside. By the middle of October the Ambassador had inconveniently changed tack and was now arguing that ‘some thing ought to be on record, as French Governments change so frequently.’[21]

                Grey could not hold out much longer under this relentless French onslaught — even Churchill was wavering. Besides, other events had occurred in the Mediterranean which made it vital to consolidate the accord with France. The Balkans were plunged into war on 8 October 1912[22] and it soon appeared likely that the Turks would lose their foothold in Europe entirely; concomitantly, the signing of the treaty to end the long drawn out Turco-Italian war left the Cabinet with little option other than to recognize, finally, the sovereignty of Italy in Libya.[23] Grey quickly put out feelers to the Italians regarding a Mediterranean agreement, while, having secured British recognition, the Italians exchanged notes with the French in Paris on 28 October assuring each other reciprocal ‘most-favoured’ nation status for their respective interests in Libya and Morocco. When, two days later, Grey discussed a possible understanding with the Italian Ambassador, Imperiali, it appeared as if one source of contention might be removed; however, the Italians were playing a double game and the agreement dangled so alluringly before the Foreign Secretary was a chimera, designed to ease Entente suspicions. Their desire to protect the gains won at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, uncertainty as to the French naval concentration in the Mediterranean, and the fear of Austria demanding compensation in the Balkans all combined to lead the Italians in the opposite direction, away from the Entente. In particular, the Italians believed they stood a better chance of keeping Austria in check from within the framework of the Triple Alliance, a consideration which resulted in the moribund Treaty being renewed, ahead of schedule, on 5 December 1912.[24]

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The Cabinet met on 30 October to debate Cambon’s formula, which they rejected as ‘vague and open to a variety of constructions’. Mindful that something had to take its place, a letter drafted by Grey was eventually agreed upon and Grey wasted no time in taking this to show to Cambon. The Foreign Secretary had taken care to embody in the draft three cardinal points: that naval and military consultations had taken place; that these were non-binding; and that the Governments would consult in the face of aggression to decide upon the action to be taken. According to Grey’s draft letter,

From time to time in recent years the French and British naval and military experts have consulted together. It has been understood that such consultation does not restrict the freedom of either Government to decide at any future time whether or not to assist the other by armed force. We have agreed that consultation between experts is not and ought not to be regarded as an engagement that commits either Government to action in a contingency that has not arisen and may never arise. The disposition, for instance, of the French and British fleets respectively at the present moment is not based upon an engagement to co-operate in war.

                You have, however, pointed out that if either Government had grave reason to expect an unprovoked attack by a third Power, it might become essential to know whether it could in that event depend upon the armed assistance of the other.

                I agreed that, if either Government had grave reason to expect an unprovoked attack by a third Power or something that threatened the general peace, it should immediately discuss with the other whether both Governments should act together to prevent aggression and to preserve peace, and, if so, what measures they would be prepared to take in common.[25]

Neither Cambon nor Poincaré was completely satisfied. However, realizing that this was the best they were going to achieve, the Premier indicated his acceptance of the draft on 7 November, though with the addition of the following words at the end: ‘si ces mesures comportaient une action les ententes de nos États majors produiraient leur effet.’

                It was an awkward time at which to be discussing ‘something that threatened the general peace’, as the crisis in the Balkans rapidly escalated. By 9 November Lloyd George, for one, believed that ‘war between Austria and Russia, which would involve France and Germany, seemed very probable.’ In that eventuality, Britain also might be involved. Pointing to an ominous ‘bank of dark and lowering clouds’ Lloyd George remarked, ‘That is emblematic of the situation. It may be a regular Armageddon. It is the most serious situation which has occurred for years. No body of men ever had a greater responsibility than the Cabinet. Sir Edward Grey and the Premier are very anxious.’ Even Lloyd George himself had had trouble sleeping.[26]

                The matter of the latest French proposal went back to the Cabinet in London and resulted in a further lengthy discussion — as Grey patiently explained to Cambon on 21 November the addition of Poincaré’s words would bind the two Governments to carry out plans which might be out of date. The Cabinet agreed instead that Grey should counter-propose the following: ‘If these measures (i.e. measures for a concerted policy between the two powers, in the event of an unprovoked attack upon one of them) involve action, the plans of the General Staffs would at once be taken into consideration, and the two Governments would then decide what effect should be given to them.’ Cambon agreed to this, and the sentence – without the explanation contained in the parenthesis – was added to the end of the private letter Grey sent Cambon the next day, 22 November 1912. The Ambassador replied in kind the following day so solemnizing a marriage of sorts between Cambon’s wronged bride and Grey’s reluctant groom. Missing from the final form of the letters was any acknowledgement that the British and French fleet dispositions had been reached independently: the point upon which Churchill had been so insistent. Whether from an admission of the sophistry of the argument, or weariness at the prospect of the continuation of the tiresome debate (presupposing that the French would object to such a statement), the omission was to have grave consequences in August 1914.[27]

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During the period of the negotiations, French apprehension had shifted to the eastern basin of the Mediterranean where, prompted by the recent agreement with Russia which might see French naval forces operating in the area, it was felt that the remnants of the British Mediterranean Fleet, while sufficient perhaps for commerce protection, would be overwhelmed by a joint Austro-Italian combination. The French thereupon proposed that overall command in the Mediterranean should be given to a French admiral, which presented the obvious and immediate difficulty that Admiral Milne, the British C-in-C, outranked Vice-Admiral Boué de Lapeyrère.[28] Thus had the seed planted by Fisher in November 1904, when he complained that as a mere Vice-Admiral during his tenure as C-in-C in the Mediterranean he had been docked of a number of servants and a good deal of pay, now borne fruit; the bitter harvest of his edict that the British commander at Malta must be a full admiral would be reaped once Anglo-French naval co-operation in the Mediterranean became an accomplished fact.

                The outbreak of the First Balkan War in October 1912 further focused attention on the eastern basin of the Mediterranean. On 22 October, only days after full scale fighting had commenced, Churchill wrote to both Grey and Asquith outlining a plan to obtain Corfu, which he described as the key to the Adriatic. ‘There is no doubt’, he maintained, ‘that Austria intends to have a great Mediterranean Fleet. Our best and cheapest – perhaps our only – way of meeting this will be a large submarine and torpedo development supported by a fast squadron’, to be based on Corfu, whose possession ‘would vastly simplify our Mediterranean problem in years to come.’ With the possible collapse of Turkey-in-Europe, the question of Turkish sovereignty over Cyprus, four-fifths of whose population was Greek, would be raised. Churchill suggested that Cyprus should be handed back to Greece in exchange for a lease on Corfu as a naval station. It was ‘now or never’ he declared: the opportunity presented by the war should be grabbed, as any later attempt to base ships on Corfu, once the new Austrian fleet had been completed, would itself lead to war. Grey conceded that it would not be an easy matter, and could not be done immediately, ‘but no one can set limits to the opportunities that the war may provide.’[29]

A week later, when the fall of Constantinople appeared to be imminent and British lives and interests threatened as a result, Grey requested the presence of a British squadron in the region; on 1 November orders were dispatched to the Third Battle Squadron of eight King Edward class pre-dreadnoughts (the very ships McKenna had been so anxious to have stationed there) to proceed to Malta. As these ships made their way south, an intelligence report received in London appeared to indicate that an Austrian squadron was making for Salonica for nefarious purposes; Admiral Milne, flying his flag in the humble armoured cruiser Good Hope (as none of the projected battle cruisers had yet arrived on station), was ordered to proceed east and attempt to intercept the Austrians and keep them under observation. To assist him, the first division of the Third Battle Squadron (four battleships) was ordered to steam on without stopping at Malta. However, before Milne could act upon his orders, the Foreign Office developed cold feet — Nicolson considered the move too provocative and Milne’s squadron was diverted away from Salonica.[30]

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                Undeterred, Churchill briefed Grey on the current situation on 8 November: the second division of the Third Battle Squadron and two armoured cruisers were now proceeding ‘at ordinary speeds to Nauplia a harmless bay off the East Greek Coast where their position can have no significance but is within effective supporting distance of the other 4 [that is, the first division] at Suda Bay. We do not propose to bring home any ships from the Mediterranean at present, but it is necessary that the vessels in Eastern Mediterranean should be capable of concentrating for mutual protection. The force when united will be largely superior to the Austrian fleet & capable of looking after itself in all probable contingencies.’ Churchill added, in a somewhat ironic postscript, ‘I am not at all displeased with the naval position.’[31] Although the first of the Austrian dreadnoughts, Viribus Unitus, which had figured so heavily in Admiralty calculations, would not be completed for another month, Grey could not share the First Lord’s optimism. The Foreign Secretary argued that Nauplia ‘won’t do at all for the fleet’ and nor, for that matter, would Suda Bay. In neither of these locations was life or property threatened and Grey worried that ‘the wildest political motives may be ascribed to us & there may be no end of a scare.’ If the Admiralty did have to move the ships from Malta, Grey thought Smyrna would be the best place as there was at least a legitimate danger of massacre there.[32]

                Ironically for Grey, it transpired that this was also the actual destination of the Austrian squadron, and not Salonica as the faulty intelligence had indicated. The Foreign Secretary had been badly served by the Admiralty and it was not long before approval was given for the discreet withdrawal of the Third Battle Squadron later in the month, while the smaller vessels remained in place among a growing international force. By 11 November the cruisers Weymouth and Hampshire had arrived off Constantinople, there to join the Leon Gambetta and Victor Hugo from France; the Emanuele Filiberto and Coatit from Italy; the Aspern and Admiral Spaun from Austria; the Rotislav and Kagul from Russia; the Reina Regente from Spain; and the new German battle cruiser Goeben.[33] This last, the flagship of the recently formed Mittelmeerdivision under the command of Rear-Admiral Trummler, created the greatest impression of the ships lying watchfully at anchor off the Sublime Porte. Goeben, which had only completed her trials on 28 August, was the equal of the latest British battle cruisers and superior to the older 12-inch battle cruisers destined for Malta of which Inflexible – which would be Milne’s flagship – was the only British example in the Mediterranean by the end of November 1912.[34] Joining Goeben was the new light cruiser Breslau and a trio of older cruisers. Although this squadron, dispatched to the chagrin of the German Naval Staff to protect German interests, had been slated to return to the North Sea at the earliest opportunity, with the continuing Balkan unrest it would remain in the Mediterranean to add a new and disturbing dimension to Entente calculations. As early as 20 December 1912 the British Ambassador in Constantinople, Sir Gerard Lowther, was reporting privately to Nicolson of ‘silly stories that the Turks wanted to buy the German battleship [sic] Goeben now here.’[35]

                In addition, there was the mounting, but unwarranted, concern that Austria intended to increase her dreadnought programme. Churchill confided in Lloyd George (to prepare the Chancellor for the shock of the new Estimates) that Austria might lay down three extra dreadnoughts ‘beyond anything yet foreseen’ and, while this may have proved to be a rumour, Churchill personally doubted it: ‘my information’, he noted, ‘has for some time pointed in this direction.’[36] In fact, Admiralty sources doubted that the additional ships would be built during 1913/14 and Churchill’s information was as accurate as the supposed destination of the Austrian squadron, received a fortnight earlier.[37] Despite his fears, Churchill recalculated the Mediterranean requirements for 1915 and demonstrated that the one-Power Mediterranean standard could be attained ‘unless Austria builds more’. Unfortunately, these new calculations relied on the promise of the three battleships which, it was hoped, would be supplied by Canada.

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To complicate matters further at this time, Churchill became involved in a messy and unseemly altercation which resulted from his attempt to remove his First Sea Lord. If, having replaced Wilson with Bridgeman twelve months previously, Churchill had anticipated a pliant non-entity he was mistaken, even though it took some months for Bridgeman to work up a full head of steam and confront Churchill; by then it was too late. Churchill was in the habit of issuing orders when outside the Admiralty building, something he could not do without the consent of the Board of Admiralty. Infuriating as this was, it was the style and tone of his minutes that caused Bridgeman the greatest offence and, by September 1912, the First Sea Lord was actively engaged in gathering adherents to his cause. Having ascertained from Troubridge, still the C.O.S. for the want of an adequate replacement, that he shared his views, Bridgeman decided to travel to London on 23 September to discuss the matter with both Troubridge and the Third Sea Lord while Churchill was absent aboard Enchantress.[38]

                When, the following month, Battenberg joined the conspiracy Bridgeman was emboldened to confront Churchill when the First Lord returned from his cruise on 3 October. According to Bridgeman, the First Lord initially remonstrated with him until, when the Sea Lords threatened to present their grievances to Asquith and, if necessary, the King, Churchill capitulated, broke into tears and acted such that Bridgeman thought he must be ill[39] (an unfortunate comment in view of what was to come). Bridgeman, Churchill realized, was now a threat to his empire and had to go. The First Sea Lord unwittingly provided Churchill with an opening the following month: the depressing struggle with Churchill, combined with recurring bronchitis at the onset of winter, led Bridgeman to write to Battenberg on 25 November that he sometimes felt inclined to give up his post. Bridgeman apparently intended to resign that night but, feeling better the next morning, had second thoughts. Churchill became aware of this ‘from various sources’ and, wanting the more congenial Battenberg as his First Sea Lord, wasted no time writing to Bridgeman (on 28 November) to inform him that he would not oppose his desire to retire early on health grounds. The day after writing this, but before Bridgeman could reply, Churchill informed the King that Bridgeman would shortly be retiring and proposed Battenberg to take his place. Unfortunately for Churchill, Bridgeman’s reply, when it arrived, stated that, although he would consider retiring, he now felt much better. Churchill wrote again to Bridgeman on 2 December to advise him that, having now consulted both Asquith and the King, his letter of 28 November was not an expression of concern over Bridgeman’s health but a demand which was not negotiable. The following day – not yet having received this letter and now assured by his doctors that nothing was seriously wrong – Bridgeman declared his intention of returning shortly to the Admiralty. It was not until the day after that the bombshell finally struck when Bridgeman received Churchill’s letter of 2 December and realized that he was expected to resign; it was an unnecessarily messy end to their partnership. Battenberg’s tenure of the office he had long coveted began on 9 December 1912.[40]

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Churchill wasted no time in putting his new First Sea Lord to work: on Battenberg’s first day Churchill addressed a memorandum to him (and Troubridge and Beatty in addition) to voice his unease at the prevailing strategical situation in the Mediterranean. Troubridge had recently been sent the results of a war game played at the Naval War College which used, as a basis, Anglo-French co-operation to ensure the safe transport of France’s Algerian Corps. As a result of the game it was shown that this primary objective could be achieved if the British ships provided distant cover by being positioned between Sardinia and Bizerta.[41] This conclusion did not please the First Lord: once more, his freedom of action was being fettered by French considerations, a tendency which had to be counteracted. Now, when Battenberg was hardly comfortable in his new chair, was the ideal time for Churchill, who had by this time completed his own apprenticeship at the Admiralty and was more sure of himself, to impose upon his subordinate his own ideas regarding strategy in the Mediterranean. By forging a united front with his senior advisers Churchill also hoped to regain the strategical direction of the fleet which had been hijacked by the C.I.D. the previous summer.

                The First Lord had, however, not won over everyone at the Admiralty with his ostensible mastery of strategy. ‘The culmination of all naval operations is a battle’, he rashly began his memorandum to Battenberg, a heresy that could not pass without comment in the Admiralty, where an unknown hand pencilled a simple, emphatic “No” to the draft. Despite this sweeping generalization Churchill was in fact questioning the legitimacy of minor operations which could impair the fleet when called on to fight a decisive action. As far as the Mediterranean was concerned, the objectives could be stated plainly: first, assisting, in the early stages, the transport of the French troops and second, if required, joining with the French for ‘a decisive engagement against the Italians’ while also preventing the Austrians from effecting a junction with the Italians. The problem, as the First Lord realized only too clearly, concerned the resources at the disposal of the C-in-C, Admiral Milne — these Churchill described, initially, as ‘very limited’ but then, perhaps remembering his own responsibility in the matter and not wishing to draw attention to this, he had second thoughts and struck out the accurate but offensive “very” with the ministerial pen. Nevertheless, with so little to work with, the ‘greatest fault the C-in-C … could commit’, Churchill maintained, ‘would be to disperse his forces before the battle had been fought. If the ships which he has detached are small weak units they will be easy prey, and if they are powerful units they would be a serious loss to the line of battle.’ In Churchill’s view, the British Squadron should be concentrated ‘in the neighbourhood of Malta’. Gone was Fisher’s long cherished scheme of abandoning Malta in favour of Alexandria.

                In an unhappy foretaste of his rôle as Churchill’s poodle, Battenberg concurred fully with the First Lord: the French had no business transporting ‘large and helpless military forces across a sea of which the command is in doubt’, though Battenberg at least conceded that ‘the dire necessity of the French Army leaves presumably no choice.’ And – incredibly – as far as the Suez Canal was concerned, the First Sea Lord declared that its defence was ‘none of our business’. Battenberg arrived at this extraordinary conclusion by maintaining that the Canal was neutral and it was therefore the duty of the Egyptian Government to uphold its neutral character, by force if necessary. Although Alexandria was, he admitted, a British submarine and destroyer base it had ‘nothing to do with the Suez Canal.’[42]

                Time and again the Admiralty played down, or refused to admit the importance of, the transfer of the Algerian Corps in the plans of the French General Staff. General Joffre, who had assumed command of the French Army on 28 July 1911, had hurriedly revised the existing war plan (plan XVI) in response to the Moroccan crisis. Needing to reinforce the Franco-Belgian frontier he decided to move the Fifth Army northward where it would be supported by the XIXth Corps from North Africa and the British Expeditionary Force.[43] In spite of all the efforts of Captain Kelly in Paris to alert his superiors that the safe passage of the Algerian Army Corps was ‘a point on which the General Staff of the Army insist’, his pleas either fell on deaf ears or were pooh-poohed.[44] Ultimately, this insouciance would rebound upon the Admiralty with a vengeance.  Please click to go to the top of this page





[1]     Fairfax-Cartwright to Nicolson, 31 July 1912, Nicolson mss., PRO FO 800/358.

[2]     The office of Prime Minister did not, at the time, exist, which meant that the head of the Government customarily took a ministerial portfolio; in a break with tradition, Poincaré appointed himself Foreign Minister. Bertie referred to Poincaré as President of the Council; however, as Keiger has noted, ‘It would not be until 1936 that the président du conseil would become a self-standing office.’ Keiger, Poincaré, p. 127.

[3]     Bertie to Grey, secret and Bertie to Grey, private and confidential, both 30 July 1912, Lumby, pp. 97-99; Hamilton, Bertie of Thame, p. 293; Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, pp. 289-90.

[4]     Memorandum by Sazonov, quoted in Stieve, Isvolsky and the World War, p. 88.

[5]     ‘Both Powers will make such dispositions of their Naval strength as shall best conduce to the preservation of their own national interests. They will exchange full information as to these dispositions, actual or prospective.’ Churchill to Grey, 2 August, 1912. Grey mss., PRO FO 800/87; Lumby, p. 99.

[6]     Bertie to Grey, 13 August 1912, Lumby, pp. 99-101.

[7]     Churchill to Grey and Asquith, 23 August 1912, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. iii, pp. 1638-9; Lumby, pp. 101-2; World Crisis, p. 82; Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, pp. 94-5; Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, p. 306.

[8]     Churchill to Asquith, 15 August 1912, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. iii, p. 1633-4.

[9]     Hopwood to Churchill, 31 January 1912, ibid., pp. 1505-6.

[10]    ‘He is right’ was Wilson’s forthright comment: Wilson, diary entry for 18 October 1912, quoted in Callwell, Wilson, vol. I, p. 118. Troubridge was eventually replaced by Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Jackson.

[11]    Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 292.

[12]    Churchill to Bridgeman, 14 September 1912, First Lord’s Minutes, Naval Historical Library.

[13]    Churchill to Battenberg, 21 September 1912, ibid.

[14]    Kühlmann to Bethmann-Hollweg, 16 September 1912, Emperor Wilhelm’s marginal notes. German Diplomatic Documents, vol. IV, pp. 103-5.

[15]    Grey to Bertie, 21 September 1912; Lumby, p. 103; Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, pp. 94-5.

[16]    Report of an Interview with Adm. Boué de Lapeyrère, 21 January 1912, PRO Adm 116/3109.

[17]    Grey to Bertie, 19 September 1912, Lumby, pp. 102-3.

[18]    Asquith to Grey, 11 October 1912, ibid., p. 103.

[19]    Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 297.

[20]    Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Twenty-Five Years, (2 vols., London, 1925), vol. I, pp. 297-9; Stieve, Isvolsky and the World War, pp. 89-90.

[21]    Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, p. 96.

[22]    Miller, Straits, pp. 121-3.

[23]    Asquith to the King, 17 October 1912, PRO Cab 41/33/64.

[24]    Text of the Alliance given in Key Treaties for the Great Powers, vol. II, pp. 832-8; see also, Richard Bosworth, Italy and the Approach of the First World War, (London, 1983), p. 118; Luigi Albertini, The Origins of the War of 1914, (3 vols., London, 1952-7), vol. I, pp. 566-8; C J Lowe, “Grey and the Tripoli War”, in F H Hinsley (ed.), British Foreign Policy Under Sir Edward Grey, pp. 320-1.

[25]    Grey to Bertie, 30 October 1912, Lumby, pp. 104-5; Asquith to the King, 1 November 1912, PRO Cab 41/33/66.

[26]    Riddell, diary entry for 9 November 1912, in McEwen (ed.), The Riddell Diaries, p. 50.

[27]    Hamilton, Bertie of Thame, p. 296.

[28]    Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, pp. 99-100.

[29]    Churchill to Grey and Asquith, most secret, and minute by Grey, 22 October 1912, Masterton-Smith mss., PRO Cab 1/34.

[30]    Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, pp. 101-2.

[31]    Churchill to Grey, 8 November 1912, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. iii, pp. 1660-1.

[32]    Grey to Churchill, 9 November 1912, ibid., p. 1661.

[33]    The Naval Annual, 1914, p. 167.

[34]    Goeben had called in at Malta on her voyage from Kiel on 12 November 1912, ten days before the arrival of Inflexible from Sheerness. Papers relating to the escape of the Goeben and Breslau, National Library of Scotland, Accession 4321, folder 9.

[35]    Lowther to Nicolson, 20 December 1912, Nicolson mss., PRO FO 800/361.

[36]    Churchill to Lloyd George, 18 November 1912, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. iii, p. 1671 [emphasis in original].

[37]    Churchill was also aware that, to meet the Austrian challenge, the French had seven dreadnoughts building and that they planned to accelerate the laying down of a further four in 1913. Churchill to Grey and Asquith, 17 July 1912, PRO Adm 116/3110.

[38]    Bridgeman to Troubridge, private, 21 September 1912, Troubridge mss., NMM MS 78/134, folder B6.

[39]    Sandars to Balfour, 10 October 1912, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. iii, p. 1653.

[40]    There the matter might have ended had not the Morning Post printed a story on 14 December that the Sea Lords had threatened to resign the previous month over pay and manning disputes and that, by inference, Bridgeman’s retirement at Churchill’s suggestion was tied up with this issue. The subject was debated in Parliament on 20 December and resulted in a series of increasingly acrimonious letters passing between Bridgeman and Churchill. Bridgeman was left disenchanted and under the impression he had been forced out not because he was too weak, but because he was too strong. See, Marder Dreadnought, vol. I, p. 259. The full correspondence is given in WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. iii, pp. 1675-95.

[41]    Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, pp. 105-6.

[42]    Draft Memorandum by Churchill, 9 December 1912; minute by Battenberg, 27 December 1912, PRO Adm 116/3109. Also given in Lumby (without corrections), pp. 108-110.

[43]    In the subsequent plan XVII, the XIXth Corps would act where required.

[44]    Report of an interview with Adl Boué de Lapeyrère, January 1912, PRO Adm 116/3109; Howard Kelly, Journal as Naval Attaché, Kelly mss., NMM Kel 3, pp. 28-9.




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

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