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 16




The Limitations of Foreign Policy




The French dreadnought, Jean Bart 

The new French dreadnought Jean Bart, which would be ready by the summer of 1914.

Even so, the French navy could still be outnumbered by an Austro-Italian combination.


One reason, which should not be overlooked, for Churchill’s constant tinkering with the Mediterranean Squadron was his belief, as confirmed to Asquith, that the Mediterranean constituted a secondary theatre: the First Lord’s eyes remained fixed on the North Sea. Clearly he had to tread a narrow line even if the useful expedient of sending battle cruisers to Malta to satisfy Kitchener and the C.I.D. drew down the wrath of the naval technical press and, amongst others, Beatty, one of the few admirals Churchill genuinely admired. Indeed, Beatty brazenly tried again on 26 March 1914 to win back “his” battle cruisers, once more without success. ‘I am afraid’, Churchill replied with perhaps some justifiable exasperation at Beatty’s sudden attack of strategic cold feet, ‘the existing Mediterranean dispositions must continue till the end of 1915.’[1] Churchill’s view of the Mediterranean would continue to be shaped in reaction to events and not in anticipation of them. Although the six known Italian dreadnoughts completed or building constituted the one-Power Mediterranean yardstick, during the remaining peaceful months of 1914 the Italian navy dropped somewhat out of contention. In part this was due to the perception of Britain’s rôle, which was confined mainly to the eastern basin of the Mediterranean, with the important function of keeping a watch on the Adriatic, leaving the French to handle the Italians; and in part due to public opinion which viewed Italy as an unlikely enemy[2] but also because of faulty intelligence regarding the new Austrian programme.

                Attempts to obtain accurate intelligence respecting Austrian capabilities and intentions fell foul of both Austrian security and the punctiliousness of the Foreign Office in London. The latter objected most strenuously to an attempt to form a low grade intelligence network amongst its consular officials[3] while the British Naval Attaché in Vienna, Captain Boyle, was confined, early in the spring of 1914, to making reports along the following lines: ‘My French colleague informed me some time back that he was convinced that a battleship had been commenced at the Stabilimento Technico, Trieste. I have endeavoured to verify this, and, without having been there myself, believe it to be true.’[4] In fact the four super-dreadnoughts proposed in the new Austrian programme would not be approved until 28 May 1914, with the planned date for the laying down of the first ship being 1 July. Both this ship and the entire programme were cancelled when the Sarajevo assassination crisis intervened. However, in April, the Attaché’s erroneous report was sufficient to set alarm bells ringing in London; more so when a further report followed which seemed to place the matter beyond doubt. Captain Boyle was now convinced that construction of the battleship had already commenced.[5]

                Churchill warned the Cabinet on 26 April that the Mediterranean situation would have to be reviewed once more in the light of these additional developments, but the game was now up and Churchill knew it; he had cried ‘wolf’ once too often. Complicating the position was the fact that the British battle cruiser squadron had yet to reach full strength. With Invincible unavailable,[6] only three of the planned four ships were on station. Recalling his remark to Asquith regarding the deployment of additional submarines in the Mediterranean, Churchill’s attention now turned towards this expedient. Indeed, possibly as the result of a typical aside from Fisher, the question of substitution was raised once more. Fisher advised Churchill on 8 May that, if it were up to him, he ‘should secretly drop a Dreadnought & build 20 submarines in lieu.’[7] Certainly, when Fisher saw Churchill on Thursday 21 May, the First Lord maintained that ‘Battenberg was in favour of substituting submarines for a battleship, but that [Jellicoe was] against it.’ When writing to Jellicoe a few days later to inform him of this, Fisher claimed to have argued of such a course that: ‘(1) It would be fatal to Borden; (2) It would shatter the battleship standard of strength; (3) Could the submarines be built?’ Highlighting the pitfalls of taking any of Fisher’s effusions at face value, the old Admiral had since changed his mind. Clearly, this was done in an attempt to make Jellicoe alter his stance. Fisher had now heard ‘still further of the great efforts that Tirpitz is making SURREPTITIOUSLY to increase their submarine strength, and SO AT ANY COST I myself say: ‘For God’s sake, do get on SOMEHOW with building more submarines at once, no matter what drawbacks’.[8] Lambert asserts that Jellicoe was, in fact, ‘not opposed to the building of more submarines; rather, he had argued that they should be built in Canada.’[9] This implies that Jellicoe did favour a substitution policy when, quite clearly, the reverse was the case. Jellicoe’s own department at the Admiralty had only recently prepared a projection for manning requirements for the Fleet in 1920 which proceeded on the basis that, by that time, the Royal Navy would possess between 79 and 86 modern capital ships.[10] Furthermore, Jellicoe wrote anxiously to Churchill on 14 July clearly concerned about relative dreadnought strength.[11] Jellicoe might indeed have wanted more submarines built — but not at the expense of dreadnoughts.

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Although the British battle cruisers were still scheduled to remain in the Mediterranean until the end of 1915 before being replaced by dreadnoughts (which would, it was hoped, maintain the one-Power standard till 1917) the time had come for Churchill to redeem his pledge to Asquith made the previous December. He therefore informed the P.M. on 4 July that, as ‘a part of our general scheme for reinforcing the Mediterranean Fleet’, it was now proposed to base six, and later twelve, additional submarines at Malta during the course of the coming year. ‘These boats will have a considerable radius of action, and will exercise an important influence upon the strategic situation’, Churchill asserted, adding, ‘… I am looking to the development of flotilla defence in the Mediterranean as a partial substitute for battleship strength, which would entail such heavy new construction charges.’[12] According to Lambert, this was further ‘tangible evidence that the Admiralty had decided to adopt the substitution policy in 1914’[13] and Lambert refers to orders given to prepare eventually for the dispatch of six ‘D’ and six ‘E’ class submarines. And, indeed, the Mediterranean C-in-C, Admiral Milne, was informed by the Admiralty on 10 July that the first six submarines (D3–D8) would be sent to Malta that autumn. However, within six days, a further signal (not mentioned by Lambert) was sent to Milne. The Admiralty had now

decided to postpone until next year the departure of submarines D.4, D.5 and D.6 for the Mediterranean. Submarines D.3, D.7 and D.8 will leave England about the 1st October … no depot ship will be sent with the submarines but on arrival at Malta the crews of D.3, D.7 and D.8 are to be berthed in HMS Cruiser, which should be placed alongside St Angelo in Dockyard Creek, as a temporary measure … while cruising away from Malta the submarines will maintain themselves, being “mothered” as far as possible by vessels of the Squadron, which will carry their spare torpedoes, spare parts, etc.[14]

By not sending a depot ship, the ‘considerable radius of action’ which Churchill saw as exerting such an important influence would have been severely curtailed. The dispatch of just three submarines late in 1914 would not affect the strategical balance in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the question of ‘substitution’ was mooted in the summer of 1914. Battenberg was informed by Churchill on 12 July that,

The time has come when the proportion of torpedo craft (especially submarines) to battleships should be increased — It is understood that it is proposed to commence this process this year by substituting for some of the approved programme certain torpedo craft. The alternatives to be discussed are understood to be as follows:

(a)       To drop one battleship and substitute 6 of the proposed “Polyphemus” class [a semi-submersible torpedo boat].

(b)      To drop a second battleship and substitute about 16 submarines of the latest design.

(c)       To drop all the programme of destroyers except 2 or 3 large ones designated for leaders of divisions of flotillas, and substitute submarines.[15]

It should be noted, however, that one of the three options did not involve the substitution of a capital ship at all. And, as Lambert goes on to admit, Churchill’s motives were still predominantly financial, not strategic. The talk was not of a radical shift in tactics, but of an acknowledgement that (Jellicoe’s reservations notwithstanding) the dreadnought race had been won. Churchill himself admitted this: ‘When I first came to the Admiralty’, he wrote on 23 May 1914, ‘I had the idea of getting rid of a number of useless ships, and I agreed with Prince Louis upon a large number of vessels: but then the German increase came along and for the time being the policy was suspended. Now that the European situation has so greatly improved and the German increase has been so largely overhauled by our exertions, I propose to pursue the policy originally decided on. Nearly three years have passed and the case against obsolescent vessels is from every point of view larger and stronger.’[16]

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Churchill had a breathing space. The battle of the Estimates had been fought and won. Now was the time to consider new designs, such as the proposal for a thirty-knot battleship (design ‘Y’)[17] and the Polyphemus class mentioned above. The original Polyphemus of 1881 had been a ‘torpedo-ram’ originally, if unfairly, regarded as a freak. Even so, the ship lacked a suitable rôle and the design was not repeated; the ship was broken up in 1903.[18] If they had been built, Churchill’s new Polyphemus class, described by Lambert as ‘an armored semisubmersible torpedo boat designed to approach a battle fleet within close torpedo range’,[19] might well have suffered a similar fate. There were clearly misgivings with regard to the proposed new design. On 11 July, in a letter which Churchill decided not send, Battenberg was to be informed that

it is necessary to take in the next fortnight the serious decisions which are outstanding about the new construction programme. In this connection it will be necessary to forecast the programme of next year, for which the two must be considered together, and also the fresh advice which we should give to the Canadian Government. Mr Borden has welcomed the visit from Sir John Jellicoe and I hope this will take place when you return early in September. By that time all our plans must be complete in every detail and we must have a thoroughly watertight argument for our Canadian friends. We have discussed these issues together so often and have prepared our minds for them over such a long period that, although I do not under-rate their immense importance, I do not think we ought to find any difficulty coming to a decision. I propose that at the Board Meeting next Wednesday we should simply deal with the Polyphemus on her merits and settle whether the design is or is not a good one without reference to any substitution. No doubt we shall have to refer to the possibility of substitution, but I do not wish to take any decision on the subject then.[20]

This hardly amounts to a ringing endorsement of the so-called substitution policy. It is also evident that Churchill still counted on the Canadian ships.

The problems associated with the construction of more submarines had been outlined by Admiral R. H. Bacon the previous month. Bacon, a former Director of Naval Ordnance and Torpedoes described by Fisher as having ‘brought our submarines to their present pitch of perfection’,[21] doubted that anyone could ‘seriously consider the immediate abandonment of the battleship for the building of a large number of submarines.’ The present submarine, he noted, ‘although a brilliant product, has only the sea-keeping qualities of the 125ft. torpedo-boat. Those of us who have kept the sea in those boats would hardly venture to recommend the abolition of the battleship if we were restricted to the submerged speed of the present submarine.’ Bacon did not doubt that submarines would eventually ‘exercise a vast influence on naval operations, both tactical and strategic, in the future.’ However, the extent could ‘only be a matter of surmise’ and it would be ‘more than rash to assume that their success will be such as to lead to the disappearance of the fighting ship in the near future.’[22]

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                The final argument put forward by Lambert is that ‘In 1914 Churchill, probably inspired by Fisher, proposed deliberately to mislead opinion outside the Admiralty into believing that four battleships were to have been laid down [before] the end of the year before announcing the cancellation of two ships.’ In the original draft of The World Crisis, quoted by Lambert, Churchill declared that he ‘intended to let the Germans lay down and be thoroughly committed to their whole dreadnought programme for the year, so that we should be given the advantage of the change at any rate for a year before them.’[23] Once more, this passage was excised from the final version. The ploy described by Churchill was based on Fisher’s principle of ‘plunging’ — the ‘great secret’, Fisher informed Churchill on 13 February 1912, was to put off to the very last minute the ship ‘(big or little) that you mean to build … You see all your rivals’ plans fully developed, their vessels started beyond recall, and then in each in individual answer to each such rival vessel you plunge with a design 50 per cent better!’[24] Clearly, however, this ‘plunging’ technique would only be effective either if Germany did not intend to increase production of submarines or if the German designs were markedly inferior. Again the evidence is missing. As shown above, on 25 May 1914 Fisher had informed Jellicoe that he had heard ‘of the great efforts’ Tirpitz was making to increase German submarine strength. Fisher also referred to ‘our sad case in submarine building. There’s not a single foreign order for a submarine in England, and the story is that Vickers will soon be discharging submarine workmen for want of orders (you can verify this by asking Trevor Dawson!), and all this time every foreign establishment is chock-full of submarine orders’.[25] In view of this, how then was the ‘plunging’ technique to catch the Germans off guard?

                It was, argues Lambert, the outbreak of war in August 1914 which caught the Navy ‘in transition’ so that ‘the admirals were forced back to using the existing (nonhomogenous) battle fleet’.[26] This is altogether too convenient an explanation. While, as Lambert notes, one ship of the Queen Elizabeth class (Agincourt) was mooted for cancellation by Churchill so that six Polyphemus type semi-submersibles (which did not eventuate) could be built[27] (and, indeed, the original Agincourt was cancelled on 26 August 1914), what Lambert does not mention is that, almost a month before, on 28 July, Churchill had ordered that ‘it may become necessary to acquire the two Turkish battleships that are nearing completion’. When Admiral Moore replied the following day that Sultan Osman, which had been due to leave for Constantinople on 16 August, could be obtained immediately while Reshadieh would be in a fighting condition by the end of August Churchill promptly instructed that ‘The builders should by every means prevent and delay the departure of these ships while the situation is strained and in no case should they be allowed to leave without express permission. If necessary authority will be given to restrain them. If war comes they can be taken over…’[28] The ships were embargoed on 1 August and Sultan Osman was promptly renamed Agincourt thus effectively replacing the cancelled dreadnought.[29] With the addition of these two ships, Britain ended the first month of the war with twenty-two dreadnoughts in commission against thirteen German dreadnoughts, and with a further thirteen dreadnoughts being built against seven in Germany.[30] Both these figures were in excess of the sixty per cent. standard. With such a preponderance Churchill could well afford to cancel one of the British ships and still maintain the standard. Lambert’s contention that ‘a fundamental shift had occurred in the Admiralty’s strategic thinking’ and that ‘a secret decision had been taken that amounted effectively to the abandonment of the Two Power (60 per cent) Standard in battleships’[31] does not stand close examination. Lambert (and Sumida) use the logic of the conspiracy theorist: the usual sources can no longer be relied upon because they were meant to misinform. Nothing is to be taken at face value. If sources point away from a substitution policy the answer can be found, not in the assumption that such a policy was undertaken half-heartedly or resulted from an overwhelming preponderance in capital ships, but instead to keep secret a supposed radical shift in tactics which only the war prevented from being implemented.

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                Tactics were evolving, but slowly and deliberately. There was, in the summer of 1914, no general consensus regarding the naval war of the future, although it was generally agreed that dreadnought development was rapidly reaching a limit beyond which there was little point in progressing. The new emphasis was on faster ships which would combine the rôle of battleship and battle cruiser.[32] Ultimately, without the need to fund a huge standing army, Britain could devote more money (despite the inevitable outcry) to the navy — much more than Germany could hope to do. The Admiralty could therefore look to developments in other areas (underwater and in the air) confident of their margin in dreadnoughts. If war had not broken out in August 1914, the dreadnought gap would, in all probability, have widened, and Churchill would then have been forced to contemplate a switch to smaller craft to reduce the Estimates; but only for so long as German dreadnought construction did not accelerate. While some within the Admiralty might have considered new methods of warfare to take the place of the expected clash of dreadnoughts, Churchill’s response to consideration of new tactics was governed by financial imperatives. The dreadnought was not dead yet. The torpedo had not yet triumphed. No British dreadnought or battle cruiser was to be lost during the war as a result of this weapon.


British policy did not operate in a vacuum and the position and strength of the French fleet remained of the utmost importance strategically. On the question of operational tactics it was, however, a different matter. The two imperatives devolved upon France in the opening stages of a war were the safe transport of the XIXth Corps, a defensive operation, and the necessity of preventing a junction of the Italian and Austrian fleets for which it was proposed to instigate offensive operations. With this in mind French dreadnought strength in the face of increased competition became paramount: for the crucial period expected in the first quarter of 1916 it was assumed that Italy would have six dreadnoughts and Austria four to match the seven France would be able to field. To make up lost ground the French Government, as had the British, authorized in July 1913 an acceleration of the programme so that four ships, rather than two, would be laid down in 1913.[33] Despite this attack of nerves, in the immediate future the situation was not unpromising. By early 1914 Courbet and Jean Bart had been completed as against Dante Alighieri for Italy and Viribus Unitis and Tegetthoff for Austria; while, by August 1914, the French hoped to have two further dreadnoughts ready for action (France and Paris) to counter two further Italian and one Austrian ships. So, against one or the other presumed foe the French would be stronger — but not against a combination without British help.

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                In January 1914 a French staff officer travelled to London to confer with the French Naval Attaché, de Saint-Seine, on a number of points and also to present to the Admiralty a letter from the Chief of Staff of the French Admiralty, Admiral Le Bris, on the importance of an interchange of intelligence regarding the Italian and Austrian fleets. To accomplish this Le Bris wanted the secret ‘B.G.’ code – the signal code for the British and French fleets – to be put into peacetime service aboard the respective Mediterranean flagships, Inflexible and Courbet. Battenberg was wary of the French proposal and instructed the C.O.S., Sir Henry Jackson, to reply to de Saint-Seine on 29 January that the ‘Government have not authorised the Admiralty to do more than prepare for an alliance between the two countries, and that it is considered the actual use or practice with our joint signal books would go beyond the stage of preparation, and is therefore inadmissible.’ Interestingly, although he was hardly surprised by the British refusal, de Saint-Seine went so far as to apologize to Jackson for the suggestion having been made at all, as he could ‘not see clearly what useful purpose it could serve’; nevertheless he did hope that the Admiralty would agree to that part of the Le Bris letter dealing with an exchange of information. This assurance was duly given and, in fact, Battenberg not only assented that the exchange should take place but mentioned to de Saint-Seine that some interchange of information had already occurred.[34]

                Undeterred by this less than helpful British attitude Le Bris then proposed to meet Battenberg in London early in February to discuss the Mediterranean. The First Sea Lord initially agreed, then requested that the talks should be delayed until after the Cabinet battle over the 1914-15 Estimates had been resolved. Then, abruptly, based on a mistaken belief that the majority of the Cabinet remained unaware of the naval conversations, Battenberg declared that it would be inexpedient for Le Bris to visit London and suggested instead that he could see Le Bris in May when he (Battenberg) would be on the Continent anyway. This would have to do: the French Admiral had wanted not only to broach again the question of the exchange of intelligence but also wished to resolve some remaining technical points, not least of which concerned Goeben. The German ship constituted the main threat to the French troop transports by virtue of her speed and firepower, yet the battle cruiser was a class of ship the French did not possess. The meeting between Le Bris and Battenberg eventually took place on 2 June 1914. Even though Battenberg had, by now, been made aware of his misapprehension regarding the position of the Cabinet he still insisted on following his ‘cloak and dagger’ routine of travelling incognito and meeting Le Bris in the latter’s home instead of more official surroundings.[35] As a result of the meeting the British Admiralty agreed that a primary function of Milne’s Second Battle Cruiser Squadron would be to bring Goeben and her consort to battle immediately upon the outbreak of hostilities. Some degree of co-operation had been achieved, therefore, between London and Paris; unfortunately, the same was not the case between Malta and Toulon, as was only too apparent once war was declared.

Anglo-French naval conversations had always been approached by the British with an acute awareness of the limitations of foreign policy and the necessity to retain some degree of freedom of action. If no strictly binding agreement existed, it was nevertheless impossible to deny the moral force of the actions made, the dispositions assumed, and the assumptions which went unspoken. The last thing Britain needed was to transfer such a nebulous undertaking to Russia as well; yet that is precisely what happened in the spring of 1914. Sazonov, the Russian Foreign Minister, had approached Grey previously, in September 1912, to discuss the question of an Anglo-Russian Naval Convention and had been politely fobbed off. Now, the situation was far more serious, particularly so after Germany had sent a military mission to Turkey in December 1913 whose arrival, according to Sazonov, was ‘the decisive moment which prompted Russia to seek an understanding with England.’[36]

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                Although a contrived formula was reached to settle the immediate dispute with Germany and Turkey, the situation in the Black Sea continued to give grave cause for concern: so much so that Sazonov presided over a conference on 21 February 1914 to consider the preparations that would have to be made to seize the Straits if necessary. The Turks had two dreadnoughts being built for them in English yards and which would be ready by the summer of 1914.[37] The Russians then received intelligence that Turkey was attempting to buy further battleships which might come on the market either in America (where two were being built for Argentina) or England (where Chile had two under construction).[38] The refusal of the South American states to sell did not completely assuage the Russians, as the dreadnoughts being constructed for the Black Sea Fleet could not be ready till the end of 1915. One tenuous solution presented itself – to tighten the defensive bond with Britain – and the Russians grabbed it.

                Germany, the Tsar remarked to Sir George Buchanan, the British Ambassador, on 3 April 1914, was endeavouring to acquire a position at Constantinople that would enable her to keep Russia shut in altogether in the Black Sea. To prevent this, the Tsar suggested an Anglo-Russian alliance of a purely defensive character; however, when told by Buchanan that this was impracticable at the time, Nicholas ventured instead that some arrangement could be concluded similar to that existing between Britain and France. The sparring continued: Buchanan replied that he was ignorant of the terms of the arrangement; the Tsar responded that he, too, was ‘unacquainted with them but that he believed that, if we had not actually a military convention with France, we had discussed and agreed on what each country was to do in certain eventualities.’ When Buchanan observed that sending British troops to co-operate with the Russian Army was out of the question the Tsar agreed – he had more than enough men anyway – but added that it might be advantageous to arrange beforehand for the co-operation of the British and Russian fleets. By 1917, he confided, Russia hoped to have eight dreadnoughts in the Baltic and, perhaps remembering Grey’s objection of 1912, while he would never propose that a British fleet be sent to the Baltic in view of the dangers it would be exposed to, it was obvious that the Germans would have to detach a large squadron of their own fleet just to watch the Russians, thus easing the position for Britain in the North Sea.[39]

                At the Foreign Office Sir Arthur Nicolson, while wishing personally that it might be possible to strengthen the understanding with Russia, saw that there was ‘very little hope that the Government will feel itself in a position to go any distance on that road’, and that it was, in his opinion, out of the question to give any real engagement as to naval co-operation in case of war. Regarding the details of Anglo-French co-operation – of which Buchanan was ignorant – Nicolson’s dissembling reply was neither helpful nor illuminating. ‘What we have done with France’, he wrote,

goes very little further than an interchange of views between our naval and military staffs and those of France, and indeed in respect of any military co-operation with France matters are still in an undecided state. Moreover it has been carefully laid down and is thoroughly understood between the two Governments that these interchanges of views in no way binds either Government, and it seems to me they have little real practical value … I am afraid that should war break out on the Continent the likelihood of our despatching any expeditionary force is extremely remote, and it was on such an expeditionary force being sent that France at one time was basing her military measures. I believe that of late she has gradually abandoned the hope of ever receiving prompt and efficient military aid from us…[40]

Nicolson’s reply could have had no purpose other than deliberately to undermine the Russian approach, and marks a shift from his previously consistent advocacy of an Anglo-Russian alliance. Nicolson was perhaps influenced in this matter by General Sir Henry Wilson. Formerly a decided proponent in favour of sending all six regular British Divisions to the Continent, Wilson had had a change of heart which can be dated to October 1912 when he questioned whether ‘our 6 Divisions will make the numbers decisive.’[41] The problem for Nicolson was that too emphatic a rebuff might alienate the Russians; and this was not the time to risk a major split in the Triple Entente. As the German strategist, General Bernhardi, noted: Britain ‘is in a most difficult position. The conflict of her interests with Russia’s in Persia and in the newly arisen Dardanelles question, as well as the power of Islam in the most important parts of her colonial Empire, are the subjects of permanent anxiety in Great Britain.’[42] It was no coincidence, therefore, that the French, at the insistence of Russia, pushed for a strengthening of the relationship using the opportunity provided by Grey’s visit to Paris in April when the Foreign Secretary accompanied the King to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Anglo-French Entente.Please click to go to the top of this page

                In talks with his opposite number, M. Doumergue, the reluctant Grey eventually bowed to pressure. In London, Crowe and Nicolson were more favourably disposed; in particular, Nicolson was concerned that some evidence should be given to St Petersburg that the British were anxious to give the relations between the countries a more precise and definite form. His anxiety, however, was tempered with fear; ‘ … I know’, he admitted privately, ‘the French are haunted with the same apprehension — that if we do not try to tighten up ties with Russia she may become weary of us and throw us overboard. In that case we should be in an exceedingly awkward position, as she could cause us an infinity of annoyance, to put it mildly, in the Mid and Far East, without our being in any way able to retaliate.’[43] Grey’s talk with Doumergue was discussed by the Cabinet on 13 May when it was agreed that the Foreign Secretary should communicate to the Russian Government the terms of the Grey-Cambon exchange of November 1912. There was no reason, the Cabinet thought, for military consultations; on the naval side, it was agreed that the eventual construction of a Russian Baltic fleet would ease Britain’s position with regard to Germany in Home waters. Churchill then mentioned that naval conversations should not be limited to the Baltic but should extend to the Mediterranean where the Black Sea Fleet might equally become a counterpoise to the fleets of Austria and Italy — though, as Asquith pointed out, this depended on the Straits’ question (as both Russia and Germany were aiming for control at Constantinople) and was further complicated by the rise of the Greek and Turkish navies.[44]

                Although Sazonov authorized his Naval Attaché in London, Captain Volkov, to open preliminary conversations as soon as possible the Admiralty was, as usual, in no hurry. This lassitude could be explained in part by Churchill’s reluctance to negotiate through Volkov, whom he considered too lightweight to be involved in such affairs of state.[45] Another means of conducting the negotiations then emerged from an unexpected quarter. Battenberg informed Nicolson on 23 May that he had just ‘told the First Lord that [he] intended visiting Russia while on leave during the month of August. The ostensible object is visiting my relatives, but while at St Petersburg it might be quite convenient for me to have a preliminary talk with the Minister of Marine and the Chief of the General Staff if desired’.[46] Battenberg was clearly relishing his rôle as amateur secret agent. Nicolson then spoke to Grey about the matter and Nicolson passed on the Foreign Secretary’s approval when he met Battenberg for dinner two days later. Understandably, the Russians would have preferred that the preliminary details had been settled in London so that Battenberg’s planned visit in August could mark the culmination of the talks rather than their formal initiation.

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                The burdensome subject of the new series of conversations would prove even more annoying for Grey: rumours abounded that some sort of compact had been concluded in Paris while, as early as 28 April, Grey had had to fend off a question in the House; but worse was to follow.[47] The Russian Embassy in London employed, in the form of a secretary of German descent from the Baltic provinces of Russia, a long-standing German spy.[48] The culprit, Bernt von Siebert, copied the entire correspondence of Benckendorff, the Ambassador, and forwarded it to the German Foreign Ministry where it was gratefully, if anxiously, received. The knowledge of the Anglo-Russian talks raised fears in Berlin that plans for a landing in Pomerania were being concerted; the problem, however, was how to expose their illicitly gained information and discomfort the British without exposing Siebert. Eventually, a time-honoured method was chosen: Theodor Wolff, the editor of the Berliner Tageblatt, was approached in May by an official of the German Foreign Ministry with a request to publish details of the Anglo-Russian naval conversations. Claiming to have received his intelligence from a source in Paris, Wolff promptly published, in a series of articles, a sensational account of the alleged conspiracy.[49] Grey, who swallowed the bait, was furious. He saw Benckendorff on 10 June to complain of the inconvenience resulting from the disclosure of the naval conversations. That the leak had apparently occurred in Paris left Grey at somewhat of a loss as, although he was aware that there had sometimes been ‘great leakages’ through the Quai d’Orsay, he was confident that neither the Anglo-French naval and military conversations nor the ‘Grey-Cambon’ letters had ever been disclosed.[50] Benckendorff, his own suspicions not aroused, took the convenient diplomatic course of agreeing that ‘everything leaked out in Paris’. The implication was evidently lost on the uncharacteristically obtuse Foreign Secretary that, although Paris might be guilty on occasion, the fact that he believed the long-running Anglo-French conversations had remained secure pointed to a breach elsewhere, either in London or St Petersburg. And, as Grey had personally given Benckendorff a copy of the Cambon letter of November 1912, this, in turn, might have suggested to him that the Germans were aware (as indeed they were) of the Grey-Cambon letters. When, on the day following his interview with Benckendorff, the subject of a naval agreement with Russia was raised again in the Commons, Grey gave an answer that was evasive at best, calmly maintaining that ‘… no such negotiations are in progress, and none are likely to be entered upon, as far as I can judge.’[51]

                What did Russia hope to gain? In addition to the threat posed by the Turks they were still apprehensive about the possibility of an attack by the Austrian fleet and, rather than act on Britain’s behalf as a counterpoise to the Austrians some years hence, the Russians themselves needed a strong British force in the Eastern Mediterranean to act as a counterpoise to Austria immediately. Although the Russians were enthusiastic, there was even less likelihood of establishing common codes and interchanging intelligence than between Britain and France; further, the desire of the Russians to use British bases in the Mediterranean was inextricably tied up with the question of the Straits. Certainly, as Russia was constructing a large Baltic fleet at great expense which, as Grey and Churchill freely admitted, would ease Britain’s problems somewhat in the North Sea, the approach was not entirely altruistic although it was never stated as baldly as being a trade off between Russian assistance in the Baltic in return for British assistance in the Eastern Mediterranean. Nevertheless the Russians did set greater store in the ‘importance of co-ordinated but separate actions by the allied fleets’[52] — the strands of the web against which Grey and Churchill had struggled valiantly, if naïvely, were now complete.

                Unconvinced by Grey’s assurance to the Commons, the German Chancellor resorted to a tactic previously used with success during Haldane’s abortive visit: to portray the various power bases in Berlin as being split between hawks and doves. News of the Anglo-Russian naval talks, and with these a possible agreement, would Bethmann-Hollweg complained, if true, exacerbate Russo-German tensions and destroy the Anglo-German détente which had recently developed. Grey took the warning to heart, informing his Ambassador in Paris, Frank Bertie, on 25 June that the ‘Pan-Germanists will make use of such an agreement to agitate for additions to the German fleet, which is regrettable just as relations between England and Germany have so improved.’[53] Three days later the fatal shots were fired at Sarajevo.Please click to go to the top of this page






[1]     Churchill to Beatty, 15 April 1914, WSC Comp. vol. II, pt. iii, p. 1974.

[2]     The Naval Annual, 1914, published in the spring of that year, maintained (p. 73) that ‘To those who constantly urge that the British Fleet should be equal to those of the Triple Alliance, it may be observed (1) that it is impossible to contemplate England being involved in war with Italy except through our own fault. The friendship of England is still, in spite of the efforts of the Yellow Press, too highly prized in Italy for the Italian Navy to be used in an attack upon this country…’

[3]     See, Naval Attaché Boyle to Fairfax Cartwright, 11 July 1913, PRO FO 371/1870/40378; minute by Crowe, PRO FO 371/1870/51566; F.O. to Admiralty, 1 January 1914, PRO FO 471/1870/56191; Miller, Superior Force, appendix viii.

[4]     Report from Naval Attaché, Vienna, 24 March 1914, Lumby, p. 126.

[5]     Report from Naval Attaché, Vienna, 14 April 1914, ibid., p. 130, note 1.

[6]     Miller, Superior Force, p. 18 and appendix.

[7]     Fisher to Churchill, 8 May 1914, WSC Comp., vol. II, part 3, p. 1976.

[8]     Fisher to Jellicoe, 25 May 1914, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 506-7 [Fisher’s emphasis].

[9]     Lambert, Lambert, “British Naval Policy, 1913-1914: Financial Limitation and Strategic Revolution”, The Journal of Modern History 67 (September 1995), p. 621. Although, as Lambert notes, Churchill had suggested that Borden might consider offering the Royal Navy ‘two capital ships and convert the third into cruisers or other craft’ the emphasis was still on dreadnoughts, not submarines.

[10]    Admiralty memorandum, 14 April 1914, “Requirements of Officers”, PRO Adm 116/3486.

[11]    Jellicoe to Churchill, 14 July 1914, Jellicoe MSS, BL Dept of MSS, Add MSS. 48990, ff. 131-6.

[12]    Churchill to Asquith, 4 July 1914, First Lord’s Minutes, Naval Historical Library [my emphasis].

[13]    Lambert, “British Naval Policy, 1913-1914: Financial Limitation and Strategic Revolution”, The Journal of Modern History 67 (September 1995), p. 622.

[14]    Admiralty to C-in-C, Medt., 16 July 1914, M. 0943/14, PRO Adm 137/HS19.

[15]    Quoted, Lambert, “British Naval Policy, 1913-1914: Financial Limitation and Strategic Revolution”, The Journal of Modern History 67 (September 1995), p. 620.

[16]    Churchill to Masterton-Smith, 23 May 1914, Masterton-Smith MSS, PRO Cab 1/33.

[17]    McBride, “On the Brink of Armageddon: Capital ship development on the eve of the First World War”, in Roberts (ed), Warship 1995, pp. 61-3.

[18]    Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1860-1905, p. 88.

[19]    Lambert, “British Naval Policy, 1913-1914: Financial Limitation and Strategic Revolution”, The Journal of Modern History 67 (September 1995), p. 619.

[20]    WSC to Battenberg, 11 July 1914 (not sent), WSC Comp., vol. II, part 3, pp. 1986-7 [my emphasis].

[21]    Fisher to Knollys, 29 July 1908, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 186.

[22]    Letter to The Times by Bacon, 15 June 1914.

[23]    Lambert, “British Naval Policy, 1913-1914: Financial Limitation and Strategic Revolution”, The Journal of Modern History 67 (September 1995), p. 623.

[24]    Fisher to Churchill, 13 February 1912, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 431-2.

[25]    Fisher to Jellicoe, 25 May 1914, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 506-7. Trevor Dawson was the Managing Director of Vickers.

[26]    Lambert, “British Naval Policy, 1913-1914: Financial Limitation and Strategic Revolution”, The Journal of Modern History 67 (September 1995), p. 625-6.

[27]    Ibid. pp. 618-9.

[28]    Memorandum by Churchill, 28 July 1914; minute by Admiral Moore, 29 July; minute by Churchill, 29 July, PRO Adm 137/800 section II.

[29]    It should be noted that the ex-Sultan Osman mounted fourteen 12-inch guns as opposed to the eight 15-inch guns on the proposed British Agincourt. Nevertheless, the ship served throughout the war and was present at Jutland.

[30]    The figure of twenty-two British dreadnoughts includes the two Turkish ships. British ships being built includes Malaya and Canada, the latter another foreign ship (Almirante Latorre) which was taken over. The German figure of seven dreadnoughts being built includes Sachsen, which was laid down during April 1914 but was never completed.

[31]    Lambert, “British Naval Policy, 1913-1914: Financial Limitation and Strategic Revolution”, The Journal of Modern History 67 (September 1995), p. 623.

[32]    McBride, “On the Brink of Armageddon: Capital ship development on the eve of the First World War”, in Roberts (ed), Warship 1995, p. 63.

[33]    A fifth ship of this, the Normandie class, was laid down in January 1914 but none was ever completed as planned.

[34]    Dépêche Ministérielle, 23 Janvier 1914; Jackson to de Saint-Seine, 29 January 1914; de Saint-Seine to Jackson, 30 January 1914; Jackson to de Saint-Seine, 31 January 1914. PRO Adm 116/3109; Lumby, pp. 120-2 [my emphasis].

[35]    Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, pp. 124-9.

[36]    S. Sazonov, Fateful Years, 1909-16, (London, 1928), p. 128; Miller, Straits, chapter 11.

[37]    The first of these dreadnoughts had originally been ordered in 1911; a second order, placed at the same time, was subsequently cancelled by the builders who were concerned at Turkey’s ability to pay for the completed ship. The second of the two dreadnoughts was the ex-Rio de Janeiro which the Turks had purchased, incomplete, in December 1913 from Brazil.

[38]    The Latin American naval arms’ race had spiralled out of control until economic conditions, following a collapse in commodity prices, forced the various Governments to consider disposing of their costly purchases.

[39]    The Tsar’s information regarding German intentions ‘had reached him from a secret source through Vienna’. Record of an Interview between Sir George Buchanan and the Tsar, 3 April 1914, Nicolson mss., PRO FO 800/373; Rt Hon Sir George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia, vol. I, pp. 183-4.

[40]    Nicolson to Buchanan, 7 April 1914, Nicolson mss., PRO FO 800/373.

[41]    Wilson appended this note to his own appraisal, written in September 1911. Hazlehurst, Politicians at War, p. 319, note.

[42]    Bernhardi, Germany and the Next War, p. 288.

[43]    Nicolson to de Bunsen (Vienna), 27 April 1914, Nicolson mss., PRO FO 800/373.

[44]    Asquith to the King, 14 May 1914, PRO Cab 41/35/13.

[45]    Ekstein, M., “Sir Edward Grey and Imperial Germany in 1914”, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 6, no. 3, (1971), p. 122.

[46]    Battenberg to Nicolson, 23 May 1914, Nicolson mss., PRO FO 800/374.

[47]    Lichnowsky to Bethmann-Hollweg, 29 April 1914, Heading for the Abyss, p. 363.

[48]    Albertini, Origins of the War of 1914, vol. I, p. 574.

[49]    Ekstein, M., “Sir Edward Grey and Imperial Germany in 1914”, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 6, no. 3, (1971), pp. 123-4; Fritz Fischer, War of Illusions, (London, 1975), p. 436; Nicolson, Lord Carnock, p. 407.

[50]    Grey to Buchanan, 10 June 1914, Grey mss., PRO FO 800/74.

[51]    Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, p. 310.

[52]    Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, p. 312.

[53]    Memorandum by Bertie, quoted in, Ekstein, M., “Sir Edward Grey and Imperial Germany in 1914”, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 6, no. 3, (1971), p. 126.



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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