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 5




Plans of War




Austrian pre-dreadnought, Radetzky 

The new threat in the Mediterranean and the cause of French unease -- the Austrian pre-dreadnought battleship Radetzky


Although there would be further crises in the Mediterranean, most critically at Agadir in 1911, attention would remain increasingly focused on the North Sea in response to the German naval build-up. Fisher meantime came under intensifying pressure to produce some sort of coherent war plan and soon realized that, with nothing on paper, he was vulnerable.[1] As a cosmetic exercise a small committee was set to work, at the navy’s War College in Portsmouth, comprising of Captains Ballard and Slade assisted by the naval historian Julian Corbett (who was then lecturing at the War College); Maurice Hankey, now starting to make his mark, was secretary. The so-called plans which resulted early in 1907 from this cynically motivated performance were nebulous, showing clear signs of having been produced in haste and based on out-of-date studies.[2] Corbett was asked by Fisher on 9 March 1907 to provide a preface (which he did by 14 April[3]) duly producing an introduction, Some Principles of Naval Warfare, ‘to satisfy everybody and worthy of the obscure fate in store for it.’[4] It was clear also that the plans were to carry no executive authority; a covering note stated that they were ‘not in any way to be considered as those definitely adopted, but they are valuable and instructive because illustrative of the variety of considerations governing the formation of War Schemes.’

                Fisher’s expectation that this would be enough to quell his critics went unfulfilled. Corbett, himself a “Fisherite”, had used the opportunity provided by his introduction to support the “Dreadnought” and, more particularly, the “Invincible” concept. Under the heading The Relative Functions of Battleships and Cruisers, and the theory of the Intermediate type Corbett argued that the primary function of cruisers was of controlling the lines of communication; however, such cruisers would need support which would have to come from the main battle fleet.[5] ‘Can we, in fact,’ he asked rhetorically, ‘devise a type which…will enable the battle fleet to perform its supporting duties more readily and at the same time increase its effective range of action and mobility? The answer is the fast and powerful armoured cruiser.’ Nevertheless, Corbett did enter two caveats: ‘beware the tendency of intermediate types to merge into primary types’; and ‘beware of seeking to use the intermediate type in place of genuine cruisers.’

                Captain Slade (who would eventually join the ‘Syndicate of Discontent’ directed against Fisher) realized that Corbett had manipulated his essay so as to support Fisher, which provoked a warning from him to the historian to avoid ‘special pleading’.[6] In Slade’s opinion, war with Germany was

now a question which has gone beyond the personal ambition of one or two men. The country [Germany] has been launched on a road which has led to this enormous increase in material prosperity, and whether the authors of the policy would like to draw back now or not, they cannot do so. The expansion must go on until it meets a force stronger than itself, or until the policy directing the State ceases to be of a sufficiently virile nature to stimulate growth and encourage prosperity. The probable directions in which the German Empire will endeavour to expand in the immediate future are three:- 1. By the absorption of Belgium and Holland, and the consequent increase of territory that will be gained by the annexation of the Dutch colonies and possibly the Congo Free State. 2. By the absorption of Austria on the death of the Emperor Francis Joseph, and the overflow into the Turkish dominions which will inevitably follow. 3. By the formation of colonies in South America…[7]

Slade’s own ideas to counter German aggression revolved around the capture of Borkum — ‘the only one of the Frisian Islands that is entirely surrounded by water at all times of the tide.’ Overall, Slade advocated that action should be taken:

1. To seize a position on the German flank immediately war breaks out. It may be to our advantage to make this the first operation of war, even before the formal declaration of hostilities, but immediately after the withdrawal of our Ambassador.

2. To throw a force from this base into North Holland, to assist the Dutch to hold their prepared lines of defence.

3. To control the entrance to the Scheldt.

4. To cover these operations by watching the German fleet with a sufficiently strong force to be certain of meeting it on such terms that its defeat is assured if it comes out.

If these operations should force Germany to invade Belgium as well – which is probable will be the case – then we must occupy Antwerp, and endeavour to utilize the Rhine to push a flank attack home.

The position was altogether more complicated, however, if Germany attempted to absorb Austria-Hungary on the breakup of that Empire ‘which is almost certain to take place on the death of the Emperor Francis Joseph’. Slade had gone to the trouble of consulting Whitaker’s Almanac from which he established that the Emperor (76 in 1906) had a life expectancy of 82 and so ‘we may therefore expect the crisis about the year 1912’.[8] Having absorbed the resources of Austria, Germany would then be sufficiently strong enough to threaten Britain’s position in the Mediterranean. In this eventuality it would be necessary to prevent Germany ‘establishing herself at the head of the Adriatic as a Mediterranean Power’. Slade went so far as to admit that,

The shipbuilding policy of Germany is probably to a great extent influenced by the possibility of having to act in this direction. What she hopes to do is to have a strong fleet in the North Sea, that such a number of our ships will be required to watch them, as to prevent us from taking effective action in the Adriatic. It will not be necessary for her to risk her ships in action with ours in order to do this, all she will have to do is to keep them in harbour, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. A large force ready to embark would be massed in the ports, and we could not afford to withdraw our vessels from the blockade of the coast unless we were willing to run the risk of invasion, which would under these circumstances certainly be attempted.[9]

To prevent this eventuality, in Slade’s opinion, the Austrian fleet would have to be captured or destroyed while the German fleet had to be lured out into the North Sea to give battle, the successful conclusion of which would free British ships for action elsewhere. Additionally, if at all possible, Britain must act in alliance with one or two other Powers.[10]

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                Slade did not envisage a British withdrawal from the Mediterranean. In arriving at this conclusion his reasoning would have been guided by a number of considerations: the paramountcy of Britain’s position in Egypt, concomitant with the necessity for keeping the Suez Canal open; the fear that the French might not be strong enough to cope with a combined Austro-Italian force; and the need to preclude Austrian action from affecting British interests in the Western basin of the Mediterranean. Finally, in the short term, British superiority in the North Sea was such that the six battleships kept on the Mediterranean station would not be needed to guarantee success in the northern theatre.[11] However, the plan simultaneously developed under the heading The Destruction or Enforced Idleness of Shipping Under the German Flag, and which assumed France to be allied to Britain, contained a divergence of views regarding French capabilities and raised the possibility once more of a voluntary British withdrawal from the Mediterranean. In the worst case postulated in this memorandum (Plan A1) Austria and Italy would enter the war in support of Germany. In that case however,

a concentration of the French Navy in the Mediterranean would provide a force which was much more than a match for the combined Austrian and Italian fleets, and the French, so far from requiring assistance from us in that quarter, ought to be in a position of sufficient preponderance to enable us to withdraw our ships from these waters to reinforce our fleets in the northern theatre of war, leaving our interests there to be safeguarded by France. An arrangement by which France could be entrusted with the responsibility of conducting operations in the Mediterranean, and Great Britain those in northern waters, would provide a satisfactory division of labour by giving to their respective navies separate and distinct spheres of activity.

If, therefore, complications of a serious nature arose, the French could undertake – with the full use of British bases – all offensive operations in the Mediterranean as well as the protection of their own and British interests; of the British Mediterranean Fleet only the torpedo boats would be left on station. A further strengthening of the moral commitment to France was being proposed.[12]

                Inconveniently, it was the view of Admiral Wilson that the prospect of having France as an ally would only complicate matters. And Wilson’s opinion carried weight as, despite the fact that his theories on strategy and tactics had been formed in the last quarter of the previous century and had never been updated, the intransigent Admiral was the logical successor to Fisher as First Sea Lord. Using the example of the Franco-Prussian war, Wilson argued that Britain’s position in a war against Germany would be more serious ‘if we were pledged to France’ as opposed to fighting alone. Put simply, the German army could not touch Britain yet would overrun France so that the ‘stoppage of German trade or the capture of their ships would have little or no effect on the result, and if France was defeated, compensation for any injury that we had done would be extorted from our allies as one of the conditions of peace.’ Instead Wilson proposed a ludicrous series of diversionary operations the most effective of which, he contended, would be an attack on the mouth of the Elbe, ‘by making a direct run by the forts at Cuxhaven and block the canal and threaten Hamburg.’ To accomplish this Wilson suggested that ten, specially modified, obsolete battleships, to be called the “River Squadron” (though perhaps “Suicide Squadron” would have been more apt), would, with only their turret guns manned while the rest of the crew sheltered below, run past the enemy forts, push the mines off with a ‘cow-catcher rigged up with spars’ forward, and swoop down on the German fleet at an imperious eight knots ‘to endeavour to destroy as many of the ships as possible with the ram and torpedoes, quite regardless of their own fate.’[13] If the General Staff could have been accused, after the commencement of the unofficial talks with the French, of planning in too great a detail without the authority of a formal Anglo-French alliance, the Admiralty were equally guilty of a crass failure to drag their strategic thinking into the twentieth century.

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The formulation, however nebulous, of the naval War Plans coincided with Admiral Beresford taking up his duties as C-in-C Channel. Admiralty policy had been that C’s-in-C were provided with broad outlines of measures to be adopted by virtue of brief “War Orders” described by Fisher as ‘a general idea of the forces which would probably be placed under the orders of the Commander-in-Chief Channel Fleet in various specified contingencies.’[14] Beresford had been handed a copy of the War Orders in force for the Channel, dating from June 1905 (when Wilson was C-in-C), upon assuming command. He clearly had some misgivings, particularly so as the accompanying letter at that time from the Admiralty to Wilson warned that strained relations between Germany and France might result in Britain intervening on behalf of the French; in which case Wilson, in view of his four years in command on the station, was to have ‘the entire conduct of the operations’.[15] Unfortunately, Beresford could not find Wilson’s plans (if, indeed, any existed) and, always on the lookout for an argument with which to attack Fisher, he quickly charged the Admiralty with turning over the Channel Fleet to him ‘absolutely unprepared for war’; nor could he be assuaged by Wilson’s remarks on the recently completed War Plans. Instead, he proposed to write to the Admiralty ‘asking for the plans and orders extent relative to preparation and duties of the different component parts of the Channel Fleet for instant action if war had been declared.’[16]

                Fisher had attempted to deflect Beresford by arguing, speciously, that any plan that Wilson might have had would have been upset by the ‘continuous change of conditions’ so that a plan for December would not be suitable for June; besides, added Fisher, the newly completed War Plans of Slade and company provided ‘a sufficient basis for all the present purposes — not that I think them in any way so perfect as not to admit of considerable alteration and improvement.’[17] Within days Beresford was ‘pegging away’ at his own Sketch Plan of Campaign which he completed in short time, presenting it to Fisher on 13 May 1907 together with his own views on the War Plans which were characterized by Fisher as ‘consisting almost entirely of complaints as to his own position, and abuse of Admiralty administration: e.g. he refers to the Home Fleet as “a fraud upon the public and a danger to the Empire”.’[18] While Fisher could legitimately point out that the Home Fleet was ‘still in the process of development’ and would not attain its ‘full development until May 1908’ he had missed one crucial point. Beresford’s Sketch Plan envisaged the use of more battleships and cruisers than the navy actually possessed.[19]

                Beresford’s numerous complaints, motivated by a combination of personal and professional reasons,[20] were directed at the Admiralty in general and Fisher in particular. Unwisely, Fisher was goaded into issuing a revised set of War Orders to Beresford on 14 June ‘with the object of disabusing him of the idea that now possessed him that his is the sole responsibility for the conduct of a naval war.’ Inevitably, Beresford found fault with his new orders. The situation was getting out of hand, and was not assisted by a weak, vacillating First Lord in the form of the second Baron Tweedmouth (who had been Fisher’s own choice); even so, Fisher lost no time in laying a complaint against Beresford before Tweedmouth. The First Lord performed an interesting juggling act in his appraisal of Beresford whom he found ‘ambitious, self-advertising and gassy in his talk’ while also admitting that he was ‘cheerful, active, zealous in the Service, and [that] his power of attracting and enlisting the sympathies, abilities and affection of officers and men alike who are placed under him is remarkable. The fleet in the Mediterranean was got and left in a high state of efficiency.’[21] In short, Tweedmouth who, within a year would descend into insanity, did not want to become involved: it would be a ‘pity’ to lodge a formal complaint against Beresford which, if upheld, would ‘forbid his continued employment’. Finally, although he was ‘the last person in the world to abrogate one iota of the supremacy of the Board of Admiralty’, Tweedmouth thought there was an inclination to consider their own views infallible while ignoring the views ‘of others who may disagree with us but who still give us ideas and information which can be turned to great use.’ Instead, Beresford was summoned to an informal meeting with Fisher and Tweedmouth on 5 July. The result was a predictable farce. When asked why he did not try ‘to cultivate good and cordial relations with the Admiralty?’ Beresford replied, ‘You will allow me to smile for at least ten minutes’ over that question.[22] The conference achieved next to nothing; to mollify the slighted Admiral, Beresford’s command was allotted an additional two armoured cruisers and twenty-four destroyers. Beresford, satisfied for the moment, maintained that he could now ‘make out a plan of campaign on definite lines’; yet it would be almost a year before his revised plans reached the Admiralty while, as a result of the clash of these monumental egos, the remaining years of Fisher’s tenure were to be blighted by the increasingly acrimonious split, to the detriment of the Service.

                Fisher was able to use Beresford’s insubordination both to justify his stance over the War Plans and to reaffirm his refusal to countenance a Naval War Staff. By January 1908 he was adamant that he would not discuss war plans with Admirals afloat, especially Beresford, citing an extraordinary excuse in the case of the ‘gassy’ Admiral by declaring that Beresford ‘was unreliable from a security point of view.’[23] Despite this outward show of bravado Captain Slade had, however, recently been given permission by Fisher to establish direct links between the War College and the Naval Intelligence Department.[24] Whatever Fisher thought privately of a Naval War Staff, his public utterances were all intended to avoid the devolution of authority from his office; the greater the attacks on the Admiralty the more entrenched this view was to become. His position was further complicated by the exacerbation of the feud with Beresford and Fisher’s consequent need to avoid giving substance to Beresford’s charges by making concessions to him. During this same month of January Beresford had feigned illness to attract both sympathy and Cabinet Ministers to his sickbed in his quest for an independent inquiry into Admiralty policy.[25] His particular wish was for a chance to present his evidence either before the Invasion Sub-committee of the C.I.D. or else before a special committee of the Cabinet.

                The question of invasion would be debated at sixteen meetings of the sub-committee between 27 November 1907 and 28 July 1908. The ubiquitous Repington, mouthpiece of a group whose figurehead was Lord Roberts, had been agitating for the inquiry to further the group’s aim of compulsory military service.[26] Fisher knew the Admiralty would come under attack and suspected that ‘Repington’s object is specially to call Beresford to give evidence against the Admiralty.’[27] An increasingly nervous and desperate Fisher saw Sir Edward Grey on 23 January 1908 and wrote to him later the same day to caution him ‘before the Cabinet takes the (in my opinion) most fatal step of intervening and enquiring into the purely expert matter of naval strategy and detailed war plans.’ Fisher argued that the ‘mere fact of such an investigation’ would show that the Government lacked confidence ‘in the Board of Admiralty generally and the First Sea Lord in particular.’ His letter included a veiled threat of resignation and demonstrated his lack of confidence in Admiral Wilson’s ‘cardinal feature’ of carrying out sweeps in the North Sea; instead Fisher enclosed a copy of all 188 pages of the new War Plans for Grey’s edification.

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                Fisher was also at pains to point out that Beresford’s plans had yet to surface. Indeed Beresford had written to the First Lord from his sick bed in Claridge’s Hotel earlier that month to request that Slade, the new D.N.I, be sent to him to discuss his plan of campaign. Thus, Fisher complained, Beresford was proposing that the Admiralty should assist him in ‘a scheme of war in opposition to their own plans which they know and believe to be the best!’[28] After penning this warning epistle to the Foreign Secretary Fisher also wrote to the First Lord to inform him that ‘Plans of war imply secrecy — secrets which should be locked in the breast of the War Director alone’; besides, unlike Beresford’s sketch plan of campaign, the 188 pages of print of the War Plans represented only a portion of the Admiralty’s work: ‘other plans are in course of continuous development.’[29] Fisher, apparently, did not see the contradiction in these two statements. In fact, succumbing to the same pressure which had led to the production of the 1907 War Plans, Fisher now initiated a Strategy Committee. Slade attended on a regular basis while others (for example, Captain Lowry, President of the War College) were present as required.[30] As before, the Strategy Committee was, by its very existence, visible evidence that Fisher was answering at least some of the issues raised by his critics; also, as before, it was a smokescreen. With little real guidance the result, in Slade’s opinion, was of ‘purely academic plans being produced’.[31]

                Fisher’s antics, by this time, must have come close to antagonizing or alienating almost everyone with whom the irascible Admiral had come into contact with. Any lingering hope that Tweedmouth might have exercised a restraining influencing was destroyed when, in March 1908, the First Lord’s position was made untenable following the extraordinary revelation of his private correspondence with the Kaiser. Tweedmouth’s nemesis was none other than Repington. The origins of the bizarre episode could be traced to the previous year when Grossadmiral Tirpitz was desperately attempting to engineer an amendment to the 1900 German Navy Law which would reduce the life of a capital ship from twenty-five to twenty years. To allow for the replacement of existing older ships therefore, the building tempo would have to be increased to four ships a year from 1908-9 to 1911-12, dropping to two thereafter until the programme expired in 1917-18. Although the amendment was eventually passed by the Reichstag in March 1908, to disarm the British, Wilhelm took the remarkable step in February of writing direct to Tweedmouth,[32] in an attempt to refute the implication that the increased rate of building was meant as a challenge to British naval supremacy.

                Tweedmouth was personally delighted at having received a nine page hand-written missive from the All-Highest;[33] however, unable to contain his excitement, the First Lord was indiscreet and Repington got to hear of the letter. The British Estimates for 1908-9 would shortly be debated: capital ship construction had decreased from four ships in 1905 to three in 1906 and 1907 and now only two were proposed. Meanwhile, under Tirpitz, German building had increased conversely from two in 1905 to three and then four ships. To Repington the Kaiser’s letter was ‘an insidious attempt to influence, in German interests, a British First Lord, and at a most critical moment, namely, just before the Estimates were coming on in Parliament.’[34] When The Times went public with the story on 6 March, however, rather than initiating a scare, it focused attention on the unfortunate First Lord. What Repington did not know was that, with Grey’s approval, Tweedmouth had sent a copy of the new estimates to Wilhelm before they had been submitted to Parliament.

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                Tweedmouth’s fate was sealed when, on 3 April 1908, Campbell-Bannerman (‘on his last legs’) resigned; his place as Prime Minister was taken by Herbert Henry Asquith. There had been talk already of Tweedmouth’s deteriorating mental condition[35] and Asquith, ostensibly on the pretext of wanting a First Lord in the Commons, wasted little time in offering him the less demanding position of Lord President of the Council (which he initially refused).[36] The new First Lord was to be Reginald McKenna, who came to the post with a formidable reputation as an administrator but who was widely perceived as aloof and arrogant.[37] Paradoxically, McKenna and Fisher got on extremely well: in the longer term this ensured that the First Lord could check some of Fisher’s excesses; in the short term, it was to prove of benefit in countering the various campaigns launched against Fisher by, for example, the deposed First Lord. Tweedmouth’s crusade culminated on 22 May when he complained to the Liberal Chief Whip, ‘Jack’ Pease, of the necessity of ‘getting rid of Fisher’ who had been First Sea Lord too long. Unfortunately for Tweedmouth, that very night, his ‘behaviour excited comment’ at a dinner party sufficient enough to convince Asquith that he had become a ‘raving lunatic’.[38]

                The 1908 naval War Plans were more realistic than those formulated in the previous year, with various contingencies again being canvassed. Those concerning the Mediterranean envisaged that in a war with Britain alone against Germany alone the Atlantic and Channel Fleets would combine, while the Mediterranean Fleet remained on station. If, however, Austria joined Germany the Mediterranean would be reinforced by the Atlantic Fleet. In the much more likely event of having France as an ally the Mediterranean Fleet could be withdrawn altogether. From this point onwards, if an idea can gain credence simply by virtue of its continual reiteration, so the ‘scheme of withdrawing the six Mediterranean battleships to home waters even if France was not an active ally became increasingly attractive.’[39]

                A necessary complication in the formulation of all these schemes remained the attitude of France. During the first Moroccan crisis Fisher had blown hot and cold over forging stronger links with the French navy. When, towards the end of 1908, further crises arose the position had to be considered afresh. Complicating the international scene had been the advent of the Young Turk régime. The revolution of July 1908 has resulted in the installation in Constantinople of a radical new Government of unknown disposition, but which Grey was anxious, initially, to support.[40] It was, however, in that perennial trouble spot, Morocco, that the first major crisis occurred. In September 1908 three German deserters from the French Foreign Legion sought refuge in the German Consulate at Casablanca; the French forcibly recaptured them; the Germans insisted on an apology; the French refused.[41] While this crisis simmered, in early October Austria annexed the Turkish provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria declared her independence and Crete announced her union with Greece.[42] Once more, following these more serious developments, rumours of impending conflict swept through official corridors in London: according to Esher ‘it looked like war’.[43] This was also the initial reaction of the French, though they calmed down somewhat due to the prudent attitude of the new Turkish Government.[44] Anxious to protect the new régime in Constantinople, Grey had ordered the dispatch of four cruisers from Malta to Marmarice, ‘in case there should be disturbances in Crete’, ostensibly ‘to protect our troops [and] maintain our obligations to Turkey’.[45] However, when he subsequently learned that the presence of the Squadron had exerted ‘a restraining effect upon Austrian policy, Grey made sure that it remained on hand to repeat the operation if necessary.’[46]

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                In response to the situation prevailing on the Continent, Asquith had been persuaded by Ottley in late October to appoint a new sub-committee of the C.I.D. to examine the “Military Needs of the Empire”. By 27 November the General Staff had produced a memorandum which, unsurprisingly, ‘concluded that the only feasible option was to afford direct support to the French Army’;[47] however, no reference was made to the joint planning undertaken by the British and French General Staffs for the past three years. The sub-committee met on 3 and 17 December, and again on 23 March 1909, before presenting its report on 24 July 1909. The positions of the two Services within the C.I.D. had now reversed: the General Staff calm and persuasive; the Admiralty, as personified by Fisher, truculent and unforthcoming.[48] It was little wonder that when, at last, the flames of the various crises were quenched Asquith would take the War Office whip; although he still did not realize the full extent of the Continental commitment, at least the generals presented him with a cogent strategy. Fisher, on the other hand, ‘refused to offer any Admiralty counter-proposals’[49] and instead cautioned Slade on 28 November 1908 to avoid mentioning schemes proposed for the Baltic and North Sea, presumably aware of the ammunition these would provide the General Staff.[50]

                At the same time as he was trying to avoid discussion of the Admiralty proposals in the C.I.D. a new round of secret talks was initiated with the French. As he was wont to do in moments of crisis, the French Ambassador spoke to Grey on 24 November and urged that the naval conversations should be resumed as an adjunct to the military talks. It should perhaps come as no surprise that Grey mistakenly believed that such naval conversations had already commenced. The Foreign Secretary put this omission right by broaching the subject with McKenna with the result that the First Lord and Fisher met the French Naval Attaché, Captain Mercier de Lostende, in December 1908. Although agreeing to the resumption of the talks, Fisher, as was usual, wanted nothing in writing (using the customary, and specious, excuse that this was necessary to maintain absolute secrecy). By acting in this way Fisher left certain options open: if word of the talks leaked out, nothing could be proved, one way or the other; on the other hand, if pressed in the C.I.D., Fisher could use the very fact of the conversations as evidence of Admiralty planning and forethought. A further possibility to explain his sudden approval for the resumption of talks is that he might have believed, as he had done in the summer of 1905, that war was imminent.

                As the first tangible result of the naval talks, the French were presented with what later became termed the “three conventions”. The first of these stipulated that, in the event of a war against Germany, Britain and France would each have its own well defined zone of action, within which each fleet would have complete independence of action; however, the overall direction of naval operations would be in the hands of the British. The second convention sought to define the zones of action. The French Home Fleets would concentrate in the Mediterranean with the object of engaging and destroying the Italian and Austrian navies in the anticipated eventuality that they would enter the war as Germany’s allies. The French zone, at the start of the war, would be the western basin of the Mediterranean as far as Cape Santa Maria di Leuca – the heel of Italy – leaving the Adriatic out of bounds: the French were only to engage the Austrians if they emerged from the Adriatic to effect a junction with the Italian fleet. The British would watch the Adriatic (for the purpose of warning the French) but their main duties would be to protect commerce and the entrance to the Suez Canal. The third convention concerned the defence of the Straits of Dover which Fisher proposed the French should undertake entirely, using torpedo boats and submarines; these boats could have the free use of the port of Dover. All British ships there would be withdrawn to the north for operations in the North Sea and Baltic.

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                These were the semi-official proposals; Fisher now went one step further. At last assuming a more forward rôle, Fisher, himself, inquired of Mercier de Lostende if the French considered themselves strong enough to assume responsibility for the whole of the Mediterranean including the tasks nominally assigned to the British. This approach was even more curious in view of the fact that Fisher had confided to Asquith on 3 December that the latest Admiralty intelligence indicated that the Austrians were preparing to lay down their first dreadnoughts[51] whereas no French dreadnought was, as yet, contemplated.[52] The French Attaché raced back to Paris to report to the Minister of Marine, M Alfred Picard: other than a small reserve squadron to be left at Gibraltar, the new proposal envisaged that all British ships would be withdrawn from the Mediterranean. To the French would then fall the duty of engaging the Austrian and Italian fleets, as well as the defence of Malta, the Suez Canal and the Straits of Dover. Picard took the plan to Clemenceau, the Premier, and Stephen Pichon, the Foreign Minister and, from there, it went to the General Staff of the French Admiralty where, at last, sense prevailed.

Of paramount importance to France was the necessity of safeguarding the link with French North Africa; quite clearly, the French were in no position to guarantee the maintenance of that link and carry out all the other tasks proposed by Fisher. At the same time, compounding the problems faced by the French, a predicament had arisen over the command of the French Mediterranean Squadron. Admiral Germinet, in command at Toulon, had, in the course of an interview with a journalist from a local newspaper, mentioned that the fighting value of his ships was being compromised by an insufficient stock of ammunition for the fleet and, worse, that his ‘official representations of the fact had remained unanswered or had produced no result’.[53] News of the interview soon reached Paris whence Germinet was summoned to explain himself. His crime lay, of course, not in complaining about the deficiency but in speaking to the press. The Council of Ministers met on 5 December and supported Clemenceau’s opinion that Germinet had to go. So, one of the more able French admirals was relieved of the vital Mediterranean command just as Fisher was making his secret approach. Following the intervention of the French Admiralty, it was decided, as a compromise, that the French zone would revert to the western basin of the Mediterranean, while the British would remain in the eastern basin; talk of a complete British withdrawal and further naval conversations would wait for a future crisis.[54]

                What were Fisher’s motives in proposing a scheme he must have known the French were in no position to accept? He was probably aware that his various schemes for amphibious operations in the North Sea and Baltic could no longer withstand the expected onslaught from the War Office General Staff in the C.I.D. By the time of the second meeting of the “Military Needs” sub-committee on 17 December the French were undoubtedly aware of Fisher’s proposals.[55] Was Fisher enticing the French with an impossible plan hoping that they would then take the initiative and counter with a less ambitious scheme which could then be shown to be mutually supportive of the Admiralty proposals? In the event either Fisher did not like what he heard from Paris or the French were too late in responding; either way, it was left to Esher to defend the Navy in the C.I.D. on 17 December.

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                Esher came prepared with a paper he written three days before, Assistance to be given by Great Britain to France if she is Attacked by Germany. He queried whether, in the event of war, the Government and public opinion would allow the dispatch of an army to France; as a result he felt obliged to ask ‘the Government to place their trust in the Navy, and to underwrite the Admiralty policy of a guerre de course, coupled with a close blockade of the German coast, to be augmented by a mobile army for striking unexpectedly at the enemy homeland.’[56] Esher’s ‘striking force’ was to consist of 12,000 mounted troops under an independent commander. But this meant taking too much on trust and was unsurprisingly rejected by the General Staff.[57] In view of this there was little likelihood of Asquith following such a course and he must have been relieved to adjourn the meeting. Equally relieved was Fisher. Following the failure of the bizarre approach to the French, Fisher had no option but to fall back upon the plans for North Sea and Baltic operations which he realized would not stand closer examination. In the event, Fisher employed a well-tried tactic — he refused to elucidate upon the proposed coastal operations. By January 1909 Fisher was writing to Esher that he rather wanted

to keep clear of Defence Committee till Morocco is settled, as I don’t want to disclose my plan of campaign to anyone…I haven’t even told Ottley and don’t mean to. The only man who knows is Wilson, and he’s as close as wax! The whole success will depend upon suddenness and unexpectedness, and the moment I tell anyone there’s an end of both!!! So just please keep me clear of any conferences, and I personally would sooner Defence Committee kept still.[58]

It would be another three months before the sub-committee reconvened; by then German intentions against France had been overtaken by the “Great Naval Scare” of 1909, itself a product of faulty intelligence regarding an alleged acceleration in the German naval building programme directed at Britain. At the third and final meeting on 23 March 1909 Fisher was forced to accept the General Staff’s low opinion of his Baltic schemes while,[59] in a characteristic Asquithian compromise, the Prime Minister gave tacit approval to the General Staff’s plans but attempted to maintain the fiction of freedom of action. As a result the sub-committee lamely concluded that, ‘in the event of an attack on France by Germany, the expediency of sending a military force abroad, or of relying on naval means only, is a matter of policy which can only be determined when the occasion arises by the Government of the day.’[60] In spite of this, the basic premise that the Continental strategy would prevail in time of war was not seriously questioned.

                The fault, to a great extent, was Fisher’s: neither the War Office nor the Cabinet would have been particularly comfortable had the full extent of the moral commitment to France been rationally analysed. Instead Fisher promoted his own wild schemes, had them promoted on his behalf, or else kept silent and intrigued. Inevitably, this did nothing other than to create confusion. In the discussions of December 1908, for example, the French would have had every reason to believe that, as soon as they were able, the command of the Mediterranean would fall to them. Fisher wrote querulously to Esher on 15 March, ‘Are we or are we not going to send a British Army to fight on the Continent as quite distinct and apart from coastal raids and seizures of islands, etcetera, which the Navy dominate?’[61] This question remained unanswered — officially. Unofficially, on the basis of the findings of the sub-committee, a plan for intervention was to be worked out by the General Staff, ‘in which the British Army shall be concentrated in rear of the left of the French Army, primarily as a reserve.’[62] The arrangements made with the French Army would be accelerated by Henry Wilson when he became Director of Military Operations in 1910.

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                The outcry over the putative German challenge reached fever pitch in the early months of 1909. The great naval scare appeared to have caught the Admiralty out and ensured that they would have to pay the price for authorizing only two large armoured ships in the previous estimates. Faintly remembered slogans litter the contemporary record, the most celebrated being, simply, “We want eight and we won’t wait”.[63] To trace the origins of the scare it is necessary to return to 11 May 1906 when H. H. Mulliner, the Managing Director of the Coventry Ordnance Works, took up his pen and wrote to the War Office, to alert them to the fact, as he himself had witnessed on his Continental travels, ‘of the enormous expenditure now going on at Krupp’s for the purpose of manufacturing very large naval guns and mountings quickly’. Two days later, the War Office forwarded Mulliner’s letter to the Admiralty where, at once, his motives were doubted. Mulliner’s company was operating at a loss, due in no small part to its failure to win a contract to supply heavy guns and mountings for the Royal Navy. In any event, his ‘evidence’ was far from conclusive with regard to any clandestine acceleration of the published German naval programme, and no action was taken.

                It was, then, not until the autumn of 1908 that Mulliner’s continued warnings were seemingly corroborated, independently, by a variety of unimpeachable sources. On 20 October 1908 Captain Herbert Heath, the British Naval Attaché at Berlin, visited Wilhelmshaven and Bremen; the following day he informed London that there was little doubt that the contracts for two of the battleships of the 1909-10 programme had been placed six months early, ‘before the money has actually been voted.’ Confirmation of this fact was contained in a further report by the Naval Attaché on 16 November. Heath’s information was correct; however, it would soon became apparent that the German action was designed to take advantage of low prices and to afford some relief to the beleaguered shipyards during a recession. It did not imply that the completion dates for the ships were being advanced.[64] Nevertheless, by allowing thirty months for the building of each German ship, commencing from the official starting time of April 1909, Captain Heath warned that, ‘it is possible that Germany may have the following vessels ready for sea by October 1911. 10 Battleships of ‘Dreadnought’ type. 3 Battleship-Cruisers of ‘Invincible’ type.’[65] In other words, after a delayed start, Germany would have achieved parity with Britain.[66] When a further report was received in December from Colonel Surtees, the Military Attaché in Constantinople, confirming that,

From information received it seems safe to say that it is, or was, the intention, of the Emperor to secretly prepare all the mountings, ship’s plates, ammunition, &c., at Krupp’s and then to suddenly commence the creation of a number of battleships sufficient to, at least, equal the naval strength of England[67]

the cumulative effect was too great to ignore. Surtees’ source was a representative of Ehrhardt, Krupp’s most important rival; this was Mulliner’s source as well.[68] Despite the suspicion that this remained ‘contractors’ gossip’, Mulliner was at last invited to present his evidence to the C.I.D.[69]

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                On the basis of reports such as those forwarded by Captain Heath, McKenna had, in fact, recommended to the Cabinet on 8 December 1908 that the building programme for 1909-10 should comprise six dreadnoughts rather than the four originally planned. This proposal, not unnaturally, inflamed the radical wing of the Liberal party, who refused to believe the stories of the secret, accelerated German building programme. Lloyd George in particular (with Churchill in tow) was incensed. At a two-day Cabinet on 18-19 December he denounced the Admiralty’s so-called intelligence, arguing that Fisher, if he so desired, could obtain whatever information was required from his Naval Attachés in support of his grandiose schemes.[70] If proof were needed of Admiralty deviousness it was supplied to Lloyd George early in the New Year when he received a message ‘that the Admiralty have had very serious news from their Naval attaché in Germany since our last Cabinet Committee & that McK[enna] is now convinced we may have to lay down 8 Dreadnoughts next year!!’ As the Chancellor made clear when reporting this latest development to Churchill:

I feared all along this would happen. Fisher is a very clever person & when he found his programme was in danger he wired … for something more panicky — & of course he got it … Frankly I believe the Admirals are procuring false information to frighten us. McK feels his personal position & prestige is at stake … I do not believe the Germans are at all anxious to hurry up their building programme, quite the reverse. Their financial difficulties are already great. Why should they increase them?[71]

Yet, within weeks, Lloyd George was changing his stance. Ever aware of his ‘image’, George had to balance his reputation as an economist and radical against the charge that he was endangering national security. As Esher perceptively remarked, ‘He believes in the Navy but is just now hampered by the fact that he is a representative radical.’[72] The apparent justification for the Chancellor’s abrupt change was provided by a meeting at the Foreign Office on 24 January 1909 between, amongst others, Grey, McKenna, Lloyd George, and the Sea Lords, at which further evidence was presented of German shipbuilding capability. As soon as he saw which way the wind was blowing Lloyd George immediately changed tack and characteristically turned on his accusers: ‘I think it shows extraordinary neglect on the part of the Admiralty’, he announced, ‘that all this should not have been found out before. I don’t think much of any of you admirals, and I should like to see Lord Charles Beresford at the Admiralty, and the sooner the better.’ McKenna, whose antipathy to Lloyd George was well known, answered immediately, ‘You know perfectly well that these facts were communicated to the Cabinet at the time we knew of them, and your remark was, “It’s all contractors’ gossip,” or words to that effect.’[73]

                To make up for lost ground Lloyd George, after first gratuitously pointing out to Asquith the damage that was being inflicted upon the party in view of its pledge ‘to reduce the gigantic expenditure on armaments built up by the recklessness of our predecessors’, then advanced the proposal that the Government, ‘may later in the financial year 1909-10 consider it desirable to make preparation for rapid construction, coming in a part of the following financial year, of further ships.’[74] A compromise was on the cards, as was made clear when, at the Cabinet on 15 February, the Chancellor outlined his suggestion of a naval programme ‘spread over a certain number of years, and so arranged as more or less to equalize the burden of expenditure.’[75] Nevertheless, the proposal now on the table remained hazy, and it was not until 24 February (after Fisher had typically hinted at resignation if eight new ships were not sanctioned) that agreement, however reluctant, was reached. It was McKenna who put the proposition into concrete form.[76] McKenna’s solution was ingenious if nothing else: four battleships would be laid down in 1909-10 while preparations would be made at the beginning of the next financial year to lay down a further four should the Admiralty think it advisable. In the well-known aphorism of Churchill, ‘In the end a curious and characteristic solution was reached. The Admiralty had demanded six ships: the economists offered four: and we finally compromised on eight.’ Asquith was able to inform the King of the agreement reached:

(1) 4 new Dreadnoughts to be in any event laid down in the ensuing financial years

(2) an Act of Parliament to be passed this Session providing for a programme of naval construction so calculated as to keep us always ahead of the German programme

(3) power to be given in the Act to make forward contracts for the ships of next year — so that the government will be able (if so advised) next autumn, to place orders for 4 additional Dreadnoughts, to be laid down not later than 1st April 1910.[77]

Not for the last time, Asquith must have believed that, by the formulation of such woolly conclusions, he had restored a semblance of party unity. Clear strategic thinking formed no part of the Prime Minister’s style of crisis management: was, for example, the German programme for which it was to be legislated that Britain should always ‘keep ahead of’ the official, published programme, or the alleged, clandestine programme upon which the current scare had been entirely based?

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                The Big Navy lobby had won out, but would the four contingent ships actually be built? Was it to be the formality that many expected? Fisher went to work at once, and reported, very conveniently, details of a meeting on 2 March with an Argentine naval mission which had just returned from Germany with further alarming reports of armaments and shipbuilding capacity. On the basis of this information, Fisher calculated that Germany could have twelve or thirteen capital ships ready by April 1911, and up to twenty-one the following year, ‘if they wished it.’[78] Things had come to a pretty pass when Fisher had to cite German wish-fulfilment to keep the scare going.[79] As Lloyd George lamented: Fisher ‘is a very clever man and very persuasive. When he wants to carry a point he always gives technical details which seem to be overwhelming.’[80] A further indication of Admiralty thinking was the ditching of the Two-Power Standard (or two-power plus a margin of ten per cent. as it had become). Although confirmed by Asquith on 12 November 1908[81] the standard was being rendered increasingly anomalous by the position of the U.S. Navy against whom, in Fisher’s view, war was unthinkable. The realization dawned on men such as Ottley that Britain could not afford to outbuild both America and Germany. Further, if the German fleet outdistanced all others except the Royal Navy it was conceivable that, while continuing to build to a two-power standard, Britain might find herself with an inadequate margin against the number two fleet. Asquith was duly advised that the ‘probability that our whole fleet would have to be divided, and that each part would have to be superior to the foreign squadron against which it was sent, entails upon us the need for considerable superiority over any one Power. We must therefore have such a margin of superiority over one Power as might conceivably render the two-Power standard insufficient provision.’[82] In April 1909, Admiral Jellicoe, then Third Sea Lord, calculated the new standard as Germany plus sixty per cent.

                The new Naval Estimates were introduced on 16 March, to the fury of the Conservative opposition and the dismay of the Liberal radicals. In attempting to appease the latter, McKenna and Asquith chose to present the Government’s predicament earnestly and honestly, at the risk of spreading further alarm. McKenna rose in the House that day to admit that,

in the face of last year’s programme no one could with any fairness charge this Government with having started upon a race of competitive armaments. By example as well as by precept we sought to check the rapid rate of shipbuilding. We failed. Whatever we may have to do now it cannot be said that the present Government are setting the pace in construction. Last year we were not in a position to make any possible forecast of the probable construction of foreign countries. The difficulty in which the Government finds itself placed at this moment is that we do not know – as we thought we did – the rate at which German construction is taking place … We now expect that the four German ships of the 1908-9 programme to be completed, not in February 1911, but in the autumn of 1910. I am informed, moreover, that the collection of materials and the manufacture of armaments, and gun-mountings, have already begun for four more ships, which, according to the Navy Law, belong to the programme of 1909-10. Therefore, we have to take stock of the new situation, in which we reckon that not nine but thirteen German ships may be completed in 1911, and in 1912 such further ships, if any, as may be begun in the course of the next financial year or laid down in April 1910 … The German law provides for four more ships to be laid down in 1910-11. But if the construction of these ships is accelerated – as I understand was the case of the four ships of the 1909-10 programme – they would be completed by April, 1912. Therefore on that date Germany would have seventeen Dreadnoughts and Invincibles. But even if no acceleration takes place before April, 1910, this number would still be completed in the autumn of 1912.[83]

This was despite the fact the Count Metternich, the German Ambassador, had already assured Grey that there had been no acceleration and that Germany would have no more than thirteen capital ships available by the end of 1912.[84] The Government’s tactic misfired badly, allowing the opposition to turn on the Liberals. ‘The fact is’, Austen Chamberlain noted, ‘that the Government altogether miscalculated the forces at work. They thought they had got to justify their estimates against a Radical attack on the size of the programme and they prepared their speeches from this point of view. But they were quite wrong. All they said in their defence against the Little Navy men served only to strengthen the real attack — the charge that they are not doing enough.’[85]

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                On the basis of his own calculations, Balfour, following Fisher’s “wish-fulfilment” line, argued that Germany might have twenty-one dreadnoughts in commission by the spring of 1912 and that, therefore, the contingent four British dreadnoughts should be ordered immediately. Further denials and assurances of pacific intent were uttered on behalf of Germany to little effect. As Grey explained, following a subsequent meeting with Metternich on 19 March, ‘If I were to repeat in the House of Commons what Count Metternich had told me as to the thirteen ships, and were to state that, acting upon this information, the Government did not propose to give orders for the four hypothetical ships which they had put in the Estimates this year, matters would only be made worse. Public opinion would concentrate on the point that the Government could not, and ought not to, trust the statement of the German Government so implicitly…’[86] Fisher put the conundrum more succinctly: ‘The fact is’, he declared, ‘we must have a large margin against lying!’[87]

                To force the issue, Balfour decided on the risky course of tabling a censure motion.[88] Asquith refused to move on the issue:[89] the contingent ships would remain just that. By 23 March the Liberal Chief Whip, in an attempt to defuse the mounting crisis, suggested that, ‘if any question was asked the Government could say the subject matter of the ordering of the 4 contingent vessels could be raised again on the construction vote in July & the Government was prepared to then say what progress had been made, & whether they could make any statement public or not as to what further ships they required.’[90] This was the line followed by Grey, in the tense atmosphere of the Commons on 29 March for the debate on the censure motion. Grey admitted to the House that,

we have been informed verbally, but quite definitely, that Germany will not accelerate her naval programme of construction, and will not have 13 ships of the ‘Dreadnought’ type, including cruisers, till the end of 1912 … We have also been told that contracts for two ships for the financial year 1909-10 were promised in advance to certain firms provided the money were granted by the Reichstag afterwards. In addition to this we are informed that these two ships for which orders have been promised in advance, will be ready for trial trips at the earliest in April, 1912, and will not be ready for commission before October, 1912. As regards the remaining two ships of the 1909-10 programme, not covered by this, we are informed that tenders will be called for only late in the summer, and the orders will be given two or three months later …[91]

A decision on the contingent ships, Grey argued, could thereby safely be deferred until July, as the Government now believed it had over-estimated the German acceleration. The censure motion was comfortably defeated.[92]

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                Indeed, the alleged German acceleration in shipbuilding was increasingly seen to be chimerical;[93] even before the debate on the censure motion Fisher had received ‘most reliable information’ which dissipated the alarm that the Germans were ahead. ‘They are apparently aiming at one object only’, Fisher contended, which was ‘a higher speed in their parallel ships.’[94] This meant one thing only to Fisher: a further argument in favour of the battle cruiser. He lost no time in making this point to McKenna. So won over was the First Lord that, on 28 March, McKenna ‘privately and secretly’ informed the Liberal Chief Whip, of ‘the information about German intentions, building fast cruisers to destroy British commerce &c, & that obviously we must not now commit ourselves to Dreadnoughts.’[95]

                In view of this volte face, another good scare was needed to guarantee the laying down of the four hypothetical battleships. Unable now to count on Germany, the Mediterranean naval situation would provide the excuse for the laying down of ‘the contingent four’. Austria and Italy – equivocal and uneasy allies within the Triple Alliance – came to the rescue. Fisher had already pointed out to Asquith in December 1908 that Austria was rumoured to be planning a dreadnought programme. This seed lodged in Asquith’s brain for four months before germinating. Then, at 11 p.m. on Easter Sunday, 11 April 1909, the Prime Minister ungenerously sent a special messenger to Fisher (who was well known for his habit of retiring to bed early) asking for an up-to-date report on the Austrian dreadnoughts; however much Asquith was alarmed, the news of the programme created even greater panic in Italy. The British Naval Attaché reported gleefully that the Italians were ‘suffering from an attack of nerves, and they look upon Austria as being able to produce first-class battleships as easily as a conjuror pulls eggs out of a hat.’[96]

                The panic so engendered was despite the fact that the Italians were first off the mark, laying down the dreadnought Dante Alighieri[97] in June 1909 a full year before the Austrians (and, incidentally, the French). The Italians were handicapped by the long construction times required, which were liable to render a vessel virtually obsolete by the time it entered service due to the rapid pace of technological change. It had been said of Italy that in 1880 ‘no country exhibited greater originality in design or boldness in execution as regards naval construction’;[98] by the end of the century the Italian fleet had slumped to seventh in world standing. Ideas outpaced capabilities: it was the Italian, Cuniberti, who had first proposed an all-big-gun ship in the 1903 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships but Italy could not immediately afford to put his ideas into practice (though there was no chance of building the specific ship described in Jane’s, which represented an unobtainable ideal).[99] Instead, realizing that they were incapable of gaining command of the Mediterranean from the French, the Italians wanted ‘units capable of contesting France’s free use of the sea. They needed ships more powerful than French armoured cruisers, and faster than French battleships.’[100] Although the theory was fine, the gestation period of the resulting Regina Elenas class meant that by the time they entered service in 1907-08 their main armament of only 2 x 12-inch guns was inadequate.[101]

                Given the importance of the dreadnought programme, an attempt was made to hurry things along on the Dante Alighieri and contemporary reports speak of her having ‘been constructed with greater rapidity than recent Italian ships’;[102] nevertheless, following her launch on 20 August 1910, the ship was not completed until October 1912 after a delay of a year in the delivery of her 12-inch guns. The improved dreadnoughts of the 1910 programme suffered similarly. Indeed the whole Italian building programme

was fulfilled far more slowly than had been originally intended. Given the past performance of Italian yards, which were even slower that their much criticized French counterparts, it is somewhat difficult to understand why this came as a surprise to the naval staffs. The difficulty revolved less around the work in the yards themselves than around the supply of heavy cannon, turrets, and armour plate. The Italian steel industry was simply not up to the task.[103]

Nevertheless, the threat (however remote) remained and it came as no surprise that, on 26 July, McKenna, citing the altered Mediterranean outlook, announced the decision to proceed with the contingent ships.[104] So, commented the editor of the Navy League Annual, ‘We have got our eight battleships of course; but a straightforward statement to that effect in the first place would have better served the cause of Empire, and would have allayed the growing feeling that our naval and military forces are becoming the shuttle-cocks of sectional political differences.’[105] Please click to go to the top of this page






[1]    Donald M Schurman, Julian S Corbett 1854-1922, (London, 1981), p. 66.

[2]    Kemp (ed.), The Fisher Papers, vol. II, p. 317.

[3]    Fisher to Corbett, 9 March 1907, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p.120; Schurman, Corbett, p. 67.

[4]    Schurman, ibid.

[5]    The War Plans are printed in full in Kemp (ed.), The Fisher Papers, vol. II, pp. 318 ff.

[6]    Schurman, Corbett, p. 68.

[7]    Captain Edmond Slade, War with Germany, 1 Sept. 1906, PRO Adm 116/1036B.

[8]    Ibid.

[9]    War Plans, Fisher Papers, vol. II, p. 356.

[10]  PRO Adm 116/1036B; Fisher Papers, vol. II, pp. 356-9.

[11]  Paul G. Halpern, The Mediterranean Naval Situation, 1908-1914, pp. 5-6 [hereinafter referred to as Medt Naval Situation].

[12]  Slade was unaware, of course, of the ‘conversations’. d’Ombrain, War Machinery, p. 92.

[13]  Fisher Papers, vol. II, pp. 459-461; see also, Mackay, Fisher, pp. 368-9.

[14]  Fisher to McKenna, 26 May 1908, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 177-9.

[15]  “War Arrangements”, Fisher Papers, vol. II, pp. 464-8.

[16]  Beresford to Fisher, 2 May 1907, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 123.

[17]  Fisher to Beresford, 30 April 1907, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 122.

[18]  Fisher to McKenna, 26 May 1908, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 177-9. Beresford regarded the Home Fleet as ‘really a Reserve Fleet manned by nucleus crews, and used for the training of young seamen and stokers.’ Yet the Admiralty, declared Beresford, regarded this fleet as ‘instantly ready for war.’ The Betrayal, p. 79.

[19]  Fisher Papers, vol. II, p. 464.

[20]  See, for example, chapter VI, “The Fraud on the Public”, The Betrayal, pp. 69-76.

[21]  Tweedmouth to Fisher, 8 June 1907, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 125-6.

[22]  Minutes quoted in Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, pp. 94-5.

[23]  Slade’s diary entry, 13 January 1908, quoted in Schurman, Corbett, p. 75.

[24]  d’Ombrain, War Machinery, p. 160. Slade had recently been moved from the War College to take up the position of D.N.I.; see Schurman, Corbett, p. 73.

[25]  Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, p. 100.

[26]  Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 97; d’Ombrain, War Machinery, p. 219; Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, pp. 348-50. The conclusions of the Sub-Committee are summarized in Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, p. 350.

[27]  Fisher to Corbett, 4 December 1907, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 152.

[28]  Fisher to Grey, 23 January 1908, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 155-7.

[29]  Fisher to Tweedmouth, 23 January 1908, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 157-9.

[30]  Mackay, Fisher, p. 396.

[31]  Slade to Asquith, 8 May 1909, quoted in Mackay, Fisher, p. 396.

[32]  The pretext for the Kaiser’s letter was Esher’s letter to The Times of 6 February. See, Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, p. 140; Padfield, The Great Naval Race, pp. 181-2.

[33]  Fisher met Esher a few days later and told him ‘You have had the greatest compliment paid you that was ever paid a man. The German Emperor has written to Tweedmouth nine pages in his own hand, full of abuse of you!’ Esher Journal, 19 February 1908, quoted in Padfield, p. 182.

[34]  Quoted in, Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, p. 141.

[35]  The description of Campbell-Bannerman being on his last legs belonged to Asquith, who also later admitted that: ‘The first thing I did was to put “Cousin Reggie” in Tweedmouth’s place at the Admiralty — not a moment too soon, for within a month or six weeks T. was raving mad, & so continued until his death. His [Tweedmouth’s] was a tragic case, for he was one of the sanest & most high-spirited of mankind. I shall never forget my bewilderment when, in the course of a longish tête-à-tête in the Cabinet room, it gradually dawned upon me that he was off his head.’ Asquith to Venetia Stanley, 31 October 1914, in Brock and Brock (eds.), Asquith Letters, p. 300. See also, editorial note in, Hazlehurst and Woodland (eds.), A Liberal Chronicle: journals and papers of J A Pease, 1908 to 1910, p. 26.

[36]  Editorial note in, Hazlehurst and Woodland (eds.), A Liberal Chronicle: journals and papers of J A Pease, 1908 to 1910, p. 20.

[37]  Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, pp. 22-3. A further suspicion was that, as a former Treasury minister, McKenna’s brief was to reign in, further, the naval estimates.

[38]  Pease, diary entries for 22 and 25 May 1908, Hazlehurst and Woodland (eds.), A Liberal Chronicle: journals and papers of J A Pease, 1908 to 1910, pp. 24-5.

[39]  Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, p. 7.

[40]  Miller, Straits, pp. 26-33.

[41]  Grey subsequently maintained that the French had not been seriously alarmed about the Casablanca incident, though the basis for this sanguine analysis would seem to have been the fact that they ‘had not asked us any questions’. Grey to Nicolson, private, 26 November 1908, BD, V, no. 441, pp. 494-5.

[42]  Miller, Straits, pp. 39-40.

[43]  Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, p. 150; see also, Fisher to Knollys, 22 December 1908, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 204-5: ‘Then the Casablanca incident occurred. Grey came over and said we were on the very brink of war. McKenna came to me and said for the very first time in his life he had been awake all night.’

[44]  Bertie to Grey, no. 390, 7 October 1908, BD, V, no. 333, pp. 408-10. When Grey inquired of the Russian Ambassador what would happen if Austria and Russia came to blows over the Balkans, Benckendorff replied, ‘of course France would be brought in, and all four Powers would be involved.—But, should such a crisis arise, he was optimistic enough to think that sharp, decisive action on our part would keep the peace. If the British Government were at once to ask for a vote of credit from the House of Commons: he thought that would make the whole difference between peace and war…’ Grey to Nicolson, 26 November 1908, BD, V, no. 441, pp. 494-5.

[45]  Grey to Lowther, no. 428, 9 October 1908, BD, V, no. 349, pp. 418-9.

[46]  D W Sweet, “The Bosnian Crisis”, in Hinsley (ed.), British Foreign Policy under Sir Edward Grey, p. 183 and note 37. At the instigation of the Foreign Office, during the subsequent counter-revolution in Constantinople in April 1909, in addition to the ships already on station, the Admiralty directed that Swiftsure, Triumph and Diana should be sent to Lemnos. Admiralty to Admiral Sir A. Curzon-Howe, 19 April 1909, BD, V, enclosure in no. 841, p. 787.

[47]  Mackay, Fisher, p. 405; d’Ombrain, War Machinery, p. 94.

[48]  Williamson (The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 109) comments succinctly: ‘The naval suggestions were familiar and predictable: Fisher and his subordinates argued that economic pressure against Germany would be sufficient — the vast German overseas trade and the alleged German dependence upon imports of raw materials and foodstuffs automatically ensured that maritime pressure would bring Germany to its knees. The soldiers, preferring not to challenge Admiralty statistics, simply commented that France would be beaten by the German armies before economic pressure could become effective.’

[49]  d’Ombrain, War Machinery, p. 94.

[50]  Mackay, Fisher, p. 405.

[51]  Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, p. 170.

[52]  The first French dreadnought would not be laid down until the end of 1910.

[53]  The Naval Annual 1909, pp. 15-16; Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, p. 53.

[54]  The 1908 talks are referred to in an Admiralty memorandum of 29 August 1911, PRO Adm 116/3109; see also, Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, pp. 8-10; Lumby, pp. xiv-xv; H I Lee, “Mediterranean Strategy and Anglo-French Relations 1908-12”, in The Mariner’s Mirror, No. 57 (1971), pp. 267-285; Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, pp. 243-4. As Williamson has noted, the marginal note on the Admiralty file (Adm 116/3109) stating that ‘Fisher was not present’ at the December 1908 meeting is incorrect.

[55]  Picard’s memorandum, outlining the scheme as described by Mercier de Lostende, is dated 17 December. Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, p. 9, note 30.

[56]  d’Ombrain, War Machinery, p. 95; Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 95.

[57]  Paragraph 15 of the final report declared that, ‘Neither Sir John French nor the General Staff were in agreement with Lord Esher’s suggestion. Their objection to sending a mounted force such as he had proposed were chiefly of a technical nature, since they did not consider such a force as homogeneous or capable of useful military action.’ Report of the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence on the Military Needs of the Empire, 24 July 1909, PRO Cab 38/15/15.

[58]  Fisher to Esher, 17 January 1909, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 220.

[59]  It was at this meeting that Fisher, in all probability, let his temper get the better of him, when he denounced Haldane and the War Office in the most forthright manner. The outburst is described by Marder (Dreadnought, vol. I, pp. 387-8) and dated to one of the December meetings of the committee; however, as Williamson (The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 109) persuasively argues, the scene was more likely to have occurred on 23 March.

[60]  This was the Committee’s first conclusion; the second was that: ‘(b) In view, however, of the possibility of a decision by the Cabinet to use military force, the Committee have examined the plans of the General Staff, and are of opinion that, in the initial stages of a war between France and Germany, in which the Government decided to assist France, the plan to which preference is given by the General Staff is a valuable one, and the General Staff should accordingly work out all the necessary details.’ The plan of the General Staff called for the British force to be ‘concentrated in rear of the left of the French army’. Report of the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence on the Military Needs of the Empire, 24 July 1909, PRO Cab 38/15/15.

[61]  Fisher to Esher, 15 March 1909, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 232-3.

[62]  Report of the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence on the Military Needs of the Empire, 24 July 1909, PRO Cab 38/15/15.

[63]  This, the most famous of all the slogans, was coined by the Conservative M.P., George Wyndham, at Wigan on 27 March 1909. Williams, Defending the Empire, p. 171.

[64]  Tirpitz also hoped, by his action, to prevent the formation of a shipbuilders’ cartel: Stevenson, Armaments and the Coming of War, p. 166.

[65]  Heath’s reports are given, together with much additional information, in appendix VI of Woodward, Great Britain and the German Navy, pp. 480-94

[66]  By March 1911 it was anticipated that Britain would have eight completed Dreadnoughts and four Invincibles, with another two Dreadnoughts ready by July 1911 (provided always that the construction period of two years per ship was adhered to), and a further two Dreadnoughts available from November 1911. First Lord’s statement, 16 March 1909, given in, The Naval Annual, 1909, p. 384.

[67]  Report of Colonel Surtees, 20 December 1908, given in, Woodward, Great Britain and the German Navy, p. 480

[68]  Stevenson, Armaments and the Coming of War, p. 168.

[69]  Evidence that Mulliner’s warnings had at last been taken seriously was belatedly provided by Grey when he admitted that, ‘With regard to the capacity for building hulls and propelling machinery, our capacity is considerably in excess of the German capacity; and in the manufacture of guns of the largest size we believe that our capacity for output is also superior. The doubtful point of the situation is our comparative capacity for the construction of gun mountings.’ Grey’s speech in the Commons, 29 March 1909, quoted in, Beresford, The Betrayal, p. 181. McKenna was forced to admit in the House on 17 June 1909 that the Government had known of the expansion of the Krupp’s works since 1906.

[70]  Gilbert, David Lloyd George; the Architect of Change, 1863-1912, p. 365.

[71]  Lloyd George to Churchill, 3 January 1909, quoted in, Churchill, Churchill, vol. II, pp. 516-7.

[72]  Esher to Knollys, 12 February 1909, quoted in, Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, p. 160.

[73]  Memorandum by Jellicoe, 24 January 1909, quoted, ibid, p. 161.

[74]  Lloyd George added that this could be done ‘with a view to rapid construction of four more ships.’ Lloyd George’s letters to Asquith of 2 and 8 February, 1909, quoted in, Gilbert, David Lloyd George; the Architect of Change, 1863-1912, p. 366.

[75]  Asquith to Edward VIII, 15 February 1909, quoted in, ibid, p. 367.

[76]  The Liberal Chief Whip was informed by Asquith on the evening of 24 February of how the ‘Cabinet differences on the Navy had been settled. McKenna made the suggestion after 2 hours and half’s [sic] discussion, and all concur and are happy.’ Pease, diary entry for 24 February, in Hazlehurst and Woodland (eds), A Liberal Chronicle: journals and papers of J A Pease, 1908 to 1910, p. 104. Asquith himself later tried to claim credit for the ‘suggestion’.

[77]  Asquith to King Edward VII, quoted in, Hazlehurst and Woodland (eds), A Liberal Chronicle: journals and papers of J A Pease, 1908 to 1910, p. 105.

[78]  Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I,. p. 163

[79]  Fisher’s own plan was for twenty British Dreadnoughts before April 1912: Fisher to McKenna, 28 February 1909, F.G.D.N, p. 225.

[80]  Riddell, diary entry for 25 March 1909, given in, McEwen (ed.), The Riddell Diaries, p. 23.

[81]  Wyatt and Horton-Smith, The Passing of the Great Fleet, pp. 471-3. Asquith had been asked in the Commons by Murray Macdonald, the Liberal M.P. for Falkirk, ‘whether, in recently accepting the definition of the two-Power standard as meaning a preponderance of 10 per cent over the combined strengths, in capital ships, of the two next strongest Powers, he intended to extend the definition given by himself earlier in the year to the effect that the standard we have to maintain is one which would give us complete command of the sea against any reasonably possible combination of Powers?’ Asquith replied: ‘The two statements are, in my opinion, under existing conditions identical in meaning and effect.’ Editorial note in Hazlehurst and Woodland (eds), A Liberal Chronicle: journals and papers of J A Pease, 1908 to 1910, p. 91.

[82]  Memorandum to Asquith, quoted in Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, p. 191.

[83]  McKenna’s speech is given in full in The Naval Annual 1909, pp. 380-92. McKenna added: ‘I can well imagine that this method of calculating in Dreadnoughts and Invincibles alone may seem unsatisfactory, and even unfair to many persons. They may say:- “What has become of the Lord Nelsons, the King Edwards, the Duncans, and the Formidables, and the earlier battleships on which our naval superiority has been so constantly reckoned? …” though they have not been rendered obsolete by the Dreadnoughts and Invincibles, yet their life has been shortened.’ When asked by Tsar Nicholas what he thought of the naval scare, Sir Arthur Nicolson replied ‘that it seemed to me that it was a mistake to imagine that the English fleet of pre-Dreadnought days was not the most powerful afloat and ready to meet any possible combinations. At the same time the great activity in German shipbuilding had, I believe, opened the eyes, even of the most unwilling, to admit the fact that the German navy was being constructed with the object of contesting with England the dominion of the seas. I had no doubt whatever that we should be quite competent to keep ahead in the race, and maintain our maritime supremacy…’ Nicolson to Grey, no. 239, 14 April 1909, BD, V, no. 836, pp. 782-5.

[84]  Woodward, Great Britain and the German Navy, p. 217.

[85]  Austen to Mary Chamberlain, 18 March 1909, quoted in, Williams, Defending the Empire, p. 163.

[86]  Grey to Goschen, 19 March 1909, quoted in, Woodward, Great Britain and the German Navy, pp. 484-6. The year given for the dispatch [1908] in Woodward is clearly a misprint.

[87]  Fisher to Davidson, 27 March 1909, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 236-7.

[88]  ‘That in the view of this House the declared policy of His Majesty’s Government respecting the immediate provision of battleships of the newest type does not sufficiently secure the safety of the Empire.’ See, Williams, Defending the Empire, pp. 165-6.

[89]  ‘Asquith told me he was not prepared to budge, that the Tories knew they were not justified in refusing to accept the Government’s pledge to undertake the construction if the necessity arose, & he was not surprised at the overtures.’ Pease, diary entry for 23 March 1909, in Hazlehurst and Woodland (eds), A Liberal Chronicle: journals and papers of J A Pease, 1908 to 1910, pp. 108-9.

[90]  Ibid.

[91]  Grey’s speech quoted in Woodward, Great Britain and the German Navy, p. 233. Grey also denounced Balfour for turning the scare into a party political issue: Williams, Defending the Empire, p. 168.

[92]  By 353 votes to 135. Asquith informed Jack Pease, after an advance reading of Grey’s speech that, if he [Asquith] were in Balfour’s position, he ‘could not help withdrawing the vote of censure.’ Pease thought Grey’s speech ‘magnificent & cut the ground certainly from under the Tories’ feet.’ Pease, diary entry for 29 March 1909, given in, Hazlehurst and Woodland (eds), A Liberal Chronicle: journals and papers of J A Pease, 1908 to 1910, pp. 109-11.

[93]  As Brassey himself later admitted: ‘The position was not so bad as the Opposition endeavoured to make out; though the provision made by the Government for new construction was insufficient. The case … at the time that the controversy in Parliament was at its height, would have been adequately met by laying down six, instead of four, battleships during the summer of 1909.’ The Naval Annual, 1910, p. 1. See also, Woodward, Great Britain and the German Navy, pp. 240 ff.

[94]  Fisher to Sir Arthur Davidson, 27 March 1909, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 236-7.

[95]  Pease, diary entry, 29 March, Hazlehurst and Woodland (eds), A Liberal Chronicle: journals and papers of J A Pease, 1908 to 1910, p. 111 [my emphasis]. See also, Fisher to McKenna, 30 March 1909, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 238-9. McKenna was later to admit that, in March 1909, the only way he could reconcile Metternich’s figures was by assuming that they excluded large cruisers. Woodward, Great Britain and the German Navy, p. 251.

[96]  Quoted in Marder, Dreadnought, vol. I, pp. 170-1.

[97]  A distinguishing feature of this ship was the novel expedient of having her twelve big guns arranged in four triple turrets to save weight.

[98]  The Naval Annual, 1910, p. 95.

[99]  As D. K. Brown, the distinguished naval architect, has noted, Cuniberti’s proposal: ‘was quite impractical; he envisaged twelve 12in guns in eight turrets, a complete 12in belt and a speed of 24kts, which would require double the power needed for 21kts, much more powerful machinery of heavier, reciprocating design, more guns and armour than Dreadnought, and all on a smaller ship of 17,000 tons!’ Brown, Warrior to Dreadnought, p. 182.

[100]          Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, p. 189.

[101]          The Italian building programme was also hindered by a scandal concerning the award of contracts for armour plating. See, Sondhaus, The Naval Policy of Austria-Hungary, 1867-1918, p. 174.

[102]          The Naval Annual 1911, p. 26.

[103]          Halpern, Medt Naval Situation, p. 191.

[104]          Williams, Defending the Empire, p. 173. McKenna, however, continued to insist that there had been an acceleration of one battleship in the German programme. Woodward, Great Britain and the German Navy, pp. 245-6.

[105]          Alan Burgoyne (ed.), The Navy League Annual 1909-10, p. 10. Burgoyne had unsuccessfully contested King’s Lynn in 1906 but would be elected Conservative M.P. for Kensington North in 1910. This opinion was also echoed in The Naval Annual: ‘For the first time in many years the Navy has been dragged into the arena of party-politics. Exaggerated statements were made by the Opposition in Parliament last spring [1909] as to the relative weakness of the British Navy, and the attempt to use the British Navy for party purposes was too frequently made during the recent [1910] General Election.’ The Naval Annual, 1910, p. 1.



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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