Strategy planning for war

Once the threats to Britain's overseas territories and interests had been dealt with through the Anglo-Japanese alliance and the ententes with

53 'Cost of certain capital ships', Dec. 1913, Treasury records, series 1, box 11598, file 25942 (T 1/11598/25942), TNA; Hugh Peebles, Warshipbulding on the Clyde: Naval Orders and the Prosperity of the Clyde Shipbuilding Industry, 1899-1939 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1987), p. 158.

54 Clive Trebilcock, 'War and the failure of industrial mobilisation', in J. M. Winter (ed.), War and Economic Development (Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 139-64.

France and Russia, the principal questions for strategists were: how could the United Kingdom and its trade routes best be protected? How could pressure best be brought to bear on Germany in war? How could European allies best be supported? Strategy was shaped by a number of influences. There were the facts of geography, particularly Britain's insular position and dependence on imports of food and raw materials. There was the evolution of armaments, which, as we shall see, influenced naval planning. There were economic and financial factors which set limits to the range of possibilities. There was also the experience of earlier wars in which Britain's naval preponderance had made possible a different strategy from that of continental powers. The naval historians Mahan and Corbett both argued that Britain had made best use of her circumstances by capturing colonies, by carrying out amphibious operations against the enemy's coastline, and by using wealth from trade to subsidise allies, rather than by sending large armies of her own to the European continent. Corbett, however, was more aware than Mahan of the limitations of this approach to warfare. He pointed out in The Campaign of Trafalgar (1910) that command of the sea had left Napoleon master of Europe, and he saw maritime strategy as an extension of a continental strategy, not as a competing alternative.55 It is always difficult to trace intellectual influences on policymakers, but Corbett was close to Fisher and lectured at the Naval War College at Greenwich from 1900. His students would have been encouraged to think in terms of the strategic offensive, with the navy blockading the enemy fleet and controlling maritime communications, including neutral trade, and transporting and supporting the army in combined operations.56 However, in assessing intellectual influences one has to take into account professional self-interest. Clearly a 'blue-water' strategy of waging war by maritime and economic means had more appeal to the navy than to the army.

The question of how best to defend Britain against invasion had long divided the services. The Admiralty argued that money was better spent on warships than on fortifications. The War Office was not prepared to concede that the army had no role in home defence, given the possibility that enemy raids might evade the navy. The CID's first investigation of

55 For a comparison of Mahan and Corbett see Gat, History of Military Thought, pp. 441-93.

56 Donald M. Schurman, The Education of a Navy: The Development of British Naval Strategic Thought, 1867-1914 (London: Cassell, 1965), pp. 147-84; Barry D. Hunt, 'The strategic thought of Sir Julian Corbett', in John B. Hattendorf and Robert S. Jordan (eds.), Maritime Strategy and the Balance of Power: Britain and America in the Twentieth Century (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 110-35.

the subject of an invasion of Britain took place in 1902-3, when the presumed enemy was France. The CID dismissed the possibility and subsequently its report was cited by Balfour in a statement in Parliament on 11 May 1905 in which he attempted to quieten public fears of invasion.57 However, the press would not let the issue go. In 1906 the Daily Mail serialised William Le Queux's novel The Invasion of 1910, in which German invaders were defeated by the members of rifle clubs. The public's fears were used and reinforced by Roberts and others who wanted compulsory military service.58 At Balfour's suggestion, a CID sub-committee re-examined the question in 1907 and 1908. It concluded that so long as the navy commanded the sea an invasion was impracticable, while if command of the sea were lost permanently no military force at home could prevent defeat (given Britain's dependence on overseas trade). To that extent the CID endorsed the 'blue-water' school, whose most forceful proponent at the time was Fisher. On the other hand, the CID recommended that the army units to be maintained for home defence should be large enough not only to deal with small raids but also to compel a prospective invader to use 70,000 men; the argument being that it would be impossible for so large a force to evade the Royal Navy. This concession to the War Office's views meant that a substantial part of the army's Regular units would remain at home until the Territorial Army had been embodied and trained, a period presumed to be at least four months.59 A further CID enquiry in 1912-13, at which Roberts and other leading advocates of compulsory military service, Lord Lovat, Sir Samuel Scott and Colonel a Court Reppington, were invited to make oral as well as written statements, came to broadly similar conclusions, as did a fourth in April 1914.60

Naval strategy required choices, since, even with a two-power standard, the Royal Navy could not match every other navy in all the seven seas. The distribution of the fleet in 1904 was still based on principles dating from before the invention of the electric telegraph and the introduction of steamships. These technical developments meant that fewer warships need be kept on foreign stations as reinforcements could be speedily summoned from home waters.61 In November 1904 the Naval Intelligence Department recommended a home fleet of twelve

58 A. J. A. Morris, The Scaremongers: The Advocacy of War and Rearmament 1896-1914 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), pp. 103-9.

59 'Report of the sub-committee appointed by the Prime Minister to reconsider the question of oversea attack', 22 Oct. 1908, CAB 3/2, TNA.

60 Reports of Standing Sub-Committee on Attack on the British Isles from Oversea, 13 Jan. 1913 and 15 Apr. 1914, CAB 3/2, TNA.

61 Distribution and Mobilization of the Fleet (Cd 2335), PP 1905, xlviii, 176-81.

battleships with its strategic centre at Dover; a Mediterranean fleet of eight battleships; and an Atlantic fleet of eight battleships based at Gibraltar, ready to reinforce either of the other fleets.62 These dispositions reflected the fact that France and Russia were more likely enemies than Germany. As it became apparent that the most likely war would be with Germany in the North Sea the concentration in home waters was progressively increased. By March 1909 a new Home Fleet had absorbed the former Fleet Reserve, the efficiency of the latter being increased by raising crew complements from 40 per cent to 60 per cent. In July 1914 the Royal Navy had what was by then called the Grand Fleet of twenty dreadnought and two semi-dreadnought battleships, and six battle-cruisers in home waters, plus three battle-cruisers in the Mediterranean and one Australian battle-cruiser in the Pacific. In comparison, Germany's High Seas Fleet had thirteen dreadnought battleships and four battle-cruisers, plus one battle-cruiser in the Mediterranean.

Trade protection was a matter for cruisers, of which Britain had 120 at the outbreak of war, excluding battle-cruisers and 3 Australian ships, compared with 49 German cruisers. Fisher was accused by his critics in 1905 of scrapping older cruisers that would have been useful for trade protection, a criticism endorsed by Arthur Marder.63 In fact, when Admiral Tirpitz made his proposal for an enlarged German navy in 1897 he had commented that commerce raiding against England would be hopeless because of Germany's lack of bases with access to the high seas, and he had restricted cruiser construction to the minimum required for scouting for the main fleet, plus a few (nine in 1914) to represent German interests overseas.64 The Admiralty had long studied how to protect British trade and was confident that it had sufficient cruisers for the purpose, although it has been argued that the defensive scheme of allocating cruiser squadrons to focal points left the Germans with too much scope for attacking merchant shipping, which was not organised into convoys until 1917.65 Although Fisher predicted in memoranda to Churchill in 1912 and 1914 that submarines would be employed against merchant shipping, the Admiralty took the view that submarines were of no use for this purpose, since they could not carry crews large enough to take charge of a prize or accommodate crews of ships they wished to

62 Ruddock F. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 313.

63 Arthur J. Marder, The Anatomy of British Sea Power: A History of British Naval Policy in the Pre-Dreadnought Era, 1880-1905 (London: Frank Cass, 1940), p. 495.

64 Jonathan Steinberg, Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet: Yesterday's Deterrent (London: Macdonald, 1965), pp. 127, 209.

65 Bryan Ranft, 'The protection of British seaborne trade and the development of systematic planning for war, 1860-1906', in Bryan Ranft (ed.), Technical Change and British Naval Policy 1860-1939 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977), pp. 1-22.

sink. CID discussions in 1913-14 focused entirely on the threat from cruisers or armed liners, and indeed it was only after the outbreak of war that the Germans began to plan commerce raiding with submarines.66 The Admiralty had great hopes of the effectiveness of blockade against the German economy. Between 1906 and 1908 Captain Henry Campbell, the head of the trade division of the Naval Intelligence Department, undertook a study that showed that Germany was becoming increasingly dependent on imported food and raw materials as she industrialised, and his conclusion that a blockade of her ports would disrupt her trade and exhaust her capacity to finance a great war was adopted as part of the navy's strategy.67 Unfortunately, there was no way of calculating how quickly such a strategy would be effective, given that Germany would be able to import goods from adjacent neutral countries, using her excellent railway system. The CID agreed in December 1912 to Lloyd George's suggestion that Britain would have to ration Dutch and Belgian imports to prevent goods from being re-exported to Germany.68 Meanwhile, there had been considerable discussion of international law in relation to blockade. The second Hague conference, which met from June to October 1907, set up a committee representing the leading naval powers to draft a treaty that emerged in February 1909 as the Declaration of London. The British delegates were guided by the recommendations of a CID committee on Neutral and Enemy Merchant Ships, which had reported in March 1907 on how the British merchant marine could be left unmolested when Britain was neutral, as in the Russo-Japanese War, without limiting the effectiveness of blockade as a weapon when Britain was a belligerent. The Declaration of London classified goods aboard neutral vessels into three categories: 'absolute contraband', such as munitions or explosives; 'conditional contraband', such as food or clothing, which could be confiscated if bound for a military or naval destination; and 'non-contraband', including raw materials that had military as well as civil uses (for example, jute, from which sandbags were made). Hankey, as an assistant secretary of the CID, thought that the Declaration would diminish the efficacy of British sea power, but a memorandum from him led the First Lord of the Admiralty, McKenna, to take the view in 1911 that international treaties were easily evaded and some pretext to impose

66 Marder, Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, vol. I, pp. 363-4; CID minutes, 6 Feb. 1913 and 21 May 1914, CAB 2/3, TNA.

67 Avner Offer, 'The working classes, British naval plans and the coming of the Great War', Past and Present, 107 (1985), 204-26.

a strict blockade would be found when it suited Britain to do so.69 The Declaration was embodied in a naval prize bill that was passed by the House of Commons but rejected by the House of Lords. Even so, the Declaration was a guide to what would be acceptable to neutral powers, particularly the United States, with its longstanding attachment to the principle of the freedom of the seas. Avner Offer has argued that the deterrent of naval blockade failed to maintain peace in 1914 because the consequences were not visible enough to the Germans.70 One could equally argue that Britain's lack of clear alliance with France and Russia gave Germany cause to hope that Britain might stay out of a European war.

The Admiralty was faced with the problem of how the blockade was to be applied. Initially it was assumed that, as in previous wars, there would be a close blockade of the enemy's ports. The capture of one or more of the islands off the German North Sea coast was projected by naval planners as a forward base or bases for the British light craft which would intercept merchant ships. Behind the light craft there would be capital ships ready to engage the German fleet when it came out, in the expectation that there would be a second Trafalgar. At first it seems to have been assumed that the new British ocean-going destroyers would provide adequate protection to the capital ships against German torpedo-craft. As awareness of the danger from the latter increased, plans were modified so that the British capital ships would withdraw at night to a distance beyond which German light forces could not reach if they sailed at sunset and were to be back in harbour by sunrise. By 1912 the planners had come to the conclusion that close blockade was too risky. The German islands were now heavily fortified and it was realised that German submarines and torpedo boats would be able to carry out a war of attrition against British advanced forces. An alternative plan was adopted for an 'observational blockade', with cruisers and destroyers patrolling a 300-mile line from south-west Norway to the centre of the North Sea and thence south to the coast of Holland, with the main battle fleet at sea to the west of this line. Then, in July 1914, this plan in turn made way for one for a distant blockade, with the exits from the North Sea closed by a Channel Fleet of pre-dreadnoughts in the Dover Straits and the Grand Fleet stationed in the north of Scotland to guard a line from the Orkney Islands to the Norwegian coast. This last plan greatly reduced Germany's opportunities for a war of attrition, and was

69 Bernard Semmel, Liberalism and Naval Strategy: Ideology, Interest, and Sea Power during the Pax Britannica (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1986), pp. 100-14.

almost as effective as a close blockade for intercepting her overseas trade.71

When the Admiralty and the War Office first began to make plans for war with Germany, in 1905, the navy advocated combined operations on the North Sea and Baltic coasts to divert part of the German army away from France. The War Office believed that these ideas were unrealistic, given the strength of Germany's coastal defences and the speed with which reinforcements could be moved by rail. In any case the General Staff had come to the conclusion that the German army would outflank France's strong fortifications on her eastern frontier by invading Belgium, and that an efficient British army of 120,000 men might just be sufficient to prevent German success on France's northern frontier. The General Staff hoped that, confronted by stalemate on land and blockade at sea, Germany would then make peace. As David French has pointed out, this kind of thinking overlooked the possibility that the war would be long drawn out and that the BEF, given the political impossibility of conscription, lacked the reserves for extended operations.72 A CID subcommittee on the military needs of the Empire, with Asquith in the chair, failed to resolve the differences between the Admiralty and the War Office in 1908-9 and left the decision of how to react to a German attack on France to be taken by whatever government was in office at the time. However, the General Staff was authorised to prepare plans to assist France in the initial stages of a war with Germany.73

A further attempt to settle strategy was made at a famous meeting of the CID on 23 August 1911, during the second Moroccan crisis. Asquith arranged the meeting so as to exclude regular members who were opposed to a continental commitment: the Marquess of Crewe, the secretary of state for India, Lewis Harcourt, the secretary of state for the Colonial Office, and Viscount Morley, the lord president of the council and former secretary of state for India. The army's Director of Military Operations (DMO), Sir Henry Wilson, gave a well-prepared exposition of how it was planned to send the BEF's six infantry and one cavalry division to operate on the left flank of the French army, which was expected to deploy sixty-six divisions against the Germans' eighty-four. Sir Arthur Wilson, Fisher's successor as first sea lord, was more taciturn, and could only outline the Admiralty's plans for close blockade, the capture of advanced bases, and possible landings on the German coast. He also argued that the dispatch of the whole BEF would cause an

71 Marder, Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, vol. I, pp. 368-73.

72 French, British Economic and Strategic Planning, pp. 23-7.

73 'Report of the Sub-Committee of the CID on the Military Needs of the Empire', CID

invasion scare, forcing the navy on to the defensive, and depriving it of the troops needed for its strategy. Hankey, who was present, thought that no decision had been taken, but Asquith asked the searching question of what was the smallest force that could intervene effectively on the Continent, and was told that five infantry divisions would have almost as great a moral effect as six, and that four would be better than none. The possibility of having some Regular soldiers for amphibious operations or for home defence was thus left open. Nevertheless, in October Asquith made a crucial change at the Admiralty, replacing McKenna, who was opposed to a continental commitment, with Churchill, who accepted the army's viewpoint and who shelved plans for amphibious operations.74

In the event the crisis was over by early November 1911 and Asquith saw no need to divide his Cabinet over the issue. The majority of ministers remained ignorant of the army's plans, and at the beginning of August 1914 all assumed that the traditional British way of warfare would prevail. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Asquith's ministry failed to give clear strategic direction, with the result that the Admiralty and War Office made their plans for what were essentially parallel wars. The Admiralty prepared for blockade, and hoped that the German High Seas Fleet would respond to the challenge by coming out to fight. In line with the CID's recommendation in 1913, reaffirmed in April 1914, the General Staff was instructed to plan on the basis of having two Regular infantry divisions at home at the outbreak of war, to guard against raids, until the Territorial Army could be ready. The DMO, Wilson, and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), Sir Charles Douglas, objected to Britain's contribution to the crucial opening moves of the war being limited to four infantry divisions and one cavalry division, and in May 1914 secured Asquith's agreement that he would, if necessary, sanction the dispatch of an additional infantry division. In the event, a fifth infantry division did reach France in August 1914, but only after some delay on account of Cabinet misgivings about a continental

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