From the Archives: Building a Case: Overcoming the Often Fragmented Nature of Surviving Records


“Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing. It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.”

– A. Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Assessing the validity, provenance and implications of original documents is a key requirement for the majority of historians. The discovery of ‘new’, forgotten or generally overlooked material is often very exciting to researchers. However, the value of such ‘finds’ can only truly be realised by situating them within a broader body of primary evidence. Doing so reduces the danger of mis-interpretation to which Arthur Conan Doyle refers in the above quoted passage. This post will examine how this can be achieved with reference to the ‘discovery’, contextualization and interpretation of an important series of war plans produced by the British Admiralty in early 1909.

Nowhere has scholarly criticism of the pre-First World War Royal Navy been more unanimous or more trenchant than in the sphere of war planning. Lt-Commander Peter Kemp, who edited a selection of the Admiralty’s surviving 1907 war plans for the Navy Records Society, described them as ‘an extraordinary document’; one which betrayed ‘a lack of understanding of the capabilities of modern naval ships and weapons’. Subsequent writers have re-enforced this narrative, condemning the ‘muddled thinking which passed for naval strategy in England’. Indeed, some scholars now consider the plans produced during this period to have been deliberately disingenuous; a subterfuge intended to mask the Admiralty’s altogether more secretive intentions. Contrary to this consensus of opinion, Shawn T. Grimes has recently demonstrated the continuity and legitimacy of much of the Admiralty’s planning process between 1880 and 1914. One gap exists in Grimes’ narrative however; the hotly disputed period towards the end of Sir John Fisher’s initial tenure as First Sea Lord. This omission leaves important debates as to the intentions and views of Fisher and his successors unresolved.

Fortunately, Fisher himself provided the answer to this problem. Preserved in a collection of Fisher’s private papers collated by his long-time secretary Captain Thomas Crease, contained within a large metal chest, embossed simply in white paint with the title ‘Lord Fisher’, remains the only known copy of the Admiralty’s 1909 war plan; codenamed ‘G.U.’. Held in the collection of the Naval Historical Branch and available for display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, these plans contain a number of important indications as to Fisher’s views on strategy and the Admiralty’s strategic planning process before and during the First World War. I first encountered the plans whilst researching at Portsmouth in 2010-11. Needless to say, they created quite an impression, both due to their content and their potential broader significance. However, their existence posed a series of potentially difficult questions; How and why had previous scholars seemingly overlooked these documents? When were the plans issued and to whom? How were they received by the fleet? How long did they remain in effect? To answer these and many other queries and to set the plans into their proper context, a multifaceted approach was required.

In the first instance, I wanted to try and establish why previous scholars had not made more of this apparently key document and why none of the existing literature on the topic had referenced the plans directly. I began with the supposition that the majority of scholars had probably simply not seen the plans at all; however this required some reasonable justification. As such, I began attempting to understand why so few copies of the ‘G.U.’ plans had survived. This led me to a trawl through all of the memoirs and diaries of officers who may have been involved in the Admiralty’s planning process in late-1908 and early-1909, and to the unpublished memoirs of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Oliver, who was then serving as Fisher’s naval assistant. A typescript copy of Oliver’s ‘Recollections’, held in the National Maritime Museum, revealed that Fisher had decreed that the greatest possible degree of secrecy surround the plans; ‘The 1st S.L. sent for R.A. Sir Lewis Bayly to make War Plans for a German War…I was to be his Assistant and prepare the charts and no one was to see them being made and we had a room to work in carefully locked up.’ Upon the completion of this work, Oliver recalled how ‘the 1st Sea Lord locked up the plans in his safe’. Oliver’s story was corroborated by the published memoirs of another officer who arrived at the Admiralty as head of the newly formed War Division in early 1910; Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle. Fremantle, who assumed responsibility for updating the Navy’s war plans upon arriving in Whitehall, criticised Fisher’s refusal to share the details of his ‘comprehensive, elaborate and well devised’ plan with other key stakeholders, noting critically the manner in which the ‘G.U.’ plans had ‘been made entirely without the collaboration of the men who would have to put [them] into practice’. Thus, it seemed plausible that Fisher’s demands for secrecy had resulted in a very limited circulation of the documents – a fact which both helped to explain the lack of scholarly engagement with the plans and also made the survival of a complete copy potentially all the more significant.

Having satisfied myself as to why others had apparently not identified the ‘G.U.’ plans, I began trying to situate them with other planning documents from the period. The most relevant of these was a well-known memorandum Fisher produced in December-1908, in which the First Sea Lord alluded to the fact that a series of new war plans were currently in the process of production. Here several key points of continuity emerged. Firstly, Fisher’s December memorandum discussed the joint possibilities of war with Germany and the United States; the very reason for the plans I had unearthed being designated with the letters ‘G.[ermany]U.[nited States]’. More conclusively, Fisher’s December memorandum contained detailed reference to the numbers of certain types of craft he intended to deploy, but had frustratingly little on how or where he envisaged them being utilised. Fortuitously, the G.U. plans themselves assigned specific units and formations to given duties. This enabled me to cross-reference the units and to count the ships assigned to each task, with the aid of the Admiralty’s own ‘List of His Majesty’s Ships in Commission’, a monthly production detailing the units assigned to each squadron. A brief calculation enabled a comparison between the numbers in Fisher’s memo and the units detailed in the war plan. The two tallied precisely, with each listing a force of 83 destroyers detailed for operations off the German coastline.

I made further progress by delving into a series of correspondence pertaining to the recall of previous war plans as they were superseded. This practice was an important one for security reasons, but it acquired additional political significance under Fisher, due to the rivalry between the First Sea Lord and the out-going C-in-C Channel Fleet Lord Charles Beresford. Beresford had made much of the apparent absence of coherent war plans as part of his campaign to have Fisher removed from the Admiralty. Allowing him to view the new plans before he was unceremoniously required to haul down his flag was thus manifestly out of the question, and doubtless helped to explain the restricted print run of the plans themselves. On the front of a docket relating to the process of recalling the previous series of plans, Fisher himself scribbled that ‘fresh war plans have been handed to Sir W. May (Beresford’s relief as C-in-C)’, dating his note March 13th. The official date upon which the plans were issued to the remaining senior officers was revealed in the same file, a note penned by Fisher to the First Lord on March 31st stating that ‘fresh war plans were issued on March 24th’; the day upon which Beresford hauled down his flag and came ashore.

The reaction the plans received was revealed in a similar communication several weeks later. On April 20th Fisher wrote again to the First Lord, Reginald McKenna. His goal in doing so was to prevent the new war plans from being discussed by a proposed enquiry into Beresford’s damaging claims regarding his administration of the Admiralty. Whilst expounding upon the ‘essential secrecy’ of the new war plans, Fisher noted that both May and the C-in-C Atlantic Fleet, Vice-Admiral John Jellicoe, ‘concurred’ with their content.

As to the eventual fate of the plans, Oliver and Fremantle again combined to validate each other’s story; the former stating simply that ‘when Sir Arthur Wilson relieved him [Fisher] in 1910 he soon scrapped them and made better plans’; a process Fremantle recounted in some detail in his memoirs. A final level of assurance as to the plans credibility was the discovery in Fisher’s private papers of a series of charts, depicting in vivid detail the dispositions explained in the plans themselves – presumably the very same charts Oliver had been locked in a room preparing in late-1908. This was both a visually striking and methodologically reassuring find; the 1909 war plans were genuine, part of a clearly defined planning process and had yet to be fully explained by other scholars. By gathering as much corroborating evidence as possible, I felt confident that I had limited the scope for ‘shifting one’s point of view’ and was able to begin exploring the implications the plans had for our understanding of Admiralty strategic thought in this period.

The implications the plans have for our understanding of pre-War British naval strategy is expanded upon in a recent article in The International History Review, and will be further examined in the August 2015 edition of the English Historical Review, which will examine the broader significance of what the plans can reveal about the Admiralty’s strategic discourse in more detail.

Image: Portrait of Baron Fisher of Kilverstone, GCB, OM, GCVO by Hubert von Herkomer from the collection of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.

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