British Grand Strategy in 1914

by DR DAVID MORGAN-OWEN

Historians seeking the origins of what would become a full-scale ‘continental commitment’ in 1916 have dissected pre-war British strategic planning in search of the decisions which led to the deployment of the BEF to France. Perhaps the most often cited precursor to the ultimate decision to send British troops to the Continent occurred three years before the outbreak of War, during the Agadir Crisis of 1911. The summer of that year witnessed Europe edge towards the brink of war, as Franco-German tensions over Morocco reached fever pitch. During the tense days of mid-August, the British government convened a meeting of senior ministers and service chiefs to discuss the military and naval options available in the event of war.

At this meeting the military representatives presented an altogether more coherent series of propositions than their naval counterparts. In the morning session, Brigadier General Henry Wilson unfurled a series of impressive maps of northern France and Belgium, demonstrating the crucial contribution the six divisions of the Regular Army might make to the French effort. These visual aids proved a ‘revelation’ to several of the politicians, all of whom Wilson recorded were ‘very nice’ and asked numerous questions. After lunch the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Arthur Knyvett Wilson, delivered an altogether less polished performance. ‘His exposition was pitful’, wrote the Brigadier General. In his brief, the Admiral announced his intention to ‘blockade the whole of the German North Sea coast’ and to conduct a series of amphibious operations against the enemy coastline. These operations, he hoped, would oblige the Germans to hold back troops to defend their coastline, thus easing the pressure on the French army.

The Admiral’s words met with a cool reception from the assembled Ministers. Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister, described what he witnessed as ‘puerile’ and ‘wholly impracticable’. The Naval Assistant Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, Maurice Hankey, later remarked that Sir Arthur’s plan savoured of having been ‘cooked up in the dinner hour.’ Writing with the benefit of hindsight, Hankey claimed that there was ‘no doubt’ that the Expeditionary Force would have been sent to the Continent if war had broken out during that summer, suggesting that Wilson’s performance had proven instrumental in informing the government’s ultimate decision to send the Army to France. This depiction was at variance with Hankey’s views at the time, but it retains some relevance. The General Staff’s plans were ascendant from 1911 onwards and Wilson’s poor showing curtailed the discussion of coherent amphibious alternatives prior to the outbreak of War. It also created a negative impression of the Admiralty’s capacity for strategic planning. Thus, if the outcome of the meeting did not presage a British commitment to dispatch troops to France as Hankey claimed, it did seem to suggest the lack of a viable alternative in the short-term. When the government was faced with the same decision in August 1914, it opted for what had seemed the most convincing option three years earlier and the BEF was dispatched to France.

Historians have tended to assume that the negative impression the Admiralty’s presentation left upon the assembled politicians was the result of the manifest impracticality of Wilson’s war plan. This interpretation is based upon the premise that innovations in underwater weaponry had rendered the Navy’s ‘traditional’ strategy of close blockade impractical by 1911 and that, by adhering to it, Wilson was betraying a failure to comprehend the realities of modern naval warfare. Sir Arthur’s personality and style of leadership has contributed to this depiction. Tradition has it that he had condemned the submarine as ‘underhand, unfair and damned un-English’ in 1901 and his reputation for rigidity of thought, coupled with a notorious disregard for the views of his subordinates, has contributed to the impression of a commander out of step with recent innovations. Unable to articulate his case to the politicians, Wilson was forced into retirement several months later when he opposed the creation of a naval staff to improve strategic direction at the Admiralty; apparently final evidence of his retrograde views.

This perspective is problematic for several reasons, not least of which being the fact that Wilson continued to be a highly valued source of strategic advice to the government after his departure from the Admiralty. Winston Churchill even considered re-appointing him as First Sea Lord in 1915, and found support amongst his cabinet colleagues for doing so.

The notion that underwater weaponry invalidated previous naval strategic thought is equally dubious. As I discussed in this recent post, the principle of containing a maritime threat at source retains its relevance to this day. Wilson’s predecessor as First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Fisher, had advocated a very similar approach, commissioning extensive plans for a major investment of the entire German coastline in 1909. Records of exercises conducted in the early summer of 1911, months before the meeting on August 23rd, confirm that a similar approach appeared to represent the most effective means available of locating and destroying enemy submarines. Still in their relative infancy, the craft were slow and vulnerable when surfaced, particularly in shallow coastal waters. On these grounds, Commodore Roger Keyes reported that:

In order to get full value out of submarines it is absolutely essential that they should dive before they are sighted by the enemy…In hazy weather…they are certain to be seen and avoided by an enemy before they can get into a position to attack, and they also run a great risk of coming under gun-fire of fast vessels before they can dive.

As a result, the Royal Navy escorted its own submarines to sea with destroyers and cruisers to ensure their safety. British Naval Intelligence reported that the German Navy could boast no more than ten submarines in the summer of 1911, including some early prototypes. Against such a limited force, the ‘close blockade’ Wilson proposed was thus not as unrealistic as has often been considered. Indeed, one of Sir Arthur’s fiercest critics at the meeting, Winston Churchill, revived the key characteristics of his plan when he was First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914-15. In a marked departure from the views he had expressed in 1911, Churchill came to view Wilson’s plans as the most effective means of combating the danger of German submarines and advocated similar plans to his cabinet colleagues. Admiral Sir Francis Bridgeman remarked upon the irony of this volte face in January 1915:

It is interesting to hear of the project of seizing a base on German soil…There is nothing new in it, its [sic] merely the revival of an old idea…When command the Home Fleet I was asked by Wilson to arrange for an attack [of this sort]…but Churchill laughed at the idea & in consequences the scheme when by the board! It is therefore interesting to hear of the revival of old projects!

Aspects of Wilson’s display in 1911 merited the condemnation they received. His performance compared poorly with that of his military counterpart, under his leadership the Admiralty appeared unprepared to react to the crisis in Europe and Wilson made no effort to consult with the War Office about the practicality of joint operations against the German coastline. However, the rejection of his blockade proposals stemmed from more than narrow operational concerns. Broader considerations of Anglo-French relations and the balance of power in Europe made the amphibious strategy Wilson advocated problematic, a fact he himself recognised. Britain had to provide direct military support for France for the same reasons it maintained the Ententé; namely that a Europe dominated by Germany was inimical to British interests.

The government was presented with two equally unappealing options in the summer of 1911 and equivocated, as it was to do in August 1914. The failure to arrive at a definite decision was due to the unpalatable consequences of either course, rather than the quality of military or naval advice available.

The article upon which this post was based is available here.

Image: British General Officers of the First World War by John Singer Sargent (1922), courtesy of wikimedia commons.

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