The Antigallican Affair: British Foreign Policy and the Personalities of the Spanish Court in the Seven Years’ War


The creation of foreign policy and the prosecution of war are often largely dependent on the personalities and circumstances of those in power. This is, perhaps, a disconcerting truth that can be mitigated by the development of international law, alliances, and multilateral or unilateral treaties. The mitigation, however, only goes so far, as laws and treaties can fall prey to selective interpretation in the service of individual domestic and international political ambitions. Add to this the selective perspectives perpetuated by multiple media outlets on politicians and extra-national populations and the influence of personality becomes very difficult to dismiss. The importance of personalities in shaping foreign affairs is certainly not a new discussion but it can prove useful to look at their effect from a more removed and historical point of view. The case study of a small Anglo-Spanish crisis from the Seven Years War (1756-63) in which British ministers strove to maintain Spanish neutrality illustrates how British foreign policy and strategy could be derailed by the clashing personalities of the Spanish Court.

Maintaining Spanish neutrality was an important element of British strategy in the early years of the Seven Years’ War. The prevailing atmosphere in the Spanish Court was, therefore, a topic of vital importance to the ministers in London carrying out the war. Spanish foreign policy towards Britain was shaped by several trade treaties and by the personalities of King Ferdinand VI and the Spanish Secretary of State, Don Ricardo Wall, an Irishman who held the post throughout the war. The British minister with whom Wall and the King had the most contact was the ambassador in Madrid, Sir Benjamin Keene. Keene worked to maintain friendly and respectful relations with both Wall and Ferdinand. He found Wall to be a man interested in maintaining peace but brought low by the weight of his responsibilities. Accusations of ‘Anglophilia’ had plagued and shaped his political career. Until his death in 1758, Keene remained convinced that Wall would work with him in earnest to maintain Spanish neutrality but that the internal squabbles of the Spanish Court as well as French influence were against them.

King Ferdinand VI is variously described as ‘gentle’, ‘weak’ and ‘inward looking’ by historians of eighteenth century Spain. He had assumed the throne in 1746 after being side lined from politics for most of his youth. Perhaps as a conscious contrast to the policies of his father and step-mother, Ferdinand generally favoured peace as the aim of Spanish foreign policy. Staying out of European conflicts allowed him to focus on internal politics and reforms. Like most monarchs, however, he was influenced by his ministers and Keene feared that he could be persuaded to question the benefit of Britain’s friendship. Despite enjoying a very friendly relationship with the Spanish monarch, Keene was critical of, and clearly frustrated by, Ferdinand’s reliance on the sycophantic ministers who guided him through matters upon which he was ill informed. Unfortunately for Britain, not all of the men easing the King’s conscience were vocal champions of Anglo-Spanish friendship.

As a whole, the impressions made on British ministers by the dynamics of the Spanish Court at the beginning of the war were two fold. There was a running theme of maintained friendship, and thus neutrality, but it was made delicate by a lack of strong pro-British leadership. These dynamics can be seen clearly in the affair of the British privateer the Antigallican.

News of the Antigallican’s activities, like those of many successful privateers, often cropped up in British newspapers as accounts of glorious battles against the French. The London Evening Post, a London tri-weekly newspaper, printed a small article on January 18th 1757 which described the Antigallican’s engagement against a French East Indiaman, Le Duc de Penthievre, off the coast of Spain the day before. In true sensationalistic fashion, the article highlighted that the crew of the privateer held off their attack until they were close enough to the French ship to fire their small arms directly into the cabin windows. The Post‘s article is fairly typical for a description of British privateering success and concentrates more on the adventure of the encounter rather than any type of political or anti-French message. Unbeknownst to the writers and publishers of the London newspapers however, bad weather had subsequently forced the Antigallican and her prize into Cadiz where the Spanish Governor claimed that the capture had taken place within cannon shot of the Spanish coast, i.e. neutral waters, and was therefore not a legal seizure. The Spanish Governor at Cadiz ordered the British captain, Capt. Foster, to give up his prize to the French Consul despite protestations from the French crew that it had been a legal capture. Foster refused and two Spanish war ships opened fire on the Prize until she surrendered to Spanish authority.

William Pitt, the de facto Prime Minister, was extremely concerned by the events in Cadiz, and expressed his unease in a letter to Keene on the 25th of February 1757. He wrote that the Antigallican affair showed an alarming partiality toward France on the part of the Spanish Government and that Spain’s own violation of neutrality (firing upon and seizing the British prize) was condoned by the Court. While Pitt had to wait for a reply from Keene to see how the small crisis would play out, the British newspapers indulged in utter speculation. On February 22, the Middlewich Journal published an article that the influence of the French Ambassador on the Spanish King seemed to ‘presage a Declaration of War against Great Britain…orders either have, or will be given to our Ambassador [Keene], to re-demand the abovementioned prize [Le Duc de Penthievre], and, in case of a Refusal, he may perhaps immediately be recalled.’ As the British ministers were still trying to understand exactly what had and was happening in the case of the Antigallican, the writers and publishers of the Middlewich Journal had falsely escalated the affair to one of impending warfare. Though the article had no discernable effect on the actions of British ministers and had no direct anti-Spanish phrasing, it did convey to its readership a sense that war with Spain was inevitable and the fault of French and Spanish connivance. This narrative would continue to play out in the press with an increasingly violent anti-Spanish rhetoric.

The reality of the Antigallican affair, as related by Keene, was much more pernicious than anything yet being printed in Britain. Wall had presented Keene’s complaints about the treatment of the Antigallican to the Spanish King who was seemingly unaware of the extent of the violence which had transpired. It came to light that the Spanish Minister for War, and captain general of the army, Sebastián de Eslava, along with the French Consul at Coruña, had presented Ferdinand with the version of events in which Le Duc de Penthievre had been seized illegally by the Antigallican and that, therefore, the actions of the British captain had violated Spanish neutrality. The King, with these facts before him, gave Eslava leave to order that the prize be secured at Cadiz until more information could be gathered. The King, however, had not authorized the use of force against Captain Foster and his prize, nor had he authorized the return of the prize to French authorities. This had, instead, been ordered entirely by Eslava upon the urging of French representatives in Court. Keene described Ferdinand’s reaction upon learning of Eslava’s cavalier actions: ‘The King railed at Eslava, [and] asked Wall why he was not turned out. He would discard the old Radoteur immediately’ and then ordered the Letter to be wrote to stop further Proceedings.’ The damage, however, had been done. Ferdinand, unable or unwilling to bare to the world that he could not control his ministers neither censured nor contradicted Eslava. Wall, who feared further accusations of anglophilia, remained silent. Keene bemoaned the dynamics of the Spanish Court and feared for Spanish neutrality: ‘Messr. Wall hates his office, and suffers at these matters as much as myself; he sees, as well as I do, the Danger Two Great Crowns are in, from matters of so insignificant a nature compared with their peace, and a good correspondence.’

The controversy over the Antigallican carried on for more than a year without resolution but was soon overshadowed by numerous breaches of Spanish neutrality by British privateers. The French faction in the Spanish court, whose influence was clearly observed by British ministers in the Antigallican affair, seized upon these breaches to further erode Wall and Ferdinand’s pro British position. As the war progressed, British influence in the Court of Spain continued to wane and the Franco-Spanish friendship grew into the Family Compact of 1761. Britain, seeing the cause of Spanish neutrality lost, recalled her ambassador and declared a state of war.

The research discussed in this post will be presented at a King’s College Maritime History Seminar on January 7th at 1715 in Room K6.07, of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, Strand, WC2R 2LS.

Image: The Captured Spanish Fleet at Havana, August-September 1762, by Domonic Serres the Elder, via wikimedia commons.

From the Archives: Versions of History in Two Collections: Assessing the Purpose and Conclusions of Compilers


There are few moments more satisfying, or tantalizing, for an historian than looking through the catalogue of an archive and discovering that it holds vast repositories of material relevant to one’s research. . Though catalogues give an idea of the material contained in a collection, with varying degrees of accuracy, it is always a toss up as to whether the documents will be of use, or simply another collection crossed off a list with the annotation ‘nothing of use’. In either case, often the most important questions that arise from working with a collection are concerned with its creation. Who compiled it and when? Why did they choose to include or exclude certain material? What was it’s original purpose?

Any given collection presents an edited version of historical events and, more importantly, tends to reflect a set of determining factors as to why events transpired as they did. If the material in a collection is to be used in new research, these questions must be asked in order to separate the collected documents from the meaning and purpose ascribed to them by the compiler.

I was recently fortunate enough to spend three weeks as a Price Fellow at the Clements Library, University of Michigan, and made a small side trip to the archives of the New York Public Library. Two collections yielded large amounts of useful material, the Hardwicke papers at the NYPL, and the Shelburne collection at the Clements. Both collections cover the events which led to the breakout of war between Spain and Britain in 1762 but the material they contained, and therefore what they can tell us about the factors which led to the outbreak of the war, were vastly different.

Phillip Yorke, the 1st Earl of Hardwicke (1690-1764), was instrumental to the formation of foreign policy during the Seven Years War. Having served as solicitor general, attorney general, lord chief justice, and lord chancellor, he was a trusted advisor and friend of several member of the Cabinet. Hardwicke’s interest and dedication to Anglo-Spanish affairs has left behind an extant wealth of material on British wartime foreign policy in the eighteenth century.

Most of Hardwicke’s papers and correspondence are found at the British Library and, to a lesser extent, at various other archives in Britain. However, one collection, consisting of 140 volumes, resides at the New York Public Library. Two volumes, 129 and 126, contain the documents relating to Anglo-Spanish relations during the Seven Years War. The collection was originally put together by Hardwicke, his first son Viscount Royston, and his second son Charles Yorke. Each volume focuses broadly on diplomacy and foreign policy. It is impossible to distinguish which of the brothers organized the collection in its final form or how much of the material was originally chosen by Hardiwcke. However, it is probable that the collection was put together as a historical sample of British foreign policy and that the selection of documents is representative of what Hardwicke, and his sons, believed were important factors in how policy was conducted.

What is striking about the Hardwicke collection, and volumes 129 and 126 specifically, is the focus on personality as the driving force of policy. There is an undated note in Hardwicke’s handwriting at the beginning of Volume 129:

Characters of the courts where foreign Ministers reside are usually the most interesting parts of their correspondence; It is a pity we have not more of them; …These characters drawn by the Earl of Bristol are not bad portraits, but they have not the sagacious and masterly strokes which distinguish the historick pen of Sr. Ben. Keene.

The Earl of Bristol and Sir Benjamin Keene were both ambassadors to the Court of Spain during the Seven Years War. Keene died at his post in 1757 and was replaced by Bristol, a man of lesser talents and lesser understanding of Anglo-Spanish affairs.

Hardwicke was clearly interested in the personalities of men in government, and it is possible that he collected the documents in these volumes as a historic record of the ‘characters’ responsible for implementing Britain’s wartime foreign policy. From the point of view of an historian using the collection as a source on the rupture between Britain and Spain, the selected correspondence of both ambassadors presents a unique version of events.

Almost every letter in the two volumes describes the unfolding Anglo-Spanish crisis in terms of the personal relations and merits of the ministers at Madrid and their counterparts in London. In a letter from Bristol in 1761, he describes a conversation he had with the exhausted and overworked Spanish Secretary of State, Don Ricardo Wall:

…he had been using his utmost endeavours for six years in England, and seven more in Spain to prevent a rupture between our courts…He told me, I was not ignorant how strong the French party was at this time and I must know how many of his private acquaintance were incessantly pleading him the absolute necessity of the declaring against the English at this juncture.

There is no discussion of the actual issues which plagued Anglo-Spanish affairs such as logwood cutting in Honduras, access to the Newfoundland fisheries, and the rights of neutral shipping, only the persistence of a worn out minister and the pressures exerted on him by French and Spanish factions. The Hardwicke collection leads a reader to conclude that the determining factors that led to war between Britain and France in 1762 were the personalities and the character failings of the ministers.

Unlike Hardwicke, William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne (1737-1805), was not personally involved in foreign policy during the war. He became Secretary of State for the Southern Department in 1766 under William Pitt and remained in the post until 1768. It is likely during this period when he became particularly interested in Anglo-Spanish relations as his position oversaw affairs with America and Spain. With the possibility of free trade opening up in some British American colonies, a command of the conflict history between Britain and Spain would have been a useful to the new Secretary of State.

The Shelburne collection at the Celments Library is vast. It contains 173 volumes and 12 boxes covering governmental, foreign, and personal affairs. Volume 22 covers Anglo-Spanish relations during the Seven Years and is labelled simply ‘Spanish Correspondence 1756-1757 and 1760-1765’. There is no helpful note left behind by Shelburne as to why he compiled the letters in this volume but it is possible that they meant to serve as a guide to the recent history of Anglo-Spanish disputes.

Where the Hardwicke collection focuses on ‘character’, the Shelburne collection focuses on facts and the substance of negotiations between the two countries. The majority of the letters in volume 22 concern the Anglo-Spanish treaty of 1667, logwood cutting in Honduras, and privateering. In the event that Britain entered a war and Spain declared neutrality, the conduct of both neutral and belligerent shipping was to be governed by the treaty of 1667. From the start of the Seven Years War, the interpretation of this treaty, and the rights of neutral Spanish shipping, became a major sticking point for Britain and Spain.

The letters which Shelburne included on the treaty of 1667 are full of legal minutiae and the varying interpretations by ministers of both Courts. Wording was dissected and the Grotian concept of ‘free ships, free goods’ emerged as an issue upon which the two countries could not agree. In a letter to Keene from 1756, the British Secretary of State wrote:

The Marine Treaty between Spain and the States General of 1650 and their treaty with France stiled the Pyrenean Treaty of 1659 do certainly contain, with regard to the Spaniards, the stipulation, that free ships make the whole cargo free…but the treaty of 1667, the present object of our consideration, made subsequent to those above mentioned, being expressed in very different terms, as by the said treaty Spain is thereby not entitled to the like liberty, with regard to the effects of French subjects.

There is no reference in the letters to the character of the ministers negotiating nor any mention of the internal fracturing of the Spanish and British Courts. The letters included in the Shelburne collection leave a reader with a version of events that revolves around the interpretation and analysis of legal documents. The determining factors which shattered Spanish neutrality in the Seven Years War were not the personalities and foibles of men like Ricardo Wall and Benjamin Keene, but rather the inability of two rational Courts to agree on the same legal definition of neutrality.

Both the Hardwicke and the Shelburne collections are invaluable resources for any historian of wartime foreign policy in the eighteenth century but, as with any collection, the historian is at the mercy of the compiler. Understanding why a collection was compiled, and for what purpose, can help isolate the conclusions of the compiler and ensure that they do not necessarily become those of the researcher.

Image: The Captured Spanish Fleet at Havana, August-September 1762, courtesy of wikimedia commons.

From the Archives: Operation ‘Hermetic’: countering the threat to D-Day from the German surface fleet


It was a signal that Admiral Bertram Ramsay must have been longing to send, while being concerned at the potential consequences: ‘CARRY OUT OPERATION HERMETIC’. The issue of this simple order would have executed the contingency plan he had devised as Allied Naval Commander, Expeditionary Force to counter any attempt by the remaining major warships of the German Navy to attack the D-Day landings. It was one of the most interesting papers I discovered in the National Archives at Kew (in AIR 37/1453) while I was researching some primary material for the introduction of my forthcoming volume on Operation Neptune. Not least, it helps to counter the inaccurate but frequently held assumption that battleships were obsolete in the age of air power and were by this stage of the war entirely lacking a role in naval strategy.

Accounts of the D-Day landings all too often begin on the beaches and focus upon what happened subsequently, overlooking the vast challenges of the cross-Channel assault itself. Operation Neptune, the amphibious landing that began Operation Overlord, was arguably the most complex military operation ever attempted. Among the huge number and range of issues that the planners had to address, it is easy to overlook the imperative to neutralise Germany’s surviving surface warships. Countering the threat that these units posed remained largely a role for the Royal Navy: although Coastal Command became increasingly effective during the war, it was starved of resources by the leadership of the RAF while Bomber Command, despite the boasts of Arthur Harris during and (even more) after the war, had demonstrated little inclination or ability to target German warships.

The German fleet had been severely weakened by the late spring of 1944. Two of its three battleships had been sunk. Bismarck had been destroyed in May 1941 by a British naval force led by the battleships HMS King George V and Rodney, after being slowed by carrier-based aircraft from HMS Ark Royal. This victory was followed in December 1943 when a Royal Navy surface force led by the battleship HMS Duke of York had sunk Scharnhorst. The pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee had in December 1939 been damaged by cruisers and was then scuttled rather than face what her captain believed to be a force of British capital ships. Some German warships had been temporarily put out of action by air mining or bombing, notably the battleship Gneisenau which was sufficiently badly damaged during a raid on Kiel in February 1942 to require a major rebuild. Yet it is striking that by this stage in the war, the only German capital ships to have been sunk had fallen victim to other warships, not land-based air power. (A heavy cruiser, Blücher, had remarkably been sunk by Norwegian coastal artillery and torpedo batteries in April 1940.) It was also primarily the fear of British warships – in particular the combination of battleships with carrier support – that kept most of the remaining German major naval units confined to port. The general passivity of these warships infuriated Hitler but they were a formidable potential force, a ‘fleet in being’ that caused much concern to Allied planners.

Despite the losses suffered, the German Navy could still have put a highly capable fleet to sea in late spring 1944. This could have included the battleship Tirpitz, the pocket battleships Lützow (the renamed Deutschland) and Admiral Scheer, and the heavy cruisers Prinz Eugen and Admiral Hipper, supported by four light cruisers and numerous destroyers. The threat these units posed could have been further increased through coordination with E-boats, U-boats and land-based aircraft.

British intelligence assessments saw any intervention by the major German warships as unlikely. Indeed, given the overwhelming naval preponderance of the Allies it is entirely conceivable that an order for a major sortie would have elicited the same response from the German crews as from their predecessors in the High Sea Fleet, who had mutinied rather than participate in a ‘death cruise’ in October 1918. The far more likely naval threats, which accordingly dominated the attention of those planning Operation Neptune, were mines, E-boats and U-boats. Yet whilst these could have imposed grievous losses, it was only the enemy surface fleet that could conceivably have defeated the landings at sea. However low the probability of such an operation (their poor serviceability was not known at the time), it had to be considered and a counter devised. The attention devoted to doing so suggests that the British had learned from the chastening experiences of the invasion of Norway and the ‘Channel Dash’ that the German Navy was quite capable of seizing the initiative and doing the unexpected in a highly competent fashion. The prospect of it doing so again, seeking to turn the tide of the war in the west even at this late stage, could not be ignored.

The first line of defence against any such sortie was the Home Fleet of the Royal Navy, based in Scapa Flow, with three battleships and three carriers. Two of the latter, HMS Furious and Victorious, reduced the potential threat in April 1944 with Operation Tungsten, a highly successful attack that inflicted serious damage on the Tirpitz (which had only just finished repairing the damage inflicted by midget submarines in September 1943). She was thereby kept out of the Normandy campaign and was not included in the potential enemy force detailed in Ramsay’s memorandum. The Home Fleet thereafter provided cover against any German breakout (especially into the North Atlantic, seen as the most likely course of action). At the same time, it conducted strikes against targets ashore and obvious beach reconnaissance flights in Norway, in support of the Allied ‘Fortitude North’ strategic deception campaign. These operations were intended to help keep the German Navy in two minds as to where its efforts should be focussed. The cover role performed by the Home Fleet aimed to contain and, if necessary, attack any German naval break out. Should such a sortie evade this force, an even more daunting obstacle would stand between it and the vulnerable supply shipping in the English Channel.

The plan for Operation Hermetic, ‘to deal with a possible break out through the Straits of Dover by some or all effective main units of the German fleet subsequent to D-Day’, was outlined by Ramsay in a memorandum of 24 May 1944. He expressed the hope that there would be early warning of any such operation from intelligence, whether that was information that the warships concerned were redeploying to more westerly bases, or increased minesweeping along their intended route. Unmentioned but no doubt in his mind was the likelihood of Ultra signals intelligence providing notice of enemy intentions. Should indications of a sortie become apparent, the Allies would increase air reconnaissance over the North Sea and would aim to bomb the enemy ships in harbour (although the meagre results achieved to date by such efforts meant that they could not be relied upon to prevent the German ships from putting to sea). They would also undertake additional minelaying in the Kiel Canal and the southern North Sea, while two squadrons of Coastal Command Beaufighters would be held back from patrols against E-boats. If the German force headed south it was to be attacked by aircraft if the circumstances permitted, and also by light surface forces if it passed through the Straits of Dover in poor visibility or at night.

Should the German fleet successfully run this gauntlet and break through the Straits of Dover, Operation Hermetic would begin. Its aim would be to destroy the enemy warships before they could fall on the supply convoys running between Britain and France.

Admiral Ramsay would assume operational control in the Channel, while all build-up convoys at sea were diverted from the potential area of battle. The Vice-Admiral commanding at Dover would use his destroyers to locate, shadow and report the advancing enemy force. The Naval Commander, Eastern Task Force (Rear-Admiral Sir Philip Vian, Royal Navy) would take command of a force of battleships, cruisers and destroyers. These would come primarily from the British Eastern Task Force that was conducting Operation Neptune, which would form Force H, ‘the main attacking force’ – detaching them from their vital role of providing fire support for the forces ashore to shift them temporarily back to their principal purpose. This force would be supplemented by warships from the American Western Task Force (designated ‘Force T’) as well as those held in reserve in Portsmouth – the battleships and their escorts would be Force X, the cruisers and remaining destroyers Force Y. Vian’s fleet, comprising up to seven battleships and more than 20 cruisers, would come together at a buoy some 35 nautical miles south-east of the Isle of Wight, with fighter cover provided by 11 Group. The force commander was then ‘to proceed as necessary to bring the enemy to action’ – including an instruction that if gaining or maintaining contact with the enemy required entering known German minefields, he ‘should not hesitate’.

As it turned out, Operation Hermetic was unnecessary; the German heavy ships did not sortie to challenge the Normandy assault or the subsequent operation to reinforce and sustain the liberation of western Europe. The existence of this plan, however, is a striking reminder of the continued albeit often overlooked role of major surface warships. In the era of submarines and land-based aircraft, capital ships were not sufficient to ensure the ability to use the sea but they were still necessary. Even when they were not engaging their enemy counterparts they remained the rock on which command of the sea ultimately rested.

Image: HMS Rodney, firing a salvo (Warships To-day, 1936) courtesy of wikimedia commons.

From the Archives: A Disastrous Campaign: The US View of Gallipoli


On 25 April 1915, units of General Sir Ian Hamilton’s Mediterranean Expeditionary Force landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The goal of this force was to clear the peninsula of Turkish defenders, and in particular their heavy artillery, in order to allow an Anglo-French naval force to sweep the Dardanelles Straits and converge on Constantinople. Attempts since mid-February to force the Straits by ships alone had floundered on the defensive combination of sea mines protected by heavy artillery based on the peninsula to the west and on the Asiatic shore to the east. Indeed, this attempt had been extremely costly – HMS Irresistible and Ocean, in addition to the French pre-Dreadnought Bouvet, were sunk, and the French pre-Dreadnoughts Suffren and Gaulois, and the battlecruiser HMS Inflexible were badly damaged by Turkish mines. British and French planners now expected that a landing by the four divisions of Hamilton’s force, supported by a diversionary landing by a French division at Kum Kale on the eastern side of the Straits, would quickly deal with the land-based Turkish defenders allowing the Straits to be swept clear of mines, which would permit the Anglo-French fleet to advance on Constantinople.

The land-based operation was to be anything but smooth. The Turkish defenders held the high ground, and although the initial landings were successful, they became largely stalled on the beaches. All attempts to break out of the beachheads were defeated by a stout Turkish defence, and a further landing on 6 August at Sulva Bay was similarly boxed in by the defenders. Losses throughout the operation had been high and the gains negligible. In December and early January, the Allied forces withdrew successfully from their beachheads with the last Allied troops departing on 8 January 1916.

Operations at Gallipoli attracted considerable attention from the rest of the world. From the start, US military and naval attaches in London, Paris, and Constantinople sent reports back to Washington on the operation. Many of these can still be found in the US Army War College Division papers held in the US National Archives (Record Group 165, Microfilm Publication M1024). Two sets stand out and provide an interesting view on how these observers assessed the Anglo-French offensive and the Turkish defensive campaign through most of 1915. The first is a series of reports by LtCol T.C. Treadwell, USMC, who served as the US naval attaché in London. Treadwell’s reports begin in May 1915 and run to February 1916. The second is a 165-page report written by Capt. H.L. Landers of the Coastal Artillery Corps, for the US Army War College Division. In the absence of a formal military intelligence agency, the War College Division served as a rudimentary intelligence section, and Landers made use of a wide range of sources, including other attaché and observer reports of the campaign. Only four copies of Landers’ report were made, suggesting it was a sensitive document. These contemporary reports offer us an interesting insight into how the campaign was perceived at the time by neutral observers, before myths about the operation had been fully formed and obviously before the outcome of the First World War was known.

One of the first observations that strikes a reader of these reports is how impressive the scale of the operation was to contemporary observers. Although amphibious operations were not new to warfare, opposed landings involving an initial landing force of four divisions supported by a major naval force was unique. All of the observer reports noted the large numbers of land and sea forces involved throughout the campaign and spoke about the skill in which the opposed landing was carried out and supported from the sea. Treadwell’s reports in particular emphasized the joint nature of the campaign. He noted the way in which the land and naval forces were dependent upon each other and that, for the most part, these worked well together through most of the campaign. Indeed, Treadwell and Landers both particularly praised the cooperation between the army and the navy during the tricky withdrawal from the Peninsula in December 1915 and January 1916. Cooperation between the army and the navy was about the only redeeming feature Treadwell and Landers could find from the Allied campaign, which Treadwell characterized as ‘ill advised, ill conducted, and disastrous.’

The two observers were keenly aware of the wider strategic context of the Gallipoli operation. Today, we tend to remember the Gallipoli campaign in isolation. To the US observers, though, its success and failure was firmly linked to operations on the Western Front and in the Balkans. Both Treadwell and Landers believed that the Allied forces engaged on Gallipoli would have increased considerably the chances of the Allied on the Western Front in 1915. Treadwell noted ‘The Dardenelles campaign simply served to squander important resources on a subsidiary operation with disastrous results.’ It was, however, the more local strategic context that ultimately was the most significant factor in the campaign. In his report of 7 January, Treadwell noted: ‘…any success [in the campaign] was dependent either on the failure of the Turkish supply of munitions or on a successful landing in force at some new position. Both of these chances were, however, lost by the turn of events in the Balkans in September and the entry of Bulgaria into the war on the side of Germany. From that time, not only was all present hope of forcing the Dardenelles lost, but the force on Gallipoli was placed in a very dangerous position.’ Indeed, both Treadwell and Landers criticized the British and French governments for not doing more to bring Bulgaria on to the side of the Entente before launching the ill-fated operation. Landers wrote: ‘there is much in the diplomatic efforts and failures of the [foreign] ministry deserving of severe censure.’

The reports also emphasized that the failures at Gallipoli represented a serious strategic setback for the Entente and for Britain more specifically. The failure to win Bulgaria or Greece to the Entente side was both a consequence of and a contributing factor to the failures of the Gallipoli operation. Treadwell and Landers both noted that as it became clear that both the sea and land campaign had failed, the attitudes of the neutral Balkan countries hardened. Indeed, the failures in the campaign clearly damaged the military reputation of the Entente, and hence belief in their ability to bring the war to a successful conclusion. Treadwell wrote: ‘The Dardenelles Campaign as a whole…stands out as one of the most disastrous failures with which the British forces have ever been involved.’ Additionally, the observers also noted that the Turkish success at Gallipoli had done an enormous amount to restore the confidence in the Turkish army and state that had been lost by military failures in the Balkan war and the early stages of the First World War. As a result, they foresaw the Turkish forces being able to play a more prominent role in the war.

For Treadwell and Landers, the reasons for the failure of the entire campaign were clear. Landers’ report speaks for the conclusions reached by both observers:

[The Gallipoli campaign] suffered because of the requisite element of secrecy was quickly lost, and because the first attack was not made in overwhelming combined military and naval force, which alone would have rendered rapid success possible. It revealed in its earliest stages insufficient thought about the best methods to be pursued. It was begun before Great Britain had taken stock of her supplies of men and munitions, in that careful and comprehensive manner which should have been an imperative prelude to a definite decision. The naval operations were marred by preconceived beliefs about the utility of warships in such an attack, which proved to be erroneous. The land operations were marred by attacking in insufficient strength and at wrong points.

Ultimately, Landers put these failures down to poor strategy formulation in the British government, which was seen as the progenitor of the campaign. Not only had the British government failed to lay the required diplomatic groundwork in gaining the Balkan neutrals for the Entente, it had failed to recognize the efforts that would be required to conduct a campaign like the Gallipoli operation. Landers ascribed this failing, in no small part, to the lack of an effective strategic staff in London. He wrote: ‘There had been an excellent General Staff in operation prior to the outbreak of the war, but when the crisis came it vanished. Its most distinguished members, with but few exceptions, were taken for commands in the field…the first emergency was met by sending abroad the very men who should have been kept at the center.’

Of course, the reports by Treadwell and Landers represent only two views of the Gallipoli campaign. However, with access to contemporary observations and some key decisionmakers, these reports provide the closest thing to an ‘official’ view of the US military on the Gallipoli operation as it unfolded and immediately after its conclusion. They show clearly that the failure at Gallipoli had a major impact on how neutrals saw the strategic chances and the military abilities of the Entente in 1915 and early 1916.

Image: Australian troops being towed ashore in lighters to land at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli. In the background is the transport ship. Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Forgotten Battles: The Anglo-Ottoman Campaign in Egypt, March-September 1801


In 1799, the British Government assembled an expeditionary force for use in a joint operation with the Russians against French held Dutch ports. The campaign, commanded by the Duke of York, was a dismal failure, blighted by poor intelligence, inter-service friction and competing agendas on the part of the allied commanders.

Fought to a standstill, the 30,000 strong British force was withdrawn, and the campaign came to an ignominious conclusion. Although the campaign was a strategic failure, the British forces had nevertheless demonstrated some tactical flair on the battlefield. The British government now had a substantial and somewhat impressive expeditionary force at its disposal, and cast around for a suitable target.

Initially, the expeditionary force was deployed to the launch several attacks against targets of opportunity on the French coast and in the Mediterranean, but after several disastrous assaults against Isle de France, Vigo and Cadiz, Ministers in Whitehall were at a loss as to what to do with the 30,000 troops.

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte had landed an army in Egypt with the intention of expanding French control into the Middle East, and possibly as far as India. Although his supporting naval force had been lost at the Battle of the Nile (1 August 1798), Napoleon was still able to conquer Egypt and march into Syria. Eventually his army ran out of steam and proved unable to take the city of Acre, Turning back, the French retreated Egypt and Napoleon himself abandoned his army to return to France.

In late 1800, the British government decided to use its expeditionary force to liberate Egypt, aware that a French presence in on the coast of the Red Sea represented a threat, however remote, to the security of India. The commander of the expeditionary force, General Sir Ralph Abercromby, received orders to prepare his army for an amphibious assault on the Egyptian coast.

Having experienced serious difficulties launching amphibious attacks in the Netherlands, France and Spain, Abercromby ordered the expeditionary force to the coast of Turkey for intensive training. Previous attacks had been marred by poor inter-service relations and communications, and over the course of a month, these were improved.

Meanwhile, a systematic plan for the deployment of units ashore was devised, and a beach master appointed and trained to oversea preparations for the assault. At the same time, one of Abercromby’s brigadiers, General Sir John Moore, visited the Ottoman Army with which the British were to cooperate. Moore found an army totally unprepared for allied operations, viewing it at best as an irregular force, at worst as undisciplined. Nevertheless, preparations were made for conjoint operations once the British and established a foothold on the Egyptian coast.

In early March 1801, the decision was taken to launch the invasion. On 8 March, the British landed in Abukir Bay, facing relatively light resistance. As the British pressed along the coast towards Alexandria, on 13 March they encountered a French force drawn up in a strong defensive position. In a hard fought battle, the British managed to dislodge the French. Seven days later, Abercromby was preparing to attack the French outside Alexandria, when they beat him to it. The battle of Alexandria was a desperate battle, but the British were able to prevail by utilising a combination of infantry tactics, some based on European methods, others on experiences gained fighting in the Americas.

Unfortunately, Abercromby was shot in the thigh and died a few days later. His second-in-command, John Hely-Hutchinson, was less decisive that Abercromby, but his methodical planning enabled him to take his army successfully south down the Nile and, in combination with the Ottoman Army, force the surrender of the French garrison of Cairo.

Returning to Alexandria by August, which had been besieged since 21 March, Hely-Hutchinson decided to attack and capture the city. He broke several damns that had prevented the Nile flooding a shallow lake to the south of the city. After a few days, the water was deep enough to bring in a fleet of gunboats to transport troops under cover of darkness to the rear of the city – a position the British had previously been unable to attack. Confronted by British forces on all sides, the French garrison surrendered. Egypt had been liberated and cleared of French troops in little over six months.

The Egyptian campaign of 1801 is increasingly forgotten as the British Army achieved more impressive successes in the later years of the Napoleonic Wars. But the campaign is important and interesting for several reasons.

First, it marked a turning point for the British Army which has previously been seen as an incapable and incompetent force. The success in Egypt clearly demonstrated that although small, it was clearly a force to be reckoned with.

Secondly, and more importantly, the campaign was a watershed moment. It was commanded by veterans of Britain’s eighteenth century campaigns in America and Europe. Abercromby was a veteran of European campaigns during the Seven Years War and later in the Caribbean, Moore had cut his teeth in the American Revolutionary War, and had likewise served with Abercromby in the Caribbean. But the mid-ranking officers in Egypt would go on to achieve startling successes under the command of the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular War.

It seems highly unlikely that in an two-year period spent floating around the Mediterranean, that Abercromby, Moore, and other veterans of America and Europe did not pass on their experiences and knowledge to their subordinates. You can read more about my research into the Egyptian campaign here.

From the Archives: The Loudoun Papers at The Huntington Library, California.


John Campbell, Fourth Earl of Loudoun, has a bad reputation. Seen by historians as incompetent and ineffective in command, he also raised regiments of Highlanders to help suppress the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745/6. He participated in some of the more brutal suppression methods employed by the British Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of Cumberland.

In 1756, he was appointed to command in North America during the early stages of the French and Indian War. The army he commanded was unfit for purpose, relations between British and colonial soldiers were appalling, and attempts to win friends among the Native Americans were abject failures. After two years in command, and following a string of defeats, Loudoun was relieved of his command. He was blamed for all of these failures.

Poor Loudoun. No sooner was he relieved, than the British started to achieve startling successes. In 1758, Fort Pitt – the location of modern-day Pittsburgh – and Louisbourg were captured. In 1759, Fort Ticonderoga, and the capital of New France, Quebec, fell into British hands. In 1760, French control of Canada came to an end was Montreal was captured when three separate British forces converged on the city.

The papers of this either incompetent or unlucky general are held at The Huntington Library in California. Set in the midst of 120 acres of stunningly gorgeous botanical gardens, The Huntington is possibly the most beautiful locations to do historical research on the planet. I was lucky enough to win a two month fellowship there in January 2014, the purpose of which was to research the Loudoun Papers.

Those familiar with my research elsewhere will know that I am a revisionist historian – with a small ‘r’. Historical myths grow around individuals and are exaggerated across time. The Duke of Wellington is widely eulogised as a military genius, but in Wellington’s Wars, I show that this was a hard won reputation, the product of many mistakes and failings. Wellington was a human being, and it is far better to understand how he overcame very human flaws in order to achieve such startling successes.

It was with a similar eye that I approached Loudoun. I suspected history had exaggerated his flaws, his incompetence magnified by failures in contrast to outstanding successes once his tenure in command came to an end.

Although Loudoun was undoubtedly aloof, and viewed the colonial soldiers and Native Americans under his command with disdain, he was not alone in holding such a view. His predecessors and successors were similarly judgmental. Moreover, Loudoun was a reformer. The army he inherited was corrupt, poorly commanded and lacked training. It was ill-equipped and ill-acclimated to warfare in dense terrain in the forests of North America. When he assumed command, even senior colonial generals were subordinate to green-behind-the-ears British subalterns.

He began the slow and tedious process of reforming the British Army in North America. After much wrangling, he convinced London to authorise a change to army policy and account for the seniority of colonial officers. From 1757 onwards, colonial officers would only be subordinate to British majors. Although not far enough, this was progress in the right direction.

More generally, Loudoun improved the logistical facilities in America and ensured that his forces were correctly equipped to fight in the forests and woods. He began the process of repairing relations with Native American tribes, and gradually won over important new allies to the British cause. Most importantly, he authorised the formation of the first institutionalised Light Infantry Regiment, by Thomas Gage. This was the first time the British had adopted an entire battalion of Light Infantry as part of the regular order of battle. In so doing, Loudoun set in motion a learning curve that would produce new and original thinking within the British Army.

Meanwhile, Robert Rogers formed a battalion of Rangers, used for scouting, skirmishing and in an ambush role. Loudoun sought Rogers’ advice on how British forces could best adapt to the irregular terrain and enemy. The advice he received was familiar – he had employed similar methods in Scotland in 1745/6.

Loudoun enacted all of these reforms, in the face of local, regional and political opposition. He did so diligently and effectively, although his demeanour regularly put noses out of joint. Under his command, the British Army in North America was transformed from a thoroughly ineffective fighting force into one capable of adapting and innovating in the terrain it found itself in, and to the enemy it fought.

And then he was sacked. His immediate successor, James Abercromby, was not much more effective, and barely lasted and year, despite some outstanding successes in 1758. When Jeffrey Amherst was appointed in 1759, he took command of any army that was fighting-fit. Unsurprisingly it achieved immediate success at Ticonderoga and Quebec.

You can read more about my research at The Huntington and my arguments on Lord Loudoun here.

Image: John Campbell, Fourth Earl of Loudoun. Allan Ramsay [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Digital First World War Resources: Online Archival Sources


For many years I envied the research sources available to my colleagues writing about contemporary defence and strategic issues. The ability to research a project from the comfort of their favorite desk, be this at home or in the office, seemed so much more appealing than exhausting and sometime fruitless searching through dusty old files in far-flung foreign archives. Particularly as I grew older and less enamored of living out of a suitcase, the ability to pick up the phone to interview a source or to download almost all the documents needed for a project seemed a much more alluring way of writing. Now don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the time during my doctoral research in the Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv in Freiburg and the National Archives in Washington, DC, and even the Public Record Office in Kew. (I am also showing my age and origins – For me there will only ever be one ‘National Archives,’ and this is in Washington, DC, not Kew or College Park, Maryland!) However, at a certain point in one’s life, the comforts of home become important. Of course, the research methods employed by those working on contemporary projects have traditionally been denied historians, particularly historians of the First World War. In order to do our research we have had to trek to archives. This, however, is slowly changing.

The centenary of the First World War, combined with cheaper and easier digital reproduction and storage, has led to a veritable explosion in archival sources available online. I would like to examine some of these here. My goal in this post is to show the growing wealth of material available from governmental archives, rather than to provide an exhaustive assessment of online primary source material on the First World War.

As primarily a historian of the German army in the First World War, I have spent most of my archival time in the Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv in Freiburg. My time here, particularly working in the papers of the Kriegsgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, has given lie to the belief that there is nothing left of the German army papers from the First World War. In August 2014, the Bundesarchiv released 700,000 pages of digitized material related to the First World War online. The project is a massive leap for the Bundesarchiv and promises easy access to some important sources. Currently available are files from the Prussian Military Cabinet (PH1), Heeresgruppen (army group) files (PH5), as well as files related to the war in the German colonies (mainly from the RH61 series). The collection also includes wartime files of the Reichskanzlei (Imperial Chancellery), including the reports of the Imperial Chancellor’s representatives at the German army’s high command. The digitized material also includes the personal papers of Generaloberst Moriz Freiherr von Lyncker, the chief of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Military Cabinet through most of the war, Admiral Georg von Müller, the chief of the Kaiser’s Naval Cabinet through the war, and the Center Party Reichstag deputy Matthias Erzberger, who played a key role in the armistice negotiations in 1918. Entire files cannot be downloaded from this collection, but the files are easy to navigate and the images are easy to read online.

Although the Bundesarchiv files are a welcome addition to the growing amount of online archival material from the First World War, their selection seems a bit odd. Two large collections, or at least the important part of two collections, have already been published. Georg von Müller’s diaries were edited by Walter Görlitz and published in 1959; Holger Afflerbach has also recently edited and published the letters and diaries of Moriz von Lyncker. The selection of so many files from the war in the colonies is also a bit strange. While the war outside Europe was certainly important, most researchers will be interested in the war on the Western and Eastern Fronts in Europe, and the Bundesarchiv has some outstanding sources that they have not yet reproduced.

Another fascinating collection of German First World War documents that has recently been digitized and made available online is from the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (TsAMO RF). Funded in part by the German government, the TsAMO RF has made available 36,000 pages of material from its ‘German Military Documents of the First World War’ collection (Fond 500, Series 12519). This collection is a mixture of material from the Prussian General Staff, the Prussian Ministry of War, and German field units. Much of what is available is Kriegstagebücher, or unit war diaries, though there is quite a bit of pre-war material from the Railway Section of the General Staff and some interesting studies of Russian fortresses. There are also quite a lot of tactical maps available here. This eclectic collection is not easy to search, and entire files cannot be downloaded. However, the images online are easily read and can be printed or downloaded individually.

Archival material relating to the British forces in the First World War has been available for longer than the German sources, and consequently a much wider range of material is available. The UK National Archives has been making digital copies of some of its wartime records available for many years, but the centenary has spurred a massive expansion of these records. The digitized Cabinet Office papers from the war provide an invaluable source for historians, and the National Archives has now digitized some 1.5 million pages of unit war diaries from the WO95 series. At the moment, they charge a small fee to view online or download pdfs of many of these diaries. The National Archives have also teamed up with the Imperial War Museum and Zooniverse on a project entitled ‘Operation War Diary.’ This project aims to crowdsource the unit diaries, with large numbers of the public tagging data within unit diaries. The results of this project will be made freely available to the public.

Personally, I find the UK National Archives collections inordinately difficult to navigate. In my experience, it is very challenging to find the material I am looking for, and this has only gotten worse with time. This is because there is an uneasy balance here between catering for the casual and the professional historian. Much of the material is ‘hidden’ behind divisions created by the National Archives to take researchers in certain directions. For example, when browsing the Cabinet Office papers, one is given the choice of different themes: ‘total war,’ ‘diplomacy and foreign relations,’ etc. While this is undoubtedly helpful for a casual researcher or an undergraduate, it does not help someone attempting a serious study. Moreover, much of the material digitized by the National Archive has been done so with an eye towards those researching the past of family members, rather than professional historians. Given the vast collection available, this is a shame, but will hopefully improve with time.

The First World War digital collections of the UK National Archives can be profitably supplemented with those of the Australian War Memorial, which has long made available the records of Australian formations and the units under which they served. For the most part, this means the unit war diaries found in the AWM4 class, which generally run from 1916 to 1918. These files cover a wide range of commands from GHQ downwards. They also cover theatres outside France, including the Mediterranean and Egyptian Expeditionary Forces. Unlike most other archives, the Australian War Memorial provides its files as pdfs that can be downloaded free of cost. The files are easy to search and to find, and, in my view, this service provides a model of what can be accomplished with online archival resources.

Finally, the French Service historique de la Défense has digitized some 18,000 journaux des marches et opérations from the GR 26 N series amounting to some 1.5 million pages. I have not had the chance to use this material in any depth. The site appears well organized, though researchers need to search for specific units and are unable to browse files easily. The website Mémoire des hommes also includes a ‘Morts pour la France’ section, which allows individuals to search the 1.3 million who died as a result of the First World War.

Of course, the archive material on the First World War available on the sites above amounts to a fraction of the material in these archives. At the moment, serious scholars will still need to visit these archives to complete most research projects. However, the increasing availability of First World War archival material online is a very welcome step. The centenary has certainly spurred a new emphasis on making such material available, and one can only hope this will continue to expand, particularly over the course of the next few years. What is currently available is still of considerable use. By providing a base of material, largely in the form of unit war diaries, operational historians in particular can get quite a bit of research done before having to go to the archives and can concentrate on finding other new material for their projects. Moreover, the increasing availability of unit war diaries may well open up new avenues of comparative research across national boundaries.

Have you used any of the sources above and do you have comments on these? Have you found other governmental archival sources I haven’t included here? Feel free to leave your experiences and your views below. I will update this post, with appropriate attributions, when other views or sources are added.

Image: Cover of Akte Nr. 7 of the TsAMO RF German documents.

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.

From the Archives: Locating NATO’s ‘Surreal’ Mission

From the Archives is a new regular feature on Defence-in-Depth. Archives are the lifeblood of historians. Papers, correspondence, diaries and journals constitute the primary material on which historical analysis is based. This feature is designed to fulfill two objectives. Our authors have selected an archive that has yielded an important find and will explain how this document has been used to create history. The juiciest documents are often found in difficult to reach places, and our authors will also comment on the trials and tribulations of accessing their archives.


In 1954 the North Atlantic Council approved the Military Committee’s new strategic planning document, MC 48, ‘The Most Effective Pattern of NATO Military Strength for the Next Few Years’. The defensive concept outlined in the paper tied irrevocably NATO ground forces to the first use of tactical nuclear weapons to arrest a Soviet ground offensive on the European Central Front. The plan was absurd. A tactical nuclear war in Europe would have resulted in unprecedented destruction, devoid of any political benefits, and would have obliterated the territory and peoples the alliance sought to defend. It was a surreal mission, Strangelovian in its conception.

The notion of a tactical nuclear land war in Europe has always fascinated and horrified me in equal measures. In reading around the subject I had become increasingly disenchanted with the mainstream accounts of how and why NATO arrived at such a bizarre military plan. Indeed, there appeared to be no explanation outlining the planning-processes and underlying conceptual rationales that resulted in the infamous MC 48 document. So, last year, I decided to get to the bottom of it and knew that this would require going to the very heart of the alliance itself, to its archives at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Having been approved access to the archive, which is determined through the submission of an online application form, I arrived at the headquarters a few weeks later. I was greeted by one of the helpful archivists and escorted to the comfortable reading room, which to my interest and delight, was furnished with the contents from the old office of NATO’s first Secretary General, Lord Ismay. Perusing the catalogue, at Ismay’s erstwhile writing desk, I discovered that it was not as user-friendly as other comparable institutions, such as the UK National Archives. The extensive collection covers many aspects of NATO military planning during the early years of the alliance, yet after an afternoon of orienteering I had finally identified the files with which I was interested.

My starting point in my quest to find the conceptual origins of the surreal mission was the records of the top-level defence debates of the North Atlantic Council (catalogue reference: CR). At first glance, the files appeared to contain little more than summary records of policy discussions held by the Council and the principal conclusions arrived at. This shed little light on the matter as I could only find veiled comments about the adoption of ‘new defensive concepts’, ‘future weapons’, and a ‘new look’ ground force. I delved a little deeper, however, and discovered verbatim reports of multi-lateral defence discussions between national military chiefs (AC/100). This seam of documents was much more revealing and showed how vested interests and partisan strategies influenced wider NATO policy. Here I found the private battles of national military chiefs as they advertised competing strategies and operational concepts in an attempt to attract customers in NATO’s market for strategic ideas. What became clear was that the ‘winners’ of these intellectual struggles were granted increased influence over the conceptual elements of the work carried out by the Military Committee, the papers of which I now turned my attention.

The records of the Military Committee (MC) provide a detailed account of how the development of strategic concepts were approached and executed, including MC 48, on a multi-national level. My real interest in these files was that I was able to trace the evolution of a strategy document from its inception, through the multitude of written drafts, to its final incarnation. This allowed me to assess exactly which organisations, individuals, and other NATO departments, influenced the crafting of the strategy. For me, what was rescinded, re-worded, omitted, appended, or revised, was just as important as the material contained in the final version of the document, perhaps more so. What struck me immediately was that it was US representatives who were the most vocal, and who appeared to carry the most influence. As NATO’s most powerful member, this was not surprising, and the American guidance in the writing of MC 48 was clear.

This confirmed my long-held suspicions that since NATO’s highest ranking military officer, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, had by statute to be an American, then the adoption by NATO of a nuclear posture in 1954 was merely the extension of US national defence policy during this time, which was built on the premise of massive retaliation with nuclear weapons. I knew already that the records of the work produced by Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe was classified to the public, but I took the opportunity to see whether I could consult adjacent documents to judge the extent to which the Supreme Commander, through his military representatives lobbied the Military Committee to bring its strategic concepts in line with that of US policy. I was largely successful in this by consulting the documents of the Military Representatives Committee (MRC), the Permanent Representatives (PO), and the Standing Group (SGM). Although there remained a number of unknowns, I was able to piece together a broad picture of the influence of American concepts on alliance strategy.

I left the archives a couple of weeks later with much greater insight into the origins of MC 48 and the NATO plan to fight a tactical nuclear war in Europe. I arrived at the conclusion that in attempting to enhance political cohesion within the burgeoning alliance NATO members acquiesced to American leadership on nuclear issues and accepted a strategy that, while militarily unviable, brought the US into the fold and reassured nervous members of American commitment to the defence of Western Europe.

The research I conducted at the NATO archives contributed to an upcoming article, ‘Enhancing Political Cohesion in NATO or: How it Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tactical Bomb’.

Image: Cadets from the Chard School, Somerset Army Cadet Force being shown the Douglas Aircraft MGR 1 Honest John free flight rocket at the School of Artillery, Larkhill. This American built artillery missile continued in service with the British Army until 1975. (IWM R 13775)

From the Archives: The Causes of the First British Invasion of Afghanistan, 1839-42.


‘From the Archives’ is a new regular feature on Defence-in-Depth. Archives are the lifeblood of historians. Papers, correspondence, diaries and journals constitute the primary material on which historical analysis is based. This feature is designed to fulfil two objectives. Our authors have selected an archive that has yielded an important find, and will explain how this document has been used to create history. The juiciest documents are often found in difficult to reach places, and our authors will also comment on the trials and tribulations of accessing their archives.

Punjab Archives, Lahore

‘You have to go to Lahore’ he said, ‘the place is a goldmine’. I was chatting with the acclaimed author William Dalrymple at a launch event for his excellent book Return of a King: The First Battle for Afghanistan. I was researching the origins of the First Anglo-Afghan War. I wasn’t buying the well-trodden story that Britain invaded Afghanistan because of a misbegotten belief that the Russians were on the brink of establishing a presence in Kabul, and would use it as a stepping stone to India. I wanted to look for evidence that might point to the real causes of the invasion. The original intelligence documents are held in Lahore. If there was evidence that pointed to a different explanation for the cause, it would be in Lahore.

That was in January 2013. I spent the next six months figuring out how to get to Pakistan, and how to get into the archive. It was not very easy. Obviously, I’d need a visa to get into Pakistan. But in order to get into the archive, I’d also need a letter of reference from the British High Commissioner in Islamabad, and a ‘No Objection Certificate’ – a NOC – from the Pakistani Government. By August, I had got no where. I had booked my flights and hotel in July, and was starting to get a bit worried. I went to a conference on South Asian Military History at Greenwich. One of the attendees, just arrived from Calcutta told me not to worry. ‘This is South Asia’, he said. ‘Everything will come together the week before you leave’.

He was right. Through a combination of luck, and calling in favours from old acquaintances, I got my visa, and a promise of a NOC sent directly to the archive. The Assistant Military Adviser in the British Embassy helped me out with a letter of reference from the High Commissioner, and by chance, also had the telephone number of the director of archives at Lahore. I made a phone-call, and the South Asian hospitality that I had experienced time and again was more than apparent. I was in.

The Punjab Archives are held in a seventeenth century Mughal Tomb – that of the courtesan Anarkali. It is a beautiful white domed building, after the Taj Mahal, and has a series of corridors off the central dome, in which the archives are held. I was sat at a long desk, behind me the marble tomb of Anarkali  The archivists were extraordinarily helpful, and over the course of two weeks, I found literally thousands of documents.

What I found transformed my understanding of the causes of the First Anglo-Afghan War. From the perspective of the British in Calcutta, the distant threat of Russian imperial aggression barely entered the equation. Rather, it was Afghanistan itself that the British were more concerned about.

In 1833, Peshawar, the summer capital of Afghanistan, had been captured by the army of the Sikh Emperor, Ranjit Singh. The Afghan leader, Dost Muhammad Khan was determined to get Peshawar back. He sought allies in the pursuit of this goal, but his first choice, the British, were already allied to the Sikhs. The Russians were too distant, and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan too weak. Persia, it seemed, was the only option. However, ‘the British Government could not recognise any right of interference’, wrote the Governor-General Lord Auckland, ‘by the Persian Monarch in the affairs of Afghanistan.’

More seriously, though, the British were worried about the internal instability in Afghanistan itself. ‘The state of parties in Afghanistan’, the Governor-General’s chief secretary, Sir William Hay Macnaghten, had written in January 1837, ‘seems to be such as to preclude the probability for some time to come of the establishment of a strong and united power in that quarter.’

The internal divisions that compelled Dost Muhammad to wage limited war against the Sikhs for control of the Khyber Pass and Peshawar indicated that his regime was so unstable that he might look to external aggression in order to bolster his authority. Such actions had been the mainstay of Afghan rule at the end of the eighteenth century. The then ruler, Shah Zeman regularly attacked south into the Punjab and sometimes as far as Delhi. In response, Calcutta had sent an emissary to Persia to ‘relieve India from the annual alarm of Shah Zeman’s invasion’.

In 1837, Dost Muhammad attacked the Sikh fortress of Jamrud, in preparation for an attempt to retake Peshawar. The resulting battle, which Dost Muhammad lost, cost the life of the commander-in-chief of the Sikh Army, Hari Singh Nalwa. This incident was characterised by the British in the same light as the plunder raids by Dost Muhammad’s forbear, Shah Zeman. By attacking the Sikhs, Dost Muhammad was forcing his people ‘to unite & fight for their … religion with an ardent zeal which’ was, as Captain Claude Wade, the British political officer deputed to Lahore and Ludhiana, explained to Ranjit Singh, comparable to ‘the desperate efforts of a feeble animal to save itself even against the power of man when its life was in danger.’ In this light, then, the weakness of Dost Muhammad’s regime was a threat to the balance of power on the north-west frontier.

These documents, found amongst countless dusty tomes in the Punjab Archives paint a very different perspective on the reasons for the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839. Rather than any particular threat from Russia, Britain feared a destabilising power in Afghanistan itself. The invasion was planned to remove Dost Muhammad, and restore his predecessor, Shah Shuja to the throne of Kabul. In so doing, the British sparked a slow-burning rebellion that would eventually result in the worst military humiliation of the British empire in the nineteenth century.

The research I conducted in Pakistan and elsewhere has contributed to an article I have written, entitled ‘Intelligence and Strategic Culture: Alternative Perspectives on the First British Invasion of Afghanistan’, which will be available soon.

Images: The Durbar in Lahore Fort, taken by the author.