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How we planned the Great War (11)


In its report of December 1908 the Committee of Imperial Defence recognised that a Blockade alone would be too slow acting in supporting France during a war on Germany, so it was agreed that the British Expeditionary Force that was in construction would need to consist of 5 divisions to beef up the French lines to hold the Germans back in order that the Royal Navy could do its work.

Having revealed the military plans to the gaze of the Navy the CID instituted a new inquiry authorized by Asquith. This Inquiry brought the issue of Continental warfare into the open and brought on a conflict between Admiral Fisher and the War Office. 

Fisher was opposed to military adventures on the Continent that might lead to an unlimited commitment, distracting Britain’s Senior Service from its primary task. The Navy was concerned at this military intervention since it implied a commitment to land warfare in conjunction with allies and a relegation of the Senior Service to a role as an adjunct. It signified something unprecedented in British history - a definite military plan that bound Britain into Continental warfare apparently on the insistence of the French, threatening the Royal Navy’s freedom of action.

Fisher maintained that his Navy could destroy Germany on its own, given that country’s vulnerability to economic warfare that he and his officers had investigated. However, after a number of meetings of the CID the plan developed in the secret conversations, within which the General Staff had assured the French of a 160,000 strong expeditionary force, was approved. It had, of course, the caveat that the contingencies made with the French were subject to a decision made at the time by the government of the day – a proviso which Grey used to later insist that he had kept “Britain’s hands free”. 

But to all intents and purposes a war that would involve both an expeditionary force to the continent and Royal Navy economic warfare to destroy Germany was planned for by the British State.

Fisher opposed continental involvement at the Military Needs Committee in December 1908. He argued that he had no concern about France falling to Germany and believed such an eventuality would enable his navy to produce a greater tightening of economic pressure on Germany, through a Continent-wide Blockade. Geography had blessed England with a predominant position for this. 

Fisher wrote to Hankey: 

"You see my beloved Hankey... Providence has arranged for us to be an island and all our possessions to be primarily islands and therefore 130,000 men provide an invincible armada for the unassailable supremacy of the British Empire whereas it takes 4 millions of Germans to do the same for Germany!"(Avner Offer, The First World War An Agrarian Interpretation, p.287) 

Fisher and Hankey believed that Britain, by waging war on Germany purely through its Navy, could ensure that its industries need not be denuded of workers, as the Germans would have to do in order to defend their land frontiers. And only a foolish mistake involving a large Continental land commitment, by necessity fed in time by the imposition of military Conscription, would upset this scenario. 

Hankey regarded the Continental expedition being secretly planned by the Government as a dangerous gamble that would backfire on the Liberals and ultimately enable the Unionists to lever in the military Conscription, they favoured. From the Boer War there had been a division in politics in which Unionists had began to desire a large Conscript army as a necessity of the age, for the first time in the history of the British State. On the other side remained the traditional anti-Conscriptionism - something that later brought Liberalism into alliance with the Navy and made the lovers of peace into cheerleaders for the Blockade on civilians.

The Atlanticist orientation of the Navy and the opposition of the Liberals to military Conscription meant that the British war had an anti-civilian focus in the Blockade. The Liberals' War meant the Royal Navy killing German civilians whilst France and Russia did the bulk of the fighting. And when the military forces of Britain's allies were not enough to see off Germany neutral countries were enticed into the War with irredentist promises, to avoid Compulsion in England, despite the "war for civilisation."


Hankey championed the traditional, indirect approach to war - limited liability and commitment on Britain’s part that made military disengagement possible, as in the past, retaining the possibility of damage limitation. He understood England's limitations in war making, which were not always seen at the high point of Imperial swagger. He knew that the English made up a small number of humanity, who were no longer breeding at a great enough rate for further colonial conquest. And he realised that although the nation was at ease with war it was not particularly good at the military art, itself. So he wished to bleed Germany to death slowly, at minimal risk, so as to be safe rather than sorry. 

Admiral Fisher thought similarly. He regarded the Continental commitment as "suicidal idiocy" and dreaded the consequences of “British Redcoats on the Vosges frontier”. 

Despite all of this Hankey was clear about one thing:

“Our policy may have been good or bad; there may be room for argument on this. But there are two criticisms to which Asquith’s Government is not open – that it had no policy or that its policy was not arrived at after the most thorough investigation.” (p.76)