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How we planned the Great War (12)


From 1910 the task of planning for economic warfare passed from the Navy to Hankey in the Committee of Imperial Defence. And from this time Hankey launched a rival naval mobilisation plan against Haldane's continental expedition plan that he had discovered. 

As part of this the CID undertook a series of inquiries involving a wide variety of expertise within the State, across many areas, to lay down guidelines for economic warfare. These inquiries produced volumes comparable in extent to the parliamentary blue books. Specific guidelines were set out for the construction of machinery capable of launching the Blockade. 

After the conflict between Army Continentalists and Navy Atlanticists settled down in late 1909 Hankey led the next phase of planning and preparation for War, including the following investigations and actions:

“… the compilation of the War Book, this being the first reference to the subject; measures of economic pressure beginning with an investigation of our policy on the question of ‘days of grace’ to enemy merchant ships, to be followed by consideration of such questions as the cornering of raw materials in war and financial blockade; the capture of enemy colonies; the co-operation of the Dominions in the Committee of Imperial Defence for the study of these and similar questions; also intelligence, treatment of aliens and our own economic position… inquiries were instituted at the beginning of March 1910 into the following questions: the defence of the Suez Canal; war-time transport of military reinforcements; Press and postal censorship… treatment of neutral and enemy merchant ships in time of war; and, in June 1910, into the defence and attack of cable communications.” (The Supreme Command, pp.85-6)

The War Book was a kind of instruction manual, which had detailed sets of instructions, constantly updated, to tell everyone what to do in every Government Department when the War on Germany was declared. All would therefore know their individual tasks to be performed in conjunction with others, what else was supposed to be done at the same time, and the agreed and specific time limits allowed for doing things:

“Every piece of legislation; every set of instructions; every order, letter, cable, telegram, including those to fleets, military stations, the Dominions, India and the Colonies (some taking the form of dormant instructions in their possession) was drafted and kept ready for issue. All necessary papers, orders in council and proclamations were printed or set in type, and so far was the system carried that the King never moved without having with him those which required his immediate signature. 

“The whole was kept continuously up to date by a small standing body to meet the changes and additions required from time to time.

“All these matters had to be worked out by the exercise of forethought and imagination, for we had had no experience of a major war for nearly a century.” (Government Control in War, p.27)  

All the product of this work was contained in draft Orders in Council which were issued upon the British Declaration of War on Germany in August 1914. 

Hankey considered that the Prime Minister, Asquith, was fully justified in his autobiography when he wrote:

“It would not be an unjust claim that the Government by that date (August 1909) investigated the whole of the ground covered by a possible war with Germany – the naval position; the possibilities of blockade; the invasion problem; the Continental problem; the Egyptian problem.” (Government Control in War, p.26)

Hankey divided the war planning into 3 phases: The “phase of principle” during the Balfour period 1904-5. The second stage, from 1906 to August 1909, called “the phase of policy.” And finally, the third phase of “plans and preparations to give effect to policy,” which lasted up to August 1914.  In this period both the Navy and War Office co-ordinated and refined their joint preparations for war on Germany.


Things were hurried along after the Agadir crisis in 1911. In August 1911 Asquith summoned a CID meeting to consider giving armed support to France. Here there was another clash between Navy and Army when the Navy insisted it could not carry the Expeditionary Force to France if it was mobilising at the same time for its own war on Germany. It had made its plans and could not do both. 

At the meeting Henry Wilson outlined the plan he had constructed for the landing and placing of the BEF on the left wing of the French in an impressive display. Sir Arthur Wilson, in his much less impressive presentation, replying for the Admiralty, dropped his original basis of objection to the Expeditionary Force and came down completely against the idea, advancing a plan for small amphibious landings by the Army on the North German coast in support of the Naval Blockade. Hankey was perturbed by the poor performance of Sir Arthur on behalf of the Navy, which gave the impression it had cooked up its plan over dinner, in comparison to the greatly detailed plan Henry Wilson had worked out and demonstrated.

Bell concluded:

“The Committee of Imperial Defence passed no collective judgment upon the two plans that were thus laid before them. Nevertheless, it can be concluded, from all that has been written by persons who were present, that the meeting was the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one; for the army leaders certainly left the meeting satisfied that their plan of making war on the continent had been endorsed by the government.” (The Blockade of Germany, p.29)

The Navy, by refusing to co-ordinate itself with the overall plan, suffered a chastening on the part of the Government as a consequence. Asquith sent Churchill to the Admiralty as First Sea Lord to whip the Navy into shape and make it conform to the overall direction of policy. Sir Arthur Wilson left the Admiralty and a new Naval Staff was established. Admiral Wilson did not believe in blockade as a decisive weapon with the result that he could not endorse it with the enthusiasm of his predecessor, Admiral Fisher. This caused his downfall in 1911. 

Churchill then worked closely with Seely, the new War Minister and then Asquith (when Seely was sacrificed to the Curragh Mutiny and the Prime Minister became his own War Minister to keep things “in house”) to implement the grand strategy agreed upon.

The basis of the British War plan was settled on the prevention of a quick German victory. An Expeditionary Force of sufficient size would be employed to keep the land forces on Germany's western front in the field so that the Blockade could do its work over months, or years, if needs must. 

The position of the Low Countries was problematic for the Blockade. Neutrality would present a problem for the Royal Navy since Germany would be able to supply itself through Belgium and Holland. The CID, with Asquith in the Chair, decided that if either country stayed neutral they would have to be rationed to prevent supplies ending up in Germany. However, the most beneficial outcome was to involve them in the War, in one way or another. So it became the objective to lure Germany into, at least, Belgium, to prevent its neutrality and limit the neutral ports open to Germany. This Grey was able to achieve in July/August 1914 by refusing to state England’s position honestly to Berlin.