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How we planned the Great War (14)


From 1907 the Liberal Government made an effort to engage in codifying the law of the sea, placing it under an international tribunal. This began at the Hague Peace Conference of 1907 and continued at the London Naval Conference of the following year, which issued the Declaration of London in 1909. The Declaration provoked a great debate in Britain between those who believed it was a useful step in protecting British trade and food supplies in time of war and those who felt it potentially shackled the Royal Navy’s power against an enemy.

A strange situation developed in which Parliament, through the House of Lords, rejected the Declaration the Liberal Government indicated it felt itself under legal obligation of abiding by it since it had negotiated it.

Grey felt that existing maritime law suited British interests and was keen to strengthen it. Having become the dominant power in the world England had conceded maritime rights in the Declaration of Paris during the 1850s. The exclusion of food from contraband suited England more than any other nation since it depended more for its food than any other state in the world at this time.
At The Hague Conference the British Declaration won support for an International Prize Court and sought to define the law of contraband in a more systematic way. 

Grey felt that it was in Britain's interest to reinforce neutral rights particularly because they envisaged being provisioned by neutrals (particularly the U.S.) during a war. There were three perspectives needed considering: the neutral, defensive and offensive. In two of these the bolstering of neutral rights were in England's interest. In the offensive scenario of Blockading an enemy they were not. Many Liberals wanted a strengthening of protection for trade whilst others saw it as an impediment to British sea power - which was British power.
The Royal Commission of Food Supply in 1905 had only considered the neutral and offensive viewpoints in drawing up Britain’s attitude to these questions. It took place before war with Germany was fully formulated. Admiral Ottley, secretary of the CID before Hankey, was of the belief that as narrow a definition of contraband as possible was good for Britain. German trade, due to its access to neutral ports, the development of railways and its land borders could access goods over land. There was also the danger of a clash with the U.S. which England had begun to defer to by 1910 over neutral rights, to consider. 

So the Committee decided to retain Blockade but limit contraband. The British negotiated this in 1907 at The Hague.
Grey's position was dictated by General Policy. He believed that sea power was not going to be solely decisive in a war and had began making provision for Continental involvement. In such a situation a curtailing of offensive naval capability was not so crucial and it was felt worth while to trade some of the Navy’s punching power for security of trade and food provision. 

But there was a seeming contradiction in the Navy’s position. Admiral Fisher, who did not believe there was anything but aggressive and unrestrained war, was opposed to Grey's desire to codify the law of war at sea. During the previous centuries England had broken any rules that existed as soon as war commenced, particularly in relation to neutrals. For instance, it went to war with the U.S. and burnt Washington to put neutrals in their place in 1812. 

Admirals Ottley and Slade argued for full Blockade in planning for War on Germany but conceding restriction in their roles as diplomats in negotiations. It seems that the Admiralty helped to negotiate a new law of the sea with every intention of breaking it during the war they were planning for. 

It appears that the Admiralty went ahead with negotiating the Declaration to please the Liberal Government whilst knowing that if England remained neutral it would benefit from the new law and insist upon it, but if it went into the war it would simply find the opportunity to break it. As the Admiralty noted in Notes on Contraband in 1908:
"When Britain is belligerent, she can be safely trusted to look after her own interests, but the dangerous time for her is when she is neutral and does not wish to take such a strong line as to render herself liable to be drawn into war. At such a time, the existence of a well reasoned-out classification of goods will be of enormous advantage." (p.279)


However, a very public opposition emerged in Britain to the Declaration which threatened to unhinge all the subterfuge.

Thomas Gibson Bowles began asking very pertinent and unwelcome questions. Bowles, surveying the situation in England, concluded that the British Empire was determined on having a war with Germany and was obviously making plans for one, albeit in secret.

This led Bowles to take the view that England’s re-orientation from vigorous asserter of the rights of the belligerent in war to those of seeming defender of the neutral was a mistaken development brought about by generations of peace. England, Bowles reasoned, had had to attain its state of predominance in the world in the first place through unbridled belligerence and it was giving every sign of having to, and intending to, do so again.

Bowles thought that Manchester Capitalism had established a kind of immunity for English commerce from the inconveniences of war through its signing of the Declaration of Paris at the time of the Crimean War. This provided for the extension of rights of private property at sea. But for Bowles this immunity applied to the private property of the few and not to the public property of the many and raised the possibility that whilst the rest of the nation was at war the trading classes could profit by continuing commercial relations unmolested with the enemy. Bowles concluded that the national fighting power of the Royal Navy had been traded in by the Free Traders in the interests of profit-making.

The Declaration of Paris, for Bowles, represented a kind of pivot point between the former era of unrestricted British expansion and the latter period which involved the mere defence of the global spoils, in the interests of the few. 

Bowles warned the Empire that the progress it had instituted to facilitate the expansion of Free Trade would have to be set aside to fight a big war to preserve predominance in the world. Bowles’s book ‘The Law of the Sea’ was written to prevent further guarantees being given to private property on the sea based on the misapprehension that England could indefinitely pursue life in her Free Trade idyll. 

Bowles complained that the Liberal Government declared that the ratification of these proposals (which had been negotiated and settled in secret) needed no sanction from Parliament. But Parliament could not be entirely passed by because the proposals involved the supersession of British Courts, the Admiralty Prize Courts and the Judicial Committee of Privy Council, and the abolition of their final jurisdiction in matters of naval prize, and the submission of them and their decisions to a new foreign court sitting at The Hague. 

A Naval Prize Bill was therefore introduced in order to effect the proposals. 

In December 1911 the Bill was rejected by the House of Lords, despite Grey’s insistence that it would be forced through by the two-year mechanism introduced under the Parliament Act. And although it was reintroduced into Parliament it was handily allowed to fail before the War began.

Thomas Bowles had rounded off his popular book with these pertinent questions:

“If Peace is cried more loudly, War is more constantly and secretly prepared and more suddenly sprang; that Ambition stalks the earth no less predatory than ever but only smoother spoken; and that Force is but more completely cloaked in Fraud. 

Any day we too, with little or no warning, may have to fight for our own. 

In that day what alone will avail us will be our sea power and our maritime rights; what alone will check our enemy, their full exercise. As they sufficed before, even against all Europe, so they would still suffice. For nothing essential is changed. In that day it will avail us nothing that we have the most powerful fleets, if by our own folly we have in advance suffered them to be protocolised and declared out of their effectual powers, and subjected to a foreign court. 

Is that day so remote that we need now and henceforth think only of our neutral profits in Peace, and not at all of our risks, rights, and powers in War? 

If so, why all these Dreadnoughts? Why this present concentration in the North Sea of British fleets recalled from all quarters of the globe? Why Rosyth? [where a naval dockyard was built in 1909] Why this sudden, feverish, ruinous race in armaments? Is it all for nothing? 

Is that day so far off? Is it not rather, quite manifestly, believed by those who know most and are most responsible to be near at hand?” (The Law of the Sea, pp.223-4)

Hankey agreed with Bowles that Blockade could not be effective without the power to stop neutral ships and capture their cargo. Admiral Ottley defended his stance on the basis that a declaration for full blown economic war against a civilian population would be impossible for Grey within his Liberal constituency. He assured Hankey that once the German shipping was driven off the sea the Declaration could be discarded and England could do as she pleased.
There are also some entries in the diary of Major Adrian Grant Duff’s diary relating to what Hankey told him about a significant conversation he had with Reginald McKenna, the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, which revealed the true British intentions with regard to the Declaration of London:

“22 February 1911: The ‘worry over the Declaration of London’ still goes on – and Hankey has now turned against it and denounced it as equivalent to tying up our right arm in a war with Germany.

“Fisher apparently allowed it to be negotiated with the deliberate intention of tearing it up in the event of war. Characteristic.

“24 February: McKenna’s standpoint seems much the same – the Germans are sure to infringe it in the early days of the war, then with great regret we tear it up – if they don’t infringe it we must invent an infringement.” (Offer Avner, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation, p.280)

The British signing of the Declaration of London was characteristic of the whole process of deceiving the Germans (and Liberal backbenchers in England) of the honest intentions of Britain whilst altogether different plans were hidden with clear objectives. The Liberal Government went ahead with the Declaration to produce false confidence in Germany. 

And international law was gradually manoeuvred around by Britain when the gloves came off.