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How we planned the Great War (2)


Lord Hankey’s ‘The Supreme Command’ was preceded by ‘Government Control in War’ (1945) a collection of the Lees Knowles series of lectures given by Hankey in Trinity College, Cambridge at the end of the second war on Germany. In these lectures Hankey gave a taste of what he was going to say in far greater detail a decade and a half later.

Lord Hankey’s account of the preparations Britain made for its Great War was published in 1961 in 2 volumes and is called ‘The Supreme Command’. Hankey revealed in its Introduction: “For a long time I hesitated to publish this story…” (p.5) 

He had written to Lloyd George back in 1930 to obtain his consent for some of the inside story of the War to be told. Lloyd George apparently agreed but the book then took another three decades to appear and then only in truncated form.

Hankey’s inside story of Britain’s Great War on Germany is, however, backed up by another long suppressed publication.

This is Archibald Colquhoun Bell’s ‘A History of the Blockade of Germany’ produced by the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence - and suppressed by British Governments for nearly half a century. 

The Official History of the Blockade was completed in 1921, and produced and printed in 1937. But the copy in the British Library has a stamp on it declaring it for "official purposes only". A limited number of copies were produced for the ministries of State in Whitehall. However, it was not released for general circulation until issued by Her Majesty's Stationery Office in 1961 (although the Nazis, having obtained a copy, published a shortened German version in 1943). 

A.C. Bell’s and Hankey’s revelations, therefore, appeared in the public domain at virtually the same time.

Bell’s is one of the most interesting records of the Great War, being strongly factual and minimally propagandist. In over 1000 pages it details the intricate planning of the Admiralty and Committee of Imperial Defence for economic warfare on Germany, going back a decade before the Great War, and the measures that were taken in execution of the Royal Navy’s Blockade from 1914-19. It is an insider talking to other insiders with no need to dress the War up in superfluous moral humbug.

It can only be presumed that while it was considered of vital importance to produce a detailed analysis of the naval part of the Great War for future reference it was not politic to draw the public interest to it and what it had done, particularly when it was to be attempted to be done to Germany again. To this day the Blockade on Europe only merits a passing mention in histories of the Great War and there are very few who know how many died (Bell’s estimate is around a million) as a result of it. 

Both Hankey’s and Bell’s are British Imperial accounts of the Great War. They are not hostile to Britain in any way and do not question the reasons for Britain fighting it. They take it that it was natural Britain fought the War because that is what Britain does, when it is deemed necessary - fight wars to maintain its position in the world. And when it is not fighting wars it should be preparing for them.

These accounts were written by those who planned the War. And the War started to the letter, via the War Book of Hankey, as it was planned - before going off course and going out of control. Hankey notes the reason for that: “We over-rated the efficiency of our potential Allies, and under-rated that of Germany.” (Government Control in War, p.30)

The Great War was planned by Hankey and his associates within the British State with “an ordered completeness in detail that has no parallel in our history” according to the official historian of the Royal Navy, Sir Julian Corbett (Official History. Naval Operations, Vol. 1, p.18) Plenty of evidence is provided in support of that statement by Hankey in ‘The Supreme Command’. The great amounts of detailed information collected and analysed in order to secure an advantage in war would have to be handled by powerful computers these days. 

The official version is that England launched its Naval Blockade in reprisal for German actions and ratcheted it up in response to German submarine activity. But both Hankey’s and Bell’s official accounts show that to be a lie. 

Very little mention of the Blockade is made in histories of the Great War. The official series of British Documents issued to justify British participation make no mention of the extensive Blockade preparation. Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill all kept silent about the plans made in their volumes of memoirs, even though Asquith, at least, had cause to make a case, in defence of his own Government, that he had made good preparations for the War. 

It was, however, difficult to reconcile the fact that Britain had made such extensive plans for something and put such time and effort in it when it was only employed as a reprisal.



Hankey and Bell seem to be of little interest to historians and the present centenary commemorators, even though they were the men who knew most about it and told it as it actually was, in factual accounts of great detail. One would think such resources would be most valuable for the understanding of the War. Particularly, that is, since it has lately been reported that the British Government has adopted a policy of concealment regarding its official records, so beloved of the historians, with 1.2 million documents having not been transferred to the official Public Records at Kew (Guardian 18.10.13).

A survey of the histories that have entered the commercial market for the centenary commemorations show that Lord Hankey and A.C. Bell have been forgotten. The most talked about recent publication, Christopher Clark’s ‘The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War in 1914,’ for all its reputed balance and thoroughness, does not even mention Hankey in its index. And the story is the same right across the range of publications in the English language – even amongst the small minority that lay some of the responsibility for the War at Britain.

It can be guessed at why Hankey is ignored. The reason seems to be that he tells the simple truth of it. And in doing so he concentrates his focus on where the whole thing originated - but where one is not supposed to look these days in trying to understand it. Because after reading The Supreme Command there can be no doubt that the Great War was one that was made in England and one which, if it had not been for the participation of Britain, would never have been the World War that it was.

Ireland, which is now largely an extension of Britain in its history writing and media productions, has shown little interest in this forgotten war. 

Those who wish to restore the “national memory” about the Great War do not wish, of course, to restore the “national memory” about events within it such as the starvation Blockade of Germany that killed a million civilians, mostly women and children; or enlighten us on why war was made on the Ottoman Empire; or tell us about the British violation of Greek neutrality that created the Greek tragedy in Asia Minor; or about how the Armenians were instigated into insurrection and destruction; or about how the Arabs were cheated and how the creation of Iraq, Palestine and the modern Middle East, came about. 

The national broadcaster, RTE, has shown itself to be not interested in discussing the actual Great War. It is only interested in constructing a false narrative to illicit guilt and condemnation of previous generations who had the temerity to do something meaningful in their small part of the world instead of killing others in parts of it that were none of their business. 

That sort of real history has now gone out of fashion in academia and the better parts of Dublin, in its desire to be better than and different from the mass of Irish society – a desire that is taking it back toward the embrace of England.

It is not interested in the real Great War but only in the simulacra in which this discontent social strata now conducts its superficial existence, disconnected from its actual history and experience. 

So they are not interested in Maurice Hankey.