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How we planned the Great War (10)


Hankey notes that:

“Grey and Haldane in their memoirs make a strong technical case for these conversations, without which military co-operation on the Continent could only have taken place in an improvised form and with disastrous loss of time.  But the better the case the easier it should have been to carry the Cabinet in the decision. As it was, a considerable amount of suspicion was aroused among members of the Cabinet who were not ‘in the know’, and some of this was directed against the Committee of Imperial Defence, which was completely innocent in the matter; Morley frequently cross-examined me on subject but, as I had no precise knowledge, I was unable to inform him.” (p.63)

Asquith, Grey and Haldane denied all knowledge to Parliament of the arrangements being made, using very careful language that conveyed the impression that nothing was being done that committed England to war on Germany in conjunction with France (and Russia). 

John Dillon of the Irish Party and some Liberal backbenchers subjected Grey and Asquith to scrutiny on the matter in the Commons but the Home Rule alliance encouraged Dillon and the Liberal backbenchers who were suspicious, to drop it after they had been rebuffed.

Despite the secrecy Hankey reveals that by 1908 a considerable body of planning and preparation for war with Germany had been undertaken, albeit in an independent manner with the Admiralty and War Office working on their own parallel rival projects, without any reference to each other. 

Hankey concludes:

“We are now in a position to summarize the general situation of our war-preparedness at the beginning of 1908, when the Supreme Command, working through the Committee of Imperial Defence, began to formulate its policy for the contingency of war with Germany. The Navy had been reorganized; the redistribution of the fleet had made great progress; the rearrangement of its bases and coaling stations had been approved and was in hand, together with the necessary defences. Naval war plans had been worked out and sent to the naval Commanders-in-Chiefs concerned for their remarks, but neither the Cabinet, the Committee of Imperial Defence nor the War Office were aware of their existence. The Army had been reorganised… Technical plans for the despatch of an Expeditionary Force to France in the event of war with Germany had been discussed between the British and French General Staffs, but without the knowledge of the Cabinet or of the Committee of Imperial Defence.” (p.64)

Hankey notes that the problem, as he saw it, was that “the naval and military plans were as yet being worked out almost in complete isolation… No central body was privy to both plans and able to give a guiding hand. The Committee of Imperial Defence had done some invaluable preparatory work, but was still far from fulfilling the task prescribed for it…” (p.64)

Hankey knew everything there was to know about the planned naval war on Germany, but apparently little, at this point, about the military arrangements being made with France in the “utmost secrecy”.


After Asquith, the Liberal Imperialist, replaced Campbell-Bannerman, the Gladstonian, as Prime Minister, things began to change and the coordination that Hankey thought necessary was able to take place. This is when the Committee of Imperial Defence began to come into its own.

Balfour, the founder of the CID and Leader of the Unionist Opposition, called for an Inquiry to be held about the possibility of a German invasion. This prompted the CID to finally begin to fulfil the purpose Balfour had established it for in relation to co-ordinated war planning. 

Hankey relates what this Inquiry did:

“Comparisons of the respective fleets over a long period of years were worked out; the possible moves and counter-moves at sea were explained; the importance of an important intelligence system was emphasized; the possibilities of the rapid and secret mobilization of an expeditionary force by Germany and of its consequences in her ports were examined; elaborate tables were worked out to show the amount of merchant shipping which could be made available in German ports at the selected moment; the capacity of the German ports in such matters as railway facilities and wharfage, and the limitations in passing great numbers of ships out of the lock-gates and down the tidal rivers were investigated; the difficulties of marshalling and escorting fleets of merchant ships, unaccustomed to keep station in a convoy were duly weighed…” (The Supreme Command, p.67)

This was much more than just an investigation into the possibility of German invasion (which Fisher called the “invasion bogey”) and on that count, as Hankey notes, the answer “was never seriously in doubt.” (p.67) A German invasion was entirely ruled out as a possibility. 

However, that issue, for which the Inquiry was established, seems not to have been the real point of the exercise:

“The Invasion Inquiry of 1908 focused the attention of our statesmen and the naval authorities, on one of the most important problems which they would have to face in the event of war with Germany. It defined the respective responsibilities of the Admiralty and the War Office, and laid down the broad lines of policy on which their plans would have to be based… It brought our statesmen and our leading sailors and soldiers into intimate personal contact, to their mutual advantage. The whole subject was lifted out of the sphere of party politics by Asquith's decision to send the whole of the evidence to Balfour, the Leader of the Opposition, and to hear his views before adopting the report." (pp. 68-9) 

In March 1914 Balfour, whilst vigourously contesting the issue of Home Rule with Asquith, sat with the Prime Minister on the Committee of Imperial Defence that was coordinating the final plans for war on Germany. In November 1914 when Asquith set up his War Cabinet he took the unusual step of including within it Balfour, from the Opposition benches. As Hankey noted this was not an “unprecedented step”, given Balfour’s work in establishing the CID and working formally within it during 1907-8 and 1913-14 (Government Control in War, p.36)

This information should be emphasized due to a point that was made in a recent debate over the origins of the Great War in the Cork Evening Echo. 

This came in relation to a 1910 conversation between Arthur Balfour and Henry White, the United States Ambassador in London, which is included in a book of White’s experiences written in 1930:

“Balfour: We are probably fools not to find a reason for declaring war on Germany before she builds too many ships and takes away our trade.

“White: You are a very high-minded man in private life. How can you possibly contemplate anything so politically immoral as provoking a war against a harmless nation which has as good a right to a navy as you have? If you wish to compete with German trade, work harder.

“Balfour: That would mean lowering our standard of living. Perhaps it would be simpler for us to have a war.

“White: I am shocked that you of all men should enunciate such principles.

“Balfour: Is it a question of right or wrong? Maybe it is just a question of keeping our supremacy.” (Henry White and Allan Nevins, Thirty Years Of American Diplomacy, p.257.)

It was suggested by a naive Irish defender of Britain’s Great War that Balfour was by this time inconsequential in relation to what the British State was doing with regard to its war planning. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. Balfour knew more of what was going on from the Opposition Front Bench than most of the Liberal Government and certainly the vast majority of Liberal M.P.s on the government benches or the British Parliament as a whole. 

Despite being in formal Opposition at this time he worked on the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1907-8 and 1913-4 and, alone among the Opposition Front Bench he was invited onto and joined Asquith’s War Cabinet in 1914. It appears that for only one year (1912) did Balfour not have some membership of the CID and during that year he was apparently kept fully informed of its doings by Winston Churchill.

And all this whilst the two parties of State were heading toward a new English civil war over Irish Home Rule!