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How we planned the Great War (15)


A.C. Bell of the CID has a section about Hankey and the Declaration of London controversy in ‘The Blockade of Germany.’ Bell notes that many of Hankey’s arguments against the Declaration could not influence the public debate that was being led by Bowles because they were being, from necessity, only expressed in private. 

However, they were highly significant because Hankey knew the nature of the new war that was been planned against Germany that could not be put in the public sphere that was making these international agreements irrelevant in many ways, save for being an inconvenience that needed to be got around, when the war plans were activated:

“Hankey noticed that no code of law produced at London could have made allowance for the changes that he foresaw. The declaration of London could not, in the circumstances that obtained, have been anything but a code of customary law, that is, a body of customs and precedents made orderly. The customs and precedents that the Declaration reduced to order were a century old and out of date.” (The Blockade of Germany, pp.20-2)

Bell takes issues with the view that the Declaration was a dangerous and unnecessary appeasement of the Continental powers on Britain’s part, for a country about to launch a war on Germany in which restrictions on the Royal Navy’s activities were most unwelcome. Bell argues his position on the grounds that Hankey was planning an altogether more extensive war on Germany than the Royal Navy had ever waged through mere blockades of the past:

“The truth is, that the British navy had never exerted decisive economic pressure against France, or against any other enemy, that our enemy's commercial systems made it impossible to do so, and that the British statesmen, who had conducted the great wars of the eighteenth century, had never hoped that a continental enemy could be brought to terms by stopping its commerce. They, after all, were more competent judges than Mr. Gibson Bowles or Captain Mahan.

“The real weaknesses of the Declaration were never properly exhibited by its critics, who maintained that the declaration was an unsound statement of law, and a wholesale adoption of continental doctrines. It was neither the one nor the other: it was merely a body of rules for regulating naval operations against commercial systems that had disappeared.

“Captain M. P. A. Hankey in particular, perceived somewhat vaguely, but in the main justly, that economic warfare would be a gigantic operation of which we had no previous knowledge or experience, and, that the body of rules in the declaration made no allowance for changes in the conduct of naval warfare, which would alter our bare conceptions of blockade and contraband. This was an accurate forecast of what actually occurred.

“First as to blockade, Captain Hankey assumed, that the British fleet would defeat the German, and subsequently blockade the German coasts. This was too hopeful; but Captain Hankey foresaw, that the blockade imposed would not be a blockade of known pattern, but would, on the contrary, be a new operation.”

Bell then quotes a report of Hankey’s to the CID that was very hostile to an acceptance of the Declaration of London: 

“Although the declaration of London still permits blockade it has hedged it in with rules and restrictions which, taken in conjunction with recent developments of naval weapons, renders it an inefficient, and easily evaded instrument.

“The negotiators of the declaration of London seem to have forgotten the fact that the torpedo boat, the submarine, and the mine have made blockade, and specially close blockade a very much more difficult matter in the future than in the past. This difficulty is accentuated in the case of ports situated in narrow seas. For example, after we had established a definite and general command of the sea it would be extremely difficult to blockade ports in the Baltic or the Adriatic, for in such narrow seas the torpedo boats and above all the submarines of even a defeated enemy would inflict terrible losses on a blockading fleet… In the opinion of many naval officers, therefore, a close blockade of ports in such narrow waters is a sheer impossibility.

“Such being the case, it is necessary to consider what substitute can be found for a close blockade. Under existing conditions many means can be thought out not for entirely stopping the enemy's commerce, for that is impossible in the case of a continental power, but for so restricting it, and handicapping it, as to raise the price of every imported commodity, or raw material, and so to cause great suffering on the people. If the declaration of London is ratified, however, it is difficult to see how our sea power is to be used as an effective weapon.

“Let us assume war with Germany; the German main fleet defeated; the German mercantile flag driven off the high seas; and a blockade established on the North sea coast of Germany… a blockade of the German Baltic coast is an extremely hazardous and in all probability an impossible operation of war. Under the existing (pre-declaration of London) conditions several substitutes for a close blockade of the German Baltic coast can be thought out.

“For example a blockade of the German ports might be declared, but rendered effective at the entrance to the Baltic…Those bound for or containing cargo consigned to German ports would be sent back. Those bound for neutral ports such as Copenhagen or Riga would be warned that, in the event of their proceeding to a German port they would be considered to have broken the blockade and would be liable to capture when they left the Baltic. It would be necessary, of course, to place British agents in all the principal neutral ports to give notice if such ships, ignoring the warning, sailed to German ports. Recent developments of wireless telegraphy, and the completeness of cable communications render such a course perfectly easy to carry out, though no precise precedent of a similar procedure in past wars can be quoted, as without these modern inventions it would not be practicable.”

Bell concludes:

“Captain Hankey's principal contention was well reasoned: we were obliged to impose a blockade by squadrons stationed as no blockading forces had ever been stationed before, and we were obliged to supplement our naval control of the North sea by a vast network of watching posts in neutral harbours.

“Again, Captain Hankey's abstract contention that the old operation of blockade was being merged into the greater operations of economic war, was quite sound.”

Bell quotes Hankey again:

“There is no instance to be found in modern history of a war in which commerce has played a vitally important part, owing to the fact that recent wars have not been fought between nations susceptible - as are Great Britain and Germany - to attack through their commerce, and there are no data on which to calculate what means it will be necessary to adopt in such a war. The difficulties of blockade, due to modern inventions, suggest that even greater latitude may be necessary in the future than in the past. The negotiators of the declaration of London have made the fatal error of basing their agreement not on the experience of past wars (for in the Napoleonic wars and all previous wars, when commerce was an important consideration, the greatest latitude was claimed and exercised) and not on a scientific appreciation of possible future wars, but have rested themselves on the experience of a few very recent wars in which the weapon of sea power, as a means of putting pressure to bear on the inferior naval power, had no scope for exertion.”

Bell commented:

“Captain Hankey noted, against Mahan and Bowles, that economic pressure had not been decisive in the past against France; but it might be made so in the future, against Germany, if it were exerted by more than one engine of pressure. This proved true, and on the question of contraband, Hankey also foresaw, that inasmuch as economic warfare was inevitable, so, contraband would inevitably be assimilated to all substances that are essential to modern industries.”

Bell quoted Hankey again:

“It will now be shown that the severe limitations placed by the declaration of London on the articles which can be declared contraband will have a most important effect in counteracting the results of our efforts to produce economic pressure on Germany by naval means. The articles included in the list of conditional contraband and in the free list comprise to all intents and purposes the whole of Germany's seaborne trade. That is to say that all these articles can be conveyed during war into or out of any German port in neutral bottoms unless we have declared a blockade of that port. The only remedy is to establish a blockade of the whole German coast. So far as the ports in the North sea are concerned this should present no insurmountable difficulty. In the case of the Baltic ports it is far otherwise...

“How then is economic pressure to be exerted? What becomes of the stoppage of Germany's income derived from import duties? How are the shrinkage of capital, the closing down of factories, and the simultaneous raising of prices to be effected, when the whole of Germany's trade can be carried by neutral vessels… entering Hamburg "through the back door," viz., the Kiel canal, to say nothing of the Baltic ports?

“From the above it would seem that those critics of the declaration of London who state that the declaration ties our right arm have good grounds for their assertion.

“Now let us examine what the position would be if the declaration did not exist. In that case our obvious course, to be adopted as soon as the naval situation permitted, would be to declare a blockade of the North sea ports, and simultaneously to make a sweeping declaration of what was contraband, including all the principal raw materials on which German manufactures depend as well as her main articles of export. Neutral vessels would be rigorously held up and examined outside the Cattegat; the doctrine of continuous voyage would be rigorously applied; a system of agents in Swedish, Danish and Russian ports would apprise us as to how trans-shipment was taking place and measures would be taken to deal with offenders; these steps would probably be supplemented by raids by destroyers and light craft into the vicinity of Baltic ports with which trade was known to continue. These measures would not absolutely stop trade from the outside world with German Baltic ports - even in the Napoleonic wars trade with the continent never ceased altogether - but the trade would be diminished and harassed as was the trade of France in the wars of a century ago.” (pp. 22-7)