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How we planned the Great War (16)


And so the Admiralty abandoned its plans for a close Blockade of Germany for a distant one: 

“As the new high command considered, that, if any attempt were made to execute the existing war plan, the fleet would sustain severe and even dangerous losses, during the first weeks of the war, it was natural, that they lost no time in cancelling it, and superseding it by another. They did, indeed, prepare a new project very quickly; for the first draft was ready in May, 1912, and this draft, after many alterations in points of detail, but few or none in points of principle, became the orders under which the fleet took up its war stations in August, 1914.

“The great novelty in these orders is, that, henceforward, there is to be no watch upon the German bight, and that no coastal operations are to be attempted, until the German fleet has been fought and defeated. The fleet and the cruiser squadrons were, therefore, all withdrawn to the outer edges of the North sea, and frequent sweeps into German waters were substituted for the permanent patrol of previous projects. In these orders, therefore, the blockade of the German coast was specifically abandoned. Admiral Troubridge, who was then chief of the staff, seems to have hoped that the watching forces now stationed at the head of the North sea could be vested with the rights of a blockading force, if the declaration of London were not ratified. This was, however, quite untenable; it was not the declaration of London, but the declaration of Paris that made this impossible.

“The project of blockading the German coasts, which had been examined so frequently during the previous four years, was thus abandoned in May, 1912. From that date, the economic objects of the war plan were to stop all trade that was being carried under the German flag, and to confiscate all contraband that was on its way to the enemy.” (The Blockade of Germany, p.30)

Bell describes the new plan:

“The general idea upon which the initial stage of operations will be based is to utilise our geographical position to cut off all German shipping from oceanic trade. The situation will offer a parallel to that which prevailed in the Anglo-Dutch wars, and the same strategy will be applicable. Investigations have shown that such a proceeding would inflict a degree of injury upon German industrial interests likely to produce serious results upon the economic welfare of the whole State. A close commercial blockade is unnecessary for this purpose provided that the entrances to the North sea from the westward are closed.” (The Blockade of Germany, p.30)

A line of 70,000 mines were to be laid across from the Royal Navy base in Scapa Flow to the coast of Norway. In front of that sat squadrons of British cruisers barring the way. This sealed the sea route to and from Germany in the North. In the South the English Channel was sealed by the Dover Patrol in front of a double line of mines and nets. 

This was not a blockade as would be recognized by international law. Blockades from far-off were illegal. The Declaration of London only restated the established position that a blockade must not extend beyond the ports and coasts of an enemy, and had to be effective in order to be binding. A fleet sealing off the North Sea and English Channel did not constitute a blockade of the enemy and therefore had no right to seize naval prize beyond what constituted ‘contraband.’

The British Admiralty was aware of this and the fact that it would have to make an effort to subscribe to international maritime law due in particular to considerations of satisfying America. Therefore, in the absence of a legal blockade the fullest extension of ‘contraband’ would have to be instituted, despite the Declaration of London, to make Royal Navy operations against German trade effective.

As a result the Order in Council of 20th August 1914 abolished the difference between ‘absolute contraband’ (recognised war material that could be seized on the way to any destination) and ‘conditional contraband’ (material that had not a specifically military application and which could only be seized if intended for an enemy but not if destined for a neutral port).

A recent book has appeared suggesting that there was another British strategy that ran parallel with the one that was developed and put into practice. The book is ‘Planning Armageddon’ by Nicholas Lambert. Lambert claims that Britain intended to launch another form of economic and commercial war to destroy the German economy quickly by disrupting its credit, insurance provision and commercial infrastructure. This was a kind of economic cataclysm that, it was thought, with the aid of the City of London, work much faster than the traditional blockade of the Navy to bring Germany to melt-down.

Lambert shows that an attempt to implement it was made but upon putting it into practice it threatened to engulf the entire financial system, endangering the City itself, and was quickly abandoned. The pre-existing plans, developed over a decade by the Navy and CID were fallen back on.


The Naval Blockade was the traditional way of war for England for historical reasons. It was an immensely flexible form of warfare because it could be loosened or tightened as seen fit, as needs must. In the Great War certain products like coal and cotton were allowed by England to find their way through neutral countries to the enemy in the initial stages. Later the Blockade was ratcheted up when German trade was captured. When the U.S. entered the War in April 1917 this removed the main neutral consideration and the gloves really came off.
British wars were slow acting affairs because they were aimed at crushing continental opponents and taking their commerce in the most destructive way possible. They were designed to grind an opponent into the dust in a way that made the maximum impression upon them and others who might be tempted to step into their shoes. Short wars fought by land armies were effective at militarily defeating an enemy but they were not suitable for British purposes in the world. They were for the more stylish Continentals who did not find war a normal way of life and who wanted to finish with it as soon as possible, so that normal life could resume. War, as long as it remained in this form of limited liability, was normal life for England.
The length of the Great War was determined by the unexpected ability of the Germans to resist. But it was also affected by the objectives of the Great War on Britain's part. Those Liberals and Irish who supported it imagined the war would be quick because they convinced themselves that it was just about the defeat of evil. They refused to accept it as a Balance of Power commercial war that needed more time to run its course and achieve its objectives. Those who understood its real character and took the moral froth as no more than necessary dressing understood it as an attritional project. And when the Liberals who started the war showed themselves unwilling to wage it fully they were replaced by those who were.
But they did not expect how attritional it would actually be. It was meant as a British Naval Blockade with Russia and France, supported by a small British Expeditionary Force, doing most of the fighting and dying. But England had to take on more of the fighting and dying than imagined, volunteering was amazingly successful under the moral propaganda and then there was Conscription. And so England expended far more blood and treasure in winning its War than was good for it, or the Empire, and its position in the world.