Back to 'Great War' Index


How we planned the Great War (17)


By 1912 all the elements of Britain’s Great War on Germany were coming together. Hankey described these openly in The Supreme Command;

"Let it be placed to their credit that, having taken their decision and having adopted a clear and definite policy, the Government worked it out in full detail so that... The country was in many respects well prepared... The naval plans were fully elaborated, and the Admiralty had ready alternative plans to meet developments in the situation. The dispositions of the various elements in the fleet had been predetermined. The fleet rendezvous were decided on... Rapid mobilisation was ensured. The Army was equally ready. Every detail had been worked out for the mobilisation of the Regular Army and its transport to a place of concentration in France prearranged with the French General Staff... The railway and shipping and embarkation arrangements were complete. The rapid mobilisation of both the regular and territorial forces was organised,,, Behind the naval and military preparations much had been done by the Committee of Imperial Defence to organise the resources of the nation. The maximum of secrecy both of naval and military movements had been provided for by the various means of censorship... Provision had been made for cutting the enemy's cables. World-wide systems of naval and military intelligence had been preconcerted... In all parts of the British Empire plans had been worked out for seizing and detaining enemy ships in our ports on the outbreak of war and for intercepting those on the high seas. A commercial policy, based on the old rule against trade with the enemy, and designed to increase the pressure of the blockade upon him and to preserve our own essential supplies, had been decided upon... The general lines of our policy on all these questions were known to the Governments of the Dominions, and corresponding arrangements had been throughout the British Empire. Every detail had been thought out and every possible safeguard provided for ensuring that, once decided on, these arrangements should be put in operation rapidly and without a lurch. The responsibility for all action was fixed, and there was neither hiatus or overlap between the departments. The necessary instruments - legislation, 

Orders-in-Council, Proclamations and Instructions - were drafted and set up in type and in the hands of those who would have to act on them. From the King to the printer, everyone knew what he had to do." ((The Supreme Command, pp. 137-9) 

The fleet was mobilised to battle positions prior to the Declaration of war on Germany on August 4th 1914. The British and French had divided up the theatres of operation against the Germans with the Royal Navy taking the primary position in the North Sea and the French Navy, the Mediterranean. 

In March 1914 it had been decided to place every available Royal Navy warship in home waters and on a war footing during July and the 30,000 strong reserves was called out. On 29th July, 6 days before the declaration of war on Germany, a force of 150 battleships, cruisers and destroyers, accompanied by a large force of ancillary vessels, steamed out of their ports to take up battle positions for action against Germany. They began to sweep the seas clean of German commerce.  

The British Expeditionary Force was landed in less than 48 hours in France after Asquith’s gave the order. The planning for this operation had been taking place over 8 years.

The Royal Navy cut the German undersea cables on the opening day of the war making the Germans reliant on the British cables for communicating across the Atlantic and to other parts of the world.

Hankey’s work at the Committee of Imperial Defence was revealed in a series of Royal Proclamations on the day after war was declared: It was made an act of treason for any British subject to trade with any German individual or organisation; owners of British merchant ships were warned that their ships would be confiscated if they carried ‘contraband’ between foreign ports (with ‘contraband’ being defined by the Admiralty); exporters were warned not to sell ‘contraband’ to any foreign buyers.

This had resulted from a key investigation involved the issue of ‘Trading with the Enemy’ and how to counter it through the law and the use of severe sanctions against anyone who persisted in it after it was declared illegal. The ‘Trading with the Enemy’ Inquiry of 1911-12 produced a 500 page report based on how much commercial intercourse could be tolerated with Germany in wartime but dealing with the Blockade in its entirety. Its conclusion was that despite loss of business the war would have to be a total one with no toleration of trading with the enemy. 

The War Room which had been monitoring and plotting the position of every German naval vessel and large merchantman at eight hourly intervals since 1907 communicated its information to the Royal Navy. Within a week all German maritime trade was driven from the seas (see Nicholas Lambert, Planning Armageddon, p. 211-2)

Another Committee of Imperial Defence contingency was put into operation when Lloyds of London issued an order for all ships to proceed to the nearest British port or lose insurance cover. Any carrying foodstuffs and proceeding east were seized and their cargoes confiscated and declared ‘prize.’ All German owned ships were declared ‘prize’. Neutral ships were prevented from leaving British ports unless they surrendered their cargoes.


Britain’s Colonial allies who had been informed by Grey of the War against Germany in the years prior to its declaration and who had been involved in planning for the event as part of the War put their forces at the Empire’s disposal. Within weeks of the British declaration of war South African troops moved against German possessions in Togo, and South West Africa. Australian and New Zealand armies occupied German bases in the Pacific e.g. Samoa. The Indian Army descended on Mesopotamia even before a declaration of war on the Ottomans in November 1914.

Within a few weeks the British Government began to ignore the Declaration of London seizing cargoes bound for Germany regardless of the flag that carried them. Food was then treated as absolute contraband after the German Government nationalised its food production as a defence mechanism against the Blockade.

Hankey’s work at the Committee of Imperial Defence began to bear its fruit.

In his lectures at Cambridge in 1945 Hankey quoted Sir Julian Corbett from his ‘Official History. Naval Operations’ (p.18) as “summing up the position very fairly” when he wrote:

“Amongst the many false impressions that prevailed, when after a lapse of a century we found ourselves involved in a great war, not the least erroneous is the belief that we were not prepared for it. Whether the scale on which we prepared was as large as the signs of the times called for, whether we did right to cling to our long-tried system of a small Army and a large Navy, are questions that will long be debated; but given the scale that we deliberately chose to adopt, there is no doubt that the machinery for setting our forces in action had reached an ordered completeness in detail that has no parallel in our history.” (Government Control in War, p.28)

Edward Grey's famous 3rd August speech had three times referred to England's sacrifice in entering the War as being primarily an economic one and as having been much the same if she had decided to stay out. It was anticipation, therefore, of Blockade plus small expeditionary force as Britain’s War on Germany. It was intended as a blending of continental and Atlanticist strategies - Hankey's Blockade and Haldane's British Expeditionary Force. There was no Liberal intention of fighting a large extensive land war or any plans for it - although others in the British State, who now took command of the War Office, had every desire and intention of doing so. 

Grey presented the War he had had planned by Hankey as an easy option for England – a kind of sure bet. And he totally believed it himself. 

Prime Minister Asquith appointed Lord Kitchener to the War Office and he began to make contingencies for large volunteer armies almost immediately. Hankey's and Admiral Fisher’s fears that an escalation of commitment was inevitable were proved to be correct – although the infusion of a great moral dimension to the War by the Liberal and Irish converts to war-mongering that led to large scale volunteering staved off conscription for 2 years. 

Hankey wrote in The Supreme Command: 

"On the night of August 4th-5th, once the War Telegraph had been dispatched, nothing that I could do could influence the situation. I felt no great anxiety about the ultimate result of the war. Years of saturation in the subject had led to the conviction that in the long-run sea-power must bring us victory. My belief in sea-power amounted almost to a religion. The Germans, like Napoleon, might overrun the Continent; this might prolong the war, but could not affect the final issue, which would be determined by economic pressure. Hence, on that eventful night, I went to bed excited but confident." (p.165)