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How we planned the Great War (18)


Historians have overlooked the role of Maurice Hankey in conducting spying operations on behalf of Royal Naval Intelligence in the summer of 1907 based on the contingency that Britain would soon be at war with Germany and Turkey. 

Hankey and his colleagues scrutinized the harbours and naval defences of the Ottoman Empire from Syria, through to Smyrna and Istanbul, up to Trabzon on the Black Sea. He surveyed, in particular, the coastal defences of the Dardanelles with an amphibious landing at Gallipoli in mind, to follow up a report of the Committee of Imperial Defence entitled ‘The Possibility of a Joint Naval and Military Attack upon the Dardanelles’ which had been produced originally in December 1906. 

And it was Hankey as Secretary to the CID who first proposed to the British War Cabinet in December 1914 that the pre-war plans should be considered and put into operation as soon as possible. 

In the summer of 1907 Hankey went with the fleet to Constantinople. The Royal Navy were guests of the Ottoman Sultan who entertained and decorated the English visitors. As an ally of Britain the Sultan allowed Hankey and the Navy intelligence officers to tour the defences of Istanbul and the Straits. However, Hankey used the opportunity for intelligence gathering for one of the future plans of the Great War on Turkey, an attack on the Straits:

“During the journey up and down the Dardanelles I made such scrutiny of the defences as was possible from the ship, enlisting the assistance of some of the most able officers of the fleet. We all agreed that they could not be forced by naval attack, and I reported accordingly to the admiralty, a fact I was to recall in 1915 when the attack on the Dardanelles was under construction.” ((The Supreme Command, p.42) 

Hankey noted further investigations taken in this area later;

“Another somewhat elaborate inquiry… which lasted from March 1908 to the end of January 1909, had been held into the Baghdad Railway, Southern Persia, and the Persian Gulf, which had resulted in defining our policies in these regions. As early as February 1907… the Committee of Imperial Defence had examined the question of forcing the Dardanelles, and it is interesting to recall that the conclusion had been reached that the landing of an expeditionary force on the Gallipoli Peninsula would involve great risk and should only be undertaken if no other means for putting pressure on Turkey were available.” (The Supreme Command, p.75)

One of the greatest British concerns at this time was the proposed Berlin-Baghdad Railway which threatened to enhance Eurasian trade beyond the guns of the Royal Navy. This was also seen as a cheaper and faster way of moving goods that gave the European continent a competitive edge over the maritime market established and controlled by Britain. 

In 1907 Britain concluded an agreement with Tsarist Russia involving a settling of accounts in the Great Game and the partition of Persia between England and Russia that secured the Persian Gulf for Britain. Edward Grey sold the agreement in England as a peace policy and that was music to the ears of the Liberal backbenchers, who despite their detestation of ‘Russian autocracy’ were prepared to celebrate the agreement as securing the peace of the world. 

An alliance with France was, by itself, of no use to England against Germany. The great prize was also an understanding with Russia coupled with the Entente Cordiale.  Britain was an island nation and it was primarily a sea power. It did not have a large army and it had opposed conscription. Therefore, it would have been impossible for Britain to have defeated Germany by itself. It needed and wanted the large French army and the even larger Russian army to do most of the fighting on the continent for it. 

The Russian Army was particularly important and it was seen to be like a ‘steamroller’ that would roll all the way to Berlin, crushing German resistance by its sheer weight of numbers. Britain’s main weapon of war and her instrument for the strangulation of Germany was the Royal Navy. A British blockade of Germany could only be effective if Russia was at war with her at the same time and sealing off her supply of food from the east. If not, Germany could derive an inexhaustible supply of food and materials from eastern Europe and could not be strangled by the Royal Navy - despite its immense power. And even an alliance between England and France could not achieve the crushing of Germany since only one frontier could be blocked.

Hankey’s revelations confirm that it was Britain’s intention to draw the Ottoman Empire into its war on Germany, at least seven years prior to the Great War itself. This became essential when the arrangement with Russia was made since the Tsar wanted Constantinople as the price for the loan of his steamroller. 

The agreement with Russia gave the Tsar the chance to expand into the Balkans and possibly to the Straits at Istanbul where he desired an exit point for his fleet – a desire of Russia’s for centuries and the Tsar’s first strategic priority which Britain had up till then taken great care to prevent. 

Half of all Russian trade went through the Straits and grain exporting was essential in creating the agricultural reforms necessary to produce a stable class of Russian peasantry. Britain forbade Russian naval entry into the Mediterranean and war involved the closure of the Straits to shipping. So the Tsar was desperate to secure this outlet with British consent. So Grey turned the British foreign policy of a century around to organise the war alliance against Germany. In doing so he made war on and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire a prerequisite.

Grey’s future gift of Constantinople would mean the end of the Ottoman Empire and a free for all involving its territory. So Britain began to make plans for the strategic parts it wanted – in Mesopotamia and Palestine.

As his biographer Stephen Roskill notes when Hankey mentioned “certain contingencies” in a letter to his wife, “’certain contingencies’ were a war with Germany in which Turkey were her ally.” (Hankey – Man of Secrets, p.82) 

And so Britain’s Great War on Germany became a World War.