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How we planned the Great War (3)


In ‘The Supreme Command’ Hankey was candid about how Britain prepared for the War it knew for a decade it was going to fight against Germany. Hankey’s account demonstrates that never in its history had Britain prepared for a war so thoroughly. Never had it committed such amounts of study, resources, time, effort and energy to something that was in the future and might possibly never happen. Was it really conceivable that all that effort should be wasted on mere contigencies?

I presume Hankey was candid about things for a number of reasons. First of all he was a Navy man. After the Great War had been bungled and had resulted in the mass slaughter of the war of attrition there were feelings expressed in England that the Navy had not done enough. It had one great battle with the German fleet at Jutland which had ended in a draw. And the blockade had been slow in its effectiveness and its effects were best not spoken about in relation to the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians. The Navy men, who had always opposed continental commitment by the Army, were of the opinion that the high casualties suffered was due to the Government not listening to them in their pre-war warnings about where continental commitments might lead. 

Hankey would have been determined to show the thoroughness of the preparations and planning that went into Britain’s Great War on Germany, particularly from the naval point of view, and to place this on the historical record. 

Perhaps the 1960s were a decade when it was acceptable to be forthright about such things, in the days before Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair restored the Churchillian mythology for war making purposes. Both Hankey’s and Bell’s accounts appeared in that little interlude when Britain threatened to settle down as a normal European state.

One noticeable aspect of Hankey’s account is the absence of a moral dimension to the War. It is clear that Hankey and those who made contingencies for it had little time for “the war for civilisation,” “the war for democracy and small nations” which came afterwards and which it metamorphosed into. They knew that the War originated as a Balance of Power War waged against a successful commercial competitor to maintain Britain’s primacy in the world in the grand tradition of British Wars. And they knew it because they had planned it as such within such understandings of the matter.

For Hankey the moral aspect of the war, imported at its declaration to give camouflage to the Liberal Government in order that it could take the bulk of its party with it, was both a hindrance and complication to its waging and to its settlement. Hankey advocated the form of warfare he planned because of its limited liability on Britain’s part. It had a narrow purpose and a distinct focus that enabled rational calculation about it to be made.

But the Liberal War made it an unlimited liability on England’s part, confusing minds as to its actual purpose and inserting within it a lack of control that Hankey would have detested. 

Hankey refers to what he calls ‘The Traditional Peace Policy’ of Britain in his ‘Government Control in War’ lectures. He says:

“It cannot be emphasized too strongly… that the Liberal Government of the day was following the traditional policy of peace… The result was that all our policy of war preparation was of a defensive character and essentially unprovocative. Compulsory military service was considered as likely to precipitate the very catastrophe that we were striving by might and main to avert by our peace policy. That policy also accounted for the handicap to the free exercise of sea power, which was accepted in the Declaration of London and other international treaties and bore heavily on us in the early part of the war.” (The Supreme Command, p.30)

This is one of the few passages in Hankey in which he is being disingenuous. It was quite true that England had developed a “traditional policy of peace” toward the continent since the triumph over France in 1815. Why not? Britain had mastery of the world and its objective was to defend that status quo, expand its trade and influence and make money within that situation. 

Within the “century of peace” wars waged by others temporarily inconvenienced and obstructed the system of British global trade. Other Powers were not, of course, capable of the world wars that England was, like the Seven Years War (1756-63) – the actual first world war. 

Wars waged by Britain itself in this period were chosen carefully and waged in a controlled fashion, largely by the Navy or by small Imperial forces against backward peoples. And so Britain, in its “century of peace” only fought wars for the purposes of Imperial and colonial expansion and for economic reasons in expanding the Free Market.

But the problem that Britain faced in the first decade of the new century – the problem that began to embed itself in its collective mind – was of a new competitor whom it thought might upset this cosy situation and who had to be dealt with before the time was too late in dealing with it. 

Hankey would have known that instituting Compulsory Military Service was not prevented by any fear of upsetting the peace in Europe. It was because the governing Liberal Party would not have it, for reasons of Liberal ideology and cost in treasure. And there was an intimate connection between this and the popularity and strength of the British Navy, which was the greatest military force in the world and the Senior Service in England. 

And the negotiating of the Declaration of London (which, Hankey neglects to mention was never signed into law by Parliament) was much to do with protecting the Liberal Free Market on the seas, that supplied Britain with its essential provisions, against the need to unshackle the Royal Navy from legal impediment to its activities in the coming war.  

That was the dilemma that faced those negotiating the Declaration of London after a century of peace and successful exploitation of the global system which the Royal Navy helped create and policed. But that is something we will return to later.      

Hankey quotes Hobbes’ Leviathan: “That every man, ought to endeavour Peace, as farre as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of Warre.” (Government Control in War, p.31)

Hankey describes the preparations he organised for war on Germany as “defence preparations.” But it is nowhere suggested that Germany had any intention of (or was there ever the slightest chance of it having any success in) attacking Britain, if it had even desired to do so. That was something Hankey was keen to dispel from the popular imagination. And we have the Committee of Imperial Defence’s own Inquiry, conducted under Hankey’s watch, as evidence of that. 

In a concluding passage to his lectures on ‘Government Control in War’ Hankey demonstrates how the maintenance of peace and the planning of war were really a seamless thing in Imperial Britain:

“… within a narrow interpretation of a defensive policy our war preparations were successful. No invasion took place. British territory all over the world remained substantially intact. Sea communications were maintained… And under this secure shield of sea-power we were able to organise the vast resources by which, in co-operation with our Allies, we achieved victory. But without a doubt we took risks.” (p.31)

There was very little difference between war and defence in the way the Imperial State looked at things. Defence involved war if it meant defending Britain’s dominant position in the world. And war was the primary form of defence in maintaining global supremacy. That was a natural duty for Hankey to perform, along with those around him. And perform it they did.

If any other country emerged on the horizon that it was thought might threaten Britain’s primacy – even potentially in the future – they were viewed as an aggressor both to England and the world (since really England was the world in the Imperial imagination and the world was inconceivable without Britannia ruling the waves). So making war on that threat, even though it might simply be an inevitable development of commercial rivalry within the world Britain had created, was merely a form of defence of the status quo. And so, preparations for war were simply the “defence preparations” of the Empire, on behalf of the world.