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How we planned the Great War (4)


In the winter of 1906-7 Admiral Fisher appointed Maurice Hankey as secretary to a committee he established to work out a naval strategy for a war on Germany. Fisher did not generally like the idea of setting plans down in writing. He preferred to keep them in his own head – a thing that made him indispensable to the State. But now he entrusted Hankey to do the thing he had always thought better of in the past.  

Hankey had a good relationship with Fisher. He had won Admiral Fisher’s essay competition on Naval improvement and it was this that secured him a place in the Naval Intelligence Department that led him to his appointment to the staff of the CID. (He initially served under Prince Louis of Battenberg, an Austrian related to the Royal Family, who later became First Sea Lord, and changed his name to Mountbatten during the Great War, because of the Anti-German fever that had been worked up in the masses to justify war in the democratic era.)

Hankey himself gives the credit to Admiral Fisher for being a man ahead of his contemporaries in planning for a war in Germany.

England’s governing class, saturated in the Classical World as a result of the character of the education provided by its Public Schools, began, in the 19th Century, to conceive itself as the new Rome. But Rome had ultimately fallen and perhaps Britain faced the same fate. So the problem came to mind about how to avert it by preventative action. This process is evident in the vast volume of writing that occurs across the Imperial publications from around 1871 to 1914. 1871 is a significant year because it marks the emergence of Germany as a state.

Germany began to be singled out as the Carthage to Britain’s Rome largely for reasons of commercial rivalry. German goods were outselling British goods in the world’s markets and it was capturing a greater and greater share of world commerce. Its goods had a competitive edge over British products both in price and quality and it was felt that Britain ultimately could not compete in its own Free Market with the Germans. In some publications it was said that the Germans were ungrateful upstarts who should know their place in the thing that England created for the benefit of all. But being Anglo-Saxons, and therefore alike England in character, they surely and inevitably could not. They would aspire to be top-dog and that was just not on.

The Royal Navy was the creator of the world-market and its arbiter in the sense that in having the command of the seas it had the ultimate say in the market it maintained. Hankey understood from the beginning that any war with Germany would be built "round our sea-power; it is only the instruments of that power that vary.” ((The Supreme Command, pp. 9-10)

Hankey makes it clear that the preparations for the War began even before the establishment of the Committee of Imperial Defence, with Admiral Fisher and the Navy and his “great reorganisation, amounting to a renaissance of the fleet…” (p.11) 

Fisher decided when he was Second Sea Lord, in 1903, that, given his understanding of the way Germany was going and the nature and history of the British State there would be a war. From the following year he instituted his policy of preparing the Royal Navy for it when he became Naval Commander in Chief at Portsmouth and then First Sea Lord (in October 1904). 

Hankey says this about Fisher in The Supreme Command:

 “Fisher, that far-seeing administrator, reorganised the fleet and the whole chain of naval bases and coaling stations on which the Navy and the Mercantile Marine depend for their mobility in time of war. This reorganization, bitterly criticized at the time, was necessitated by the reorientation of our foreign policy resulting from the Entente with France and Russia and the rise of the German menace, the full significance of which Fisher was among the first to discern.” (p.21) 

Fisher was a self-made man. He completely overshadowed, through his great charisma, the ministers who were in theory his superiors. No Admiral approached his power and influence after him. He later left his position but was reappointed Admiral when War came. 

Fisher wanted to destroy the German fleet if that was the threat to the British peace and if that was unacceptable he wanted unambiguous signals sent to Germany to prevent war.