THE MILLSTONE: British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War © Geoffrey Miller





THE MILLSTONE: British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War © Geoffrey Miller



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The Millstone


British Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1900-1914, the Commitment to France and British Intervention in the War

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Chapter 1




Changing Fortunes





For all the blood shed by her soldiers and sailors in the mid-nineteenth century to preserve Turkey in command of the Straits of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles it was the opening of a man-made waterway – the Suez Canal in 1869 – which profoundly altered Britain’s strategic interest in the Mediterranean. In the first full year of operation of the Canal less than half a million net register tons were carried; by 1913 this figure was to exceed twenty million tons, the majority of it British cargo in British ships. The sea journey from London to Bombay was shortened by over forty per cent. Suez was vital for the trade with India and Persia (though most of the Australian and New Zealand cargo still went via either Cape as late as 1912)[1] while Egypt became an important outlet for British goods. British interests in the region had become, therefore, economic in addition to political and strategic yet the wherewithal to defend these interests was seriously challenged within a matter of years following the opening of the Canal — for the 1880s was to be another bad decade for the Royal Navy. Rent by internal struggles, the parlous naval situation so evident in the debates of that decade encouraged external challengers, foremost of whom was Britain’s closest neighbour and obvious enemy, France. Six years after the establishment of the British protectorate over Egypt in 1882 the French fleet, which had previously been evenly distributed at Brest, Cherbourg and Toulon, was concentrated in the Mediterranean at Toulon. Already, by this time, over 16% of Britain’s imports and nearly 21% of her exports went through the Canal while another 10% and 8.5% respectively were confined to Mediterranean Europe.[2]

                After the so-called “Dark Ages” of the Royal Navy in the 1870s, a Liberal administration under Gladstone had returned to power in May 1880. Though still a determined opponent of excessive spending on armaments, the new Prime Minister appointed a strong Board of Admiralty that promised much; this promise, following a period of parsimony, went unfulfilled.[3] The First Naval Lord at the time, Admiral Sir Astley Cooper Key, has been described as ‘a born administrator, if by that is meant someone who loves work and hates decisions. An essentially weak man, he crowded his desk, his day and his mind with comforting trivia, and carefully excluded anything so unsettling as policy.’ Gladstone’s First Lord, Northbrook, more concerned that the Estimates were kept down, ‘was content to leave the running of the Navy to those, like Key, who enjoyed it.’[4] As well as budgetary problems – the numerous colonial wars were a running sore draining money away from the Naval allowance – the country was faced with a surfeit of possible enemies in addition to France while the pace of technological innovation resulted in the rapid obsolescence of capital ships. Furthermore, new weapons, primarily the torpedo, threatened the very future of the battleship.

                Rebuked in the House of Lords in July 1884, Northbrook admitted that, if suddenly presented with three or four millions to spend, the Admiralty would have great difficulty in deciding how to spend it, a casual remark intending to illustrate the problems faced in an era of such rapid development but which was turned against Northbrook and quoted out of context in an attempt to demonstrate incompetence. The First Lord was unable to solve the conundrum that the latest guns could destroy any type of armour then available while to try to afford some protection to the vital parts with even thicker armour meant that larger areas were left undefended. Following this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion some naval officers were forced to the belief that, in the next naval war, the torpedo would be the most powerful weapon of offence and that any money spent on battleships was money wasted. By this time Russia was menacing India while the French, annoyed at the British refusal to evacuate Egypt, had established cordial relations with Germany who, in turn, were upset with Gladstone over the partition of Africa. Although the Royal Navy still possessed the largest fleet in the world it was realized that, now, a combination of enemies would outnumber Britain in first class ships.[5]

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                At the time, however, neither political party desired a naval panic nor could they afford the resulting clamour for new ships. Successive budgets since 1880 had been burdened by the effects of heavy borrowing in the previous years to finance colonial wars and a military and naval build-up against Russia.[6] Amongst those in the know, the pressure to expose the parlous state of the Navy became too great; the storm was about to break. In August 1884, during the Parliamentary recess, Hugh Arnold Foster proposed a series of articles on the subject to W. T. Stead, editor of the Liberal Pall Mall Gazette. Relying on information supplied by Reginald Brett (subsequently Lord Esher), private secretary to the Secretary of State for War, and a certain Captain John Arbuthnot Fisher, RN, Stead published the first of these Truth About the Navy articles on 15 September. Arguing the case for modern battleships, fast cruisers for commerce protection, torpedo boats and improved defence of coaling stations, Stead had chosen his time well as Northbrook was out of the country attempting to put Egyptian affairs in order. By the time of his return the Government had caved in to the pressure and Northbrook, though harbouring private doubts, had but little option other than to announce publicly a programme of extraordinary additional expenditure.[7]

                Although the “navalists” now had the money, as foreseen by Northbrook this allegedly happy circumstance still did not address the problem of rapid technological improvements. This dilemma was particularly acute given the long construction times: thus, HMS Howe, laid down in June 1882, was not completed until July 1889. During the time of her building the following important advances had been made — the adoption of the triple-expansion steam engine in 1885; the Resistance experiments of 1886, leading to improved arrangement of armour; the return to turret ships; the development of the quick firing gun; and the advent of superior nickel steel armour in 1888. Of these, it was the quick firing gun, an effective weapon against torpedo boats, which threatened to tip the scales back in favour of the battleship. The pace of this sudden burst of technological change finally slackened with the net result that, by the end of the decade, it was becoming feasible to construct, at reasonable cost, a potent battleship with a useful service life and superior offensive and defensive protection against the torpedo. At the same time the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer devised a scheme to reduce the cost of servicing the National Debt so that it became possible to allocate much more to the navy without resorting to ‘the politically dangerous alternatives of borrowing or greatly increased taxation’.[8] However, as if to justify the enormous increase in the Naval Estimates, or, at times, in an attempt to force the expenditure of even greater amounts, the country then entered upon a period of incessant “war scares”, both real and imagined.

                In 1888, for example, there arose a first class scare with France following revelations of the “extraordinary” French naval preparations at Toulon, already mentioned. Although the French were concentrating ironclads at the port to intimidate Italy the signals were misread in London and it was assumed that the concentration was directed against Britain. Worse, there were alarming signs of a Franco-Russian rapprochement. In July 1888 the Naval Lords had been instructed to report confidentially on the requirements of the fleet should war break out with France. As the usual method was for the navy to be voted a budget and then decide how to spend it, it was something of a welcome change to be asked first what was required even if, almost inevitably, the proposals of the Naval Lords predictably included the construction of a large number of new ships: sixty-five, to be precise, spread over five years. Goschen, the Chancellor, rashly intimated to Captain Lord Charles Beresford (a former Naval Lord who had resigned both in protest at government parsimony and to further his own plan) that ‘he wouldn’t get even these ships if he asked for them — as they were not wanted![9] Beresford soon had his revenge; as a Conservative Member of Parliament he had a forum denied others. On 13 December the ambitious sailor rose in the House to denounce the state of the navy. Beresford contended that ‘the fleet of this country should be of a strength sufficient to protect our shores and commerce (particularly the importation of raw material), and to insure the punctual and certain delivery of our food supply against the fleets of two powers combined, one of which should be France. That should be laid down as the standard for the British fleet.’[10]

                The so-called “two power standard” had been unofficial Admiralty policy for some years; by so publicizing it, Beresford was seeking a firmer commitment. His particular worry was that the French fleet at Toulon was now equal to the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Squadron. To lend weight to his arguments Beresford calculated an imaginary insurance premium that the country should pay by the simple expedient of dividing the total imports and exports of the country (the things the navy was there to defend) by the amount of naval expenditure. On this basis the state was paying 3.41% in 1860 for this protection but only 1.85% in 1888. Further, during the same period, the amount of food imports had risen dramatically. While Beresford’s public utterances added to the clamour for a massive increase in construction it was the presentation to the Conservative First Lord, Hamilton, of the Report on the Naval Manoeuvres of 1888 in February 1889 that forced the Government’s hand. This devastating indictment asserted that the fleet was inadequate to take the offensive against even one Great Power; a combination of two Powers against Britain would be overwhelming. In March Hamilton duly presented the Naval Defence Bill to Parliament authorizing the building of ten battleships, forty-two cruisers and eighteen torpedo boats over a five year period. He also announced, publicly and officially, that the maintenance of the two power standard would become Government policy.[11] Britain already possessed the facilities to outbuild any competitor; to this was now added the political determination: the “strategy of numerical superiority” had begun.[12]

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                Convinced finally that the redistribution of the French fleet was permanent, in November 1889 the strength of the British Mediterranean Squadron was increased to meet the threat. Even so, ‘it was the national belief that the nation’s rank as a first-class power was bound up with its Mediterranean position; and this position became England’s Achilles heel after 1889, as the shifting balance of naval power in that sea…was accentuated’.[13] Unfortunately for Hamilton, the hoped-for restraining effect of the Naval Defence Act did not operate on the French. By 1891, even with the addition of the Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet, the French fleet was again stronger than the Mediterranean Squadron. Faced with this reality the policy of maintaining superiority in the Mediterranean was abandoned. It was felt impractical to base too large a fleet in the Mediterranean where the French had the natural advantage; instead the Channel Squadron would be reinforced. This, typically, was not good enough for the navalists: what was needed was another good “scare”, particularly when a Liberal Government under Gladstone was returned to power in 1892 pledged to reduce naval expenditure; it did not take long for the predictable outcry to break over the heads of the politicians. The immediate cause was continued unrest with France and Russia, exacerbated by the proposal to base a Russian squadron permanently in the Mediterranean, also at Toulon; Beresford, as conscientious as ever, lost no opportunity to fuel the scare. On 20 July 1893 he addressed the London Chamber of Commerce on “The Protection of the Mercantile Marine during War”. It was vintage Beresford: he had formulated another programme, highlighting the weakness in commerce protection, and called for the expenditure of over twenty-three million pounds.[14] According to the Daily News:

The only way to prevent periodical recurrence of scares, and their costly consequences, is to make it perfectly clear that we intend to safeguard our national existence, and our commerce on which that existence depends, by having a sufficiently strong navy and no more. To do this we must lay down a battleship for every battleship begun by either of the Powers that might act in concert against us, and for every cruiser built by them we must build two.[15]

                The flames of agitation continued to increase, fanned by the Press, until once again the Government had to give way or be consumed. The First Lord, Spencer, presented his new programme to the Cabinet on 8 December 1893 representing a cost of thirty-one million pounds spread over five years. Gladstone, vehemently opposed to such an increase, offered the Cabinet a choice: the Spencer programme or his resignation. Work began immediately on the Spencer programme, the cost partly offset by the Chancellor’s “readjustment” of the Death Duties; Gladstone resigned on 1 March 1894.[16]


Following the hugely successful visit of a Russian naval squadron to Toulon in October 1893 there was now little doubt in the mind of the common person that, whatever might be contained in the secret treaties and understandings underpinning the relationship, the Governments of France and Russia were allied in deeds if not in words.[17] The union of arms was solemnized when the Franco-Russian military convention was signed on 4 January 1894 which meant that, until the completion of the Spencer battleships, war with France and Russia was out of the question. Instead three schools of thought emerged: to reinforce the Channel Squadron with a fleet based in Home waters but which could be at Gibraltar in four days (the “Channel School”); to maintain a fleet in the Mediterranean at least equal to the French together with a concomitant improvement to the British bases (the “Mediterranean School”); or to evacuate the Mediterranean completely.[18] Although evacuation was by no means a new idea in the prevailing circumstances it had great attractions for, despite the announcement of a huge new programme of expenditure to contend with the combined threat from France and Russia, the only permanent solution to the problem appeared to be an ever spiralling increase in the estimates. Unhelpfully for the naval advocates of the “Channel School” and the “Mediterranean School” an army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel H. Elsdale R.E., weighed in with an influential article in February 1895 entitled, Should We Hold on to the Mediterranean in War? Concerned more with the cool logic of the situation than the emotive issues, Elsdale wondered whether it would be better ‘in the first instance, and as a temporary strategical operation, to give up command of the Mediterranean altogether, and to shut up our enemy’s fleet therein, in order to secure an overwhelming superiority of force in the Channel, and in all the ocean waters everywhere throughout the globe, outside the Mediterranean?’[19]

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                Worse was to follow: the noted nautical writer and Times’ correspondent, William Laird Clowes, followed with an article referring to the Mediterranean as The Millstone Round the Neck of England. Whereas Elsdale proposed to evacuate the Mediterranean only at the outset of the next war, Clowes went a step further and urged immediate evacuation. ‘The present policy’, he argued,

of endeavouring to support the Mediterranean fleet by the Channel Squadron is a mere penny-wise and pound-foolish makeshift; for no policy of that kind can ensure that the enemy shall not get between our two forces and smash one or both of them separately: nor must we depend upon Italy as an effective ally. To my mind, the sole sound alternative, if we cannot or do not intend to face the risks and the costs of holding the Mediterranean so firmly that no one shall think of disputing it with us, is to come out of it now, bag and baggage, while we can still make our exit with dignity, and even, I am satisfied, with advantage…By our withdrawal from the Mediterranean I mean our cessation to maintain any permanent Mediterranean fleet whatsoever, and our relinquishment of the various places which we at present occupy eastward of Gibraltar and westward of the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb. I do not mean that we should, after the withdrawal, never send a few ships up the Straits. What I mean is, that we must become visitors instead of dwellers in the Mediterranean.[20]

                A furious storm of protest, anticipated by Clowes, broke around this and similar articles. The leading critic, Sir George Clarke (a future Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence), fumed that ‘for three thousand miles of the greatest trade route of the world, the sea power of the British Empire is to be inoperative. Egypt is to become a French colony; Tripoli is to share the fate of Tunis; Malta is handed over to the Pope; Cyprus reverts to the Porte.’[21] Clarke was also not above resorting to playing the card of “national honour”; in attempting to play a weak hand it was perhaps foreseeable that Clarke would see such an intangible if emotive cry as a possible trump. There had been, he asserted, a British presence in “the great inland sea” which dated back seven hundred years, had been almost continuous for two hundred years and unchallenged for ninety years to which could now be added the fact that, ‘a balance of power has arisen, carrying with it international responsibilities which we have no right to discard.’ Clarke, who took particular umbrage at Clowes’ disparaging remarks concerning the policy of reinforcing the Mediterranean Squadron by the Channel Squadron, argued that the peace-time strength of the Mediterranean fleet was governed by diplomatic considerations and was deliberately restricted to avoid provoking the French. ‘At the same time,’ maintained Clarke, ‘in accordance with established custom, the Channel Squadron visits the Mediterranean every year.’[22] Ever the good journalist, Clowes sought to have the last word – to refute what he termed the ‘magnificent outpouring of ridiculous braggadocio, and of what may be called technical cant and quackery’ – but was nevertheless forced to admit that he had never intended to convey the impression that he would ‘contemplate a perpetual abandonment of the Mediterranean, no matter what may happen. If we ever become involved with a Mediterranean Power, and if we must fight either for honour or for our material interests, of course we shall go again to the Mediterranean, as we went of yore.’[23]

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                This very public examination of naval options, conducted in the columns of a leading popular journal, was watched intently from Whitehall and not without a certain degree of embarrassment as Admiralty policy had in fact been, from 1888, to concentrate the Mediterranean fleet at Gibraltar in time of war. The French obviously had geography on their side: both Toulon and Brest were closer to Gibraltar than either Portland or Malta. If, therefore, the two French fleets could rendezvous at Gibraltar before the British they would have command of the sea. It was thus essential, in time of war, to make sure that the Toulon squadron was always to the east of the British Mediterranean Squadron. Admiralty policy, then, though they would be loathe to make such an admission, was not so dissimilar to that advocated by Lieutenant-Colonel Elsdale; however, Laird Clowes’ proposal for immediate evacuation was not countenanced. The First Lord, Spencer, was adamant: ‘Laird Clowes’ policy will not prevail’, he thundered. ‘The proposal to concentrate the Mediterranean and Channel fleets at Gibraltar applies only to the outset of the war and I can never admit that if the policy is adopted, it is the abandonment of the Mediterranean…’[24]


While the British were confident of being able to meet, and overcome, any French threat, their forces were insufficient to deal with a simultaneous Russian advance on Constantinople. The usual expedient – more ships, higher estimates – resulted in naval gross expenditure surpassing that of the army in 1894/5, a situation which was to continue until the outbreak of the Boer War in October 1899.[25] To the further unconcealed delight of the navalists, the Liberal Government was defeated on 21 June 1895 after a vote of censure on the insufficiency of cordite ammunition; the Conservatives (always, if not necessarily accurately, associated as the party of high defence spending) returned to power, under Lord Salisbury.[26] Gladstone at least had the dubious pleasure of being vindicated in his opinion of the putative Franco-Russian threat: from 1894 to 1896 the naval estimates of these two potential enemies had remained stationary, while the French vote for new construction in 1897 actually dropped by over ten per cent.[27] Beset by internal political disorder, the French had been ineluctably forced to the conclusion that any simultaneous attempt to match the British navy and the German army meant economic ruin. Given the choice, they preferred to match the Germans, a course whose wisdom was soon made apparent when the enormous British naval estimates for 1896/7 became known. These provided additional proof, if it were needed, that to throw out a challenge to the British for command of the sea was ‘a hopeless undertaking’.[28] The fortuitous position in which the British now found themselves, almost by default, was aptly described by the Naval Annual: ‘The increase in taxation for Naval purposes has also happened to coincide with a revival of material prosperity and a Budget surplus, so that the burden has been but little felt by the general body of taxpayers. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that the money required for Naval purposes was readily voted.’[29]

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                While the French continued to debate other, less expensive, strategies to upset Britain’s command of the sea, the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Squadron grew steadily in numbers and power. By the time of the Fashoda crisis in late 1898, when France staked a claim on the Sudan, the French were outgunned comprehensively in the Mediterranean and, despite the mobilization of the Toulon fleet on 17 October as a result of the crisis, there was little doubt in Britain that the only possible result following a war between the two countries would be ‘a second Trafalgar’.[30] It was confidently reported that the British Navy was now equal in strength to the navies of any other three Powers. As a direct result of this superiority the policy of concentrating at Gibraltar in the event of war was scrapped. Modern ships had been added to the Channel fleet so that it was now possible to have this fleet based at Gibraltar and the Mediterranean fleet based at Malta. Although each fleet was slightly numerically inferior to the French, both benefited enormously from homogenous design and, especially the Channel fleet, from high speed. The French were effectively debarred from going east or west and, as Egypt was no longer felt to be under threat, so the previous policy of blocking the Suez Canal in time of war was also to be reversed.[31]

                Ministerial instability continued to have a deleterious effect on French naval policy until finally, in June 1899, a new Minister of Marine ushered in a programme the keynote of which was that the new ships to be built would each be individually superior in all respects to any possessed by Britain. That this threat, for an obvious reason, did not seem to give much cause for concern was promptly explained: ‘There should be some consolation’, pointed out a leading writer on contemporary British naval affairs, ‘for those who are most pessimistic in the this country about out naval superiority in the fact that in France continuity of policy in regard to warship construction is not a marked feature.’[32] Indeed the gap would continue to grow wider as the Royal Navy was at its comparative zenith aided by short building times (despite labour unrest in the shipyards), sensibly adopted technological innovation, fine designs and, supporting the whole structure, the resources to finance it all, abetted when required by well-timed naval scares. The naval position had been turned around in a decade. Perhaps never again would certainty be so keenly felt even if it was a certainty that would prove to be ephemeral; already a new threat, like a wisp of smoke on the horizon, steadily growing larger, was advancing to challenge British naval supremacy: ‘it is Germany’, noted the same writer who was so dismissive of the French, ‘that looms largest because she exhibits a desire and a determination to raise herself from the position of a comparatively weak sea Power to that of one among the more potent.’[33] Indeed, although the Admiralty continued to regard the French as the most likely adversary, there were already tentative signs of an Anglo-French diplomatic rapprochement. So concerned was Kaiser Wilhelm II that Britain, in an attempt to reach a diplomatic accord with the French, might abandon her ‘traditional Mediterranean policy’, that he specifically warned the British Ambassador that such a move ‘would be a disaster for Europe.’ If England, he added, ‘were to retire from the Mediterranean and Russia were to take her place, the whole situation in Europe would be changed. Italy would be at the mercy of France, Austria would be seriously threatened, and the position of Germany would force her to seek other arrangements.’[34]

                Of more immediate concern, the dark stain of conflict had spread over South Africa following the outbreak of fighting in October 1899; the performance of the British army would come under close scrutiny and be found wanting following initial military disasters. Expenditure on the army increased from twenty-one million pounds in 1898/9 to a staggering ninety-two million pounds in 1900/01. This was in addition to, rather than at the expense of, the naval estimates which continued their own inexorable rise, reaching a peak in 1904/05 before falling back under a new Liberal Government. The Boer War also coincided with the appointment of the irascible Admiral Sir John Fisher to the Mediterranean command, at the time the premier position afloat.[35] The appointment was not universally welcomed: Maurice Hankey (like Sir George Clarke also a future Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence), then a young major in the Royal Marines, claimed that the news was received with derision; the gossip being that Fisher could not handle a big fleet and consequently would never put to sea. Once Fisher took up his duties (after first attending the Hague Peace Conference) Hankey soon found cause to revise this opinion. ‘It is difficult’, he later wrote, ‘for anyone who had not lived under the previous régime to realize what a change Fisher brought about in the Mediterranean Fleet.’[36] In less than three years Fisher ‘vastly improved the fighting efficiency of the Mediterranean fleet’. Officers were encouraged to study strategy; Fisher himself lectured on his plans for war against Russia and France; long-range target practice was introduced; and he instigated joint operations between the Mediterranean and Channel fleets.[37] These manoeuvres followed yet another scare after the temporary conjunction of the French Mediterranean and Channel fleets for exercises: this time, however, the voices in England raised in outcry shouted in vain and the French were left to complain of the ‘hollowness of the agitation’. Le Temps commented, not without justification:

It is declared that Great Britain has only ten battleships in the Mediterranean to set against the fourteen which France is able to send there. The makers of this statement omit to add, however, that this fact arises from the temporary junction, for special manoeuvres, of the French Mediterranean and Channel Squadrons. Moreover, they carefully abstain from pointing out that in a few weeks an inverse situation will be brought about, to the detriment of France in the Channel. If British alarmists make bold for their own ends to ascribe to France the intention of committing an act of brigandage by surprising Malta and Cyprus in time of peace, there seems to be no reason why we should not just as gratuitously attribute to Great Britain an equally criminal design on Brest and Cherbourg.[38]

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                Despite this frank admission of French weakness Fisher continued to complain of the inadequacy of the force at his disposal, causing a certain amount of exasperation at the Admiralty in the process. ‘The Mediterranean’, Fisher declared, ‘is of necessity the vital point of a naval war, and you can no more change this than you can change the position of Mount Vesuvius, because geographical conditions, Sebastopol and Toulon, and the Eastern question, will compel the Battle of Armageddon to be fought in the Mediterranean.’[39] Fisher subsequently informed the First Lord, Selborne: ‘I maintain it to be a cardinal principal (that should never be departed from) that the Mediterranean Fleet should be kept constituted for instant war…As I have ventured to impress on you before, the best naval minds in France are rightly convinced that their one chance of success lies in an instant offensive.’[40] Even Salisbury, the Prime Minister, was given to complain that ‘Admiral Fisher is subject to some of those hallucinations of which Admirals are the victims: but I had hoped he was cured by this time.’[41] Fisher also talked of reinstating the former “quasi-alliance” with Turkey to act as a check on a Russian descent through the Bosphorus; Selborne was not entirely taken in. Indeed (unlike future First Lords) he bore up well under the Admiral’s constant tirades. ‘I do not believe’, Selborne stated unequivocally, ‘that there is a single statesman of any party who would be found to agree with the C. in C.’s views about a Turkish alliance.’ The Director of Naval Intelligence was just as scathing: Fisher, he complained, credited France and Russia with always being ‘on the watch to fall upon him without any provocation and at a moment’s notice…It is the narrow view he takes of general policy which cannot see beyond Mediterranean possibilities that leads him to forget that there are governing factors in all parts of the world which must materially affect the policy of the Mediterranean Powers.’[42] Fisher remained adamant that the Mediterranean was understrength in all types of ships in both peace and war. In fairness to him, the friendly relations previously enjoyed by Britain and Italy had cooled somewhat, while the French fleet had improved its efficiency markedly in the first years of the new century; also, Fisher could not know that the French service was about to suffer a devastating blow in the form of the incoming Pelletan administration.[43]

                Ultimately, Selborne and his First Sea Lord decided upon the unusual step of visiting Fisher in his lair at Malta. Selborne, realizing that a ‘great many very important questions – administrative and strategical – had to be settled’, justified the excursion as, without it, correspondence ‘might go on till the crack of doom’. He was eventually able to report that ‘we did more work in a week than we should otherwise in years.’ As fruitful as this sounds, agreement on all points was not so easily reached, as Selborne later made clear when reviewing the conference. Fisher, he wrote,

believes that the question of naval supremacy in a war will be fought out in the Mediterranean. I agree with him; he thinks that our superiority in strength should be reasonably assured. I agree with him; he thinks we should have a larger peace strength in the Mediterranean than at present; I agree with him; he would ignore our responsibilities elsewhere on the world’s seas; I cannot of course follow him there; this is a year of special difficulty for us; we have some dozen or more extra ships in commission to meet the emergencies in Chinese and African waters…it is very aggravating to have to argue with men who calmly ignore this, and who also exaggerate so systematically as Fisher and Beresford do, and who apparently do not mind in the least being found out. The kind of balance sheet they draw up as between us and the French and Russians is one, in which we have no assets and the other party no liabilities, which is absurd.[44]

Nevertheless Selborne was convinced by Fisher that a special effort had to be made that year ‘to fulfil our intentions’ which included strengthening both the Channel and Mediterranean Squadrons ‘in several ways, and especially in respect of cruisers.’[45] Fisher’s squadron benefited almost immediately: the strength of the Mediterranean Fleet was raised to twelve battleships in 1901/2 and fourteen the following year (the highest number ever on station) before being cut back to twelve again in 1904.[46]

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                By the end of 1901 Selborne was proposing that Fisher should fill the vacant post of Second Sea Lord, a suggestion the First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord Walter Kerr, found “startling” even after Selborne had candidly given his reasons for requiring Fisher’s organizational genius to be applied to the manning problem. Selborne sought to convert the reluctant Kerr by providing a forthright appraisal of Fisher which not only demonstrated that Selborne knew his man but which would also be as accurate as any ever made of Fisher. Selborne first alluded to the obvious objections the selection would raise, all of which referred to ‘the peculiar characteristics of the man’ —

His loyalty [Selborne wrote] has not always been unimpeachable; his judgement is sometimes hasty and even flighty; he is supposed to think too much of No 1; the arts of advertisement are not quite unknown to him. I state these objections frankly, almost brutally, because they are not unfounded on fact. On the other hand I think an observation you once made to me about him largely meets them. You said that he was impressionable, greatly affected by his environment, easily influenced in certain directions for good or evil. I do not say those were the exact words you used but they give the sense of what you said. I have since been repeatedly struck by the justice of this judgement, and I think it a not unfair deduction that at the Admiralty between you and me he would run straight. His particular sphere of work would not easily lend itself to disloyalty, his nature is to become absorbed in the work of the moment…I think he has done a very valuable work in the Mediterranean but I rather think that he has done his good work there and that it will be for the benefit of the service if another Commander-in-Chief holds the command there during the next manoeuvre seasons.[47]

Perhaps remembering Fisher’s part in the great naval scare of the 1880s, Kerr remained unimpressed, cautioning Selborne that the appointment ‘would be very universally condemned’ and that Fisher did not possess the confidence of the Service.[48] Selborne, however, would not be deflected and Fisher eventually took up the post in June 1902, though not before another alarm in the Mediterranean which followed the signing of the Franco-Russian naval convention on 21 December 1901. The latest plan of these envious states hypothesized that, in the case of war with Britain, France would concentrate her first-class ships in the Mediterranean while simultaneously threatening an invasion of England. The Russians, meanwhile, would remain passive in the Baltic but, with the Black Sea fleet, would force the Straits with the objective of invading Egypt; a separate Russian invasion of India would also be attempted.[49] Selborne, left to defend ever-increasing naval expenditure, had already reached the conclusion that the fleet could not cope successfully with France and Russia combined and protect commerce as well. ‘Indeed I am quite sure’, he informed Joseph Chamberlain,

that we have not yet a sufficient margin, and I cannot detect any difference of opinion even among different schools of politics as to the paramount necessity of keeping the navy at an adequate strength. I now receive a suggestion to the effect that the navy is unnecessarily strong or that too much money is being spent on it, while I receive constant representations from different quarters to the effect that the navy is not strong enough. I do not think I should be exaggerating if I said that public opinion considers that the navy ought to be the last branch of the public service on which we ought to economise.[50]

                There were signs though, noticed by the editor of the Naval Annual, that the public, so slow to move, was now turning: ‘The results of recent bye-elections may be taken as some indication…that the electorate does not approve the unchecked growth of public expenditure.’[51] The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in a better position to judge, was more forthright: the seemingly unstoppable growth in the naval estimates would, he declared, lead ‘straight to financial ruin’.[52] Selborne realized that naval growth could not go on indefinitely; however, his public utterances (that economies were essential) did not sit easily alongside his private opinion, as expressed to Curzon:

The Navy Estimates for 1903-4 will be 34½ million and they must continue to increase. This is a simple question of national existence. We must have a force which is reasonably calculated to beat France and Russia and we must have something in hand against Germany. We cannot afford a three Power Standard but we must have a real margin over the two Power Standard and this policy the Cabinet has definitely adopted.[53]

To help in resisting the clamour Selborne turned once again to Fisher. Following his stint as Second Sea Lord, Fisher had then assumed command as C.-in-C., Portsmouth. When the First Sea Lord, Lord Walter Kerr, gave notice of his retirement in 1904 Selborne cast around for someone who could be guaranteed to assist in the development of measures which were urgently needed to slow down the rate of increase of the estimates. Fisher had a reputation as an “economist” even if his favoured method of economizing, as admitted in July 1903, was to reduce the overall defence budget by severely pruning the army estimates: thus, the navy would not suffer, nor would the general burden of income tax have to be increased.[54] On 14 May 1904 Fisher was informed privately that his appointment as First Sea Lord had been approved; he was to assume his duties on Trafalgar Day.[55]  

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[1]    “British Trade in the Mediterranean”, Memorandum by the Board of Trade, May 1912. PRO Cab 38 20/17.

[2]    Marder, The Anatomy of British Sea Power [hereinafter referred to as Anatomy], p. 144.

[3]    Parkes, British Battleships, 1860-1950, p. 307. The “Dark Ages” are now thought to have been not quite so dark. See, for example, Andrew Lambert’s review of D. K. Brown’s Warrior to Dreadnought, in the Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 84, no. 1, February 1998, pp. 119-20

[4]    Rodger, The Admiralty, p. 113.

[5]    Marder, Anatomy, pp. 120-1. Parkes, British Battleships, p. 325.

[6]    Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, p. 12.

[7]    Marder, Anatomy, p. 122; Parkes, British Battleships, chapter 53; Ruddock F Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone, pp. 179-182.

[8]    Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, p. 12.

[9]    Quoted in Parkes, British Battleships, p. 351 [emphasis in original].

[10]  Captain Charles Beresford, The British Fleet and the State of Europe, in The Nineteenth Century (1889), No. 143 Vol. 25 pp. 1-11.

[11]  T A Brassey (ed.), The Naval Annual 1894, pp. 148-9; Parkes, British Battleships, pp. 351-2.

[12]  Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, p. 13 and passim.

[13]  Marder, Anatomy, p. 145.

[14]  This was Beresford’s March 1893 programme; by July the figure had risen to £25 million.

[15]  Quoted in The Naval Annual 1894, p. 161.

[16]  Parkes, British Battleships, p. 381.

[17]  Kennan, The Fateful Alliance, p. 223.

[18]  Naval Annual 1894, chap. VII; Marder, Anatomy, pp. 210-211.

[19]  Lieutenant-Colonel H Elsdale, Should We Hold on to the Mediterranean in War?, The Nineteenth Century, February 1895, vol. 37 no.216.

[20]  Wm Laird Clowes, The Millstone Round the Neck of England, The Nineteenth Century, March 1895, vol. 37 no. 217.

[21]  Clarke was here referring to an article in the Pall Mall Gazette titled “An Impossible Programme” which argued that the abandonment of the Mediterranean would mean the evacuation of Egypt which would conciliate France; the evacuation of Cyprus, which would conciliate Turkey; while Malta should be sold to the Pope and the proceeds applied to a Catholic university for Ireland! See G W Steevens, Naval Policy, p. 272.

[22]  Sir George Clarke, England and the Mediterranean, The Nineteenth Century, vol. 37 no. 218 April 1895.

[23]  Wm Laird Clowes, Braggadocio about the Mediterranean - a Rejoinder, The Nineteenth Century, May 1895, vol. 37 no. 219.

[24]  Spencer to Admiral Seymour, 3 April 1895, quoted in Marder, Anatomy, p. 214.

[25]  Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, table 15.

[26]  Salisbury was able to form a Government composed of Conservatives and Liberal Unionists.

[27]  T. A. Brassey (ed.), The Naval Annual 1897, p. 18, p. 34.

[28]  Marder, Anatomy, p. 274.

[29]  The Naval Annual 1897, pp. 1-2.

[30]  Marder, Anatomy, p. 320.

[31]  Ibid., pp. 325-8.

[32]  Commander C. N. Robinson, ‘Progress of the British Navy’, in John Leyland (ed.), The Naval Annual 1900, p. 3.

[33]  Ibid., p. 2.

[34]  Lascelles to Salisbury, no. 109, very confidential, 20 April 1900, British Documents on the Origins of the War 1898-1914 [hereinafter referred to as ‘BD’], volume I, no. 319, p. 257.

[35]  ‘…I don’t like the Mediterranean!’ Fisher had written on 23 March 1899. ‘However,’ he added, ‘there’s no mistake about it that the Mediterranean is the tip-top appointment of the Service, and, of course, if there’s war, there’s a peerage or Westminster Abbey. But it’s pretty sure to be Westminster Abbey, I expect!’ Fisher to Mrs R. Neeld, 23 March 1899, Marder (ed.), Fear God and Dread Nought: the Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher of Kilverstone [hereinafter referred to as F.G.D.N.], vol. I, pp. 139-40.

[36]  Lord Hankey, The Supreme Command, vol. I, p. 14, p. 19.

[37]  Marder, Anatomy, p. 395.

[38]  Quoted in A Hurd, The Mediterranean Scare, The Nineteenth Century and After, vol. 50, p. 299 August 1901.

[39]  Fisher to Selborne, 1 December 1900, F.G.D.N., vol. I, pp. 167-9.

[40]  Fisher to Selborne, 5 January 1901, in D G Boyce (ed.), The Crisis of British Power, The Imperial and Naval Papers of the Second Earl of Selborne, 1895-1910, p. 112 [hereinafter referred to as Selborne Papers].

[41]  Salisbury to Selborne (First Lord), Selborne Papers, 27 February 1901, pp. 108-112.

[42]  Quoted in Marder, Anatomy, p. 404; see also, Mackay, Fisher, p. 237.

[43]  Mackay, Fisher, pp. 237-8; Marder, Anatomy, p. 468.

[44]  Selborne to Curzon, 19 April 1901, Selborne Papers, pp. 113-5.

[45]  Selborne to Kerr, 2 May 1901, ibid., pp. 115-8.

[46]  Comparative strength tables, The Naval Annual, volumes for 1901-1904.

[47]  Selborne to Kerr, 16 December 1901, Selborne Papers, pp. 136-7.

[48]  Kerr to Selborne, 17 December 1901, ibid., pp. 137-9.

[49]  Marder, Anatomy, p. 399, n. 12.

[50]  Selborne to Chamberlain, 21 September 1901, Selborne Papers, pp. 126-7.

[51]  T. A. Brassey (ed.), The Naval Annual 1903, preface.

[52]  Quoted in Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, p. 23.

[53]  Selborne to Curzon, 4 January 1903, Selborne Papers, pp. 154-5. The margin was later defined as being a 10% superiority over the combined strength of the next two strongest navies.

[54]  Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, p. 26; Mackay, Fisher, pp. 285-6.

[55]  Marder (ed.), F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 95; Mackay, Fisher, p. 315. Although intending to take over on 21 October, Fisher actually arrived the day before and commenced work immediately.



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