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 2




The Fisher Factor




 Admiral Sir John Fisher

Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher Genius or Fraud?

 The perception of the Royal Navy in the years leading up to the outbreak of war has been unduly influenced by the legacy of that most colourful of all Admirals, Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher. According to Marder, Fisher was ‘an extraordinary man, not to be judged by normal standards. People were either wholeheartedly with him, or bitterly opposed to him. There was no half-way house.’[1] This estimation of the effect Fisher had on his contemporaries could also be applied to subsequent writers on the period in question. Too often a distorted account of events has resulted — distorted by the personal views of individual writers as well as the characteristically confusing comments of Fisher himself. This split is mirrored in the division of historians into those favouring the traditional interpretation, supposedly cast in stone by Arthur Marder, and a newer group led by Jon Sumida and Nicholas Lambert, both of whom claim to have discovered the Holy Grail of pre-war naval policy, which would allow them to begin to re-write Marder. In Sumida’s case, the emphasis is on the economic aspect and, in particular, Arthur Hungerford Pollen and his fire control system;[2] for Lambert it is a new appreciation of the threat allegedly posed by the submarine. Their sustained efforts to denigrate Marder,[3] while attempting to elevate Fisher, are not wholly successful.[4]

Fisher’s faults were manifest, and far outweighed his gifts. Not an original thinker, incapable of the essential insight required, Fisher depended upon the inspiration of others for the formulation of his own strategic principles which he was then incapable, either through naval and political opposition, or from an inherent disbelief in their merit, of seeing through.

The first rule when dealing with Fisher is not always to take his pronouncements at face value, for the Admiral was consistent only in his inconsistency.[5] If challenged on this point, doubtless Fisher would have answered, as he once did to Selborne,

A most distinguished man at the War Office used to think he had gained his point and blasted the Admiralty by collecting extracts 20 years old with opposing decisions! absolutely regardless that what is right today may be wrong to-morrow! but he traded on what we all dislike — the charge of inconsistency! Why! the two most inconsistent men who ever lived, were Nelson and Napoleon! … Circumstances alter cases! That’s the answer to the charge of inconsistency …[6]

This does not, however, alter the fact that Fisher’s changes of opinion were sometimes not the result of altered circumstances but due to a want of clarity in his own vision. Like many men who have acquired, justly or not, a reputation Fisher constantly felt the need to live up to it. He had been aware, for example, from an early date that the torpedo would alter naval warfare.[7] This led him, early in 1904, to the conclusion that ‘in the course of a few years no Fleet will be able to remain in the Mediterranean or in the English Channel! but that at the same time submarines at Malta, Gibraltar, Port Said, Alexandria, Suez and Lemnos will make us more powerful than ever’.[8] And yet, due to a faulty appreciation of their offensive qualities, Fisher placed curbs on the size of the earliest submarines and effectively set this branch of the service back years. Roger Keyes was forthright in his denunciation of Fisher’s policy:

… as long as submarines were only required for local defence, which seems, at the time, to have been the limit of vision of Lord Fisher and his technical adviser, the Holland boat was, I think, unquestionably the best type to adopt. The main object Lord Fisher seems to have had in view, was to employ submarines for the defence of harbours, and abolish defensive minefields … As the material developed, and our vision cleared and extended to the enemy’s coasts and the high seas, it became more and more evident to the officers who had to live in the vessels, that better sea-going qualities and surface habitability were required.[9]

Paradoxically, in view of the threat he believed was posed by the submarine, Fisher was simultaneously refining his views with regard to the massive new capital ships with which his name would be forever associated: the dreadnought, and more especially the battle cruiser, whose light armour offered even less resistance to torpedoes. Even here, his lack of focus would be evident, as will be shown. What Fisher needed was a strong overseer. So long as Selborne remained First Lord, there was a chance that Fisher could be held in check and his relentless energy usefully channelled.

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          Fisher’s comprehensive remit in 1904, as outlined in a memorandum presented to him by Selborne, included the following: long-range firing, the scrapping of obsolete vessels, the provision of more destroyers and submarines, mobilization, nucleus crews, two year commissions, the training of potential flag officers and the development of the war course. Despite their imposing and wide-ranging nature Selborne was on safe ground as he knew that, for all of these, Fisher shared his views. The First Lord was altogether more circumspect when it came to the redistribution of the fleets.[10] Economy, however, was to be king — a fact outlined in Selborne’s opening paragraph: ‘It is quite certain’, he declared, ‘that the Navy Estimates have for the present reached their maximum in the present year. In 1905-1906 not only can there be no possible increase, but it is necessary, for the influence of the Admiralty over the House of Commons and for the stability of the national finances, that we should show a substantial decrease.’[11] Of course what neither Selborne nor anyone else at the Admiralty could not anticipate was the annihilation of the twin threats, the Russian and French navies, the first at the hands of the Japanese, the second by a combination of self-inflicted doctrinal confusion and diplomatic manoeuvrings. Indeed, as early as February 1904, there had been a demand to cut the 1904-5 British estimates in view of the purported destruction of the Russian Far East fleet.

                The Russo-Japanese war commenced on the night of 8 February 1904 with the surprise attack by Japanese torpedo boats against a Russian fleet lying complacently at anchor outside Port Arthur. Despite initial reports of severe damage being sustained, Selborne argued that it was too early to discount the Russians; furthermore, belief in an eventual Russian victory remained strong, an inevitable by-product as Western minds attempted to assimilate the Japanese enigma. It was also, by this time, impossible to disregard the threat posed by the emerging German navy[12] as was made clear by Selborne in a Cabinet memorandum of 26 February:

It may, however, be suggested that there is no need for this country to consider the German fleet as a possible antagonist. In this relation I can only repeat with the most earnest conviction and with the utmost emphasis the arguments which I have already addressed to the Cabinet on this subject. These arguments are based on a careful study of German naval policy, which led me to the conviction that the great new German navy is being carefully built up from the point of view of a war with us.

Selborne was at pains to point out how this affected the two power standard:

It is an error to suppose that the two power standard adopted by this country some fifteen years ago, ratified by every Government since, and accepted as an article of faith by the whole nation, has ever had reference only to France and Russia. It has always referred to the two strongest Naval Powers at any given moment, and it has been identified in many minds with France and Russia only because France and Russia have for some years past possessed the two most powerful navies next to our own. If the Russian navy does emerge from the present war materially weakened, the result will be that the two power standard must hereafter be calculated with reference to the navies of France and Germany....[13]

                Yet, as if to confound this new degree of realism, the French threat was also dissipated. By 1902, as mentioned, the French fleet at Toulon had achieved a high measure of efficiency; within two years it was all undone. France, the principal protagonist of the previous decade, was in danger of slipping down a rung on the ladder to become, in the dread parlance of the day, a second-class naval power. This startling decline owed much to a thawing in the former frosty relationship with Britain and to the advent of new, as yet untried, weapons (principally the submarine) which offered the alluring hope of building a navy on the cheap. But above all, the architect of the fall was France’s own Minister of Marine, Charles Pelletan, who had been appointed in June 1902 professing not to know ‘what ironclads really are’.[14] Pelletan informed the Chamber of Deputies on 6 February 1903 that, although no-one could foresee the course of a future naval battle,

what we do see is that in anticipation of this great battle we Frenchmen are in a manifestly unfavourable position. For the chances of victory are all on the side of the Power that can send into action the largest number of ironclads, and as each unit may cost from 30 to 40 million francs, the determining factor in victory is the longer purse. Can France, therefore, rival England, which has a naval budget two and a half times bigger than that of France? And it is not merely England that is in question. France has been until recently the second naval Power in the world. At present there are rivals on every hand seeking to outstrip France. If Germany and the United States enter the field, how can France continue the struggle?[15]

In short, she could not. Following this inexorable logic the French Mediterranean Squadron was reduced to eleven battleships in 1903 (five of which were in reserve) and nine the following year (with three in reserve). Incredibly, Pelletan had also decided that war, like cricket, was not an occupation that was carried on in winter and this belief allowed him to reduce the complements of the remaining ships by 1,750 men in November 1902, a policy criticized not only at home but also in the Russian press.[16] Under the weight of such policies the naval centre of gravity was shifting to northern Europe.

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                As a result of the French moves there was an understandable demand in Britain to grasp the opportunity so presented and reduce the number of battleships at Malta. The Naval Annual attracted criticism in turn by adding its weight to the campaign as Lord Brassey himself concluded ‘that the strength of the British Mediterranean Fleet in battleships (not in cruisers) is excessive, and that the present requirements for the defence of the Empire would be better met by the strengthening of the Channel Fleet at the expense of that in the Mediterranean. The latter has been increased to fourteen battleships, including all our most powerful and recently-completed ships. The French navy have only six battleships in commission throughout the year, and of these the complements have been reduced during the winter months.’[17] Moreover, added Brassey, it was clear that the Channel Fleet could always reinforce the Mediterranean Fleet if necessary which was an important consideration as the increase in the strength of the Mediterranean Fleet was creating an intolerable strain on the Malta dockyard.

                This depended, however, on having a safe passage through the Straits of Gibraltar, a fact taken for granted during the nineteenth century, but which was being undermined by the French policy of peaceful penetration in Morocco. A weak Moorish kingdom opposite Gibraltar was one thing; a French colony quite another. In the secret negotiations which preceded the signing of the Anglo-French Entente in 1904, the French Foreign Minister, Théophile Delcassé, took great care to ensure that unfettered British access to the Mediterranean would be guaranteed by agreeing to allow Spain to control that section of the Moroccan coast opposite Gibraltar. The loss of this small section of the littoral to Spain served two purposes for the French: it assuaged the British while at the same time prevented them controlling both sides of the Straits. The ploy worked and, when the matter was discussed by the Committee of Imperial Defence in December, 1903, the First Sea Lord could see no objection to the arrangement.[18]

                Although, during 1903, the strength of the British Mediterranean Fleet was reduced by two ships – which were then added to the Channel Squadron – this was not enough for Brassey who argued again in 1904 that the twelve ships then on the Malta station were still too many, particularly in view of a further reduction in French strength. An ancillary, though no less important, reason for reducing the Mediterranean Fleet was the unhealthy climate: fever, it was noted, was ‘again very rife among the naval element’.[19] What concerned Brassey equally was that, following the scares and subsequent agitation of recent years, massive amounts of money had been allocated to docks and dockyards at Malta and Gibraltar; expenditure which now appeared to have been unnecessary. And, when the reorganization of the fleets was announced so that the old Channel Squadron became the new Atlantic Fleet, based at Gibraltar, Brassey at once saw a cynical motive at work: having lavished five million pounds on the harbour and dockyard at Gibraltar it was then politic to demonstrate that the money had not been squandered. In any event, Brassey disagreed with the new policy on other grounds. Obviously the new Atlantic Fleet and the Mediterranean Squadron could not share the base in peacetime; but, as he believed the Mediterranean Fleet should still concentrate at Gibraltar in time of war, he argued that ‘the creation of a dockyard at Gibraltar cannot be held a sufficient reason to justify cutting off the Mediterranean Fleet in time of peace from its chief base in the event of war. To make an arrangement which would have to be altered on the first whisper of war cannot be sound policy.’[20]

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                Malta was out of favour with Fisher as well; the mercurial First Sea Lord apparently intended to base the Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria. His oft-stated dictum, given to anyone who would care to listen, was that: ‘5 keys lock up the world! Singapore, the Cape, Alexandria, Gibraltar, Dover. These five keys belong to England, and the five great Fleets of England will hold those keys!’[21] Fisher’s “five great Fleets”, as outlined by him in November 1904, were to have been a Home Fleet (based at Dover); Atlantic Fleet (Gibraltar); Mediterranean Fleet (Alexandria); Western Fleet (Cape); and Eastern Fleet (Singapore). As part of this plan, the twelve battleships stationed in the Mediterranean would be reduced by a further four, to go to the Home Fleet.[22] Fisher’s preference for Alexandria over Malta was never likely to be acceded to following the investment which had been made in Malta and, when Selborne announced his Memorandum on the Distribution and Mobilisation of the Fleet on 6 December 1904, Alexandria was not mentioned. Instead, Selborne judiciously maintained that:

The principles, on which the present peace distribution of His Majesty’s ships and the arrangement of their stations are based, date from a period when the electric telegraph did not exist and when wind was the motive power, and it is a wonderful testimony to the strategical and political soundness of those principles that they have stood the test of time and met all the needs of the Service up to the present moment. In the opinion of the Board of Admiralty, however, the new conditions....have necessitated a review and readjustment of this distribution of ships and arrangement of stations. In the study of this question the Board have endeavoured to benefit by the experiences of the Navies of Japan and of Russia in the present war, and by the same light to review the principles on which the different classes of modern war-ships are constructed and the features embodied in them. In order temporarily to assist the Board and the Director of Naval Construction in the elucidation of the problems involved it has been decided to appoint a special Committee of Designs which will be composed of naval officers and scientific and professional experts and will begin work early next year, the Board of Admiralty first laying down as a basis what they consider to be the fighting requisites of the desired types of war vessels and the governing features of each type to which the other features shall be subservient.[23]

As a result, the old Home Fleet became the new Channel Fleet, consisting of twelve battleships. The old Channel Fleet became the Atlantic Fleet, permanently based on Gibraltar, consisting of eight battleships, while the Mediterranean Fleet would now consist of eight battleships and ‘a sufficient number of cruisers’. The larger cruisers on the station would be grouped together as the Third Cruiser Squadron and would be available for detached service.

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                The constant redistribution of the fleet throughout this period was symptomatic of the confusing international situation; nothing is so perplexing as to be unable to identify a possible enemy, whereas a clear and unambiguous threat concentrates the naval and military mind wonderfully. Although Fisher did not get all he asked for, one concession was made to him: he had complained that his predecessors on the Mediterranean station had all been Admirals but, because he was a Vice-Admiral, he ‘was docked of a number of servants…and also docked of a large amount of pay.’[24] Selborne announced that, in future, the C-in-C of the Mediterranean Fleet would hold the rank of Admiral, or the acting rank of Admiral. It was a simple expedient whose dire long-term consequences would be out of all proportion to the ease with which it was granted.[25] On the other hand Selborne disposed of one of Fisher’s five keys: the Mediterranean Fleet, he declared, ‘will, of course, remain based on Malta.’ Additionally, the problem foreseen by Brassey of creating a separate command at Gibraltar was solved by the questionable contrivance of detaching the Gibraltar command from the Mediterranean station in time of peace – reverting to it only in time of war – and by reducing the limits of the Mediterranean station from the tenth degree of longitude to the fifth degree.[26]

                Fisher would not give up that easily; he was unrelenting in his preference for Alexandria (for which he claimed to have the support of the Prime Minister). In case this should not prove sufficient, Fisher tried to drum up enthusiasm on the spot by writing to Cromer, the Egyptian Consul-General, in April 1905 to emphasize ‘the coming importance of Alexandria in naval strategy.’ His reasoning was simple: the immense development in submarines would leave the English Channel and western basin of the Mediterranean uninhabitable by a fleet in wartime. ‘Malta will lose its significance as the base of the Mediterranean Fleet’, he argued,

but it will retain its importance, as absolutely locking up by means of the mass of submarines we shall station there, the passages from the western to the eastern basin of the Mediterranean. There will only be a small puddle in the middle of the western basin of the Mediterranean that will not be dominated by the French submarines on the French Algerian and Corsican coasts! Our Mediterranean Fleet, therefore, will have its new base at Alexandria, and this is as it should be, if the Suez Canal is to remain neutralized. Also, further, I personally (though yet in a minority of one perhaps) am absolutely convinced that our fighting policy is to have free access to the Black Sea for warships of all nations, and for that reason we want Alexandria, not Malta, as our chief naval base.[27]

                By the time Fisher wrote this, political events were conspiring to turn the Mediterranean into a backwater. The Anglo-French Entente had begun officially on 8 April 1904 when an agreement was signed settling colonial differences between the two nations, including a reciprocal recognition of each country’s paramount position in Egypt (Britain) and Morocco (France). But as Anglo-French relations improved, so Anglo-German relations deteriorated. With the Russo-Japanese war still being waged the Russians had, at the end of 1904, been approached by the Germans hinting at a possible alliance.[28] Whether he was aware of such approaches or not, Fisher had no doubts following the infamous Dogger Bank incident (when trigger-happy Russian warships fired on British trawlers in the North Sea in the scarcely credible belief that they were Japanese torpedo boats waiting in ambush) that it was actually the Germans behind it all.[29] The nadir was reached on 31 March 1905 when the Kaiser, grievously seasick in a howling gale, thankfully descended on to firm ground at Tangier to mutter a pledge to uphold the independence of Morocco.[30] While the wind snatched his words and scattered their meaning amongst the bemused onlookers, the significance of his appearance at the port was all too apparent in Paris and London. This heavy-handed attempt to convince the French that they would be wiser to co-operate with Germany, not England, had the opposite effect to that intended, but not before presenting Lord Lansdowne, the British Foreign Secretary, with a number of disagreeable alarms.

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                Wilhelm, still blustering, had gone on to inform Prince Louis of Battenberg on April Fool’s Day that, ‘As to France, we know the road to Paris, and we will get there again if needs be. They should remember no fleet can defend Paris.’[31] It did not take long for this threat to reach Lansdowne. Meanwhile, a section of the French cabinet was in favour of buying off Germany with the offer of a Moroccan port in return for German recognition of France’s primary position in that country. It was Lansdowne’s firmly held belief that a German port on the Atlantic seaboard of Morocco or, even worse, on the Mediterranean coast, would be a fatal blow to British security.[32] Lansdowne authorized his Ambassador in Paris to reassure the French of British support, and to offer ‘to join the French Govt in offering strong opposition’ to any German proposal to establish a port on the coast of Morocco.[33] Fisher, as pugnacious as always, helpfully offered Lansdowne some free advice:

This seems a golden opportunity for fighting the Germans in alliance with the French, so I earnestly hope you may be able to bring this about. Of course I don’t pretend to be a diplomat, but it strikes me the German Emperor will greatly injure the splendid and increasing Anglo-French Entente if he is allowed to score in any way — even if it is only getting rid of M. Delcassé [the French Foreign Minister]…All I hope is that you will send a telegram to Paris that the English and French Fleets are one. We could have the German Fleet, the Kiel Canal, and Schleswig-Holstein within a fortnight.[34]

                Whatever Lansdowne made of this, he did tend to support Fisher’s publicly held view, whereas Arthur Balfour, the Conservative Prime Minister, confessed to ‘private doubts’ as to the possible value of a Moroccan port for the Germans. Balfour rightly pointed out the difficulties which would beset the Germans in trying to develop ‘a satisfactory base of operations’.[35] It transpired, however, that Fisher’s private view coincided with Balfour’s: ‘[O]f course the Germans will ask for Mogador,’ Fisher informed Louis Mallet at the Foreign Office, ‘and I shall tell Lord L[ansdowne] that if they do we must at least have Tangier — of course it is all rot and it would not matter to us whether the Germans got Mogador or not but I’m not going to say so all the same.’[36] Nevertheless, German pressure on France mounted throughout May until, in an attempt to reassure the French Ambassador, Paul Cambon, Lansdowne informed him on the 17th that: ‘Our two governments should continue to treat one another with the most absolute confidence, should keep one another fully informed of everything which came to their knowledge, and should, as far as possible, discuss in advance any contingencies by which they might in the course of events find themselves confronted.’[37] Cambon and Delcassé misinterpreted Lansdowne’s remark, believing it to mean, at the least, British support in a Franco-German war and, at most, an offer of alliance. Eleven days later, on 28 May 1905, after its epic but doomed voyage, the Russian Baltic Fleet was annihilated by Britain’s ally, Japan, in the Tsushima Straits. Delcassé’s attempt to extract a conditional pledge from Lansdowne failed and, when the Germans discovered that the French Foreign Minister was attempting to mediate in the Russo-Japanese War – with the possibility of a Triple Alliance of France, Russia and Britain as the glittering prize – they successfully demanded Delcassé’s dismissal.

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                It did little to help Delcassé’s cause that he had become unpopular with his colleagues;[38] paradoxically his sacrificial resignation, on 6 June, did not produce the desired effect of appeasing the Germans who continued to insist on an international conference to settle the Moroccan question.[39] This intransigence might have been fuelled by the fact that, on the evening of the day of Delcassé’s enforced resignation, the German Chargé d’Affaires in Paris was secretly, but erroneously, informed that the British had offered an alliance to France.[40] The situation had deteriorated to such an extent that, on 24 June, Fisher assigned the Director of Naval Intelligence to investigate the manning and distribution of the Fleet in the event of naval action against Germany becoming necessary in support of the French.[41] Captain Ottley, the Director of Naval Intelligence, replied two days later that little needed to be done and that, with the French in control in the Mediterranean, a portion of the British Fleet there could be recalled, leaving a skeleton force only to watch the Black Sea Fleet. He did, however, advise that, to avoid misunderstandings with the French, an exchange of views should take place; this aspect of Ottley’s recommendation was not acted upon.[42] This was hardly surprising as Balfour had already decided that Germany was ‘really desirous of obtaining a port on the coast of Morocco, and if such a proceeding be a menace to our interests, it must be to other means than French assistance that we must look for our protection.’[43] Despite this, Lansdowne continued to offer diplomatic support to the French which in turn became a factor in the French decision to agree to the convening of the conference sought by the Germans.[44]

                With the threat of war still lingering in the air in Europe, the lessening of the Russian threat in the Far East following Tsushima allowed the Admiralty to withdraw five battleships from the China Station and redistribute them to meet the current crisis in the west: three would be ordered to reinforce the Channel fleet and one each to reinforce the Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets. Public perception, if not official Admiralty policy, was of a deployment specifically directed against Germany leading the new First Lord, Cawdor,[45] to argue that,

Squadrons of varying strength are strategically required in certain waters; but the kaleidoscopic nature of international relations, as well as variations or new developments in sea-power, not only forbids any permanent allocation of numbers, but in fact points the necessity for periodic redistribution of ships between our Fleets to meet the political requirements of the moment.[46]

This, however, now represented the policy of an outgoing administration: with the Conservative party hopelessly split over the question of tariff reform, Balfour resigned on 4 December 1905. A week later the Liberals had formed an interim government in which Sir Edward Grey became Foreign Secretary. For Grey, the conclusion of an Anglo-Russian agreement, which he had consistently advocated, was ‘the primary goal of British foreign policy.’[47]

                For the time being, despite the strengthening of the Anglo-French bond and the public pronouncements of Grey regarding a rapprochement with Russia, the new Board of Admiralty appointed by the incoming Liberal administration and now headed by the ineffectual Lord Tweedmouth, simply reiterated Cawdor’s policy. The Russians had been reduced to the rank of a third-class naval power – but only, it was thought, temporarily – while a new French building programme was under way. As the prospect of an Anglo-French or Anglo-Russian conflict seemed unlikely the Admiralty was in the fortuitous position of being overwhelmingly strong and with only one real or imagined enemy: Germany. Despite this, it was still capable of arguing, if somewhat disingenuously, that

The Board of Admiralty, as the responsible naval advisers of the Government cannot base their plans upon the shifting sands of any temporary and unofficial international relationship. Highly as we may value the entente cordiale we cannot but remember that similar attempts to bring together peoples…[have] not hitherto been uniformly successful…Ententes may vanish — battleships remain the surest pledges this country can give for the continued peace of the world.[48]

Notwithstanding these resounding words, newly commissioned battleships would continue to be stationed to react against the threat from Germany. When, in January 1906, at the conference to settle the Moroccan crisis, France received the support of both Grey and the Russians the result was a resounding diplomatic defeat for the Germans — the consequence of their own ham-fisted attempts at diplomacy which had done little else but provide a firm foundation for the burgeoning Entente; Germany had been left isolated and more dangerous than ever. The apogee of the Mediterranean fleet had been reached and passed, though for some time it would continue to exert its attractions.

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With the German and American fleets growing rapidly and the “two power plus a margin” standard still official policy the possibility that the incoming Liberal government would be able to avert the demands for increases in the naval estimates seemed remote. While certain of Fisher’s schemes had resulted in savings being achieved – administrative reform, the scrapping and sale of many obsolete vessels, the nucleus crew system – another of his innovations threatened to provoke a new naval arms race. This was the all-big-gun battleship and its faster, though less heavily armoured derivative, the all-big-gun cruiser. Fisher, given to extremes at the best of times, wavered in 1904 about the vessel of the future. In January of that year he informed the D.N.I. that it would be the submarine which was destined to ‘displace the gun and absolutely revolutionize Naval Tactics’; then by the middle of the year he doubted the desirability of building battleships at all though not, apparently, because of the coming submarine menace. The “battlefleet” principle had been outdated by the advent of fast torpedo craft and there was, he argued, no function of battleships that large armoured cruisers could not fulfil.[49] Undeterred in his own eclectic mind by this gloomy prognosis for the capital ship, Fisher then confusingly outlined his navy of the future:

The New Navy to be absolutely restricted to four types of vessels being all that modern fighting necessitates.

I.   Battleships of 15,900 tons. 21 knots speed

II.  Armoured Cruisers of 15,900 tons. 25 knots speed.

III. Destroyers of 750 tons, and 4-inch guns. 36 knots speed.

IV. Submarines of 350 tons. 14 knots surface speed.[50]

                To investigate the various proposals the First Lord at the time (Selborne) had agreed, on Fisher’s initiative, to convene a “Committee on New Designs”. Although Fisher would continue to have his doubts as to the future of the battleship[51] it is evident that he was also refining his ideas with a view to producing a radical new ship. In fact the essentials of the new design – high speed and large, uniform main battery – had been arrived at by mid-1904 but until he could take up his post as First Sea Lord in October there was little Fisher could do.[52] On 2 August 1904 Fisher requested of the First Lord,

Not to take any step to lay down any fresh battleships, or that will in any way bind you to do so until you have allowed me to set before you in detail in October next why we should hold our hands in this matter! Besides it being a matter of fighting efficiency not to lay down another fighting vessel until we have reconsidered fighting conditions, there is also the fact that Russia’s naval decline permits us to wait a bit, and you will also readily see the enormous effect on next year’s Estimates if, with a solid ground for doing so, we mark time a little bit in new construction!… I hope you will believe that I should not trouble you unless I had a most overwhelming sense of its being wrong to begin building any new vessels of any kind until we had carefully worked out new designs with new minds.[53]

Selborne could not agree. ‘Under no circumstances’, he replied two days later, ‘can I consent to a year’s hiatus in battleship building. What is much more important even than the best design is to have a continuous series of ships coming on … A joint design by yourself and the Archangel Gabriel is of no use if it comes too late. There are two maxims from which I will never depart whatever I do with the ten Commandments. Lay down battleships every year. Lay down the best design you have ready in that year.’ As this was before the Russian disaster at Tsushima, Selborne also disagreed about Russia’s naval decline: at that stage she had lost only one battleship and, he added, ‘was learning rapidly in the greatest of schools and she will have a thundering programme immediately. That bird is not bagged yet and there is Germany better and better.’[54]

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                While it could be assumed that Fisher’s “carefully worked out new designs” referred principally to the “Dreadnought” class, as will be seen, there is evidence available[55] that he intended to concentrate solely on the battle cruiser concept instead; but realizing, as a result of Selborne’s instant and intransigent opposition, that he would face an overwhelming struggle, Fisher then compromised politically by agreeing to the building of a single Dreadnought — so long as he was assured of the concomitant construction of three battle cruisers. Fisher had written to Selborne in January 1901: ‘It is clearly necessary to have superiority of speed in order to compel your opponent to accept battle, or to enable you to avoid battle …The increase in the exact strength and exact size of type can be best formulated by defining superiority of speed as the first qualification for all classes of vessels … the second is gun-power …’[56] There was no mention of armour protection; the refinement of these ideas was to lead, ineluctably, to the development of the battle cruiser. As Fisher later admitted, when discussing the performance of Indomitable (one of the first three battle cruisers): ‘I should have none else myself! and said so when she was designed, the same time as Dreadnought, but I was in a minority of one! You have to have Moses before Paul! You couldn’t have had the New Testament without the Old first! The Dreadnought paved the way to the Indomitable. It’s no use one or two knots superiority of speed — a dirty bottom brings that down! It’s a d——d big six or seven knots surplus that does the trick!’[57]

                What Fisher needed to ‘sell’ the battle cruiser concept was the convergence of different technologies such as turbines for the great speed which was a feature of the class. Speed, to Fisher, was armour; but speed in itself was of little value unless these lightly armoured ships could reach out — beyond the range at which their opponents guns could strike — and hit accurately. And this meant a new system of gunnery fire control. In the same way that the lessons of the Russo-Japanese war would later be used retrospectively to vindicate the design of the new warships, Fisher used the latest development in fire control to convince himself, if need be, of the superiority of the battle cruiser over the dreadnought, and to deflect the arguments that he realized were likely to arise. Although a consistent advocate of long range gunnery,[58] Fisher, up to the end of 1904, had an imperfect knowledge of the newest advances in salvo firing.[59] Shortly after becoming First Sea Lord, however, he became aware of Arthur Hungerford Pollen’s quest to devise a vastly improved fire control system. Pollen’s system held out the promise of providing the Royal Navy with a monopoly of long range hitting. Fisher, it has been suggested, ‘could hardly have missed Pollen’s contention that the adoption of his system would enable British capital ships to hit their targets at ranges at which an opponent could not reply effectively, and that such a capability suggested the construction of vessels of higher speed, heavier fire power and less armour, which would be much superior to the not yet completed Dreadnought.’[60] Pollen was to write in May 1906 that, ‘You cannot get away from this, that as soon as we know that our guns can hit at long ranges regularly, we shall have to base our tactics and our shipbuilding on the inevitable corollaries.’ These included an increased angle of descent of the projectile, calling for more horizontal armour and less vertical, and guns available for both broadsides. ‘But beyond everything, you must have speed — for this is the determining factor both in choosing an initial range, and maintaining it … Tactically, it is second in importance only to technical perfection in the use of guns. Protection – i.e. armour – is a bad third.’[61] For Fisher, even if he did not comprehend the intricacies of the new system being proposed, the conclusion was obvious: the sacrifice of armour in the new ships would keep ‘their size and cost within Britain’s limited though considerable resources.’[62]

                However, what Fisher ignored was the obvious corollary that the Germans would make improvements to their fire-control systems. If Germany adopted a gun of equal range and a fire control system of similar capability the British ships would lose their advantage — only their speed could hope to save them. Their use as an offensive weapon would be severely limited. The final irony was that Pollen’s system was repeatedly rejected by the Royal Navy in favour of a cheaper, but less effective, apparatus.[63] Fisher had conceived a weapon of little strategic value, of still enormous expense, requiring a new tactical doctrine if they were successfully to co-operate with slower battleships, and whose entire rationale would be nullified the moment Germany commenced construction of a similar class of vessel. Fisher’s culpability extended further — although naval progress world-wide was moving towards the all-big-gun ship, the launch of Dreadnought caught Admiral Tirpitz, chief of the German Imperial Naval Office, genuinely unaware. To counter the proposition that, by rendering obsolete earlier vessels, the advantage accruing to Britain by virtue of the preponderance in older ships had been wiped out at a stroke, the Admiralty could have used the opportunity to push on with the construction of further dreadnoughts and steal a march on Germany. Instead, three battle cruisers were laid down early in 1906 in place of dreadnoughts. Once Dreadnought herself had been completed late in 1906, it would not be until 1909 before she was joined by ships of the next, similar, class. On predictions then current, the Admiralty envisaged that, by the middle of 1909, Germany would have four of the new class completed plus two battle cruisers to match five British dreadnoughts and three battle cruisers, a worryingly narrow margin.[64] Although this prediction was to prove awry, Fisher’s ‘vision’ could have cost Britain dear.


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[1]    Preface by Marder, F.G.D.N., vol. I, p. 9.

[2]    This dominates Sumida’s book, In Defence of Naval Supremacy; in addition, Sumida has edited Pollen’s papers for the Navy Record Society.

[3]    The object of Lambert’s article, “British Naval Policy, 1913-1914: Financial Limitation and Strategic Revolution” [The Journal of Modern History 67, September 1995] is, in his words, ‘to show that much of the traditional interpretation of British naval policy prior to the First World War, as codified by Arthur Marder, is based on a thorough misunderstanding of the Admiralty’s strategic thinking.’ He concludes by asserting that ‘There must be serious doubts over not only the accuracy of the currently accepted historical narrative but also the methodology used to produce it.’ However, Lambert himself, in his desire to elevate Fisher to the level of strategic genius, is also guilty of misrepresentation. For example, he places emphasis on Fisher’s advice to Churchill in February 1912 to withdraw the British battleships from the Mediterranean while at the same time ignoring the fact that, as will be seen, Churchill himself had advocated such a course, without Fisher’s input, on 15 March 1911 while Battenberg also urged this in a letter to Churchill on 20 November 1911. Lambert claims that, ‘During the spring of 1913, Lord Fisher … became noticeably more vocal in demanding submarines for the Navy.’ The evidence cited for this is a letter from Fisher to Churchill dated 31 March 1913 in which Fisher was commenting on Churchill’s recent speech in the Commons. At the end of the letter, in one of Fisher’s typical asides, is the following: ‘Neither have you allowed half enough money for submarines. Believe me, they are the coming force! (However I am preparing an upheaval for you on that point, so no more!).’ Fisher had been saying such things for years; his statements, however, rang hollow in the face of criticism such as that made by Keyes (see above). Lambert also refers to Fisher’s famous memorandum on submarines and the fact that ‘What has always impressed historians about this famous paper was Fisher’s prediction that submarines would sink unarmed merchant ships without warning, an assertion that at the time was regarded as fantastic …’ It was not so fantastic that the former Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, mentioned it, as his own opinion, to Fisher on 20 May 1913 when criticising an early draft of Fisher’s paper. ‘You assume in your memorandum …’ Balfour wrote, ‘that a submarine, going through narrow waters, such as the Straits of Dover, if these were carefully guarded, would be in a perilous position. You also suggest that submarines with guns could drive off other submarines. I am not sure that I very clearly understand how it is possible either to prevent submarines from freely using the Straits of Dover, whatever naval precautions we might adopt; nor how one submarine can compel another submarine either to fight or abandon its station. If these operations are impossible, or, without being impossible, are extremely difficult, we might conceivably find ourselves surrounded by seas in which no enemy’s battleship could live, and which no enemy’s troops could cross, but which would yet be as little under our control, for military or commercial purposes, as if we were the inferior maritime power. If there was any chance of such an extreme hypothesis being realized, we should not only be useless allies to any friendly power on the Continent, but we should have the utmost difficulty in keeping ourselves alive. Should we not, among other things, have to reconsider our views about the capture or rather the destruction (for a submarine could not capture) of private property at sea?’ Was Fisher’s ‘prescience’ deserved? [Balfour to Fisher, 20 May 1913, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 485-6] With regard to Lambert’s theory regarding the policy of ‘substitution’ to be employed in the summer of 1914, see chapters 15 and 16 below.

[4]    See my sustained critique of Fisher in Straits.

[5]    See, for example, the detailed analysis of Fisher’s actions during the planning and instigation of the Dardanelles campaign, January 1915, as described in my previous book, Straits.

[6]    Fisher to Selborne, 19 October 1904, F.G.D.N., vol. I, p. 332.

[7]    Fisher had written in the 1870s of a conviction that, ‘the issue of the next naval war will chiefly depend upon the use that is made of the torpedo, not only in ocean warfare, but for purposes of blockade.’ Marder, F.G.D.N., vol. I, p. 64, citing Bacon, Fisher, I, p. 54.

[8]    ‘I have had the officer here in my room’, Fisher declared, ‘who saw the Russian torpedo run the 3,000 yards at 24 knots as straight as a die!’ Fisher to Balfour, 5 January 1904, F.G.D.N., vol. I, p. 283.

[9]    Keyes, Naval Memoirs, 1910-1915, p. 35.

[10]  Mackay, Fisher, p. 306.

[11]  Quoted in Mackay, ibid.; Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, p. 27.

[12]  Germany had been officially recognized as a potential enemy since 1902: see Boyce (ed.), Selborne Papers, p. 150, n. 55.

[13]  Cabinet Memorandum by Lord Selborne, 26 February 1904, Selborne Papers, pp. 170-3.

[14]  Marder, Anatomy, p. 469.

[15]  Quoted in The Naval Annual 1903, p. 21.

[16]  The Naval Annual 1903, pp. 57-9; Marder, Anatomy, p. 470. As Ropp points out (The Development of a Modern Navy, pp. 325-6), ‘Some of the incidents during the Pelletan ministry were so outrageous as to be amusing. In 1903 the destroyer Espingole was sunk in a collision near Toulon, and Pelletan gave the contract for her salvage to two wine merchants of the proper political faith. These worthies had no equipment for the task, and the minister lent them men and machinery from Toulon. Even so, they were unable to raise the ship.’

[17]  The Naval Annual 1903, p. 61.

[18]  Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, pp. 11-2, 15.

[19]  T A Brassey (ed.), The Naval Annual 1904, pp. 87-8.

[20]  The Naval Annual 1905, p. 41.

[21]  Fisher, Naval Necessities I, p. 219.

[22]  Mackay, Fisher, p. 313.

[23]  “Memorandum of First Lord on the Distribution and Mobilisation of the Fleet”, 15 March 1905, The Naval Annual 1905, pp. 455-69.

[24]  Fisher to Selborne, 13 November 1904, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p.49.

[25]  Miller, Superior Force, pp. 3-4, 33.

[26]  First Lord’s memorandum, The Naval Annual 1905, pp. 455-69.

[27]  Fisher to Cromer, 22 April 1905, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p.54.

[28]  C J Lowe & M L Dockrill, The Mirage of Power, vol. I, p. 11.

[29]  Mackay, Fisher, p. 316.

[30]  Douglas Porch, The Conquest of Morocco, p. 137.

[31]  Note by Battenberg, quoted in, Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 32.

[32]  Lowe & Dockrill, Mirage of Power, vol. I, p. 12. In this view he was heavily influenced by Louis Mallet.

[33]  Bertie to Lansdowne, 25 April 1905, BD, III, no. 93, pp. 74-5.

[34]  Fisher to Lansdowne, 22 April 1905, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 55.

[35]  Balfour to Fisher, 26 April 1905, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p.57.

[36]  Fisher to Mallet, quoted in, Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 35.

[37]  Lansdowne to Bertie, 17 May 1905, BD, III, no. 94, p. 76.

[38]  The British Ambassador in Paris, Sir Francis Bertie, believed that, due to his conviction that he was indispensable, which caused him to act on his own initiative, Delcassé would have fallen without German pressure; ‘but he might not have fallen so soon.’ Hamilton, Bertie of Thame, p. 90.

[39]  John F V Keiger, France and the Origins of the First World War, p. 22.

[40]  Lansdowne had twice to deny this assertion to the German Ambassador in London, on 16 and 28 June. Grey had also received some evidence ‘to the effect that the German Ambassador had threatened M. Rouvier in June 1905 with military action in consequence of a belief that a “Convention or Agreement” was about to be signed with Great Britain, and that this led to Delcassé’s fall.’ Editorial note, BD, III, no. 105 (b), p. 87; Williamson, The Politics of Grand Strategy, p. 40.

[41]  A J Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, vol. I, p. 116 [hereinafter referred to as Dreadnought]. ‘The D.N.I. replied that the Admiralty would have little to do other than call home the Atlantic Fleet and order [Admiral] Wilson to commence hostilities!’ Mackay, Fisher, p. 330

[42]  Marder, Anatomy, p. 503.

[43]  Balfour to Edward VII, 8 June 1905, quoted in, Hamilton, Bertie of Thame, p. 91.

[44]  Ibid., pp. 97-8.

[45]  In February 1905 Selborne had been appointed Governor-General of the Transvaal and High Commissioner for South Africa.

[46]  “Admiralty Policy. Memorandum on ‘Admiralty Work and Progress’ ”, 30 November 1905, [known as The Cawdor Memorandum], quoted in The Naval Annual 1906, pp. 353-61.

[47]  Keith M Wilson, The Policy of the Entente, p. 74.

[48]  Admiralty memorandum, 15 February 1906, quoted in Mackay, Fisher, pp. 328-9.

[49]  Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, p. 51; Mackay, Fisher, p. 322.

[50]  Fisher to Esher, 28 July 1904, quoted in Mackay, Fisher, p. 311. Fisher stored up problems for the future by his neglect of the light cruiser class.

[51]  See Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, p. 52.

[52]  F.G.D.N., Vol. II, p. 25; Mackay, Fisher, pp. 322-3; Marder, Anatomy, p. 527.

[53]  Fisher to Selborne, 2 August 1904, Selborne Papers, p. 180.

[54]  Selborne to Fisher, 4 August 1904, ibid., pp. 180-1.

[55]  As D. K. Brown has noted: ‘Consideration of Fisher’s contribution [with regard to Dreadnought] is made difficult because he changed his views frequently and because he wrote for effect, suiting his approach to the people he was trying to influence.’ Brown, Warrior to Dreadnought, p. 186, n. 37. Lambert’s view is more forthright. ‘New scholarship’, Lambert declares, ‘has shown that, contrary to established wisdom, Fisher was opposed to the building of Dreadnought-type battleships.’ [Lambert, “British Naval Policy, 1913-1914: Financial Limitation and Strategic Revolution”, The Journal of Modern History 67 (September 1995), pp. 595-626.] This is surely to overstate the case. There are numerous examples of Fisher’s continued support for the class: for example, his letter to McKenna, 10 February 1909 [F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 221] ‘… the main issue — THE ONLY ISSUE — is the number of Dreadnoughts! … Foreign nations have put the Dreadnought type beyond controversy, because at enormously greater proportionate expense than England, through involving them in huge indirect expenses (widening Kiel Canal, dredging, etc.) they have one and all … plunged for the Dreadnought type pure and simple.’ Or to Esher, 5 May 1908 [ibid., pp. 175-6] ‘Yesterday with all the Sea Lords present McKenna formally agreed to FOUR Dreadnoughts, AND IF NECESSARY SIX Dreadnoughts, next year (perhaps the greatest triumph ever known!) … Let there be no mistake about the two keels to one in Dreadnoughts! …’ See also [all from F.G.D.N., vol. II]: Record of a conversation between Sir Edward Grey and Sir John Fisher, 4 March 1909 [pp. 227-8]; Fisher to McKenna, 5 March 1909 [p. 229]; Fisher to Sir Arthur Davidson, 27 March 1909 [pp. 236-7]; Fisher to Arnold White, 13 November 1909 [pp. 277-8]; Fisher  to Reginald and Pamela McKenna, 22 November 1911 [pp. 415-6]; Fisher  to Esher, 2 April 1912 [pp. 442-4]; Fisher to Esher, 20 September 1912 [pp. 478-9].

[56]  Fisher to Selborne, 5 January 1901, Selborne Papers, pp. 108-12. As Mackay has noted, in August 1904, Fisher argued that there was no function of a battleship that could not be fulfilled by a first class armoured cruiser but that Fisher ‘was apparently persuaded to abandon this extreme view between August and October.’ Mackay, Fisher, p. 322. I believe that to ascertain the reasoning behind this shift, one need look no further than the virtually insurmountable difficulties Fisher realized he would face in having his ideas accepted once Selborne had acted so coolly to Fisher’s August entreaty.

[57]  Fisher to Arnold White, 15 August 1908, F.G.D.N., vol. II, pp. 188-9. See also, Fisher to Esher, 13 September 1909, F.G.D.N., vol. II, p. 266: ‘The very wonderful thing is that dear old Kelvin and the First Sea Lord wanted ‘Indomitables’ alone and not Dreadnoughts; but we had a compromise, as you know, and got 3 ‘Indomitables’ with the Dreadnoughts; and all the world now, headed by A. K. Wilson, have got ‘Indomitables’ on the brain!’

[58]  ‘What we want to develop and encourage by prizes and cups, etc., is LONG-RANGE FIRING!’ Fisher to Selborne, 9 August 1901, F.G.D.N., vol. I, p. 206.

[59]  Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy, pp. 50-1.

[60]  Ibid., p. 100. Pollen contended, for example, that if the Dreadnought could, by using superior speed, stand off and destroy all enemies by being able to hit them effectively at a range at which the opposing ships could not respond, then it would become possible to extend the critical range, particularly if utilizing the excellent new 13.5-inch gun; this would lead to the pleasing prospect of the British being able to ‘out-Dreadnought the Dreadnought’. Jon Tetsuro Sumida (ed.), The Pollen Papers, (Navy Records Society), p. 94.

[61]  Ibid., p. 99.

[62]  Keith McBride, “The Weird Sisters”, in Robert Gardiner (ed.), Warship 1990, p. 102. As McBride makes clear the battle cruiser ‘was as near to [Fisher’s] ideal as he could hope to get past the Admiralty and Parliament’ during his tenure as First Sea Lord. Of the caveats to this ideal McBride mentions that ‘Fisher never seemed to consider the possibility of meeting the enemy in bad weather, darkness, or where there was insufficient sea-room to outrange the enemy. Was this a reflection of many years spent in the Mediterranean or the tropics, where, at least in memory, the horizon was always clear and the sky blue?’ However, it is evident that Fisher examined this problem during his tenure as C-in-C, Mediterranean. In describing his ideal type of ship to Lord Selborne Fisher placed superior speed above all else; one of his reasons was that this would ‘enable you to avoid battle and lead [the enemy] away from his goal till it suits you to fight him. For instance, there are conditions of sea when certain ships can fight their guns and others cannot!’ Fisher to Lord Selborne, 5 January 1901, Selborne Papers, p. 110.

[63]  According to Sumida: ‘Fisher had been deceived by the assurances of subordinates from 1908 onwards that long-range hitting was possible without recourse to the Pollen system of fire control, which he had ordered developed in 1906 with the battle cruisers in mind. This in turn meant that Fisher believed that the Royal Navy had a monopoly of accurate long-range firing and that British battle cruisers could therefore hit opponents before they could be struck in return, when neither was in fact the case.’ Sumida, “Sir John Fisher and the Dreadnought: The Sources of Naval Mythology”, The Journal of Military History, 59 (October 1995), pp. 619-38.

[64]  Admiralty Committee Report, January 1906, given in, Hattendorf, Knight, Pearsall, Rodger and Till (eds.), British Naval Documents 1204-1960, Navy Records Society, (1993), pp. 920-2.



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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