Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War
Reviewed by Robert Warwick

Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and
the First World War
by Nicholas Lambert
Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2012

In the Great War, 1914–1918, two wars existed side by side. There was the spectacular and intensely reported shooting war: trenches, barbed wire, artillery, and so on. Then there was the economic war, far flung across the seas, moving absolutely crucial food and supplies to the combatants through maritime trade. As the author says in his introduction in a section labeled "The History of History", "This book offers a radical reinterpretation of the nature and significance of the relationship between economics and sea power before and during the First World War."

Rare Photo of Royal Navy Boarding Party Approaching a Neutral Ship, 1914

This movement of materials, men, and animals was crucial to the war effort of every belligerent, but it was conducted for the most part by the major powers, away from the glare of publicity. Reportage on its important role was muted by the complications and ambiguous interests of world trade at that time of war. As a subtext to this study, almost as important as the main theme, Professor Lambert asks the question "How could this major aspect of the conflict escape detection for nearly a century?" His reply is that it was due to official manipulation of the historical record. That's a tantalizing statement.

This tale starts with naval strategic theory. Up to this time the Royal Navy for generations considered the navy's role to be battle — warships firing cannons and torpedoes at each other and sinking one another's warships. That was proper war. The interdiction of merchant vessels, as in a blockade, was a secondary function assigned to second-line ships.

But the trade picture in the previous half of the 19th century had radically changed in every aspect. World population increased, expanding markets for an ever increasing variety of products, and all nations began to use the increasingly efficient sea trade to supply their populations with food and essential materials. Britain imported 80 percent of the grain it used. Between 1870 and about 1895, global trade doubled in volume.

Order Now

Andrew Fisher ("Jacky") was appointed First Sea Lord, the chief officer of the British Admiralty. He was an unusual man and was not wedded to the conventional and stuffy naval tactics blindly followed in past decades by the Navy. He saw how in a time of war the chaos resulting from a disruption of trade could be an opportunity. Starting in 1908, with the assistance of like-minded economists and Admiralty staffers, he conceived a plan which would allow Britain to direct and manage the ensuing chaos to her advantage. To accomplish its purpose and win the war, Britain had to shut down the enemy's industries and deprive the population of food. Pretty much all import traffic by neutrals, even to other European neutrals, had to be interdicted.

Fisher presented this concept to the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, and to the cabinet. They liked the idea. The Government accepted it and appointed a high-level committee to convert Fisher's thoughts into an operational plan. At that time the party in power and the prime minister were Liberals, and most of them were pacifists opposed to war. The plan had appeal to Asquith and his cabinet as an alternative to a shooting war. An additional appeal, based on the lurid stories of the popular press, was that the chaos would be so devastating that the enemy would give up quickly, perhaps within six months — hence a short war.

Within the committee assigned to consider Fisher's proposal a protracted struggle to place to get consensus, but by December 1912 a plan was agreed on and it was forwarded to Parliament. After a flurry of last minute adjustments and amendments, the government accepted the report. This was a critical action because it signaled the adoption of economic warfare as national policy.

Then came the assassination, and on 4 August 4 1914 England declared war on Germany. The Royal Navy, according to protocols and resolutions decided on in previous years, proceeded to act against the German Navy by capturing her vast merchant marine fleet and interdicting shipping to that country by neutrals. Immediately those actions were resisted with a wave of objections, protests, and complaints lodged by government ministries and commercial interests. A large part of British trade was with Germany, and the sudden loss of that customer was financially disastrous to British merchants and traders. Coal was declared contraband, thus closing that export market to British mines. Meanwhile, the British foreign market office was sensitive to the UK's relationships with neutral countries and constantly sought licenses and exemptions to naval policy, diminishing the impact of the embargo.

Admiral Fisher, First Sea Lord
In a discussion of neutrals, the United States was the elephant in the room, and the author devotes a chapter to President Wilson's fractious relationship with the British in 1914 and 1915. The interdiction of United States shipping, especially of wheat and cotton, was a matter of heated dispute. The year 1914 happened to be an election year in the United States and was also a time when the U.S. was in an economic slump. The president pointed out to the British that it was this exact practice, the embargoing of freight on the high seas, that had brought about the war of 1812.

The task of making this policy operational fell on an utterly unprepared British government. Adjustments and compromises were inevitable, and Admiral Fisher's vision of economic warfare was never fully implemented.

There is no comprehensive official history of this war, the economic war. What really happened is still an untold story. You might say that a velvet curtain has fallen over these events and policies, encrusted with bank logos and official emblems. In this seminal work our author, Professor Lambert, has lifted a corner of the curtain and permitted us a glimpse of this hidden story — but just a glimpse.

His narrative ends in 1915.

Robert Warwick

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