Sales Civitatis, Suprema Lex

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How we planned the Great War

by Pat Walsh

“Sales Civitatis, Suprema Lex” (The Safety of the State is the Highest Law) - Lord Hankey.

Lord Maurice Hankey gave unparalleled service to the State he served over more than three decades. He was much more than just an Imperial Senior Civil Servant. It would be no exaggeration to say that he kept the British State together over a generation.

‘The Supreme Command’ (1961) by Hankey, though largely ignored today, is the most complete inside description of Britain’s Great War on Germany. It contains details of the planning for that war by the person who oversaw it, coordinated it and put it into operation from August 1914.

Who was Maurice Hankey?

Hankey’s career began in the Royal Navy and it went into the Admiralty’s Intelligence Department. He became Naval Assistant Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1908, before being appointed the Secretary of it in 1912. Within this body he observed much of the planning that went into the War on Germany, supervising it and doing much of it himself.

As Hankey said in ‘The Supreme Command’: “There were few secrets with which I was not acquainted. There were few questions of war policy which did not at some stage and in some manner pass through my hands.” (p.4)

When the War that Hankey helped plan was declared in August 1914 the Committee of Imperial Defence, having successfully performed its function, was suspended. It was replaced by the War Council, of which Hankey was appointed Secretary.

Hankey also became Secretary to the Dardanelles Committee (June - October 1915) and the War Committee (November 1915 - November 1916). These bodies were “in turn the supreme British authority for the direction of the war under Asquith’s ministries” (Stephen Roskill, Hankey – Man of Secrets, Vol. 1, p.17)

When Lloyd George replaced Asquith as Prime Minister he made Hankey Secretary to his War Cabinet and then to his Imperial War Cabinet (the one that incorporated the leaders of the White Colonies). Hankey played the key role in co-ordinating the efforts of the politicians and the military chiefs directing the War. His talent lay in absorbing information and opinions from a wide variety of people within the State, synthesizing it, and then acting as a conduit to the Prime Minister. He did this until the Imperial War Cabinet was dissolved in October 1919, when Britain felt its War was won.

Hankey was also Secretary to the Imperial Conferences, and served on the British Empire delegation at Versailles and the very important Washington Conference in 1921, which was something of a watershed in the history of the Empire.

However, it was the job Hankey rejected that was of such historical significance that it deserves noting.

In early 1919 Hankey was considering taking the position of Secretary General to the emerging League of Nations. He consulted important figures within the Imperial State to gauge whether this was going to be a good move and most importantly what was what with regard to Britain’s real attitude to the thing it was supporting.

Lord Esher (a very important figure in the hinterland between the Crown and Executive) replied that "the future of the League was entirely nebulous" and if Hankey joined it he would be "a wasted force for England" (Roskill, vol. 2, p.65). Lord Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, wrote to Hankey also advising him to reject the League: "I am very doubtful whether the League of Nations is going to be a great and potent and world-pacifying instrument that its creators’ desire."

Curzon said that although in becoming Secretary General Hankey would “more likely to make a success of it than any living man" he would just become an "international official." Instead Curzon and Esher urged Hankey to remain in England where the real power would remain (The Supreme Command, p.66). In April 1919 Hankey rejected the offer of the position.

Hankey’s rejection of the Secretary General’s position signalled Britain’s rejection of the League – or rather its desire to see the League acting as something of independent substance with regard to international law and justice in the world. From then on Britain merely used the League as its instrument to justify the shirking of its responsibility to the world it had gained domination of through its Great War. And when it decided to act it ignored the League, as something of no consequence, getting on with things as it always had.

So after the War Hankey continued his career as Cabinet Secretary to the cabinets of Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Baldwin, Ramsay McDonald and Neville Chamberlain, and resumed his Secretaryship of the revived Committee of Imperial Defence between the wars. During this time he established the modern Cabinet office system on which modern British Government operates.

Hankey was a part of Chamberlain’s War Cabinet in 1939 but was sacked by Churchill in March 1942. He considered Churchill too volatile for the effective running of the war and had fundamental disagreements with his war policy. Hankey was opposed to the employment of large formations of four-engined aircraft for the provocative bombing of German cities and argued that they should have been used instead to protect the Atlantic convoys from U-Boats. He also opposed the demand for unconditional surrender of Germany that Churchill adopted, which Hankey believed was only lengthening the war by making it impossible for the Germans to concede without the Soviet Union, which was doing the bulk of the fighting, absorbing half of Europe.

Another important point of difference between Hankey and Churchill was on the issue of war crimes. In a book published in 1950, ‘Politics Trials and Errors’, Hankey argued against the Nuremburg Trials and for a general amnesty for those accused of war crimes. In this book Hankey revealed that he had opposed Lloyd George’s misguided attempt to ‘Hang the Kaiser’ in 1919 and was explicit that Germany did not start the war of 1914 and therefore could not be justly held solely responsible for it or what happened in it.

War crimes trials were included in the manifestos of all three British parties for the General Election after the 1914 war. However, the Kaiser had already been pushed into Holland by his Generals and the Netherlands Government made it clear that they took the principle of asylum very seriously and would not hand him over to the Allies. The Peace Conference sent a demand for his surrender but the Dutch replied that they had not remained neutral in the war to become mere accessories to the Allied Powers after it. If an international jurisdiction was established to try war crimes they would be part of it but would not be implicated in a partial and temporary tool of Allied policy dressed up as law and justice.

Hankey fully supported this position, opposing war crimes trials on a range of arguments including the proving of actual responsibility, the one-sided nature of the justice, the lack of an international court and the destabilising effects that such show trials would produce in the world.

Germany was then, under Allied pressure, encouraged to do the job itself. The Weimar Government conducted some Trials in Leipzig, in a half-hearted way during 1921 - something which could only have been damaging to the Weimar State at its foundation.

This fiasco, argued Hankey, should have deterred the Allies in repeating a similar exercise after World War 2. But it didn’t.

Hankey and AC Bell - two authoritative sources

Lord Hankey’s ‘The Supreme Command’ was preceded by ‘Government Control in War’ (1945) a collection of the Lees Knowles series of lectures given by Hankey in Trinity College, Cambridge at the end of the second war on Germany. In these lectures Hankey gave a taste of what he was going to say in far greater detail a decade and a half later.

Lord Hankey’s account of the preparations Britain made for its Great War was published in 1961 in 2 volumes and is called ‘The Supreme Command’. Hankey revealed in its Introduction: “For a long time I hesitated to publish this story…” (p.5)

He had written to Lloyd George back in 1930 to obtain his consent for some of the inside story of the War to be told. Lloyd George apparently agreed but the book then took another three decades to appear and then only in truncated form.

Hankey’s inside story of Britain’s Great War on Germany is, however, backed up by another long suppressed publication.

This is Archibald Colquhoun Bell’s ‘A History of the Blockade of Germany’ produced by the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence - and suppressed by British Governments for nearly half a century.

The Official History of the Blockade was completed in 1921, and produced and printed in 1937. But the copy in the British Library has a stamp on it declaring it for "official purposes only". A limited number of copies were produced for the ministries of State in Whitehall. However, it was not released for general circulation until issued by Her Majesty's Stationery Office in 1961 (although the Nazis, having obtained a copy, published a shortened German version in 1943).

A.C. Bell’s and Hankey’s revelations, therefore, appeared in the public domain at virtually the same time.

Bell’s is one of the most interesting records of the Great War, being strongly factual and minimally propagandist. In over 1000 pages it details the intricate planning of the Admiralty and Committee of Imperial Defence for economic warfare on Germany, going back a decade before the Great War, and the measures that were taken in execution of the Royal Navy’s Blockade from 1914-19. It is an insider talking to other insiders with no need to dress the War up in superfluous moral humbug.

It can only be presumed that while it was considered of vital importance to produce a detailed analysis of the naval part of the Great War for future reference it was not politic to draw the public interest to it and what it had done, particularly when it was to be attempted to be done to Germany again. To this day the Blockade on Europe only merits a passing mention in histories of the Great War and there are very few who know how many died (Bell’s estimate is around a million) as a result of it.

Both Hankey’s and Bell’s are British Imperial accounts of the Great War. They are not hostile to Britain in any way and do not question the reasons for Britain fighting it. They take it that it was natural Britain fought the War because that is what Britain does, when it is deemed necessary - fight wars to maintain its position in the world. And when it is not fighting wars it should be preparing for them.

These accounts were written by those who planned the War. And the War started to the letter, via the War Book of Hankey, as it was planned - before going off course and going out of control. Hankey notes the reason for that: “We over-rated the efficiency of our potential Allies, and under-rated that of Germany.” (Government Control in War, p.30)

The Great War was planned by Hankey and his associates within the British State with “an ordered completeness in detail that has no parallel in our history” according to the official historian of the Royal Navy, Sir Julian Corbett (Official History. Naval Operations, Vol. 1, p.18) Plenty of evidence is provided in support of that statement by Hankey in ‘The Supreme Command’. The great amounts of detailed information collected and analysed in order to secure an advantage in war would have to be handled by powerful computers these days.

The official version is that England launched its Naval Blockade in reprisal for German actions and ratcheted it up in response to German submarine activity. But both Hankey’s and Bell’s official accounts show that to be a lie.

Very little mention of the Blockade is made in histories of the Great War. The official series of British Documents issued to justify British participation make no mention of the extensive Blockade preparation. Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill all kept silent about the plans made in their volumes of memoirs, even though Asquith, at least, had cause to make a case, in defence of his own Government, that he had made good preparations for the War.

It was, however, difficult to reconcile the fact that Britain had made such extensive plans for something and put such time and effort in it when it was only employed as a reprisal.

Both ignored by the mainstream historians

Hankey and Bell seem to be of little interest to historians and the present centenary commemorators, even though they were the men who knew most about it and told it as it actually was, in factual accounts of great detail. One would think such resources would be most valuable for the understanding of the War. Particularly, that is, since it has lately been reported that the British Government has adopted a policy of concealment regarding its official records, so beloved of the historians, with 1.2 million documents having not been transferred to the official Public Records at Kew (Guardian 18.10.13).

A survey of the histories that have entered the commercial market for the centenary commemorations show that Lord Hankey and A.C. Bell have been forgotten. The most talked about recent publication, Christopher Clark’s ‘The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War in 1914,’ for all its reputed balance and thoroughness, does not even mention Hankey in its index. And the story is the same right across the range of publications in the English language – even amongst the small minority that lay some of the responsibility for the War at Britain.

It can be guessed at why Hankey is ignored. The reason seems to be that he tells the simple truth of it. And in doing so he concentrates his focus on where the whole thing originated - but where one is not supposed to look these days in trying to understand it. Because after reading The Supreme Command there can be no doubt that the Great War was one that was made in England and one which, if it had not been for the participation of Britain, would never have been the World War that it was.

Ireland, which is now largely an extension of Britain in its history writing and media productions, has shown little interest in this forgotten war.

Those who wish to restore the “national memory” about the Great War do not wish, of course, to restore the “national memory” about events within it such as the starvation Blockade of Germany that killed a million civilians, mostly women and children; or enlighten us on why war was made on the Ottoman Empire; or tell us about the British violation of Greek neutrality that created the Greek tragedy in Asia Minor; or about how the Armenians were instigated into insurrection and destruction; or about how the Arabs were cheated and how the creation of Iraq, Palestine and the modern Middle East, came about.

The national broadcaster, RTE, has shown itself to be not interested in discussing the actual Great War. It is only interested in constructing a false narrative to illicit guilt and condemnation of previous generations who had the temerity to do something meaningful in their small part of the world instead of killing others in parts of it that were none of their business.

That sort of real history has now gone out of fashion in academia and the better parts of Dublin, in its desire to be better than and different from the mass of Irish society – a desire that is taking it back toward the embrace of England.

It is not interested in the real Great War but only in the simulacra in which this discontent social strata now conducts its superficial existence, disconnected from its actual history and experience.

So they are not interested in Maurice Hankey.

How Hankey understood 'defence'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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