AHRC-funded research has challenged widely-held assumptions about the build-up to the First World War, writes Carrie Dunn.
Historians have long accepted the idea that the expansion of German maritime power was the dominant factor in British naval policy before the First World War. More recently a few have argued that Admiral Sir John Fisher, the First Sea Lord at the time, was more concerned with threats of global cruiser warfare from rival empires such as France and Russia rather than the menace of a big battle fleet that was quietly increasing across the North Sea.
Now an AHRC-supported project has provided an alternative argument. Dr Matthew Seligmann of Brunel University London argues that German schemes for commerce warfare drove British naval policy for over a decade before 1914.
He shows in his book ‘The Royal Navy and the German Threat 1901-1914’ that Germany was assessed as a major threat to Britain at that time not because of its growing battle fleet, but because the British Admiralty (rightly) believed that Germany’s naval planners intended to arm their country’s fast merchant vessels and send them out to attack British trade ships in the manner of the privateers of old.
Dr Seligmann says that he stumbled upon the topic largely by accident after his previous book on British intelligence in Berlin prior to the First World War. “In that, I argued that actually Britain was extremely well informed about what Germany was doing in terms of military and naval policy, and therefore the decision for war in 1914 was a largely rational one,” he explains. “I then put forward the view that Germany was very much at the forefront of British admiralty thinking in the crucial period from around 1901 to 1905, which didn’t strike me as tremendously controversial when I wrote it, but it turns out this is an extremely contested idea.”
He began to explore the idea a little further, expanding it into a major research project, and assessing the Admiralty’s paperwork prior to the First World War. “I started looking at the origins of the battle cruiser – or large armoured cruisers as they were then called – and quickly discovered, much to my surprise, that these ships seemed to have been built very much with hunting German armed liners in mind,” he says.
I quickly discovered that battle cruisers seemed to have been built very much with hunting German armed liners in mind
He points to the doomed Lusitania, torpedoed and sunk by a German u-boat, as an example of the substantive Admiralty response. It had been built with the aim of being used in war as an armed merchant cruiser, and was listed as an auxiliary war ship – just like its sister ship the Mauretania.
So Seligmann followed an extensive paper trail through the Admiralty papers, and organised them in chronological rather than file order. This was an immense feat, almost like putting together a jigsaw, because the Admiralty have kept only two per cent of the registered papers they generate, meaning that there is a very remote chance of a complete set of documentation on any topic being retained.
So instead of accepting the gaps in the archive, Seligmann looked at it from another angle. “The only way round this sometimes is thinking about who they would have corresponded with. On armed liners, they corresponded with just about everyone. So there were papers about this in the Foreign Office files, the Colonial Office files, the Cabinet Office files, the Treasury files, and so on, and then there also seemed to be quite a lot that people had taken away and kept in their private papers,” he explains.
“The whole thing just told a story that had never been told. Nobody would have put this together, as it was so widely scattered, but an enormous amount survived in different places, and there were very few gaps in the story once I’d done all the dredging.”
The whole thing just told a story that had never been told
And once he’d got that information together, he went one step further. “Because I can read German I thought it’d be interesting to go and see what the Germans were actually doing, so I went to the German archive to look at their papers, and so I was able in the end to map out what Britain was doing with what Germany was doing, and compare and contrast the two,” he says.
“What I was able to do was work out what the Germans were actually doing, and what their policies were, and then map it against the secret intelligence Britain had on what we thought they were doing, which was in many ways close and in many ways wrong. You wouldn’t call it an intelligence failure; it was a success, albeit with the standard problem that you tend to see what you’re looking for and assume your opponent is going to do that which you’re most worried about, which isn’t always the case.”
This threat to British seaborne commerce was so serious, Seligmann argues, that the leadership of the Royal Navy, including First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill spent twelve years trying to work out how best to counter it.
“Churchill pushed the policy of creating a global intelligence network on German raiding and re-routing British shipping – that was up and running by the time the war began, and it was an important network in both wars, stemming from this particular threat,” says Seligmann.
Unsurprisingly, research this groundbreaking has created a bit of a stir in the field, with Seligmann admitting that his work is “unpalatable” to those historians who have long held the view that those who think Germany played a crucial role in shaping British policy before the First World War are simply using hindsight.
“The arguments have become fierce as other people have entered the fray,” Seligmann admits. “The old angle is being scrutinised and found wanting. Those stuck in aspic with their ideas don’t find my work to their tastes at all. I guess, without wanting to make a pun of it, this book has become a flagship for a new way of looking at naval history before the First World War.”