The Naval Balance of Power in 1914

In 1914 the British Royal Navy (RN) remained the largest in the world. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, supported by Kaiser Wilhelm II, had attempted to create a German navy that could match the RN, but the British had comfortably maintained their lead in the subsequent naval arms race.

Britain had traditionally aimed to have a navy that was equal in strength to the next two in the world, the two power standard. In 1912 this was replaced by a measure of a 60 per cent superiority to the second largest navy. This was then the German navy; Germany was the only one of the world’s leading naval powers that Britain was then likely to fight.

The Press, public and politicians measured the strength of navies by the number of dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers. However, navies also had a large number of other types of warships.

Naval Strengths in August 1914

Naval strength 1914

Source: P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 7-20.

British numbers include the Royal Australian Navy’s battlecruiser and three light cruisers and three dreadnoughts being built in Britain for foreign countries that were requisitioned for the RN at the outbreak of war; two that had just been completed for the Ottoman Empire and a Chilean one that was still under construction. There were fears that the Ottoman ones might be sold to Germany, which would have left the RN below its target of a 60 per cent margin over Germany. Another Chilean dreadnought under construction in Britain that was completed as a British aircraft carrier is not included.

German numbers include a dreadnought that was never completed and a battlecruiser and a light cruiser that were transferred to the Ottoman Empire just after the outbreak of war. The German SMS Blücher is classified as an armoured cruiser above because she was armed with 8.2 inch guns. In the words of Robert Massie, she ‘was the supreme embodiment of the armoured cruiser.’[1]

Russia needed three separate fleets. Its Asian one was small and consisted mostly of old ships. The Baltic and Black Sea ones contained all the battleships, armoured cruisers and planned dreadnoughts. The Baltic fleet was the biggest.

One of the Japanese battlecruisers building was completed in August 1914. Nine small and old US submarines, based in the Philippines, that were suitable only for coastal defence are excluded. Some numbers are given as ranges because of doubts over the usefulness of some older vessels. The only other countries with dreadnoughts were Brazil and Argentina, with two each, and Spain, which had one in service and two more building.

Warship Types

Pre-dreadnought battleships carried a number of guns of differing calibres, which were intended to carry out different roles. They normally had a main armament of four 12 inch guns, although some had smaller but faster firing main guns. A secondary battery, most commonly of 6 inch guns, although some had smaller or larger guns, was intended to deal with smaller opponents. Some pre-dreadnoughts carried an intermediate battery of 8-10 inch guns in order to increase their firepower against enemy battleships.

Pre-dreadnoughts were made obsolete in 1906 by HMS Dreadnought, which carried an armament of 10 12 inch guns, supplemented by only 24 12 pounders to deal with torpedo boats. A single calibre armament was both more powerful than a mixed one and superior for fire control purposes. The range of guns was increasing, making the old tactic of overwhelming ships with a hail of fire from many guns at short range obsolete. She was the first battleship to be powered by steam turbines and the first to be constructed to burn a mixture of fuel and oil, although others had been converted to do so. She was capable of 21 knots, fast for a battleship.

Dreadnought’s secondary armament proved to be inadequate. The next British battleship, HMS Bellerophon, carried 16 4 inch guns and later dreadnoughts had secondary armaments of 6 inch guns.

Although Dreadnought made British as well as foreign battleships obsolete, the decision of Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, the First Sea Lord, to move first ensured that Britain maintained its naval supremacy. Most subsequent battleships were dreadnoughts, but some that took on many of Dreadnought’s innovations but retained a mixed armament were built. These were known as semi-dreadnoughts.

Armoured cruisers were large ships with an armoured belt protecting their sides and an armoured deck. They were faster than battleships, but had weaker armour and a main armament of 8-10 inch guns. Protected cruisers were an old and smaller type that had armoured decks but no side belts.

HMS Dreadnought was followed by HMS Invincible, generally regarded as the first of a new type, the battlecruiser. She had a battleship armament of 12 inch guns, but was faster and more lightly armoured. Fisher, who thought that speed was a better protection than armour, saw the battlecruiser as the eventual successor to the battleship. Nicholas Lambert and Jon Sumida argue that he intended to use torpedo armed destroyers and submarines for home defence, with battlecruisers protecting Britain’s global trade.[2] This idea was not supported by his successors.

Invincible was originally rated as an armoured cruiser, but the term battlecruiser was later adopted because of the main armament of these ships was the same size as that of battleships. Previous armoured cruisers carried smaller guns than pre-dreadnought battleships. Only Germany and Japan followed Britain in building battlecruisers, although other navies planned to do so.

The RN, needing reconnaissance ships, built 4 inch gun armed scout cruisers for a period, but these proved to be too small and slow. They were succeeded by light cruisers, originally called light armoured cruisers because they had some armour. British ones had either a main armament entirely of 6 inch guns or a mixture of 4 and 6 inch guns. Germany moved from 4.1 to 5.9 inch guns as the main armament of its light cruisers in 1914.

Torpedo boats were introduced in the late nineteenth century as cheap vessels that could attack battleships with the newly invented motorised torpedo. The torpedoes used in the American Civil War were static weapons that were renamed mines after the development of the motor torpedo.

Destroyers, originally called torpedo boat destroyers, were developed to defend battle fleets. The two types eventually merged. The rapid development of warships in the early twentieth century meant that the oldest destroyers were slower than the newest battlecruisers.

Submarines were in their infancy and views differed over their utility and employment. Should they be used to attack enemy battle fleets, to raid enemy commerce or just for coastal defence?

Coast defence ships were small, slow and short ranged battleships. Navies also had many smaller vessels, not listed above, that were used for tasks such as minesweeping, trade protection, shore bombardment and colonial policing. The British used armed merchant cruisers for trade protection and blockade duties during the war, and the Germans armed merchantmen as commerce raiders.

The older ships were very vulnerable to underwater attack by torpedoes and mines and the older cruisers were too slow to perform scouting duties. However, the RN, which had a large superiority in older ships, found them to be very useful for blockade and trade protection and in secondary theatres.

The Royal Navy versus the German Navy

British dreadnoughts generally had larger guns than contemporary German ones, initially 12 versus 11.1 inch guns, then 13.5 versus 12 inch guns. Britain laid down its first 15 inch gun armed ships in 1912 and had 10 building at the start of the war. Germany followed in 1913, but had only three under construction at the outbreak of war, one of which was never completed. Most other countries armed their dreadnoughts with 12 inch guns, but the first 14 inch armed Japanese and US ones entered service in 1914.

British ships were mostly faster but worse protected than equivalent German ones. The German propellant was more stable than the British one and British shells had a tendency to break up on contact with armour. The British have often been criticised for the poor anti-flash protection for their magazines. However, the Germans initially made the same mistake, which they corrected after the battlecruiser SMS Seydlitz almost blew up at the Battle of Dogger Bank in 1915.

Before the war Arthur Pollen, a British civilian, had designed a fire control system using an analogue computer to predict ranges. Andrew Gordon describes it ‘as important a development for gunnery as John Harrison’s chronometer had been for navigation 150 years before.’[3] It allowed for frequent changes in range and bearing, so ships equipped with it would not have to remain in line ahead formation.

The British instead adopted a cheaper system designed by Captain Frederick Dreyer. It used parts of Pollen’s system to plot bearings mechanically, but still required manual input of ranges, meaning that ships had to stay in straight lines. The RN was also slow to adopt Admiral Sir Percy Scott’s system of director firing, in which one officer controlled the main armament. Only eight battleships had it at the start of the war and two of the Grand Fleet’s dreadnoughts still lacked at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

However, the Germans had nothing comparable to Dreyer’s system, never mind Pollen’s. They did have a system of director firing, but their main gunnery strength was their stereoscopic sights. These, according to Arthur Marder, required a man with ‘excellent and identical vision in both eyes’, but were superior to the British ones, especially in poor light.[4]

Another British weakness was that the RN’s main bases of Plymouth, Portsmouth and Chatham were positioned for a war with France rather than Germany. A new major base at Rosyth, on the Firth of Forth, was not ready in 1914. For much of the war, it was used only by the battlecruisers. The anchorages at Cromarty and Scapa Flow had no protection against submarines and Harwich was suitable only for light forces. The Kiel Canal allowed Germany to quickly and safely move its ships between the North and Baltic Seas.

The RN’s biggest advantage, apart from numbers, was that its sailors were long service professionals and thus better trained and more experienced than the three year conscripts who made up a large proportion of German naval personnel. The large British merchant navy provided a further source of trained seamen. Tirpitz had thought that conscription would be an advantage for Germany because it would be able to recruit more sailors than Britain, but he was wrong.

 

[1] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 381.

[2] N. A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1999); J. T. Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy: Finance, Technology and British Naval Policy, 1889-1914 (Boston MA, London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).

[3] G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), p. 351.

[4] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. i. p. 416.

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The Naval Arms Race Before 1914

In 1914, the British Royal Navy (RN) had dominated the world’s oceans for over a century. There were, according to Paul Halpern, periods in the nineteenth century when the ‘innovative’ French navy was able to offer ‘a credible threat’, but this was no longer the case by the end of the nineteenth century.[1]

British naval strategy was based on the two power standard, meaning that the RN should be as strong as the next two navies combined. In 1818 Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, stated that a Franco-Russian alliance was the ‘only one that can prove really formidable to the liberties of Europe.’[2]

According to Arthur Marder, the two power standard dated back to 1770. It was not, however, clearly stated to be an official policy until the Naval Defence Act of 1889; the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord George Hamilton, then told the House of Commons ‘that our [naval] establishment should be on a scale that it should be at least equal to the naval strength of any two other countries.’[3]

The Admiralty insisted that the calculation of the relative strengths of navies was a complex exercise, involving many factors. However, it was easier for politicians and the public to gauge the two power standard by a comparison of the number of battleships possessed by the RN and the next two largest navies, which were then those of France and Russia.

The increase in the size of the German navy meant that in October 1902 Lord Selborne, the First Lord, asked for ‘equality plus a margin’, defined as an RN equal to the French and Russian navies plus six battleships and 14 armoured cruisers by December 1907.[4]

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was a keen reader of the works of the American naval theorist Admiral Alfred Mahan. Wilhelm believed that Germany needed a large navy in order to be able to be taken seriously as a world power. In 1897 he settled a dispute about the future shape of the German navy by replacing Admiral Friedrich von Hollman, an advocate of a fleet of fast commerce raiders, with Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz as Secretary of State for the Imperial Navy Office. Tirpitz’s preference for a battle fleet that could challenge the RN in European waters was in tune with Wilhelm’s own wishes.

The size of the German navy was determined by series of Naval Laws, passed in 1898, 1900, 1906, 1908 and 1912. Tirpitz believed that Germany could build a fleet that would certainly deter and perhaps even defeat the RN. Germany had a bigger economy, its use of conscription would mean that it could recruit more sailors than Britain, which relied on volunteers, and the RN’s global commitments meant that it could not keep all its fleet in home waters. Tirpitz aimed at a 2:3 ratio between the German navy and the RN.

Wilhelm and Tirpitz hoped that, even if the German navy was not big enough to defeat the RN, the Germans should be able to inflict such damage on the RN that it would not be to defend the British Empire. This should mean that Britain would make concessions in colonial disputes; German attempts to expand their overseas empire had run into the problem that they had little to offer the other colonial powers in negotiations about matters outside Europe.

Tirpitz failed to realise that the British would make sure that they maintained the margin that they needed in order to retain their naval supremacy. Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, appointed First Sea Lord in 1904, carried out a large number of reforms that made the RN more efficient. The Naval Estimates fell from £36.9 million in 1904-5 to £31.5 million in 1906-7, but the RN increased in fighting power.

One of Fisher’s innovations was the construction of HMS Dreadnought, the world’s first battleship with a main armament of a large number of big guns of the same size and the first with turbine engines. Previous battleships, henceforth called pre-dreadnoughts, had a small number of big guns and a greater mixture of gun calibres. She made all other battleships obsolete, which might appear to be a disadvantage for Britain, which was starting from a position of dominance.

However, all big gun battleships were being considered in other countries: the USS South Carolina was designed before Dreadnought, although built later; the Japanese HIMS Satsuma, laid down before Dreadnought, was originally intended to have an all big gun armament, but this had to be changed because of shortages of 12 inch guns; and the Italian designer Vittorio Cuniberti had published plans for an all big gun battleship.

By moving first, Fisher ensured that Britain seized an early lead. The RN had seven dreadnoughts and three battlecruisers, faster ships with the armament of a dreadnought but inferior armour, by May 1910, when the first two German dreadnoughts were completed. The United States Navy then had four dreadnoughts, two of which were inferior to any of the British dreadnoughts. No other navy had any.

The Liberal government elected in the UK in 1905 had hoped to cut defence spending in order to finance greater social spending. However, the growth in the size of the German navy meant that the British Naval Estimates had to be increased to £35.7 million in 1909-10, with further rises in subsequent years.

David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, increased taxes significantly in his 1909-10 budget. It was popularly known as the ‘People’s Budget’ because it was claimed that the higher taxes on the well off were intended to finance social reform. However, the tax increases allowed both social and defence spending to rise, meaning that the RN continued to maintain its margin over the German navy.

Christopher Clark argues that ‘British policy makers were less obsessed with, and less alarmed by, German naval building than is often supposed.’[5] Britain wanted to remain the dominant naval power and focused on all its potential naval rivals, not just Germany. The Entente Cordiale signed with France in 1904 and the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 were intended to iron out potential colonial disputes.

Since the passing of Tirpitz’s first Naval Law in 1898, the naval balance of power had changed. Britain signed an alliance with Japan in 1902, allowing it to reduce the size of its fleet in the Far East. The Russians then suffered disastrous naval losses in their defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5.

The French navy slipped to fourth place because of a lack of a coherent naval policy. Ministers of Marine did not stay long in office and Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships 1906-1921 notes that each one’s ‘chief aim in office was probably to undo their predecessor’s work.’[6]

In March 1912 Winston Churchill, the First Lord, announced that the strength of the RN would now be based on a 60 per cent superiority over the German navy. Eric Grove notes that ‘this is often seen as a concession of weakness but, given the size of other fleets, in effect was still a two power standard.’[7]

If the difference between the German fleet and the third biggest one, then the USN, was big enough, one + 60 per cent might put produce a larger RN than the two power standard. Moreover, the USA and Germany, unlike France and Russia in the 1890s, were unlikely to combine.

The month before Churchill’s statement, Lord Haldane, the Secretary of State for War, who had attended Göttingen University, had visited Germany in an attempt to negotiate an end to the Anglo-German naval race. His mission failed, because Germany wanted Britain in return to promise to remain neutral in any war between Germany and another European country in which Germany was not the aggressor. Britain had, according to Christopher Clark ‘an understandable disinclination to give away something for nothing: Britain was winning the naval arms race hands down and enjoyed unchallenged superiority.’[8]

The following table shows the average annual naval expenditure of the leading naval powers in the years leading up to the war. Germany and Austria-Hungary had shorter coastlines and fewer bases, so were able to spend a higher proportion of their total expenditure on construction. The USA had many bases, partly because of its long coastlines but mainly because, in the words of Phillips O’Brien, politicians ‘still looked upon the navy as a source of money for their constituents and not as a vital arm of national defence.’[9]

Great Powers Average Naval Expenditure p.a. 1910-14

Great Powers naval expenditure

Source: I. Johnston, I. L. Buxton, The Battleship Builders: Constructing and Arming British Capital Ships (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2013), p. 236.

The naval balance of power in 1914 is the subject of the next post in this series.

 

[1] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 1.

[2] Quoted in E. Grove, The Royal Navy since 1815 : A New Short History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 2.

[3] Quoted in A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. i, p. 123.

[4] Quoted in Grove, Royal Navy, p. 87.

[5] C. M. Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 149.

[6] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 190.

[7] Grove, Royal Navy, p. 102.

[8] Clark, Sleepwalkers, p. 319.

[9] P. P. O’Brien, British and American Naval Power: Politics and Policy, 1900-1936 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998), p. 65.

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Battle of the Chippewa, July, 1814- when Cousin Jonathan finally received some respect

Martin Gibson:

Excellent blog post about the Battle of the Chippewa 200 years ago from Bruce at History Stuff That Interests Me.

Originally posted on History Stuff That Interests Me:

This coming Christmas Eve the United States and Great Britain will be celebrating the end of the War of 1812. It was on December 24th, 1814 that the two powers signed the Treaty of Ghent that ended the conflict.

It is unclear at this point whether President Obama and PM David Cameron intend to mark the occasion with a grand ceremony. I doubt it. In fact, I bet that many Americans or Brits are even aware that 200 years ago the two countries fought a bitter little war that lasted about 30 months.

While barely remembered in Britain and the US the event has been extensively celebrated in Canada who see it as a type of independence day-an independence not from Britain but from the US because the US took the occasion of the war to invade Canada more than once in an attempt to make it part of the…

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Month of Madness – BBC Radio 4

BBC radio has just broadcast a series of five 15 minute episodes about the Month of Madness that led to the First World War. It was presented and written by Professor Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers, an acclaimed history of the causes of the war.

The programme is available on the BBC i Player from this link. Unlike TV ones, radio programmes appear to remain available indefinitely, and I do not think that there are any geographical restrictions on listening to them.

Episode one, Sarajevo

This covered the impact of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife by Gavrilo Princep, a Bosnian Serb nationalist on 28 June 1914. Franz Ferdinand was a moderate reformer who wanted to turn the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a United States of Greater Austria, consisting of 15 or 16 federal districts, each dominated by a different ethnic group: the Empire had 11 official nationalities. Clark argues that he was assassinated because he was a moderate: extremists fear moderate opponents more than hardliners, because moderates offer the possibility of peaceful change.

The assassination succeeded by luck. An attempt earlier in the day failed, other assassins lost their nerve and Princep got his chance only because Franz Ferdinand’s driver took a wrong turn.

Serbian nationalists wanted to incorporate Bosnia-Herzegovnia into a Greater Serbia because Serbs were the largest of its national groups, although at 43% they were still a minority. Princep and his fellow Bosnian Serb assassins were ‘abstinent’ young men, with little time for alcohol or women. Clark notes that they were the type of ‘sombre’ young men who join terrorist groups today.

The killing of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by a Serbian nationalist meant that Austria-Hungary would take action against Serbia. However, whether a Balkan conflict became a European war depended on the decisions taken by other countries in the next few weeks.

Episode 2, Vienna

This explores how the Austro-Hungarians reacted to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. There was widespread shock; as with the assassination of JFK, people were able to remember years afterwards where they were when they learnt the news. Emperor Franz Josef did not get on well with his heir, but it is a myth that he received the news coldly. Eye witnesses stated that he was clearly upset.

The assassins were trained and equipped in Serbia, with backing from the Black Hand, a shadowy network whose objectives included the liberation of Bosnian Serbs from Austrian rule. It was headed by Dragutin Dimitrijević, also known as Apis, the head of Serbian Military Intelligence. The civilian Serbian government was unable to act against the members of the Black Hand because they were too well connected.

A consensus emerged quickly in the Austrian Foreign Ministry and General Staff that action must be taken against Serbia. As a minimum a very harsh ultimatum should be sent, but most wanted a war that would settle their issues with Serbia.

Two days after the assassination Count Leopold von Berchtold, the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, told Emperor Franz Josef, that Austria-Hungary could no longer be patient with Serbia. The Emperor agreed. In previous Balkan crises Franz Ferdinand had urged caution, but nobody did so now that he was dead.

Clark says that the ultimatum prepared by Berchtold was a very firm one. He thinks that it can be questioned whether it was really completely unacceptable to a sovereign country, but the Austro-Hungarians certainly intended it to be rejected. They wanted ‘war on a neighbour that they saw as as impossibly turbulent and provocative.’

The Austro-Hungarians concentrated almost all of their attention on Serbia. They had no exit strategy, did not have clear objectives for their action, did not consider the risks involved and were not prepared for the major war that followed. They did realise that they needed support from their ally Germany, since Russia might come to the aid of Serbia.

Episode 3, Berlin.

This discusses Germany’s blank cheque to Austria-Hungary for war against Serbia. Kaiser Wilhelm II got on well with Franz Ferdinand and agreed with him on many issues. Until now, the Germans had been urging the Austro-Hungarians to try to find peaceful solutions to their difficulties with Serbia; this now changed.

On 5 July the Austro-Hungarian ambassador presented letters from Franz Josef and his foreign minister to the Kaiser. The Kaiser and his general staff realised that Austro-Hungarians wanted war with Serbia, and promised to support whatever Austria-Hungary did, the so-called blank cheque. This came without conditions, so Germany was agreeing to support Austria-Hungary even if Russia intervened. The Austro-Hungarian ambassador told his government that the Kaiser thought Austria-Hungary should not delay if it wanted military action against Serbia.

The Germans did not think at this stage that Russia would intervene against Austria-Hungary, but knew that there was a risk that it would. If Germany stood by its ally, Russia’s ally France would join what would then be a continental war. The German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg said that if Germany advised Austria-Hungary to act, it would say that Germany pushed it into war. If Germany urged caution, Austria-Hungary would claim that it had been abandoned and Germany would lose its only reliable ally.

Russian military power was also growing. It and France had one million more soldiers that Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1914. Russia had embarked upon a massive rearmament programme, which was financed by France, but it would take time to complete. Germany and Austria-Hungary might win a war now, but not one in three years time.

However, the Germans thought that the Russian would not go to war. Tsar Nicholas II would surely not support regicide, Russia had no formal alliance with Serbia and why would Russia go to war now when it would be much stronger in three years time.

The Germans stuck to a policy of localisation. Nothing should be done that would escalate the crisis. Political and military officials, including the Kaiser went on holiday. When he returned on 27 July, he said that the Serbian reply to the Austro-Hungarian note meant that a war was now unnecessary. He now urged peace, something that did not surprise his critics in the German army, who regarded him as somebody who talked aggressively but would argue for peace in the end.

Clark argues that the failure of the Kaiser’s last minute attempt to prevent a war shows that he was not as powerful as many have claimed. The Germans did not have a plan for continental war, but were willing to risk one, something in which they were not alone.

Episode 4, The French in St Petersburg 

This looks at the dangerous impact of the extension of the Franco-Russian alliance. By chance, Raymond Poincaré, the French President, was on long planned state visit to France’s ally Russia for much of the crisis, arriving on 20 July. The minutes of the summit have been lost, but the meetings can be reconstructed from the notes and diaries of those present, including Count Louis de Robien, a young French diplomat. He was appalled by the bellicose tone of the meetings. On his return to France on 28 July, Poincaré was greeted as if the country was already at war.

The France and Russia had been allied since the early 1890s, but both had urged caution on the other until the beginning of 1912. Poincaré then assured Russia that France would support it if it took action against Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, even if Russia was not itself threatened with attack. The French were becoming concerned that they could not rely on British help, so felt that they had to remain close to Russia. This was a defensive strategy, with the object of never having to fight Germany alone, but it carried serious risks.

Russia had no serious conflicts of interest with Germany, but Austria-Hungary was a long-standing rival of Russia in the Balkans, which were becoming more important in Russian thinking because of their proximity to the Turkish Straits. All sea traffic to and from the Black Sea had to pass through them, including 80% of Russia’s grain exports, a vital source of revenue. Russian nationalists also felt close to other Orthodox and Slavic nations, such as Serbia.

This encouraged Serbian leaders to believe that they could afford to have poor relations with Austria-Hungary, because Russia would support Serbia in a conflict. Clark does not believe that France and Russia wanted or planned a war, but they increased the risk of one by linking their strategy to the uncertain Balkan situation.

During the Franc0-Russian summit Poincaré urged Russia to be firm; Clark says this was ‘enthusiastically received.’ Poincare’s policy of closer relations with Russia ensured that France would not have to fight Germany alone, but made the situation more complex. The French had to assure the Russians of their support, but also had to make certain that the British did not think that France was escalating the crisis.

By the end of July it was difficult to see how a war could be avoided, but the question of whether or not Britain would enter it remained. Both France and Germany acted cautiously, the former hoping that Britain would support it, the latter that Britain would remain neutral. Neither considered backing down or putting peace ahead of prestige. De Robain said that both sides had determined to ‘hold firm…in a tragic poker game.’

Episode 5, London

This explores how British decision-makers reacted in the July Crisis of 1914. Britain was more concerned by the threat of civil war in Ireland, where the Protestant Unionists of the north opposed the government’s intention to grant the Catholic Nationalists of the south demand for Home Rule.

The key player was the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. Although a Liberal MP, he favoured what Clark calls ‘a secretive, even conspiratorial’ way of operating, believing that foreign policy was too important to be decided by Parliamentary debates. He knew little of foreign countries, spoke no foreign languages and felt uncomfortable in the company of foreigners.

For much of the crisis the British did not consider the possibility that they might be drawn into war. Grey did not raise it in Cabinet until 24 July. Over recent years he had allowed the 1904 Entente Cordiale with France to deepen into something close to a strategic partnership, but the majority of the Cabinet strongly opposed any binding commitment to France, and thus Russia. The French wanted the Entente to be a British commitment to stand by France, but for Grey it had to be a looser agreement that did not bind Britain, which did not know the terms of the Franco-Russian alliance.

On 3 August Grey justified British entry into the war on three grounds: the moral obligations resulting from the Anglo-French friendship, especially the strategic partnership between the two navies; if Germany won, Britain would face a Continent dominated by one power, whilst a Franco-Russian victory would mean a Russian threat to Britain’s Asian empire; and the German breach of Belgian neutrality.

Clark says that the German invasion of Belgium was:

‘a gross offense against international law which endowed the Entente war effort with a lasting sense of moral superiority, but it was not the true reason for British intervention…the decision was made on a cool calculation of national interest.’

However, public anger over the invasion of Belgium helped to win support for the declaration of war.

Clark’s conclusions was that the men who made the decisions ‘were walking in watchful steps’ towards war. There was an ‘intricate structure of..interlocking commitments’, which became mixed up with ‘the volatile politics of a region inflamed by repeated conflict.’ There was an atmosphere of distrust and provocation. No one power was to blame for a war that resulted from ‘a shared European political culture.’

A very interesting a thought provoking programme. Clark does not attempt to blame any one country or alliance for the war. I have just started reading his book, where he says that he is more interested in question of ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ the war began.

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1914: Day by Day: BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4 today started broadcasting a series of daily programmes in which the Canadian historian Prof. Margaret MacMillan gives a five minute summary of the news from each day from 27 June 1914 up until the outbreak of the First World War.

Each programme is broadcast at 4:55 pm on BBC Radio 4, and all will be available on the I-Player from this link once they have been broadcast. Radio programmes normally stay on the I-Player indefinitely, and I think that, unlike TV ones, there are no geographical restrictions on listening to them.

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USAF Deploys B52 and B2 Strategic Bombers to UK

Three USAF B52s and two B2 bombers have been deployed to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire in the United Kingdom. Fairford is currently a standby airfield, with no aircraft permanently assigned to it, and is the only US airbase in Europe capable of operating strategic bombers. Its facilities include a long runway with an unrestricted load bearing capacity and two climate controlled hangars specially designed to take B2s.

This has been described as being a long planned training exercise, but it is difficult to see the first deployment of these aircraft in Europe since the 2003 Iraq War as being unrelated to the rising tension between Russia and the West over Ukraine. The B2s that bombed Libyan airfield in 2011 as part of the enforcement of the UN no-fly zone flew from the USA, with the help of in-flight tankers.

This BBC article includes a video from a reporter on board a B52.

Fairford was one of a global network of Trans-Oceanic Abort Landing sites for the Space Shuttle in friendly countries, which would have been used had a fault with a Shuttle prevented it returning to its US base. None of them were ever needed.

The Royal International Air Tattoo, one of the largest airshows in the world, is held annually at Fairford, with this year’s show on 11-13 July. As the US bombers are to stay at Fairford for a month, it will be interesting to see if they participate in it.

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Normandy 44: The Battle Beyond D-Day

Many programmes about D-Day, or Operation Overlord, have been broadcast recently because of the 70th anniversary. One that took a slightly different approach was a BBC documentary introduced by James Holland called Normandy ’44: The Battle Beyond D-Day, which told the story of the entire Normandy campaign rather than just the events of 6 June 1944. Holland argued that ‘the Americans were not so dominant, the Germans so skilful or the British so hapless’ as is commonly believed.

Holland argued that the story is usually told from ”a predominantly American perspective, with the British effort often relegated to little more than an amateurish sideshow.’ He noted that there are three levels to warfare: strategy, the overall goals of the leaders; tactics, the actual fighting; and operational, the nuts and bolts, the logistical link between the first two. The third is often ignored.

His programme featured interviews with British veteran tank commander David Render of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, German veteran Johannes Werner, several historians, including Stephen Prince of the British Naval Historical Branch, Professor John Buckley of Wolverhampton University and Peter Caddick-Adams of Cranfield University and weapons experts. There were also readings from the diary of Stanley Christopherson, another Sherwood Rangers tank commander, and two German generals, Fritz Bayerlein, commander of the Panzer Lehr Division, and Sepp Dietrich, commander of the X SS Panzer Korps. Christopherson’s son David also took part.

Sea control stretching across the world was required to bring all the necessary supplies to France, as well as 2 million men from North America, 1.5 million from the USA and 0.5  million from Canada.

The Germans had 58 divisions in France on 6 June, but only six were Panzer or Panzer Grenadiers. The others were largely static infantry divisions, dependent on horse power. They had to be overcome on 6 June before the armour and mechanised infantry could reach the beaches.

The beaches were defended by MG34 or MG42 dual purpose machine guns in concrete bunkers. These had a much higher rate of fire than a British Bren light machine gun. This gave them a very distinctive sound. However, an MG34 took 115 man hours to manufacture and an MG42 75 hours, compared with 50 for a Bren.

The German machine gun’s high rate of fire meant that their barrels had to be changed frequently. The bunkers were sited on forward slopes, meaning that the Germans could not evacuate wounded or bring reinforcements or more ammunition forward once the fighting had begun. Very heavy casualties were inflicted by the German machine guns on the early waves of US troops landing on Omaha Beach, but the Germans fire died down as they suffered casualties, ran short of ammo and their guns over heated.

Panzer divisions moving to the invasion beaches were attacked continually from the air. Bayerlein reported that his division took two days and a nights to reach Caen. On 7 June it lost 85 or 86 armoured vehicles, 123 trucks, 5 tanks and 23 half tracks through air attacks.

Holland argued that, despite personality clashes,  the Allied command structure under General Dwight Eisenhower ‘was more efficiently structured’ than the German one. He also contended that the abilities of General Sir Bernard Montgomery, at this stage in command of all Allied land forces in Normandy, have been obscured by his tendency to annoy people.

The plan for Overlord was largely devised by Montgomery. He stressed the need to quickly form a continuous bridgehead and to capture Cherbourg and the high ground to the south and south east of Caen. It was a major junction of roads, railways and a river. He intended that the bulk of the German panzers should be drawn into the British and Canadians on the eastern flank, allowing the Americans in the west freedom to manoeuvre south.

Caen is the major query over Montgomery’s plan. It was supposed to be taken on 6 June, with the Allies reaching Paris within 90 days. This required a single British division to move 10 miles inland from Sword Beach on D-Day itself. Intelligence showed that German forces in the area had been reinforced in May, but a lack of landing craft meant that it was not possible to increase the British force heading for Caen.

Something that Montgomery did get right was the need to build up forces as fast as possible. The Allies did not control a port in Normandy, so they took their their own, the Mulberry Harbours. At their peak, they landed 7,000 tons a day. However, everything had to be ferried ashore by landing craft on D-Day, meaning that the men heading for Caen were lightly equipped. They were held up for a day a bunker complex, named Hillman by the Allies, which covered the Caen road and could not be by passed.

The German Tiger tank was feared by the Allies. It was a formidable opponent, but it used 5 litres of fuel per kilometre, compared with 2 for the American built Sherman, the most common Allied tank in Normandy. The Germans were short of fuel, the Allies were not. Additionally, the Tiger’s complex transmission system was vulnerable to breakdowns.

The German 88mm gun, fitted to the Tiger, fired its shells at a fearsome velocity, but so did the British 17 pounder, fitted to some Shermans, termed Fireflies. This made the normally undergunned Sherman a threat to the Tiger. However, Tigers could wreak havoc, as at Villars Bocage on 12 June, where the SS tank ace Michael Wittmann massacred a British column.

David Render, a British tank officer in Normandy, said that the Allies had a more team based approach. Troops of tanks would work together, with the destruction of an enemy tank being attributed to the troop rather than to an individual commander as was the case with the Germans.

Villars Bocage was of little strategic significance in itself, and it cost the Germans several Tigers, fighting in an urban area without infantry support. However, it signalled the start of a lengthy battle of attrition for Caen. Wittman and his crew were killed by a Sherman Firefly later in the Normandy campaign.

At the same time the Americans were being held up by difficult terrain of the bocage, small fields surrounded by high hedgerow. Shermans could not get through the hedges to support the infantry. If they tried to go over them, they would expose their poorly armoured undersides.

The problem was solved by the ingenuity of Curtis Culin, a US National Guardsman who had worked in a garage before the war. He came up with a hedge cutter that could be fitted to a Sherman. It was made from German beach obstacles and did not require great skill on the part of the welders, meaning that it could be manufactured quickly in the field. Culin’s prototype was ready to be demonstrated in a week, and 60% of US Shermans were fitted with his hedge cutters a fortnight later. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and survived the war, but lost a leg in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest.

Culin’s invention and its quick adoption showed the combination of ingenuity and fast moving flexibility that gave the Americans an advantage at the operational level.

The Germans concentrated large numbers of tanks near Caen. The British had advanced less than 10 miles from their beaches.  This looked unimpressive on the map, but gave them a major logistical advantage. The battles around Caen are usually portrayed as the British battering their heads against a brick wall, but Holland argued that it was the other way round. The Germans had a reputation for tactical excellence, but they could always be relied upon to counter attack. The Allies had only to probe forward, wait for the German counter attack and destroy it with their superior firepower.

Allied units, unlike German ones, could be resupplied and kept up to strength. The Sherwood Rangers were part of a brigade of three regiments each with 50 tanks. It received 1,073 new tanks during the campaign in order to keep 150 in the field. The Germans built only 1,500 Tigers during the war. David Render came out of three tanks in the campaign. Stanley Christopherson used five in a day in the desert campaign.

Stephen Prince argued that the Allied system built up and sustained larger numbers throughout the campaign. They had complete air superiority. The millionth Allied soldier arrived in Normandy on 12 July. The Germans started strong, but had to solve crises by taking troops from support functions. This worked for a while, keeping the Allies closer to the beach than they had intended. However, by late July the Allies had built up their forces and were able to break through the Germans, who could no longer stop them.

A major British offensive, Operation Goodwood, was launched on 18 July with huge air, naval and artillery support. It was to be followed by an American attack at St Lo. However, it advanced only seven miles, one for every 1,000 tons of bombs dropped. Montgomery had claimed that it would be a massive killer blow in order to get the air power that he wanted. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Eisenhower’s deputy, tried to get Montgomery sacked.

Holland argued that Montgomery was good at speaking to troops and the press, but bad at dealing with his peers and superiors. Goodwood would not have been so controversial had he explained his plan properly. 400 British tanks  were knocked out in Goodwood, but 300 of them were repaired and back in action in days. Montgomery was focussed only on Normandy, but Eisenhower had to look at a bigger picture, including the need to capture V1 launch sites and the greater progress being made by the Red Army on the Eastern Front.

The Americans launched Operation Cobra, the follow up to Goodwood, on 25 July. The Germans, over-stretched at Caen, were unable to resist the US offensive and were forced to retreat. A counter attack with all remaining German reserves was launched on 7 August. It failed and the Germans were forced back to Falaise. There were so many corpses that Werner had to walk on them. On 12 June he was part of a company of 120 men. Nine of them survived the campaign.

Allied casualties averaged 6,500 killed, wounded and captured on each of the 77 days of the Normandy campaign. Peter Caddick-Adams argued that in that time the Allied armies underwent a learning process the equivalent of which had taken four years in the First World War.

The campaign did not go to the initial plan, because the Germans tried to hold the Allies closer to the beaches than they had expected. However, the Allies moved very quickly once they had broken out of Normandy. They had planned to take Paris after 90 days, but were actually in Brussels 90 days after D-Day.

 

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