Category Archives: Political History

U-boats, the Zimmermann Telegram and the US Entry into the War

On 22 December 1916 Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, the Chief of the Admiralty Staff of the Imperial German Navy, sent Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the Chief of the General Staff, the last of a series of memos advocating that Germany adopt unrestricted submarine warfare.[1] Unrestricted submarine warfare meant sinking merchant ships without warning. German U-boats were then surfacing in order to check the nationality of merchant ships before opening fire. This was done largely to avoid the problems that would ensue if US citizens were killed.[2]

Holtzendorff argued that Germany had to win the war by autumn 1917 or else it would finish with the exhaustion of all the belligerents, which would mean disaster for Germany. The Italian and French economies had been so weakened by the war that they were able to continue to fight only with British support. The Germans had to break the British economy in order to win the war, and the way to do this was to attack the British merchant fleet. Extra demands were being placed on it because Britain imported much of its food and the 1916 global grain harvest had been poor. This meant that Britain would have to replace imports from Canada and the USA with grain from Argentina, India and especially Australia.[3]

Holtzendorff thought that a destruction of 600,000 tons of merchant shipping per month would reduce British trade ‘by 39% within five months. This would not be bearable’.[4] He admitted that he could not ‘guarantee that a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare’ would force a British surrender within five months.[5] However, acting in accordance with cruiser rules would mean sinking only 400,000 tons per month, reducing British trade by only 18%, which was not enough. Holtzendorff claimed that this was the actual rate achieved over the two previous weeks.[6] The actual losses, shown in the table below, were a little lower.

The British, however, were concerned even at the level of losses of late 1916. In October, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, who replaced Admiral Sir Henry Jackson as First Sea Lord, the professional head of the Royal Navy, in late November, warned the Admiralty that the losses of British and neutral merchant ships might by the summer of 1917 reduce imports of food and other necessities to a level that would force the Allies to accept worse peace terms than were justified by the European military situation. Admiral Sir David Beatty, who succeeded Jellicoe as C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet, said that the danger was ‘jeopardising the fate of the nation and seriously interfering with the successful prosecution of the war.’[7]

Holtzendorff  wanted to avoid war with the USA if possible but argued that the risk of it happening should not stop Germany ‘from making use at the decisive moment of a weapon that promises victory.’[8] He thought that the USA would not be able to replace the lost merchant shipping and that there would be insufficient transports to take US troops to Europe. He expected that the USA would make peace when Britain as it would not be able to do as much damage to Germany as U-boats did to its commerce and would want an early return to economic prosperity.[9]

The decision to launch unrestricted submarine warfare from 1 February 1917 was made at a meeting held on 9 January. Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg, who had until then opposed unrestricted submarine warfare, finally agreed to it, commenting it that it was ‘the last card.’[10]

On 1 February 1917 the Germans had 105 U-boats available, with new construction taking their strength to 129 by 1 June. They had at least 120 for the remainder of 1917 and 124 at the end of the year. [11]

The U-boat campaign was a military success, as shown by the following table:

British tonnage sunk (excludes fishing vessels) World tonnage sunk (includes British and foreign fishing vessels
October 1916 176,248 353,660
November 1916 168,809 311,508
December 1916 182,292 355,139
January  1917 153,666 368,521
February 1917 313,486 540,006
March 1917 353,478 593,841
April 1917 545,282 881,027

Source: C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1920), vol. iii, p. 465.

However, it resulted in US President Woodrow Wilson breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany on 3 February.[12] He, Congress and the US public were not yet ready to enter the war.

On 16 January Arthur Zimmermann, the German Foreign Minister, sent a telegram to Count Bernstorff, the German ambassador in Washington that he was to forward to Heinrich von Eckhardt, the German minister in Mexico City. Von Eckhardt was to offer the Mexican government an alliance if war broke out between Germany and the USA. The Germans would provide financial aid to Mexico, which would regain the territory that it had lost to the USA in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 after a victorious war. The Mexicans were also to attempt to persuade Japan to change sides.[13]

The British had destroyed the German cable communications with the rest of the world early in the war. The Germans, however, had access to two neutral cables to the USA: a Swedish one that they had been allowed to use since early in the war; and a US one that Wilson had allowed them to use when he was attempting to mediate between them and the Allies. Both passed through Britain, which could therefore intercept them. The simplicity of American codes and cyphers enabled the British code breakers of Room 40 to break them. They also had a copy of the German diplomatic code book that was captured when Wilhelm Wassmuss, a German agent in Persia, was forced to flee without his baggage.[14] The British and Russians had captured German naval code books in 1914.

On the morning of 17 January Captain Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall, the Director of Naval Intelligence, was handed a partial translation of the intercepted cable.[15] The code was in a variant of the one captured from Wassmuss and the parts that could not be decoded included details of the terms offered by Germany to Mexico. Showing it to the Americans risked revealing to them that the British were intercepting neutral diplomatic traffic and to the Germans that their diplomatic codes had been broken. Hall, perhaps hoping that the USA might enter the war anyway, sat on the telegram until 5 February, when he showed it to the Foreign Office.

By 10 February British agents had obtained a copy of it from the Mexico City telegraph office. The German legation there used a simpler code than the one used between Berlin and Washington, and the British were able to fully decode it. It could now be passed to the Americans without them realising that the British were intercepting Swedish and US diplomatic cables. The telegram, available online at the Great War Primary Document Archive, read:

Berlin, January 19, 1917

On the first of February we intend to begin submarine warfare unrestricted. In spite of this, it is our intention to endeavor to keep neutral the United States of America.

If this attempt is not successful, we propose an alliance on the following basis with Mexico: That we shall make war together and together make peace. We shall give general financial support, and it is understood that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. The details are left to you for settlement….

You are instructed to inform the President of Mexico of the above in the greatest confidence as soon as it is certain that there will be an outbreak of war with the United States and suggest that the President of Mexico, on his own initiative, should communicate with Japan suggesting adherence at once to this plan; at the same time, offer to mediate between Germany and Japan.

Please call to the attention of the President of Mexico that the employment of ruthless submarine warfare now promises to compel England to make peace in a few months.

(Secretary of State)

Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, handed it to Walter Page, the US ambassador to London on 23 February. It was published in the USA on 1 March. A minority of Americans argued that it was a forgery. Hall took steps to prove to that it was genuine, but these proved unnecessary when Zimmermann admitted on 3 March that he had sent it.[16]

Wilson had already decided to ask Congress for permission to arm US merchant ships, which would have almost certainly have resulted in an incident that led to war. The measure was passed overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives but was filibustered out of the Senate. Wilson decided to go ahead anyway. On 20 March, after a number of US merchant ships were sunk by U-boats, he obtained the unanimous consent of his cabinet for a declaration of war. [17] On 2 April the House of Representatives voted 373 to 50 in favour of war, with the formal declaration coming on 6 April.[18]

The Germans thought that they would have starved Britain into surrender before the USA, which in April 1917 had an army of 213,557 men and 55 aircraft, 51 of them obsolete, could make a decisive difference. However, by the end of the war 1.97 million US troops had been sent to the Western Front, with no troopships being sunk on the way from the USA to Europe. By the summer of 1918 the USA was sending 536,000 tons of supplies per month to France, with a troop or cargo ship leaving every five hours. The USN committed 68 destroyers and 121 submarine chasers to the battle against the U-boats.[19]

This link, to a new exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery marking the 100th anniversary of American involvement in World War I, was kindly pointed out to me by G.P. Cox, writer of the excellent Pacific Paratrooper blog.


[1] D. Steffen, ‘The Holtzendorff Memorandum of 22 December 1916 and Germany’s Declaration of Unrestricted U-Boat Warfare’, Journal of Military History 68, no. 1 (2004), pp. 215-16.

[2] 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. iv, p. 51.

[3] Steffen, ‘Holtzendorff’, pp. 219-20.

[4] Ibid., p. 221. This and subsequent quotations are from Holtzendorff’s memo, which is reproduced in Steffen’s paper.

[5] Ibid., pp. 220-21.

[6] Ibid., p. 222.

[7] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iv, pp. 324-25.

[8] Steffen, ‘Holtzendorff’, p. 222.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Marder, From. vol. iv, p. 51.

[11] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 338-39.

[12] Ibid., p. 340.

[13] D. Stevenson, 1914-1918: The History of the First World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004), p. 313.

[14] C. M. Andrew, Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (London: Heinemann, 1985), pp. 107-8.

[15] Hall was promoted Rear Admiral on 27 April 1917. His nickname resulted from a chronic facial twitch.

[16] Andrew, Secret, pp. 110-13.

[17] Stevenson, 1914-1918, p. 317.

[18] H. H. Herwig, The First World War : Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918 (London: Arnold, 1997), p. 320.

[19] Ibid.


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Britain, Mosul and Oil

My book on Britain’s Quest for Oil: World War I during the WWI and at the subsequent peace conferences will soon be published by Helion. The link below is to a post I wrote for Helion’s blog about Mosul. Great Powers wanted to control it and its oil even then.  WWI was not a war for oil. but it showed the vital need for secure supplies of oil. Mosul was the obvious place to obtain them as it was up for grabs after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and there was little doubt that it contained large oil reserves, though they were not formally discovered until 1927.


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A Very British Deterrent – BBC

The BBC recently broadcast a programme called A Very British Deterrent. UK viewers can watch it until 4 October from the BBC website, which describes it as follows:

‘With Trident renewed for another generation, A Very British Deterrent tells the story of the remarkable events, eye-watering costs, power relationships and secret deals done half a century ago to secure Britain’s very first submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

In today’s turbulent world, it is a story that is more relevant than ever. At the height of the Cold War, a series of political and technical crises came close to leaving Britain without a nuclear weapon of its own. In a time of unprecedented international tension and with the world locked in a terrifying nuclear arms race, one small loch in Scotland became a crucial bargaining chip to keep Britain in the nuclear game.

Using the personal letters of prime ministers and presidents, eye-witness accounts and once-secret documents, this film explores how the British prime minister Harold Macmillan seized every opportunity to further Britain’s nuclear ambitions, was prepared to trade a Scottish base for a new American weapon, and even jeopardised the crucial Anglo-American relationship to keep Britain an independent nuclear power.’

In 1957 only the USA, USSR and UK had nuclear weapons. In October of that year the USSR launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik. This meant that it was possible to put nuclear weapons into orbit round the Earth.

Macmillan wrote in his diary that this had a similar impact on American confidence to Pearl Harbor, leading to President Dwight D. Eisenhower being for the first time attacked for not being able to defend the country. Macmillan was close to Eisenhower, having been British Minister-in-Residence at his headquarters for a period during WWII.

Three weeks after Sputnik Macmillan visited Eisenhower in the USA, obtaining what he wanted: access to US nuclear secrets. In WWII the USA and UK were full partners in the development of the atomic bomb, but after the war Congress decided that the US should nit share nuclear secrets with anybody.

The UK then developed its own nuclear weapons and by 1957 had bombers armed with hydrogen bombs. The big problem, however, was not the bomb but a delivery system that could penetrate Soviet defences. The UK developed its own missile, Blue Streak, but it took 30 minutes to get its engine ready, compared with a 4 minute warning of a Soviet attack from space. The UK was too small to conceal land based nuclear missiles or to locate them well away from population centres.

The US had a number of nuclear weapon programmes, including a navy one lead by Admiral Arleigh Burke, the Chief of Naval Operations. Burke proposed putting nuclear missiles on nuclear powered submarines rather than land: the Polaris system.

Burke’s British counterpart,  Admiral Lord Mountbatten, the First Sea Lord, saw Polaris as the solution to the UK’s problem and began a correspondence with Burke, who proposed putting a British officer in the office developing Polaris.

An alternative US project was Skybolt, an air launched nuclear missile with a range of 2,000 miles. It would be cheaper than Polaris because it could be fitted to existing bombers.

In March 1960 Eisenhower and Macmillan met at Camp David, officially to discuss future summit meetings involving themselves and other world leaders. The two, however, also had a meeting at the Eisenhower family farm at Gettysburg. According to Eisenhower’s grandson David, who witnessed their arrival, they were not accompanied by anybody else, not even security personnel.

Eisenhower offered Skybolt, but not Polaris, to the UK. In return he wanted a base for US Polaris submarines in Europe and thought that Scotland was the best location. The cancellation of Blue Streak and the acquisition of Skybolt were soon announced, but the US submarine base in Scotland was at first kept secret. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was then holding mass anti-nuclear demonstrations in the UK.

Eisenhower’s chosen site for the submarine base was not in a remote part of Scotland but at the mouth of the Clyde, 25 miles from Glasgow. Macmillan wrote to Eisenhower suggesting a more isolated location but the President wanted a site that offered better access to open seas, good shore facilities and was near an international airport.

Increased international tension meant that Eisenhower wanted to base US Polaris submarines in Scotland as soon as possible. The British felt that this would make it harder to sell to the British population.  Macmillan eventually agreed to the US base at Holy Loch on the Clyde.  He asked that a proposal that US submarines should not be allowed to fire their missiles from within British territorial waters without British consent should be extended to 100 miles. Eisenhower was prepared to offer only a weak assurance about consulting the UK and other allies in the event of a crisis.

In 1961 John F. Kennedy became US President. Despite being from a different generation and with a different world view he saw Macmillan as somebody he could turn to in a crisis, speaking to him every day during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Some of Kennedy’s inner circle argued that the US should not favour one of its European allies over the others by supplying the UK with nuclear weapons. They appeared to have an opportunity to achieve their wish when Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense, decided that Skybolt was a waste of money. In early December he unformed the British that all five Skybolt tests so far had failed. The British pointed out that they had cancelled Blue Streak and made themselves completely dependent on the US in return for allowing the US the Holy Loch base.

An Anglo-American crisis then developed. Ahead of a meeting with Macmillan at Nassau in late December Kennedy phoned Eisenhower to check what had actually been agreed. Kennedy’s view was that Skybolt and Holy Loch were separate agreements made at the same time.

The talks between the two leaders at Nassau were fully minuted. Kennedy offered the UK Skybolt, which had cost the US $450m so far, for $100m. Macmillan replied that ‘while the proposed marriage with Skybolt isn’t exactly a shotgun wedding, the virginity of the lady must now be regarded as doubtful.’ Macmillan asked for Polaris and its missiles. Kennedy said that a British Polaris fleet must be: ‘assigned to NATO.’ Macmillan asked what ‘assigned to NATO’ meant and Kennedy replied:

‘that it is in the UK’s interests to define assigned as loosely as possible. These missiles and submarines missiles should be available to the UK for national use only in case of dire emergencies.’

Macmillan thought that this meant ‘a question of absolute survival’ and was concerned that it excluded the defence of British ‘supreme national interests’, such as the British controlled oilfields in Kuwait.

On the second day of the summit Macmillan talked in such a way that made it appear that the UK desired a nuclear deterrent so that it could retain international credibility despite being in decline. He then said that unless the nuclear deterrent could ‘be used when they wish by the British government…he would rather ‘drop the whole idea [and] undertake an agonising reappraisal of our military and political priorities’, suggesting that close ties between the UK and USA might end.

On the third day agreement was reached. The British Polaris submarines would be assigned to NATO but the UK would reserve the right to use them independently, when its ‘supreme national interests’ were at stake.

Macmillan had retired by the time of the 1964 UK General Election in which his Conservatives were defeated by Labour. Harold Wilson, the new Prime Minister, ordered four Polaris submarines, each costing £600m in current money, despite having previously promised to cancel the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. The submarines and warheads were built in the UK and the missiles bought from the USA. They were based as Faslane, close to the US base at Holy Loch. The USN left in 1992 but the British nuclear force remains at Faslane. Since they came into service in 1969 the UK has always had at least one nuclear missile submarine at sea.

A very interesting programme. Macmillan was very keen to maintain an independent British nuclear deterrent. The only major problems that this gave him with Eisenhower was the President’s insistence on having a nuclear submarine base near a large British city. Later, however, the British decided that the naval and logistic arguments for a base on the Clyde outweighed the political ones for a more remote location. Macmillan initially had more difficulties with the Kennedy Administration. In the end, however, the President put the need to maintain good relations with the USA’s closest ally ahead of the desire of many of his advisers not to favour one European ally over the others.


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Napoleon Returns from Elba

The first of three posts describing Napoleon’s 100 Days, completing series on posts on the 200th anniversary of major events of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba after abdicating the French throne in April 1814. He retained the title of Emperor, but his empire consisted only of an island 120 miles square with a population of 12,000. He had an army of about 1,100 veterans of his Imperial Guard.

On 26 February the Emperor, accompanied by his guards and retainers, sailed for France. The date was chosen because the British Colonel Sir Neil Campbell, who had remained at Napoleon’s invitation after escorting him to the island, was visiting the mainland on board HMS Partridge.

Two French warships that were supposed to be patrolling the channel between Corsica and the Italian mainland did nothing to stop the convoy, although it is unlikely that they failed to spot it. One of their captains later told Campbell that the visibility was poor, which it was not. Another French warship, the Zephyr, approached close by, but her captain, Andrieux, did no more than shout ‘How is the great man?’[1] He was promoted by Napoleon a few weeks later.

Napoleon’s force landed at Golfe Juan on 1 March and began to march towards Paris. King Louis XVIII learnt of his arrival on 5 March, declared Napoleon to be a traitor and sent two forces. each of 30,000 men to deal with him. One was commanded by his brother, the Comte d’Artois, and the other by Marshal Michel Ney who, like most of Napoleon’s Marshals, had taken service with the restored Bourbon regime.

At Grenoble on at 7 March Napoleon approached a company of Royalist troops on his own. They were ordered to fire on him, but did not. He later said that ‘Before Grenoble I was an adventurer, at Grenoble I was a ruling prince.’[2]

On 10 March Napoleon reached Lyon. The Comte, with only 3,000 men versus the Emperor’s 8,000, fled. Napoleon began issuing Imperial decrees on 13 March, the same day as the Congress of Vienna declared him to be an outlaw. It was meeting to divide up the French Empire and was dominated by Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia, although other countries were represented.

Ney arrived at Besancon on 10 March, finding a letter from Napoleon inviting him to rejoin the Imperial cause but few Royalist soldiers. On 14 March he announced that he was changing sides. Louis fled from Paris on 19 March; Napoleon, now accompanied by two divisions, entered it the next day. He had retaken France in 20 days; the only casualties were 33 soldiers drowned when a boat capsized. He later stated that:

‘I owed my restoration to the inhabitants of the towns and villages, to the soldiers and junior company officers. I could rely only on them. All the generals I met on my journey hesitated, or received me badly, even if they were not hostile, but they were obliged to give way before the excitement of their soldiers.’[3]

Louis XVIII had guaranteed civil rights by the Bourbon Charter, but he and his regime were regarded as ‘foreign puppets…of the reactionary powers, committed to destroy the ideals of the Revolution (theoretical though many of these had proved to be.’[4] The peasants feared that their property might be given to returned landowners, whilst many disgruntled veterans found it hard to fit into civilian life, especially the 12,000 officers now living on half pay in an ‘inflationary economy.’[5]

Although happy to see Napoleon back, most French people did not want war. Aware of this, he tried to persuade the Congress to accept him as ruler of France. However, on 25 March Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia formed the Seventh Coalition with the intention of ending his threat forever. Napoleon realised that war was inevitable, but had to try to make peace for internal political reasons and because France was  heavily outnumbered.

Napoleon inherited a Royalist army of 200,000 men, which was brought up to 500,000 by recalling those on leave, rounding up men absent without leave, raising foreign regiments, calling for volunteers, introducing conscription, forming battalions of sailors who were without ships and calling out the National Guard. He had a field army of 200,000, of which 123,000 were in the Armée du Nord, which he commanded himself. The other 300,000 were in garrisons. The field army had high morale and a high proportion of veterans. Against this he faced 700,000 Coalition troops.[6]

The Coalition plan was attack on an arc measuring 700 miles from Brussels to the south coast of France. Their main advantage was numbers; their main disadvantages were the difficulty of co-ordination and the need to avoid defeat in detail. They had won the 1813 and 1814 campaigns by a strategy of retreating when facing battle with Napoleon himself, whilst attempting to threaten his lines of supply and defeat isolated French corps, until they were able to concentrate all of their forces to win a decisive victory. Napoleon’s plan was to use his interior lines and natural barriers such as mountains and rivers to concentrate on one enemy at a time. The Armée du Nord would first attack the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies in Belgium.


[1] M. Adkin, The Waterloo Companion (London: Aurum, 2001), p. 13.

[2] Ibid., p. 18.

[3] Ibid., p. 20.

[4] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 1009.

[5] Ibid., p. 1010.

[6] Adkin, Waterloo, pp. 22-24.

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The Assassination of the Archduke – Sue Woolmans

I recently attended an Edinburgh Book Festival presentation by Sue Woolmans about a book that she has written along with Greg King, The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Murder that Changed the World. The publisher describes the book as follows:

In The Assassination of the Archduke, Greg King and Sue Woolmans offer readers a vivid account of the lives – and cruel deaths – of Franz Ferdinand and his beloved Sophie. Combining royal biography, romance, and political assassination, the story unfolds against a backdrop of glittering privilege and an Imperial Court consumed with hatred, taking readers from Bohemian castles to the horrors of Nazi concentration camps in a compelling, fascinating human drama. As moving as the fabled romance of Nicholas and Alexandra, as dramatic as Mayerling, Sarajevo resonates with love and loss, triumph and tragedy in a vibrant and powerful narrative. It lays bare the lethal circumstances surrounding that fateful Sunday morning in 1914, examining not only the Serbian conspiracy that killed Franz and Sophie and sparked the First World War but also insinuations about the hidden powers in Vienna that may well have sent them to their deaths.

Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, insisted on marrying for love, His wife, Countess Sophie Chotek, although an aristocrat, was too low down the social scale to normally be allowed to marry a member of the Imperial House of Habsburg. He was permitted to marry her by Emperor Franz Josef on condition that the marriage was morganatic, meaning that she could not share her husband’s title, rank or privileges and their children could not inherit the Imperial throne.

Rather than go through the whole story, I will concentrate on what she described as  myths and misconceptions that she was keen to dispel.

Sophie was a lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Isabella, who was keen that Franz Ferdinand should marry one of her daughters. He was a frequent visitor to the household of Isabella and her husband, Archduke Friedrich, Duke of Teschen.

Woolmans said that it  is frequently asserted that Isabella assumed that Franz Ferdinand was interested in marrying one of her daughters and was furious when she discovered that it was Sophie that he wanted to marry. Woolmans argues that Isabella must have noticed Franz Ferdinand’s interest in Sophie and believes that she was so keen to have one of her daughters as Empress that she would have tolerated him taking Sophie as his mistress. However, Sophie and Franz Ferdinand, who were both very religious, would have refused to accept this on moral grounds.

Woolmans thinks that Franz Ferdinand intended to wait until he was Emperor before marrying Sophie. She would then have become Empress. However, Isabella forced his hand, in Woolmans’s opinion in the hope that he would marry one of her daughters, leading to the morganatic marriage.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were not naïve in visiting Sarajevo, being well were aware that they risked assassination by going there. Just before going there, he told Archduke Karl, the next in line to the throne, that he might be shot and where to find his plans for a United States of Austria. This was intended to give the Slavs more power in the multi-national empire. Woolmans suggests that one reason why Sophie insisted on accompanying her husband to Sarajevo was that in those days assassins sometimes hesitated if there was a risk that they might harm women or children.

The day of the assassination, 28 June, was not, as is often claimed, their wedding anniversary, but the anniversary of the  on which Franz Ferdinand signed the official papers stating that the marriage would be morganatic.

Gavrilo Princep, their assassin, was not eating a sandwich in Schiller’s Delicatessen, but standing outside it when Franz Ferdinand and Sophie’s car appeared in front of him. He could not have afforded to have bought a sandwich from a café; Woolmans believes that this story was made up by a TV dramatization of the assassination.

Sophie was not pregnant at the time of her death. She was then 46 and her last pregnancy in 1908 had produced a still born child.

Killing any Austrian leader might have satisfied the assassins, but may not have led to war. In previous crises, Franz Ferdinand was the man who urged caution.

Woolmans said that a meeting between Franz Ferdinand and his friend Kaiser Wilhelm in June 1914 was mainly a social event at which Franz Ferdinand, a keen horticulturist, showed off his garden to Wilhelm. It was not a war council, although there were some political discussions.

The presentation did  not cover the claim in the publisher’s blurb that it examines ‘not only the Serbian conspiracy that killed Franz and Sophie and sparked the First World War but also insinuations about the hidden powers in Vienna that may well have sent them to their deaths.’


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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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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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