. 4
( 14)


were inadequate to meet minimal nutritional requirements and people
had to resort to black markets. The German people did not starve, but
they were hungry, and morale suffered. The spirit of national resistance
was reduced by the blockade: food shortages led to strikes and

Roger Chickering, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914“1918 (Cambridge
University Press, 1998), p. 142.
84 Arms, economics and British strategy

discontent with the regime, and helped to undermine military and naval
discipline in 1918. However, the blockade alone would not have been
suf¬cient to defeat Germany. Germany was vulnerable to blockade
because of the strain of war on her economy. Had nitrogen been
available for fertilisers instead of for explosives, or had horses been
available for ploughing instead of for military transport, the population
could have been fed satisfactorily, even though a quarter of pre-war
German food consumption had been imported.72
Britain was more dependent than Germany on imports of food and
raw materials, and therefore was more vulnerable to blockade. A suc-
cessful anti-submarine strategy was crucial to the maintenance of the
British war effort. Between the beginning of August 1914 and the end
of September 1915 the amount of merchant shipping available to
Britain actually increased, from 16,842,000 tons to 17,016,000 tons,
partly on account of the addition of enemy ships captured at the
outbreak of war. However, in October 1916 the Board of Trade
warned that British shipbuilding was no longer keeping up with losses
and that the merchant tonnage had fallen between 30 September 1915
and 30 September 1916 to 16,255,000 tons.73 British losses rose from
September 1916 when improved coastal U-boats were based in Flan-
ders, and in the following month the Germans launched a new sub-
marine campaign in the Atlantic. At this stage, 80 per cent of ships
sunk had ¬rst received a warning from the U-boat captain but the
Germans decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare with effect
from 1 February 1917. The German High Command was willing to
risk American intervention because it believed that Germany, with
fewer resources than the Allies, would lose a long war and must
therefore resort to what seemed to be the only way to achieve rapid
victory. The German naval staff believed that unrestricted submarine
warfare could increase Allied losses by 50 per cent “ a forecast ful¬lled
in the ¬rst six months of the campaign. Much less accurate was their
belief that six months of the higher rate of losses would cut British
imports of grain by 40 per cent, creating bread shortages that would
force Britain to make peace. As Offer has commented, the calculations
that produced these ¬gures were based on fallacies and showed the
shortcomings of intuitive reasoning as opposed to rigorous economic
analysis; in the event British reserves of grain rose as it was given higher
priority than other imports.74 The Germans also underestimated the
Bell, Blockade, pp. 671“91; Offer, First World War, pp. 23“77.
˜Merchant shipping™, memorandum by the President of the Board of Trade, 26 Oct.
1916, CAB 42/22/6, TNA.
Offer, First World War, pp. 357“66.
The First World War 85

ability of the British government to organise rationing. To compound
matters, the Germans failed to divert enough production from army
needs to U-boat construction.75 Nevertheless, the British rate of loss of
merchant ships far exceeded replacement building in 1917 and could
not have been sustained beyond the end of that year without drastic
measures being taken to economise on shipping, such as the curtail-
ment of supplies to Italy and the withdrawal of some of the British
forces facing the Bulgarians at Salonika.76
The most important single solution to the U-boat menace proved to
be the convoy system. However, down to the spring of 1917 the Royal
Navy preferred to conduct offensive anti-submarine patrols and to lay
mines, although it was not until late 1917 that British mines were
effective against submarines. The great weakness of the submarine was
its dependence on batteries for submerged running; prolonged pursuit
by hydrophone contact could eventually bring it to the surface with its
batteries exhausted. The problem was how to establish the initial
hydrophone contact, and the navy was slow to grasp that its ships were
more likely to do so if they were close to the U-boats™ targets, as convoy
escorts, rather than patrolling trade routes. The Admiralty™s War Staff
had doubts about merchant captains™ skill in keeping station in a convoy
and the ability of ports to cope with the task of unloading ships that
arrived in large groups, and believed that the navy lacked suf¬cient
escort vessels for the number of ships daily entering British ports.
Nevertheless, convoys to the Netherlands from July 1916, and to France
from February 1917, had much lower losses than unescorted vessels.
According to Lloyd George, Commander Reginald Henderson of the
anti-submarine department, who organised the convoys to France,
made the ˜startling discovery™ that Admiralty estimates of the number of
escorts required for the trade of the country as a whole were based on
statistics that were wrong by a factor of ¬fteen, and made sure that the
Prime Minister was apprised of the facts before he visited the Admiralty
on 30 April 1917 to attend a meeting to discuss anti-submarine warfare.
In fact, recent research by Nicholas Black has shown that the Admir-
alty™s War Staff was aware of the true numbers of ships crossing the
Atlantic by late December 1916, if not earlier, and the decision to
experiment with transatlantic convoys in May 1917 was the result of
staff of¬cers gradually changing their minds over the previous ¬ve
months rather than a response to Lloyd George™s visit. There really was

Holger Herwig, ˜Total rhetoric, limited war: Germany™s U-boat campaign, 1917“1918™,
in Chickering and Forster (eds.), Great War, Total War, pp. 189“206.
Lloyd George, War Memoirs, vol. III, pp. 1127“9.
86 Arms, economics and British strategy

a shortage of escort vessels and a crucial element in the success of the
regular system of convoys from mid-June was the deployment of addi-
tional destroyers of the US Navy.77 As the system was expanded to other
routes, losses fell below replacement levels. Even so, the shipping
shortage had to be relieved by concentrating as much trade as possible
on the shorter North Atlantic routes, as opposed to the longer voyages to
South America or the Paci¬c, thereby increasing Allied reliance on
American ¬nancial aid.
Command of the sea allowed Britain and her allies access to the
resources of the wider world, while denying them to the enemy.
Troopships could convey reinforcements from Empire countries.
Amphibious operations could be undertaken, and armies maintained at
a distance from the United Kingdom. Germany™s colonies, in contrast,
were cut off from reinforcement. Of these advantages, the ¬rst was the
most important: imported raw materials and American munitions
increased Britain™s war effort, while blockade diminished Germany™s.
The second advantage was also important: Australia, Canada, New-
foundland, New Zealand and South Africa between them contributed
317,000 troops to expeditionary forces in November 1917, or 14 per
cent of the British contribution at that date; India contributed 187,000,
a ¬gure that rose to 259,000 in November 1918, or 12.5 per cent of a
reduced British contribution of 2,075,000.78 On the other hand, the
possibilities of a maritime strategy had been diminished, compared with
earlier wars, by the development of inland transport and it is no coin-
cidence that the Dardanelles expedition, and the Salonika, Mesopota-
mia and Palestine campaigns, were conducted far from the dense
Central European railway network.

Military strategy
British military strategy in the First World War is an enduring subject of
debate. Should Britain have used command of the sea to land forces at
strategic points? Should commitment to the Western Front have been
limited and more effort been put into defeating Germany™s allies? On the
Western Front itself, did tanks offer an alternative to the strategy of
attrition represented by the Somme and Passchendaele? These were

N. D. Black, ˜The Admiralty War Staff and its in¬‚uence on the conduct of the naval war
between 1914 and 1918™, Ph.D. (University of London, 2005), pp. 171“8. Lloyd
George™s version is in his War Memoirs, vol. III, pp. 1143“7, 1151“69. Halpern, Naval
History, pp. 351“66, is a balanced account, apart from repeating the story about
misleading statistics.
War Of¬ce, Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire, pp. 31“7.
The First World War 87

questions that Liddell Hart tended to answer in the af¬rmative in the
1930s, when he had some in¬‚uence on ministerial thinking about a
future continental commitment (see p. 154).79
Alternative strategies have to be related to the overriding objective of
defeating Germany. Capture of German colonies might provide diplo-
matic counters and deny German raiders coaling stations, but Germany
had invested little in these territories and their loss was not going to
de¬‚ect her from her aims in Europe. The BEF was not required for
colonial warfare. British participation in the capture of Germany™s only
strongly forti¬ed overseas base, Tsingtao, was limited to a token con-
tingent in what was essentially a Japanese operation. Germany™s African
colonies were conquered by native African, Indian and white South
African troops in campaigns which did not impinge perceptibly on the
United Kingdom™s war effort.80
Stalemate on the Western Front led Lloyd George in January 1915 to
suggest alternatives to reinforcing the BEF there. He proposed that
600,000 men be sent to Salonika or the Dalmatian coast from where, he
believed, they could combine with the Serbs and the still neutral Greeks
and Romanians to attack Austria-Hungary, thereby helping Russia and
encouraging Italy to enter the war on the Allied side. He also proposed
that a further 100,000 men be landed on the Syrian coast to cut off the
Turkish army that was about to invade Egypt.81 Neither suggestion took
account of the logistical dif¬culty of transporting and maintaining so
many troops in distant theatres, nor in the case of the Balkans of per-
suading neutral states to co-operate. In the event, the Turkish attack on
the Suez Canal was repelled in February 1915 by Anglo-Indian forces
already in Egypt.
There were other schemes under consideration in early 1915 but the
War Council increasingly came to see the Dardanelles as the best
option. Churchill had said in November 1914 that an attack on the
Dardanelles would require a large military force. However, following a
Russian appeal on 1 January 1915 for more help, he became the most
enthusiastic advocate of a naval expedition to bombard the Turkish forts
defending the straits and, having cleared the mine¬elds there, to proceed
to Constantinople and perhaps topple the pro-German regime there.82
For Liddell Hart™s views, see his The British Way in Warfare (London: Faber and Faber,
1932), pp. 38“41, and A History of the World War, 1914“1918 (London: Faber and
Faber, 1934), pp. 332“43, 435“48, 545“51, 586“9, 591“2.
Strachan, First World War, vol. I, chs. 6“7.
Lloyd George, ˜The war: suggestions as to the military situation™, 1 Jan. 1915, CAB 42/
1/8, TNA, reproduced in Lloyd George, War Memoirs, vol. I, pp. 369“80.
See, for example, Hankey™s notes for the meeting of 13 Jan. 1915, CAB 22/1, TNA,
reproduced in Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. III, companion, part I
88 Arms, economics and British strategy

On 2 February Hankey summed up for Asquith the arguments in favour
of a military expedition to keep the straits open for merchant ships.
Russia had manpower but lacked munitions, and the Archangel and
Vladivostok supply routes were inadequate. Hankey and ministers seem
to have overlooked the point that the opportunity cost of the decision to
expand the British army was a lack of munitions available for allies.
However, ministers also believed that the expedition would have poli-
tical bene¬ts in its effects on the attitudes of Balkan states, and Hankey
stressed the economic bene¬ts of releasing merchant shipping cooped
up in the Black Sea and allowing Russia to export grain, thereby
reversing the wartime rise in world prices.83 Unfortunately the opera-
tions to open the Dardanelles were almost an object lesson in poor
planning, characterised by a lack both of staff work and of inter-
departmental co-ordination. The naval bombardment of the Turkish
forts began on 19 February but it was not until 25 April that the ¬rst
troops landed, by which time the Turks were well prepared. The ¬ghting
on the Gallipoli peninsula was characterised by the same inability of
infantry to make progress against machine guns and ri¬‚es protected by
barbed wire and trenches as on the Western Front. All hopes of breaking
through to Constantinople had vanished long before the expedition
withdrew in January 1916. Historians still debate the extent of
Churchill™s responsibility for the failure at Gallipoli, but the lack of
proper staff planning suggests systemic failure.84
The Mesopotamian campaign against the Turks developed from a
small-scale operation into one that absorbed considerable resources. An
Indian Army division was dispatched to the head of the Persian Gulf in
October 1914 to protect the oil¬elds at Abadan (of particular interest to
the Admiralty following the decision to build oil-burning warships) and
to prevent the expansion of Turkish in¬‚uence towards India. The

(London: Heinemann, 1972), pp. 409“10. Gilbert believes that Churchill™s advocacy of
an attack by ships alone contributed to the War Council™s self-deception that troops
could be dispensed with (Winston S. Churchill, vol. III, pp. 249, 311). The Russians did
not propose an attack on the Dardanelles. Indeed, they were anxious lest any Balkan
bloc created by an Allied victory might prejudice their claims to Constantinople; see
Keith Neilson, Strategy and Supply: The Anglo-Russian Alliance, 1914“17 (London: Allen
and Unwin, 1984), pp. 57“78.
˜The war: attack on the Dardanelles. Note by the Secretary™, 2 Feb. 1915, CAB 42/1/
30, TNA.
For a historiography survey, see Edward Spiers, ˜Gallipoli™, in Brian Bond (ed.), The
First World War and British Military History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), pp. 165“
88. For Churchill™s part, see Michael Howard, ˜Churchill and the First World War™, in
Robert Blake and W. Roger Louis (eds.), Churchill (Oxford University Press, 1993),
pp. 129“45, at pp. 137“8. For lack of staff work and Hankey™s role, see Gooch, Plans of
War, pp. 309“15. The best account of the campaign is Tim Travers, Gallipoli 1915
(Stroud: Tempus, 2001).
The First World War 89

campaign remained under the direction of the India Of¬ce until 1916.
One division was suf¬cient to capture Basra, but Baghdad proved to be
too ambitious an objective for so small a force, and in December 1915
General Sir Charles Townshend and his men were surrounded at Kut-
el-Amara, where they surrendered on 29 April 1916. The Mesopota-
mian campaign became a matter of restoring British prestige, Baghdad
¬nally falling on 11 March 1917. Considerations of prestige, Lloyd
George™s wish to raise the spirits of the British public, and a desire to
stake out territorial claims in the Middle East led to another British
imperial force taking Jerusalem on 9 December 1917. It is doubtful if
these victories did anything to weaken German power. The Palestine
campaign did end in the rout of a Turkish army in the Battle of Megiddo
in September 1918, when British cavalry for the last time played a
signi¬cant role by blocking the enemy™s retreat, and when 75,000
prisoners were taken for the loss of 5,666 British casualties.85 However,
the Turkish armistice on 30 October came a month after Germany had
decided to seek peace.
The Salonika expedition was originally designed to reinforce the
Serbs, who in the autumn of 1915 were facing defeat from Austro-
German and Bulgarian forces. The Allies were invited to send troops to
Salonika by the Greek Prime Minister, Eleutherios Venizelos, but on the
day they landed, 5 October, he was dismissed and Greece remained
neutral, accepting the presence of the Allied army under protest. It was
not until June 1917 that the Greek king was forced by the Allies to
abdicate and Venizelos was restored to of¬ce to bring his country into
the war. Meanwhile Serbia had been overrun in late 1915 and its
defeated army evacuated via Albania to Salonika, where it was
re-equipped to ¬ght alongside British, French, Italian and Russian
troops. The CIGS, Robertson, thought that the war could not be won in
the Balkans, since victory would come only with defeat of the German
army, and most of the troops facing the Allies at Salonika were Bul-
garian. In his view, Britain did not have enough men and artillery to
¬ght in two main theatres, and even if she had they would be better
employed in one.86 With the German submarine campaign severely
limiting the amount of shipping, Lloyd George told an Anglo-French
conference in May 1917 that the essential needs of the civil population of
the Allies could only be met by reducing the force at Salonika to that

Cyril Falls, The First World War (London: Longman Green, 1960), pp. 376“80.
Robertson to Lt.-General G. F. Milne, 7 Nov. 1916, in The Military Correspondence of
Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, December 1915“
February 1918, ed. David Woodward (London: Bodley Head for Army Records Society,
1989), p. 102.
90 Arms, economics and British strategy

required to hold an entrenched camp around the harbour. One British
infantry division and two cavalry brigades were transferred to Egypt
before the entry of Greece into the war led to a change in policy. There
was now to be no withdrawal to an entrenched camp, but Greek divisions
were gradually to replace British ones. The mountainous country around
Salonika, with its poor roads and limited railways, was not an obvious
area from which to bring pressure to bear on Germany, or even Austria-
Hungary.87 The presence of the Allied army at Salonika was not enough
to save Romania from defeat in 1916“17. By 1918, however, the Ger-
mans had scaled down their assistance to the Bulgarians, and an Allied
offensive beginning on 15 September forced the latter to ask for an
armistice on 28 September. The prospect of an Allied advance that
would cut Germany™s overland communications with Turkey and
threaten Germany™s sources of oil in Romania added to the pressures that
led Ludendorff to decide that Germany must seek an armistice, but the
war had already been decided on the Western Front where, as Luden-
dorff admitted on 29 September, the beaten German army could no
longer be relied on.88 Had the Germans not been so hard pressed in the
west, they could have given more support to their allies in the Balkans.
In June 1917 Lloyd George saw Italy as potentially more pro¬table
than Flanders for the employment of British artillery. He hoped to
enable the Italian army to capture Trieste and knock Austria-Hungary
out of the war. However, Robertson and Haig successfully resisted
sending guns on a scale that would hamper their plans for an offensive
on the Western Front. They argued that superior railway links would
enable the Germans to transfer troops more rapidly to Italy than the
Allies could do, and that the Germans would do what was necessary to
keep Austria-Hungary in the war. They believed that Lloyd George™s
hopes that Austria-Hungary could make a separate peace were in any
case unrealistic, given the extent to which the Austro-Hungarian and
German armies were intermingled.89 It was only after the Italian defeat
by Austro-German forces at Caporetto in October 1917 that British
˜Report of the Cabinet Committee on War Policy™, 10 Aug. 1917, CAB 27/6, TNA.
David Stevenson, 1914“1918: The History of the First World War (London: Allen Lane,
2004), p. 468; Wilhelm Deist, ˜The military collapse of the German Empire: the reality
behind the stab-in-the-back myth™, War in History, 3 (1996), 186“207.
Haig™s ˜Note on the strategical situation with special reference to the comparative
advantages of an offensive in Northern Belgium as against an offensive from Italy
against Austria™, read at meeting of Cabinet Committee on War Policy, 20 June;
Secretary™s notes of meeting of that Committee on 21 June, and Report of the
Committee, 10 August (all 1917), CAB 27/6; ˜Note by the CIGS [Robertson] on the
Prime Minister™s memorandum regarding future military policy™, 23 June 1917, CAB
27/7, TNA. For context, see David French, The Strategy of the Lloyd George Coalition,
1916“1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 135“9.
The First World War 91

divisions were transferred to Italy. The 75,000 British troops there by
1918 played a signi¬cant part in the Italians™ victory at Vittorio Veneto
between 26 October and 4 November. However, by then Allied pressure
on the Western Front was preventing the Germans from sending rein-
forcements to Italy, as they had done in 1917; the Austro-Hungarian
state was close to dissolution on ethnic lines; and its army was short of
rations owing to blockade and war-induced exhaustion of the economy.
Notwithstanding the victories over Germany™s allies, it is doubtful
whether the various strategies favoured by ˜Easterners™ could have
avoided the necessity for defeating the German army in France and
Belgium. Indeed, it could be argued that campaigns against Turks and
Bulgarians weakened the Allied war effort by diverting British troops
away from ¬ghting Germans. For example, in April 1916, out of ¬fty-
two British divisions abroad, ¬ve were in Egypt, one in Mesopotamia,
¬ve at Salonika, and forty-one in France. In July 1917 a total of 550,000
British troops were deployed in Egypt and Mesopotamia, against an
estimated 120,000 Turks, while 600,000 Allied troops, of whom
200,000 were British, faced 300,000 Bulgarians at Salonika.90
On the other hand, there is plenty of room for debate as to the wisdom of
strategies adopted on the Western Front. The ¬rst question that had to be
decided in August 1914 was whether the BEF should join the left ¬‚ank of
the French army, as the French expected, on the basis of pre-war staff
talks, or whether it should have an independent role in Belgium, as the
commander of the BEF, Sir John French, initially favoured. The insis-
tence of the French, and the absence of pre-war staff talks with the Bel-
gians, decided the matter. Although Sir John was instructed by Kitchener
to consider himself to be the commander of an independent force, there
was little choice but to conform to the movements of the much larger
French army. When the Germans threatened Antwerp in October a bri-
gade of marines and two brigades of seamen untrained in land warfare
were sent by Churchill to reinforce the Belgian army, but were unable to
prevent the fall of the city. Almost the whole Belgian coast fell to the
Germans, thereby arousing traditional British fears of invasion, and
also enabling the Germans to establish submarine bases close to the
Channel.91 In January 1915 Sir John French wanted to advance along the
Flanders coast to Zeebrugge, but he admitted that the French Com-
mander-in-Chief, Marshal Joffre, was not much moved by the danger to

Minutes of Cabinet Committee on the Size of the Army, 18 Apr. 1916, CAB 27/3; Sir
William Robertson: ˜Palestine™, 19 July 1917, CAB 27/7, TNA.
William James Philpott, Anglo-French Relations and Strategy on the Western Front, 1914“
18 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996), pp. 8“49.
92 Arms, economics and British strategy

the British army™s communications from U-boats.92 Britain would remain
very much the junior partner in matters of military strategy until the army
being recruited by Kitchener was ready to take the ¬eld.
As Kitchener was not in the habit of putting his ideas down on paper or
of discussing his plans with the Cabinet or the General Staff, no one can be
sure of what he intended to do with his army of volunteers. The most
convincing explanation has been put forward by David French, who
suggested that Kitchener reckoned that by the time his troops were trained
and at the peak of their numerical strength in early 1917, the armies of
both their enemies and their allies would have fought themselves to a
standstill. The British would then be able to deliver the ¬nal blow and be in
a position to ensure that peace was made on British terms.93 On 19 August
1915 Kitchener told Haig that he had favoured a policy of active defence in
France until the British army was ready to strike with all of its forces, but
the defeat of the Russian army in Poland, where Warsaw fell on 5 August,
had changed his mind.94 Russia naturally looked to its allies for offensives
to divert German forces. France expected the British to help to expel the
Germans from her territory as quickly as possible. Hence the ¬rst British
offensives in 1915, at Neuve Chapelle (March) and at Loos (September),
were timed to coincide with French offensives in Champagne as part of a
strategy, devised by Joffre, to assault each ¬‚ank of the great German salient
in the centre of the Western Front. As Kitchener commented, ˜one makes
war not as one would like to, but as one must™.95 The same comment
applies to Churchill™s argument that the Allies should have refrained from
large-scale offensives on the Western Front during the years 1916“18.
Churchill believed that the offensive strategy adopted cost the Allies more
casualties than those they in¬‚icted on the Germans. As an alternative, he
suggested a strategy of ˜dynamic defence™, with limited local offensives to
pin down the German forces in the west, while the blockade slowly wea-
kened the German war effort.96 It is doubtful if such a strategy would have
been as acceptable to the French, Russians and Italians as the one adopted
in 1916 and 1917 of simultaneous Allied offensives on all fronts. More-
over, as already noted, the blockade was most effective when combined
with military operations that forced the Germans to divert substantial
resources from agriculture.
War Council minutes, 13 Jan. 1915, CAB 42/1/16, TNA.
David French, ˜The meaning of attrition, 1914“1916™, English Historical Review, 103
(1988), 385“405.
Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914“1918, ed. Gary Shef¬eld and John Bourne
(London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005), p. 137.
Howard, Continental Commitment p. 126.
Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. III, companion, part 2, p. 1069; Churchill, World
Crisis 1916“1918, part II, pp. 618“39.
The First World War 93

Haig claimed in his ¬nal dispatch in March 1919 that the strategy of
attrition to wear down the German army in 1916 and 1917 was a pre-
condition of victory in 1918. He argued that the course of the war could
not be understood unless the long succession of battles, beginning with
the Somme in July 1916 and ending on the Sambre in November 1918,
were seen as forming one continuous engagement, in which heavy losses
on both sides were inevitable, but which resulted in the weakened
Germans giving way once they had exhausted their reserves.97 However,
if one widens the perspective to include all fronts, one could say that the
offensive strategy pursued by the Allies had so weakened the French,
Russians and Italians by 1917 that there was mutiny in the French army
in May and June after General Nivelle™s unsuccessful offensive on the
Aisne; the Russian army collapsed after the so-called Kerensky offensive
in July, hastening the rise of Bolshevism; and the Italian army was
exhausted after repeated battles on the Izonso before its defeat at
Caporetto. Haig himself attributed the ¬nal exhaustion of the Germans™
reserves to the series of offensives undertaken by Ludendorff between
March and July 1918. It is not clear, therefore, that the offensive was
always superior to the defensive. From Loos to the end of 1917 Haig
was excessively optimistic at the outset of each battle about breaking
through the enemy line, and he incurred heavy casualties on the Somme
and at Passchendaele by prolonging his offensive in adverse weather
long after the attack had lost its impetus.98 His strategic objective in
1917 of clearing the Germans from their submarine bases in Flanders
was as far from being achieved at the end of the year as it had been at the
Controversy over British strategy on the Western Front in 1918 is
perhaps greatest over the last period of the war, when the Allies were
advancing. Tim Travers has pointed out that British casualties were
higher than they had been in 1917: 314,000 for the period 7 August to
11 November 1918, compared with 271,000 in the Passchendaele
offensive from 31 July to mid-November 1917. He believes that
mechanical warfare was a genuine alternative to heavy reliance on
infantry, and that by concentrating tanks in large numbers instead of
employing them in ˜penny packets™ lives would have been saved.

Haig™s Despatches, pp. 319“20.
For Haig™s excessive optimism, see Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, Command on the
Western Front: The Military Career of Sir Henry Rawlinson 1914“1918 (Oxford: Blackwell,
1992), pp. 106“7, 113“16, 124, 146“53. For trenchant criticism of Haig persisting with
battles beyond the capacity of his army, see Winter, Haig™s Command, pp. 45“69, 88“
98, 103“13.
94 Arms, economics and British strategy

However, as he himself notes, tank crews could not last more than eight
hours in action, on average, and mechanical unreliability meant that
tanks could not be used for more than two days in a row. David Childs
has argued that there were not enough tanks available in 1918, and that
they could not be brought to the front quickly enough or supplied in
mobile warfare to make possible their use in mass attacks. Even Travers
concedes that Haig™s anxiety to keep the German army on the run by a
series of short offensives was understandable, since Haig was rightly
convinced that the German army was demoralised.99 Churchill was an
enthusiastic advocate of tanks and, as minister of munitions, was
responsible for their production, but when he wrote in June 1918 of
employing over 7,000 tanks (compared with the Tank Corps™ existing
establishment of 1,080 tanks) he was looking forward twelve months.100
The CIGS, Wilson, proposed to Haig in July 1918 that the British
army™s cavalry should be reduced by a third, and its mechanised force
expanded to 3,000 tanks plus 7,300 tractors and cross-country vehicles,
but again this was a plan for 1919.101 On Travers™ own evidence, the
number of tanks available to the British army in August 1918 varied
widely from day to day, according to battle casualties, wear and tear,
and maintenance: 688 on the 11th, 200 on the 12th, 738 on the 17th.102
The numbers available fell in the autumn, more often than not to ¬gures
well below 100.103 It is by no means certain that it would have been wise
to restrict British attacks according to the supply of tanks, or whether
such a strategy would have been acceptable to the French or the
Victory in 1918 came more quickly than expected. On 25 July, one
week after the last German offensive had been halted, Wilson produced
a major paper on military policy in which he advocated a series of
operations with limited objectives designed to push the Germans back
from various strategic points, such as the Amiens railway junction.
However, he thought that preparations for a decisive effort by the Allies
should be planned for ˜not later than 1st July 1919™.104 By 3 September

Travers, How the War Was Won, pp. 127“30, 137“40, 175“6, 179, 181; T. H. E.
Travers, ˜Could the tanks of 1918 have been war winners for the British Expeditionary
Force?™ Journal of Contemporary History, 27 (1992), 389“406, at 392 and 398; Childs,
Peripheral Weapon? pp. 171“89.
Churchill to General Harington (Deputy CIGS), 21 June 1918, printed in Churchill,
World Crisis: 1916“1918, part II, pp. 321 and 482“3.
Sir Henry Wilson, ˜British military policy 1918“1919™, 25 July 1918, CAB 27/8, TNA.
Travers, How the War Was Won, p. 127.
Grif¬ths, Battle Tactics, p. 167.
Wilson, ˜British military policy 1918“1919™.
The First World War 95

1918 Haig was suf¬ciently encouraged by the capture of 77,000
prisoners and 800 guns in four weeks, and evidence of indiscipline in the
German army, to believe that ˜the beginning of the end™ had been
reached.105 On 18 October he told ministers that the German army had
been badly beaten but that it was capable of retiring to its own frontier
and holding that line against equal or even superior forces. The French
army, he thought, was greatly worn out and the American army was ill
trained and would not be a serious ¬ghting force for at least a year. The
British army, with its infantry already 50,000 under strength, was not, in
his opinion, suf¬ciently fresh and strong to force a decision by itself.106
Nevertheless, there is evidence that the forces of the British Empire “
with the Australians and Canadians prominent “ made a dispropor-
tionate contribution to the defeat of the German army. Between 18 July
and 11 November the British captured 188,700 prisoners and 2,840
guns, compared with 139,000 prisoners and 1,880 guns taken by
the French, and 43,000 prisoners and 1,421 guns taken by the
The Germans were defeated partly because they could not afford to
lose so many men as the Allies, especially once the latter could look
forward to American reinforcements, but also because of the over-
whelming superiority of the Allies in material. The Western Front was
where Britain could employ the bulk of her army and the products of her
industrial power most effectively, given the short lines of communica-
tion compared with the various alternative (or additional) strategies
advocated by Easterners. Concentration of military resources on the
Western Front was also what best suited naval policy, given shortages of
anti-submarine escorts and of shipping.108 While Haig appears to have
thought primarily in terms of killing Germans rather than in terms of
exhausting Germany™s material resources (in conjunction with block-
ade), he did argue in June 1917 that failure to maintain pressure through
offensive action would give the Germans time in which to replenish
food, ammunition and other requirements.109 The blockade created
hunger and discontent, and the Allies™ offensive strategy on the Western
Front compelled the Germans to use up resources more rapidly than a
defensive strategy would have done.

Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters, p. 458.
˜Note of a conference at 10 Downing Street™, 18 Oct. 1918, CAB 23/16, TNA.
John Terraine, To Win a War. 1918: The Year of Victory (London: Sidgwick and
Jackson, 1978), p. 258.
Sir John Jellicoe, ˜Future naval policy™, 9 Oct. 1917, CAB 27/8, TNA.
Sir Douglas Haig, ˜Present situation and future plans™, 12 June 1917, CAB 27/7, TNA.
96 Arms, economics and British strategy

Britain contributed technical innovation, industrial and ¬nancial power,
and military manpower to the Allied victory. Hydrophones, tanks and
aircraft are obvious examples of new weapons, and hardly suggest
industrial backwardness or military conservatism. However, innovation
with traditional weapons was no less important. New scienti¬c artillery
techniques made a bigger contribution to the defeat of the German army
in 1918 than the more publicised tank. Even new weapons depended
upon tactical innovation to be effective. The army™s success was possible
only when the different arms “ artillery, infantry, tanks (when available)
and aircraft “ had learned to operate together. The navy™s success over
the U-boat required the adoption of the convoy system as well as the
development of hydrophones.
Victory also depended on the economy™s ability to equip the largest
army Britain has ever put in the ¬eld, while maintaining the largest navy
in the world and producing more aircraft than Germany. The vast
industrial effort required was beyond Britain™s own resources, which had
to be supplemented by imports from North America. The willingness of
private American investors to lend to the British government re¬‚ected
Britain™s credit in ¬nancial markets, and her allies bene¬ted from her
ability to raise loans. The Royal Navy™s command of the sea, and
eventual success against the submarine, was also necessary to allow
Britain to draw upon the resources of the rest of the world.
Germany was vulnerable to blockade because of her need to divert
resources (chemicals, horses and manpower) to sustain her armies. Sea
power also allowed Britain to attempt a major maritime operation (the
Dardanelles) and to supply armies in the Balkans and the Middle East.
Nevertheless, most of the army was committed to the Western Front.
Controversy over Haig™s strategy of attrition is likely to continue sine die.
Nevertheless, it made sense as part of total strategy. The choice made in
1915 to go beyond a limited continental commitment ensured that the
German army would always be under pressure and consequently that
the German economy would be under pressure too. The strategy
worked only because the combined efforts of the Allies denied Germany
an early victory. A more limited British contribution on land, such as
was subsequently advocated by Liddell Hart, might have undermined
Allied unity.
The costs to Britain of a long war were the loss of export markets,
which were never wholly recovered, and a weakening of her ¬nancial
power through the sale of overseas assets and the accumulation of debts.
The First World War 97

Britain never again enjoyed the advantage of huge balance-of-payments
surpluses that had marked the pre-1914 period. Victory had been
achieved by a combination of Britain™s traditional way of warfare “
blockade, loans or subsidies to allies and maritime operations “ and an
unprecedented continental commitment, but it came at the price of a
permanent weakening of British power.
3 Retrenchment and rearmament, 1919“1939

British defence policy in the inter-war years may be divided into two
phases: 1919 to 1932, when economic problems and the absence of
pressing dangers to national security led to reductions in the armed
forces; and 1932 to 1939, when the darkening international situation
gave defence preparedness increasing political priority. However, many
of the strategic problems encountered during the later 1930s were
rooted in the earlier phase, and this chapter analyses the period 1919“39
as a whole. There is a danger in this approach, since policies in the
1920s may be judged unfairly in the light of later events, but that is true
even of the 1930s, when British defence policy was designed to deter
aggression over an inde¬nite period even if the Chiefs of Staff were
planning from 1934 on the basis of being ready for war by 1939.
In August 1919 the Cabinet decided that the defence departments
should revise their estimates of expenditure for the coming year on the
assumption that ˜the British Empire will not be engaged in any great war
during the next ten years, and that no Expeditionary Force is required
for this purpose™.1 The purpose of this ˜Ten Year Rule™, as it came to be
called, was to assist the chancellor of the exchequer in securing the cuts
in expenditure required to balance his budget and, in one form or
another, the rule remained the guiding principle of defence policy until
1932. At the time it did not seem to the Foreign Of¬ce to be unrea-
sonable. Under the Treaty of Versailles signed on 28 June 1919 the
Rhineland was to be occupied by Allied forces for up to ¬fteen years and
demilitarised permanently; Germany™s army was limited to 104,000
long-service volunteers (thereby restricting its ability to train reserves),
and denied tanks or heavy guns; her navy was limited to six pre-
dreadnoughts (or replacements of no more than 10,000 tons) and six
light cruisers, and was forbidden to have submarines; and she was to
War Cabinet ˜A™ minutes, 15 Aug. 1919, cited in N. H. Gibbs, Grand Strategy, vol. I:
Rearmament Policy (London: HMSO, 1976), p. 3.

Retrenchment and rearmament 99

have no air force. Britain thus faced no immediate major armed threat in
Europe and, although it was known that Germany was not abiding
strictly by the disarmament clauses of the peace treaty, Allied troops
were withdrawn from the Rhineland in 1930.
Relations between Britain, Japan and the United States were in¬‚u-
enced by the weakness of China, which was prone to civil war and had
dif¬culty in resisting Japanese encroachments that threatened British
and American markets there. The Americans hoped that Japanese policy
would be less assertive if the Anglo-Japanese alliance, which was due for
renewal, were allowed to lapse, and it was agreed in December 1921 at
the Washington conference to replace the alliance with a rather neb-
ulous four-power treaty, whereby Britain, France, Japan and the United
States were to discuss jointly any threat to peace in the Paci¬c region. In
February 1922, at the same conference, the leading naval powers agreed
to limit their strengths in capital ships and aircraft carriers in the ratios:
British Empire and United States 5; Japan 3, France and Italy 1.67; plus
a ten-year moratorium (with certain exceptions) on building new capital
ships and (again with certain exceptions) limits to the maximum ton-
nages of capital ships (35,000 tons), aircraft carriers (27,000 tons) and
cruisers (10,000 tons). Japanese acceptance of a ratio of 60 per cent of
American and British capital ships was balanced by a non-forti¬cation
agreement covering the western Paci¬c which, in effect, meant that
Britain would not possess a major base closer to Japan than Singapore,
or the United States one closer than Hawaii.2
Meanwhile, in June 1921, the Standing Defence Sub-Committee of
the Cabinet had approved the building at Singapore of a naval base
capable of maintaining the main ¬‚eet, to show that Britain could ful¬l its
commitments in the Far East. The Labour government of 1924 can-
celled the scheme, but the Conservatives, who returned to of¬ce later
that year, restarted the work. Churchill supported the decision to build
the base, but nevertheless told the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, that
he did not believe that there was the slightest chance of war with Japan
˜in our lifetime™ and that Singapore™s defences need not be completed
for another ¬fteen to twenty years. Churchill was chancellor of the
exchequer at the time, and trying to limit the naval estimates, but the
Foreign Secretary, Austen Chamberlain, also took the view that
the prospect of war with Japan was ˜very remote™.3 What no one could
predict in the 1920s was the extent to which the world depression of the
Erik Goldstein and John Maurer (eds.), The Washington Conference, 1921“22: Naval
Rivalry, East Asian Stability and the Road to Pearl Harbor (Ilford: Frank Cass, 1994).
Churchill to Baldwin, 15 Dec. 1924, printed in Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, vol. V,
companion, part 1, pp. 303“7, at p. 306; CID minutes, 5 Jan. 1925, CAB 2/4, TNA. For
100 Arms, economics and British strategy

early 1930s would drive Japan to try to deal with overpopulation,
unemployment and popular unrest through territorial expansion. The
Japanese army used the Mukden Incident in September 1931 to seize
Manchuria from China, and in January 1932 there was further ¬ghting
in Shanghai, where about three-quarters of British investments in China
were concentrated. In these circumstances, the Cabinet accepted in
March 1932 the recommendation of the Chiefs of Staff that the Ten
Year Rule should be ended, while also recognising the Treasury™s advice
that this decision must not be taken to justify an increase in defence
expenditure without regard to the country™s serious ¬nancial and eco-
nomic situation.4 Britain had been forced to suspend the gold standard
in September 1931 and unemployment peaked in 1932. A further rea-
son for delay was the opening of the World Disarmament Conference at
Geneva in February 1932; the government had no plans to disarm but
had to take account of public opinion, which could be expected to be
hostile to an increase in defence expenditure.5
For most of the inter-war period the immediate problems facing the
armed forces related to local resistance to British rule or in¬‚uence.
Following disturbances beginning in 1919, Egypt was granted nominal
independence in 1922, but Britain retained effective control over foreign
relations and defence, her right to station her armed forces to defend the
Suez Canal and the naval base at Alexandria being con¬rmed by the
Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936. The decision to convert the Royal Navy
from coal to oil had greatly increased British interest in the Middle East.
The British army was engaged in maintaining security in the newly
acquired mandates of Iraq and Palestine and was so hard pressed in Iraq
that aircraft were used to control hostile tribesmen by bombing them, a
practice euphemistically known as ˜air policing™. This policy proved to
be so economical in terms of manpower and money that it was extended
to the North-West Frontier of India, where insurgency continued to be a
periodic problem into the 1930s. Air policing was not used where its
effects would be visible to the media and an Arab uprising in Palestine
from 1936 to 1939, in protest against Jewish immigration, required the
equivalent of two British army divisions to maintain order.6

the origins of the base, see James Neidpath, The Singapore Naval Base and the Defence of
Britain™s Eastern Empire, 1919“1941 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), pp. 15, 34“54.
Cabinet conclusions, 10 Feb. 1932 and 23 Mar. 1932, CAB23/70, TNA.
See Dick Richardson and Carolyn Kitching, ˜Britain and the World Disarmament
Conference™, in Peter Catterall and C. J. Morris (eds.), Britain and the Threat to Stability
in Europe, 1918“45 (Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 35“56.
See Anthony Clayton, The British Empire as Superpower, 1919“39 (Basingstoke:
Macmillan, 1986); Keith Jeffrey, The British Army and the Crisis of Empire 1918“22
Retrenchment and rearmament 101

It is not surprising, notwithstanding the appointment of Hitler as
chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933, that the annual review by the
Chiefs of Staff in October that year took a broad view of British com-
mitments. The three most important were listed as: (i) defence of British
possessions and interests in the Far East; (ii) European commitments;
and (iii) the defence of India against Soviet aggression.7 A Defence
Requirements Sub-Committee of the CID, known to history as the DRC,
and comprising the Cabinet Secretary, Hankey, the of¬cial heads of the
Foreign Of¬ce and the Treasury, Sir Robert Vansittart and Sir Warren
Fisher, and the Chiefs of Staff, met between November 1933 and Feb-
ruary 1934 to review the de¬ciencies of the armed forces, an exercise that
inevitably led them to review commitments, present and prospective.
Although the First Sea Lord, Sir Ernle Chat¬eld, and Hankey, were
mainly concerned with the Far East, Vansittart and Fisher believed that
Germany, not Japan, represented the prime danger. The committee™s
report, drafted by Hankey, represented both points of view. Ministers
were advised that Japan would respect strength and that a policy of
˜showing a tooth™ by completing the Singapore base should be combined
with efforts to improve Anglo-Japanese relations. However, Germany
must be taken to be the ˜ultimate potential enemy™ against whom ˜long
range™ defence policy must be directed. Germany was not expected to be
ready for war before 1939, and therefore there was ˜time, though not too
much time, to make defensive preparations™. Despite this warning, it took
almost ¬ve months of ministerial discussions before the Cabinet agreed in
July 1934 on a programme ˜for meeting our worst de¬ciencies™.8
Fisher and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain,
were strong advocates of better relations with Japan. They believed that
if Britain did not combine with the United States to insist on Japan
continuing to accept a lower ratio at the forthcoming London naval
conference in 1935, the way would be cleared for an Anglo-Japanese
non-aggression pact. Greg Kennedy and Keith Neilson have strongly
criticised the Treasury™s anti-American sentiments and optimistic views
regarding Japan.9 However, after the Treasury™s attempts between 1934

(Manchester University Press, 1984); David E. Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control:
The Royal Air Force, 1919“1939 (Manchester University Press, 1990).
˜Annual review of the Chiefs of Staff Sub-Committee™, COS 310, 12 Oct. 1933, CAB
53/23, TNA.
˜Report of the Defence Requirements Sub-Committee™, DRC 14, 28 Feb. 1934, CAB
16/109, and ˜Defence Requirements: report by Ministerial Committee™, CP 205 (34),
CAB 24/250, TNA.
Greg Kennedy, Anglo-American Strategic Relations and the Far East, 1933“1939 (London:
Frank Cass, 2002), pp. 123“5, 136“7, 145“6; Keith Neilson, ˜The Defence Require-
ments Sub-Committee™, English Historical Review, 118 (2003), 651“84.
102 Arms, economics and British strategy

and 1936 to use trade and ¬nancial discussions to reach an under-
standing with the Japanese had failed, and Japan had launched a full-
scale invasion of China in July 1937, Fisher endorsed the Foreign
Of¬ce™s view that Japan™s future actions were incalculable, owing to
doubts about the ability of politicians in Tokyo to control their armed
forces.10 Moreover, despite Chamberlain™s distrust of American relia-
bility, it was while he was prime minister that Anglo-American naval
staff talks began in January 1938. At ¬rst there was no more than an
exchange of information on strategy and technical matters, and the
Americans were non-committal, but the talks were essential ¬rst steps in
creating an Anglo-American alliance.11
The time in which to make defensive preparations against Germany
began to seem much shorter by late 1934 than Hankey had assumed
when drafting the DRC report in February. There was increasing
concern in London about German rearmament and, in November,
Baldwin, responding to Churchill™s prediction that Germany would
have an air force at least as strong as Britain™s in twelve months, pledged
the National Government ˜in no conditions to accept any position of
inferiority with regard to whatever air force may be raised in Ger-
many™.12 In March 1935 Hitler announced the re-creation of a German
air force and the restoration of conscription for the German armed
forces. An accelerated expansion scheme for the RAF was approved by
the Ministerial Committee on Defence Requirements two months later
with a view to keeping pace with Hitler™s stated intention of achieving air
parity with France. There was some discussion in the committee about
whether Japan should still be regarded as the near menace and Germany
as the long-range one. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Bolton
Eyres-Monsell, and the CIGS, Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd,
held to the DRC opinion that Germany would not be ready in a military
sense until 1939, whereas they thought that Japan would be a threat
in 1936. Chamberlain doubted whether there was any near danger
from either Japan or Germany, but supported the policy of
expanding the RAF to deter the latter from making a surprise attack by

Note by Edward Bridges (head of the Treasury division dealing with defence and
foreign policy issues), 1 Dec. 1937, T 161/779/S.41815, and comment by Fisher on
note by Bridges, 12 Jan. 1938, T 161/849/S.42779, TNA. For Treasury attempts to
in¬‚uence policy towards Japan, see Gill Bennett, ˜British policy in the Far East
1933“1936: Treasury and Foreign Of¬ce™, Modern Asian Studies, 26 (1992), 545“68.
David Reynolds, The Creation of the Anglo-American Alliance 1937“41: A Study in
Competitive Co-operation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981),
pp. 16“17, 60“2.
295 HC Deb., 5s, 1934“5, cc. 866“7, 883.
Retrenchment and rearmament 103

air.13 The Admiralty was glad to accept Hitler™s 35 per cent offer as the
basis of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of June 1935, as that ratio
would allow 60 per cent of the Royal Navy™s capital ships to be deployed
in the Far East, if necessary.14 Sixty per cent would have given Britain
parity with the Japanese under the ratio agreed at Washington and
extended at the London Naval Conference of 1930, but the Japanese
refused in 1935 to agree to anything less than parity with the Americans
and British, and did not sign another treaty.
Nineteen-thirty-¬ve also saw the unexpected emergence of a third
threat. Italy had been listed in the DRC report in February 1934 as one
of the countries against which no additional defence measures were
necessary, and in April 1935 the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had
hosted a conference at Stresa where he had appeared to favour a dip-
lomatic ˜front™ with Britain and France against German aggression.
However, his intention, which became increasingly apparent during
1935, to invade Abyssinia, placed the British government in a dilemma:
whether to appease Mussolini, with a view to securing his support in
Europe, or to support collective security through the League of Nations,
as British public opinion expected. The attempt to ¬nd a compromise
between these positions, by offering Mussolini Abyssinian territory
while the League imposed half-hearted sanctions, was unsuccessful, and
the possibility that sanctions would lead to war forced Britain to make
defensive preparations in the Mediterranean and Egypt. Subsequent
attempts to improve relations with Italy failed and Britain thus found
herself in a position in which, if she became involved in a war with any
one of Germany, Italy or Japan, the other two would probably join in
against Britain when it suited them. To make matters worse, there
seemed to be little prospect of reconstructing a coalition comparable to
the one that had been victorious in 1918. The United States had
become increasingly isolationist, with Congress passing the Neutrality
Acts of 1935 and 1937, which were designed to keep America out of war
by banning the sale of arms and the provision of credits to belligerents.
The Soviet Union, distrusted in any case on account of Communism,
weakened its armed forces through purges of the of¬cer corps in 1937“8.
France was affected later than other countries by the economic
depression of the 1930s, and was characterised by domestic political

Ministerial Committee on Defence Requirements minutes, 27 May 1935, CAB 27/508,
Joseph A. Maiolo, The Royal Navy and Nazi Germany, 1933“39: A Study in Appeasement
and the Origins of the Second World War (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 26“37.
104 Arms, economics and British strategy

A rearmament programme covering the ¬nancial years 1936/7 to
1941/2 was approved by the British Cabinet in February 1936, with
Germany now clearly seen as the major threat.15 The remilitarisation of
the Rhineland by Germany in the following month led to a series of
Anglo-French staff talks, but prior to 1939 the British were unwilling to
enter into ¬rm commitments.16 Indeed, in the winter of 1937“8, in an
effort to keep defence expenditure within limits that the Treasury said
the country could afford, the Cabinet decided that the army should not
be made ready for European operations at the outbreak of a war until
the United Kingdom and its trade routes, and Britain™s overseas terri-
tories, had been made secure. This decision has been condemned by
military historians, notably Howard, Bond and Barnett, who blame it for
the British army™s de¬ciencies in 1939“40.17 Part of the purpose of this
chapter is to explain why British grand strategy took the turn it did in
1938, and why Britain none the less made a ¬rm commitment early in
1939 to support France by sending an expeditionary force at the out-
break of war. Why did the Treasury appear to be so in¬‚uential in
defence policy? What technical developments led ministers to reassess
the relative importance of air, sea and land warfare? Did Britain keep
abreast with other countries in these developments, or was she as
militarily backward as Barnett has claimed?18

Whereas defence policy before 1914 had been very much in the hands of
the Admiralty and the War Of¬ce, the inter-war period was marked by
growing co-ordination through a restored CID and its sub-committees.
The fact that there were now three defence departments made it more
important to settle priorities as regards strategy and the allocation of
scarce resources on a multilateral basis. Political pressures for economy
in public expenditure in 1919 led to a strengthening of the Treasury, the
new permanent secretary, Fisher, being recognised as head of the Civil
Service. Fisher believed that major reductions in expenditure required
changes in policy and he encouraged his of¬cials to offer what the
Treasury, if not members of the armed forces, regarded as constructive
criticism of proposals for additional expenditure. Financial control also

Cabinet conclusions, 25 Feb. 1936, CAB 23/83. For discussions in Cabinet sub-
committee, and programme, see CAB 16/123, TNA.
Gibbs, Grand Strategy, vol. I, ch. 16.
Barnett, Collapse of British Power, pp. 504“5; Bond, British Military Policy, pp. 258“60,
338; Howard, Continental Commitment, pp. 116“17.
Barnett, Collapse of British Power, pp. 475“85.
Retrenchment and rearmament 105

encouraged of¬cials in the defence departments to engage more in
policymaking than hitherto.19 The Treasury also took advantage of CID
membership to ¬nd out more about defence expenditure than had been
possible by interdepartmental correspondence, and two chancellors,
Churchill (1924“9) and Neville Chamberlain (1931“7), played an active
role in formulating defence policy.
Lloyd George™s principal concern as prime minister after the war was
to secure economies that would make it possible to ¬nance social reform
within a balanced budget. His successor, Bonar Law, was in of¬ce for
only eight months before ill health forced him to retire in May 1923. For
the next fourteen years the premiership alternated between two men:
Baldwin, the leader of the Conservative Party, and James Ramsay
MacDonald, the leader of the Labour Party down to August 1931,
and thereafter National Labour prime minister in the Conservative-
dominated National Government until June 1935. Baldwin, as prime
minister in 1923“4, 1924“9 and 1935“7, and as lord president of the
council in 1931“5, took a much more active interest in defence than his
somewhat relaxed style of leadership suggested, but much of his time in
the crucial years 1936 and 1937 was taken up with the abdication of
Edward VIII. MacDonald™s principal interest in defence was disarma-
ment. His failing health from 1934, and Baldwin™s constitutional pre-
occupations, gave Chamberlain, as heir apparent to the leadership of the
Conservative Party, the opportunity to take the lead in discussions on
defence policy, a tendency that became even more marked once he
became prime minister in May 1937.
Churchill was still exceptional among ministers in regarding himself
as an expert on strategy. As secretary of state both for war and air from
January 1919 to February 1921, and as colonial secretary thereafter
until October 1922, he promoted the idea of using aircraft for imperial
policing. His efforts as chancellor of the exchequer in the second
Baldwin government to curb the Admiralty estimates were backed by
references to his own experience as ¬rst lord. From the backbenches he
was the most prominent critic of the government™s air rearmament from
1934, yet he was invited in 1935 to serve on the CID™s Air Defence
Research Sub-Committee. Former Cabinet colleagues tended to see
him as a disruptive in¬‚uence and he was not recalled to of¬ce when the
post of minister for co-ordination of defence was created in March 1936.
The functions of the new minister, Sir Thomas Inskip, were to reduce
the pressure of work on the prime minister by acting as his deputy as

See, for example, C. I. Hamilton, ˜British naval policy, policy-makers and ¬nancial
control, 1860“1945™, War in History, 12 (2005), 371“95.
106 Arms, economics and British strategy

chairman of the CID, and thus having an oversight of strategy, while
also taking over from the president of the Board of Trade as chairman of
the Principal Supply Of¬cers Committee, the main sub-committee co-
ordinating the allocation of industrial capacity. Chamberlain thought
that the minister should not himself be a strategist but should ˜see that
strategical problems are fairly and thoroughly worked out by the stra-
tegists™.20 Inskip, a lawyer, seems to have had a similar conception of his
role; he lacked a department of his own and relied a lot on the Cabinet
Secretary, Hankey, for advice.21 Inskip was replaced in January 1939 by
Lord Chat¬eld, who had recently retired as ¬rst sea lord, but who knew
nothing of politics and found that his new post lacked any authority
independent of the prime minister.22
In theory, and to some extent in practice, strategy was co-ordinated
by the CID and its sub-committees, advised by the Chiefs of Staff, who
had their own sub-committees: the Deputy Chiefs of Staff Committee,
the Joint Planning Sub-Committee and the Joint Intelligence Sub-
Committee. However, there was a tendency for the Chiefs of Staff to
add up the requirements of the three defence departments rather than to
propose changes that would alter their shares of the chancellor™s budget.
The CID, with a permanent membership of about twelve ministers, plus
the Chiefs of Staff, the permanent secretary of the Treasury and the
permanent under-secretary of the Foreign Of¬ce, was on the large side
to be an effective body, and detailed work was done in sub-committees.
Hankey, who was in charge of the Cabinet secretariat until his retire-
ment at the end of July 1938, was praised for his wisdom and monu-
mental memory.23 He certainly needed the latter: by the end of 1937 the
CID had over ¬fty sub-committees dealing with operational, adminis-
trative and industrial questions on an interdepartmental basis. The CID
system was a great improvement on the often uncoordinated plans of the
Admiralty and the War Of¬ce before 1914. However, as one Treasury
of¬cial observed: ˜No doubt there are many things for which committees
are essential; nevertheless, they are not the means to speed and decision
in action and are apt to relax the individual™s sense of responsibility.™24
Plans approved by the CID would proceed only as funds became
available, and departments had to take decisions on priorities when
Keith Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain (London: Macmillan, 1946), pp. 314“15.
See Sean Greenwood, ˜Sir Thomas Inskip as minister for co-ordination of defence,
1936“39™, in Paul Smith (ed.), Government and the Armed Forces in Britain 1850“1990
(London: Hambledon Press, 1996), pp. 155“89.
Lord Chat¬eld, It Might Happen Again (London: Heinemann, 1947), pp. 160, 179“82.
Roskill, Hankey, vol. III, p. 364.
Sir Richard Hopkins (second secretary of the Treasury) to Edmund Compton
(Treasury), 15 Dec. 1937, T 161/932/S.42750, TNA.
Retrenchment and rearmament 107

preparing their annual estimates for submission to the Treasury.
Chat¬eld, who had served in the Admiralty for a total of ten years in the
1920s and 1930s, noted in his memoirs that the services were emas-
culated not so much by the Treasury as by successive governments
acting through the Treasury and its powerful organisation, and that in
the 1920s (and, one might add, the early 1930s) the Treasury™s quest for
economy was backed by public opinion.25 In the later 1930s ¬nancial
restraint was relaxed, but, as we shall see, the Treasury was still suc-
cessful in 1937 and 1938 in having strategy related to economic stability.
Strategy had also to be related to the intentions and capabilities of
potential enemies. The Industrial Intelligence Centre (IIC) did pio-
neering work in assessing German output, current and potential but, in
the opinion of its head, Desmond Morton, the CID and government
departments failed to take on board the full implications of his reports.
More generally, the intelligence services failed to provide a balanced
analysis of German strengths and weaknesses, being slow to appreciate
the pace of German rearmament; then over-estimating the striking
power of the Luftwaffe in 1937“8; and ¬nally being over-con¬dent in
1938“9 (after the Munich crisis) about what the effects of blockade on
the German economy would be.26
The fact that prior to 1936 there was no single minister responsible
for all aspects of defence (apart from the prime minister and, from a
¬nancial point of view, the chancellor of the exchequer) meant that
strategy tended to be worked out on departmental lines. Thus, the
RAF™s primary concern was an air war with Germany; the navy was
much more concerned than the other services with the Japanese menace;
and the army tended to give priority to its expeditionary force rather
than to air defence. Relations between the service chiefs were not
improved by competition for scarce resources. To some extent the mark
of an outstanding chief of staff was his ability to defend his department™s
interests. In particular, Beatty, the ¬rst sea lord from 1919 to 1927,
could draw on his war-time prestige as a naval commander
when resisting Treasury pressure for economy. Trenchard™s vision of
strategic bombing was crucial in the successful outcome of his Whitehall
battle for the independence of the RAF while he was CAS from 1918 to

Chat¬eld, It Might Happen Again, pp. 13, 164“5, 198.
Gill Bennett, Churchill™s Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence
(London: Routledge, 2006); Wesley Wark, The Ultimate Enemy: British Intelligence and
Nazi Germany (London: I. B. Tauris, 1985).
108 Arms, economics and British strategy

Air weapons
Few statements in Parliament have had more impact than that by
Baldwin on 10 November 1932 that ˜the bomber will always get
through™. He added: ˜the only defence is in offence, which means that
you will have to kill more women and children more quickly than the
enemy.™27 At that date Baldwin did not expect another great war in his
lifetime but, with the rise of the German air force under Hitler, fear of
air attack cast a shadow over British politics and strategic planning.28
Total civilian deaths due to air attacks on Britain between 1915 and
1918 had been 1,414, and the Germans had abandoned strategic
bombing after May 1918. Yet in May 1932 a CID sub-committee,
chaired by Baldwin, concluded that the high speed and power of
modern aircraft would enable a potential enemy to bomb London on a
scale that would result in 6,375 deaths and 12,375 wounded in one
week, even after the existing scheme for defence by aircraft, anti-aircraft
guns and air raid precautions had been completed.29 What had hap-
pened to make the bomber seem so much more formidable a weapon?
At ¬rst sight, British bombers in 1932 looked very much like their
predecessors in 1918. All were biplanes. Some were twin-engined ˜night™
bombers but most were single-engined ˜day™ bombers. Night bombers
were slow and the same darkness that gave them some protection
against interception also made it dif¬cult to navigate or bomb accu-
rately. Day bombers relied on speed to evade ¬ghters, but had ineffec-
tual bomb loads. The standard British night bomber in 1932, the
Vickers Virginia, had been in service for eight years and offered no
improvement over the war-time Handley Page 0/400 as regards speed or
bomb load, although it had greater range. Progress was more apparent
with day bombers: the Hawker Hart of 1930 was faster than any ¬ghter
then in service, but its maximum bomb load was only 520 pounds
(compared with the Virginia™s 3,000 pounds), and its range was only
470 miles (compared with the Virginia™s 985 miles). The RAF was not
equipped for strategic bombing in 1932. The development of new types
of long-range bombers had been held up by the prospect that the
Geneva Disarmament Conference, due to begin that year, might agree
to abolish big bombing aircraft. Indeed the Air Staff™s prime concern
was to avoid an international agreement that would prohibit strategic

270 HC Deb., 5s, 1931“2, c. 632.
See Uri Bialer, The Shadow of the Bomber: The Fear of Air Attack and British Politics
1932“1939 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1980).
˜Inquiry into air disarmament policy, report™, CP 152 (32), 9 May 1932, CAB 16/106,
Retrenchment and rearmament 109

bombing, the Air Staff arguing successfully that no reliance could be
placed on the observance of ˜arti¬cial laws of war™.30
One problem with banning bombers would have been that civil air-
liners could be converted to military purposes. Indeed, in 1921 Tren-
chard had pointed out to ministers that aircraft then used by French civil
aviation companies were drawn from war stocks of bombers.31 Germany
was able to produce formidable aircraft by subsidising its aircraft
industry and the national airline, Lufthansa. The latest German airliner
in 1932 was a tri-motor monoplane, the Junkers Ju 52, which was later
used as a bomber/transport by the Luftwaffe and was rated by the Air
Ministry as superior in speed, range and bomb load to the RAF™s ¬rst
monoplane heavy bomber, the Fairey Hendon. German civil mono-
planes visiting British airports were sometimes faster than British
biplane ¬ghters, causing concern to British ministers discussing defence
requirements in 1935.32
Policymakers faced uncertainty, not least in what form air attacks
might take. The Air Staff in 1921 warned that, in addition to high-
explosive and incendiary bombs, gas or even bacteriological weapons
might be used.33 The use of poisonous gas was prohibited by article V of
the Washington Convention, and the Treasury representative on the
CID enquired in 1922 whether it was necessary to maintain the gas
experimental station at Porton in the light of that prohibition. Churchill,
then secretary of state for the colonies, thought that it would be most
unwise to abandon research into gas warfare, especially as neither
Germany nor the Soviet Union had signed the Washington Convention,
and the CIGS, the Earl of Cavan, pointed out that the research was
required not only for military and naval warfare but also for protecting
civilians who might be attacked from the air. It was agreed that research
at Porton should continue.34 Air raid precautions against gas attack were
a major concern; for example, gas-masks were prepared for the civil
population and techniques were developed for decontaminating areas
over which mustard gas had been sprayed. By 1939 defensive measures

CP 152 (32). For delays to new heavy bombers, see remarks by the CAS, Sir Edward
Ellington, as recorded in minutes of Ministerial Committee on Defence Requirements,
10 May 1935, CAB 27/508, TNA. For Britain™s successful defence of the bomber at
Geneva, see Phillip Meilinger, ˜Clipping the bomber™s wings: the Geneva disarmament
conference and the Royal Air Force, 1932“1934™, War in History, 6 (1999), 306“30.
˜Vulnerability of British Isles to air attack™, CID paper 102-A, 8 Nov. 1921, CAB 3/3,
˜Interim report by Ministerial Sub-committee on Air Parity™, DCM (32) 41, 8 May
1935, CAB 27/518; Ministerial Committee on Defence Requirements minutes, 10 May
1935, CAB 27/508, TNA.
CID paper 102-A, CAB 3/3, TNA. 34 CID minutes, 28 July 1922, CAB 2/3, TNA.
110 Arms, economics and British strategy

against gas had progressed more than the offensive use of gas, and
public concern switched to lack of provision of shelters against
high-explosive bombs.35
Another uncertainty concerned the future rate of technical progress
in different aspects of air warfare. The Haldane Committee on Anti-
Aircraft Research concluded in 1925 that, although there would be
developments from time to time in the engine power, speed, climb and
manoeuvrability of ¬ghters, it was reasonable to assume that similar
progress would occur in the design and performance of bombers, and
that no relative improvement could be anticipated in defensive aircraft.
That conclusion also applied to unmanned aircraft controlled by wire-
less, which were then the subject of research. Similarly, improvements in
anti-aircraft guns were likely to be matched by corresponding
improvements in attacking aircraft.36
The relative performance of bombers and ¬ghters varied over time.
For example, in 1926 the French began large-scale production of the
Breguet 19 day bomber with a maximum speed of 149 m.p.h., almost as
fast as contemporary British ¬ghters. However, British ¬ghter design
drew ahead with the Bristol Bulldog, which entered service in 1929, with
a maximum speed of 174 m.p.h., followed in 1931 by the Hawker Fury
with a maximum speed of 207 m.p.h. Both types were biplanes and their
improved performance mainly re¬‚ected the increased power of engines
developed by the Bristol and Rolls-Royce companies respectively. A
revolution in aircraft design occurred in the 1930s because, as the power
of engines increased, wind resistance became more important in deter-
mining performance, and monoplanes with retractable undercarriages
began to displace biplanes with ¬xed undercarriages. In January 1933 the
American army ordered Martin B-10 twin-engined monoplane bombers
with retractable undercarriages, and the Germans followed in 1935 with
the Heinkel He 111 and other machines capable of carrying 3,000
pounds of bombs at speeds that gave them a good chance of eluding the
RAF™s biplane ¬ghters. By February 1936 the Air Staff wanted to order
monoplane ¬ghters as soon as the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine
Spit¬re had been tested.37 Fighter Command replaced most of its
biplanes with monoplanes in 1938“9, retaining only the obsolescent
Gloster Gladiator at the outbreak of war. The combination of the
monoplane airframes and the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine made the RAF
machines capable of intercepting the fastest German bombers. The

Terence H. O™Brien, Civil Defence (London: HMSO, 1955).
˜Anti-aircraft research committee: interim report™, 23 Dec. 1925, CAB 16/67, TNA.
Secretary of State™s progress meeting, 6 Feb. 1936, AIR 6/24, TNA.
Retrenchment and rearmament 111

British were slower than the French and Germans to adopt cannon ¬ring
explosive shells, which were more destructive and had longer range than
ri¬‚e-calibre machine guns. Even so, Hurricanes and Spit¬res were ade-
quately armed with eight machine guns, compared with the two carried
by pre-1937 ¬ghters or the Gladiator™s four.38
The chances of successful interception depended upon locating the
enemy. In 1924 a joint Air Ministry and War Of¬ce committee under
Major-General C. F. Romer recommended a system of observation
posts, those on the coast being provided with sound-detectors to locate
the approach of aircraft before they could be seen from land. However,
the speed of sound is a constant, whereas the speed of aircraft was
increasing, shortening the period of warning given by sound-detectors.
The ¬rst successful experiments with what was then known as radio
direction ¬nding, and which became known as radar, were conducted in
1935 and between the autumn of 1936 and the spring of 1939 a chain of
radar stations was constructed from the Isle of Wight to Dundee. Britain
was a world leader in this aspect of air defence but the effectiveness of
the new technology depended on an ef¬cient system of air raid report-
ing. Such a system had already been set up following a report of the
CID™s Home Defence Committee in 1929, which recommended that all
relevant intelligence should be reported to the RAF™s headquarters for
the air defence of Great Britain, where, as in the First World War, it was
set out on a single plotting table. Command and control was improved
by the development of radio communication between ground and air.
Anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and balloon barrages again formed ¬xed
defences but, although the anti-aircraft guns of the late 1930s had better
range than their predecessors, accuracy was not improved dramatically
until radar directional control was introduced during the Second World
War. The United Kingdom™s air defence system was the best in the
world in the early 1930s, but crucial improvements occurred in the last
twelve months of peace. Only ¬ve out of thirty ¬ghter squadrons had
completed conversion to Hurricanes by the Munich crisis in September
1938, and they had problems ¬ring their guns at the temperatures
encountered above 15,000 feet, and no Spit¬res were yet in service.
Radar cover was then limited to the coast between Dungeness and the
Wash. By the summer of 1939, however, the technology of air war had
moved decisively in favour of defence.39

Note by Sir R. Sorley, reproduced in M. M. Postan, D. Hay and J. D. Scott, Design and
Development of Weapons: Studies in Government and Industrial Organisation (London:
HMSO, 1964), pp. 537“42.
John Ferris, ˜Fighter defence before Fighter Command: the rise of strategic air
defence in Great Britain, 1917“1934™, Journal of Military History, 63 (1999), 845“84;
112 Arms, economics and British strategy

Even earlier, notwithstanding Baldwin™s rhetoric in 1932, the Air Staff
never thought that every bomber would always get through. However,
the Air Staff believed in what the Baldwin Committee called the ˜well-
established principle that attack is the best form of defence™, including
counter-attack against air bases and other objectives in enemy territory.
The number of ¬ghter aircraft was kept at the minimum believed to be
necessary for defence, a number that rose from 1935 as the range of
aircraft increased and more of the country became vulnerable to air
attack.40 In February 1935 there was some discussion in the CID about
whether the power of air forces to deliver a ˜knock-out blow™ had been
exaggerated (the CIGS, Montgomery-Massingberd, thought it had).
The CAS, Sir Edward Ellington, said that if by knock-out blow one
meant a period of 24 hours, then it would not be possible at present to
paralyse a country. On the other hand, a nation that seized the initiative
might deal a blow from which its victim might be unable to recover.41 In
October 1936 the CID agreed that the basic assumption for anti-aircraft
defence should be that Germany might attempt a knock-out blow and
that air attacks would be delivered with the maximum intensity at the
outbreak of war.42 The Air Staff accepted the implication that the scale
of operations of ¬ghter squadrons would be dictated by the enemy and
that consequently these squadrons must be able to operate continuously
with 100 per cent reserves, whatever economies might be made else-
where.43 By July 1937 progress with radar was already regarded in the
Air Ministry as satisfactory and two months later Hankey was advising
Inskip that reports of the CID Sub-Committee on Air Warfare in Spain
did not bear out ˜the tendency to think that the bomber will always get
through™ and that the combination of ¬ghters, guns and searchlights
˜might prove very much more effective than we have hitherto
Nevertheless, the Air Staff never abandoned its faith that strategic
bombing was the best way to employ air power. The Air Staff argued

T. C. C. James, The Growth of Fighter Command 1936“1940, ed. Sebastian Cox
(London: Frank Cass, 2002), pp. 41“51; Alexander Rose, ˜Radar and air defence in the
1930s™, Twentieth Century British History, 9 (1998), 219“45; David Zimmerman,
Britain™s Shield: Radar and the Defeat of the Luftwaffe (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2001),
pp. 83“7, 89“90, 156“72.
˜Inquiry into disarmament policy™, CP 152 (32), CAB 16/106, TNA; James, Growth of
Fighter Command, pp. 1“3, 12“13, 19, 25, 31.
CID minutes, 25 Feb. 1935, CAB 2/6(1), TNA.
CID minutes, 29 Oct. 1936, CAB 2/6(1), TNA.
Minutes of Inskip™s review of defence, 2 Nov. 1937, T 161/855/S.48431/04, TNA.
Lord Swinton (secretary of state for air) to Sir John Simon (chancellor of the
exchequer), 12 July 1937, T 161/855/S.46431/01/2; Hankey to Inskip, 27 Sep. 1937,
CAB 64/3, TNA.
Retrenchment and rearmament 113

that long-range air attack by bombers could by-pass the enemy™s
defences and destroy his productive capacity and his morale, preparing
the way for the defeat of the enemy™s armed forces, or even making their
defeat unnecessary if the enemy™s morale gave way ¬rst. RAF thought
appears to have owed little or nothing to the theoretical study The
Command of the Air, by Giulio Douhet, whose arguments in favour of
strategic bombing were considered to be important by the US Army Air
Corps as well as by the Regia Aeronautica of his native Italy. The British
had plenty of experience of air war of their own to draw on. Moreover,
strategic bombing provided the rationale both for the creation of the
RAF in 1918 and for its continued existence as a separate service,
whereas an emphasis on tactical bombing or anti-submarine patrols
would have pointed towards a de-merger into a restored RFC and
RNAS.45 Trenchard and his successors as CAS emphasised the deter-
rent power, and therefore defensive value, of strategic bombing. How-
ever, funds were short, and it was cheaper to equip squadrons with day
bombers like the Hart. Moreover, until the German air force was
recreated there was no long-distance target for which a strategic
bombing force could have been prepared. The introduction into service
of the RAF™s ¬rst monoplane heavy bomber, the Hendon, was delayed
until 1936, ¬ve years after its ¬rst ¬‚ight, on account of the Geneva
Disarmament Conference, and with its ¬xed undercarriage the Hendon
was obsolescent, its sole modern feature being the power-operated turret
in its nose. This form of armament had been pioneered by the French,
and the Air Staff had hopes that well-armed bombers would be able to
defend themselves against ¬ghters. Certainly the turrets brought a great
improvement in gunnery target strikes compared to earlier hand-held
machine guns, especially as the slipstream increased with higher aircraft
speeds. Unfortunately the turrets ¬tted on RAF bombers in the 1930s
and for almost all of the war had ri¬‚e-calibre machine guns that were
outranged by the cannon ¬tted to German ¬ghters from 1938.46 On the
other hand, German bombers, which relied mainly on speed to evade
¬ghters, were just as vulnerable to British ¬ghters as British bombers
were to German ¬ghters.
The lack of a suitable strategic bomber led the Air Ministry to short-
circuit normal testing of prototypes before placing orders. The Arm-
strong Whitworth Whitley, the Handley Page Hampden and the Vickers

Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air (Washington: Of¬ce of the Air Force History,
1983), p. ix; John Buckley, Air Power in the Age of Total War (London: UCL Press,
1999), pp. 74“8; Malcolm Smith, British Air Strategy between the Wars (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1984), pp. 53“75.
Postan, Hay and Scott, Design and Development, pp. 112“13.
114 Arms, economics and British strategy

Wellington did not ¬‚y until 1936, but were introduced into service in


. 4
( 14)