Images of future war were a prominent feature of British popular culture in the half century before the First World War. Writers like H.G. Wells thrilled their readers with tales of an extra-terrestrial attack in his 1897 The War of the Worlds, and numerous others wrote of French, German, or Russian invasions of Britain. The genre was so pervasive that it moved a young P.G. Woodhouse to satirise it in his 1909 story The Swoop! Or, How Clarence Saved England. “England was not merely beneath the heel of the invader. It was beneath the heels of nine invaders,” he wrote, laconically observing, “there was barely standing-room.”
Historians have long been aware of the prevalence of British fears of invasion during this period. They have been interpreted widely: as a manifestation of concerns at the health and “efficiency” of the British race and Empire, an echo of the “Weary Titans” faltering steps into the twentieth century, and a means of stirring the British people to meet the rising threat of Germany, amongst others. What is far less clear is the relationship between these fears and official policy. Were they, as Niall Ferguson has observed, “completely divorced from strategic reality”?
The answer depends on what one considers strategic reality to be. We now know that neither the Germans nor the French formed any serious plans for the invasion of Britain between 1900 and 1914. However, this was not the impression held by many British strategists at the time. Indeed, by degrees, the decade before the outbreak of the First World War witnessed a collapse in the Royal Navy’s confidence in its ability to prevent an invasion of the British Isles. For a series of operational and infrastructural reasons, Britain’s naval leadership devoted more and more time, attention, and resources, to the increasingly urgent task of defending her eastern seaboard. Even as Admiral Sir John “Jacky” Fisher was encouraging an audience in London to “sleep quiet in your beds, and not to be disturbed by these bogeys — invasion and otherwise” in 1907, he was presiding over top-secret plans to use the Navy’s newest warships — including HMS Dreadnought — in an ambitious and risky plan to forestall a German landing. By the outbreak of War in 1914, one officer in the Admiralty planning section complained at the extent to which the need to safeguard the east coast was obliging the Navy to run risks with the British Fleet, lamenting “the very powerful and insidious reaction on our naval strategy” which the situation had produced.
This crisis in naval confidence was the product of the shifting balance of power and operational conditions in the North Sea, which made observing German movements extremely difficult. In an age before radar or effective aerial spotting, the “castles of steel” of the British Fleet were blind over the horizon — a fact which, it was felt, gave the Germans a chance at slipping out of port and across the North Sea undetected. Yet it was also the product of failings at the highest level of government.
The Navy’s concerns were rendered acute by the government’s tacit support for the principle of dispatching all six divisions of the British regular army to Europe in the event of a German attack upon France. No decision was ever reached on this point before 1914 — a fact attested to by the confusion and debate on this issue which occurred after the outbreak of War. However, the Admiralty was well aware of the General Staff’s ambition to enlarge the expeditionary force, and to rely on second-line troops of the Territorial Force to repel any invaders who did make it past the Fleet at sea. The widespread lack of faith in the efficiency of these troops — “a mass of cotton wool instead of a quarter-inch plate” according to Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, — left the Navy feeling under the utmost pressure to adopt a defensive stance and to prevent any landing — no matter how small — at the expense of plans to use the Fleet in a more aggressive manner. As one official minuted with a sense of urgency in late-1913, “the Government … must be convinced by all arguments we can bring to bear on the subject that the main force of the Navy must be relieved from minor defensive operations on the coast.”
Yet the government was ill-prepared and disinclined to fulfill its role as a coordinator of British grand strategy. Between 1906 and 1914 it had let the activities of the two services drift apart and their plans conflict, forcing the Navy to adopt an overtly defensive stance and failing to strengthen the Army enough to allow it to play a meaningful role on the Continent. British strategy thus consisted of quasi-independent military and naval policies, and the government’s Committee of Imperial Defence was given insufficient authority to enforce a degree of coherence. The deep-seated inconsistencies this caused foreshadowed the inefficient and haphazard decision making process which characterised British strategy during the opening years of the War.
No foreign army set sail for British shores in 1914, but preparing to meet one exercised a crucial role in shaping how the nation prepared itself for War.
Featured image credit: The Lords of the Admiralty attending 1907 Naval Review. Foreground left is Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher. Photo from Queen Alexandra’s Christmas Gift Book, 1908. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.