The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.
With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 35th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
September 10, 1912: The French Press Reports Fleet Movements
Although British and French generals held a series of informal military “conversations” beginning in 1906 after the First Moroccan Crisis, the Anglo-French Naval Convention negotiated after the Second Moroccan Crisis signaled the beginning of closer strategic cooperation between these traditional rivals, who were forced into each others’ arms by the rapid expansion of German power beginning in the second half of the 19th century.
The convention called for the British and French navies to coordinate their deployments to create a better defensive posture against the growing German High Seas Fleet, by moving British battleships from the Mediterranean Sea to the North Sea (the most likely arena for a big naval showdown in the event of war) while sending the French North Atlantic/English Channel fleet to patrol the Mediterranean. Essentially the British would transfer a large part of the burden of policing the Mediterranean to the French Navy, so that the Royal Navy could concentrate on keeping the Germans locked up in the North Sea. In return, the British promised to protect France’s channel ports against German naval bombardments or amphibious assaults in the event of a war between France and Germany – thus envisioning, without promising outright, British participation in the war as well.
Typically, the wording of the agreement left the cagy British plenty of leeway for avoiding war if they wanted, but old-school British ministers were still critical of anything even hinting of a promise to France, arguing that Britain should maintain its “splendid isolation” by avoiding foreign alliances altogether. Meanwhile British commercial interests criticized the move because it left the all-important Suez route, the lifeline to the British Empire in Asia, in foreign hands.
But ultimately strategic necessity trumped considerations of prestige for First Lord of the Navy Winston Churchill. Churchill’s advisor, the retired Admiral Jackie Fisher, laid out the situation in typically blunt fashion in a letter in June 1912: “The margin of power in the North Sea… requires this addition of the Mediterranean battleships … We cannot have everything or be strong everywhere. It is futile to be strong in the subsidiary theatre of war and not overwhelmingly supreme in the decisive theatre.”
For their part the French were also eager to implement the agreement, however ambiguous, in part because it would help secure France’s connection to Algeria, an important colony and source of reinforcements in the event of war. Thus on September 6, 1912, Vice-Admiral Charles Aubert, the chief of staff of the French Navy, issued orders for six old battleships stationed at the Atlantic port of Brest to redeploy to the port of Toulon on France’s Mediterranean coast. This small force wasn’t scheduled to depart until October 15, but on September 10 the French press caught wind of the planned redeployment when Le Temps leaked the news, hinting that it was just a preliminary move foreshadowing bigger redeployments to come.
The leak complicated things considerably for both British and French officials, as the British were suddenly forced to distance themselves from the agreement (and France) for domestic political reasons, and the French were left demanding more specific guarantees – which the British were now even more leery of giving. Although officials on both sides of the channel dismissed rumors of a formal agreement of any kind, French editors nonetheless surmised that the two governments must have struck some kind of deal for naval cooperation, since the French government would never leave the country’s north coast unprotected.
The German Response
The impact of the news was felt immediately – especially in Germany, the obvious target of any coordinated naval strategy, where fear of encirclement already reigned. Although German diplomats urged calm, the paranoid Kaiser Wilhelm II immediately jumped to dire conclusions, raging that Britain and France were preparing to break Germany as a world power (conveniently forgetting that his own actions during the Second Moroccan Crisis were at least partly to blame for their current anxieties). Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, a more level-headed individual, recognized that Germany may indeed have inadvertently pushed her enemies together, but still shared his Kaiser’s fear of encirclement, and also remained committed to a more assertive foreign policy as a way of distracting the German public from social and political tensions at home.