Sealion 1918

[Cross-posted at Revise and Dissent.]

Recently, I read Alan Kramer's Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War. It's an excellent book, both illuminating and informative (being airminded, I found the section on the Austrian and German bombing of Italy to be especially fascinating), and I highly recommend it.1

But there was one section which brought me up short. In a section on Britain's entry into the war, Kramer says that the breach of Belgian neutrality by Germany was a gift to Asquith and Grey, because it meant that the war could be framed as a just war. Absolutely. Then he goes on to say:

At the time, British decision-makers could only sense intuitively what we know today -- this was far more than a conservative defence of the status quo: had Germany succeeded at the Marne in September 1914, which it almost did, the defeat of France and a separate peace would have been followed by a defeat of Russia and, after a pause to build up the German navy, the invasion of Britain from a position of towering strength on the Continent.2

Which is where I went 'Huh?' Do we really know that? Because I didn't know we knew that.

It's not that the scenario outlined is implausible -- I'm just not sure how it can be elevated to the status of fact. OK, let's walk through it. (This is all my speculation, as Kramer doesn't explain his reasoning.) So Germany wins the Battle of the Marne, takes Paris, forces France to surrender late in 1914. By this time it's winter, too late to take on Russia in any serious way. But around May 1915, the bulk of the Germany army could have transferred to the east and, let's assume, crushes Russia by the end of the year, about 2 years before it was historically out of the war. It's really only at this point that Germany could afford to start building up for an invasion of Britain. That means dreadnoughts, above all, to secure sea superiority in order to get its troops across and supply them.3 And Britain had a massive advantage here: 22 dreadnoughts to Germany's 13 in August 1914, and was building them at a faster rate.4 But let's make a wild assumption and grant Germany the ability to build to a superiority in dreadnoughts in one cycle of construction, about 2.5 years or so. So we're now looking at the middle of 1918: just about the earliest that Germany could possibly be ready to invade Britain in overwhelming strength, about 4 years since the invasion of Belgium and France.

But what's Britain been doing in all that time? I rather doubt it's been sitting on its hands, whether it's a belligerent or a neutral. It would absolutely have been building up the navy; that would have been uncontroversial while so long as Germany was overrunning Europe. But anyway, I've magically waved away Britain's naval superiority, so the main question is what would have happened with the army? Presumably it would have been expanded, but on a volunteer or a conscription basis? Let's say it's a volunteer force (though if the Unionists had come in in the election due by 1916, conscription probably would have too) -- relatively small, but far larger than the home forces in 1914. There might also have been contingents from the Empire too. In the real war, about one million men volunteered by January 1915, so when all is said and done, I'd say Britain could have sustained an army of something approaching a million volunteers for home defence. That is not an inconsiderable force, especially considering that it's had 3 or 4 years to dig in. It's true that Germany would have had a much bigger, veteran army, and I'm assuming that it would have had the power to transport and supply a big army due to its naval buildup. But given the superiority of the defence at this time, perhaps especially for contested landings (how did Gallipoli go again?), it's hard to see how it can be assumed that the Germans would want to chance it.5

What else might they have done? Well, tried to strangle Britain economically, by U-boat. Already in 1915, U-boats accounted for over a million tons of Allied shipping, so in this alternate timeline, the Germans would have known that their submarines had a good chance of success.6 If they'd poured resources into U-boats instead of dreadnoughts, and used bases in France to extend their reach into the Atlantic, then surely there's every chance that Britain would have been on its knees at some point in 1917. After all, it practically was in our 1917, with France and Russia both still in the war.

Well, maybe not. I'm sure my alternate alternate history can be picked to pieces as well,7 but I think I've made my point: we don't know that a German invasion of Britain would have followed from a French defeat in 1914. There are too many imponderables, there's reasonable doubt. Maybe it would have happened that way; and almost certainly, whatever happened would have been bad for Britain. So I agree with Kramer that Britain didn't have much choice about whether to enter the war, strategically speaking, but I don't agree that we know much beyond that.

That's only one paragraph, though -- do read the rest of the book :)

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  1. Reading really good books is depressing when you're in the middle of writing a thesis -- Nicoletta F. Gullace's "The Blood of Our Sons": Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) was another. Which suggests a New Year's resolution: to read only rubbish ... []
  2. Alan Kramer, Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 95. []
  3. Air superiority would have been nowhere near as important as it was in 1940, since the use of aircraft against ships was in its infancy at the time. []
  4. 13 under construction by Britain, 5 by Germany. Paul G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 7. []
  5. The ultimate success of such an invasion is another question, but Kramer doesn't actually say that it would necessarily have been successful -- though I think it's implied. []
  6. Though if Britain had remained neutral, then the U-boat would have had far fewer targets and so fewer chances to prove themselves ... []
  7. What's Italy doing? If it joins in with the Central Powers in 1915, Britain's naval superiority vanishes, unless it abandons the Mediterranean entirely. Or, maybe Germany would pursue both tracks (invasion and strangulation) at once, as in 1940, with U-boats taking the place of bombers. And so on. []

16 thoughts on “Sealion 1918

  1. I taught the origins of WWI in several courses over the years, and to the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence of any sort in the sources, nor is there any suggestion in the literature, to support Kramer's assertion.

    This ground has been very well covered with every side publishing voluminous collections of diplomatic documents in the thirties, as well as in memoirs, diaries and other sources. There is no body of evidence to suggest that Germany seriously contemplated invading Britain nor is there evidence that Britain took any such threat seriously - which is what annoyed popular writers who felt it might be a danger. It certainly didn't weight on the minds of Grey and the cabinet in August 1914, which is the critical issue here.

    That elements in Germany expected and sought a 'weltkreig' is certainly true, but they were more focussed on the emerging power of the US, not on Britain.

    As for outbuilding Britain in dreadnoughts, well that was never practicable and it was never Tirpitz' aim - his plan was more subtle. He estimated the limits of the economic power that lay behind the size of the Royal Navy, and bearing in mind it's global commitments, worked out how many dreadnoughts Germany needed to achieve a balance of power which would force Britain to make concessions to Germany before she got into an arms race which she (Britain) could not afford in money or in manpower. The High Seas Fleet was never meant to actually go toe-to-toe with the Home Fleet, but rather to bring England to the brink of financial ruin. It is, of course, questionable if his successors or the Kaiser ever appreciated the fine details of Tirpitz thinking, but I suspect some people in the Reagan White House might have got the idea.

    I'm willing to be corrected on this, but I'm pretty sure I am right and Kramer is very wrong.

  2. Post author


    Thanks -- I think we're in broad agreement but I'd quibble over a few points.

    You're absolutely right that Germany never planned to invade Britain, but I don't see this as a critical objection. In September 1939, Germany had no plans to invade Britain (at least, I don't think so), yet one year later it was assembling invasion barges in the Pas de Calais. This is because the strategic situation had changed so dramatically in that time, and it's the same in the scenario that Kramer is proposing. Whether or not they'd ever intended to invade before, it's something the Germans would have had to consider after beating France and Russia (always assuming the British would be as bloody-minded as they were in 1940, and refuse to come to terms).

    I also agree that fear of invasion wasn't why Britain went to war. (Not directly anyway ... the scares were part of the background ...) But I think the British government did take the possibility seriously, at least of raids in force. Perhaps not seriously enough for the scaremongers, but the CID conducted several inquiries into the invasion question during the Edwardian period, the last being in 1913-4. One of the recommendations of that last inquiry was that 2 of the BEF's 6 infantry divisions should be held back in the event of war, just in case -- which is exactly what happened in August 1914. And even as the BEF expanded over the next few years, hundreds of thousands of men retained in Britain on home defence duties, instead of being deployed overseas. So invasion was a concern -- though a matter for prudence, not panic.

    Finally, I agree that Tirpitz's fleet wasn't intended to beat the RN. But I don't think I've come across the idea that it was a Reaganesque bleed-em-dry strategy before. Interesting! Seems pretty stupid of Tirpitz though -- Britain was still richer than Germany even in 1914, wasn't it? Of course that doesn't mean Tirpitz didn't think that, and Asquith's government did have to find ways to pay for ever soaring naval estimates, but still ... I thought the idea that Tirpitz was building a 'risk fleet' to make Britain think twice (or thrice) before interfering in German foreign policy was fairly well accepted? I could be wrong on that.

  3. Chris Williams

    Brock Milman has suggested that if you look at the deployment of the army at home during WW1, you have to conclude that many/most of them were there to guard against industrial unrest, not invasion.

    As for Tirpitz, I'm under the impression that he wanted to build as many ships as possible, and the exact justification tended to shift over time. I'm not sure about the 'bleed 'em dry' theory (which I don't think that Reagan ever articulated either, come to that): if only because the Kaiserreich was engaged in an army race with the Entente. Starting up a naval race with Britain - otherwise a far more obvious ally for Germany - has to be one of the nineteenth-century's Top Ten Brain-Dead Strategic Decisions.

    Good beard, though.

  4. Post author

    Oh, there's no question about the beard. I think we can all agree on the beard.

    Interesting about the deployment of the home army -- that's plausible. I was thinking the 2 BEF divisions might also have been held back in case Ireland flared up, but I couldn't find anything to support that.

  5. Alan Allport

    You’re absolutely right that Germany never planned to invade Britain

    Well, there was *a* contingency plan to invade Britain (which I realize is not quite the same thing) in the early years of William II's reign: see Paul Kennedy's article The Development of German Naval Operations: Plans against England, 1896-1914, originally in the EHR. But Tirpitz was hostile to the idea and once the Dreadnought race began it was relegated to the archives permanently.

  6. Post author

    Yes, I've read that article. As you say it's not quite the same thing as an intention to invade ... though perhaps I should have chosen my words better, since technically they did plan to invade! IIRC this was late 1890s or early 1900s; it's hard to believe it was much more than a planning exercise, given the disparity between the navies at that time. They can't have hoped they'd get the chance to use it!

    The officers of the Great White Fleet developed plans to invade Australia and New Zealand when they visited this part of the world; which was probably somewhat impolite given the warm welcome they were given, but their plans were about as likely to be put into effect as the German plan was ...

  7. Chris Williams

    Isn't that just the sort of thing that naval officers just did unconsciously, like noting the sailing characteristics of a ship?

    "There's the shoal water, and here are the leading marks on the hill. Once we anchor I'll go ashore to report to the Ambassador. Now, Charles, how would you enfilade that battery on the point?"

  8. Post author

    LOL, I'm sure; but in this case they were ordered to do so before leaving on their voyage, to write them down and, upon their return to the US, file them with the Department of the Navy. Which they did. There's a paper by James R. Reckner about the plans in a conference proceedings: David Stevens and John Reeve, eds. Southern Trident: Strategy, History and the Rise of Australian Naval Power (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2001)

    So unless the Pentagon has worked out updated warplans since then, the first sign we'll have of a US attack upon Australia will be their construction of a huge fleet of pre-dreadnoughts ...

  9. Whatever home service men were supposed to be for, they might not all have been very effective if they were called on to act. From what I know about the Royal Defence Corps it seems to have been composed of men who weren't fit for front line combat, but not quite bad enough to be discharged completely. Of course the two regular divisions in 1914 would have been a different matter but things probably went downhill as the war went on.

  10. Post author

    I suppose armies aren't famous for their rational use of manpower, but presumably they were thought to be serving some purpose at home, or else they'd be released back into the workforce, so they weren't a drain on resources and, more importantly perhaps, free up other men to join up.

    Anyway -- nobody except Mike has commented on Kramer's 'what we know today' (my fault for getting pedantic!) Am I missing something or is it a strange statement?

  11. Roger Todd

    "At the time, British decision-makers could only sense intuitively what we know today — this was far more than a conservative defence of the status quo: had Germany succeeded at the Marne in September 1914, which it almost did, the defeat of France and a separate peace would have been followed by a defeat of Russia and, after a pause to build up the German navy, the invasion of Britain from a position of towering strength on the Continent."

    At first, my response was like yours, to say, "You what?"

    But on mulling it, I have to ask what Kramer actually means by an 'invasion of Britain,' or rather, what kind of invasion? Does he mean a permanent occupation? Or an invasion as knockout blow?

    With respect to the latter, there were discussions by various sections of the Admiralty Staff in 1896/97 of a number of Anglo-German war scenarios. Vague plans (maybe 'plan' is too strong a word) were made concerning landings along the Thames estuary, the destruction of port facilities, the landing of troops, even the shelling of London from the Thames, all seemingly with a view to knocking Britain out of any conflict by forcing her to early peace terms. These were all predicated on the idea that a limited but swift defeat of part of the Royal Navy would allow the invasion force to nip up the Thames before the bulk of the British fleet could recover and rally.

    However, when Schlieffen was consulted, his reply was that it was pointless to entertain limited peace terms. Schlieffen also recognised that the Germans could only ever hope to defeat part of the British navy. His point was that an invading German army would have to land before the bulk of the Royal Navy could respond and 'kneel on the chest of [its] prostrate enemy until he begs for mercy, for peace at any price', that price to be the handing over of the entire British navy which, otherwise, would forever be a threat.

    Now, it seems to me that between the lines, Schlieffen was highlighting a Catch-22 situation: in order to neutralise the British navy, it is necessary to invade Britain; but in order to invade Britain, it is necessary to neutralise the British navy. I wonder if he said what he said partly to stop the Admiralty Staff headbangers' rash talk of invading Britain...

    Back to Kramer... So perhaps he meant that a victorious Germany would ultimately invade Britain. Well, that's always a fear, isn't it? But it's not the same as it being a foregone conclusion. And a Germanised Europe, with a crippled France eternally blazing with resentment at perfidious Albion's desertion of her in her hour of need, was a sobering enough prospect for a British cabinet in 1914 without invoking unspecified future invasions.

    Personally, I think Kramer's comment is a rhetorical flourish, a throwaway remark not to be taken seriously. Just because it's written in a book doesn't make it true...

  12. Post author

    Could be! But to me, that's a problem in itself. I can't stand it when writers make stronger statements than they can possibly actually mean. It's bad enough when they obviously don't mean something literally (or don't understand what the word means ... like 'infinite'), but here it's more of a grey area. The way it's written, he could mean for it to be taken at face value. Or maybe he doesn't, but then why say it?

    I thought academic writing was supposed to be laden with ifs, ands and buts, maybes and perhapses. Sometimes ambiguity is precision!

  13. Daniel Ross

    For the British Army in 1914 I would suggest you read Charles Messenger's Call To Arms: The British Army 1914-18 and Trevor Holmes' Tommy: The British Soldier On The Western Front. The former in particular is very precise on what the role of the "Terriers" (and certain second line formations) on outbreak of war (guarding of vital points) and their roles being taken over by the third line units. It was a combination of anti-invasion and anti-saboteur work - the latter covered industrial sabotage by Irish and other disgruntled elements.

  14. Daniel Ross

    Thanks for the pointer - had not heard of the book.

    Wilson's slant is interesting - it would apply to Messenger's work for instance, as he concerned with the raising and training of the British Army and the battles are but mentioned only in their effect on that task.

    I must have words with Professor Wilson when next I meet him - he lives in the same city as me (he moved here on his retirement) and I have run into him at various meetings. His collaborator Robin Prior is also here.

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