New York Times headline,  war declaredOn 4 August 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany, a Royal Proclamation on trading with the enemy was issued. Goods were divided into three categories: absolute contraband, which covered articles for military purposes only; conditional contraband, or articles for either military or civilian use; and a free list, which included food. Only the first could be seized by a belligerent who declared a blockade. The second could be seized only if enemy destination was proved, and the third not at all. To the disgust of many, the free list included raw cotton, oil and rubber. Germany would be prevented from importing guns and explosives, but would be allowed to import the raw materials necessary for making them and much of it would come from America via neutral countries. The Admiralty protested vehemently. What use, they enquired, was it to deny freedom of the seas to the enemy if neutrals were to be allowed to supply him with all his needs? [1]

Next day, a second Proclamation was issued to prevent British shipping carrying contraband to any port in Northern Europe. British coal merchants were asked by the Admiralty not to supply bunker coal for steamships to any merchant vessel suspected of trading on the enemy’s behalf. On 20 August an Order in Council was issued which stated that it was the government’s intention to adopt the provisions of the Declaration of London ‘so far as may be practicable’. [2] The Declaration favoured the neutrals’ right to trade as against the belligerent’s right to blockade and despite all of the well versed public and naval opposition to it, and the fact that parliament had rejected it, the foreign office decided that the navy would abide by it. Neither the democratic process of decision-making nor public opinion ever stood in the way of the Secret Elite. As oft times before, they paid lip service to government and implemented their own policies.

Having summarily dismissed Admiral Fisher’s call for a close blockade, allegedly because of the threat of mines and U-boats, the Royal Navy was tasked with an immensely difficult distant blockade. There were two routes by which goods might enter Germany by way of the northern neutrals; through the Straits of Dover or round the north of Scotland. A large minefield was laid in the Straits which compelled all vessels into a narrow passageway between the Goodwin sands and the coast of Kent, and every ship that passed through to or from Dutch or Scandinavian ports could be readily stopped and searched. Such a procedure was impossible in the case of the northern route which stretched 450 miles from the north of Scotland to Iceland, and then a further 160 miles to Greenland. The Northern Patrol was given the hugely difficult task of covering this 610 mile line of storm-tossed north Atlantic seas. [3]

HMS Edgar, one of the brave little antiquated cruisers that formed the 10th SquadronOn the high seas, two blockading squadrons were assembled. One, the Southern Squadron, had the straightforward task of policing the English Channel. The challenge for the Northern blockade was much more formidable. This task fell to the 10th Cruiser Squadron, which, unlike the grand fleet had been dispersed after the naval review at Spithead in the latter half of July. How strange that every naval preparation by the Admiralty had been perfectly pre-planned, save for the vital blockading squadrons. The 10th Cruiser Squadron was recalled and had to assemble, piecemeal, at Scapa Flow in Orkney. Headed by a tremendously capable leader, Rear Admiral Sir Dudley de Chair, what had previously been a Training Squadron was turned into the principle instrument of the British naval blockade. Eight of the oldest small cruisers in the British navy, ships of around 7,000 tons, HMS Edgar and Royal Arthur (built in 1890), the Endymion and Hawke (built in 1891), Grafton, Theseus, Gibraltar and Crescent (all built in 1892) were dispatched north to stop and examine neutral vessels exiting or entering the Atlantic from the North Sea approaches. [4] Given that it was responsible for patrolling the North Sea from the Shetlands to Iceland and beyond, the ageing, virtually obsolete coal-fired force was totally inadequate for the job. At best only six of the eight ships were available for action at any one time, the others having to return to port for coal in close sequence. When engines failed or unexpected damage was caused by the raging north Atlantic seas, even fewer were available for action. By November the storms had battered these craft into near submission.

typical North Atlantic swell faced by the blockade squadron

They crawled through mountainous seas putting duty first, risking life and limb to stop neutral vessels and send search parties over in small open boats to check their cargoes for contraband. By December 1914 it was finally acknowledged that the enormous task was beyond these gallant little ships. [5] Given the years of planning that Churchill, Admiral Jellicoe and the Admiralty staff had undertaken to master a proposed blockade, it seems ridiculous that the first blockade squadron was so antiquated and unfit for purpose. What’s more, the captains and crews became increasingly disheartened. Not by the state of their antiquated cruisers but by the fate of most of the neutral ships they boarded, caught with contraband, and sent in to the contraband control base at Kirkwall. The legal framework in which the navy believed they were working, assumed that any neutral vessel suspected of carrying contraband to Germany could be detained and taken before a judicial board or Prize court with the powers to confiscate the cargo and impound the vessel. This was fine in theory but rarely happened in practice.

As the American Ambassador to Britain, Walter Page explained, Britain would ‘go to any length to keep our friendship and good will. And she has not confiscated a single one of our cargoes even unconditional contraband. She has stopped some of them and bought them herself, but confiscated not one.’ [6] Time and again the crews put their lives at risk in rough seas only to receive orders from London to release the captive ships and let them proceed. This despite the fact that they were sure the cargo was destined for Germany.

These brave men became increasingly disheartened and could not fathom why such cargoes were being allowed through the blockade after the immense effort that had been put in to stopping them. Walter Page, a very close friend of Sir Edward Grey, knew that the blockade was a sham. American ship-owners, traders, suppliers of foodstuffs, raw materials and all of the materiel of war, and the bankers and financiers who underwrote their businesses and financed the international trade were free to supply Germany and make huge profits.

And Winston Churchill stood on the Guildhall platform and promised the nation that an effective blockade was in place, the results from which would bear Admiral de Chair of 10th Cruiser Squadronfruit in six to nine months. The public believed that Germany was being blockaded but knew nothing of the complex work of the men and ships that formed the blockading squadron. What was actually happening was shielded from view by the convenience of official secrecy. The inference was that any details of the squadron’s work would have assisted the enemy, though as Admiral de Chair later acknowledged, ‘the Germans knew more about the Squadron than did our own people.’ [7] The men of the 10th squadron knew well that Churchill was misleading the public. They knew that the blockade was a mirage, a charade, a nonsense, and they deeply resented the tokenism in which they were involved [8]

[1] Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, p. 333.
[2] Thomas Baty and John Hartman Morgan, War: Its Conduct and Legal Results, p. 538.
[3] Arthur J Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. 11. pp. 372-3.
[4] E Keble Chatterton, The Big Blockade, p. 33.
[5] Ibid., pp. 56-7.
[6] Burton J Hendrick, The Life and Letters of Walter H Page, vol. 1 p. 380.
[7] Chatterton, The Big Blockade, p. 5.
[8] Ibid., p. 53.