For centuries, halting seaborne commerce to an enemy by means of a blockade had dealt a tremendous blow to its fighting power, and had proved to be ‘the most systematic, regularised and extensive form of commerce-destruction known to war.’ [1] Throughout the first world war the Royal Navy had the absolute power to isolate Germany from international trade and stop seaborne goods from entering her ports but, for at least the first two years of the conflict, the very best efforts of the blockade fleet were effectively sabotaged by Sir Edward Grey and the Foreign Office.

Impounded German merchant ship

The German merchant fleet had been effectively bottled up in harbours across the world, but despite the blockade, food and raw materials of every conceivable kind were exported to Germany across the Atlantic from North and South America in British, American and other neutral vessels. Since the cargoes could not be carried directly into Germany, they were conveyed to neutral Scandinavian ports then re-routed into Germany. That in itself was contrary to the international laws of blockade, since the doctrine of ‘Continuous Voyage’ meant that, even if the ships were docking and unloading in neutral Scandinavian ports, it was the ultimate destination of the cargo that was the test of contraband. Massive quantities of food and essential war materials were sent to Scandinavia after August 1914. Though fully aware that much of it was immediately being transferred onto trains bound for Germany, the Foreign Office allowed this scandal to go unchecked.

The British government’s the lame excuse was that it dared not interfere with the transatlantic trade between neutral states because it would risk losing the support of America, Holland, Denmark and Sweden. In reality, there was never any likelihood of that happening. Official trade statistics show that direct trade between the United States and Germany declined from $169 million in 1914 to $1 million in 1916, [2] but the figure is misleading. America certainly lost direct access to the German markets, but regained much more by trading indirectly with Germany through neutral countries. Desperate German importers were willing to pay high prices, and ruthless American, Scandinavian and even British traders were willing to abandon any sense of propriety or patriotism to take advantage of the rich pickings. In addition,between 1914-1916, American trade with the Allies rose from $824 million to $3 billion. [3]

American industry produced whatever goods the Allies wanted and business boomed. Financial credit was duly arranged through Wall Street banks linked to the Secret Elite, and the United States became ‘the larder, arsenal and bank’ [4] for Britain and France. The United States thus acquired a direct interest in an Allied victory, and any other outcome would have spelled disaster for American business and finance. The British government’s perennial excuse that they could not implement a strict blockade for fear of losing American support has been perpetuated by mainstream war historians.

‘The blockade would have achieved much more had the government enforced it more rigorously. But fearful of embittering neutral opinion and driving the neutrals, especially the United States, into Germany’s arms, they often released neutral ships containing meat, wheat, wool etcetera that the Navy had, sometimes at considerable risk, sent into port for examination.’ [5]

The suggestion that the United States might ally itself with Germany was ludicrous in the extreme. That possibility was never considered in the corridors of power in Washington. ‘Neutral’ America invested heavily in an Allied victory, fully supported Britain and France and, irrespective of the blockade, business thrived. Thousands of new millionaires were created year on year through war profiteering. The United States quickly professed her neutrality, but with equal alacrity accrued a vested interest in the allied cause with a myriad of financial loans and munitions supplies that were initiated through Secret Elite links with the J P Morgan’s financial empire on Wall Street.

President Wilson (left) with his minder, Edward Mandell House.President Woodrow Wilson made the obligatory protests about Britain’s interference with American trade. That was no more than a charade played out on both sides of the Atlantic. Wilson’s election in 1912 had been facilitated by the Wall Street bankers and big business who were themselves closely associated with the Secret Elite in London. [6] Not only had these financiers put their man in the White House, they gave him a minder, Edward Mandell House. The American historian and journalist Webster Tarpley described him as a ‘British-trained political operative’. [7]

Woodrow Wilson was indeed President of the United States of America but this shadowy figure, with his own suite of rooms in the White House, stood by his side ‘advising’ his every move. [8] At every turn, Mandell House liaised and co-operated with the Secret Elite in London to ensure that, no matter the protests, they were always acting in concert. London knew that there was never any fear of losing American support. President Wilson played his part by issuing a series of protest notes which leant credence to the spurious notion that Britain should not implement a proper blockade for fear of alienating America.

For example, on 3 November 1914 the British Admiralty issued a proclamation to maritime shipping that a blockade was in operation in the North Sea and all ships were warned that they entered it at their peril. Scandinavian countries objected, but the United States government initially refused to join their protest. When American exporters and shipping companies complained to the State Department, a protest note was eventually sent to London on 26 December, but it was couched in very conciliatory language. Furthermore, prior to the note being sent, Mandell House discussed it with the British Ambassador, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, so that any phrases that might upset British susceptibilities could be removed. [9]

British Ambassador at Washington, Cecil Spring-RiceHad a strict blockade been in place, the impact on American traders would only have temporarily stopped their exports to Scandinavia. In consequence, the war would have been over by 1915 and the disruption short-lived. In addition, the Americans would never have risked breaking the blockade at the cost of a consequent ban from the huge British, French and Russian markets. Likewise, fears that neutral Scandinavia would side with Germany if Britain implemented a strict blockade were rootless. Sweden alone showed some pro-German sympathies, but there was a strong and vocal movement there which had enjoyed 100 years of peace. Neutrality was the only option. Sweden had long stood by its non-interventionist policy and its trade dependence on both Britain and Germany laced any other position with poisonous danger. On 3 August 1914 the Swedish government proclaimed the country neutral and the majority of Swedes supported that policy. Some in the upper classes were pro-German, but ‘there was a difference between admiring Germany, or identifying with German culture, and being prepared to side with Germany in war.’ [10] The so-called risk of driving the Scandanavian countries into Germany’s arms was likewise a charade to justify British policy.

Rear-Admiral Montagu Consett, the British Naval Attaché in Scandinavia from 1912 to 1918, dismissed the suggestion that these small neutral states might have sided with Germany if the blockade had properly been implemented. A staunch English patriot, Consett spoke with considerable knowledge of Scandinavian opinion:

Rear-Admiral Montagu Consett

‘It was the universal belief that, should England become involved in a European war, Scandinavia would have to be prepared to make sacrifices. That all supplies from England would be cut off was not expected, but it was felt certain that bare requirements of domestic consumption would in no case be exceeded… The prestige of this country [Britain] never stood at so high a level. The name of England was …mentioned with real respect. When war broke out the stream [of food and war materials] that poured into Scandinavia, amazed the Scandinavians.’ [11]

The Scandinavians admired and respected Britain and were prepared to make sacrifices to support her in the war. The suggestion put about by the British government that Norway, Sweden and Denmark would support Germany if they applied a strict blockade was a scurrilous lie. As Rear Admiral Consett correctly stated, ‘It is certain Germany was neither prepared nor equipped for a struggle of four years duration.’ The impact of a blockade which leaked like a sieve meant that the war ‘was prolonged far beyond the limits of necessity.’ [12] If a proper blockade had been enforced, knowledgeable contemporaries estimated that war on continental Europe would have been effectively over within 6-8 months. [13]

[1] E. Keble Chatterton, The Big Blockade, p. 18.
[2] Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, p. 337.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Arthur J Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. 11. pp. 374-5.
[6] Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the First World War, p. 221-2.
[7] Webster Tarpley and Anton Chaitkin, George Bush, The Unauthorised Biography, p. 330.
[8] Docherty and Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the First World War, p. 222.
[9] Joseph Ward Swain, Beginning the Twentieth Century, p. 472.
[11] M W W P Consett, The Triumph of Unarmed Forces, 1914-1918, p. xv.
[12] Ibid., p. vii.
[13] George F S Bowles, The Strength of England, p. 173.