From 18 February 1915, Germany began a blockade of the British Isles. They considered it an act of retaliation. Foodstuffs and fodder had been added by the British government to the list of conditional contraband on 29 October 1914 as a reaction to the German decision to assume national control for all grain and flour in the country. The argument ran that no distinction could be placed between the military and civilian population, so all imports of foodstuffs had to be considered contraband. [1] The German Admiralty had been angered by the British decision that the whole North Sea be treated as a military area since November 1914, and interpreted the embargo on foodstuffs as a declaration of unlimited economic war. [2]

German Submarine Zone February 1915Admiral Hugo von Pohl duly warned neutrals that their merchant ships would be targeted if they tried to break the blockade. Almost immediately her U-boats struck with punishing precision. An average of two British-bound cargo ships were sunk each day and many brave merchant seamen lost their lives in the cold Atlantic or North Sea approaches, in the Irish Sea and Bay of Biscay, but the size of the British merchant fleet, and the sheer scale of the imports it carried from across the world, ensured that the German blockade had little immediate effect on life on the home front. But Germany continued to import ever increasing volumes of food. Had the British naval blockade been properly enforced at the start of the war, Germany would have been brought to her knees by the end of 1915, but her trade not only continued, it grew in enormous quantities mainly through the Scandinavian life-line. [3]

The Foreign Office in London controlled the complicated and interrelated committees concerned with the regulation of war trade through a Foreign Trade Department, a Contraband Department, a Ministry of Blockade, a Licensing Committee and Contraband Committee. [4] This was a nest of Secret Elite members and agents who devised a concept of neutrality which enabled Germany to import her much needed essential supplies through Scandinavia. As we detailed in previous blogs, Denmark and Holland became Germany’s principal and essential sea-supplied larders while Sweden was her sea-supplied workshop. Conservative M.P. and Admiralty lawyer, George Bowles, accused the Foreign Office of ‘connivance’, and he was right. He explained how,

‘ … Goods were allowed to pour into their ports by licence of the English Foreign Office from all parts of the earth … even in vast quantities from England herself … The agriculture of Denmark and Holland could not be maintained for six months without unceasing supplies of overseas food-stuffs and fertilisers, the industries of Sweden depended absolutely upon steady supplies of coal. Fertilisers, food-stuffs and coal were thus essential to Scandinavia. All three poured in. Even British steam-coal was lavished freely upon the Scandinavia workshops and railways … and the fleets of steamers transporting ore into Germany.’ [5]

This was the backdrop to Germany’s survival. An army marches on its stomach; a nation has to eat to survive, and the collapse of agriculture and food production in Germany meant that her capacity to fight beyond 1915 was critically threatened, not by guns and bullets, but by the lack of bread and potatoes. The einkreisung (encirclement) of Germany by Britain, France and Russia had given the Allies a distinct advantage in starving Germany into submission but they did not take it. The opportunity to enforce a short sharp economic war was deliberately thrown away. Surrender was not what the Foreign Office intended. The outcome that the Secret Elite had always demanded was that Germany be crushed.

 The Triumph of Unarmed Forces by Rear Admiral Consett

Rear-Admiral Consett’s book, The Triumph of Unarmed Forces, [6] written in 1923, detailed the facts, figures and information which proved beyond doubt that the Foreign Office enabled the German army to be fed and provisioned through Scandinavia for over three years. Denmark’s home-grown supplies of food, if properly rationed, were sufficient for its own population, and an effective blockade, in combination with an embargo on British exports to Denmark in 1915, would have brought about Germany’s collapse. But no. British coal and British agricultural machinery was being sent to Denmark and in some cases was unloaded from the merchantman’s hold straight into railway trucks for transit to Germany. [7] ‘It was well known to Britain’s Allies and to the Americans in Scandinavia that Britain was actually competing with neutrals in supplying the enemy. Had the supplies been withheld it would have sounded Germany’s death knell at an early date.’ [8]

The facts are overwhelming. In 1913 Britain exported 370 tons of tea to Denmark, but by 1915 it had risen to 4,528 tons. Denmark was, in turn, exporting very substantial quantities of this tea to Germany. In March 1916, Consett found the Copenhagen wharves choked with cases of tea, ‘a large part of which was from our colonies en route to Germany.’ Coffee was likewise re-exported to Germany. In 1913 Britain exported 1,493 tons to Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and this fully met their demands. In 1915, however, British exports of coffee to Scandinavia had risen dramatically by 500 per cent to 7,315 tons. In 1913 Denmark exported 81 tons of coffee to Germany, but by 1915 this had risen by almost 3000 per cent to 2,339 tons. [9] In addition, oil cake and vegetable and animal oils and fats poured into Germany from Britain via Scandinavia. Used normally for food, soap, candles, lubricants and fuels, in wartime the glycerine was extracted for explosives. Consett explained that, ‘the importance of these raw materials was based on their suitability for meeting the ultimate requirements of Germany for explosives. For three years Germany and her neutral neighbours succeeded in realising their wishes. Denmark was supplied with oils and fats and oil cake from the British Empire far in excess of the quantities she had obtained from us in peace time.’ [10]

What a chilling observation. British merchants were actively competing to supply the enemy with much needed produce and material, while their own young men were being slaughtered in Flanders. The home comforts of tea and more particularly coffee, gave succour and sustenance to the German army, and the profits flowed back to Britain and the Empire.

Lord Sydenham, a former British army officer and Colonial administrator, fiercely attacked the government’s decision to sign a trade agreement with Denmark which many considered to be a worthless sham. He berated them in the House of Lords on 20 December 1915;

‘There is no doubt whatever that Denmark has been doing an enormous trade with Germany and Austria during the last seventeen months, and the prosperity of all here is too apparent, and that Denmark has received far far more of everything than was necessary for her own use. You [the government] have helped in this, and your new Agreement will help much more than ever for Germany to be fed, the war prolonged, and your blockade made a joke. This Agreement is very wrong and should be cancelled, and you should wake up and stir up your officials or dismiss them.’ [11]

Lord Sydenham

Strong language indeed. He lashed out at the blockade as a ‘joke’. And here again, as many before and after claimed, was the stark accusation that the British government was prolonging the war. Sydenham exposed where the intransigence, as he saw it, lay. Unfortunately, his exhortation that the government should ‘stir up’ or indeed dismiss the officials in charge, missed the crucial point. Foreign Office committees were stacked with the chosen appointees who were prepared to do the bidding of the Elite.

Fish, beef, pork, fats, butter and other dairy produce had been flooding into Germany from Denmark since August 1914 despite the indisputable fact that Britain could easily have stopped it. Trade Agreements with neutral countries like Denmark were sound in principle but weak in practice and the foodstuffs flowed through Scandinavia in ever greater quantities such that Germany was able to stem the tide of starvation in difficult years. The Scandinavian farming and fishing industries sustained Germany, but those industries were themselves supported by imports of fuel and fertilisers often directly from Britain. During the last six months of 1914, Denmark sold 68,000 horses to Germany and thousands of live cattle were exported every week. These animals provided more than just meat. Britain allowed Denmark to import raw hides, boots and shoes through the blockade, thus enabling her to export the horses and cattle which would otherwise have been required for her own leather industry. [12] Did no-one see the connection?

Danish farmers were selling to Germany at huge profit. In the first seven months of 1916 agricultural exports amounted to 117,000 tons. The meat export alone during this period was 62,561 tons, sufficient to provide a million meat rations per day for the German army. Britain’s supplies of animal feedstuffs, fertilisers, and coal to operate Denmark’s agricultural industry increased markedly from pre-war levels yet Danish meat and dairy produce exports to Britain dropped by 25 per cent. [13] Britain was providing the basic fodder and fertilisers to boost Denmark’s agricultural output, and the vast bulk of the produce was sold to feed the German people and their army.

Danish and Swedish fish exports to Germany also continued on an enormous scale, rising from 55,819 tons in 1913 to 157,000 tons in 1916. Over the same period their fish exports to Britain fell from 8,677 tons to 1,902 tons. Despite this, in addition to supplying all of the petrol for the fishing fleets, Britain was selling these countries practically all of their fishing nets, yarn and rope. Special fish trains were running so frequently to Germany that at times the railways could scarcely meet the demands of the fish traffic. As we have seen, the trains were running on British coal.

Germany was also supplied with a large tonnage of fish from Norway. Prior to the war (1913) Norwegian fish exports to Germany were 78,771 tons. This rose to 194,167 tons in 1916. Consett pointed out that ‘during 1916 the fish rations to the German Army had been gradually increased.’ [p. 292] During the first two years of the war, not only was the fish feeding the German army, but provided much needed glycerine for explosives production. Like the Danish and Swedish, the Norwegian fishing industry depended not merely upon petrol supplies from Britain, but many other vital imports including fishing gear. Montagu Consett exposed how the Norwegian fishing industry, by far the largest and most important in Northern Europe, depended upon British or British controlled supplies. He believed that ‘the moment and circumstances immediately following the outbreak of war could not have been more favourable for Britain purchasing the Norwegian catch in return for a guaranteed supply of all fishing accessories.’ The opportunity was ignored by the Government.

From his offices in Christiana (Oslo), Britain’s naval attache Captain Montagu Consett watched in horror as mountains of exports were piled onto the quayside in Scandinavian ports and re-routed to Germany in plain daylight. This was not a secret operation. Open trade was being conducted in contempt of whatever loose agreements Scandinavian merchants had signed with Britain to keep their ships off an official black list. Consett was adamant that ‘in 1914, the blockade could have been enforced and sure ruin brought to Germany, [but] open trade was conducted through Scandinavia. … Britain was reaping what it sowed in 1915 and 1916 when it was building up great food industries and establishing them at the gates of Germany.’ [14]

The magnitude of the traffic going to Germany was scandalous. To his great credit, Consett reported every detail of these infringements and blatant abuses. He sent indignant reports and letters to the Foreign Office, the Admiralty and eventually, tired of being ignored, to anyone in Britain he thought might listen. With questions being raised in Parliament and critical newspaper articles, something had to be done to nullify his scathing expose.

Lord Faringdon, whose report the government would not publish

In late 1915, the Foreign Office sent Sir Alexander Henderson to visit Scandinavia and Holland in order to make ‘independent’ inquiries. Henderson was a member of parliament and deputy chairman of the Shipping Control Committee, [15] linked through financial interests to members of the Secret Elite like Ernest Cassel and Lord Revelstoke. He was in insider and was tasked to investigate the allegations that foodstuffs and vital supplies were haemorrhaging through Scandinavia to Germany. Consett was ‘exhilarated’. At last a member of government had the opportunity to see for himself the extent of the Scandinavian trade. He fully expected immediate action. The result was a secret report that the government refused to release. Sir Edward Grey called it ‘very satisfactory,’ in that it showed that ‘the amount of leakage in the trade passing from overseas through these neutral countries to the enemy is…much less than might have been supposed.’ To emphasise that all was well with the blockade, Grey claimed that ‘the general tendency of the report is to show that the maximum which can be done is being done.’ [16] This was no investigation; it was a whitewash.

As before, Grey reprimanded parliament for forgetting the rights of neutrals to supplies for their own consumption. ‘You have no right to make neutrals suffer’ was one admonition, and he maintained that ‘no ships are going through to German ports at all.’ Fair enough, if you constrain the analysis to German ports. The Foreign Secretary’s claim concluded that ‘we are stopping the trade coming out, and we are also stopping the imports; more than that you cannot do.’ [17] But Grey was deliberately dealing in semantics. It was not Germany that Faringdon had visited; it was Scandinavia.

Sir Edward Grey chose not to differentiate between direct trade (through German ports) and indirect trade (through Scandinavia) where a veritable armada of merchant shipping, coal transporters, oil tankers, fishing boats, coastal traders and the like, was transporting the life-blood for German’s survival as a fighting nation.

Sir Henry Dalziel MP a constant critic of the sham blockade

Sceptical MPs like Sir Henry Dalziel asked to see the report. Sir Edward Grey said ‘No’. And that was that. Not for the first time, nor the last, Edward Grey lied to parliament. When asked how long Lord Faringdon had spent in Copenhagen and which other Danish ports he had visited, Grey did not ‘consider such answers (to be) necessary’ and stressed that Lord Faringdon was ‘quite capable of judging the value or amount of information at his disposal.’ [18] Such a patronising performance was worthy of a Secret Elite agent. Lesser mortals had no need to know what was going on, or why.

Consett was bitterly disillusioned. He knew exactly what Faringdon had witnessed and could scarcely contain his anger at the deception. He bluntly countered that the report.

‘on which the future and especially 1916 so much hinged, did not represent the facts as reported to Lord Faringdon by myself, or as reported by me officially through the British legation to the Foreign Office; or as disclosed by official statistics published after the war: all of which showed that the Scandinavian trade with Germany at the time of Lord Faringdon’s visit was on an unprecedented scale.’ [19]

So, was Faringdon’s report a lie, or did he bring back the truth and collude in a whitewash? Consett noted scathingly that, ‘Sir Alexander Henderson came, saw and reported, and became Lord Faringdon.’ [20] And he was right. Immediately on his return, Alexander Henderson was raised to peerage as Baron Faringdon of Buscot Park, his 3,500 acre estate. Was this the ‘just’ reward for a monumental cover-up? Faringdon’s fawning claim was that ‘the government were to be congratulated on the way they had dealt with many difficulties, and they deserved encouraging support.’ Enough said.

It was a cover-up of the first order, and the Secret Elite’s politicians who had been lying throughout simply continued in the same vein. Despite the literal slap on the face from London, Consett kept up a barrage of complaints. He was a relentless. In the summer of 1916, Commander Leverton Harris, Director of the Restriction of Enemy Supplies Department at the Foreign Office, and later Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Blockade, was sent to Scandinavia to investigate the situation once more. Leverton Harris, was the right-hand man of Lord Robert Cecil, the Secret Elite member and Blockade Minister. Consett warned him about two burning issues; the huge tonnage of fish going to Germany and the need to stop supplies of petrol to the Scandinavian fishing fleets. He explained.

‘The Danes themselves recognised that the United Kingdom would be justified in safeguarding her own interests by preventing fish from reaching Germany. Truth is certainly stranger than fiction. That we should be supplying the Danish fishermen with all necessities; that the fishermen should be sending practically the whole of their catch to Germany; that the Danes themselves could not obtain one of the principle articles of their diet; that the fishermen should be able to obtain unlimited quantities of petrol without hindrance from the British authorities who could kill the industry if they felt so disposed; that all this should be taking place without any serious effort to stop it was both strange and true.’ [21]

His claim was indisputable, but nothing was done until later in the war. In 1916 there was just sufficient food and munitions for Germany to continue the struggle, but there was no margin, even although she had a further source from Belgium. [22] An effective blockade in combination with an embargo on British exports to Scandinavia in 1915 and 1916 would have brought about Germany’s collapse. But the war was prolonged.

[1] Daily News, 1 January 1915.
[2] C Paul Vincent, The Politics of Hunger, The Allied Blockade of Germany 1915-1919, p. 40.
[3] see blogs
[4] Vincent, The Politics of Hunger, p. 35.
[5] George F S Bowles, The Strength of England, pp. 193-4.
[7] M W W P Consett, The Triumph of Unarmed Forces, pp. 268-293.
[8] Ibid., p. 288.
[9] Ibid., pp. 210-217.
[10] Ibid., p. 168.
[11] Hansard House of Lords Debate 20 December 1915 vol. 20 cc696-744.
[12] Consett, The Triumph of Unarmed Forces, pp. 134-136.
[13] Ibid., pp. 140-2.
[14] Source
[15] Martin Daunton, ‘Henderson, Alexander, first Baron Faringdon (1850–1934)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
[16] Hansard House of Commons, Speech by Sir Edward Grey, 26 January, 1916 in a pamphlet entitled, Great Britain’s Measures Against German Trade, published by Hodder and Stoughton.
[18] Hansard, House of Commons Debate 24 February, 1916, vol. 80. c783.
[19] Consett, The Triumph of Unarmed Forces, p. 254.
[20] Ibid., p. 253.
[21] Ibid., p. 163.
[22] The history of the Belgian Relief Commission will be fully examined in later blogs. This in itself was one of the war’s major scandals successfully hidden from the public. Suffice for the moment to say that between 1915-17, huge quantities of foodstuffs were being redirected from Belgium to Germany.