By 1916 a sea change had taken place in Britain. Early public expectation of a quick decisive victory predicated on naval supremacy and a successful blockade had been shattered by its abject failure. Profound disappointment, indeed a sense of disenchantment, followed. The pliant and supportive British press of 1914 began by 1916 to look for reasons why victory seemed as far away as ever. Their focus turned to the naval blockade. Stories which abounded of vessels being released to neutral nations with cargoes of cotton, oil, ores, fish, meat, flour, lard and much more, drew an angry response. The Daily Mail campaigned against the ‘Sham Blockade’ and the Morning Post criticised the ‘Make Believe Blockade’ They carried rumours that Cabinet Ministers would be impeached and Sir Edward Grey was forced to deny the accusations in Parliament. [1]

Lloyd George and Winston ChurchillFor as long as the instigators of war held office, they continually lied to parliament about the blockade, its apparent limitations and its effectiveness. Churchill began the era of the First Blockade with his definitive and much publicised speech at the Guildhall on 9 November 1914, where he assured the nation that a naval blockade was in operation and promised that;

‘The economic stringency resulting from a naval blockade requires time to reach its full effectiveness…But wait a bit….and you will begin to see the results – results which will be gradually achieved and silently achieved, but which will spell the doom of Germany as surely as the approaching winter strikes the leaves from the trees.’ [2]

Winston Churchill set the level of expectation. He proclaimed that Germany would be doomed within a year; that the blockade would absolutely bring Germany to her knees. He lied. He lied too in Cabinet on 3 March 1915, claiming that the blockade was ‘in every sense effective: no instance is known to the Admiralty of any vessel, the stopping of which has been authorised by the Foreign Office, passing them unchallenged. It is not a case of a paper blockade, but of a blockade as real and as effective as any that has ever been established’ [3] False but clever semantics. Any vessel stopped by order of the Foreign Office would certainly have been impounded, but not the vast majority that were challenged on the high seas. Churchill deliberately failed to mention what had actually transpired.

The first blockade degenerated into a farce which was described by Sir Henry Dalziel, member of parliament for Kirkcaldy, on 27 March 1917. in the following terms;

Sir Henry Dalziel MP

‘For the first eighteen month of the war, the Admiralty were in a state of despair with regard to the actions of the Foreign Office. They were bringing in, day after day, ships which were admittedly carrying cargo to the benefit of the enemy. What happened? A telegram was sent to London to the Foreign Office, and in reply, often in the course of a fews hours, a telegram came informing them that they ought to let the ships go through, for some reasons that were no doubt considered satisfactory by the Foreign Office, but which tended to make our sailors absolutely depressed and in despair. It is a fact that for months at a time the officers themselves absolutely refused to take ships into port. They used to send junior officers and midshipmen, who took the ships into harbour, and, treating the matter jocularly, told the Harbour Master to let the ships away in a few hours to Germany. The whole thing was treated as a farce, though ship after ship, to the knowledge of the officers, carried goods for Germany.’ [4]

The first blockade which lasted for two years was a farce, during which Britain was effectively feeding and supplying Germany; effectively prolonging the war. Heads should have rolled. Guilty men ought to have been mercilessly exposed.

Several strong-minded members of parliament pursued that issue relentlessly, even when threats were made to silence them. [5]  On 12 July 1915, Sir Henry Dalziel raised the question of cotton supplies to Germany despite being ‘threatened if I raised the question tonight that I would be counted out, and I understand that great efforts have been made …to secure that object.’ Dalziel would not be silenced: ‘After nearly a year of war we are permitting, practically with our connivance, the most essential factor in the making of high explosives to go to our enemy, and we are assisting them to make munitions that kill our soldiers. … Without the cotton which we are supplying… Germany would have been practically unable to continue the war up to the present time.’ [6]

In the Upper House, Lord Sydenham continued to berate the government’s inaction over the blockade stating bluntly in December 1915 that ‘had Germany not received indispensable commodities of many kinds the war would have been over before this’. [7] Consider the accusations by these eminent men. The First World War could have ended before the winter of 1915. Both are absolutely clear about that. Turning on the stupidity of the agreement made that year between the British government and some Danish importers, Sydenham went further. He berated them for ‘enabling the enemy to prolong the war’ and added that ‘your new Agreement (with Denmark) will help much more than ever for Germany to be fed, the war prolonged, and your blockade made a joke. [8]

In February 1916, when the failure of an effective blockade was lambasted by an outraged Press, Lord Beresford, a former First Sea Lord and highly respected Admiral, stood in the House of Lords and laid bare the fact that had a full blockade of trade with Germany been put in place, rather than the ambiguous and colander like Treaty of London, ‘the war would now have been over’. [9]

Brigadier- General  Croft,

The bitter anger against those responsible for the sham blockade became very personal. At the end of the war Brigadier-General Croft, MP for Christchurch, who fought at the Somme and was twice mentioned in dispatches, accused government ministers of lying about ‘the indefensible export of essential and vital foodstuffs during 1915 and the first half of 1916’. [10] Having witnessed the selflessness and bravery of men at the front, he became intolerant of the  opportunism of politicians at home whom he held responsible. [11] Croft wanted blood. He wanted names. He wanted the public to know who had made these decisions. The answer he was given was that no minister was responsible. Incredulously, Croft responded with warranted sarcasm, ‘We fed Germans because no minister was responsible.’ His patience snapped. ‘No minister was responsible during this time, and yet we find millions of tons of produce and raw materials left this country – ore for shells to blow our men to bits with in the trenches, cotton to provide explosives for these shells, and food to feed the Germans who fired those shells.’’ [12] Read these words aloud and feel the anger. Croft accused the government of ‘actually feeding the Germans and helping them to sustain the war at that time.’ The Brigadier-General suggested that Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and President of the Board of Trade Walter Runciman be impeached. One can only imagine the consternation amongst the Secret Elite and their agents. Naturally nothing of any consequence followed. As ever they deflected accusations, camouflaged the guilty and ignored the question.

Without a doubt, the most important, detailed and accurate information about the failures of the blockade that had been meticulously recorded and forwarded to the government came from the British naval attache in Scandinavia, Captain (later Rear-Admiral) Montegu Consett. His evidence has been amply discussed in previous blogs. Consett had famously said that, ‘Nothing would have hastened the end of the war more effectively than the sinking of ships trading in ore between Sweden and Germany, or by economic pressure brought to bear on the Swedish ore industry’. [13]  Consett’s damning expose, “The Triumph of Unarmed Forces” proved page by page, statistical column by statistical column, that the blockade between 1914-1916 had been a charade; that Britain had effectively allowed Germany to be fed though Denmark, Sweden and Norway and in so doing, had prolonged the war. The Foreign Office sent their chosen man, Sir Arthur Henderson over to Scandinavia in 1915 to evaluate the situation. His subsequent report, which they refused to publish at the time, refuted Consett’s evidence and claimed that, in Sir Edward Grey’s own words, the amount of leakage in the trade was ‘much less than might have been supposed’. Henderson was immediately rewarded with a peerage as Lord Faringdon. [14]

Sir Edward Grey at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons

In a dismissive and patronising speech in the House of Commons on 26 January 1916, Sir Edward Grey criticised ‘reckless statements’ and claimed, ‘we are stopping the trade coming out, and we are also stopping the imports; more than that you cannot do. You cannot do more than stop all imports into the enemy country and all exports coming out.’ [15]  He was, yet again, painting an entirely false picture. What nailed the lie was a military analysis prepared in 1916 for the senior staff conference between the British and French commanders.

Their top-secret ‘Note on the Blockade of the North Sea’ was sent to the Committee of Imperial Defence in March 1916. [16] It plainly demonstrated how inept the blockade had been.

‘Germany has been able to continue to export merchandise and securities, and thus obtain money and credits from neutrals. She has even been able to import, at a high price it is true, the provisions and goods of which she stood most urgently in need…the economic struggle has not yet been undertaken; it is of urgent importance, however, that the Governments concerned should adopt the necessary measures without delay’. The adoption of these measures… ‘would certainly have the effect of diminishing the enemy’s power of resistance, and therefore of shortening the war.’ [17]

So there it was, twenty months into the war and still the blockade was not effective. Indeed the allied military staff went so far as to say that the economic measures which would have shortened the war had ‘not yet been undertaken’. Their assessment stood in stark contrast to the lies which were routinely spouted by Grey and other government ministers. The secret Note advised the government to take a harder line on the export of British coal and to extend the list of contraband to all goods and supplies. In fact they wanted to do away with the whole concept of conditional contraband and absorb everything into one prohibited list.

The facts spoke for themselves. The real blockade had yet to be put in place. The outcry became unstoppable. Time and again contemporary writers, members of parliament, top army and naval officers repeated the mantra that war could have been won within eighteen months had there been a real blockade. George Bowles, Conservative M.P. and Admiralty Lawyer, claimed that the conflict would have been over within four and a half months. [18] Others like Lords Sydenham and Beresford estimated that war would have been over in the last months of 1915. But the war was prolonged. Millions of men were sacrificed. Profits grew ever higher. The anguished voices of reason were eventually carried by the Press and forced change. From 1917 until 1919 a very different blockade came into effect, one which we will return to at an appropriate time.

So how did the Secret Elite reconcile history once the war was ended? How did they justify the sham of the blockade? Their normal tactic was to ignore criticism and remove it from official records. Pretend it never happened. Keep it from the public eye and deny it. Most of the official records of the Admiralty, Foreign Office and Board of Trade were removed, presumed destroyed. Some, a century later, might still be locked away in the secret archives at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire. [19] Interestingly, even in 2005, The Imperial War Museum’s Book of The War At Sea, 1914-1918, makes no reference whatsoever to the Blockade. [20] Apparently the heroics of 10th Cruiser Squadron out on the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, their hardships and sacrifice, their honourable and magnificent contribution, had no part to play in the history of the war at sea. Incredible. Unjustifiable, even if the truth has to be whitewashed.

Those who sought to deny the scandal of the first blockade were, however, thwarted by the publication of Rear-Admiral Consett’s damning book “The Triumph of Unarmed Forces”, published in 1923 and subject to the most extraordinary debate in the House of Lords. [21]  Sir Edward Grey, rewarded in 1916 as Viscount Fallodon, the man at the very heart of the sham blockade, attended the debate. He claimed to know nothing about the details revealed in the book save what he had heard that day, but proceeded to argue that the zealous man on the spot knew only one part of a whole picture, while at the centre ‘some mind which can take in much more’ knew all the consequences. Grey went on to state that if the government had taken the action advocated at that time by Admiral Consett, ‘we should certainly have lost the war.’ [22]

New York Times front page announcing the loss of the Lusitania

This was an utterly incredible statement and without doubt an act of deliberate obfuscation. His defence was that had a blockade been fully implemented in the early stages of the war, ‘Britain would have had such trouble with the United States that it would have been futile to the future of the Allies’. He reiterated the old canard that, had we upset America in the early years of the war, ‘it would have been absolutely fatal’. [23] Fatal to whom? This is nonsense. There were no conditions under which America would have stopped trading with Britain, or taken sides against her. It might have caused some localised trading difficulty in 1914 but a strict blockade would have ended the war very quickly. Had he forgotten too about the Lusitania, sunk in May 1915 by a U-Boat? What chance then of America siding with Germany? None.

But the charade went on. It prolonged the war and extended the profits. When fully implemented in its second phase from 1917-18, it was much more effective in ensuring that Germany was beaten. Unnecessarily and deliberately extended beyond the signing of the Armistice in 1918, it ensured that she was crushed. Not just beaten, crushed. A million more men women and children were to die of starvation in Germany before the blockade was finally lifted. That was an even more shameful episode to which we will return.

[1] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 26 January, 1916.
[2] The Times, 10 November, 1914.
[3] Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, 1915, p. 295.
[4] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 27 March 1917 vol. 92. cc226-80.
[5] Hansard House of Commons Debate 22 June 1915 vol. 72 cc1094-1131.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Hansard, House of Lords Debate, 20 December 1915.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Hansard House of Lords Debate, 22 February 1916 vol 21 cc72-128.
[10] Hansard House of Commons Debate, 21 March 1918 vol. 104 cc1231-57.
[11] Andrew S. Thompson, ‘Croft, Henry Page, first Baron Croft (1881–1947)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 []
[12] Hansard House of Commons Debate, 21 March 1918 vol. 104 cc1231-57.
[13] M.W.W.P. Consett, The Triumph of Unarmed Forces (1914-1918), p. 80.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Foreign Office 21 March, 1916.  Secret Note on the Blockade of the North Sea, Printed for the Committee of Imperial Defence. G-67.
[17] Ibid.
[18] George W Bowles, The Strength of England, p. 173.
[19] Ian Cobain, The Guardian, 18 October 2013.
[20] Julian Thompson, The Imperial War Museum, Book of The War At Sea, 1914-1918.
[21] Hansard, House of Lords Debate 27 June 1923 vol 54 cc647-54.
[22] Hansard, House of Lords Debate 27 June 1923 vol 54 cc653-54.
[23] Ibid.