Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
8 November 2012
Review by Larry A. Grant, The Citadel
Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War
By Nicholas A. Lambert
Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2012. Pp. viii, 651. ISBN 978–0–674–06149–1.
Descriptors: Volume 2012, 20th Century, World War I Print Version

Among the assets indispensable to the conduct of war, financial resources must stand near the top, and, in the search for advantage, leaders at war long ago learned they could target their enemy's wealth to their own benefit. But as the global economic network matured, it became difficult if not impossible to attack an adversary's economy without suffering consequences. The complex system had grown too fragile and the tools of war too destructive. Around the turn of the twentieth century, some writers extrapolated this view of economic integration into bestsellers arguing that traditional warfare had become unsustainable.[1] Still, staff officers must plan even when popular opinion announces that war is dead. In Planning Armageddon, Nicholas Lambert (Royal United Services Institute, London) provides a remarkable and thorough history of the efforts of Royal Navy planners, despite such warnings, to turn British financial institutions, communications networks, and economic resources into weapons of war.[2]

Standard histories of British naval operations in World War I, Lambert writes, depend heavily on "the official history of the blockade" in spite of its identified shortcomings and long official suppression by classification (12–13). Such accounts give little space to "economic coercion, [leaving] the impression that it ran continuously (and successfully) throughout the war" (14). Largely overlooking naval planners' serious work on economic warfare prior to the war, they instead focus on schemes for offensive naval operations, most unrealistically in the form of an amphibious strike in the German rear, a sort of Baltic Inchon invasion. This reflects an offensive-minded Navy that cared little for defensive roles (and sometimes mistook one for the other, as with convoy protection); historians point out the Admiralty's discomfiture when it was forced to abandon such plans after discovering the dangers posed by such modern weapons as sea mines and torpedo boats operating in the narrow seas.

We are left with the impression that Britain had no alternative to joining the French in years of murderous trench warfare that destroyed a generation of young men and relegated the Royal Navy to a secondary role. Lambert raises a dissenting voice. He concedes that some in the Navy favored amphibious offensives, but stresses that, despite appearances, Adm. Sir John Fisher was not among them (59–60, 118). He uses new material (some of it previously classified) and revised interpretations to show that under Fisher's influence Royal Navy planners envisioned a more innovative sort of warfare against Germany, using economic tools uniquely available to the British at the beginning of World War I.

Lambert traces the Royal Navy's prewar planning process in great detail. He also looks closely at the actions of the Navy's civilian and Army counterparts during the first eighteen months of the war, as the Navy was frustrated by the implementation of its plans by, surprisingly, other government departments, in particular the Foreign Office and the Board of Trade. "One might well argue that the greatest untold scandal of the First World War—though admittedly the case is largely circumstantial—was the degree to which contraband trade through neutral countries was financed by the City of London and carried across the Atlantic in British ships" (355).

For centuries Britain had relied on the close blockade of ports to stop trade, but Admiral Fisher realized as the twentieth century opened that technological advances in naval warfare and outdated international legal conventions regarding blockades made the Royal Navy's old methods impracticable. Fisher's solution was a strategy of withdrawing the Royal Navy from the coastal danger zone, while negotiating more favorable international agreements where possible and ignoring existing legal constraints if necessary. In a conversation with Sir Eyre Crowe in 1908, Fisher said, "with characteristic vehemence, that we should most certainly violate the declaration of Paris and every other treaty that might prove inconvenient" (99).

Additionally, Fisher proposed to exploit Great Britain's central position and overwhelming influence on global trade networks, for it controlled more merchant shipping than any other nation and, in the event of war, the Royal Navy would simply chase German ships from the sea. The merchant shipping capacity of neutral countries was insufficient to provide a viable alternative. Britain also dominated undersea cable communications and, more importantly, most of the world's financial services. A coordinated national strategy that denied Germany access to these resources would, at best, make war too costly for it to wage or, at least, cripple its economy in the long run.

Fisher also thought his plan would allow Britain to avoid committing its army to a ground war in Europe. After all, it had long taken an "indirect approach" to wars on the Continent, spending money rather than men to achieve its ends there. Fisher believed sending troops to France would be a great mistake, in effect giving Germany the chance to turn the small British force into hostages through which it might extract British concessions during wartime (120). He felt his plan offered Britain a singular weapon for winning the war outright.

After the twentieth century's experience of the spectrum of economic warfare, many modern observers would agree that it has not proven as singularly decisive as Fisher hoped it might. But, in the case of the First World War, economic warfare never received a fair test. The Admiralty might have had a more complete trial, if only all the neutrals trading with Germany had been weak and insignificant, if only the British economy had been immune to the effects of changes in the German economy, if only military planners had understood that the war begun in August 1914 was likely to be a long one.

Even before any major battle had taken place, Prime Minister Asquith's cabinet members worried about the consequences of economic warfare for British domestic and diplomatic interests:

In late August, therefore, the British government first relaxed and then, at the end of October, in response to mounting pressure from the United States, effectively suspended the implementation of economic warfare. This action proved misjudged: within a matter of weeks it became apparent that the war would be protracted and thus would require greater—not lesser—exertion and sacrifice on Britain's part. By then, however, the theoretical opportunity to wreck the German war machine through the sudden imposition of an economic stranglehold had passed. (499)

There were various failed attempts to make the scheme (a) palatable to neutrals and skeptical government agencies, (b) harmful to Germany, and (c) helpful to the French. For example, rules were drafted to restrict imports into some countries, the Netherlands and Sweden, for instance, to prewar levels; these failed for several reasons, not least the difficulty of even determining the true level of prewar imports. British government agencies also soon began to manipulate even the revised system, violating the spirit of the program to serve their own purposes. In the end, Lambert argues, the British never truly put in motion the economic warfare envisioned by the prewar planners. It was simply too frightening a prospect for those charged with its execution.

One thinks of the Cold War antiwar cartoon showing a worn out soldier standing in the middle of a field of nuclear rubble, his face bearing a happy expression above the caption reading "We won!" Substitute a tattered top-hatted banker in the ruins of the crashed London financial center to capture the apprehensions of British Board of Trade members before World War I.

The group that might benefit most from a close reading of Lambert's remarkably detailed, methodical, and comprehensive study is the modern fraternity of diplomats. Economic sanctions today are often a weapon of first resort for the very best of reasons—to avoid the tragedy of war. But ensuring compliance remains exceedingly problematic. Reasons and accomplices can always be found to weaken, evade, or corrupt the well-intentioned programs that show up in today's news headlines.

The first step in problem solving is to recognize that the problem exists. Diplomatic measures that consistently fail to produce desired effects are a problem that must be acknowledged. In this regard, Planning Armageddon provides an instructive case study that should inspire new and more effective strategies. The effort would be worth the outcome.

[1] See, e.g., Norman Angell, The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relation of Military Power in Nations to Their Economic and Social Advantage (NY: Putnam, 1910).

[2] Lambert (PhD Oxford 1992) laid the groundwork for the present book in his earlier publications: Sir John Fisher's Naval Revolution (Columbia: U South Carolina Pr, 1999); "British Naval Policy, 1913–1914: Financial Limitation and Strategic Revolution," Journal of Modern History 67 (1995) 595–626; "Transformation and Technology in the Fisher Era: the Impact of the Communications Revolution," Journal of Strategic Studies 27 (2004) 272–97.

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