February 5, 2015

Finest Hour 163, Summer 2014

Page 10

By John H. Maurer

In the spring of 1914, Winston Churchill’s arms-control initiative was, in the eyes of the German government, nonsense. As the war that broke out that summer would show, Berlin would have better served its own interests and the well-being of the German people had it worked with Churchill, rather than thwarting him.

Winston S. Churchill is best remembered as a valiant leader in times of war. He should also be remembered for his efforts to prevent the catastrophic great wars that would dominate and scar the history of the 20th century. While largely forgotten today, on the eve of the First World War Churchill made a remarkable and persistent attempt to halt the head-to-head competition in naval armaments that was turning Great Britain and Germany into adversaries.

2024 International Churchill Conference

Join us for the 41st International Churchill Conference. London | October 2024

In a bold and unconventional initiative as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill publicly invited Germany’s rulers to take a “holiday” from the competitive building of battleships, on three separate occasions before 1914. Behind the scenes, he pressed for negotiations, with this proposal as the starting point. It was Churchill’s earnest hope that the Naval Holiday would stop the action-reaction dynamic of the arms race—what statesmen of that era called “the sea war waged in the dockyards.”1 Rather than Britain and Germany being arrayed in opposing camps, he wanted to promote cooperation between Europe’s two leading great powers.

Churchill’s advocacy of a shipbuilding pause generated a great deal of commentary and had an extended life. But Germany’s rulers were ranged against the proposal, along with many in Britain—opposition leaders, a hostile press, and even members of the government. The Tory opposition labeled Churchill’s plan unworkable, while Britain’s foreign-policy decisionmakers also stood against arms-control negotiations with Germany. It is interesting that the same establishment which would deride Churchill’s calls for rearmament in the 1930s was leading the critics of his calls for disarmament in 1912-14.

The noted historian A. J. P. Taylor believed that “probably only Churchill took it seriously,” but the Naval Holiday was viewed quite soberly by Germany’s leaders. The German ambassador in London, Prince Karl Max Lichnowsky, reported that Churchill “meant the Naval Holiday to be taken completely seriously and he considered the idea as entirely practicable.”2 Churchill realized that major impediments stood in the way. Nonetheless, he argued that it was “a profound British interest to procure a halt” in the arms competition.3

Germany’s Quest for Naval Parity

Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty on 25 October 1911, when the rise of what Germans called their “High Seas Fleet” posed an immense threat to Britain’s security. In the summer of 1911 Germany had provoked an international showdown with France over Morocco—the so-called Agadir Crisis—Britain’s leaders had feared at one point that a war might erupt, with the Germans launching a surprise attack on the British fleet, scattered among its peacetime bases in home waters. As the minister responsible for naval defense, Churchill was gravely concerned. “Of all the dangers that menaced the British Empire,” he later wrote, “none was comparable….If the Fleet or any vital part of it were caught unawares or unready and our naval preponderance destroyed, we had lost the war, and there was no limit to the evils which might have been inflicted upon us.” To Churchill, Germany’s battle fleet, concentrated in German home waters and poised to launch a first-strike surprise attack, represented an “ever-present danger.”4

Churchill’s determination to ensure Great Britain’s naval preparedness for war did not mean he considered a conflict between Britain and Germany to be inevitable. “I do not believe,” he told a political associate, “in the theory of inevitable wars.”5 War, he was convinced, would serve neither country’s interests. In a 1908 speech he had derided the notion that Anglo-German rivalry meant a clash of arms. “I think it is greatly to be deprecated,” he stated,

that persons should try to spread the belief in this country that war between Great Britain and Germany is inevitable. It is all nonsense….[T]here is no collision of primary interests—big, important interests—between Great Britain and Germany in any quarter of the globe….Look at it from any point of view you like, and I say you will come to the conclusion in regard to relations between England and Germany, that there is no real cause of difference between them, and…these two great people have nothing to fight about, have no prize to fight for, and have no place to fight in.6

Churchill looked forward to “the peaceful development of European politics in the next twenty years”—a result of “the blessed intercourse of trade and commerce [which] is binding the nations together against their wills, in spite of their wills, unconsciously, irresistibly, and unceasingly weaving them together into one solid interdependent mass.” What Churchill called “the prosaic bonds of commerce” were dampening international crises, promoting the peaceful settlement of disputes between “civilized and commercial States.” The danger of international economic collapse, he contended, imposed “an effective caution and restraint even upon the most reckless and the most intemperate of statesmen.” To buttress his point of view Churchill could point to the fact that during the previous forty years “no two highly-organized commercial Powers have drawn the sword upon one another.”7

But the relentless buildup of the German High Seas Fleet, along with Berlin’s unwillingness to reduce its naval program, led Churchill reluctantly to conclude that German ambitions did indeed pose a serious threat to the peace of Europe. The naval competition in 1908-12 between Britain and Germany in building modern capital ships—battleships and battle cruisers—is often considered the classic example of an arms race.8 In those six years Britain launched twenty-nine capital ships and Germany seventeen. To pay for them, Germany’s naval budget practically doubled, while Britain’s increased by over 40 percent.9 Churchill thought the greatest military power in Europe now aimed to “become at the same time at least the second naval Power…an event of first magnitude in world affairs.”10

Churchill bluntly expressed these views in conversations with Ambassador Lichnowsky: “It was no good shutting one’s eyes to facts,” he stated, “and that however hard Governments and individuals worked to make a spirit of real trust and confidence between two countries they would make very little headway while there was a continually booming naval policy in Germany.”11 The buildup of a German battle fleet stood as a major obstacle to Anglo-German cooperation. Germany could remove this obstacle, reducing the danger of war.

When Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty, he settled on a program of warship construction to give Britain a decisive lead in the arms race. The number of British battleships would be based on German construction. If Germany increased its output, Britain would automatically follow suit and outstrip the Germans. This strategy, Churchill thought, would impress upon Germany’s leaders the futility of trying to overcome Britain’s naval lead. “Nothing, in my opinion,” Churchill wrote, “would more surely dishearten Germany, than the certain proof that as the result of all her present and prospective efforts she will only be more hopelessly behind-hand.”12 To the newspaper editor J.L. Garvin, Churchill wrote, “As long as we do not relax our exertions, and proceed on the sober lines I have laid down, we shall—in absence of any new development—break these fellows’ hearts in peace or their necks in war.”13

By frustrating German naval ambitions, Churchill hoped to make Berlin more amenable to settling any differences. To the Admiral Lord “Jackie” Fisher, Churchill maintained that British naval construction could be changed to permit “England and Germany to agree upon proportionate reductions.”14 Winning the naval arms race was not an end in itself but a way to convince the German government that cooperation, not rivalry, would benefit the core interests of both countries.

The Stick and the Carrot

To unveil his Naval Holiday scheme, Churchill chose a dramatic setting: his annual presentation to Parliament of naval estimates for the upcoming year, on 18 March 1912. Interest in his speech had been heightened by rumors of impending increases in Germany’s ship-building program, threatening another costly round in the naval arms race, and by the fact that it was his first presentation as First Lord.

Churchill did not disappoint them. Before a packed House of Commons he bluntly declared that Britain’s naval efforts were directed at defeating Germany’s challenge with naval construction linked to German shipbuilding. Furthermore, he warned, for every additional capital ship started by Germany, Britain would build two. His intentions were abundantly clear. That was the stick—then came the carrot:

To break the naval competition Churchill called for the introduction of “a blank page in the book of misunderstanding….Any retardation or reduction in German construction will…be promptly followed here…by large and fully proportioned reductions.”

In 1913, for instance, if Germany dropped its plans for three new capital ships, Britain would “blot out” the corresponding five capital ships it planned for that year. “The three ships that [Germany] did not build,” Churchill said, “would therefore automatically wipe out no fewer than five British potential super-Dreadnoughts [the latest generation of battleships]. By taking a holiday from building for a year or even two, Germany would obtain substantial savings,” Churchill argued: “Here, then, is a perfectly plain and simple plan of arrangement whereby without diplomatic negotiation, without any bargaining, without the slightest restriction upon the sovereign freedom of either Power, this keen and costly naval rivalry can be at any time abated.”15

Kaiser Wilhelm, who had met Churchill personally during the 1909 German army maneuvers, sent him a “courteous” message that a Naval Holiday “would only be possible between allies.”16 To his intimates the Kaiser was much less courteous, branding Churchill’s speech “arrogant.” Germany’s Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, though no fan of higher military spending, also dismissed the initiative. “Churchill’s speech did not come up to my expectations,” he wrote; Churchill “really seems to be a firebrand past praying for.”17 Germany declined even to give Churchill’s proposal an official response.

Churchill persisted. Britain, he said, “ought never to allow the discussion of this vital question to be stifled just because it is unwelcome to the ruling classes in Germany.”18 He had a further reason to continue his offer: toward the end of 1912, the Admiralty had received intelligence indicating that Germany intended another increase in naval construction,19 entailing still further increases in British naval spending.

Churchill would repeat his Naval Holiday proposal on two separate occasions during 1913. On 26 March, in his second speech on naval estimates, he offered to drop the four battleships Britain would begin during 1914 if Germany canceled or delayed the two capital ships it was scheduled to start. Surely, Churchill argued, a “mutual cessation could clearly be no disadvantage to the relative position” of Germany.20

This time Berlin responded officially. Bethmann Hollweg told the Reichstag that Germany had yet to receive formal proposals from the British government. That was disingenuous, since behind the scenes, German leaders were working to discourage any deal.21 Berlin instructed Lichnowsky privately to tell Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s foreign secretary, that it did not welcome further public mention of the holiday proposal.22 The Kaiser made it known that he took personal affront at the whole idea. “The Emperor said that he did not wish to make a fuss,” reported Sir Edward Goschen, the British ambassador in Berlin, “but that he wished his words repeated quietly and privately in the proper quarter.”23 Germany’s navy secretary, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, went even farther, suggesting that Anglo-German relations would not improve but deteriorate if Churchill persisted, telling Captain Erich von Müller, the German naval attaché in London, to say “that Churchill can now only injure the tender plant of a German-English détente by his holiday proposal.”24 When the German naval attaché reported back that Churchill intended nonetheless to renew the holiday offer later in 1913, Germany’s leaders braced themselves to reject it. The Kaiser wrote on the attaché’s message, “We are on our guard!”25

The German naval attaché’s information proved to be correct. Churchill renewed the holiday proposal in Manchester on 18 October 1913, in a speech giving the fullest public account of what he meant by the entire scheme. If Great Britain would delete four new battleships and Germany two capital ships, Britain would save £12 million and Germany £6 million over the following three years.26

Churchill’s “modest proposal” created a storm of protest in Germany. British Ambassador Goschen reported it was covered “in all the more important German newspapers and has been received with almost universal disapproval,” varying only in the degree of rudeness by which they reported it. For example, Count Ernst von Reventlow, the prominent foreign-affairs editor of the conservative Deutsche Tageszeitung, said Churchill should take a holiday from making speeches.27

In February 1914, von Tirpitz explicitly rejected Churchill’s Manchester proposal in a speech to the budget committee of the Reichstag, rolling out the previous excuse that it was not an official offer. Tirpitz said he had read of the proposal only “in the newspapers, for I have received no further intimation of the matter.” Tellingly, he added that even if the British government formally proposed it, Berlin would reject it.28

The Germans really wanted to shunt arms control to the side. Their policy was made clear by Lichnowsky, who told British leaders that Germany sought to create “a thoroughly good and healthy atmosphere between the two countries and then they would see that it was perfectly absurd to continue this competitive race in defensive arms.”29 In Lichnowsky’s opinion, “it was possible to arrive at an understanding in spite of the [German] fleet and without a ‘Naval Holiday.’”30 Before Germany would agree to limits on naval building, it wanted a political understanding with Britain to improve Germany’s strategic position.

Churchill in German Eyes

The German government viewed the holiday scheme as an attempt at political warfare. Goschen in Berlin noted that Germany’s leaders “cannot get it out of their heads [that] the First Lord has something up his sleeve, something that would be advantageous for the British, and detrimental to the German Navy.”31 Highly suspicious of Churchill, Tirpitz called him an “extraordinarily energetic English navy minister,” committed to defeating Germany’s naval challenge.32 These arms control efforts were an attempt to paralyze the growth of the German battle fleet and limit Germany’s aspirations to achieve world-power status. In his memoirs, Tirpitz complained of the “untiring efforts of British diplomacy [which] aimed…at sickening us of the fleet, and at picking holes in the Navy Bill, if possible in order to wreck it.”33

Churchill’s tenacious promotion of the scheme infuriated the Kaiser and his naval leaders. For some, he had acquired the reputation of a bully. German Naval Attaché von Müller, reporting on Churchill’s naval estimates speech in March 1914, commented: “Mr. Churchill departed from his former habit, and in his speech this year avoided making hostile remarks about the German Navy—only because he realizes that his former habit of ‘plain speaking’ resulted in the opposite of the intimidation that he hoped for.”34 Müller’s report was typical in viewing Churchill as habitually rude when speaking about the German navy, breaking this habit only when he intended some deception.

Nor were internal German politics to be discounted. Arms control, Tirpitz feared, might give an opening to domestic political enemies who opposed his program of battleship building, some of them inside the German government. Bethmann Hollweg and the Foreign Office, for example, wanted to curtail shipbuilding to improve relations with Britain. To them, battleships were bargaining chips—but not so to Tirpitz, who saw the battle fleet as the instrument to improve Germany’s security against a hostile Britain. Successive German treasury officials also wanted to trim the navy’s budget. Treasury secretary Adolf Wermuth resigned in 1912 rather than go along with increases in naval spending. His successor, Hermann Kühn, proved just as resolute in opposing more spending on the High Seas Fleet.

Tirpitz also feared the holiday scheme might galvanize opposition within the Reichstag. In late spring 1913, Tirpitz complained that “the defense proposals with their immense demands on the German taxpayer, and…the general demand for a lasting understanding with England will pave the way for Churchill’s plans….the mood in the Reichstag is…not now so unfavorable toward [a Naval Holiday].”35 Following the general elections of January 1912 the Social Democrats, who opposed naval increases, emerged as the largest party in the Reichstag.

Another consideration was economic: a Naval Holiday might dislocate the German shipbuilding industry, bringing about an increase in unemployment and social unrest.36 From Tirpitz’s perspective, Winston Churchill’s public arms-control appeals could undermine domestic political support.

Churchill faced an implacable foe in Tirpitz. When Colonel Edward House, the confidante of President Woodrow Wilson, met the Admiral in Berlin during the spring of 1914, he recorded in his diary that Tirpitz “evidenced a decided dislike for the British, a dislike that almost amounted to hatred.”37 The Naval Holiday threatened Tirpitz’s life’s work of rivaling Britain at sea. Rather than go along with it, Tirpitz would have resigned.

Behind Tirpitz stood the Kaiser, who was equally adamant. The German naval buildup was also his creation, his settled ambition. He reacted angrily to anyone who would curtail it. Within Germany’s ruling oligarchy, Wilhelm consistently sided with Tirpitz when disagreements occurred over armaments strategy and foreign policy. He pushed for additional warships even in the spring of 1914, after Tirpitz had concluded that further construction would prove counterproductive, only strengthening Churchill’s ability to keep Britain ahead of Germany in the arms race. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the Kaiser discounted the baneful contribution of the naval buildup to the deterioration of Germany’s strategic situation. “If England only intends to extend her hand to us under the condition that we must limit our fleet,” he declared, “that is an unbounded impudence which contains in it a bad insult to the German people and their Emperor. This offer must be rejected a limine [at the threshold]….I have shown the English that, when they touch our armaments, they bite on granite. Perhaps by this I have increased their hatred but won their respect.”38

Churchill in British Eyes

Opposition to the Naval Holiday was not confined to Germany; political opponents at home attacked Churchill as well. Arthur Lee, the principal spokesman on naval matters for the opposition Conservatives, saw “almost insuperable obstacles in the way of any attempt to carry that into practice.”39 The opposition National Review thought it “really stupefying” that the Liberal government appeared obsessed with “the Disarmament craze,” and it poured scorn on “the mountebank at the Admiralty” for his “platform performances [which] are as idiotic to us as they are offensive to Germany, and play into the hands of the vast army of Anglophobes [in Germany] who preach a jehad [sic] against this country. Politicians of this calibre will say anything to get themselves reported.”40 Critics considered it undignified for Britain to repeat an offer that Germany had already spurned. Churchill, by repeating it, only encouraged Germany’s leaders to think that Britain might tire of the naval competition.41

The permanent staff at the Foreign Office and Britain’s high-level diplomats likewise objected. Sir Eyre Crowe, an assistant under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, thought that any arms-control proposal put forward by Britain would “not be treated straightforwardly in the negotiation, and I regard any such negotiation with so unscrupulous an adversary as highly dangerous.”42 Goschen in Berlin observed: “One cannot help thinking that a determined execution of what [Churchill] outlined in 1912 [to keep decisively ahead of Germany] would have a far greater effect upon German shipbuilding than what he has now done….the best way of taking the wind out of the sails of the Big Navy Party in Germany is to state frankly that if threatened with further efforts to reduce our supremacy we shall make a big effort, by loan if necessary, to render that supremacy unassailable.”43 King George V concurred with the view of his cousin the Kaiser that Churchill should drop the search for an arms-control agreement, adding to Goschen’s report: “I entirely agree with the hope expressed by the Emperor.”44

But domestic political imperatives had played a large part in Churchill’s calculations. He needed a consensus within the governing Liberals on naval spending, a subject on which they were anything but united. Arms control reassured pacifist Liberals that the government was doing everything in its power to dampen the naval rivalry. Many political commentators regarded Churchill’s plan as an attempt to appease such Liberals, who wanted less naval spending. Reacting to Churchill’s speech in Manchester, the influential Lord Esher observed: “Winston was playing to the radical gallery in his recent speech, as it is inconceivable that so clever a fellow should have been silly enough to imagine that he had any chance of obtaining a favourable reply.”45

Churchill had sound reasons to “play to the gallery”: Germany’s naval challenge posed a painful dilemma for the Liberal government: either to spend ever larger amounts to keep ahead of Germany, or to relinquish superiority at sea. Given these options they ultimately chose to increase naval spending, which rose by over £18 million during the Liberal government’s tenure.46 But this choice did not sit well with Liberals who found the naval race an appalling waste. To David Lloyd George, Britain’s dynamic Chancellor of the Exchequer, arms competition amounted to “organised insanity.” Lloyd George received considerable support among fellow Liberals when he pressed Churchill for reductions in the Admiralty’s spending during the winter of 1913–14.47 The complex interplay of domestic political and strategic factors required that Churchill secure acceptance of his naval building program within the government and the Liberal party at large. Arms control offered this opportunity.

One Last Try

In the spring of 1914, when the prospects for the holiday proposal seemed finished, a new chance suddenly presented itself: a visit to Kiel by a squadron of British battleships, invited by the German government to take part in Kiel’s annual regatta. If Churchill accompanied the warships, he might meet with the Kaiser and Tirpitz. Here was a golden opportunity for the statesman who always believed in personal contacts.

Albert Ballin, director of the Hamburg-America Line and intimate of the Kaiser, acted as an intermediary in obtaining an invitation for Churchill to accompany the British squadron. According to his biographer, Ballin “clung to his favourite idea that the naval experts of both countries should come to an understanding.”48 Working outside of government channels, Ballin contacted Churchill’s friend, the influential banker Sir Ernest Cassel. Churchill welcomed the opportunity, but naturally wanted to know “whether Tirpitz really wanted to see me and have a talk.” Cassel assured him that “this was so.”49 Churchill clearly welcomed a chance for direct, high-level talks with Germany’s leaders.

Despite the assurances of Ballin and Cassel, Kaiser Wilhelm was as opposed as ever. He “remarked very decidedly that he had not asked the First Lord to the Kiel regatta, but that the First Lord seemed to have a habit of turning up uninvited, as he had done at the ‘Kaiser Manoeuvres’” (referring to Churchill’s attendance at German army maneuvers in 1909). The British naval attaché reported: “The Emperor remarked that he did not know how to take the First Lord, what he said to him he thought Mr. Churchill transposed later. He was a man who could not be trusted.” Wilhelm also described Lord Haldane’s visit to Germany in 1912, attempting to arrange a naval settlement, at the initiative of Ballin and Cassel, as a “fiasco.”50

The prospective arrival of British battleships—a visit the German government wanted—made it difficult for Wilhelm to reject out of hand an attempt by Churchill to come along as well. “An invitation would not be opportune,” the Kaiser instructed the German Foreign Office, but “an official enquiry by the British as to whether Mr. Churchill and his colleagues in the Admiralty would be welcome…would be received with pleasure.”51

Making a virtue of necessity, Wilhelm even offered to invite Churchill through his brother, Grand Admiral Prince Henry of Prussia. “The Emperor wishes it to be understood,” Prince Henry told the British ambassador, “that he has invited the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Sea Lords to Kiel officially, and that he hoped that at all events both Mr. Churchill and [First Sea Lord] Prince Louis of Battenberg would be present during the Kiel week.”52 This sudden reversal was reported to Churchill by the British naval attaché in Berlin:

[What Prince Henry] wanted me to convey to you clearly was that the Emperor will undoubtedly be hurt if you and at least another of the Board [of Admiralty] do not appear. Prince Henry indicated that the Emperor would like to welcome H.R.H. Prince Louis of Battenberg, and gave me to understand that His Majesty is straightforwardly anxious to exhibit every friendliness on this occasion. To make a long story short, what is evidently hoped for is that you and the First Sea Lord will both be at Kiel in the [Admiralty yacht] “Enchantress.”53

With every intention to press his luck, Churchill worked up a four-point arms-control agenda, topped by the Naval Holiday proposal. He thought the two nations might further agree to limitations in the size of capital ships and, to reduce the danger of surprise attack, a way to lower “the unwholesome concentration of fleets in Home Waters.” Another discussion topic was the development of confidence-building measures—formal procedures for mutual inspections—which “would go a long way to stopping the espionage on both sides which is the continued cause of suspicion and ill-feeling.” Churchill later wrote that these topics, if discussed and “agreed upon, would make for easement and stability.”54

But Churchill’s agenda stood no better chance than before. Neither Tirpitz nor Kaiser Wilhelm had changed their views in the slightest. Indeed they wanted to make additions to German naval strength during the spring of 1914, Tirpitz to increase readiness for a “lightning-fast offensive.” Tirpitz was asking for an extra 150–200 million marks over and above the budget already allotted. Bethmann Hollweg, citing both diplomatic and financial considerations, fended off these requests.55 But Tirpitz and the Emperor were only waiting for a suitable occasion to beat down his opposition and increase the threat posed by the German fleet to Britain.

The Kaiser made this clear when he wrote Bethmann Hollweg in the spring of 1914: “I wish to see the whole endless and dangerous subject of limitation of armaments rolled up and put away for good. What it comes to finally is that England is protesting against my right to decide on the sea power required by Germany.”56

British Ambassador Goschen reported that Churchill’s scheme was not liked “ostensibly because the idea is unworkable—but really I expect, because it is an offer which they can’t very well accept—and which may make them liable to be told later by us—‘We have made you an offer and you wouldn’t accept it.’”57

Ambassador Lichnowsky, reporting back from London, warned his government on 10 May 1914: The First Lord “will probably come [to Kiel] on board his yacht, accompanied by a few Sea Lords and his beautiful and charming wife,” he wrote. “Churchill is an exceedingly crafty fox and is sure to try to spring some proposal or other on us….As a politician he is somewhat fantastic and unreliable.”58 Nevertheless, Lichnowsky could not “imagine that it would do any harm, unless we start discussing unnecessary stuff with him.” Lichnowsky volunteered to warn Churchill “that it would be better for him not to refer to the Naval Holiday or other nonsense of that kind.”59

One can imagine Churchill’s response to Prince Lichnowsky’s characterization of his number-one agenda item. But the German ambassador’s opinion accurately reflected German government opinion.

Churchill, of course, was a realist who harbored few illusions. “I do not expect,” he admitted, “any agreement on these [holiday proposals], but I would like to strip the subject of the misrepresentation and misunderstanding with which it has been surrounded, and put it on a clear basis in case circumstances should ever render it admissible.” If he could not convince the Germans, he could still use their refusal to help beat back political opposition to naval spending. “I hope,” Churchill wrote Grey and Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, “in view of the very strong feeling there is about naval expenditure and the great difficulties I have to face, my wish to put these points to Admiral Tirpitz…may not be dismissed.”60

His colleagues were unconvinced. Although Grey had been informed of the back-channel attempt by Ballin and Cassel to open talks, and approved the British squadron’s visit to Kiel, he was taken aback when Goschen’s telegram arrived inviting Churchill. “This will never do at the present moment,” Grey wrote on the telegram, “and there was, so I understood, no question of the First Lord and the First Sea Lord going with the fleet.”61 Only two weeks before, Grey had received a note from Churchill saying that a visit by him to Germany during the Kiel festivities was “impracticable.”62

So Grey applied the brakes. Instead of a summit at Kiel, Grey suggested that the two sides explore ways to reduce the naval rivalry by opening talks at a much lower level, involving the naval attachés in London and Berlin. If these negotiations showed promise, then, Grey thought, higher-level meetings could take place.

Of course Grey also saw in Churchill’s initiative a challenge to his control over Britain’s foreign policy. And he didn’t like it. Grey had proven a shrewd turf fighter, holding on to the reins of power for over eight years, including previous efforts by Churchill to get around the Foreign Office. 63 In his reply to Churchill’s request to negotiate with German leaders, a glimmer of testiness is evident: “I put this [alternative approach, i.e., talks between naval attachés] forward with diffidence as it is out of my sphere.”

Prime Minister Asquith backed Grey in rejecting a visit by Churchill to Germany.64 Goschen was duly instructed to inform the Germans that Churchill and Battenberg would not accompany the British squadron. “His Majesty quite understood the situation,” Goschen reported, “and expressed his regret that [they] could not come in the most friendly manner.”65

Well aware of Churchill’s reputation for persistence, the German government remained unsure whether a visit might occur. According to Ballin, “Churchill sent word that, if Tirpitz really wanted to see him, he would find [a] means to bring about such a meeting.” The Germans even reserved a mooring spot for Enchantress, just in case the First Lord crossed over the North Sea.66 But the Kaiser and Tirpitz, wanting to avoid negotiations, made no further effort to entice Churchill into a visit that would likely have caused a Cabinet uproar.

In Retrospect

German intransigence doomed Churchill’s Naval Holiday from becoming the basis for serious negotiations. Undoubtedly, domestic politics played a role. Yet Churchill had sought to rescue German leaders from a strategic trap that they had made for themselves. It was logical, he believed, to address head-on the naval rivalry that drove the antagonism between the two countries. But Berlin refused to consider restrictions on its naval buildup. Germany’s security and international standing depended on it, and that meant threatening Britain’s longstanding position as the world’s leading sea power.

The devotion of Wilhelm and Tirpitz to a powerful High Seas Fleet caused great harm, antagonizing even moderate British Liberals who generally opposed military spending. It brought Britain into the lists of countries that sought to contain the rise of German power. “With every rivet that von Tirpitz drove into his ships of war,” Churchill later wrote, “he united British opinion throughout wide circles of the most powerful people in every walk of life and in every part of the Empire. The hammers that clanged at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven were forging the coalition of nations by which Germany was to be resisted and finally overthrown.”67 Germany’s rulers would have better served their own interests, along with the well-being of the German people, had they worked with Churchill rather than trying to thwart him.

The opportunity for Britain and Germany to reach an agreement ended with the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914. Churchill’s proposal to visit Kiel, as it turned out, would have represented a last chance for high-level, face-to-face talks between British and German leaders. Instead, the two powers and others would settle their rivalry by fighting the greatest war up to that time of which history had record. To Churchill’s great credit, he had sought to prevent a clash—to negotiate a fair settlement to the naval competition and ways to make both countries more secure. At the same time, in preparing the Royal Navy for the coming trial of strength, Churchill made a vital contribution to the ultimate victory of British arms.

Dr. Maurer is the Alfred Thayer Mahan Professor of Sea Power and Grand Strategy at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and the author or editor of books examining the outbreak of the First World War, military interventions in the developing world, naval arms control between the two world wars, and Churchill’s views on British foreign policy and grand strategy. A longer version of this article appears in the Naval War College Review, Summer 2014.


1. Notation by Grey on Cartwright to Grey, 24 February 1911, Foreign Office Papers 371/1123, ff. 51–53A, The National Archives, Kew, UK [hereinafter TNA].

2. A. J. P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848–1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 501–02; Lichnowsky to Bethmann Hollweg, 30 April 1913, in Die grosse Politik der europäischen Kabinette, 1871–1914, eds. Johannes Lepsius, Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and Friedrich Thimme (Berlin: Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft für Politik und Geschichte, 1927) [hereinafter G.P.], vol. 39, no. 15,572, 38–39.

3. Churchill to Grey, 24 October 1913, in G.P. Gooch and Harold Temperley, eds., British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898–1914, (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1930) [hereinafter British Documents], vol. 10, part 2, no. 487, 721.

4. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911–1914 (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1923), 72, 148.

5. Churchill to William Royle, 20 December 1911, in Randolph S. Churchill, ed., Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume II, Part 2, 1907–1911 (London: Heinemann, 1969) [hereinafter Companion II/2], 1360–61.

6. “Government Policy and the Foreign Situation, 14 August 1908” in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897–1963, 8 vols., (New York: Bowker, 1974) [hereinafter Speeches], II 1082–87.

7. Churchill, “Free Trade,” 4 August 1908, in Speeches II 1081–82.

8. Bernard Brodie, War and Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 319.

9. Figures culled from Viscount Hythe and John Leyland, eds., The Naval Annual, 1914 (London: William Clowes, 1914), 76, 83.

10. Churchill, World Crisis, 20–21.

11. Churchill to Grey, 9 September 1909, enclosing a note on a conversation with the German ambassador, Companion II/1, 958–61.

12. Churchill to Fisher, 19 February 1912, in Churchill, World
Crisis, 107–08.

13. Churchill to J. L. Garvin, 10 August 1912, Garvin Papers, Harry Ransom Humanities Center, University of Texas at Austin.

14. Churchill, World Crisis, 107–08.

15. Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 5th series, vol. 34, cols. 1340–41, and vol. 35, col. 35.

16. Churchill, World Crisis, 112.

17. Arthur J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), I 285.

18. Churchill to Grey, 24 October 1913, British Documents, vol. 10, part 2, no. 487, 721.

19. Churchill, “Memorandum on Naval Estimates 1913-14,” 24 December 1912, TNA, Admiralty Papers 116/1294B, 6.

20. Parliamentary Debates, 5th series, vol. 50, cols. 1749–91.

21. See Grey to Goschen, 5 March 1913, British Documents, vol. 10, part 2, no. 465, 687–88.

22. G.P., vol. 39, 48 note.

23. Goschen to Grey, 3 July 1913, British Documents, vol. 10, part 2, no. 480, 705–06. Grey sided with Churchill; his support cleared the way for a renewed offer for a naval holiday; see Minute by Churchill, 8 July 1913, ibid., no. 481, 706–07. For Grey’s support, see Grey to Goschen, 28 October 1913, ibid., no. 488, 722.

24. Alfred von Tirpitz, Der Aufbau der deutschen Weltmacht, 2 vols. (Stuttgart: J.G. Cottasche, 1924), I 396.

25. G.P., vol. 39, 39–46.

26. Speeches, II 2173–76; “Mr. Churchill in Manchester,” The Times, 20 October 1913, 9–10.

27. Goschen to Grey, 22 October 1913, British Documents, vol. 10, part 2, no. 485, 719.

28. British Documents, vol. 10, part 2, no. 502, enclosure 2, 739.

29. Grey to Goschen, 8 August 1912, British Documents, vol. 10, part 2, no. 451, 655–57.

30. Prince Lichnowsky, My Mission to London, 1912–1914 (New York: George H. Doran, [1918]), 22–23 [emphasis original].

31. Goschen to Grey, 8 November 1913, British Documents, vol. 10, part 2, no. 489, 723.

32. Tirpitz, Aufbau der deutschen Weltmacht, I 422.

33. Grand-Admiral [Alfred] von Tirpitz, My Memoirs, 2 vols. (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1919), vol. 1, 208.

34. Report of Captain Müller, 30 March 1914, G.P., vol. 39, 86–99.

35. Tirpitz, Aufbau der deutschen Weltmacht, I 395.

36. V. R. Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914 (New York: St. Martin’s, 1973), 129.

37. House Diary, 23 May 1914, Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

38. Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 188.

39. The Times, 28 March 1913, 11–12.

40. National Review 62, no. 369 (November 1913), 368.

41. The Times, 21 October 1913, 8.

42. Minute by Eyre Crowe, on Goschen to Grey, 10 February 1914, British Documents, vol. 10, part 2, no. 501, 737.

43. Goschen to Nicolson, 24 October 1913, British Documents, vol. 10, part 2, no. 486, 720.

44. Goschen to Grey, 3 July 1913, British Documents, vol. 10, part 2, no. 480, 705–706.

45. Esher to Stamfordham, 26 October 1913, Oliver Esher and M. V. Brett, eds., Journals and Letters of Reginald Viscount Esher 1860–1915, 3 vols. (London: Nicholson and Watson, 1938), III 142.

46. H.H. Asquith, The Genesis of the War (London: Cassell, 1923), 107, 144.

47. F.W. Wiemann, “Lloyd George and the Struggle for the Navy Estimates of 1914,” in A. J. P. Taylor, ed., Lloyd George: Twelve Essays (New York: Atheneum, 1971), 71–91.

48. Bernhard Huldermann, Albert Ballin (London: Cassell and Company, 1922), 192.

49. Churchill to Grey, 8 May 1914, in Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume II, Part 3 (London: Heinemann, 1969) [hereinafter Companion II/3], 1977.

50. Watson to Goschen, “Remarks of His Majesty the Emperor to Naval Attaché,” 12 May 1913, British Documents, vol. 10, part 2, no. 475, 701. Despite the Kaiser’s assertion to the contrary, Churchill did receive an invitation to the German army maneuvers in 1909; see WSC to his mother, 4 August 1909, in Companion II/2, 903.

51. Karl Georg von Treutler, diplomat and adviser to the Kaiser, to German Foreign Office, 27 April 1914, G.P., vol. 39, 100.

52. Goschen to Grey, 18 May 1914, in British Documents, vol. 10, part 2, no. 509, 744–45.

53. Captain Henderson to Churchill, 16 May 1914, CHAR 13/45, Churchill College Archives, Cambridge, U.K.

54. Churchill to Asquith and Grey, 20 May 1914, in Companion II/3, 1978–80.

55. On German armaments policy, see David Stevenson, Armaments and the Coming of War: Europe, 1904–1914 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 339–40.

56. Wilhelm to Bethmann Hollweg, 9 February 1914, in E.T.S. Dugdale, German Diplomatic Documents, vol. 4: The Descent to the Abyss, 1911-1914 (London: Methuen, 1931), 320.

57. Goschen diary entry, 26 March 1914, in Christopher H.D. Howard, ed., The Diary of Edward Goschen, 1900–1914 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1980), 268.

58. Lichnowsky to Jagow, 10 May 1914, in Prince Lichnowsky, Heading for the Abyss: Reminiscences (London: Constable, 1928), 346–48.

59. Lichnowsky to Jagow, 26 May 1914, ibid., 346–47.

60. Churchill to Asquith and Grey, 20 May 1914, in Companion II/3, 1978–80.

61. Minute by Grey on Goschen to Grey, 18 May 1914, British Documents, vol. 10, part 2, no. 509, 745.

62. Churchill to Grey, 8 May 1914, in Companion II/3, 1977.

63. Lloyd George, for example, when he visited Germany during the summer of 1908, had sought high-level negotiations. Grey, in response, complained to Asquith about this interference in the running of British foreign policy. The interview given by Lloyd George and published on New Year’s Day, 1914 also elicited a response by Grey. Lloyd George supported Churchill’s visit to Kiel.

64. Memorandum by Grey, 25 May 1914, British Documents, vol. 10, part 2, no. 512, 748–49.

65. Since no formal invitation was sent by the German government—only the statement of Prince Henry to Goschen—there was some confusion over whether Churchill had actually been invited and about how to respond. The German Embassy in Britain, for example, was unclear about the visit, apparently not knowing of Prince Henry’s invitation. Lichnowsky told Churchill’s mother at a dinner party that the German government “had not invited him [Churchill], but that should he decide to come, he might be sure of a cordial reception”; Lichnowsky to Jagow, 26 May 1914, in Lichnowsky, Reminiscences, 346–47. Goschen, consequently, tactfully used the occasion of a state luncheon to talk directly to the Kaiser about the matter. First, however, Goschen ascertained that Wilhelm had indeed instructed Prince Henry to offer a verbal invitation. The British ambassador then informed the Kaiser—no doubt to his great relief—that Churchill would be unable to visit Kiel; Goschen to Grey, 3 June 1914, British Documents, vol. 10, part 2, no. 515, 750.

66. Huldermann, Albert Ballin, 192; Churchill requested information about how quickly Enchantress could reach Kiel; see J.D. Allen, handwritten letter, 7 May 1914, CHAR 13/45, Churchill College Archives, Cambridge, U.K.

67. Churchill, World Crisis, 115.

A tribute, join us




Get the Churchill Bulletin delivered to your inbox once a month.