Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 29, 2014

Blogging World War I: July 29, 1914: The British Fleet Prepares for War

July 29, 1914 – GREAT BRITAIN – At this point, the British Empire is not at war. Nor are France, Germany, or Russia – not yet at any rate. Austria has declared war on little Serbia, but, strictly speaking, Britain has very little strategic stake in the Balkans, and the fate of Serbia has a very tenuous connection to Britain’s national interest, if that. A large European war is coming, everyone agrees – but it’s still possible that Britain might sit this one out, just as the island nation did during the Franco-Prussian War some 44 years earlier.

Nevertheless, if Britain does enter the war in the next few days or weeks, it should take steps now to make sure that its armed forces are ready when the word Go comes. Such, anyway, is the thinking of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty in Henry Asquith’s Liberal government.

A few days earlier, on Sunday, July 26, the Royal Fleet was completing previously scheduled maneuvers, with full crews at war strength. The ships were due to disperse at 0700 on July 27, some to home ports, some to other exercises at sea. The fleet would disperse, and for the ships returning to port, the crews too would disperse, some for leave, others for training schools or other assignments. On July 26, Churchill sent an order that the fleet should not disperse. So matters stood for two days.

From Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (p. 93):

Holding the fleet together was not enough; it must be got, as Churchill expressed it in capitals, to its “War Station.” The primary duty of a fleet, as Admiral Mahan, the Clauswitz of naval warfare, had decreed, was to remain “a fleet in being.” In the event of war the British fleet, upon which an island nation depended for its life, had to establish and maintain mastery of the ocean trade routes; it had to protect the British Isles from invasion; it had to protect the Channel and the French coasts in fulfillment of the pact with France; it has to keep concentrated in sufficient strength to win any engagement if the German fleet sought battle; and above all it had to guard itself against that new and menacing weapon of unknown potential, the torpedo. The fear of a sudden, undeclared torpedo attack haunted the Admiralty.

On July 28 Churchill gave orders for the fleet to sail to its war base at Scapa Flow, far to the north at the tip of mist-shrouded Orkney in the North Sea.

The fleet set sail from Portland for Scapa Flow on July 29.

(It’s not clear to me how the British fleet was supposed to “protect the Channel and the French coasts” from Scotland, but then, I’m not an expert in naval warfare.)

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