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Posted on Nov 25, 2007 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Agadir and Churchill’s Prediction

By Carlo D'Este

This article has been condensed from the unedited manuscript of my forthcoming biography of WARLORD: Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, to be published in the summer of 2008 by HarperCollins and in the UK by Penguin. History abounds with events, which in retrospect are benchmarks that assume far greater importance over the course of time. One such event occurred in July 1911 at Agadir, off the western coast of Morocco. At the time it involved Winston Churchill only peripherally. Later, it led Churchill to make an astonishing prediction – which is the subject of this month’s article.

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By 1900, an increasingly aggressive Germany had assembled the most dominant army of the great powers. At first, her new militarism and expanding modern navy seemed to pose no threat to Britain, and it was not until well into the first decade of the twentieth century that it finally became apparent that the German fleet posed a genuine danger in the event of war. Kaiser Wilhelm II had begun his reign as more of an amateur than a true leader, but had become a genuine menace.

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The Kaiser’s intentions were Machiavellian. As historian Robert K. Massie explains, for some years Wilhelm II and his government were deluded by the notion that “the most effective way of turning a neighbor into a friend was to frighten him,” and by so doing “cherished the belief that they could both build a powerful fleet and draw Great Britain into an alliance.” Even more bizarre was the Kaiser’s perception that the British would both respect and fear Germany, “and offer friendship – a friendship in which Germany would be the dominant partner. This proved a catastrophic misunderstanding of the psychology of Britons, to whom command of the sea remained a greater necessity than any Continental alliance.” (1)

Nor did it ease growing British concerns when, in 1904, the Kaiser dubbed himself “The Admiral of the Atlantic.” The decade between 1904 and 1914 “witnessed a naval race between the British and Germans, in which battleships increased in size by 60 percent and the British eventually mounted on their battleships 15-inch guns firing shells weighing 1,920 pounds each.” (2)

In 1906, Britain upped the stakes by turning out the first of the dreadnoughts, modern new battle cruisers armed with bigger and deadlier guns and faster speeds than the slower and now obsolete battleships. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the modern German navy, regarded the new British dreadnoughts as a hostile act. Germany responded at once and a naval rivalry now existed in earnest, with each nation regarding the other’s actions as provocative.

A growing unease over Germany’s increasingly aggressive posture and her openly worsening relations with France blossomed into an international incident in July 1911 at Agadir, a port city situated far down Morocco’s Atlantic coast. Agadir became the focus of a potentially dangerous confrontation when Germany dispatched the gunboat Panther to protect what was alleged to be German business interests there. The use of gunboat diplomacy by Germany was a leaf taken directly from the British book, and a measure of the bad temper of the times that Agadir became an international incident that led to threats of retribution and even war. Such was the already precarious mood of the European powers that the movement of a puny gunboat caused such alarm in its capitals that it would precipitate what came to be known as the “Agadir Crisis.” As Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, later wrote, “All the alarm bells throughout Europe began immediately to quiver.” (3)

Under the terms of a 1904 treaty between Britain and France, Morocco was part of France’s sphere of influence, and any attempt by Germany to establish a commercial or military presence there was deemed a threat to both nations. Thus, a Franco-German problem such as this one indirectly but inevitably involved Britain.

agadir.jpg
The gunship Panther.

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