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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

The Panther became a pawn in a much larger game of international chess that involved threats and counter threats. Instead of a quarrel between France and Germany, Britain not only became an unwilling party, but ended up trading invectives with Berlin, sparked by an uncharacteristically warlike speech by Lloyd George (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) delivered at London’s Mansion House that not only rejected German claims but asserted that Britain would go to war if necessary to protect her (and France’s) rights. Should it be necessary, that war would not only be on the sea but also include the dispatch of an expeditionary force to the European continent. An equally belligerent Kaiser Wilhelm interpreted Lloyd George’s speech as highly provocative and an implicit support for France to resist German intentions that was dangerous to the peace of Europe, and recalled his ambassador, Count Metternich. It was, wrote Churchill, “a thunder-clap to the German Government.” Writing after World War I, Churchill thought that, “It now seems probable that the Germans did not mean war on this occasion. But they meant to test the ground; and in so doing were prepared to go to the very edge of the precipice.” (4)

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The Kaiser later told General Sir John French at the annual war maneuvers that Britain and Germany were natural allies and should stand shoulder to shoulder against the real threat of the future which was racial, in particular the “Yellow Peril;” however if Britain interfered with Germany she would pay the price. The Kaiser also gave French a photograph of himself, jocularly noting: “Here is your arch enemy, here is the disturber of the peace in Europe.” (5)

No one in London saw the humor in this remark. Churchill later reflected on the not unreasonable existing belief that war was unthinkable. Surely, civilization had progressed beyond that point in a new century where nations were more and more dependent upon one another for commerce and that common sense had now made such nightmares ludicrous. Nevertheless, at the time, behind the scenes, Churchill was belligerent over Agadir and penned a note to his wife, Clementine, who was vacationing on England’s south coast, that Britain was responding with “pretty plain language to Germany . . . to tell her that if she thinks Morocco can be divided up without John Bull, she is jolly well mistaken.” (6)

War was avoided and although the crisis passed without further talk or threat of war, the incident left Britain more mistrustful than ever of future German intentions and determined to build and maintain a fleet of superior size just in case. It certainly left Churchill deeply concerned. What no one quite fully grasped – but which would become glaringly clear in 1914 – was the fragile nature of Great Power relations: that if war could ensue over a relatively trivial incident like Agadir, other circumstances might easily ignite conflict. Nor was it helpful that Agadir left Germany the loser in a chess move that failed. [Foreign Secretary] “Sir Edward Grey called it ‘almost a fiasco for Germany; out of this mountain of German-made crisis came a mouse of colonial territory in Africa.’” Important heads rolled in Berlin as criticism swelled and the Colonial Secretary resigned rather than defend the decision to the Reichstag. (7)

Agadir also stirred Churchill into thoughts of war and a flurry of activity. Although his duties as Home Secretary had little to do with war planning, that hardly dissuaded him from developing a war strategy for Britain. The result was a plan of action for how a war with Germany would play out that Churchill presented to the Committee of Imperial Defense. His central thesis was that the French Army was not strong enough to be able to invade Germany; therefore, “Her only chance is to conquer Germany in France.” With a superior military force of numbers, the Germans, (2.2 million vs. 1.7 million), he wrote, would attack France and break their defenses of the River Meuse by D+20 days. The French would fall back to defend Paris and be augmented by the dispatch of 107,000 British troops upon a declaration of war, and another 100,000 to be sent from India to arrive in France no later than D+40. Eventually, France would prevail in “a decisive trial of strength.” Churchill went on to outline measures to be taken for home defense of Britain. This paper was one of the most important documents he ever wrote and included a detailed analysis of how the German advance would be slowed and ultimately stopped short of Paris.

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