WW1 Naval Blockade of Germany sabotaged by Foreign Office?


Book Reviewer
I'm becomming quite a fan of looking into the Foreigner's Office and their ineptitude, though this one truly gasted my flabber.

The recently deceased Eric Groves talking about the effectiveness of the blockade in a seminar here, you can get the jist from the first few minutes though some of the responses from the Q+A session towards the end are fascinating too.

So neutral shipping to the Nordics, or even oil tankers destined for Germany itself, were stopped by Andrew in the Atlantic... Taken into port with a foreign office committee of unknown composition then deciding to let them carry on their merry way instead of confiscating the valuable cargoes as contraband!

The Nordic countries expected us to stop this trade. Though it appears it was only American influence and their submarine campaign much later in the war which finally did to any extent. Even during the unrestricted part Danish ships were unmolested. British coal being exported to help move goods to break the blockade, german shells with copper bands sourced from ourselves being used against us in the trenches...

There is a Hansard debate on such here..

Some quotes..

"that it is not altogether a good thing that the Ministry of Blockade should be identified with the Foreign Office. That is a feeling which it is well to keep in mind, and it is well to meet that objection, because it is a strenuously held opinion in many circles."

"I think I may say without exaggeration that in the earlier part of the War the extent to which the neutral countries were supplying Germany with food and materials was an absolute scandal."

"There is a widespread feeling that when we want feeding stuffs so badly here in England we should be very slow to enter into any arrangements or to favour any measures which facilitated the importation of feeding stuffs from foreign countries into neutral countries which were afterwards, in another shape or form, going to feed our enemies, and that is unquestionably what does take place at the present time."

"but there is a general feeling abroad that the blockade so far has been a side-show of the Foreign Office rather than one of the main branches of our war activity."

"They were bringing in day after day ships which were admittedly were carrying cargo to the benefit of the enemy. It is on record that day after day and week after week they brought in those ships. What happened? A telegram was sent to London to the Foreign Office, and in reply, often in the course of a few hours, a telegram came informing them that they ought to let that ship go through, for some explanation, or for some reasons which no doubt were considered satisfactory by the Foreign Office, but which tended to make our sailors absolutely depressed and in despair. It is the fact that for months at a time the officers themselves absolutely refused to take ships into port. They used to send junior officers and midshipmen, who took the ships into the harbour, and, treating the matter jocularly, told the Harbour Master to let the ships away in a few hours to Germany. The whole thing was treated as a farce, though ship after ship, to the knowledge of the officers, carried goods for Germany."

"But those were the fatal months of the War. Those were the months that might almost have ended the War by the present time ( Note:: March 1917). Why it took us about nine months' agitation to induce them to make cotton contraband. There are some who say it does not matter, that that has been done even now, and there is a case to put forward in justification of that, although I think it is not convincing."

Nobody in the bloody foreign office had heard of gun cotton?!? He goes on to descibe how a fine of £25000 was levied on a company which had made £75000 profit on their trade. Equivalent to about £68million today.

Indeed Groves continues to say that an enquiry was set up... The Dunhill enquiry into trading with the enemy? But that it's evidence and findings were destroyed.

Consett's book is available online... Haven't had a chance to read beyond the preface, though it is damning.

It was not the friction caused by our trade and the
consequent attitude of America towards the subject
of our maritime rights ; but it was chiefly our trade
itself with Germany's neutral neighbours that under-
mined the power of the fleet, succoured our enemies
and nearly led to our defeat.

Groves thought there was a whiff of scandal about all of this...

I'd consider that to be masterful understatement.
Whom or what stood to make the greatest profit / leverage /influence if this is more a case of conspiracy as opposed to cock - up?


Book Reviewer
Whom or what stood to make the greatest profit / leverage /influence if this is more a case of conspiracy as opposed to cock - up?

Good question. Our ambassador to Sweden at the time seems like a truly ineffectual fellow...

"and in 1913 he was transferred to Stockholm, where he spent the whole of the First World War. During World War I, Sweden leaned in a pro-German neutrality and Howard's time as the British minister in Stockholm was a difficult one with the Swedish leaders openly expressing their hopes for a German victory.[7] In an attempt to counter-act the pro-German sympathies of the Swedish elite, Howard sought to broaden his social contacts in Sweden, meeting with journalists, union leaders, businessmen, academics, clergymen, soldiers, and any local anglophiles in order to explain to them the British viewpoint.[9] In 1916, having already been appointed CMG and CVO ten years earlier, he was knighted as KCMG, becoming KCB three years later."

Gongs are often a sign of silence.

Denmark were clearly impressed by the ambassador we sent them...

"The Danish government awarded him the Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog."


"[Johnstone] held the belief that his duty lay in keeping a good and hospitable table in the country where he was stationed, and arranging for its notables to engage in golf tournaments with their British equivalents; and if he did that, the negotiation of rather dreary affairs, such as trade pacts, would prove a simple matter for those who understood them better than he did. The success of his missions proved that there was much to be said for this policy..."

Quite how 'success' is judged here is interesting.

As Grove points out whilst there has been some limited enquiry as to the double neutral trade ( for instance from the USA to Sweden etc) there has been practically none on our own exports to the neutrals, and who benefitted, and to what tune. Germany would pay three times the market rate and it seems this was the topic of the Dunhill (?) commission whose findings were destroyed.....

Consett makes reference to this trade with specific examples..

It may not be generally known in official circles,
but it is nevertheless a fact that among a large
section of American business men very bitter feeling
exists against England because they believe that
during 1915-16-17 while interfering with American
exports to Scandinavia and Holland we were our-
selves exporting to these countries similar goods
which either reached the enemy directly or indirectly.
For instance they say that, while we refused to
allow the International Harvester Company to
supply Denmark with agricultural machinery,
British agricultural machinery was reaching Den-
mark and in some cases was being discharged from
ships straight into German railway trucks for transit
to Germany. "

If the statistics of imports to
Denmark for the year 1917 are carefully studied any
uninstructed person would be tempted to assume
that we had started the blockade at America's

There seems to be lots of Harrow, Charterhouse, Balliol and the like connections so my initial suspicion would be that rather than seeking to enforce the blockade these foreign office types were actually greasing the wheels such that their bumchums in industry could profiteer at three times the normal, though elevated, market price.

They were, afterall, somewhat unlikely to end up in the trenches facing the results of their profits.

Who ran the industries which were benefitting and how did the foreign office run interference for them such that they could increase blockade busting exports at the expense of neutral countries?