Book review: “Planning Armageddon”


HMS Dreadnought, 1906

Review by Len Shurtleff

President, World War One Historical Association

Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War, Nicholas A. Lambert, Harvard, 2012, 651 + xii pages, index, map, abbreviations, notes, ISBN 978 0 674 06149 1. The author won the 2000 Tomlinson Book Prize for his work Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (Cambridge, 1999).

This is the first complete history I have seen to trace the evolution of British economic warfare policy from its inception in the early 1900s to the end of the Great War. It is a massive work, carefully researched and eminently readable. It is the story of how British Admiralty planners convinced their political masters that the use of economic warfare on an unprecedented scale could defeat Germany. This strategy called for Great Britain to use her virtual monopolies international banking, communications and shipping – essential infrastructure underpinning international trade in this first era of globalization – to create a controlled economic implosion. The author argues, not unconvincingly, that historians have consistently underestimated the role of economic warfare in bringing Germany to her knees by 1918.

The fact remains that resort to the economic weapon reflected British military weakness and economic vulnerability. Though the City of London controlled world trade, Britain was a net importer of food, oil and raw materials utterly dependent on imports. By the early 1900s its industrial power had been eclipsed by Germany and America. While the British army was puny, the Royal Navy with its global system of bases was undeniably the strongest in the world as was Britain’s huge, modem merchant fleet. Thus, when war brokeout in August 1914, the UK was able to react immediately, putting into effect a wide range of pre-agreed measures, including blockade, to cut off German international commerce, communications and sources of finance.

Unfortunately, these measured aroused immediate and loud opposition not only from powerful trade and financial interests at home, but also from powerful neutral powers such as America. Britain was obliged to back off. Indeed, as Lambert sees it, US pressure was a key factor in an 18-month delay in imposing full economic sanctions and maritime blockade on Germany.         In fact, German trade continued to grow until early 1916 and the blockade only became fully effective only after America entered the war in April 1917.

The fact that British historians have largely failed to plumb the depths this key element of warfare from 1914 to 1918 is partly the result of official secrecy. Many archives were not opened until the 1960s and contemporary official historians were discouraged from telling the full story by skittish politicians. Winston Churchill, for example, glosses over economic warfare in his published works on World War One. Now that lacuna has been filled.