Divided Attention: Britain’s Perception of a German Threat to Her Eastern Position in 1918

By Benjamin Schwarz
Volume 28 (Winter 1993) Journal of Contemporary History



The British Empire is impervious to the great land forces of continental nations   except in one point – India. Here alone can a fatal blow be dealt us. The loss of  India by conquest would be a death blow to our prosperity, prestige, and power.’ (1)


While British statesmen had committed their country to war in 1914 largely to preserve the balance of power in Europe, throughout the First World War Britain’s concern for continental affairs was seen largely through the prism of her imperial interests. The most compelling argument for the participation of Britain and the Dominions in a European war, made by Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey in 1911, was that the Royal Navy could not maintain command of the seas against a hostile power dominant in Europe.  Hence the preponderance of one continental state, Grey argued, would mean the irrevocable shattering of the British imperial system.(2)  Until the end of 1917, London regarded this loss of naval supremacy as the most serious ramification of a German hegemony on the continent for Britain’s imperial interests. Following Russia’s collapse, however, the British came to regard a change in the European balance of power as having a far more direct impact on their imperial security. For several of the bleakest months of the war, the German   overland threat to India dominated Britain’s fears and came to be seen by many in official circles – and not just ‘imperialists’ – as the greatest danger to British security. These concerns illuminated the dichotomy – never resolved during the war – as well as the interdependence of Britain’s continental and extra-European strategic interests.

Up until just before the Great War, the defence of India, not of the European balance, was by far Britain’s most important overseas defence priority. The Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) assumed in 1907, despite the General Staffs inchoate plans, that the recently created Expeditionary Force was destined for India, not France;(3) and as late as October 1908 the CID envisioned Indian defence as the army’s only foreign role.(4) While there was doubt within the ‘official   mind’ before and during the war whether Britain’s essential strategic interests dictated a continental commitment, there was absolutely no   questioning the vital importance of defending India. For most of the war, Britain pursued her European and imperial defence interests simultaneously. With no immediate threat to her empire, London’s   imperial interests were considered best defended on the western front.   But what if Britain were forced to choose between France and India?   Or if the European balance were upset not in the west but in the east;   or if no decision on the western front would seem to influence   Germany’s threat to the empire? These were the dilemmas that   confronted British policy-makers during the first eight months of 1918. Attempting to resolve them left the British grasping at straws.

Britain had feared a German challenge to her eastern position since the Berlin-Baghdad Railway scheme. During the war, she conducted the Mesopotamian campaign to defend India’s western glacis against   the Turks and committed Allied troops to Salonika partially in the   hope that they could prevent the direct linking of the German and   Ottoman empires which would facilitate a German attack on Egypt or India.5 Although these efforts betrayed Britain’s anxiety, it was,   ironically, not the trouble she anticipated in the east, but the   breakdown of the European balance of power following Russia’s   collapse that fully awakened Britain’s fears of a German menace to her empire.

An impotent Russia posed a great danger to Britain’s eastern position, as Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, and the Secretary of State for India, Austen Chamberlain, recognized. On 22 March 1917, well before most British leaders appreciated the impact of the March   Revolution on Russia’s participation in the war, these ministers   warned the Imperial War Cabinet that Germany’s ambitions included expansion eastwards to the Persian Gulf and eventually to India   and the Far East. Germany’s success in achieving these objectives would alter the world balance of power, threatening the position not   only of the empire as a whole, but of its individual members as well.6   The failure of the Russian offensive in July 1917 prompted the   Director of Military Intelligence, General G.M.H. Macdonogh,to urge Britain to reassess her strategic options. Macdonogh, who had previously advocated the need for a strong post-war Germany to   counter Russia and France, now pleaded for the destruction of   Germany’s position in the Balkans and Middle East, arguing that   from these bases she would launch ‘the next struggle against the British Empire and for the mastery of the world’.7 When the   Bolshevik revolution dispelled any hopes of Russian resistance,   British alarm grew. In November 1917 Arnold Toynbee, then the   Foreign Office’s Political Intelligence Department’s Near Eastern   expert, warned that with Russia weakened, Germany had a new   means by which to threaten the east, not from the south but from the north:

The Berlin-Baghdad Railway may die, but the Berlin-Bokura line through Asia   Minor and Northern Persia will live. This is the new German ambition … this all-   land route would be a direct menace to the British position in the Persian Gulf, and   would seriously threaten India from the West and north-west.8

In early December 1917, the Bolshevik government of Russia and   the Central Powers began peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk which   pointed unmistakably to Germany’s imposing a conqueror’s peace   on Russia. At a meeting in Paris a ‘few days before Christmas,  Secretary of State for War, Lord Milner, and French representatives   discussed the broad implications of Russia’s collapse. Both countries   agreed that it was vastly more important to keep the Central Powers   out of southern than out of north Russia. Only in the south, the Allies   maintained, could the Central Powers obtain substantial supplies of   foodstuffs and raw materials to aid their present military efforts. The British and French representatives also looked beyond the immediate   military consequences of German expansion into southern Russia to an ominous future geopolitical situation in the east. If the Germans and Turks gained control in the south, the Allies asserted, there  would be no ‘barrier against the development of a Turanian  movement that will extend from Constantinople to China and will   provide Germany with a weapon of even greater danger to the peace   of the world than the control of the Baghdad Railway’.9

Many in London were still primarily concerned with the new   situation in the east in so far as it influenced the war in the west; in the   short run, Russia’s collapse enabled Germany to transfer a great   number of troops to the western front. For others, however, Russia’s   collapse marked a turning-point in the war by highlighting the   imperial aspect of the conflict and therefore necessitating a change in   Britain’s priorities from the west to the east. As Lord Curzon,   Chairman of the Eastern Committee, remarked in June 1918:

We are rather apt to look upon the collapse of Russia here in its effect upon the   military fortunes in the West. The collapse of Russia had, however, a wider   implication and far more serious consequences … The real and tragic nature of the   disaster in Russia was not so much the increase in forces to the Germans in the   West as it was opening of the East to a new campaign undertaken by her and her allies.’10

With the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and the corresponding   Treaty of Bucharest in May, Britain’s worst fears regarding German   ambitions in the east seemed to be confirmed. The Soviet government   abandoned its claim to all the western, non-Russian borderlands of   the Tsarist Empire including the Ukraine, together with some   territory in the Caucasus. As the British had predicted, Russia’s   collapse opened a northern route for Turco-German eastward   expansion by way of the Black Sea, the Caucasus and the Caspian,   rendering Britain’s Asian flank extraordinarily vulnerable. Germany,   as Fritz Fischer writes, saw southern Russia as ‘the bridge to Georgia,   Central Asia and India’.” As the Germans reached Odessa, anxiety   increased, fed by telegrams from the panicked government of India   which anticipated an immediate threat to India’s security. In an   alarmist memorandum, Balfour called for an investigation by the   General Staff into whether Germany could use her new-found rail   access to Odessa to send forces across the Black Sea to the Caucasus   and on to Central Asia and Afghanistan.12

In his reply, Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) Sir Henry   Wilson took a circumspect position in regard to the new German   threat. Wilson was quick to emphasize that there was no immediate   danger to India and pointed out that German control of Odessa did   not, in itself, radically alter the situation in the east; Germany for a   long time had had access to the Black Sea at Varna, Constanza and   Constantinople. While the Commander-in-Chief, India, was fran-   tically voicing concern over an imminent Turco-German invasion of   Afghanistan, Wilson noted that, given the logistical problems   involved in crossing northern Persia, lengthy preparations would be   necessary before the Central Powers could launch an attack in the   east and that Germany could not send an army there ‘for some time to   come’. Still, Wilson took a much broader view of the war than had his   predecessor, Sir William Robertson, and his eyes were not exclusively   focused on the western front. The CIGS argued that Germany’s major   objective before the war had been to threaten ‘the heart of the empire’   by establishing, via the Balkans, a position in Egypt and at the head of   the Persian Gulf. Though Germany now found herself debarred from   106   This content downloaded from on Thu, 29 May 2014 13:30:01 PM   All use subject to JSTOR Terms and ConditionsSchwarz: Divided Attention   these areas, Wilson asserted that her policy could continue by simply   substituting one means for another toward the same end. As the   British had anticipated, the collapse of Russia gave Berlin the   opportunity ‘to develop a new Drang nach Osten’ via a northern   route to India, and if Wilson believed that this posed no immediate   threat, he was not so complacent about its future repercussions. ‘It is   necessary’, Wilson asserted, ‘to take a wide view of the situation in   order to appreciate its dangers.’ This wide view appalled him: ‘We run   a grave risk of permitting the Germans to establish themselves in a   position which will eventually lead to the downfall of our Eastern   Empire.’

Wilson recommended a variety of measures as a counterpoise to the Turco-German threat, including an advance from Baghdad into north-west Persia and the dispatch of military missions to counter German agents and propaganda. Recognizing that the resources Britain was able to devote to the east did not match the gravity of the   threat, Wilson also emphasized above all other considerations the   need ‘to get Japan to join at once and to act with the greatest possible energy and with the greatest possible strength’.’3 As Britain’s fears for   her empire and her appreciation of the limits of her capabilities grew, she began to attach greater importance to inducing Japan to   intervene in Siberia, not, as Richard Ullman argues, to reconstruct an   eastern front to reverse the flow of troops from east to west, but as the   only way to check the Turco-German eastward advance.’4 ‘It was a   question of pulling Siberia out of the wreck in order to save India’, as   Wilson wrote.’5 Britain’s intense efforts to secure Japanese   intervention reflected not so much her concern for the western front as   her anxiety over her empire. ‘The Siberian cum Japanese situation’, Curzon stated, ‘was a matter of Imperial policy of the first moment.16

Wilson’s assessment was part of a barrage of memoranda concern-   ing the German threat to Britain’s eastern position throughout   March and early April. London’s obsession with creating, in the   words of Leopold Amery, Assistant Secretary to the War Cabinet, ‘a   barrier against the sphere of German power which will sufficiently   cover the Suez Canal, Persian Gulf and the frontier of India in a   military sense’,17 while Germany noisily massed equipment in the   west, seems extraordinarily inappropriate. General Sir Douglas   Haig, himself, commanding the British Expeditionary Force on the   continent, was not immune to the panic regarding the new threat to   India. In a meeting of the War Cabinet on 22 March:

Mr Balfour enquired what, in fact was the actual menace which the Military   Authorities so greatly feared. The DMI stated that Sir Douglas Haig, in a   conversation two days ago, had expressed the gravest possible views regarding the   situation in Persia and was of opinion that every town should be occupied by our   military forces and our position should be rendered absolutely secure, failing which   we must be prepared for the whole defence of the Khyber to be jeopardized, with   the subsequent loss of India.18



Britain’s response to the apparent geostrategic consequences of the Brest-Litovsk treaty, which seemed almost hysterical at times, would have been more balanced if her military resources had not been stretched to the limit. Policy-makers realized that they would have   great difficulty containing any enemy thrust, no matter how poorly   supported it might be. As Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office Lord Hardinge put it, Britain knew she was playing ‘a big game of bluff in southern Russia and Central Asia’. 19 Coupled with this   anxiety, the British feared and believed that a small number of   German and Turkish agents could spread calamitous political   disorder in Persia, Afghanistan and India. Furthermore, to a certain extent, British fears were aroused because Britain for so long had   been accustomed to anticipating an attack on her eastern empire from the borders of southern Russia; Germany simply replaced the Russian bogeyman. As Colonel A.W.F. Knox, former British   military attache to Russia, explained: ‘The Government of India has   worried for eighty years over the spectre of Russian invasion. It will in   future have something more real to fear, for German brains and energy are more effective than Russian.’20

As in December, the March memoranda regarding Germany’s threat to the empire display concern for the post-war geopolitical situation as well as for Germany’s immediate ambitions. Policy-makers feared that the war might end before either side had won a decisive victory in the west2′ and the chance of a compromise peace   meant that it was vital for Britain to achieve the best position possible in the east before the close of the war. While Germany might not   necessarily reach the borders of India by the end of the present conflict, she would try to expand far to the east to be in a position to   threaten the empire in the future. Amery stated that Germany had two goals in pursuing her eastern offensive: the first was immediate,  ‘to stir up trouble in Afghanistan, and so compel us to reinforce India and generally make us anxious for peace’, but the second was ‘looking more to the future than to bringing about military results in this war’.  London feared that Germany, after the war, would develop Asia Minor, Trans-Caucasia and Turkestan as a source of supply and a market, invulnerable to British seapower. In this case, Germany would emerge from the war stronger than ever, with a giant empire   looming over India;22 therefore, Britain was fighting not only for the immediate defence of India but for the terms of peace as well.23

By the middle of March, Germany’s threat to the east loomed so   large in the minds of many British policy-makers that their perception   of the nature and objectives of the entire war had changed.   Maintaining the balance of power in Europe would no longer be sufficient to secure British interests, for Germany now posed a direct   threat to Britain’s empire. ‘The pendulum of the war’, as Curzon stated forcefully to the Imperial War Council, ‘swinging so fiercely in   the west, is also swinging … increasingly towards the east.’24 On 20   March, Milner wrote to Prime Minister David Lloyd George:

I am getting very anxious indeed about the Eastern Front. Persia . . . is only an   incident. The question is really much larger than that. We have a new campaign,   which really extends from the Mediterranean shore of Palestine to the frontier of   India. It is no use thinking of it in bits … we alone have got to keep Southern Asia,   and we are lucky if our line only extends from the Mediterranean to the Caspian   and does not have to double back from the Caspian to the Himalayas. Note that,   according to one report, some Austrian prisoners have already turned up near   Meshed – in North-Eastern Persia! That shows what comes of the collapse of the   Power, which used to cover our whole Asian flank.25

Milner went on to compliment Lloyd George on ‘the instinct which led you all along to attach so much importance to the eastern   campaign and not to listen to our only strategists, who could see   nothing but the western front’.26 The following morning the Germans launched the greatest offensive of the war, on the western front.

By June the British were anticipating the utter ruin of the French army. According to Wilson, Haig believed that the reserves being sent   south to support the French sector were committed to a lost cause   since France was ‘beaten’. London even considered the possibility of   having to evacuate British forces from the continent.27 Wilson speculated in his diary entry of 1 June on the far-reaching consequences of a French defeat for Britain’s imperial security:

Writing now before breakfast, I find it difficult to realize that there is a possibility,  even a probability, of the French army being beaten. What would this mean? The   destruction of our army in France? In Italy? In Salonika? What of Palestine and Mesopotamia, India, Siberia and the sea?28

The awful connection between the defence of the European balance   of power and the empire was underscored in a memorandum on   Germany’s post-war ambitions written by the British Section of the   Supreme War Council in May. If France were eliminated from the   war, the authors matter-of-factly stated, the result for Britain ‘would   probably be disastrous … Egypt and England’s eastern possessions   would in the end be attacked also’.29 Even with Britain and France   confronting their greatest crisis since the Germans bore down on   Paris in 1914, London’s attention was divided, for the fall of Europe   would mean that the Central Powers could concentrate exclusively on   the empire. Britain’s troubles appeared to be just beginning, as   Milner explained to Lloyd George:

We must be prepared for France and Italy both being beaten to their knees. In that   case the German-Austro-Turco-Bulgar bloc will be master of all of Europe and   Northern and Central Asia .. .The fight will now be for Southern Asia.30

The future appeared grim. At best Britain could hope that France   would not be defeated. But even if France held, the Central Powers   could now afford to adopt a defensive posture in the west and, with   newly acquired reservoirs of raw materials and manpower, concen-   trate on exploiting and expanding their position in the east. On 5 July,   Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, assessed the likelihood of this course:

It is not absolutely certain that the most likely theatre in which the Germans can   obtain success is the east, and is it not humanly probable that they will naturally   seek to approach peace discussions after the obliteration of our gains of enemy   territory in Mesopotamia and Palestine, and if possible after some threat to our   territories in the east which might produce results comparable, if not equal, to the position which they have now established in the west?3′

Montagu’s memorandum broached again the problem that increasingly preoccupied soldiers and statesmen in the spring and summer of 1918. Even if German success in the east during the present war were limited, what would Britain’s imperial position be after the war? Had the empire any hope of a secure and lasting peace?

Those like Wilson who soberly recognized the limits of Germany’s capabilities and believed that many were unreasonably alarmed since there was no immediate danger to India, nevertheless realized that, barring a miracle, Germany would emerge from the war stronger than ever and would climb from strength to strength in the east. The strategic importance to Germany of her newly acquired territory in the Caucasus could be fully appreciated only from a ‘post-bellum standpoint’, a General Staff memorandum proclaimed, restating the warning Amery had issued in March. The Caucasus would supply Germany with ‘nearly every raw material she requires’ and would be   the source of exports which ‘would greatly improve her balance of trade’. In short, the Caucasus would vastly strengthen Germany and render her immune to British seapower. The report concluded that:

Finally and most important of all, the possession of the Caucasus would be yet   another step forward in the realisation of their eastern ambitions. A check has been   put on their Baghdad schemes; in the Caucasus they will find an alternative.32   While the western front could not be ignored and absorbed all   available men and equipment, Amery continued to assert that the   most serious challenge to Britain’s vital interests lay in the east. ‘As soon as this “little side show” in the west is over’, he wrote, ‘whether   the line gets stabilised or disappears altogether we shall have to take   the war for the mastery of Asia in hand seriously.. .’33

For Amery, the defence of Europe was merely the necessary duty demanded by a time-worn wife who, equipped with nothing but the force of   familiarity, could not hope to compete for the passionate attention inspired by that seductive mistress, the ‘Southern British World’.   Amery most thoroughly developed his views on the new dangers   Germany posed to British imperial security in a memorandum for the   Cabinet entitled ‘War Aims and Military Policy’, dated 15 June. He   began with a review of German Eastern European and world policies which emphasized the dangers of Berlin’s attempt to establish a world  empire and predicted that, if the Germans were as successful in the   west as they were in Russia, they would attempt to establish their hegemony from Antwerp to the Pamirs – or the Pacific- and from the Varanger Fjord to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Without   reckoning the forces available, Amery argued that Britain should above all else try to keep the German menace in the east ‘at arm’s   length’, since there was no chance of an immediate or decisive victory in Europe. Even if the German drive stalled in the west, he asserted, the Allies had ‘no reasonable prospect’ of ‘acquiring ascendancy over the Germans till the autumn of 1919 or the spring of 1920’. Most   important, he made clear, was that Britain should eject the Turks from Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia, secure Persia, take part or   the whole of the Caucasus and Armenia and, with the assistance of   111   Japan and the United States, draw a line in Russia ‘at the Urals or bent back toward the Yensisev or even Lake Baikal’ as a front to   ‘mark the future boundary between the German and Allied sphere of   influence and power’.34 Ultimately, Amery was arguing that the war   was for world power, and hence, in British terms, a monumental imperial struggle.

Although he could not dismiss the war in the west so easily, Wilson   lent his support to Amery’s view of the east in a lecture to the Prime   Ministers of the Dominions. Wilson was of two minds regarding the   German threat in the east. Painfully aware of Britain’s limited   capability, he continued to display little patience for the government   of India’s alarmist demands for additional troops to defend against   the German attack it perceived as imminent and instead focused his   attention on the present military situation in France;35 yet the concern   he had felt in March for the post-war geopolitical situation in the east had only increased, although he could see little that Britain could do   immediately to improve it. On 18 June, using a map and pointer,   Wilson, who had argued most strenuously for assuming a continental   commitment before the war, discussed Britain’s strategic quandary:

As regards the future – I am speaking as a soldier- I want to see us established   along the Rhine; but it seems to me that if we do get ourselves into that pass, that is   not getting a real decision on this front [the East]. It seems to me we have got to get   a position on this side as well as on the west. If that is so, we have got to get   everybody to help, and we must get the Japanese. I can see no other way out of it. No   military decisions, as far as I can see, that we can get here now will settle the east.  It is for that reason that I think that between the days when all anxiety is passed, this   autumn, and the time when we throw down the glove here for a final clinch, we ought to exploit the outside theatres as much as we can, so that at the Peace   Conference we, the British anyhow, will not be so badly off.

Arguing that even victory in the west would not ensure prosperity for Britain in the east, Wilson concluded with a formula more easily said than done: ‘.. .we must get a decision in both theatres’.36

On 25 June, Curzon pressed the argument for attention to the east still further by delivering to the Imperial War Council the most eloquent and forceful exposition on the future implications of German expansion in Asia and the world political ambitions of   German militarism. It would be a gross mistake for Britain,  concentrating on the threat of German hegemony in Europe, to   neglect the German challenge to Britain’s imperial existence, Curzon   insisted, as he lectured on the importance of the much derided ‘side   shows’:

It may well be that those whose eyes are almost exclusively concentrated on the   west – because of the magnitude of the forces there engaged, because of the peril to our shores, because of its greater proximity to our lives – are somewhat mistaking the real proportions and focus of the case with which we have to deal, and that as time goes on, they may realise that the eastern is not less important than the western theatre of war.

Curzon argued that German policy for the past quarter century had   been to advance to India, ‘the core and centre of British power in the eastern world’. He reminded his audience of Germany’s present   position and strength in the east and the new risks and responsibilities this position engendered for Britain. The focus of the present and   future struggle between Britain and Germany had shifted; the war that was once being fought to determine the balance of power in Europe was becoming, from Curzon’s point of view, a vastly more dangerous conflict for Britain, an imperial struggle:

I ask my colleagues for one moment to see what all this means and to what it is leading. It means this, that Germany, if she be baffled in the west, either as the result   of military operations or, even as the result of peace, will turn toward the east. She   can afford to give up everything she has won in western parts, in France and Flanders, if only this door in the east remains open to her. If peace proposals were   made now . . . Germany could . . . afford to give back Belgium, to make large   concessions in respect of Alsace-Lorraine, to set upon their feet again the greater part of the wretched and feeble states of Central Europe … She could afford to give   the whole of these, and provided she were left to retain the string of subject-states   she has created for herself on the western border of Russia, she would still have the illimitable range of future ambition and opportunity which I have been describing   this morning. Let us, representatives of the British Empire who are here, realise fully that Germany is out in this war to destroy the British Empire. That is the first   and foremost of her objects, and one of the methods of destroying the British   Empire is not merely the destruction of her forces at Calais or Boulogne, but it is by   rendering her position in the east insecure. She sees that the power of Great Britain is built upon her overseas strength.

Curzon foresaw a long struggle. Even if Germany were not to   continue her advance for the present, or if Britain were able to check   it, Britain would be unable to remove Germany from her threatening   position in the east; the German object would not be abandoned and   her threat would be renewed:

.. just as India for the last three-quarters of a century has been in a state of feverish   anxiety, and has consequently had to maintain large armies, and to tax her people   all for the fear of what might happen from a Russian invasion from the north-west,   so that danger may be reproduced in what appears to me likely to be a much more sinister and ominous form if the place of Russia in Central Asia is taken by Germany.


British Intervention in Siberia

In the face of such bleak prospects, Curzon could see only two   interrelated solutions: the revitalization of Russia and Japanese intervention in south Siberia and northern Turkestan. Appreciating   the limitations of British capabilities, Curzon bypassed means and   focused desperately on these ends. It was vital, he asserted, to   establish a bulwark ‘to counter the victorious German power both in   the west and in… the east… out of whatever elements can be   found… even though it may take ten years or twenty years.’   Unrealistically supposing that Japan could be induced to conduct   operations in west Siberia instead of merely occupying eastern Siberia   in the hope of bringing it under her permanent control, Curzon   stressed the ‘supreme and crowning importance’ of Japanese intervention which he regarded as almost a deus ex machina which would save Asia from ‘the German clutch’.37

Unaware that the war would be won in less than four months,   Wilson outlined plans for the conflict to come in his memorandum   ‘British Military Policy 1918-1919’, presented to the War Cabinet on 25 July. While the CIGS treated all threats of the war, his attention was   focused on the east. Even in his discussion of why the final Allied   offensive in the west could not be postponed until 1920, Wilson was   concerned with the military implications for the west of German   dominance in the east: ‘If the Germans are allowed another year to consolidate their position in Russia and Asia’, he argued,

they will have time so as to exploit that vast of raw material and man-power as will enable them, to a great extent, to counter the relative increase in Allied strength in the west, while their prospects after the war will be immeasurably brighter.

Wilson believed that it was essential to block the German eastward   advance as soon as possible; if the Germans were successful in   occupying Baku, as appeared very likely, and obtaining control of the   Caspian and Trans-Caspian railways, they would ‘have an effective   line of operations which would turn the whole of our position in Persia and Mesopotamia and give them direct access to the Afghan   border … the ultimate military threat to India would in that case be   formidable.’ Wilson insisted, then, that ‘the most urgent task’   between the present and the anticipated Allied offensive in 1919 was to interdict the German drive by establishing British control of the Caspian.

Sharing Curzon’s bleak view of a long struggle between Britain and   Germany over possession of the east, Wilson most dreaded the   situation of the empire after the war and his pessimistic outlook was   reflected in his vision of Britain forever on the defensive; the initiative,   it seemed, would permanently pass to the Central Powers and all   Britain could do would be to try to maintain as wide a no-man’s land   as possible between her sphere of influence and that of Germany. If   Britain attempted to give battle to the Central Powers by advancing   her railways in Mesopotamia, it would only make it easy for   Germany in the future to deploy at will on Britain’s threshold:

We shall have for ever committed the British Empire to an unlimited liability for defence. It will be necessary to keep ready on our frontiers a great army in a state of   constant readiness for there will be no time to reinforce our outposts before the weight of invasion bursts upon them.38

With a large force poised to snatch the jewel in the imperial crown, the future defence of India would lay on Britain the military burdens and   anxieties of a continental state.

The CIGS’ vision of the future was, if anything, even darker than Curzon’s, for he understood to a greater degree than did the former   Viceroy the essential connection between European and imperial defence. Viewing the war as a whole, Wilson could not ignore the   struggle in the west; he recognized that Britain had vital interests in   both regions and that her future as a great power was doubtful unless   she could check German ambitions in both theatres. Wilson’s   memorandum displayed a keen appreciation of Britain’s strategic quandary. On the one hand, the CIGS noted that:

Even when the German armies are soundly beaten in the west and driven out of   France and Belgium, it is difficult to see how we could force such terms on the Central Powers as would loosen their hold in the east or close the road to Egypt and India.

But he also realized that if Germany were to gain hegemony in   Europe, there would be no stopping her drive to the east:

We have to remember that in the next war we may be fighting Germany alone and   unaided, while she will have Turkey and perhaps part of Russia, if not on her side, at least under her thumb. In such circumstances Germany, with no preoccupation in Europe, could concentrate great armies against Egypt or India by her overland   routes, which are beyond the reach of our sea power.

Wilson agreed with Curzon that the only remedy to this impossible situation was the revitalization of Russia through Allied intervention.   To the CIGS, this chimerical solution was no less than ‘the factor which will decide the future’. Wilson stressed that with southern Russia under German control, the Germans would not only inevitably advance towards India, but also would have the means to

completely outstrip the rest of Europe in the reconstruction of their economic and military resources. Thus at no distant date Germany will be in a position again to threaten the peace of civilization and consummate the domination of half the world.

Wilson saw that ultimately the German domination of Russia posed   an equal threat to the European equilibrium and to the empire.   Britain’s strategic problems could not be so easily separated into   ‘east’ and ‘west’; protection of both regions was essential for her security.39

The Allied counter-offensive in the west, begun on 8 August, diminished anxiety over Britain’s position in the east for some, but for   others it merely increased those fears. Six days after the beginning of   the offensive, Jan C. Smuts, South African statesman and member of   the War Cabinet, told the Imperial War Council that he feared the   Germans would assume the defensive in the west, retiring slowly and   inflicting enormous casualties on the Allies, while expanding and   exploiting their position in the east. He further argued that a Turco-   German threat to the empire would be a British problem exclusively:

Nobody concerned in this war except ourselves has any interest in Asia. If Persia comes under Turkish influence, if the Turks get to Transcaspia and if this wave   extends even to Afghanistan, our position in Asia is very much endangered.   Certainly no other western power is affected at all by it.

Smuts worried that by the end of 1919 there would still be no decision in the west, but that by then Britain’s position in the east would be seriously damaged. The continued blood-letting on the western front, coupled with the damage to her Asian interests, would leave Britain,   Smuts argued, ‘a second or third-class power’. Smuts was opposed to the Foreign Office’s definition of a sound peace in Europe which assumed the total defeat of Germany, for in achieving such a peace   Britain would be endangering the empire. Smuts implied that it was better to accept a compromise peace in the west to guarantee the essentials of security – an unassailable position in the east.40 On the following day, Smuts’s argument was attacked during a meeting of   the War Cabinet. With Haig’s success in the west, even Curzon, whose enthusiasm for empire was unequalled, believed that Smuts   exaggerated when he painted a picture of ‘a great tide of invasion   rolling against our eastern empire while our efforts were being sterilized in the west’. Curzon sounded like a converted ‘westerner’ as   he asserted ‘that it was essential to go on hammering till Germany was definitely beaten and brought to a different frame of mind, so that we could secure a peace which Germany would keep and not have the strength to break’.41

Nevertheless, on 11 September, the General Staff, in line with   Smuts’s position, asserted that to make as many gains in the east as   possible to offset their losses in the west, the Germans would instigate   a major Turkish attack on the Baghdad-Resht line.42 On 16 September, three days before the start of Allenby’s victorious offensive, Smuts, again discounting the influence of the situation in Europe on Britain’s security in Asia, was in a panic after hearing of   the fall of Baku:

I regard the military situation in the Middle East as very unsatisfactory. While on   all fronts we are holding or driving back the enemy, his advance in the Caucasus,   Trans-Caspia, and North-West Persia continues. And this is a matter which in a   very special degree concerns the British Empire and its future in Asia. If the enemy reaches Central Persia and Afghanistan next summer, a situation might arise on the   Indian frontier which would cripple our military effort from Palestine and Salonika to Central Asia.43

To Smuts, the key to Britain’s security was in the east and no matter   what happened in the west, thoughts of victory could not be   entertained until that security was assured. Fortunately for Britain,   Germany was never able to exploit her position in the east and thus   Britain was not forced to resolve her dichotomy of defence interests, that is, to choose, as Smuts had implied, between Europe and her empire.

From March to August 1918 the perceived German threat to the security of Britain’s eastern position was a major concern of British   statesmen and soldiers. To be sure, such ‘imperialists’ as Amery,  Curzon, Milner and Smuts saw in this crisis opportunity as well. The need to defend the overland approaches to India against German   encroachment provided an occasion to expand and enhance ‘that   great southern half of the British Empire’ which they considered to be   more central to British interests than Europe. Much of what the   ‘imperialists’ advocated to defend the Empire from the spectre of a   present or future Turco-German threat – the annexation of   conquered territory in Palestine and Mesopotamia, for instance –   they would have desired even had that threat never existed. Still, the   concern over German ambitions in the east was not simply a  justification for imperial expansion; it occupied the minds not only of   the ‘easterners’, but of such ‘westerners’ as Wilson, Haig and Balfour.   For the brief period when this concern was central in the considerations of British policy-makers, there was an essential change in the way they viewed the war. Hitherto, while the importance of the east   was not unappreciated, the security of India was seen to be defended on the western front; however, now that the Central Powers had what   appeared to be an open road to India, Britain, as Wilson put it, would   have to ‘get a decision in both theatres’, the east and the west. In those   months in which Germany’s eastward expansion was regarded as a real threat, halting her drive to the east became as important a war   aim as countering her bid for European mastery, as Balfour asserted:   ‘The breaking down of the Brest-Litovsk treaty must be an essential   part of our policy. That would be the most effective way of disposing  of the dangers in the Middle East.’44 Indeed, in regard to the question   of a German threat to the Empire, all Britain’s statesmen and soldiers   were ‘easterners’, for they all believed unquestioningly that a   challenge to Britain’s imperial existence threatened the very survival of Britain as a great power.

In 1915 Amery complained to Milner that ‘the war against a   German domination in Europe was only necessary because we [the British Empire] had failed to make ourselves sufficiently stronger and   united to be able to afford to disregard the European balance’.4 An   account of British anxieties in 1918, however, shows that Britain’s defence of her empire could not be so neatly separated from the defence of the continental equilibrium. Because Britain’s frontier was   considered unquestionably to be on the Hindu Kush, it was perforce   also on the Rhine and the Oder; for, if the Germans were to dominate   the continent, not only would Britain be unable to maintain naval   mastery, she would also be helpless to staunch the eastward   expansion of a great industrialized continental power. ‘In such   circumstances’, Wilson darkly warned, ‘Germany, with no preoccupation in Europe, could concentrate great armies against Egypt or   India by her overland routes, which are beyond the reach of our sea   power.’46 After the war the British were more than eager to ignore or   forget the connection between European and imperial security.   Wilson himself, just as the ordeal of four years of continental war was   ending, declared that ‘from the left bank of the Don to India is our   interest and preserve’ and Britain could thus afford in the future to ‘let   Europe stew in its own juice’.47 Twenty-two years later, of course,   Britain found that after shunning for too long her unavoidable stake   in the European balance, Germany, following her conquest of   Western Europe, was in a position not only to strangle the British   Isles but once again to begin her march to the east, through Russia,   towards India.48


The author conducted the research for this article while a Fulbright scholar at  Magdalen College, Oxford. He thanks the Warden and Fellows of New College,  Oxford for permission to examine and quote from the Milner papers, the Fulbright Commission for its support, and Professor Sir Michael Howard for his guidance and comments.

1. Lieutenant-Colonel E.A. Altham, Military Needs of the Empire in a War With France and Russia, War Office Study, 12 August 1901, CAB 3/1/lA, 51.

2. Committee of Imperial Defence, 11 May 1911, CAB 2/2/3.

3. Michael Howard, The Continental Commitment (London 1972), 20.

4. Maurice Hankey, The Supreme Command (London 1961), vol. I, 137. Meeting   of Dardanelles Committee, 4 October 1915, CAB 42/4/2; meeting of Dardanelles   Committee, 6 October 1915, CAB 42/4/3.

5. Meeting of Dardenelles Committee, 4 October 1915, CAB 42/4/2.

6. Minutes of a meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet, 22 March 1917, IWC 2, CAB   23/40.

7. ‘Notes on Allied Strategy’, no date, WO 106/1514.

8. A.J. Toynbee, ‘Supplement to Report on Pan-Turanian Movement’, Political   Intelligence Department, October 1917; 17 November 1917, CAB 24/144.

9. Minutes of Anglo-French conference at the Quai d’Orsay, 23 December 1917,   FO 371/3086, no. 243036.

10. Lord Curzon to Imperial War Cabinet, 25 June 1918, CAB 23/43.

11. Fritz Fischer, Germany’s Aims in the First World War (New York 1967), 550.

12. Cabinet paper, 7 March 1918, CAB 24/44, GT 3840.   13. ‘Note on Memorandum’ T 21169 of the 7th March 1918 -‘General Staff Reply to FO note’, 11 March 1918, WO 106/314, emphasis in original.

14. Richard Ullman’s interpretation of Britain’s desire for Japanese intervention in Siberia, argued in Anglo-Soviet Relations, Volume I, Intervention and the War (Princeton 1961), was made before the official British archives became available and is therefore based partly on copies of selected memoranda in the Milner Papers but mostly on the Records of the Supreme War Council. The arguments that the British made to their allies on the SWC stressed the immediate military benefits of Japanese intervention for the Allied cause; that is, that intervention would help win the war by   reversing the movement of German troops from the East to the West and by reducing  the area from which Germany could draw material and men. The importance that the British themselves attached to Japanese intervention is discussed in the British Cabinet and War Office memoranda and in the minutes of the War Cabinet, the Imperial War Cabinet and the Eastern Committee. These documents identify the future protection of British imperial interests as the most important reason for inducing Japan to intervene in Siberia. British policy-makers saw the defence of Britain’s eastern position as Britain’s interest exclusively and they therefore believed that their Allies would not cooperate if presented with this argument.

15. War Cabinet, 6 March 1918, CAB 23/5.   16. Memorandum by Curzon, 13 March 1918, CAB 24/45, GT 3905.

17. Leopold Amery, ‘Unity of Operations in the East’, 20 March 1918, CAB 25/71.

18. War Cabinet, 22 March 1918, CAB 23/5. In a letter to Lloyd George expressing   his anxiety about German ambitions in the east, Milner wrote, ‘Haig of all people was quite full of this subject! I never saw him so interested.’ Milner to Lloyd George, 20 March 1918, MS Milner dep. 355.

19. FO 371/3435, no. 6061.

20. Colonel A.W.F. Knox, ‘The present situation in Russia’, 13 March 1918, MS   Milner dep. 139. The same sentiment is expressed in a letter from the British military representative on the SWC to the Cabinet: ‘The danger apprehended from Germany was analagous to that which has been apprehended for many years from Russia, only that now the danger is one that is threatened by an organized and capable   Government.’ Covering letter to French memorandum on ‘Hostile Actions towards   Central Asia and Persia’, 13 June 1918, CAB 24/56.

21. See ‘The Eastern Theatre’, unsigned, 25 March 1918; MS Milner dep. 359.

22. L.S. Amery, ‘Germany and the Middle East’, 12 March 1918, MS Milner dep.

23. See ‘The Eastern Theatre’, unsigned, 25 March 1918, MS Milner dep. 359.

24. Meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet, 25 June 1918, CAB 23/43.

25. Milner to Lloyd George, 20 March 1918, MS Milner, dep. 355. Emphasis in

26. Milner to Lloyd George, 20 March 1918, MS Milner dep. 355.

27. ‘X’ Committee, 5 June 1918, CAB 23/17; see also ‘Arrangements for Evacuation from France’, 25 June 1918, MS Milner, dep. 374.

28. Major-General Sir C.E. Callwell, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: His Life and   Letters (London 1927), vol. II, 103. Emphasis added.

29. ‘German projects on Termination of the War in France’, E. Branch, Versailles,   SWC 207, revised 12 May 1918, MS Milner, dep. 359f.

30. Milner to Lloyd George, 9 June 1918, MS Milner, dep. 355.

31. E.S. Montagu, ‘The War in the East’, 5 July 1918, CAB 24/57. Milner wrote on 23 June 1918, ‘If the Germans make themselves masters of Trans-Caucasia, as I fear is inevitable, they are sure to give us trouble in Northern Persia, and probably also in Turkestan. The war, in fact, is spreading to the Far East and if the campaign on [sic] the West this summer results in a deadlock – the best we can hope for – the Eastern side may become the most important portion of the struggle during the coming winter.’   Milner to Felix Ready, 23 June 1918, MS Milner, dep. 355.

32. Note by the General Staff on the Caucasus and its value to Germany, 8 June   1918, CAB 24/56, GT 4883. On the perceived danger of German economic domination of Southern Russia, see also Major-General F.C. Poole, ‘Proposals for Future Policy in Russia’, 15 March 1918, CAB 24/46, GT 4033.

33. L.S. Amery, My Political Life, Volume II (London 1953).

34. L.S. Amery, ‘War Aims and Military Policy’, 15 June 1918, CAB 24/27.

35. For the government of India’s point of view, see ‘Telegrams, Viceroy to Army   Department’, 2 February 1918, FO 371/3303 and 5 July 1918, FO 371/3305. For Wilson’s reaction see Wilson’s memorandum, ‘Security of India’, 30 April 1918, MS   Milner, dep. 363. A number of telegrams from Commander-in-Chief, India, relating to   security of India are appended to Wilson’s memorandum. See also Chottar Singh Samra, India and Anglo Soviet Relations 1917-1959 (Bombay 1959), 23-5 and Lars-Eric Nyman, Great Britain and Chinese, Russian and Japanese Interests in Sinkiang, 1918-1934 (Malmo, Sweden 1977), chapter I.

36. Imperial War Cabinet, 18 June 1918, CAB 23/43. Emphasis added.

37. Imperial War Cabinet, 25 June 1918, CAB 23/41.

38. Sir Henry Wilson, ‘British Military Policy, 1918-1919’, 24 July 1918, WO 106/315, also in MS Milner, dep. 361. In a detailed memorandum on the strategic significance of railway construction in the Near East, Macdonogh wrote: ‘It is impossible to foresee to what extent Germany’s present position in Russia and the Middle East will be reversed at the end of the war, but in considering the future security of India, it is necessary not only to calculate as hitherto for railway enterprise being directed against India, with hostile intentions, but to allow for such enterprise being   backed by German energy, German skill and German resources. This may be an overstatement of the dangers of the case, but until the future of the Middle East is clearer than at present, it will be as well to frame our strategical conceptions on these premises. This being so the arguments adduced in the past against our countenancing   any railway projects tending to bridge the gap between the Indian and Russian systems hold good today but with added force.’ G. Macdonogh, ‘The strategical aspect of railway construction in Persia, with special reference to the extension of the Sistan Railway’, 10 August 1918, WO 106/315.

39. Sir Henry Wilson, ‘British Military Policy, 1918-1919’, 25 July 1918, WO 106/   315; also in MS Milner, dep. 361.

40. Imperial War Cabinet, 14 August 1918, CAB 23/43.   41. War Cabinet, 15 August 1918, CAB 23/7.

42. General Staff memorandum, 11 September 1918, CAB 23/45.

43. Memorandum by Smuts, 16 September 1918, CAB 27/24.

44. Imperial War Cabinet, 14 August 1918, CAB 23/42.

45. MS Milner, dep. 140.

46. Wilson, ‘British Military Policy, 1918-1919’, Imperial War Cabinet, 25 June   1918, CAB 23/41.

47. Callwell, vol. II, 147 and 148.

48. On the German threat to India during the second world war, see Milan Hauner’s monumental India in Axis Strategy: Germany, Japan, and Indian Nationalists in the Second World War (Stuttgart 1918).

Benjamin Schwarz   is an analyst in the International Policy Department of RAND. He is the author of   several reports and articles on American   foreign and security policy and is currently   writing on the reassessment of US interests after the Cold War.

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