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New Zealand as it Might have Been 2
By Stephen Levine
Victoria University PressCopyright © 2010 Stephen Levine and contributors
All rights reserved.
IAN MCGIBBON 1
What if Germany had destroyed the British navy at the Battle of Jutland in 1916?
HMS New Zealand, 1913
Defeat at sea
In all his sixty years William Massey had never had a bigger shock. The words in the telegram he held in his shaking hand were brutally short but their impact could not have been greater: 'NORTH SEA ENGAGEMENT GRAND FLEET DECISIVELY DEFEATED'. The British Empire's worst nightmare had become awful reality. The British battlefleet – the lynchpin of British power, New Zealand's shield from a hostile world – had been annihilated.
The battle that shocked the Prime Minister had begun while his countrymen slept the previous night. After learning that its adversary, the German High Seas Fleet (under the command of Admiral Reinhard Scheer), had put to sea on 31 May, the Grand Fleet had hastily steamed out of its base at Scapa Flow. Flying his flag in the battleship HMS Iron Duke, its commander, Sir John Jellicoe, was acutely conscious of the burden of responsibility on his shoulders. Recognition that he could lose the war in an afternoon bolstered his innate caution. So he was in no mood for risk-taking when, late in the afternoon, it became obvious that a clash was in the offing off the coast of Denmark.
No one could fault Jellicoe's tactical competence. But, unknown to him, there was a hidden menace within his fleet – a design fault that allowed shell flash to penetrate to the magazines. This became apparent when the battlecruiser fleets opened the fight. Two British battlecruisers quickly blew up, and shortly afterwards another exploded and sank. At first this did not seem a fatal development. Jellicoe crossed Scheer's line, forcing his German counterpart to turn away in the gathering gloom, sheltered behind a shield of smaller craft which unleashed a cloud of torpedoes towards the British fleet. The wise course for Jellicoe at this point was clearly to turn away and to seek to get between the enemy fleet and its base. But the British admiral, suddenly blinded by visions of another Trafalgar, uncharacteristically ordered his fleet to close with the disappearing German battleships. It was a move that would baffle historians for half a century, not least because Jellicoe did not survive the night.
In a matter of minutes the Grand Fleet suffered a shattering blow. The torpedo strikes, combined with an inspirational decision by Scheer to reverse his line and to re-engage the British fleet in the fading light, precipitated a disaster unprecedented for British seapower. The Battle of Jutland (or the Skagerak, to Germans) would indeed rival Trafalgar in its strategic consequences – though not in the way Jellicoe had hoped. Among the victims was the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand, which New Zealand had gifted to the Royal Navy with a view to helping to prevent such a situation occurring. As she entered the battle, her captain was wearing a tiki [greenstone figurine] and there was a Maori piu piu [flax skirt] hanging in the conning tower. Her crew had insisted on this, having been convinced that these gifts, received during the ship's New Zealand visit three years before, represented a talisman, evidenced by her good fortune in coming through the earlier clashes at Heligoland and Dogger Bank unscathed. But this time they failed to ward off danger. New Zealand suffered the same fate as several of her sister ships, blowing up when a shell flash penetrated to her magazine. All but two of her crew, most of whom were British seamen, went down with her.
Just three of the Grand Fleet's battleships and two battlecruisers managed to escape the carnage, which continued through the night. These survivors arrived at Scapa Flow mid-morning, but they wasted little time in moving south to Portsmouth. No one in London was under any illusions. This was a catastrophe from which there could, and would, be no recovery. The war was lost for certain – and the fate of Britain's empire hung in the balance.
The outcome of the battle shattered the assumption on which Britain had committed the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium. Logistically the BEF depended on command of the sea in the English Channel. This was now gone. German squadrons, it was clear, would soon be marauding the area. Once this happened, any British troopships or merchantmen foolish enough to put to sea would be at great risk. For several weeks fast merchantmen made dashes across the Channel at night, but on 19 June disaster struck, eight merchantmen falling victim to German warships. Fifteen hundred reinforcements drowned. In this dire situation the British government cancelled the mighty offensive that the BEF had planned to launch, in conjunction with the French Army, on the Somme on 1 July. The vast new army raised by Lord Kitchener would instead stand on the defensive. With Germany adopting a similar stance after the bloodletting at Verdun in the first half of the year, a lull developed on the Western Front.
Within weeks of arriving on the Western Front, in April 1916, New Zealand troops found the whole war context had changed fundamentally. However, since the New Zealanders had not been included in the forces earmarked for the Somme offensive, the naval disaster did not immediately affect them. They continued to man the line at Armentières, where they had to endure the taunts of exultant Germans in the trenches opposite about the naval disaster.
The Jutland defeat put at risk all New Zealand troops at sea. The 12th Reinforcements, in three troopships, had left New Zealand in the first week of May, but they were well out of immediate harm's way in the Indian Ocean, heading for Colombo, at the time of the battle. They subsequently reached Suez safely. For the time being reinforcements could proceed to the front by way of Marseilles, but this route would soon be threatened by the arrival of a powerful German squadron at the Ottoman port of Smyrna.
In London a furious debate developed within the British government as to how to respond to the new situation. A peace party quickly emerged in the House of Commons, and it wasted little time in securing a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. Upon his resignation, David Lloyd George formed a new ministry. Faced with only unpalatable options, the Cabinet concluded that to delay seeking terms was to risk a further weakening of the Allied position as the telling effect of German command of the sea became apparent. Quite apart from the problem of sustaining the BEF, there was a danger that Germany would use its newly gained naval predominance to invade the British Isles. With most of Britain's trained men now on the Continent, mounting a defence against such an attack would be difficult, if not impossible. The danger was highlighted when a German squadron successively stood off Aberdeen and Whitby and bombarded them mercilessly, wreaking heavy damage. But even without Germans landing on British soil, Britain faced a daunting crisis. It depended upon a steady flow of imports to feed its population. The Jutland defeat halted this flow for the foreseeable future. With the British Empire threatened with strangulation, Britain's own survival depended upon an armistice. The French, for their part, soon concluded that without the BEF to take responsibility for a substantial part of the front their own continuing resistance would be futile, given the battering their army had taken at Verdun.
Peace at last ...
Peace feelers were soon being put out to Berlin. These culminated in agreement to an armistice. Representatives of the two sides met in a railway carriage at Valenciennes on 11 November 1916. Kaiser Wilhelm II was seen to do a small jig of satisfaction when he arrived for the signing of the document. One of the terms of the armistice agreement called for the remnants of the British fleet to sail to Kiel for internment pending the peace settlement. (The British crews would eventually scuttle their ships in the port.)
Deserted by their allies, the Russians also sought an armistice, which came into effect on 1 December 1916. Several historians have argued cogently that this sudden end to the fighting on the Eastern Front gave an eleventh hour reprieve to the Tsar; in their view – but one whose soundness can never be ascertained, being little more than an entirely speculative perspective, known among historians as a 'counterfactual' – had the war continued even a few more months, Russia would probably have fallen into revolutionary chaos. As it was, the Russian government faced some sticky moments as it dealt with unrest in the year ahead. The Italians also concluded an armistice with their main adversary, Austria–Hungary, and would lose a substantial slice of northeastern Italy in the eventual settlement.
The peace conference between Germany and the western allies was held at Potsdam in mid-1917. For shocked Allied statesmen the full impact of defeat finally became apparent. The terms demanded by the Germans were notable for their harshness. Heavy indemnities were just the tip of the punitive iceberg. To ensure that France would never again be in a position to threaten it, Germany demanded the cession of those parts of France already occupied by its forces. As for Belgium, it was to become essentially a vassal state of the Reich. But it was the German demands on the British Empire that most got New Zealand's attention: all British territories in Africa, including South Africa but excluding Egypt and Sudan, were to be ceded to Germany. Egypt and Sudan would be returned to Ottoman control – and, with Egypt, the all-important imperial link, the Suez Canal; the Ottoman recovery of Libya from Italy followed.
For New Zealanders, finally, all this paled in significance beside Article VIII of the treaty. This provided for all territories of the British Empire within the lines 160° E, 145° W and the Equator to be ceded to the German Reich on the coming into effect of the treaty. Self-governing though it might be, New Zealand was still a British territory in terms of international law, a status that had been demonstrated when it became involved in the war as a result of King George V's declaration of war on behalf of the whole empire on 4 August 1914. In its aftermath New Zealand's fate had been decided around a conference table. As part of the peace settlement it would become part of the German Empire – an outcome that Australia had avoided. Prolonged efforts by the British Empire Delegation to prevent the transfer of New Zealand's sovereignty were unavailing. Germany wanted a base for its Pacific empire and New Zealand fitted the bill perfectly. With just over a million inhabitants, moreover, it remained small enough for Germany to dominate with little effort (in contrast to Australia).
This was a harsh peace. But, with German hands round its throat, what alternative did the British government have to accepting it? Without the flow of commerce Britain's economy would be shattered – as the events before the armistice had brutally demonstrated. It now lay at the mercy of a Kaiser whose megalomania had been swelled tenfold by the Jutland triumph. Past slights and resentments could now be repaid in double measure, and Wilhelm II's limited vision and intelligence ensured that magnanimity would not be conspicuous at Potsdam.
In New Zealand the first reaction to the treaty's terms was denial. A public clamour to ignore the terms erupted. New Zealand was a very long way from Germany, many claimed. Minister of Defence James Allen sympathised. Yet what options did New Zealand have? At a meeting in London in 1913 he had heard First Sea Lord Winston Churchill warn that if the power of Britain were shattered on the sea Australia and New Zealand would have no alternative but to look to the United States. Many New Zealanders remembered the demonstration of US power in the South Pacific just eight years before the Jutland disaster when the US battlefleet, the Great White Fleet, had visited Auckland. But it soon became apparent that the United States offered no hope of avoiding a German takeover. Despite the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915, the US had remained steadfastly neutral in the European war. New Zealanders quickly realised that Washington was unlikely to upset the victor in Europe by resisting the terms of the Potsdam settlement. President Woodrow Wilson's declaration while the peace conference was in session that the United States would not tolerate any change of sovereignty in the western hemisphere had ensured that Canada remained a British dominion. But there was no disposition to take under American protection a small, relatively unimportant community in the South Pacific. Wilson reasserted America's isolationist policy – he was reelected to a second term in November 1916 under the slogan 'he kept us out of war', a popular policy from which he never deviated – while at the same time initiating a large naval building programme to meet the threat to American security posed by the now burgeoning German fleet.
What of Japan, the British Empire's ally? It had a powerful navy in the Pacific. But its response to the Jutland disaster did not offer much comfort. Quite the contrary: immediately after the armistice on the Western Front, it had set about sweeping up British and French interests in China. Japanese forces quickly moved south to occupy Malaya and Singapore, Tokyo claiming that it was doing this to protect its British ally's interests from the Germans. Conspicuously absent from the Potsdam peace treaty's terms was any reference to these territories. Few were under any illusions that Japan was not there to stay. Tokyo would eventually sign an agreement with Germany that confirmed Japan's protectorate in these territories as a quid pro quo for returning Germany's colonies in China and the North Pacific, seized by Japan in 1914. The United States, worried about the security of its position in the Philippines, disliked this settlement and the dominance achieved by Japan in China, but it was in no position to challenge the arrangement given its inability to match Japanese naval power in the western Pacific. Few New Zealanders favoured looking to Japan for succour; the goodwill engendered by Japan's naval assistance in escorting the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) in 1914 had by now dissipated. Before the war New Zealanders had feared that reliance upon Japan as an ally might lead to their country being forced to take a flood of Japanese immigrants; such worries were now magnified by New Zealand's new predicament. Considering their options, New Zealanders preferred a white master to a yellow one.
New Zealand's extreme military weakness and economic vulnerability proved decisive in its reluctant recognition that it had no choice but to accept the treaty's outcome. Any attempt to forcibly resist a German takeover seemed futile. A large proportion of New Zealand's men of military age were still in France and Egypt awaiting repatriation. Without control of the sea lanes, New Zealand could bring these men home only with the acquiescence of the power it wanted to oppose. They had become, in effect, hostages to New Zealand's acceptance of the treaty terms.
There were in New Zealand several thousand men under training as reinforcements, and the Territorial Force provided a military structure upon which a makeshift defence could have been fashioned. But New Zealand had no naval forces – its decrepit cruiser HMS Philomel was stuck in a port in Aden – and it had no factories to provide the munitions needed for a sustained military campaign against the world's now dominant power. Military resistance did not seem a viable option against a nation able to send overwhelming force to enforce the terms of an international agreement. Nor could help be expected from Australia, if only because that country likewise lacked the sea power required to control the Tasman Sea.
Excerpted from New Zealand as it Might have Been 2 by Stephen Levine. Copyright © 2010 Stephen Levine and contributors. Excerpted by permission of Victoria University Press.
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