Out in Mesopotamia, at Sheikh Sa’ad, on the Tigris just southeast of Kut, the first British attempt to relieve General Townshend’s besieged force was in the process of failing, suffering some 4,000 casualties and gaining a single line of trenches before Turkish defenders withdrew. In Gallipoli, the Anglo-French evacuation was finally drawing to an end, and the Russian Army in Galicia was spending its Christmas Day in a hopeless struggle against Austro-Hungarian artillery. But that’s enough fighting and dying, let’s talk about Arthur Henderson’s trip to the Netherlands.
Henderson was a British politician. At the time he was President of the Board of Education, a member of the cabinet and leader of the Labour Party, one of only three Labour politicians to serve in the coalition government. A hundred years ago he was in The Hague, charged with talking Dutch workers, business leaders and politicians into shaping their national economy according to British war aims. The visit was a watershed moment in a long saga that reflected the changing geopolitics of the age, and that began in August 1914.
For the Netherlands, a small nation dependent on seagoing trade, next door to Germany and across the water from Britain, the outbreak of war was a diplomatic disaster. With no dog in the fight, nothing to gain and everything to lose by declaring war on bigger powers, the Dutch could only remain neutral, but that didn’t spare them pressure from both sides as the conflict got underway.
Assured by Germany on 2 August that its territorial integrity would be respected, the government in The Hague turned down a British offer of alliance and instead closed the Scheldt to all warships, a technically neutral move but one that favoured Germany by protecting the flank of its advancing armies from the Royal Navy. This was hardly a choice for the Dutch, given that any other response might trigger a German invasion, but of course it annoyed the British, who announced that they would respect Dutch neutrality – unless it became ‘one-sided’.
In fact the British, certain that naval blockade was the key to undermining Germany’s war effort, treated the Netherlands (and other neutral countries with strong trading links to Germany) as if they were economic enemies from the start. By the end of August 1914, the Royal Navy had stopped more than fifty Dutch ships and seized three loads of American grain bound for the Netherlands, while the UK government had stated its intention to prevent food, as well as war materials, from reaching Germany via neutral ports. As the year went on the British blockade tightened, wreaking havoc on the flow of trade from America that was fundamental to Dutch economic stability.
Compelled to appease the British, the Dutch government managed to reduce ‘stop and search’ delays to transatlantic trade by forming the country’s leading banks and businesses into a consortium, the Netherlands Oversea Trust (NOT). As a private company, and so able to liaise with the British without compromising Dutch neutrality, the NOT acted as a clearing-house for imported goods and guaranteed that contraband (as defined by the British) wouldn’t be sold on to Germany. The British, happy to be handed effective control over Dutch transatlantic imports, generously agreed a temporary relaxation of blockade against goods from the Dutch East Indies. For a year or so relations between the two countries were relatively smooth, as was Dutch passage across the Atlantic, and the British went on to use the NOT as a blueprint for addressing the contraband issue in other neutral states.
Generally speaking, having witnessed at close hand the effects of occupation on Belgium, Dutch politicians, businessmen and civilians were sympathetic to the Allies throughout the War – but the NOT agreement put the neutrality boot on the other foot, and now the Dutch could only appease Germany. Germany needed food and raw materials, and so 1915 saw a boom in the trade of home-produced Dutch goods across the frontier. Dutch exports to Germany in 1915 ran at almost four times pre-War levels, with agricultural produce dominating the market, and were still rising at the end of the year.
So of course the British spent 1915 lobbying the Dutch to stop ‘feeding the enemy’, but diplomatic efforts didn’t cut much ice against the threat of occupation, and by late summer the Royal Navy was again stopping, searching and seizing Dutch transatlantic merchant traffic. In September, recognising the impossibility of a complete ban on exports from the Netherlands to Germany, the British accepted an agreement ‘rationing’ Dutch import levels of staple foods and oil to pre-War levels, a measure that would at least reduce the surplus available for export. Unfortunately for the Dutch, this essentially reasonable compromise didn’t last the autumn.
I’ve already mentioned that the military disappointments of the year, and of the autumn in particular, had left British war leadership at a crossroads, short on ideas but bent on change and looking for scapegoats (19 December, 1915: The Empire’s New Clothes). By the end of the year political and military opinion in Britain had decided one key to shortening the War was a tighter naval blockade of Germany, and so Henderson was sent to The Hague to finalise the rationing agreement and bully the Dutch into further concessions.
Henderson got nowhere, but his failure did trigger political reform of the British blockade system. In February, the various departments in various ministries concerned with blockade were merged under a new Minister of Blockade, Sir Robert Cecil. Cecil renewed pressure on The Hague during the spring, forcing an agreement that required Dutch farmers to sell half their exports to Britain. The farmers refused to cooperate, unsurprisingly when the British paid far less than the Germans, and the so-called Agricultural Agreement soon collapsed, so that by the summer of 1916 the Royal Navy was back at work making life miserable for Dutch merchantmen and, by way of sending a message, doing the same to the Dutch fishing fleet.
Once again caught between a rock and a hard navy, facing immediate shortages and unsustainable economic disruption, the Dutch could only accept an invitation to renegotiate the Agricultural Agreement. When a final version of the Agreement was signed on 1 November 1916, the British finally got what they wanted, genuine (or at least general) cooperation in the enforcement of quotas on Dutch exports to Germany.
The wartime battle for the Dutch economy was over. Food and other exports to Germany from the Netherlands were significantly reduced after 1916, and the British retained effective control over Dutch trading patterns for the rest of the War. But it had been a struggle and, apart from pointing out that Britain treated its good neighbours in the Netherlands as ciphers to be ruthlessly exploited in 1916, that’s the small point of today’s ramble.
In the century of relative peace before 1914, the British Empire had become accustomed to flexing its gigantic economic muscles and dictating policy to small European countries, comfortable in the knowledge that it was far and away the toughest bully in the playground. Britain still wielded the world’s biggest stick during the First World War, but with resources stretched and in the face of serious competition it had to be sharpened and used with greater precision. This was the lesson learned during the shadow war for Dutch cooperation, a clear signpost to an impoverished British Empire’s more modest position in the post-War world.