‘The work of the F.O. is nauseous in war time – a mess of questions of contraband & kindred subjects that don’t exist in time of peace and are a disagreeable brood spawned by war’: the foreign office and maritime war, 1914–1915
It is impossible to speak of what war the Foreign Office expected in 1914. The task of the Foreign Office was not to plan war but to avoid war. However, that does not mean that the war did not affect that department of state. What changes occurred during the war are well known in broad terms. 2 The Foreign Office was restructured to meet the exigencies of war, with new departments being created within it and existing ones amalgamated. 3 As the war progressed, the Foreign Office became the object of criticism, from the political left both for having somehow brought Britain into the war and as a bastion of aristocracy and from others who believed that the Foreign Office had failed to attract neutrals to the Allied cause. When David Lloyd George came to power in late 1916, some of the Foreign Office’s traditional ambit was taken over by the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, while new Ministries were created that also cut into the Foreign Office’s domain. 4
However, the subject of Grey’s lament – contraband and its handmaiden, the blockade – and how it affected the Foreign Office has not been studied extensively, except in the narrow context of the legalities involved in dealing with the neutrals. 5 What concerns us here, however, is what dealing with blockade revealed about the inadequacies of the Foreign Office and Diplomatic Service and the steps taken to deal with the new situations created by the war.