Neutral Waters? British Diplomacy of Force in the Canary Islands at the Start of the First World War

By Javier Ponce, published August 2020


At the beginning of the First World War, Britain had to confront a phenomenal challenge. Faced with the indisputable British naval hegemony, Germany launched the cruiser warfare, using armed merchant ships as auxiliary cruisers, as its first offensive weapon in the economic war, attacking trade from the South Atlantic, through which much of the British supplies arrived. The objective of the German cruiser warfare was to bring Britain to economic collapse, for which the attacks had to be concentrated at the junctions of routes. In the Canary Islands the routes from South America, West Africa and the Cape converged. It was not by chance, therefore, that some of the first operations of the auxiliary cruisers took place in the waters near the Canary Islands. Coal and the essential information in waging commerce war could also be supplied from the islands. The response of the British Admiralty was immediate, sending its naval forces to the Canary Islands, especially the Ninth Cruiser Squadron, under the command of Rear-Admiral De Robeck. It was soon able to deny the service that had been provided to German cruisers from the archipelago. This article examines the threatening attitude of De Robeck and his officers, along with other actions by Admiralty, which ended up tipping the balance on the British side. British and Spanish primary sources allow us to conclude how, as early as November 1914, this ‘diplomacy of force’ practised by the British Admiralty and its officers in the Canary Islands ended up forcing Spain’s own neutrality.

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Filed under: Atlantic | Baltic | WW1 | English Channel | North Sea
Subjects include: Strategy & Diplomacy

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