By Richard Smith

19 Aug 2014

FCO historian Richard Smith explains his department’s response to the Great War

There’s nothing like a conflict to force change upon an organisation, and for the Foreign Office (FO) the First World War was no exception. Several new departments were created, the biggest of which was the Contraband Department – established to lead and coordinate all aspects of economic blockade policy. With seven to eight sections, each the size of a regular FO department, this developed in 1916 into a Ministry of Blockade, nominally under the control of the FO. The only new department to survive the war was the News Department. This had responsibility for collecting information from the foreign press; providing the London press with information; press censorship; and, until 1917, propaganda abroad.

Temporary staff were employed to cope with the increased workload. Boy clerks had existed before the war, but now Boy Scouts and even Girl Guides could be found in the office. More women were employed – and not just as shorthand typists, their typical pre-war role, but also as clerks.

Pressure on space became acute. The Contraband Department filled the Locarno Suite; huts were built in the courtyard for the Passport Office; and the War Trade Intelligence Department was housed in temporary buildings erected on the lake in St James’s Park, which was drained for the duration.

Despite this growth, the FO lost political influence in Whitehall, partly because of ineffective leadership. Sir Edward Grey, foreign secretary until 1916, was emotionally and physically drained by the war; and his successor, Arthur Balfour, was well known for his slow pace of work.

In addition, Lloyd George was an energetic PM, who preferred to conduct his own foreign policy. After the Armistice, the FO tried to reassert its authority by providing the secretariat for the British Empire delegation to the Paris Peace Conference – but George preferred to use the Cabinet Office staff instead. 

Share this page