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13 October 1916 – Neutral Ally

Barely a decade has passed since Prince Carl of Denmark became Haakon VII, Norway’s very first monarch as an independent nation (see above), so the Great War has been the first real test of the country’s principles for international relations. Saying that “we wish to be left alone in order to get on with building a new nation,” in 1906 Prime Minister Jørgen Løvland told the new parliament (Storting) that his foreign policy would be grounded in absolute neutrality towards the affairs of mainland Europe. To be sure, Norway remains formally neutral in 1916, but the meaning of that word is changing.

Unlike the Swedes, who used to rule Norway and still lean towards Germany in their neutrality, Haakon’s government has always looked to Great Britain on the other side of the North Sea as their guarantor of security and largest trading partner. This relationship is particularly important for national food security. Half the Norwegian male population consists of farmers and fishermen, yet the country is little more than a 1,200-mile long mountain range carved by the ice ages into one of the world’s best coastlines for maritime industry, leaving few fertile farmlands. Thus Norway had developed an enormous fishing trade and a vast merchant fleet by 1900, and from the beginning of Norwegian independence, foreign policy has always been synonymous with trade policy — while Britain has always been the senior power to a nation of just 2.5 million.

Norway was among the most active states in various international consultations before the war, stressing peaceful resolution as their goal for every conflict. Since 1914, however, the world Norway helped to build in the prewar Hague conventions has completely broken down, and the combatants have imposed new, competing rulesets. Unlike most other neutrals, Norway is still able to trade with Germany through their own territorial waters, but they need safe passage around the British Isles to reach the rest of the world. Relations with London are strained by their efforts to impose a complete blockade on food, copper, and other raw materials from reaching Germany; Berlin’s first u-boats crossed the Arctic Circle in August, striking in September at the steamers full of weapons and ammunition bound for the Russian Army. More than a million tons of Norwegian shipping has already been sunk, drowning hundreds of sailors at an increasing rate.

The ‘Neutrality Guard,’ a home defense force thousands-strong, guards the shores while the Navy patrols the nation’s inlets and coastal waters looking for u-boats. Today, the government in Christiana (Oslo) announces that hostile submarines will not be tolerated in Norwegian waters. A sop to British demands for more concrete action, the announcement does not specifically mention Germany, but is clearly aimed at the German Navy. It is another example of why historian Olav Riste calls his country Britain’s “neutral ally” in the Great War. London is simply making  Norway’s neutrality work to their ends.

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Left, the North Sea is now a military zone blockaded in the English Channel and between Scotland and Norway. Right: a modern map of Norwegian fisheries overlaps the Arctic Ocean, where German u-boats have begun operating in 1916

German expansionists have long-term designs on Norway; they hope to bring an Atlantic gateway into their sphere of influence. But real British influence is growing all the time across the North Sea.

The Austrian ultimatum found the young country exporting vital war materials to Germany along with a large portion of their fishing catch. British commercial agents have bought up as much of this surplus as they can, and their overbidding has the effect of driving up prices in Norway. Price controls encourage black markets; some fishermen find their most profitable clientele right on the sea, selling directly to German merchant crews plying the waters east of Denmark. Norway was an early adopter of wartime centralization, imposing government controls on food supplies and prices; now Britain wants Christiana to reduce the share of their catch allotted for export to Germany.

It is just one of many diplomatic requests that are becoming more insistent in the last quarter of 1916.

Indeed, the entire allied blockade is being operated from the Foreign Office, which is bringing every means to bear: blacklisting Norwegian companies that do business with German ones. Culminating in January, Norway makes a series of concessions on their fishing catch, on exports of pyrites, and more. And in the last sixty days, there has been a new focus on propaganda and information warfare with the arrival of Rowland Kenney, an agent of the Neutral Press Committee serving as the British embassy press attaché.

Arriving in August, Kenney surveyed the situation ‘on the ground’ before returning to London and penning a confidential report for the Department of Information, a subsidiary of the Foreign Office that has absorbed the former War Propaganda Bureau. With his recommendations enthusiastically accepted, Kenney returns at year’s end, almost in the same moment that London’s efforts to bully Norway into cutting off Germany are reaching a climax. Publicly, Britain accepts less than it wants; privately, Kenny is using a Reuters press credential to reshape the news environment to Britain’s advantage. (The head of Reuters is currently earning a knighthood at the Foreign Office himself.)

Kenney doesn’t engage in ‘black propaganda.’ Rather, he acts as a translator and two-way conduit for as much factual information and reporting as possible, providing resources to newsroom editors on both sides of the water, and publishing thousands of anodyne pro-British articles to shape the newswires. this is in sharp contrast to German propaganda, which is heavy-handed and culturally arrogant. Rowland Kenney’s crowning achievement is the disestablishment of the Norsk Telegrambureau, Norway’s official news agency, replacing it in 1918 with a new NTB that is aligned with Reuters instead of the German Wolff Telegraph Bureau. Also during that final, terrible year of hunger and bloodshed, Norway finally agrees to lay mines in their territorial waters to complete the Northern Barrage. By then, the steady drumbeat of news, opinion, and torpedo explosions has put the Norwegian people and state in a much more pliable, pro-British mood.

Left: Norwegian Foreign Minister Nils Claus Ihlen, who speaks no English. Right: British envoy Sir Mansfeldt de Cardonnel Findlay, who don't speak a word of Norwegian. Forced to communicate in French, their relationship is not comfortable 

Left: Norwegian Foreign Minister Nils Claus Ihlen, who speaks no English. Right: British envoy Sir Mansfeldt de Cardonnel Findlay, who doesn’t speak a word of Norwegian. Forced to communicate in French, their relationship is not easy