Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Lloyd George: From the War Office to Prime Minister

Munitions Minister Lloyd George at the Front, 1915

Contributed by George Cassar

In late spring, there was a dramatic shift in the political landscape. On 5 June Secretary of State for War Horatio Kitchener met a tragic death when the cruiser HMS Hampshire, on which he was traveling to Russia, hit a mine in stormy seas and went down off the Orkneys. Asquith weighed the claims of several Conservatives before offering the vacant post to Munitions Minister David Lloyd George. When strategic control passed to the CIGS at the close of 1915, the office of secretary for war became little more than a gilded cage, as Lloyd George well knew, with its duties confined mainly to army recruiting and departmental administration. Lloyd George, who had done so much to whittle down Kitchener's authority, was prepared to move to the War Office on condition that the original powers of the secretary for war were restored. As he had no confidence in either the tactics or strategy of the High Command, he wanted to be able to formulate military policy.

But Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff , backed by Asquith, would not consent to any changes that would rob him of his right to control strategy and act as chief adviser to the government on military matters. Still, Lloyd George may have felt that he could do no more at Munitions, and the War Office was ostensibly a promotion. Besides, the Army was about to launch an offensive at the Somme which, if successful, would enable him to reap much of the credit. After weighing the pros and cons for a week, he accepted the post of secretary of war on the same restricted terms that had been imposed on Kitchener.

Lloyd George spent five unproductive months at the War Office where he chafed at his inability to outwit Robertson and change the direction of the war. Robertson and the generals believed that the war could only be won by defeating the main German army in the west. Lloyd George, on the other hand, considered it sheer folly to continue with costly assaults in France that accomplished nothing. His prescription was to strike Austria, the most vulnerable flank of the Central Powers, and isolate Germany. Clashes between Lloyd George and Robertson were therefore inevitable. Robertson could not match Lloyd George as a debater, but he was at least his equal in the arts of black politics. Time and time again he was able to neutralize Lloyd George's political maneuverings. Robertson was not only skilful in using the press, but, in case of an impasse with his adversary, he could also count on the support of the prime minister and the cabinet.

In September Lloyd George received an unpleasant reminder of what it was like to challenge the British High Command's military policy. During a trip to France he invited one of its leading generals, Ferdinand Foch, to criticize Haig's methods, but Foch had refused to do so. Word of the conversation was leaked to the Morning Post, which hammered Lloyd George for his lack of patriotism and warned him of the consequences if he did not mend his ways. To make matters worse, the battle at the Somme turned out to be a bloody failure, and, since this had occurred on his watch, he could not avoid taking some responsibility. If Lloyd George was at variance with the generals over the direction of the war, he gave every sign in public that he was united with them in his determination to win it. On 26 September he gave his so-called “knockout” interview to Roy Howard, an American reporter, in a bid to throw cold water on President Wilson's anticipated peace initiative. It was reproduced in the Times next day. Lloyd George essentially made public, admittedly in an undiplomatic tone, the cabinet's policy, which was to discourage American mediation for a negotiated peace. He insisted that “the fight must be to the finish—to a knock-out,” however long and whatever the cost, and he warned that Britain would not tolerate the intervention of any state, including neutrals with the highest purposes and the best of motives.

Another Stop on the Tour of the Front

Lloyd George's unhappiness at the War Office deepened in the autumn of 1916. The war was going badly for the Allies, and his efforts to circumvent the obstructionism of the CIGS and the generals had failed. He could see no ray of light ahead. Pondering on how to achieve greater civilian control of the generals, he could think of no other way than to remove the higher conduct of the war from Asquith's hands. As David Woodward, a leading authority on the period has observed, “it was Robertson and the military policy he represented—not Asquith—whom Lloyd George hoped to overthrow.”

Lloyd George admired Asquith's intellectual qualities, his skills as a parliamentarian, and the resourcefulness that he had shown as prime minister in times of peace. Indeed, during the prewar era Lloyd George had acted as a creative spark for the Liberal social program and someone on whom Asquith could depend, and the two, however different temperamentally, had formed a very effective team. But tensions in their relationship began to appear in the summer of 1915 owing to their differences over conscription. In the months that followed, the gap between the two became more acute as Lloyd George grew increasingly disillusioned with, and critical of, Asquith's inefficient and leisurely management of the war. Not only did Asquith defer to his generals, he insisted on preserving the cabinet's executive authority. This meant that all major rulings in the War Council and its successors the Dardanelles Committee and the War Committee, were referred to the full cabinet, where too often issues which provoked disagreement were shelved rather than decided on one way or another.

As Lloyd George put more and more distance between himself and Asquith, he forged new links with a number of prominent Unionists. As a group, the Conservatives also wanted greater efficiency and speed in decision-making. They distrusted Lloyd George, however, regarding him as a Welsh radical who in previous years had been a fierce critic of the Boer War. Still they were impressed by his driving force and by his determined approach to waging war, regardless of infringements on individual liberty. In the final analysis they saw Lloyd George as a lesser evil than Asquith.

The press joined restive Conservatives to clamor for reform of the executive. The Morning Post summed up the frustration felt by many with Asquith's ministry when it wrote on 1 December 1916: “Nothing is foreseen, every decision is postponed. The war is not really directed—it directs itself.” There were demands that Asquith be replaced as prime minister by Lloyd George, who seemed better fitted to play the part of a war leader. In short, the country as a whole wanted a change, a livelier organizer of victory, a new Pitt. On 1 December 1916 Lloyd George, with Bonar Law's backing, presented Asquith with a plan that would reconstruct the system for prosecuting the war. This involved delegating executive authority to a small committee consisting of three or four ministers free of departmental responsibilities and under the chairmanship of Lloyd George. Asquith would be excluded from the new body but would remain prime minister. After some modification, Asquith accepted the arrangement. On 4 December, however, a leading article in the Times attacked Asquith personally and implied that he had been reduced to a subordinate position in his own cabinet. The piece was clearly written by someone with good inside information. It appears that Carson was the informant, but Asquith suspected Lloyd George, who was known to have friendly relations with Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Times.

Lloyd George in Discussions with General Haig and Joffre in 1916

His pride injured, Asquith repudiated his earlier agreement with Lloyd George, determined to fight. Lloyd George's response was to resign. Asquith could have weathered Lloyd George's defection, but confronted by the loss of all, or nearly all, of the Conservatives in the cabinet, he had no option but to resign.

The king immediately sent for Bonar Law, the most obvious choice to succeed Asquith. Bonar Law declined the offer when Asquith made it clear that he would not serve under him. Thereupon the king turned to Lloyd George and invited him to form a government. Lloyd George accepted and from 7–9 December garnered enough support from Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal sympathizers to form a government. His longstanding ambition to succeed Asquith had been achieved, not so much by intrigue as by accident.

This article is a selection from the March 2017 issue of Over the Top

1 comment:

  1. Any idea who is the portly gentleman with a beard and bowler hat and black clothes, who appears in all three of the above photos?