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

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Not Quite Ready for War: Herbert Asquith Before the July Crisis of 1914


Herbert Henry Asquith, 
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1908–1916

By George H. Cassar

Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was generally lax about defense issues during the early years of his administration. He never allowed the Committee of Imperial Defense—CID—to develop into an agency powerful enough to influence strategic planning. He regarded it with indifference and only on occasions set it to work on central issues. Even when he did so, he failed to impose its findings on the War Office and Admiralty. At meetings, which he called only infrequently, he seldom used his authority to bring matters to a head. Asquith never initiated, responding only when proposals were placed before him. Even then he gave no lead and refused to be pushed into adopting measures before the necessity for them was apparent.

After the Agadir Crisis, Asquith adopted a more positive attitude and accelerated the pace of defensive preparations. By August 1914 his administration had, mainly through the agency of the CID, taken far-reaching steps to strengthen the nation’s security. Two invasion inquiries, one in 1908 and the other in 1914, confirmed the Admiralty’s claim that  it could protect Britain from an outside attack. The army, though small, was ready to fight in a continental war.  Every detail had been worked out to transport the troops to their assigned place in the French line. The modernization of the navy was complete and numerically it enjoyed a significant preponderance over any rival.  A national air force was established in 1912. Imperial conferences and discussions fostered unity and coordination in military affairs between Britain and the dominions. A War Book was prepared, setting out in minute detail the action to be taken by every department the moment war threatened. Finally a war risk insurance scheme was adopted and arrangements were made for the state to take control of the railways on the outbreak of war. 

These measures were certainly adequate for a brief and limited war but they fell far short for the kind of conflict that developed in the closing weeks of 1914. What was missing when the nation found itself compelled to wage a modern war? Despite a decade of international tension and excitement, the authorities had taken no steps to build a continental-size army or an ordnance industry sufficient to meet the requirements of such a force. They neglected to set up a permanent central planning staff to coordinate the work of the naval and military departments. A reasoned strategy was lacking, as was a structure of supreme command to oversee operations in the opening days. On top of this, there were no arrangements to convert the nation’s industries to war purposes. Nothing had been done to regulate manpower so as to prevent skilled men, who would be more valuable in industry or transport, from enlisting in the services. Indeed there was no mechanism to study, let alone deal with, the nature of the national effort required in total war.

Given the near unanimous belief of the experts that any future war would be brief, Asquith can scarcely be held accountable for many of the deficiencies that arose. There were certain problems, however, which could have been foreseen and dealt with through better planning and greater allocation of financial resources. Matters relating to national security were not a high priority for Asquith and his colleagues. The Liberal cabinet was largely composed of  men unequivocally committed to the ideas of social reform and welfare spending. It viewed defense costs in peacetime as a necessary evil, to be kept as low as possible consistent with a reasonable margin of safety. Generally the military policy of the Asquith government between 1908 and 1914 was defensive and non-provocative. 

On the domestic scene, the years immediately before 1914 were extremely troublesome for Asquith. Controversy was caused by the suffragettes’ sensational campaign to gain voting rights for women, the militancy of industrial strikers and the disestablishment of the Anglican the Anglican  Church in Wales. But the greatest challenge to Asquith and his government came from Ireland.

Somewhat Inaccurate News of the "Curragh Mutiny"

The only way Asquith had assured himself of the support of the Irish Nationalists during Lloyd George’s budget fight was to accept their demand for a free Ireland. To that end his government drafted a Home Rule Bill in 1912. The Lords rejected it, but they could only delay it for two years. In 1914 the bill would become law, as the Commons would have passed it in three successive sessions.

The issue was complicated by a division among the Irish themselves. The inhabitants of Ulster in Northern Ireland were predominately Protestant and their region industrial in contrast to the rural, Catholic south. They objected vehemently to inclusion in an autonomous Ireland in which they would be a minority. John Redmond, who led the Irish Nationalists, was equally determined to accept nothing less than a united, self-governing Ireland. Asquith, needing the votes of the Irish Nationalists to stay in power, was reluctant to make any changes in the bill for Ulster’s sake.

As the Home Rule Bill passed through the various stages of its transition to the statute book, the situation in Ireland steadily deteriorated. Ulster loyalists found a champion in Sir Edward Carson, a brilliant lawyer who proposed to organize a provisional government in case Home Rule became law. Ulstermen began to arm those traditionally opposed to Home Rule and intent on exploiting the crisis to bring down the Liberal regime, encouraged them to armed rebellion. Bonar Law, who had replaced Balfour as the Tory leader, told Carson that  he would support any action the latter deemed necessary, whether constitutional or not. In the south,  nationalists recruited volunteers to answer the private army in Ulster. Violence flared out. In March 1914, Asquith, before moving the third reading of the Home Rule Bill, included a provision that would allow the Ulster counties to opt out of Home Rule for a period of six years. The measure failed to mollify Carson and was too great a concession by Redmond. Then, in March 1914, the government decided on a show of force, only to be embarrassed when 60 officers of the Third Cavalry Brigade, stationed at the Curragh, announced they would resign their commissions unless given a written assurance that they would not be ordered to march against the Protestant loyalists. The incident at the Curragh was settled by negotiation after the Secretary for War, Jack Seely, unwisely acceded to the officers' demands. The agreement restricted the government’s freedom of action in Ireland and quickly repudiated. In these circumstances, Seely resigned, and Asquith personally assumed control of the War Office.

Portrait of Asquith (seated right) with His
Wartime Cabinet and Advisors


The question of Home Rule, which had bedeviled successive British governments for half a century, appeared to be passing beyond the ability of Asquith and his colleagues to resolve. The problem, inherently difficult, was exacerbated by the irresponsibility of the Unionists and by the weakness and inaction of the Liberal cabinet. Asquith, in fact, was at his worst. Until forced by events or by the extremism of his opponents, he avoided irrevocable commitments and was content simply to pursue a wait and see attitude. He might have been able to check resistance in the early stages by firmness and by making clear that the best he could do to deliver Ireland without Ulster. The absence of the will to act  encouraged both sides to play for higher stakes. 

As the threat of civil war hung over Ireland, inter-party discussions continued throughout the summer. Asquith hoped to narrow the differences separating the two sides and in July he believed he had succeeded. At his request the King summoned a formal conference at Buckingham Palace. It opened over irreconcilable differences. At this point, events in Ireland were eclipsed by the spectre of a general European war.

From Asquith as War Leader, George Cassar, Bloomsbury Academic (2nd edition), 2003


  1. To take nothing away from the horrors of WWII and its aftermath, the world of pre WWI set the tone and pace of the century, producing the leaders and dynamics for all that follows.

  2. They still haven't sorted out Northern Ireland; we thought they had but the old issues re-surfaced with Brexit. And we still have politicians that do nothing until they have to. We still do not have the industrial base to produce artillery ammunition for an extended war.
    Minor point: it is not true that a "national air force" was established in 1912. The Royal Flying Corps was established then, but it was still a part of the Army (and it's Naval Wing part of the Navy). The independent Royal Air Force was established on 1st April 1918.