We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series. Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.
It was 7pm on December 6, 1916, as several of the key members of Britain’s War Cabinet arrived at Buckingham Palace. For the past 24 hours, Britain had been without a Prime Minister – and seemingly no one was willing to accept the position.
Herbert Henry (H.H.) Asquith had not been a particularly popular war-time Prime Minister, as he had been increasingly mistrusted by both the left and right in his coalition government. Nevertheless, Asquith’s resignation the day before had come as a shock. Even more surprising was that the office’s natural successor, the Conservative opposition leader Bonar Law, had declined George V’s offer to form a new coalition. Law had insisted on Asquith’s continued presence in the War Cabinet; Asquith spoke of resigning from politics altogether and escaping to Hawaii. Despite George V’s negotiations throughout the day of the 6th, the Monarch couldn’t bring together the disparate parties.
Now the torch of British leadership was being offered to a man who just two years earlier had been accused of being a pacifist, a political radical, and a “Little Englander” (a supporter of self-government for many of Britain’s colonies). Instead, for the next two years, David Lloyd George would be one of the strongest proponents for continuing the Great War and expanding the British Empire.
Britain and the Entente had seen many crises during the Great War, forcing out elected leadership in most of the democratic members of the alliance. By the fall of 1916, the French were already on their third Prime Minister, with two more to follow before the fighting was done. By comparison, the Italians, infamous for their dysfunctional governance, would have only three different PM’s throughout the entire conflict.
Britain had avoid such turnover within their war-time coalition, but just barely. H.H. Asquith’s War Cabinet had seemingly stumbled from crisis to crisis, whether it was on Irish Home Rule, the implementation of conscription, or the failure at Gallipoli, while a series of lower-level political careers were ruined as scapegoats. Asquith had endured largely through intra-party diplomacy. Having shelved his liberal domestic agenda, Asquith had begrudgingly followed the demands of the Conservative members of a War Cabinet that had exploded in size to 20 members. While nominally in charge of the direction of the war, Asquith found himself more often negotiating between the Cabinet’s Liberals and Conservatives, military officers and civilians.
Before the war, Asquith had been known as a political “sledgehammer” due his oratory skill and statesman-like demeanor. But like so many other figures across Europe, the war had shrunk his stature. The leadership among both the Liberals and Conservatives supported him, but he had lost popular support. Asquith had been a constant target of criticism by publications like The Times and the Daily Mail, both of which were owned by Alfred Harmsworth, otherwise known by his title as the Lord of Northcliffe. Northcliffe, a British William Randolph Hearst, had stoked anti-German sentiments before the war even began, antagonizing the Germans to the point they actually shelled his sea-side home in the vain hopes the man who would be credited with the creation of Britain’s tabloid press would be killed.
On top of Northcliffe’s media blitz, Asquith was slowly being undermined by his supposed political allies. The Shell Crisis of 1915 – a somewhat fraudulent panic that Britain was lacking enough high-explosive shells for the Western front – had forced Asquith to reassemble his coalition. While the immediate effect seemingly benefited Asquith with the removal of Winston Churchill from the Cabinet, and the lessening of influence of Lord Kitchener, the Prime Minister had lost vocal public critics of his administration in exchange for quiet private ones – chiefly Bonar Law and David Lloyd George.
Bit by bit, voices who had urged caution on the war effort had seen themselves removed from power. Sir John French, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force who had worked to limit Britain’s offensive actions in the West had been sacked. Lord Kitchener, who had declared the Western front all but impassable, had died, but not before finding himself minimized within the War Cabinet. Asquith, whose deliberative and diplomatic process frustrated both supporters and critics alike, seemed the next to go. Following the death of his son Raymond at the Somme, Asquith hardly had the stomach for a fight.
Before the Great War, it’s hard to estimate what would have been seen as the greater surprise – David Lloyd George leading a war-time government, or doing so with the support of some of the most conservative members of Parliament.
A Welsh nationalist, George had quickly acquired a reputation as a far-left member of the Liberals and an MP who consistently found himself spitting into the prevailing political winds. George had first run for Parliament in 1890 (winning by just 19 votes) on a platform of temperance, opposition to the Church of England, and Welsh home rule – none of which stood much of a chance of passing in London. In the years to follow, George would only increase his opposition to nationally popular issues. His opposition to the Second Boer War put him starkly in conflict with Lord Kitchener, the public hero of the war, who George personally blamed for the thousands of civilian deaths in the South African concentration camps (the term having an entirely different connotation in the early 1900s). Even when George was a part of the government, joining Asquith’s coalition as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1908, he found himself against the popular will. George fought against the expansion of the Dreadnought battleship program, pushing the government to reduce their proposed expansion of 6 ships down to 4. Instead, Asquith’s fellow Liberals, pushed by popular sentiment and Parliament’s Conservatives, decided on 8 ships.
George had some political victories. His ability to ward off a railway strike from his position as the President of the Board of Trade in 1906 had won him international acclaim (even Kaiser Wilhelm II praised George’s negotiating skill in the matter). And his passage of the National Insurance Act of 1911 laid the groundwork for Britain’s future welfare state – despite the vehement opposition of Conservatives to the major tax increases that funded the legislation.
None of that experience would have seemed to prepare George for service in a war-time Cabinet. Indeed, on the eve of the Great War, George was viewed as an anti-imperial pacifist. George had declared that the Empire was based on “racial arrogance” as he argued for greater political autonomy for the nations within the Commonwealth. Days before the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war against Serbia, George beseeched his colleagues in a speech to Parliament not to go to war against Germany. Anglo-German ties were ancient and deeper than ever, or so George claimed. To wage war against their one-time German allies would be against all economic, military and cultural sense.
The German invasion of Belgium changed that. For someone who had spent a political life arguing in favor of the rights of “small” states like Wales, Ireland and the South African Republic against the British, Belgium’s right of independence in the face of German aggression appeared as a similarly noble cause. Within the space of a week, George had gone from publicly pleading with Parliament to avoid the war, to privately admonishing waiving Liberals to join the effort.
Despite the misgivings of his colleagues, George quickly rose within the Asquith War Cabinet. Taking over as the Minister of Munitions following the Shell Crisis, George oversaw a massive increase in shell production. To a British public weary of politicians and generals who made grandiose promises and fulfilled none of them, George was seemingly a man of less talk and more action. As if living proof of the old adage there’s no zealot like a convert, George was adamant that the Great War could only conclude with Germany’s surrender. “The fight must be to a finish,” George told a reporter. And not just any finish – “a knockout.” To his fellow War Cabinet members, he was the obvious choice for the Secretary of War with Lord Kitchener’s passing in the summer of 1916.
In two short years, the one-time Liberal backbencher with a political tin ear had risen to become one of the most important men in the entire Entente.
In November of 1916, Britain wasn’t in crisis. Despite the bloodletting that had occurred throughout the year on the Western Front, it was the Central Powers, not the Entente, who had looked to have been shaken to their foundations. Defeats in Russia, Verdun and Italy had toppled the military leadership in Berlin and Vienna and the war now looked more than ever to be at a standstill.
For a coalition that had endured terrible military defeats, H.H. Asquith’s government could not withstand twin minor controversies both occurring within days of one another.
The first would occur over the relatively insignificant issue of the government selling German assets in Nigeria, seized during the neighboring campaigns in Togoland and Kamerun. The debate would have been altogether forgettable had it not been for the status of the Colonial Secretary whose job it was to make such decisions – Bonar Law. The Conservative opposition leader found himself vigorously attack for the government’s handling of colonial policy by Ulster Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson; nominally a man of similar policy leanings. Law turned George for support and found none.
London political wonks set the rumor mill ablaze with why the conservative elements of Parliament were turning on Law, especially over such a trivial issue. George would only add fuel to the fire as he dined with Carson that night.
Merely days after Law’s dust-up in Parliament, London was again consumed with gossip over the release of what would later be known as the “Lansdowne Letter.” Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, formerly the Viceroy of India and a Governor-General of Canada, had begun petitioning the War Cabinet for a negotiated settlement to the war. Lansdowne wasn’t a defeatist – he did not believe Germany could beat Britain in a prolonged war – but he did believe that a continued conflict would only “spell ruin for the civilized world.” Lansdowne argued for an arrangement to return the borders back to their original placements, both in Europe and across the world. If accepted, no nation would have gained or lost an inch of ground. Only tombstones would remain as the sole trace of the war’s impact.
Lansdowne’s letter rocked London – despite not being publicly published for another year. No publication in Britain agreed with the contents or was willing to devote ink to promoting the idea. But the letter was read by those in power, and H.H. Asquith’s unwillingness to denounce Lansdowne sufficiently gave rise to the rumor that Lansdowne’s letter was a stalkinghorse for a similar offer from Asquith’s government.
Thus within days, the view in London had become that the coalition was cracking apart and that Asquith was on the verge of extending a peace offering to Germany. In the eyes of some, action had to be taken to preserve the government and the war.
The leaders of opposition to Asquith – George, Law, Carson and Northcliffe (among a few others), met on November 20th, 1916. The goal was how to remove the Prime Minister from power.
Surprisingly, the principals were divided on whether Asquith should be replaced or merely stripped of his power within the War Cabinet. All agreed the Cabinet had become ungovernable with 20 or more members all trying to dictate war policy. A “War Council” – in essence a subcommittee of the Cabinet, with no more than 5 members – was agreed upon. George would conduct the War Council, and despite the opposition from Northcliffe, Carson and others, Asquith would be retained as PM. Both George and Law insisted on keeping Asquith in power. Asquith would run the domestic side of the government while George and Law ran the war effort.
Asquith wanted no part of the scheme. He clearly understood that agreeing to the War Council would leave him as a figurehead when it came to the conduct of the war. Moreso, it would alienate most of the other members of the Cabinet, whose concerns would be similarly pushed aside. The coalition itself seemed likely to fall if approved.
But the momentum to at least neuter Asquith was leading to a government fall either way. On December 3rd, the Conservative leadership met and drafted a resolution calling for Asquith’s resignation. The document made it clear what the impact would be if Asquith didn’t cooperate – the Conservative members of the Cabinet would resign instead.
Law presented the terms to Asquith. Asquith neither accepted nor declined the resolution; rather he asked if the previous terms of David Lloyd George’s War Council could be reconsidered. Law and George agreed and by the night of Sunday, December 3rd, H.H. Asquith was a Prime Minister in name only.
If Asquith’s opponents wouldn’t accept “no” as an answer, they hardly seemed to accept “yes” either.
As the newspapers reported on George and Law’s War Council coup, Asquith wasn’t commended for reading the political tea leaves and relinquishing authority rather than allowing the whole government to fall. Rather, Asquith was roundly criticized for folding to the political pressure, even from his prior critics. Likely feeling that he could do no right in the eyes of many in power, Asquith resigned after seeking council from within his Liberal Party. Few of his Liberal contemporaries wished to serve under David Lloyd George, but the leadership of the party agreed with Asquith’s final conclusion – it was better to resign as Prime Minister than stay and watch the rest of the Cabinet resign in protest.
Even in resignation, Asquith faced criticism. Said Winston Churchill, after the whole affair had settled down: “A fierce, resolute Asquith, fighting with all his powers would have conquered easily. But the whole trouble arose from the fact that there was no fierce resolute Asquith to win this war or any other.”
His actions may have divided his party, and his grip on power was now based on his support by the most conservative elements of the coalition, but David Lloyd George was now in control of Britain’s war effort.
The timing of one of Britain’s most resolute supporters of the war coming into power was terrible for anyone hoping for a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Merely days after taking power, Germany publicly offered peace. On December 12th, 1916, German Chancellor Theobald Bethmann-Hollweg issued a declaration that the Central Powers “hav[ing] given proof of their indestructible strength in winning considerable successes at war,” were willing to start negotiations to bring about an end to the fighting. Bethmann-Hollweg stated no terms or preconditions to the negotiations, only that the broad concept of a peace treaty be discussed. George – and the rest of the Entente – dismissed Bethmann-Hollweg’s offer entirely. If Germany was offering peace, she must be on the verge of feeling defeated, or so George and others believed.
The reality of Bethmann-Hollweg’s offer was complex. Despite having done more than almost any other figure in Europe to ensure a war, Bethmann-Hollweg saw that Germany was slowly succumbing to internal and external pressures. The nation was beginning to starve to death, and her allies were increasingly needing Germany to prop themselves up in battle. The war had divided the Reichstag, with the majority already petitioning the government to ensure that war was being conducted for defensive purposes, not territorial conquest. Bethmann-Hollweg’s peace offer has been interpreted by some as little more than a maneuver to placate those waiving on supporting the war by showing the Entente as unwilling to accept peace. Whether Bethmann-Hollweg’s motivations were genuine or not, the offer was never seriously considered by David Lloyd George.
For Britain, the war would go on, and now with a renewed focus on the Ottoman Empire. Driving the Turks out of the Middle East might not push Germany any closer to defeat, but it might provide a morale boost in a war-weary London. As George and the War Cabinet devised their 1917 strategy, it could be simplified to George’s eventual orders to the British command in Egypt – Jerusalem by Christmas.