Lloyd George, David (1863–1945)
LLOYD GEORGE, DAVID (1863–1945)MINISTER OF MUNITIONS
AFTER THE WAR
In August 1914 David Lloyd George already occupied a secure and meritorious place in British affairs. Despite occasions when he had cast doubt on the solidity of his liberal principles, overall he had established himself as the principal "New Liberal" of his time, uplifting the doctrine of social welfare and leading the legislative battle against poverty, unemployment, illness, malnutrition, and the powers of the House of Lords.
The outbreak of war did not change this. He reacted to the threat of the European bully to "little" Belgium and liberal France, and proclaimed his views to a huge gathering of Nonconformists in London. Thereafter, his every action attracted public attention. As chancellor of the exchequer, his early financial arrangements tided the country over initial difficulties. His negotiations with trade unions reduced the numbers of strikes, opened the way to considerable "dilution" in the engineering industry, and facilitated widespread female employment in industry. Less effective were his condemnation of heavy drinking among munitions workers, of the dominant western strategy in the war (as against action in the Balkans), and of certain actions by Horatio Herbert Kitchener (1850–1916), the war secretary. (It is often claimed, in addition, that he favored naval and then military action at the Dardanelles. This ignores the fact that his then target was Austria-Hungary, not Turkey.)
In May 1915 the Liberal government was rocked by a series of disagreements. Herbert Henry Asquith (1852–1928) promptly dissolved the Liberal government and formed a coalition ministry with Liberals and Conservatives in roughly equal numbers and a sprinkling of Labour members. Lloyd George accepted readily enough the high-profile position it thrust on him—that of the newly created minister of munitions. Thereby he seized control of weapons production out of Kitchener's hands, derived credit for some of Kitchener's accomplishments, and placed munitions production, appropriately, in devotedly civilian control. In consequence, by 1917 (although certainly not before) Britain was producing weaponry sufficient for its hugely increased army.
Life, meanwhile, was not easy for the new coalition government. It now included a considerable element disbelieving in voluntary military service. Most of these were Conservatives, but the truly conspicuous member was Lloyd George. Having favored the idea of conscription in 1910—in conversation with the Conservatives if not publicly—he was not passionate in its cause. Steadily, during 1916 he drove Asquith and his onetime Liberal colleagues to capitulation.
This did him no harm with the general public and much good among right-wing imperialists. But it caused a potential rift with the more devoted Nonconformist Liberals, who hereafter viewed him with a measure of distrust. Whether he would find a new, equally secure political base elsewhere remained in question. In these circumstances, his position seemed less than secure. Yet the fact remained that, in the popular conception, the Allied cause appeared to be making no progress. Above all, the four-and-a-half-month saga during 1916 of the British army on the Somme yielded trivial progress and cost monstrous casualties. The British public did not suspect Lloyd George (who had failed to provide the vast supply of munitions required) or Douglas Haig (1861–1928) (who fought the campaign on the fanciful basis that the munitions were at his disposal) of responsibility. All they knew was that things were going severely wrong. A new, more authoritarian, prime minister might be a solution.
In November 1916 Lloyd George made his move. With the consent of the Conservative Party leader, Bonar Law (1858–1923), he demanded that direction of the war be placed in the hands of a committee of only three, of whom Asquith—although still remaining nominal prime minister—would not be one. Asquith, torn between becoming prime minister without power or not being prime minister at all, eventually rejected the scheme and resigned. His action made sense: he no longer possessed a majority in the House of Commons and stood no chance of winning one in a general election. That Lloyd George succeeded him, leading a government with solid Conservative support and also the endorsement of some less-distinguished Liberals (and, strictly for the duration, of the Labour Party) also made sense. If his standing among politicians raised questions, his standing in the country did not.
Almost immediately, Lloyd George as prime minister introduced changes. Some, regarding health and housing and education, were far removed from the war except as regards a changing (but not necessarily permanent) national mood. Others concerned shipping, transport, and the food supply and were a response to the German U-boat campaign against merchant ships. That these new arms of government were placed in the hands of independent businessmen revealed something of Lloyd George's novel approach to government.
In matters directly concerned with the war Lloyd George's premiership brought less dramatic consequences. At sea he was slow in responding to the menace of U-boats, and not much ahead of the admiralty in concluding that the only answer lay in convoys. Nevertheless, after a fraught couple of months the nation's resort to this instrument became highly effective, and by the end of 1917 the crisis was surmounted.
In military matters the war in 1917 presented no straightforward solution. Lloyd George was determined to assert his control over strategy. He first proposed to place the main burden of the offensive on the Italians, a predictably unacceptable maneuver. Then he set about taking control of the battle on the western front out of the hands of Haig and placing the British army under the direction of General Robert-Georges Nivelle (1856–1924), the French commander-in-chief. But Nivelle's planned war-winning offensive proved a calamity. It reduced the Gallic army to mutiny, caused Nivelle to be abruptly sacked by the French government, and "let down" (in Frances Stevenson's words) Lloyd George. For the moment he was in no position to remove Haig.
In any case, despite their differences and personal dislike, Lloyd George and Haig were more alike than either cared to admit. Each yearned for a campaign that would produce a great sweeping victory, rupturing the enemy line and putting its army to rout. As he could not produce a meaningful scheme of his own for this purpose, Lloyd George allowed Haig (whom he could easily have stopped) to launch the lamentable battle of Third Ypres (July–November 1917), which he would thereafter regard as Haig's supreme act of folly.
By the start of 1918 the prospect of early victory seemed remote. The United States had entered the war, but the western front appeared deadlocked, and Russia was firmly out of the war. Lloyd George, convinced (with some reason) that Haig was eager to go on attacking, failed to awake to the nature of the German threat and withheld from the western fronts the troops that were needed. The consequence, on 21 March, was a staggering early impact by the German offensive.
Lloyd George, to his credit, was not shattered. He summoned troops from the many distant fields to which he had sent them, appealed to the Americans to dispatch the forces that they were tardily assembling, provided the shipping by which U.S. forces might be transported, and sent to France large numbers of British youngsters and older men hitherto protected from active service. (His attempts to conscript Irishmen, by contrast, were a lamentable failure, and drove that country ever further into the arms of Sinn Féin.)
The Germans failed in their attempt to win a breakthrough victory. By mid-1918 the British army was secure and refreshed. It was still under Haig's direction but, with Lloyd George's enthusiastic support, all three Allied armies in the West were now subject to the overall command of Ferdinand Foch (1851–1929). And William Robert Robertson (1860–1933), the chief of the imperial general staff, had been replaced by Lloyd George's favorite Henry Maitland Wilson (1881–1964). This situation has been depicted as a triumph for Lloyd George. Yet it amounted to little. Henry Wilson, while abusing Haig privately, conformed more readily than Robertson to his demands. And Foch, to Lloyd George's fury, directed American troops to the French sector while delegating the main attacks to Haig and the British. This proceeding Lloyd George could not now forbid.
Yet the truth was more complex than even these remarks suggest. In fact the war was not proceeding in accordance with the dictates of either Lloyd George or Haig (or Foch). The British army attacked simply to clear the enemy from the sensitive districts to which the Germans had penetrated, called off these operations when resistance became too great, and then attacked elsewhere. This was the product not of Lloyd George but of civilian diligence and the direction of those further down the military scale. Yet its adoption produced a conflict proceeding irresistibly to Allied victory.
Already Lloyd George was planning an election. He was determined to remain prime minister of a government overwhelmingly Conservative but with a Liberal element. Thereby Lloyd George converted his differences with Asquith into a fundamental Liberal division. He chose 150 Liberal candidates (many of them ostentatious in his support in the old house) to be free of Conservative opponents, whereas all other Liberals were subject to Tory opposition. In the short term this maneuver succeeded utterly. In the 1918 general election the conservatives swept the field, securing 333 seats, and the Coalition Liberals (fighting without Conservative opponents) gained 136. Their opponents were all but annihilated. Labour secured 59 seats and became the official opposition. The Asquithian Liberals secured 29, of whom Asquith—even though his Conservative opponent was denied Lloyd George's "coupon"—was not one.
Lloyd George set the tone of the election, which as it happened was preceded by Germany's capitulation. At one moment he played up the brave new world he hoped to create, at another he indulged in unrestrained Hun-hating. This conduct remained henceforth a millstone round his neck. The collapse of the economy in 1920 brutally terminated the schemes in housing and education on which he had embarked. The persistence of Irish resistance led his government to resort to barbarities from which his subsequent success in negotiating a settlement never rescued him. And his attempts both to justify the peace settlement (for which there was much to be said) and to modify its extremities were submerged by recollections of the malevolent election campaign. When, after four years of peace, the Conservatives concluded that they did not need him any longer, he was simply ejected from power.
His fall was stunning and proved irreversible. Yet nothing about his career, and his many questionable actions, could obliterate his huge accomplishments. He played a great part in founding the welfare state in Britain. He espoused the validity of Britain's action in going to war in defense of liberal values. He organized much of the nation's male and female power for war purposes. And he led the nation to victory. It was not a small achievement.
Grigg, John. Lloyd George: War Leader, 1916–1918. London and New York, 2002.
Lloyd George, Frances. Lloyd George: A Diary. By Frances Stevenson, edited by A. J. P. Taylor. London, 1971.
Rowland, Peter. Lloyd George. London, 1975.