‘The King’s Grace’ – The Reign of George V: 1916 (part two).1 comment
Total War and the Temper of the People:
Besides the course of the war itself, in the early part of 1916, the two subjects which, according to John Buchan, most agitated the popular mind were the temper of Labour and the matter of conscription. In addition to the troubles in the first two years of the war on Clydeside and in the south Wales coalfield, the new munitions policy, with its wholesale suspension of trade union rules, increased the tension. In spite of high wages, industrial troubles were always on a hair-trigger until the end of the war. There was, Buchan wrote, a work-weariness as well as a war-weariness, factory-shock as well as shell-shock. British Labour reflected the mood of the country; it had moments of revolt and discontent as well as its steady hours of resolution. In 1915 Lord Derby had made to organise recruitment on a more scientific basis, but in the figures published in January 1916 showed that ‘voluntaryism’ had failed and that conscription would soon follow.
There was little opposition to conscription in the country, and although an official Labour congress instructed the Party in Parliament to oppose the measure, and although this was upheld at the annual conference three weeks later by a majority of more than a million card-votes, it was also decided by a small majority not to agitate for repeal should the bill become law. Furthermore, it was agreed that the three Labour members whom Asquith had invited to join the war cabinet should keep their positions, despite Ramsay MacDonald’s pacifist stance. Buchan commented:
“The result was a typical product of our national temperament, and only the thoughtless would label it inconsistent. The Labour delegates were honest men in a quandary. They were loath to give up a cherished creed even under the stress of a dire necessity. But they were practical men and Englishmen, and they recognised compelling facts. If they could not formally repudiate their dogmas, they could neglect them.
A week after the Battle of Jutland, about which I have written elsewhere, the cruiser carrying Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, was sunk by a mine west of the Orkneys, while on course for Russia. The news of the sinking and Kitchener’s death filled the United Kingdom and its allies with profound sorrow. Labour leaders and trade union delegates, according to Buchan, were as sincere in their mourning as his professional colleagues and the army which he had created. At the time he was beyond doubt the most dominant personality in the Empire, and the foremost of Britain’s public servants… In twenty-two months he had expanded six divisions into seventy and made a great army.
As the late summer and autumn of the Somme campaign wore on, the temper, not just of the British Labour movement, but that of Britain as a whole, was beyond the mood of exasperation of 1915. Britons were beginning to learn the meaning of the task they had undertaken. The civilian hatred of the enemy had gone and the mood of the people was more like that of the men at the Western Front, one of resignation to fate. As Buchan pointed out;
The War was no more a reported tale; enemy aircraft had stricken down men and women in English streets, the life of the trenches could be envisaged by the dullest, and death, which had left few families unbereaved, was becoming once more the supreme uniter.
This new mood of poise nevertheless emboldened people to be more critical of the War Government which, according to Buchan, was trying to cure an earthquake with small political pills. Far from being a mobilisation of the best minds and talents of the nation, the Coalition cabinet had turned out to be a mere compromise between party interests. Neither were its traditional processes fitted for the swift dispatch of business. During the autumn men of all classes were beginning to ask themselves, and each other, whether such a government was fit for the vital purpose of winning the War. The great majority of the British people had become convinced by the late summer that a change was necessary, but the Government was slow to discern this shift in public opinion. Thus, when the attack came, there was a tendency to attribute this to a combination of conspiracy and calumny by the press. However, it was evident that no government could have been driven from office purely by these means. The press owed most of its power to its ability to echo popular opinion which felt entitled to criticise results which were not adequate to the sacrifice and spirit of the nation. David Lloyd George was, as ever, the one leader capable of interpreting the subconscious popular mind. Buchan had this to write about him:
Alone of his Liberal colleagues, he realised that the political ‘expertise’, of which they had been such masters, was as much in the shadow as the champion faro-player in a Far Western township which has been visited by a religious revival. His powerful intelligence was turned into other channels, and he brought to the conduct of this war between nations the same passion which in other days he showed in the strife between classes. When he succeeded Lord Kitchener at the War Office he found himself with little authority; he was convinced that things were being mismanaged at the front, and he was determined to infuse into their conduct a fiercer purpose, and to win back policy and major strategy to the control of the Cabinet. To do this he must either be Prime Minister himself, or head a small War Directory which had full executive responsibility. At the close of November he put the latter proposal before Mr. Asquith.”
The matter soon found its way into the newspapers. The Conservatives in the Cabinet had little love for Lloyd George, but were anxious that Asquith should resign in order to reconstruct his Cabinet. At first, Asquith seemed inclined to accept Lloyd George’s proposal for a War Directory, but due to the press campaign and on the advice of his Liberal colleagues, he withdrew his offer. Lloyd George resigned, and so too did Asquith, believing himself to be indispensable to the King. However, George V sent for Bonar Law instead, who declared that he was unable to form an administration, so the King turned to Lloyd George, who became Prime Minister on 7 December. Balfour accepted the role of Foreign Secretary and his fellow Conservatives followed. Lloyd George was therefore able to create his War Cabinet of five to include Bonar Law, Lord Curzon, Lord Milner, Arthur Henderson (Labour leader) and himself as president. Asquith and Sir Edward Grey, both of whom had served in Liberal-led governments for more than a decade, retired to the back benches. Buchan believed;
beyond question the change was necessary, and it had behind it the assent of a people not careless of the decencies. That new leaders should be demanded in a strife which affects national existence is as natural as the changes of the seasons.Few men are so elastic of mind that, having given all their strength to one set of problems, they can turn with unabated vigour to new needs and new conditions. The nation, again, must be able to view its masters with hopefulness, and in all novelty there is hope. There was that, too, in the temperament and talents of the Prime Minister himself upon which men had begun to look coldly. He left on the ordinary mind that he thought more of argument than of action. It seemed to his critics impossible to expect the unresting activity and the bold origination which the situation required from one whose habits of thought and deed were cast in the more leisurely mould of an older school of statesmen… When a people judges there is usually reason in its verdict, and it is idle to argue that Mr. Asquith was a perfect, or even the best available, leader in war-time.
Below: Lloyd George with Balfour at the Versailles Peace Conference, 1919