WHY DID ASQUITH GO, and why now? Politicians conspire and collude – we all know that. In an age of mass electorates, people get bored by their elected representatives and are fickle in their loyalties and enthusiasm. We know that as well.
The exact sequence of events which climaxed in Lloyd George kissing hands with the (less than enraptured) King on 7th December was byzantine. What is beyond question was that Lloyd George, Secretary of State for War, was as ambitious as only a rising political star can be. He was in cahoots with Lord Northcliffe, which ensured him a sympathetic hearing in both the Daily Mail and The Times.
While there was nothing inevitable about the ultimate resolution of this latest round of political machinations, Asquith had become increasingly vulnerable. Since May 1915, he had been Prime Minister, not of a Liberal government but of a wartime coalition. Lloyd George was the darling of the radicals, perceived as being infinitely more energised in the implementation of those policies likely to lead to a successful prosecution of the war.
If one can dub the Welshman a man of the Left, then what was happening now was that the Left was making common cause with the Right.
A further problem was that the Right was also distinctly factional: the Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law, the Unionist Sir Edward Carson, even the former Tory Prime Minister Arthur Balfour were each significant constellations in the party’s firmament, and each had their own distinct constituency of support.
More intangibly, but also probably more damagingly, the British public had gradually acquired a sense that Asquith was undynamic, addicted to his own pleasures (not the least of which was toping) and that these preoccupied him to the detriment of the execution of his duties.
Posterity has not been especially kind to the man – he enjoys no such immunity to criticism as, most obviously, Winston Churchill, who was at least as committed to pursuing his own pleasures, although less susceptible to the company of young women. But perception can be decisive, and this was one such time.
On Tuesday 5th December, Lloyd George resigned, as threatened, over what was essentially a picked quarrel concerning the creation of a small inner War Council. Asquith convened a meeting of other Liberal ministers to secure backing for a reconstructed government without their colleague, who (not exactly unreasonably) was viewed by some as too troublesome.
Any acceptable alternative government had to command the support of the Tory as well as the Liberal apparatchiks. This was wartime, and a show of national unity was politically essential.
However, the Tories in the coalition were caught in a cleft stick: Their leader, Bonar Law, who, according to Margot Asquith, had “always been terrified of Carson” was now told to back Lloyd George or face a challenge to his leadership of the Unionist party.
Bonar Law knew that many Tory backbenchers, encouraged by Carson and his allies, were increasingly critical of Asquith’s conduct of the war. If he misjudged his own position, there would be a strong possibility of a rebellion in his own ranks. In consequence, at least according to the highly partisan pen of Mrs Asquith, Bonar Law, “with the intrepidity of a rabbit and the slyness of a fox, determined to break the coalition… rather than let them break him”.
Asquith set no great store by Bonar Law. He now met with the Tory grandees Lord Curzon, Austen Chamberlain and Robert Cecil, and sniffed out the chances of their ditching their leader. Their response was discouraging: Bonar Law had to stay.
Even now, Asquith did not give up hope of clinging to office. He liked the work, believed he was good at it, and he also wanted the salary. For now his best tactic seemed to let others fail and, to that end, he submitted his resignation to the King later that day.
The following afternoon, 6th December, he was summoned to a conference at Buckingham Palace, called by the King in attempt to resolve the crisis. No particular headway was made, and he returned later to Downing Street to listen to the advice of senior colleagues that he should steer clear of serving under either Lloyd George or Bonar Law. Opposition was the thing – a “sober and responsible Opposition, steadily supporting the Government in the conduct of the war”.
For someone so inimical to displays of populism, such a gentlemanly style of opposition might have seemed manna from heaven, save for the fact that it was unpaid. Asquith confirmed he was stepping down. The King’s diary continued:
At seven, I received Bonar Law, who told me he could not form a Government, as Asquith refused to serve under him. So I sent for Lloyd George & asked him to form a Government, which he said he would endeavour to do.
He endeavoured to good effect, spending the following day, Thursday 7th December, gathering his new team. Some of the Liberal Old Guard disdained to join – notably Grey and Crewe. The former Tory premier Arthur Balfour, who had resigned as First Sea Lord, agreed to become Foreign Secretary. He allegedly told Lloyd George: “You put a pistol to my head.” Others considered that he merely found office of all kinds irresistible.
The King’s diary continued:
December 7 Thursday, Mr Lloyd George came at 7.30 & informed me that he is able to form an administration & told me the proposed names of his colleagues. He will have a strong Government. I then appointed him Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury.
On 9th December, the Daily Mail announced the new Cabinet. There was still no place for Churchill, whose reputation was too toxic in Tory circles for Lloyd George to honour the claims of an old friendship, nor reward his zeal and experience.
Northcliffe’s name also did not figure, much to the surprise of many. He had indeed been offered a position, but – entirely in character – had replied: “Ah-h, wouldn’t they like to get me out of Fleet Street! It would ease the pressure of their papers.”
The other key fixer was Max Aitken, (according to Margot Asquith “a vulgar Canadian of lowest reputation and charming wit”), the driving force behind the Daily Express which had promoted Lloyd George’s cause, who had facilitated the rapprochement between Bonar Law and Lloyd George. He was to be rewarded with a peerage, becoming Lord Beaverbrook.
If ever a British government were forced out by the machinations of the Press, it was now. On 10th December, the Daily Mail printed thumbnail photographs of the old Cabinet, headlined, “The passing of failures”, and also pictures and short biographies of the new ministers under: “Cut this out and keep it for reference”.
Remembering the scorn it had poured on the “idle septuagenarians” of the previous administration, the Mail continued: “For the convenience of readers who have not yet grasped the Government changes, we reprint the chief list, with ages and salaries where fixed by statute.” On 11th December, the retiring ministers delivered up their seals and their successors were sworn in.
Unlike Churchill, Asquith did not emote. Unlike Heath, he did not sulk. King George V offered Asquith the Garter which, politely and gratefully, he declined. Sir Maurice Hankey, who had worked closely with Asquith for the duration, wrote to him on 7th December:
What I most esteem is the privilege of having witnessed… your masterly and courageous handling of one desperately difficult situation after another from the moment when war became imminent until to-day. I confess that I have often wondered how any man could find it physically possible to carry on simultaneously so many heavy burdens. The country at present has only a slight conception of what it owes to your courage, nerve, tact, unswerving straightness, incredible patience, and indomitable perseverance. History, however, will record it!
Asquith was gone, and the Welsh wizard had finally arrived. He now had to deliver.
His first innovation was a small War Cabinet with Lord Curzon, Lord Milner, Arthur Henderson (Labour) and Bonar Law as members under Lloyd George’s chairmanship. Of these, only the controversial Milner, who had been an administrator during the Boer War, had any specific experience of running a country during wartime.
His second innovation was the formation of specialised new ministries, such as that of Food under Lord Devonport, and Pensions under George Barnes. He also ordered a Cabinet Secretariat to be founded under Sir Maurice Hankey. Henceforward, the handwritten reports previously sent daily to the King would be replaced by detailed minutes circulated to the King and the Cabinet. The importance of this, not least for scholars who have depended upon this extraordinary archive, cannot be exaggerated.
Any chronicler of these times would be hard-pushed not to bewail the departure of the Asquiths. They wrote so well, so much, and so blessedly without discretion. Cynthia, wife of the PM’s son Herbert, thoroughly enjoyed every moment of the unfolding debacle:
Tuesday 5 December — It was great luck to dine at Downing Street on so historic a night. The atmosphere was electric. The P.M. had sent in his resignation at 7.30 — a fact I was unaware of when I arrived and only gradually twigged… I sat next to the P.M. — he was too darling — rubicund, serene, puffing a guinea cigar… His conversation was as irrelevant to his life as ever… He was so serene and dignified. Poor Margot on the other hand looked ghastly ill — distraught… and was imprecating in hoarse whispers, blackguarding Lloyd George and Northcliffe.
Was it my last dinner at Downing Street? I can’t help feeling very sanguine and thinking the P.M. will be back with a firmer seat in the saddle in a fortnight. I only hope to God he is — disinterestedly because I really think him the only eligible man. Incidentally, what could happen to all our finances I daren’t think!
Saturday 9 December. Returned to Brighton by the 4.30 yesterday. I went to tea today with Florrie Bridges whose husband, General Bridges, was there on leave. They were having tea and with them — great excitement — was the hero of the war, Carton de Wiart. He is wonderfully undisfigured by his Nelson wounds — loss of eye and arm — and I rather fell in love with him. Very good looking, with great distinction — hands and gentle manner — certainly most attractive.
Cynthia was famously susceptible, but the great Carton de Wiart was just then at the height of his immense fame. At this date, a temporary Lieutenant-Colonel in the 4th Dragoon Guards, he was a half-Belgian, half-Irish aristocrat and professional soldier who sustained numerous injuries at various moments during the Great War. Having lost an eye fighting in Somaliland, his left hand was then sacrificed in action at Zonnebeke, where he had pulled off his own fingers when a doctor proved reluctant to amputate them. On the Somme in July 1916, aged 36, he had been awarded the Victoria Cross for taking over after three other battalion commanders had become casualties. He organised positions and supplies under intense fire and, due to his courage and example, a serious reverse was averted and the ground won was maintained.
Maybe a political crisis took the politicians’ minds off the war. Maybe that was what they wanted. Just now, the kindest thing that could be said about it was that the Western Front was tolerably quiet. The fortunes of other Entente powers seemed in freefall.
For the Italians, disaster struck overnight on 10th/11th December when the pre-dreadnought battleship, Regina Margherita, was sunk whilst sailing in heavy seas near Valona. The Italian navy had confined most of its large ships to harbour, kept in reserve in case the fleet of the Austrian-Hungarian navy was prepared to engage in a big encounter, but smaller vessels were sent on raids. Regina Margherita, which had been reduced to training ship status, struck two mines laid by German submarine, SM.UC-14, and immediately sank with the loss of 675 men. There were only 270 survivors.
The Germans were also cock-a-hoop about another naval success. This one had more of a cops-and-robbers feel and, since no loss of life was involved, it is hard to begrudge them their moment of triumph. The elusive commercial submarine Deutschland returned in triumph to the mouth of the Weser after its second round-trip to the United States, yet again successfully evading the Allied blockade. In November, Deutschland, under Commander Paul Köenig, had taken a cargo that included 6.5 tons of silver bullion to New London in Connecticut. Now it was back, bearing a cargo made up of gems, securities and medicinal products – and worth (in 2016 values) a cool $2.2 billion. For those who knew quite how beleaguered Germany’s civilian population was, quite how ill-prepared the nation was to face the exceptionally cold winter , the safe return of Deutschland was a massive relief.
Good news of recent weeks in the East continued for Germany. The Entente powers were suffering a human and military catastrophe as the relentless German advance on Bucharest continued. Desperate defensive efforts by an exhausted Romanian army had no material effect, although the displays of reckless courage certainly inconvenienced the enemy and impressed allies. German General Mackensen’s demand for the surrender of Bucharest, made on 5th December, was refused, but the inevitable soon followed and the city, with Ploeshti and Sinaia, fell the following day. The Orsova rearguard which had fought so gallantly, capitulated on the same day with its 8,000 men becoming prisoners.
The Romanian royal family and government were now at Jassy, a small town overcrowded with an influx of more than 300,000 refugees. As temperatures plummeted and food supplies dwindled, starvation and disease began claiming hundreds of victims. Fighting continued all week as pockets of Romanians resisted the German advance but, on 9th December, the Germans had the satisfaction of announcing that, since 1st December, they had captured 70,000 Romanian soldiers and 184 guns. Maybe, after the pounding they had experienced along the Western Front, one should not begrudge them this moment of triumph.
The Entente was also deeply worried about Greece. She may not have been much of a military power but, straddling the Mediterranean and Aegean and offering a gateway to Asia Minor, she had long been a strategic prize for whose compliance Britain had competed. Just now, she was in virtual civil war, riven between the Allied-friendly provisional government of Venizelos in Salonika and the pro-German authorities under King Constantine in Athens. Recent attacks on supporters of Venizelos bore all the hallmarks of official sanction. On 8th December, the Allies queried the concentration of Greek troops around Athens before, two days later, they demanded demobilisation.
The Venizelists denounced the royalist government in Athens as unrepresentative – that was probably true, but the bigger point was that the Allies were losing patience. The British and the French were not in a position to open up a whole new Front but they had could certainly turn the economic screws. On 9th December, British and American ministers had a tense audience with King Constantine while preparations to enforce a blockade of Greece assumed far greater momentum.
You could bear down on the Greeks, if you were rich enough and strong enough. It was not so possible with the Americans, who were bigger and harder and certainly wealthier than anyone this side of the Atlantic.
The Allies badly wanted them onside, fearing that if the war were to continue much longer without their assistance, stalemate and the razing of an entire continent would result.
It is against this backdrop that one must understand the significance of the growing controversy surrounding the deportation of Belgian civilians under German occupation. The US Ambassador to Belgium, Brand Whitlock, had just sent a report to his government on the subject, referencing especially Belgian civilians sent to work in German factories. He claimed the scheme demonstrated the “German capacity for blundering — and for cruelty”:
They have dealt a mortal blow to any prospect they may have had of being tolerated by the population of Flanders; in tearing away from nearly every humble home in the land a husband and a father or a son and brother, they have lighted a fire of hatred that will never go out; they have brought home to every heart in the land, in a way that will impress its horror indelibly on the memory of three generations, a realization of what German methods mean, not, as with the early atrocities in the heat of passion and the lust of war, but by one of those deeds that make one despair of the future of the human race, a deed coldly planned, studiously matured, and deliberately and systematically executed, a deed so cruel that German soldiers are said to have wept in its execution and so monstrous that even German officers are now said to be ashamed.