'POLITICS AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR'
Lecture at East Boldre War Memorial Hall, Friday, 22 May 2015
By Julian Lewis MP
NATO was established in 1949 directly to respond to two distinct dangers. The first was the threat from Soviet Russia, then in occupation of the eastern half of Europe; but the second was the risk of uncertainties recurring – like those which preceded the two world wars. NATO was designed to deter aggression on the Continent by showing that its consequences would be both unacceptable and unavoidable. This was far from clear in the run-up to 1914. Instead of a single security system, based on a Balance of Terror, there existed multiple alliances whose complex interactions made the outcome of aggression very hard to predict.
France and Russia, Germany and Austria, Britain and Japan were all major powers with imperial ambitions. A Triple Alliance linked Germany, Austria and Italy; a Dual Alliance linked the French and the Russians. Britain remained detached from the Continent, but willing to intervene if any other major power, capable of doing so, threatened to dominate Europe. This policy was known as maintaining the 'Balance of Power'. In 1904, Britain and France had concluded an Entente Cordiale which fell short of a full military alliance. As concern increased about German ambitions, Russia also signed up to this arrangement, thus creating a Triple Entente.
Already, in the first decade of the 20th century, Germany had caused three crises in Morocco – the most dangerous being that at Agadir in 1911 which nearly led to war with France. By contrast, Russia’s fingers had badly been burnt in the Far East, in conflict with Japan in 1904-5. Far from strengthening the position of the Tsar at home – as intended, by waging "a short victorious war" – the Russians had been humiliated by the Japanese, who eventually emerged as one the main beneficiaries of the First World War, with disastrous consequences for the peace of the world over twenty years later.
Just as great efforts were to be made in the 1920s and 1930s to safeguard peace by means of conferences, conventions and the establishment of a League of Nations, so was there no shortage of peace initiatives in the run-up to the First World War. These included the creation of an International Court in The Hague which, it was hoped, could settle territorial disputes without recourse to war. All such efforts by men of goodwill proved unequal to the task of weakening the determination of nationalists and imperialists to pursue their own ends. Thus, the Balkans became a byword for political intrigue and nationalist rivalries. At the centre of such intrigue lay Austria-Hungary, which was closely allied to Germany, just as Serbia – the most powerful of the Balkan States – was closely allied to Russia. Serb ambitions to unite the Balkans could not be achieved without undermining the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was something which Austrians were determined to prevent and, as so often happens, an act of extremism had counterproductive results. The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by terrorists in Bosnia, on 28 June 1914, could not be laid at the door of the Serbian Government. Nevertheless, it gave Austria the pretext to issue an ultimatum to Serbia, virtually impossible to fulfil, and then to declare war.
Italy’s membership of the Triple Alliance in no way required her to follow suit: she declined to do so and eventually joined the Western Allies; but Germany fatefully jumped in with both feet. Possibly she thought that Russia, France and Britain were all too preoccupied with internal problems and domestic unrest to intervene. If so, this was a terrible miscalculation. With her ally Serbia in peril, Russia began to mobilise her forces. Germany demanded that she stop and declared war when Russia refused to do so. This put France firmly in the frame under the terms of Dual Alliance. She mobilised in turn – and Germany declared war on her, too.
Already we can see how overlapping allegiances and commitments were creating a deadly chain-reaction. But the process still had further to go: the British, as we know, had a friendly understanding with both France and Russia. London would certainly never have wanted to see Germany dominant on the Continent anyway, as it would have been anathema to the British doctrine of maintaining a Balance of Power in Europe. Yet, what actually triggered our involvement was the nature of Germany’s military strategy. This was the so-called Schlieffen Plan, drawn up several years earlier by the then Chief of the German General Staff. In order to outflank the heavily defended Franco-German border, the Plan involved an invasion of Luxembourg and an ultimatum to the Belgians to allow free passage of German troops en route to attack the French. It was this flagrant violation of Belgium's sovereignty, despite her neutrality having been guaranteed by Britain, Germany and other European states, which led to the British declaration of war on Germany on 4 August 1914.
Looking back at these events, it is easy to identify retrospectively an inexorable logic which led from each step to the next. Yet, the whole process actually unfolded with terrifying speed and unpredictability, despite the brinkmanship and arms races, on land and sea, which had characterised the first few years of the 20th century. The Military Secretary of Britain’s Imperial War Cabinet during the First World War, Sir Maurice Hankey, was to remain at the heart of British defence policy for more than twenty years after the conflict ended. In a secret memorandum, drafted in 1931 to warn the government how suddenly wars begin, Hankey recalled that:
"In 1870, a fortnight before the event, we were not in the least expecting the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. The same was true in 1914. A fortnight after the murder of the Austrian Archduke, a debate took place in the House of Commons on foreign affairs. The European situation was hardly referred to at all. More attention was given to the preparations for the next Peace Conference! … There was no statement made on the subject of the European crisis in Parliament until July 27 … We really had, at the outside, not more than ten days' warning."
When the war began, a Liberal Government under Herbert Henry Asquith was in place; but, unlike in the Parliament of 1906-1910, the Liberals lacked the numbers to govern alone. Indeed, they had one seat fewer than the Conservatives and had to rely on the support of 42 Labour MPs and 84 Irish Nationalists. ‘Hung’ parliaments are not a recent invention – nor are separatist parties hoping to exert leverage on a Government without an overall majority. Thus it was that the third Irish Home Rule Bill was introduced in 1912, sparking massive resistance from Ulster Unionists and nearly provoking an Irish civil war a decade before it actually happened.
In preparing to deliver this talk, I discovered one fact which truly shocked me – that Prime Minister Asquith actually took the view, in early 1915, that the outbreak of the Great War had been a stroke of what he called "luck" which had diverted attention from the problems of his Government. According to the First World War historian John Turner:
"The war enabled the Cabinet to forget about Ireland and the disestablishment of the Welsh Church, to bring about a ‘political truce’ which protected them against Conservative attack, and to smother the opposition of their own supporters. Patriotism and national unity would enable the government to avoid its political troubles until Christmas, by which time the war might be over. But the war was not over by Christmas, and this drastic cure for Liberal ailments turned out to be worse than the disease."
As we now know, the advance – if that is the right word – of military technology completely confounded expectations of a war of movement. The initial German breakthrough was thwarted by the French, with British support, at the River Marne. Thus began the so-called 'race to the sea', with each side trying and failing to outflank the other before the rapidly extending frontlines reached the Channel coast. Thereafter, the confrontation settled down to an unbreakable deadlock on the Western Front punctuated by disastrous attempts to overwhelm the defensive power of the machine-gun. This devastating weapon dominated the battlefield until a combination of the British naval blockade, the development of tanks, the transfer of German armies from the East to launch the Spring 1918 offensive in the West, the arrival of the American forces in Europe, and the August 1918 counter-offensive, eventually led to a decisive outcome. The horror of this process, in which well over three-quarters of a million British soldiers, sailors and airmen lost their lives in such a confined geographical area, was bound to have political as well as military repercussions.
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Initially, the British hoped to make their main contribution to the Allied war effort by mounting a sea blockade of Germany and sending the highly professional, but very small, British Expeditionary Force to France and Flanders. Once the strategic stalemate became clear, Asquith’s Secretary of State for War, General Lord Kitchener, raised a huge Volunteer Army which met with disaster in the Battle of the Somme, the first day of which resulted in the highest casualty total in the history of Britain’s Armed Forces. Even before this catastrophe, the ever-mounting butchers’ bill during 1915 had created strains within the Government. David Lloyd George, the ambitious Chancellor of the Exchequer, was sceptical of the Western Front strategy, whilst Winston Churchill – then a Conservative defector to the Liberals – sought to circumvent the deadlock by opening up a new front against Turkey in the Dardanelles. Restless Conservative MPs became increasingly rebellious, despite the reluctance of their own Leader, Andrew Bonar Law, to seem to undermine the Government in the middle of a war. Thus it was that, in May 1915, Asquith brought the Conservative Leader, as well as the former Conservative Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, and the Ulster Unionist Leader, Edward Carson, into what now became a Coalition Government. Lloyd George was appointed Minister of Munitions, but Churchill was ousted from the Admiralty as a punishment for failure at Gallipoli.
This new arrangement contained the seeds of its own destruction. Left-wing Liberal MPs who opposed the war now felt more comfortable attacking a Coalition with the Conservatives, than they had opposing an entirely Liberal administration. Hard-line Conservatives chose to back Lloyd George who was waging a campaign for the introduction of conscription. At the same time, he was deeply distrusted by many of his fellow Liberals who suspected – with justification – that he was plotting to overthrow the Prime Minister in order to take his place. Matters plumbed new depths with the Easter Uprising by Irish Nationalists in 1916 (quickly and brutally suppressed) and the failure of well-intentioned efforts to reach an agreement with more moderate elements based upon a partition of the island of Ireland.
With the failure of the "Big Push" on the Somme, the indecisive sea battle of Jutland and the haemorrhaging of British blood and treasure, voices began to be raised in favour of a negotiated peace which would have left the Germans in possession of their ill-gotten gains. Although Asquith opposed such defeatism, too many people no longer thought him capable of leading the nation to victory. By the end of the year he had been comprehensively outmanoeuvred. The Conservatives looked elsewhere for a charismatic war leader and on 6 December 1916 the Lloyd George Coalition Government came into existence. It was to survive not only till the end of the First World War, but even beyond the 1918 General Election – until a Conservative Backbench rebellion in 1922 finally jettisoned the Liberal head of a largely Conservative team.
Although Lloyd George had sometimes supported the Generals in their futile offensive strategies before becoming Prime Minister, once in that office he tried and failed to prevent a repetition. Recently, a new generation of First World War historians have emphasised, quite rightly, that the 'Hundred Days' campaign, beginning with the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918 – the "black day of the German Army" – and ending with the Armistice in November, was a great feat of British arms. However, I remain completely unconvinced by the argument which some of them deploy that it was necessary to undergo the catastrophic failures of the Somme in 1916 and Passchendaele the following year in order to ‘learn the lessons’ necessary for victory in 1918. There is testimony enough from senior military figures in the Second World War, writing of their experiences as junior officers in the First, spelling out the futility of relentlessly sacrificing huge numbers of British troops in fighting unwinnable battles. One does not have to explore every military cul-de-sac over and over again, in order to stumble across a strategy which might actually succeed. In the end, it was a combination of German desperation to break through on the Western Front, after the elimination of Russia and before the arrival in force of the Americans, together with the impact of the sea blockade, the advent of armoured vehicles, the unification of command under Marshal Foch, and the achievement of strategic surprise, which led to a decisive and rapid climax.
Meanwhile, in Parliament, the Labour Party had succeeded in staying together whilst the Liberals tore themselves apart. A defining moment came with the Commons debate on 9 May 1918 when the Lloyd George Coalition easily saw off a challenge – unwisely backed by Asquith and those Liberals still supporting him – based on charges by Sir Frederick Maurice, a former Director of Military Operations, who believed that the Prime Minister had lied to MPs about troop strengths in France. Indeed, it was the prospect of Asquith again becoming Prime Minister which deterred many Conservative Backbenchers from voting against Lloyd George despite sympathising with his critics.
The whole episode demonstrated to the Prime Minister that his best chance of survival in office, in the medium term, would be to hold a General Election as soon as possible. Thus it was that on 6 November 1918, just five days before the Armistice, Lloyd George requested King George V to dissolve Parliament. The ensuing campaign went down in history as the "Coupon Election" – because the Liberal Lloyd George and the Conservative Bonar Law signed joint letters of endorsement for approved Coalition candidates. The result was devastating to the Liberal Party, with the Asquith Liberals being reduced to a rump of 38 MPs. (Were I uncharitable, I might remark that this is a total which their present-day successors would have been pleased to achieve in May 2015!) By contrast, the Labour Party won 60 seats, whilst the Coalition Conservatives won more than 400 and the Coalition Liberals 127. The manner in which some Liberals had received the endorsement of the Coupon, whilst others had not, left a legacy of enduring bitterness. It has been said, with some truth, that 1918 marked "the beginning of the end for the Liberals and at least the end of the beginning for Labour". Although the franchise had been extended substantially that year, this is not generally believed to have been the main cause of the Labour breakthrough. Instead, it derived from the poisonous divisions between Liberal Party factions and the dependence of the winning Lloyd George group upon the support of Conservative MPs who, in times of peace, would be unlikely to continue to grant it.
By the end of the First World War, therefore, the Conservatives were well placed once again to dominate the political scene. Their traditional opponents were divided and enfeebled, whilst their future ones in the Labour Party, newly arisen, had still some way to go before being able to govern alone. Both Labour and the Conservatives would primarily be occupied with economic and social questions throughout the 1920s, whilst the country which Britain had helped defeat saw its fragile democracy undermined by hyper-inflation and the simultaneous rise of totalitarian parties on the extreme left and extreme right of the German political spectrum. It is sad to observe that, when the time came in the 1930s to confront new dangers from an old enemy, most British politicians in all the main parties were just as unready as they had been twenty years before.
Britain and the First World War, a volume of essays edited by John Turner and published by Unwin Hyman in 1988, was of particular value in the preparation of this talk which was part of a weekend of events marking the centenary of the conflict. All interpretations are my own. JL