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Lloyd George at War

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

War Memoirs of David Lloyd George. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. Volumes I and II (1914-1916). $8.00.

Ask any English boy if his mother is at home and he will invariably answer: “I think so,” or “I believe she is.” Even though he has just left her presence, he will rarely reply: “Yes, she’s at home.” Whether innate or acquired, the disinclination “to commit oneself” is a distinguishing mark of English character. It explains why England usually “muddles through.” Lloyd George, unlike the usual British statesman, was not afraid to commit himself. But Lloyd George was Welsh—Celtic and not English. Moreover, his background was totally unlike that of the majority of pre-War political leaders. Son of an humble Welsh schoolmaster, reared in a stern Nonconformist atmosphere, articled to a small-town lawyer—what a contrast to Balfour, descended from the Cecils; to Churchill, the distinguished son of a distinguished father; to Grey, who embodied the aristocratic Whig tradition in politics; or to Curzon, who always spoke as though he were seated on a golden throne.

As a peace and war-time leader, Lloyd George possessed originality, resourcefulness, and dynamic energy. No one had a greater flair for conducting a fight. Not only was he an incomparable political strategist, but at the decisive moment he would throw himself into the thick of the fight, laying about with his quarterstaff, shouting the party cry of the hour. He was a veritable power-house in trousers, no less! Full of humor and a born actor, he perhaps lacked that dogged persistence in carrying through a pre-determined plan which has been the outstanding characteristic of English statesmanship.

Of the war leaders Lloyd George was the only one who, like Mr. Britling, “saw it through” from the outbreak in 1914 to the Paris settlement in 1919. The first two volumes of his recollections, however, only carry the story from the outbreak of war to the end of 1916, when he became Prime Minister. It is not surprising that the reminiscences of one who has been so long in the thick of political strife should display a combative tone and should contain much special pleading. To be sure, no one expects Lloyd George, of all people, to throw himself into the arms of that indulgent mother of academicians whom we call Objectivity. Only the credulous and the uninitiated, however, will believe that he was always in the right and his opponents always in the wrong.

When, in August, 1914, “the delicate financial cobweb was torn into shreds by the rude hand of war,” Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer allayed the panic in the City and cushioned the terrific financial shocks engendered by the outbreak of hostilities. Almost from the beginning he was involved in “the fight for munitions.” The conditions of large-scale mechanical warfare employing heavy artillery, high explosives, barbed wire, and machine guns, had not been foreseen by the high command and as a result thousands of Britain’s youth paid with their lives for the incapacity and the obtuseness of the Brass Hats in Whitehall. The shortage of artillery ammunition became such a scandal in May, 1915, that a coalition Cabinet was formed and a new department, the Ministry of Munitions, was created under the direction of Lloyd George. Within an incredibly short time he harnessed Britain’s great industrial machine to the work of producing instruments of human destruction and slaughter. “The most formidable task I ever undertook,” he writes, “a wilderness of risks with no oasis in sight.” The difficulties encountered in selecting the personnel for his new department lead him to suggest that men should be marked like army trucks with their load capacity: “Not to carry more than three tons.”

A leading thread of the narrative is formed by the account of the conflict between military and civilian leaders over the general conduct of the War. When Lloyd George was transferred to the War Office, following Kitchener’s tragic death, the friction which had already developed became more pronounced. Lloyd George was bitterly opposed to the “billy-goat tactics of Western generals in butting away the strength of their armies against unbreakable walls” in the West. Early in 1915 he circulated among Cabinet members an elaborate plan calling for a strictly defensive position on the Western front, while launching a combined diplomatic and military campaign in the Balkans against Austria-Hungary, undoubtedly the weakest point in the great Central European fortress. The only concession made to the “Easterners” was the dispatch of the ill-fated naval expedition to Gallipoli.

The secret of Lloyd George’s war leadership was not, however, his knowledge of military affairs, but rather the confidence which he inspired in the English people. He was the man of “push and go” who got things done. He never displayed that “masterly inactivity” which for Salisbury constituted the essence of statesmanship. In the darkest hour of the War (December, 1916), when it seemed that a decision on points was the most either side could hope for, he rallied the laggards and the pessimists with his famous slogan of the “Knock-out Blow.” And when the Asquith coalition dissolved in the corrosive atmosphere of pessimism and bewilderment, he accepted the Prime Ministership, reorganized the Cabinet, and committed the country to a policy of carrying on to the bitter end.

Striking pen pictures of his war-time colleagues, with which he intersperses his narrative, will provide the necessary bait for the general reader. There is Asquith who “had a queer liking for weddings and funerals”; Grey with “his tiresome hesitancies”; Sir William Robertson who had “the canker of xenophobia in his very sap”; Balfour who “saw both sides too clearly to be able to come readily to a clear conclusion”; and Kitchener who “was like one of those revolving lighthouses which radiate momentary gleams of revealing light far out into the surrounding gloom and then suddenly relapse into complete darkness.” Lloyd George has a memorable story to tell and he recounts it with a mastery of satire, vigorous narrative, and picturesque phraseology which should insure for his work at least two stars in a Baedeker of World War literature.


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