Home People Politics Politicians The Welsh Wizard and the Western Front

The Welsh Wizard and the Western Front

Every country in every war seems to throw up a politician who leaves an indelible mark on its conduct. In the Great War, France had its Premier Georges 'Tiger' Clemenceau, Germany, Prince Max of Baden and America, President Woodrow Wilson. Britain produced two such politicians; Lord of the Admiralty Winston Spencer Churchill, and Prime Minister David Lloyd George. However, the former's star was soon to set rather ingloriously after the disaster of Gallipoli in the Dardenelles expedition of 1916.

Origins and ambitions.

lloydgeorge David Lloyd George, who became 1st Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor, was born in 1863 at Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester, England. When his father died a year later he was taken to Llanystumdwy Village, Caernarvonshire, Wales to be raised by his uncle. Taught at the village school and at home, he had the ambition to propel himself from these humble beginnings (but no quite so humble as Lloyd George (LG) led people to believe) in a provincial town of West Wales to the status of a solicitor, and county councillor. In 1890, he was elected to the British Parliament in Westminster, as the member for Caernarvon Boroughs. He served continuously for 55 years; 1890-1945. When war was declared in 1914, LG was the leader of the Radical Wing of the Liberal Party with strong reformist tendencies.

War-time alliances and policies.

As the War Crisis developed in 1914, LG had had a rather bivalent attitude to war. He had opposed the Second Boer War in 1899 and did not initially approve of British participation in a European War. But when the question had to be faced in July 1914 about the defence of Belgium, he swung around to a position of support for the declaration of war against the Central Powers, doing much to ensure the government's commitment to this course of action. After the 4th August 1914, LG became an active proponent of the vigorous prosecution of the War. However, he viewed with some suspicion the Asquith cabinet's preoccupation with the war on the Western Front, favouring operations in the eastern theatres of war as a way of weakening the Central Powers where they were at their most vulnerable.

Initially, holding the position of Minister for Wartime Finances (Chancellor of the Exchequer) in Asquith's Coalition Government, LG increased taxes to fund the war and imposed strict conditions on the sale of alcohol. In this way he aimed to reduce absenteeism and drunkenness in the rapidly expanding arms and munitions industries, and increase the level of home production of food. He became an outspoken and open critic of what he considered as the Asquith Government's lack-lustre conduct of the war. This reached a peak in early 1915 when the British munitions industry - under the leadership of the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener of Khartoum - was shown to be failing in supplying the required quantity of munitions, particularly to the Western Front.

The Shell Crisis and munitions.

This paucity of supply, that came to be known as the Shell Crisis, was made much worse by problems with the reliability of the shells that were supplied to the Western Front. As many as 30% of the shells had faulty contact fuses: even in the 21st Century it is said that much of the former Western Front is still littered with unexploded British artillery shells from that period, and hundreds are still recovered every year.

There was also a problem with the premature explosion of the shells in the barrels of the artillery guns as they were being fired. Again it was faulty fuses, but this time it was because the fuses became prematurely and unintentionally cocked during the handling and loading of the fused shells in the field. As many as one in a thousand shells were said to explode prematurely in this way. This in itself probably added to the problem of unexploded shells, when wary artillery gunners deliberately fired unfused shells to avoid the possibility of a premature explosion and the catastrophic and often fatal results that almost inevitably followed.

In May 1915, Prime Minister Asquith appointed LG to the new post of Minister of Munitions. His specific task was to resolve the Shell Crisis and establish a more efficient and productive munitions industry. LG, with typical energy and resolution, immediately set about overhauling and reorganising British industry on the basis of the American industrial pattern and introducing National Munitions Factories. He also encouraged small manufacturers to go into the munitions industry.

Particularly notable was LG's aspiration to recruit large numbers of women - at its peak, 1.6 million, 40% of the entire country's workforce - to fill job vacancies, left by the departure of the men to the Armed Forces, and also to take up the new jobs created in the war economy.

In his avowed home country, Wales, he became noted for encouraging the formation of the all volunteer Welsh Division - the 38th - which gained lasting fame at the Battle of Mametz Wood in July 1916, during the First Battle of the Somme.

Lord Kitchener's death, at sea in June 1916, whilst on mission to Russia, resulted in LG's move to the War Ministry. From here he began a long running campaign to bring the British commanders at home (notably the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir William Robert Robertson) and on the Western Front (notably, General, later Field Marshal, Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force [BEF]) more in line with his views. These concerned how the war could be fought with more concentration on specific sectors, with fewer casualties and more innovation. Lloyd George's favoured sector for specific concentration being Salonika on the Balkan Front.

Prime Ministership and the war

In late 1916, LG experienced increasing irritation at the Asquith cabinet's unwillingness, or inability, to enforce what LG saw as the essential changes in the socio-economic set up for the war effort, and to have more influence with the British commanders in running of the War. This prompted him to seek alliances with the Conservatives in Asquith's Coalition Government. He also openly courted the national press to obtain further influence on public opinion. Eventually, he resigned, throwing the Government into crisis. The outcome was the collapse of the Asquith Government and the appointment, on the 7th December 1916, of LG as Prime Minister, of a new Liberal/Conservative Coalition,

The First Battle of the Somme had just ground to a bloody and a largely inconclusive end; only a hundred square kilometres of devastated territory had been wrested from the Germans after four months of murderous trench warfare and 620,000 Allied casualties. Lloyd George was particularly concerned over the many casualties. He associated them with the men from the Welsh villages and mining towns that he knew so well, and which he had visited to encourage the men to volunteer to fight. Indeed, his son was the ADC to the commander of 38th Division.

Once in power, Prime Minister Lloyd George slimmed down his cabinet and brought in influential businessmen to head new ministries dedicated to establishing even more control over the war economy and the labour market. One of these ministries was devoted to promoting popularity amongst the general public towards 'a battle to the finish with the Central Powers'. Central to this propaganda output was the placing within the Government of a major Press Lord of the time, Lord Northcliffe, owner of the prestigious 'Times' and the vastly popular and influential 'Daily Mail', amongst others. Literally, LG was bringing the camel into the tent.

At the end of 1916, LG was pressing the military establishment for a 'knockout blow' on the Western Front'.

In search of new military commanders.

The casualties of the epic First Battle of the Somme, in July 1916, and the notoriously costly major offensive in 1917, on the Ypres Sector that became known as Passchendaele, only exacerbated tensions between LG and the British military commanders at all levels. As did LG's personal and subversive sponsorship of the English speaking French General Georges Nivelle's equally disastrous and costly offensive in the Chemin des Dames Sector, of the Western Front that also took place in 1917. This latter move was motivated by Lloyd George's wish to squeeze the maximum out of the British war machine, whilst gaining a lever to 'control' what he considered to be Haig's profligate use of manpower and resources in the pursuit of 'bleeding the enemy white', or war of attrition. This was a policy that Haig had increasingly adopted as his solution to ending the war; Haig preferred to describe his strategy as 'wearing down the enemy'.

Throughout this whole period of tension, LG nursed a penchant to replace the Chief-of-the-Imperial-General-Staff, General Sir William Robertson - in which he was successful in November 1917 - and the Commander of the BEF, Haig himself. But the perennial question was who would fill the post better than Haig the incumbent? In his desperation to get rid of Haig, it is said that, at one particularly stressful stage, LG seriously considered promoting a senior commander from a Dominion country - General John Monash - whose only service pre-1914 was in the Australian Territorial Army. Of course, LG did not put Monash's name forward, and even if he had, no doubt Haig's royal supporters would have assuredly stamped firmly on the idea. But the fact that LG even considered it shows the state of his mind in his continual struggle with the British military establishment. That Haig continued to serve in his commander's post until the War's end lends credence to LG own admission in his War Memoirs (1938) - he just couldn't find anyone better suited to the job than Haig.

It is debatable to what extent LG's parsimonious retention of reinforcements for the Western Front led to the debacle in defence and retreat that the British Army faced with the onslaught of Ludendorff's March 1918 Spring Offensive. But certainly Haig thought it to be a significant factor.

The convoy system.

LG did achieve, in early 1917, one conspicuous success which had a long term and dramatic effect on the Western Front, as it did in all the theatres and aspects of the war. And that was his success at getting a previously reluctant and obstructive Royal Navy to introduce the convoy system to merchant ships to combat the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare by the German U-boat packs that had been reinstated in February. This was despite American calls for 'Peace Without Victory'. When the German government failed to relent, this precipitated, in April1917, the entry of the United States of America into the war.

The new convoy policy slowly but surely loosed the noose around the necks of both British and Neutral merchant shipping that were transporting the matériel that went to supply the Allied armies on the Western Front, and to the other theatres of war, of course.

The joint British and US convoy systems, and other technological advances, led to the almost total destruction of the U-boat arm of the German Navy by the end of the war in November 1918.

Allied co-ordination and co-operation.

However, in late 1917, the alarm bells about the strategic disarray of the Allies war efforts had already rang loud and clear in Westminster, as well as to some at the War Office, and even at Haig's HQ on the Western Front.

On the 5th November 1917, LG, the French Prime Minister Paul Painlevé and the Italian Prime Minister Vittoria Orlando, attended a conference held at Rappallo. Italy. Ostensibly the Allies convened it to co-ordinate support for the Italian Front. Its principal military members were Marshal Ferdinand Foch (France) and Generals Henry Wilson (Britain), Tasker Bliss (USA) and Luigi Cadorna (Italy) the latter being present in more of an observer role. Its real objective was for the British and French politicians to exert more influence over the military commanders in the conduct of the war. A long term aim of LG. The outcome was the creation of a Supreme War Council. The French Marshal Ferdinand Foch was given the main co-ordinating role as Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces on the Western Front, but he lacked the powers of direction to do it really effectively.

During his premiership, LG attended several Allied conferences on the conduct on the war, but the one at Doullens on 26th March 1918, at which he was not present was, perhaps, the most important of the war. Attending were, Haig, Lord Milner, member of the War Cabinet, General Wilson, the new Chief of the Imperial General Staff and a delegation of senior French commanders, including Marshals Pétain and Foch.

It was unanimously agreed that General Foch should co-ordinate the activities of all the Allied forces on the Western Front. On the 14th April 1918, he was installed as Allied Supreme Commander for the Western Front. This was the first, momentous step towards a unified Allied command. One that would lead the Allies to victory on the Western Front.

Once the German advance was halted in May 1918, almost everyone, including Haig, was as anxious as LG to find a way to unite the Allied strategy, and to take into account the increasing availability of the Americans and the improved operational status of the French, post the 1917 mutiny. Accordingly, Marshal Foch, as Allied Co-ordinator, was given all the necessary powers of co-ordination and direction. With Haig as a willing collaborator, the series of offensives began which led to 'The Final 100 Days' (also see: 'The final one hundred days of the Western Front in the Great War' on this website), a long series of successful battles for the Allies that triumphed with the collapse of the German Army and the Armistice on the 11th November 1918.

The finale

Lloyd George was clearly seen as one of the Allied victors of the Great War - if not, as he became to be known, 'The Man Who Won the War. This, as was reflected by his, and his coalition's, overwhelming success in the December 1918 elections: many of the 4.5 million Great War soldiers - all of whom were franchised to vote - must have voted for LG. Indubitably, LG's position was as Prime Minister in was stronger and more prestigious than any politician heretofore in British history.

Lloyd George's rather self-serving 'War Memoirs', published in 1938, has in the view of many of the readers and scholars of his, and later generations, tended to over-accentuate his role and successes. Nevertheless, he is assuredly destined to go down in history as the British Empire's leading war leader of the Great War.

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Last Updated ( Monday, 04 August 2008 22:09 )  

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