Squeamish

Peter Clarke

  • Lloyd George: War Leader by John Grigg
    Allen Lane, 670 pp, £25.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9343 X

For the British, fortunate to escape the traumas of both Communism and Fascism, the two world wars were the defining experience of the 20th century. In both the country avoided invasion and ultimately evaded defeat, if only because in each case France was in the front line, because Russia suffered most of the casualties, and because the United States tardily but effectively identified its own interests with those of Great Britain. So it seems natural to expect recognition for the two war leaders who emerged bloody but unbowed from these struggles. In Great Britons, the excellent book published by the National Portrait Gallery to accompany the BBC series of the same name, Brian Harrison, the editor of the forthcoming Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, observes that we are hardly alone ‘in placing the great at the centre of our national myth’:

If Lloyd George and Winston Churchill epitomise national resistance to Germany in two world wars, Joan of Arc and General de Gaulle are central to the French national self-image and F.D. Roosevelt is central to the story of America’s interwar economic recovery, and Nelson Mandela is central to South Africa’s new-found racial harmony.

Exalted company for our two great heroes – but surely justified?

Not according to the great British public. The poll which the BBC commissioned in 2001 to recruit its initial shortlist of 100 Great Britons predictably included Churchill, who was fancied as the favourite from the start and duly emerged as the winner. But he did not win by a short head from David Lloyd George. You have to scour the list to find him in 79th place, listed as ‘English, born Manchester (1858-1928)’. The part about Manchester is correct: Lloyd George’s father – who was not the only Welsh schoolteacher to move there – died there prematurely only two years after his son was launched (in 1863) on a long life that did not close until 1945, when Churchill, at the height of his own fame, paid his former colleague a lavish tribute which nobody at the time thought excessive for the man who won the (previous) war.

Yet the posthumous contrast in reputation between the two men is striking. Churchill’s continuing popular appeal is fed in many ways. His whole career is packaged into a few serviceable stereotypes which can readily be dusted down for duty whenever the occasion demands. The fact that he did some of the packaging himself was helpful in shaping his own legend. He deployed the same rhetorical arts which had rallied the nation to stimulate retrospective admiration of his achievement and to distil his improvised responses to the problems of his own day as timeless watchwords of wisdom. Defiance, which served the British well enough in 1940, subsequently became a mantra for a nation in denial about its reduced place in the world, with, as time passed, increasingly bizarre acts of atavistic self-assertion to proclaim national identity: a sub-Churchillian declension from the major fiasco that was Suez to the folly of the Falklands and thence via football-led xenophobia to mindless slogans in defence of a patriotic pound. Above all, appeasement, which the historical Churchill had the good sense to recognise as sensible politics in many contexts, was reincarnated from the time of Munich on as an axiomatic object of scorn for new generations of do-it-yourself Winstons. Suez in 1956 was the classic example of a historical lesson, mindlessly learned by rote and misremembered, and then misapplied with misplaced confidence, on the misprision that an Arab dictator could be identified as another Hitler. Nor is this a syndrome to which the British are uniquely prone. There is no need in 2003 to labour the point that Churchill’s appeals to the English-speaking peoples, which served his country opportunely when it needed to enlist American sympathy and aid, have posthumously contributed to his own transatlantic apotheosis.

The Churchill myth lives on, and not just as a popular stereotype. If that were the case, condescending liberals might sneer, though sneer in vain; but it’s liberal historians who provide the most solid buttress to Churchill’s reputation. Thus the blandly, uncritically admiring school of Churchillians, of whom his official biographer, Martin Gilbert, is the leader, could never have turned back the natural tide of scholarly scepticism which laps around the feet – especially the feet – of all deceased political leaders in the generation after their death. In Churchill’s case, several toes have long been suspected of rather clayey composition but the impressive point is that even experts who have readily acknowledged this have resisted the temptation to diagnose more extensive metatarsal degeneration. Thus the great man’s failings over Gallipoli in 1915 or the Gold Standard in 1925 or Indian self-government in the 1930s – or over serious strategic decisions in the Second World War – are not held to outweigh everything that we understand by 1940. Here the anti-Churchillian arguments have been broached by right-wing critics who belatedly mounted the revisionist case by suggesting that the British Empire could have been propped up better by a reversal of Churchill’s grand strategy: by appeasing Hitler instead of Stalin and Roosevelt. And here, conversely, the liberals and paid-up Churchillians have joined hands in lauding a man who was determined to stop Hitler, at whatever cost. So far, this remains the historiographical orthodoxy: long established, still prevalent and broadly according with popular legend.

It’s an instructive contrast with Lloyd George. He was indeed hailed as the man who won the war in 1918; but though its sudden ending gave the nation a more immediate thrill than in 1945, it also soured more quickly. In Britain, the carnage was evident in a million grieving homes; this was sobering in itself and led to much acrimony as to where responsibility lay. Lloyd George, having broken with the leadership of Asquith in December 1916, had become pitted in a struggle for the soul and votes – and funds – of the Liberal Party; it was another war of attrition, dragging on for years, with mutual exhaustion as the main result. The Asquithians compensated for (on the whole) losing this struggle by winning (on the whole) the ensuing battle of the books, with the result that their caricature of ‘the Goat’, as devious as he was disloyal, had the best part of forty years of shelf life. Lloyd George had his champions, of course; but the fact that Lord Beaverbrook was one of them, and the paymaster of others, and also the owner of the Lloyd George archive, did not help. Not until after the Beaver’s death in 1965 were others free to study the Goat.

By this time Churchill, too, was dead and the long-planned commemorative biography was already in progress under the direction of his son Randolph, assisted and later succeeded by the young Martin Gilbert. Gilbert’s achievement, in bringing eight fat volumes to publication by 1988, is truly monumental, not only in its scale but in its self-imposed conventions. Given that a monument’s function is to celebrate a great personage, there is a need to look elsewhere for a more discriminating view. Inevitably, John Grigg’s biography of Lloyd George invites such comparisons and they redound almost wholly to Grigg’s credit, except in one obvious respect: beginning at much the same time, Gilbert actually finished the job, albeit reinforced in his labours by a research team funded from the outset on expectations of a vast worldwide sale.

Grigg, by contrast, worked essentially alone. He was a rare gentleman-scholar among journalists and a rare gentleman-journalist among scholars, inspiring unusually widespread respect and affection. During the 1970s he duly complemented his sprightly and sympathetic first volume on the young Welsh radical with, in his second, a perceptive appraisal of Lloyd George’s emergence as a major British politician, notably during his peacetime Chancellorship. Then the pace began to falter, at least for Grigg’s own schedule, as became apparent with the publication of his third volume in 1985; ominously, it covered only four years, barely half the length of time it had taken to write; yet it took his hero only to the doorstep of 10 Downing Street, so the gearing was likely to get worse before it got better; Lloyd George might have reached 53 by then, but Grigg was now past sixty. This cruel arithmetic already dimmed the prospects for an enterprise conceived on a scale beyond the best efforts of one doggedly honest man, determined not to compromise what he had valiantly begun.

John Grigg’s death on the last day of 2001 left an almost complete manuscript of Lloyd George: War Leader as his own monument. In it he takes Lloyd George through the most taxing 22 months of his wartime Premiership, to October 1918, within sight of the now inevitable victory. Margaret MacMillan, whose impressive and engaging book on the Paris Peace Conference, Peacemakers, rightly won so many prizes last year, has supplied a graceful and authoritative conclusion, leaving Lloyd George at the summit of his authority, with the laurels of war still fresh on his brow. We are all aware, of course, that this does not complete the biography that Grigg had once planned; but this book is satisfyingly complete in itself as a lucid, absorbing, easy-paced and wide-ranging account of the direction of the British war effort under Lloyd George. If it is inevitably the case for the defence, it relies for its persuasive force on the fair-mindedness with which it appraises the evidence and its refusal to suppress or minimise flaws in Lloyd George’s conduct, judgment and character.

Lloyd George was in many ways an unlikely war leader. He had made his mark in politics by protesting against British involvement in the Boer War. He had generally opposed naval rearmament while Chancellor, and not only because that was the Treasury brief. He knew almost nothing about the Army; his stint as Secretary of State for War under Asquith was the least happy period of his ministerial career; and his lack of rapport with the High Command was obvious. All this provides an obvious contrast with Churchill, who served an apprenticeship to politics as a dashing subaltern and enthusiastic war correspondent and who revelled in his later role as First Lord of the Admiralty.

Part of Lloyd George’s difficulty was temperamental. ‘Though he showed, as a rule, exceptional moral courage, his physical courage was seriously deficient,’ Grigg writes. ‘He was always squeamish about illness and death, and he had a special fear of high explosives.’ These are not obvious qualifications for a warrior, still less one who sought to impose his personal authority on recalcitrant generals, mired in the mud of the Western Front. This was no Clemenceau or Churchill, striding into danger in the course of asserting his presence on the spot as the man in command. Instead, Lloyd George visited the Front as little as possible: this was one reason he saw so little of Douglas Haig. This meant not only that they established notoriously poor mutual comprehension but also that Lloyd George’s search for an alternative Commander-in-Chief was handicapped by the simple fact that he did not meet many generals, who, whatever their other deficiencies, were often to be found in places disagreeably close to guns and shells and mines and mortars.

From all this Lloyd George flinched. And a good thing, too, it might be thought, given the results of Haig’s unflinching courage, Haig’s unflinching steadfastness and Haig’s unflinching fortitude, as he ordered wave on wave of his soldiers into action. The Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916 had been a prelude to Lloyd George’s bid for power and he frankly dreaded a repetition under his leadership. The problem, though, was to find an alternative strategy, given the failure to find an alternative commander. Hence the constant temptation to suppose that the deadlock on the Western Front might be broken by an imaginative redeployment of resources so as to catch the enemy off guard in some other theatre. Such methods had long served him well in politics, why not in war? A favourite plan was to concentrate on the Italian Front instead: perhaps to surprise the enemy, or to test Austrian rather than German resistance, or simply to get Italian troops to do more of the fighting. But the idea that Italy was the enemy’s soft underbelly was a theory few experts found plausible in the First World War, though that did not stop Churchill from reviving it during the Second, with rather little to show for the resources that were diverted. Indeed, Lloyd George’s counsels of restraint on the Western Front were often weakened in their effect because his alternative seemed to be an implausible attempt to defeat or detach Germany’s Austrian ally.

If, then, victory against Germany had to be won by mastering its armies in the field, this necessarily meant that the Western Front must have priority. This may have been Asquith’s grand strategy, faute de mieux; it was likewise Lloyd George’s, faute de mieux. For Britain, the internal politics of the war therefore turned to a large extent on whether the generals or the politicians would call the shots. The entrenched position that the High Command had achieved in the early part of the war, under Kitchener, handicapped Lloyd George throughout. He had to work with a Chief of Staff, Sir William Robertson, who enjoyed a plenitude of power inherited from Kitchener. With Robertson’s support, Haig was virtually irreplaceable as Commander-in-Chief, whatever Lloyd George’s view. For the one point on which displaced Asquithian ex-ministers and restive Conservative backbenchers – though all nominal supporters of the Government – might be brought into temporary alliance was in defence of the constitutional principle that the proper authority of the generals should not be undermined by the wiles or presumption of one irksomely insurgent politician.

Wily and presumptuous nonetheless, Lloyd George tried to thwart Haig by indirect ploys, as Grigg shows. This was one reason the new British Prime Minister often favoured the claims of French generals who seemed less keen on fighting another Somme. Hence the shortlived supremacy in the early part of 1917 of Nivelle, a man who was fluent and articulate in English, his second language (rather like Lloyd George himself). Recently a colonel, now suddenly a general, Nivelle came up with plausible ideas that made him, in Lloyd George’s eyes, a fit person to exercise supreme command over the Allied troops, and especially over Haig. Yet Nivelle’s dizzy rise soon began to look like over-promotion when his tactical successes with the creeping barrage turned out not to be easily translated into a strategy for a large-scale breakthrough, to be carried out mainly by French troops on the Aisne. By the time the surprise attack was launched in April 1917, it was no surprise at all to the Germans. By May it was clear that no breakthrough had been achieved; but 270,000 French soldiers had been killed.

The reaction of her beloved David was recorded by Lloyd George’s mistress and assistant, Frances Stevenson: ‘Nivelle has fallen into disgrace, & let D. down badly after the way D. had backed him up at the beginning of the year.’ She wrote well aware that Haig had ‘come out on top in this fight between the two Chiefs’, and was consoled only that ‘D. appears to take it as the fortunes of war, and has accepted his defeat cheerfully.’ The relative sense of proportion and perspective about a vast human tragedy may well strike us as disturbing. But suppose Lloyd George had been less cheerful and less resilient at this juncture, would he have proved a better war leader? Would Haig thereby have been better restrained?

As it was, things were bad enough. The fact that Lloyd George had invested so heavily in Nivelle, as an alternative to Haig, inescapably meant that Nivelle’s failure licensed Haig in his own optimistic plan for winning the war in 1917. This was the Flanders offensive. It was not, of course, the first battle for Ypres, nor even the second; and perhaps this indicates that the strategic position of Ypres was inherently worth a third battle, sooner or later. If so, Lloyd George preferred later. He countered Haig’s blithe prospectus with a bitter appeal to experience: ‘Brilliant preliminary successes followed by weeks of desperate and sanguinary struggles, leading to nothing except perhaps the driving of the enemy back a few barren miles – beyond that nothing to show except a ghastly casualty list.’ Yet Lloyd George was reluctantly persuaded to assent; and perhaps Haig’s commitment to back off quickly if the position became untenable was the best that could be secured (though Nivelle had said much the same).

In the event Third Ypres conformed to Lloyd George’s scenario of foreboding; and it proved impossible to stop Haig when, in sodden weather, he insisted that his troops must push on through the mud towards the bombed-out quagmire that had once been the village of Passchendaele. Thus the final phase of Third Ypres has become unforgettable as the Battle of Passchendaele. ‘Use of this familiar name,’ Grigg warns, ‘tends to confuse two questions that should be considered separately: should the battle, or campaign, ever have occurred, and (granted that it did occur) should it have been allowed to drag on for so long?’ The answers are not easy to determine but Grigg scrupulously sifts the evidence and is not prepared to accept the rueful excuses in Lloyd George’s war memoirs. If Lloyd George can be credited with putting the initial case against Third Ypres as strongly as he was able, nonetheless, having given the generals carte blanche through his own political weakness, he was never subsequently in a position to rein back Haig until total British casualties had reached 275,000, of whom 70,000 were killed.

In the end, Haig’s confidence of making a breakthrough on the Western Front was vindicated by the impressive British victories that finally pushed the Germans back in the summer of 1918. By then, Lloyd George was so inured to disbelieving Haig that he tended to discount claims that German morale was flagging, with few reserves and inadequate rations to sustain further resistance. Perhaps Grigg could have linked this more convincingly with the outcome of the war at sea, which arguably turned the war through the success of the Royal Navy in implementing a blockade that virtually starved out the Germans.

This would have complemented the emphasis which Grigg lays in his opening chapter on the situation of extreme peril which Lloyd George inherited, chiefly because of the U-boat campaign which threatened to cut off Britain’s maritime supply line. ‘It is commonly believed that Lloyd George’s predicament may have been bad, but that Winston Churchill’s in 1940 was far worse,’ he writes, but argues that ‘there are good reasons for regarding Lloyd George’s as the more perilous of the two, in reality if not in appearance.’ In personalising the point here, of course, attention is turned not just to the objective peril of the situation itself but to the contribution of each war leader in resolving it.

So the best case for seeing Lloyd George as the man who won the war may rest on his decisive pressure on the Admiralty to adopt convoys, which proved an effective answer to the German submarine menace. Whether Lloyd George ever found an equally effective answer to the more visible, more persistent, more intractable German threat in continental Western Europe remains less clear. It was a problem that frustrated him, as it later frustrated Churchill in the Second World War, even though the latter was spared acute difficulties in getting his own way with his generals. Lloyd George, on Grigg’s showing, comes out of the great controversies about the Western Front with a mixed record: unsure which generals to back, often ready to back anyone except Haig, but not ready to thwart Haig in 1917, still less able to sack him, and not really backing Haig in 1918 when victory was in his grasp. But at least Lloyd George kept his nerve, kept his job and, above all, kept cheerful. Everyone who came into contact with him agreed on that. His Minister of Food had many reasons for dissatisfaction with his boss but still affirmed: ‘He is the one man who can win the war, he has plenty of drive and he’s an optimist. No one but an optimist can win a war of this magnitude.’