037 H.H. Asquith and the notes he scribbled during cabinet meetings
The British cabinet is under fire
It is Sunday 7 March 1915. It is the 37th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.
Six British planes drop bombs on the Flemish port of Ostend.
Heavy fights with changing opportunities are taking place along the entire front north of the river Vistula.
Austrian counter-attacks in the Carpathians fail.
A new Greek cabinet led by Prime Minister Dimitrios Gounaris takes up its duties.
British minesweepers try to turn the Dardanelles into a safe waterway while under heavy Turkish fire.
Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, cables Admiral Sackville Carden that he will have to accept losses, as long as Constantinople falls.
The Austrian emperor Franz Joseph acquiesces in a border adjustment to the benefit of the Italians.
Lord Kitchener asks the help of the experienced General Ian Hamilton for the allied army campaign in the Dardanelles.
The Belgians gain ground along the river Yser and the French achieve the same in the Champagne district.
Bombs and grenades torment Ypres again.
And the British mount a full-on attack at Neuve Chapelle, the battle that will expose the British Achilles’ heel, to the embarrassment of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith.
On 10 March 1915 the British canons roar for half an hour. It is raining grenades on the German enemy lines near the town of Neuve Chapelle, which is in France, though not far from Ypres in Flanders. Right there the German front shows a small bulge. The military term for such bulges is salient. Time will tell that where the front meanders, the war will soon accelerate.
The British Expeditonary Force, assisted by the Royal Flying Corps high in the sky, establish a small bridgehead at Neuve Chapelle. Nothing spectacular, however, as the British and Indian troops only gain two kilometres of territory. Besides, this achievement is overshadowed a few weeks later. Field marshal Sir John French’s plan comes to nothing. He wants to push forward across the ridge near the town of Aubers to the Northern French town of Lille, which is called Rijsel by the Flemish.
Then French gives an interview to the war correspondent of The Times, Charles à Court Repington. French blames the defeat at Neuve Chapelle on a shortage of artillery shells. A rather simple explanation. Even if the British had had sufficient firepower, they probably would not have known how to handle this. But the ‘Shell Scandal’ is born in spring 1915. Press baron Lord Northcliffe’s The Daily Mail takes over the baton and points an accusing finger at the War Ministry, which is led by the hero of Khartoum, Lord Kitchener, with whom Prime Minister Asquith does not get on really well. The feelings are mutual. When one day Asquith appeared to have fallen ill, Kitchener made a very quick-witted remark: ‘I thought he had exhausted all possible sources of delay, but I never thought of the diarrhoea’.
Our boys are dying over there, because our government has not put its affairs in order over here. That is how the public feels about it. This drives the nail into the coffin of prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith, called H.H. Asquith for short.
Verbally he showed great abilities. Whenever his predecessor, liberal prime minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, got in trouble in parliament, he was known to say: ‘Bring out the sledgehammer!’ That ‘sledgehammer’ was H.H. Asquith, who was to succeed the sick Campbell-Bannerman as prime minister nineteen days before the latter’s death in 1908. King Edward VII was not willing to break off his holiday in Biarritz for this changing of the guard. So Asquith decided to go to France.
Apart from the maritime arms race with the Germans, Asquith mainly followed a domestic agenda. He defended free trade. He was not in favour of the movement for women’s right to vote, which made him the target of the suffragettes. Asquith especially focused on the expansion of social security. With social insurance contributions and pension provisions his cabinet lay the foundation of the Welfare State.
When trying to realize these reforms, Asquith the liberal found the House of Lords, this aristocratic bastion dominated by the Conservatives, on his path. The Lords were so powerful that they had also managed to delay self-determination for the Irish for years. The matter of Home Rule was hanging over British politics like a dark cloud. Supported by Irish nationalists Asquith decided to take up the fight against the House of Lords. He also got Kind Edward VII on his side, but the monarch would die in 1910. Some thought he passed away as a result of stress. Here and there one could hear ‘Asquith killed the king’. But Asquith continued and with the help of the new King George V finally succeeded in defeating the House of Lords with the Parliament Act.
But all these domestic issues were moved to the edges of Asquith’s desk, when the war broke out. And the longer the war lasted, the clearer it became that H.H. Asquith was not the strong man Great Britain so badly needed. Though he was a thorough prime minister in peace time, Asquith did not pass the litmus test of the war.
The ‘Shell Scandal’ and the military debacle on the Gallipoli peninsula force Asquith as early as 1915 to turn his liberal cabinet into a coalition cabinet with participation of the Conservatives and Labor. Besides, a new ministry is created, the Ministry of Munition, which is led by David Lloyd George, who so far has served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lloyd George, who is not averse to intriguing against his own prime minister, proceeds with vigour. On the home front the British suffer a considerable gap compared with the Germans, whose Krupp Werke in Essen have been going like a bomb for decades.
Lloyd George uses the economic potential of the Dominions. Canada proves to be especially important as a producer of ammunition. Also at home the industry is radically made subject to the imperatives of war. On the border of England and Scotland an enormous ammunition factory is built, His Majesty’s Factory Gretna. In 1917 it employs over 11,000 women, twice as many as men. Just to make sure all pubs in the area are placed under state control. Tons of cordite, which is an explosive mixture of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine, have left the factory gates of Gretna. It is Arthur Conan Doyle, the spiritual father of Sherlock Holmes, who gave cordite its nickname ‘devil’s porridge’. Gretna is certainly not the only ammunition factory. By the end of 1915 the state directly controls seventy arms factories. By the armistice in November 1918 this number has increased to 250.
Already in 1915 Asquith had to start thinking along different lines, but also in 1916 criticism of him persists. The Dublin Easter Rising and the terrible Battle of the Somme further undermine his position. One of the names among a million and a half losses – dead, wounded, taken prisoner- that the Battle of the Somme led to on both sides, was that of Raymond Asquith, the eldest and promising son of the prime minister. On 15 September 1916 he is shot in the chest at Flers-Courcelette. Raymond is carried off the battlefield, but dies on the way back. A brilliant future remains unfulfilled. In one of his many letters the British prime minister has expressed his fatherly grief as follows: ‘I feel bankrupt’.
Asquith Sr. had the peculiar habit to conduct a stream of correspondence with ladies of substance, although he had a dubious reputation of unwelcome intimacies. According to Lady Ottoline Morrell the prime minister did not shrink from guiding the hand of the lady sitting next to him on the sofa to the erection in his trousers. After his first wife and mother of their five children had died of typhoid fever, Asquith remarried a woman who would bear him two more children. But apparently marriage did not offer him sufficient female attention.
From 1910 till 1915 his penfriend was Venetia Stanley, another lady of substance who in her abundance of free time moved elegantly in the highest circles. In other words a socialite. Asquith’s affection for Venetia must have gone beyond the epistolary, but we are not quite sure of the details. However, the numerous letters he wrote to her are of importance to the historian. Asquith often scribbled his notes during cabinet meetings and he frequently asked Venetia’s advice in political and military matters. The correspondence, which was published in book form much later, ended when Venetia chose a new suitor from the world of politics, the Jew Edwin Samuel Montagu. Accordingly the prime minister of Great Britain was torn apart by heartache in the middle of the war.
In his book ‘Asquith as war leader’ George H. Cassar describes the prime minister as follows: ‘The picture of Asquith that emerges is of a man who on the one hand was reserved, serious, solitary and exclusive and on the other passionate, frivolous and somewhat irresponsible. The contrasting elements in his personality reflected the age in which he lived and make him a representative figure.’
After a long period of eight years in office H.H. Asquith has to hand over power to his party colleague David Lloyd George. It is December 1916. The relationship between the two liberals remains cool. Asquith declares to be loyal to the new government, but that does not sound very convincing. The liberal party will fall into two camps, of the old and the new prime minister. The controversy is most obvious during the Maurice Debate of 9 May 1918. The officer Sir Frederick Maurice accuses Lloyd George’s cabinet of knowingly keeping away men from the western front. In the House of Commons Asquith puts himself forward as spokesman of Maurice. Lloyd George reacts by requesting a vote of confidence. He weathers the storms gloriously.
To the general public David Lloyd George is also the man who has won the war, after having cast aside Asquith. Yet it is certainly not curtains yet for Asquith after the war. In December 1918 he had to give up his seat in the House of Commons, but two years later he appears again on the political front. Asquith is one of the politicians who paves the way for the first Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald.
In 1925 Asquith is allowed to join as a peer the House of Lords, the company he had managed to bring to their knees in an earlier political life. He needed to have a title though in order to be admitted to the House. He will be the 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith. Among aristocrats this is tut-tutted in disapproval. Asquith, member of the middle classes, son of a wool merchant, an Oxford Earl? It is the general opinion that this is ‘like a suburban villa calling itself Versailles’.
H.H. Asquith died in 1928 at the age of 75. His grandson Julian inherited the title. This second Earl of Oxford and Asquith dies in 2011 at the age of 94. He was born five months before his father Raymond was killed on the battlefield behind the Somme.
Then there is one of the English war poets, who listens to the name Asquith. It is Herbert Asquith Jr., the second son of the prime minister, who unlike his older brother did survive the war. But this Asquith, too, has looked straight into the monstrous face of the war. He described the destruction ‘after the salvo’, as one of his poems is called. A skull torn out of the graves near by. A poppy at the crater’s edge. And the rats. Of course, the rats.
‘Up and down, up and down
They go, the gray rat, and the brown:
A pistol cracks: they too are dead
The nightwind rustles overhead’
Next week: Sir Ian Hamilton
Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)