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The Struggle For Mastery in Britain: Lloyd George Versus Asquith, December 1916

  • J. M. McEwen (a1)


Myth and mystery continue to cloud the supersession of Herbert Henry Asquith by David Lloyd George half-way through the First World War. Then, and long afterwards, there was much talk of intrigue and conspiracy, often inspired by those who believed Asquith had been jockeyed out of the premiership by an unholy alliance of low schemers who scrupled at nothing. It is tempting to dismiss such charges as baseless, as the loser's perennial excuse. Yet in the records that have come to light there are enough gaps, irregularities, and teasing hints of suppressed evidence to keep alive old suspicions that some things occurred which many of the participants wished forgotten. Walter (later Viscount) Long, for instance, once wrote to Lord Beaverbrook in response to a request for his version of events: “I have omitted a great deal that happened at the time, as I believe I promised not to mention certain very interesting incidents.” Before he died Long seems to have weeded out of his private papers material relating to Asquith's overthrow. And in a massive three-volume biography of Lord Curzon there are only two slight references to the change of government in 1916, a remarkable feat of omission considering Curzon's role. The biographer, Lord Ronaldshay, later professed innocent astonishment at finding nothing pertinent to this great event in Curzon's voluminous papers. Another minister who was near the center, Herbert (later Viscount) Samuel, appears to have reshaped his chronicle of events in a manner more flattering to himself but less useful to historians.



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1. House of Lords Record Office (hereafter, HLRO), Lone to Beaverbrook, 15 Nov. 1919, Beaverbrook Papers, Box 3, Folder 1. (Long was President of the Local Government Board.)

2. Austen Chamberlain wrote to Lord Robert Cecil on 10 July 1931: “None of us appear to have anything but the scantiest records. Zetland [Ronaldshay] found nothing in Curzon's papers. Eric Long tells me that he has volumes of his father's letters, but nothing connected with the crisis of 1916. At that point there is a gap and he says it is evident that at some later date his father destroyed all letters relating to it.” University of Birmingham, Austen Chamberlain Papers, AC 15/3/39. (Chamberlain was Secretary for India, Cecil was Minister of Blockade.)

3. Earl of Ronaldshay, The Life of Lord Curzon (London, 1928), III, 147. (Curzon was Lord Privy Seal.)

4. From internal evidence it seems clear that Samuel's diary entries for 4 and 5 Dec. 1916 were written after those of 6, 7, and 8 Dec. This hides the fact that early in the crisis Samuel was keen to continue in office under Lloyd George but could not sever himself from Asquith and the other Liberal Ministers. HLRO, Samuel Papers, Diary Notes. (Samuel was Home Secretary.)

5. HLRO, Riddell to Beaverbrook, 1 June 1933. Beaverbrook Papers, C/276. Historians must wait a few more years before Riddell's papers are available for research.

6. Times, 4 Dec. 1976. Article by Cameron Hazlehurst: “The part a Cabinet wife played in the bewildering fall of Asquith.” The lady in question was Pamela McKenna, wife of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Reginald McKenna. Hazlehurst ventures to suggest that one reason for Asquith's fall was his “ultimate unwillingness to displace McKenna and thereby jeopardize his intimacy with McKenna's wife.” This is an interesting though hazardous supposition.

7. Koss, Stephen, Asquith (London, 1976), p. 221. This is the latest and tidiest account of Asquith's life. Koss's telling of the crisis of 1916 is brief but judicious. See Ch. 9, pp. 214-27.

8. When, towards the end of his life, Asquith, wrote Memories and Reflections (London, 1928), he was content to print without comment Lord Crewe's account of the crisis written on 20 Dec. 1916 (see Vol. II, 128-38.) It remained for Asquith's biographers, in particular Jenkins, Roy in his Asquith (London, 1964), to present a fuller version of the story from this side. See Ch. XXVI-XXVII, pp. 421-63.

9. In contrast to Asquith, Lloyd George was far better served by his own pen than by his biographers. The second volume of his War Memoirs (London, 19331936) appeared in 1933, with several chapters devoted to the events of late 1916 (see pp. 832-1005.) He drew extensively on documents to support his own case. Of course by the nineteen-thirties most of the other principals in the crisis were dead. G. M. Trevelyan was moved to comment: Mr. Lloyd George's great gifts are not strictly historical.” Grey of Fallodon (London, 1937), p. 255.

More recently Lloyd George has had a strong army of defenders headed by A. J. P. Taylor. Of considerable value for an insight into Lloyd George's mind in late 1916 is Taylor, (ed.), Lloyd George, A Diary by Frances Stevenson (London, 1971). As secretary and mistress, she occupied a unique vantage point. Far weightier and more objective are the diaries and letters of C. P. Scott who saw much of Lloyd George during these weeks. See Wilson, Trevor (ed.), The Political Diaries of C. P. Scott 1911-1928 (London, 1970). Scott was owner and editor of the Manchester Guardian.

10. See chiefly the works by or about Christopher Addison, A. J. Balfour, Bonar Law, Sir Edward Carson, Austen Chamberlain, Geoffrey Dawson, Lord Derby, Robert Donald, King George V, Maurice Hankey, Lord Lansdowne, Lord Milner, Edwin Montagu, Lord Northcliffe, Lord Riddell and C. P. Scott.

Among recent articles that touch upon the fall of Asquith may be mentioned: Hazlehurst, Cameron, “Asquith as Prime Minister, 1908-1916,” English Historical Review, LXXXV (July, 1970), 502–31; Lockwood, P. A., “Milner's Entry into the War Cabinet, December 1916,” The Historical Journal, VII, No. 1 (1964), 120–34; and McGill, Barry, “Asquith's Predicament, 1915-1918,” Journal of Modern History, XXXIX (Sept. 1967), 283303.

See also Hazlehurst, Cameron, “The Conspiracy Myth” in Gilbert, Martin (ed.), Lloyd George (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1968); and Ch. XI in Scally, R. J., The Origins of the Lloyd George Coalition: The Politics of Social-Imperialism, 1900-1918 (Princeton, 1975).

11. Published originally in two volumes, 1928 and 1932. A one-volume edition wai produced in 1960. This work should be read with much caution, as Taylor, A. J. P. makes clear in his biography, Beaverbrook (London, 1972). Taylor's rectitude as a historian compels him to criticize some of Beaverbrook's methods, for instance pretending a diary existed when there is no evidence of one (pp. 105-06). But his approval of Beaverbrook's role in the end result, Lloyd George's triumph, shines through.

Interestingly, Taylor himself seems to have made no use of the earliest typed draft of Beaverbrook's account, a two-part document styled “Report of Cabinet Crisis 1916” and corrected in Beaverbrook's hand (Beaverbrook Papers, Deed Box 4, Folder XXIV). This reveals clearly how Beaverbrook saw the crisis at the time.

12. Gilbert, Martin, Winston S. Churchill, Vol. III, 1914-1916 (London, 1971), 231.

13. Jenkins, , Asquith, p. 376.

14. Ibid., p. 377.

15. Asquith, Lloyd George, Balfour, Bonar Law, and McKenna; but not, significantly, Lord Kitchener, the War Minister. The names are given incorrectly in Koss, , Asquith, p. 171.

16. Jenkins, , Asquith, p. 385.

17. Hankey, Lord, The Supreme Command (London, 1961), II, 439–40.

18. LordBeaverbrook, , Men and Power (London, 1956), Introd., p. xi.

19. Blake, Robert, The Unknown Prime Minister (London, 1955), p. 297.

20. “We are out: it can only be a question of time now when we shall have to leave Downing Street.” Asquith, Margot, An Autobiography (London, 1920, 1922), II, 245. Mrs. Asquith's instincts were better than her husband's.

21. Meaning under the present Allied leadership.

22. To borrow the terms applied to rival factions of Tories during the struggle over the Parliament Bill.

23. Beaverbrook, , Politicians and the War, II, 110–24.

24. Blake, , The Unknown Prime Minister, p. 307.

25. PRO, Asquith to the King, 30 Nov. 1916, CAB 41/37/42.

26. Beaverbrook, , Politicians and the War, II, 161.

27. Ibid., 164.

28. LordNewton, , Lord Lansdowne (London, 1929), p. 452.

29. HLRO, Bonar Law Papers, 85/A/l.

30. Beaverbrook, , Politicians and the War, II, 160–81.

31. HLRO, Lloyd George Papers, E/2/23/9.

32. Ibid., E/2/23/10.

33. II, 985. Lloyd George added: “The Prime Minister's counter proposal would effect no improvement and hardly any change in the position as it stood. The Prime Minister was to preside over the Committee and any Ministers dissatisfied with any of its decisions were entitled to appeal to the Cabinet before any steps were taken to carry them out. Then what about the Committee of National Organization which was to be set up quite independently of the War Committee to deal with the purely domestic side of War problems?”

34. Beaverbrook's financial interest in the Daily Express secured that outlet. The roundabout way in which he primed the Daily Chronicle, and his reasons, are described in Taylor, , Beaverbrook, pp. 113–14.

35. Beaverbrook, , Politicians and the War, II, 210.

36. Bonar Law's “Statement” of 30 Dec. 1916.

37. Jenkins, , Asquith, p. 438.

38. HLRO, Beaverbrook Papers, Deed Box 4, Folder XIV.

39. Beaverbrook, , Politicians and the War, II, 228.

40. Montagu's account of the crisis. Interview with Donald, Robert, editor of the Daily Chronicle, on 27 Feb. 1917. HLRO, Beaverbrook Papers, Deed Box 4, Folder V.

41. War Memoirs, II, 987.

42. Was Asquith so befuddled at this point in the crisis that he could not grasp that he was bargaining away his power? Such a theory is not in keeping with his record as prime minister.

43. Taylor, H. A., Robert Donald (London, 1934), p. 119.

44. Roskill, S., Hankey, Man of Secrets (London, 19701974), II, 325.

45. Beaverbrook, , Politicians and the War, II, 229.

46. HLRO, Beaverbrook Papers, Deed Box 4, Folder XIV. Such a comment from one so experienced as Churchill cannot be dismissed lightly.

47. Maurice Bonham Carter was Asquith's Private Secretary and son-in-law.

48. Roskill, , Hankey, Man of Secrets, II, 325. In Jenkins, , Asquith (p. 441), this appears as “would only serve with Asquith.”

49. Montagu interview with Robert Donald, 27 Feb. 1917.

50. Chamberlain, Austen, Down the Years (London, 1935), p. 121.

51. See the exchange of letters between Chamberlain and Beaverbrook in May and June, 1932. HLRO, Beaverbrook Papers, C/79: University of Birmingham, Austen Chamberlain Papers, AC/15/3/28,29,33,34,40,41. Beaverbrook was not satisfied with Chamberlain's explanation.

52. Waley, S. D., Edwin Montagu, A Memoir (London, 1964), p. 106. Montagu's papers, which were open for a time, have been closed again to researchers.

53. Taylor, , Robert Donald, p. 116.

54. Ibid., p. 125.

55. Oxford and Asquith, , Memories and Reflections, II, 132. Crewe's account of the crisis.

56. Bodleian Library, Oxford, Crewe to Asquith, 4 Dec. 1916, Asquith Papers, MS 17.

57. Jenkins, , Asquith, p. 442.

58. Morison, Stanley stated categorically in The History of ‘The Times’, IV, Part 1 (London, 1952), 297, that most of the leading article had been written by Geoffrey Dawson on Saturday while staying with the Astors at Cliveden, while the final touches were added Sunday evening after Dawson had talked with Sir Edward Carson. This is confirmed by other sources

59. Bodl., Bonar Law to Asquith, 3 Dec. 1916, Asquith Papers, MS 31.

60. Dugdale, Blanche E. C., Arthur James Balfour (London, 1936), II, 169.

61. Newton, , Lord Lansdowne, p. 453.

62. Young, Kenneth, Arthur James Balfour (London, 1963), p. 365.

63. Clark, Alan (ed.), ‘A Good Innings’. The Private Papers of Viscount Lee of Fareham (London, 1974), p. 161. This is a condensed version of the original, privately printed in two large volumes in 1939.

64. Montagu interview with Robert Donald.

65. Oxford and Asquith, , Memories and Reflections, II, 132. Italics added.

66. Harry Jones's notes of the crisis. HLRO, Beaverbrook Papers, Deed Box 4, Folder V.

67. Beaverbrook, , Politicians and the War, II, 231–32.

68. Asquith to Pamela McKenna, 3 Dec. 1916. Jenkins, , Asquith, p. 443.

69. HLRO, Asquith to Lloyd George, 4 Dec. 1916, Lloyd George Papers, E/2/23/12.

70. Lloyd George to Asquith, 4 Dec. 1916, ibid., E/2/23/13.

71. By Thursday, December 7, Lloyd George was assured of ample support in the House of Commons. The previous evening Dr. Addison informed Lloyd George, Bonar Law, and Carson that they had the backing of 49 Liberal back-benchers for certain and the probable support of many others (of a total of 260 in the party). The Thursday morning decision by the Labour leaders meant that most of their 40 members were for Lloyd George. As for the 288-member Unionist party, it was taken for granted (correctly) from the beginning of the crisis that they would support any administration which included their own leaders and which promised to prosecute the war with more vigor than the Asquith ministry. The 80-odd Irish Nationalists were withdrawing from an active role at Westminster and therefore would not oppose Lloyd George; some even welcomed the change. Generally speaking, the parliamentary parties played a very passive role in the crisis.

72. Politicians and the War, II, 228.

73. Taylor, A. J. P., English History, 1914-1945 (Oxford, 1965), p. 73.

The Struggle For Mastery in Britain: Lloyd George Versus Asquith, December 1916

  • J. M. McEwen (a1)


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