As part of our First World War series, today I’ll be looking briefly at David Lloyd George, the second British Prime Minister of the First World War. David Lloyd George is considered one of Britain’s finest Prime Ministers by academics, his role as Prime Minister during the First World War is easily one of the most important tenures in British history. His decisive policies and actions as Prime Minster during the war found him widespread popularity and support across party lines and amongst the public. However he was not without his critics, he particularly clashed with Generals Robertson and Haig who were in charge of the British forces in France.
David Lloyd George was born in Manchester on the 17th January 1863, to Welsh parents. His father William George was a schoolmaster, who moved the family to Pembrokeshire where he died when Lloyd George was only a year old. After the death of his father, the family moved to Llanystumdwy, where his mother’s brother Richard Lloyd lived. It was from his uncle that Lloyd George would gain his Liberal politics and early work as a lawyer. Unlike many British Prime Ministers, Lloyd George did not attend university, instead attaching himself to a law firm before passing the Law Society final examinations. He ran his own law practice until he was elected in a fierce by-election in 1890 for the marginal seat of Caernarfon Boroughs. He was seen a rebel and was a fierce critic of the Boer War. By 1906 he achieved his first ministerial position, as president of the Board of Trade. Two years later he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lloyd George’s social reforms as Chancellor are considered the forefather of the welfare system in the UK, bringing in Old Age Pensions and National Insurance.
When war broke out in 1914, Lloyd George was still Chancellor. He quickly showed his usefulness to the war effort. He worked closely with trade unions to benefit both workers and the country as it threw itself into the war effort. There was also the ‘King’s Pledge’, his attempt to encourage temperance by getting King George V to commit to abstaining from alcohol alongside a number of measures to stop alcohol consumption from affecting the war effort.
The Shell Crisis of 1915 ushered in a new role for Lloyd George, one that would make him popular in government and with the public. There was an outcry when it was revealed that the British Army were running low on artillery shells, a new department for Munitions was created with Lloyd George as minister. Lloyd George in this position began to change Britain into a war economy via steps such as making the railway companies major munitions producers as they had the necessary means of production to begin producing munition immediately. Continuing on from his work with the trade unions, he dealt deftly with labour issues including the hiring of large numbers of women to compensate for lost male workers. Despite this success, many historians believe the success of the department was mostly due to reform put in place before he became minister.
Outside of his role as Minister for Munitions, Lloyd George heavily pushed for conscription. Along with his fellow supporters he was finally successful in 1916. Some historians have seen this as his first bid for the role of Prime Minister; however Asquith would continue to hold on for some time. Even before he became Secretary of State for War, he was highly critical of Kitchener and the Generals Haig and Robertson.
Kitchener’s sudden death in June 1916, led to Asquith being forced to give the role of Secretary of State for War to Lloyd George, although in reality much of the power was in the hands of Haig and Robertson on the Western Front. This did have its advantages for Lloyd George as it allowed him to escape blame for colossal Allied failures such as the Somme. However Lloyd George was not to remain in this position for more than six months. By December 1916 Asquith had lost the support of the Unionists and Labour who he relied on to keep power. Lloyd George was able to gain their support along with a hundred liberals and became Prime Minister.
One of Lloyd George’s first decisions was the creation of the war cabinet, made up of 5 men. Lloyd George headed the cabinet with his chancellor, the Unionist leader, Bonar Law. Another Unionist, Curzon, and the leader of Labour, Arthur Henderson, and the Conservative Lord Milner rounded out the cabinet. The use of the war cabinet was effective allowing Lloyd George control over all aspects of government for the war effort. Perhaps Lloyd George’s greatest success as Prime Minister was the introduction of the convoy system. The convoy system was met with opposition but upon its implementation it stopped the German submarine campaign by preventing the losses that British shipping had sustained from U-Boats.
However Lloyd George continued to struggle with Haig and Robertson. This resulted in one of Lloyd George’s lows, the Nivelle Affair. Lloyd George attempted to put the French General Nivelle in charge of the offensive at Arras which was deeply unpopular with Haig and Robertson. While Haig was given overall operational control of the British forces, he was forced to be under Nivelle’s orders. The Battle of Arras was partly successful but high casualties on the Allied side compared to the Germans damaged Lloyd George’s credibility. However when Passchendaele, under the responsibility of Haig and Robertson, ended badly Lloyd George was able to regain some credibility and allowed him to be able to set up the supreme war council.
The supreme war council was made up of Allied representatives. The council gave command to the French General Ferdinand Foch. This along with an increase of American troops saw a rise in Allied victories. By the summer of 1918 the Germans were losing numbers and those that remained were exhausted.
Perhaps Lloyd George’s biggest failure of the war was the attempted conscription of Ireland. Originally plans had been to limit conscription to Ulster, however the trade unions demanded conscription be extended as they could no longer provide soldiers from their unions without hurting the war effort. While enacted, conscription was never actually put into effect because of such widespread backlash. This decision exacerbated anti-union feeling and could be seen as a major change in opinion about an independent Ireland, leading to the domination of Sinn Féin.
The Allied success cemented Lloyd George’s popularity, allowing him to easily win the 1918 election with a coalition government. He represented Britain at the Treaty of Versailles, although claiming he did not wish to ruin Germany he supported measures that would lead to the Second World War. He continued to push through social reforms and also extended suffrage to more of the British population including some women for the first time. He also oversaw the secession of the Irish Free State. However in 1922 Lloyd George lost power after a series of fractures in his coalition. Disagreements on policy and scandal surrounding cash for titles meant by October 1922, Lloyd George resigned.
While Lloyd George remained visible, the fall of the Liberal Party, something he had arguably helped cause, he never regained power. He continued to support social reform, with his last vote in the Commons being a vote to condemn the government for failing to implement the recommendations of the Beveridge report. On New Year’s Day of 1945 he was raised to the peerage but he was too ill to ever take his positon in the House of Lords. He died of cancer on March 24th 1945, months before the end of the Second World War.