On November 13, 1916, the British statesman Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice, better known as the fifth Marquess of Lansdowne, writes a memorandum to the British cabinet questioning the direction of the Allied war effort in World War I.
Born in 1845, Lord Lansdowne held various positions in the British government over the course of his career, including governor-general of Canada, viceroy of India, secretary of state for war during the Boer Wars and foreign secretary. In this last position, Lansdowne signed an alliance agreement with Japan (1902) and in 1904 negotiated the Anglo-French “Entente Cordiale” with his French counterpart, Theophile Delcasse. Having switched his allegiance from the Liberal to the Conservative Party before becoming war secretary, Lansdowne became leader of the opposition party in the House of Lords after a Liberal victory in 1906.
In 1915, with the country at war, Lansdowne was named a minister in the newly formed coalition government of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith. By the following year, with the Allies locked in a bloody stalemate with Germany on the Western Front and reeling from a disastrous invasion of the Ottoman Empire, Lansdowne began to openly question the direction of the British war effort. “No one for a moment believes we are going to lose this war,” he began his memo of November 13, 1916, “but what is our chance of winning it in such a manner, and within such limits of time, as will enable us to beat our enemy to the ground and impose upon him the kind of terms which we so freely discuss?”
Though he was immediately attacked by his colleagues in the cabinet–Sir William Robertson labeled him one of the “cranks, cowards, and philosophers, some of whom are afraid of their own skins being hurt”–Lansdowne was not alone in his pessimism. None other than David Lloyd George–the secretary of war, who would become prime minister the following year–admitted to a dinner companion less than a week later that he was “very depressed about the war.” For his part, Lansdowne remained vocal about his misgivings. He was not given a post in the Conservative-dominated Lloyd George cabinet in 1917, but continued his work in the House of Lords.
In November 1917, Lansdowne published a letter in the Daily Telegraph reiterating his arguments for a negotiated peace. “We are not going to lose this war,” Lansdowne repeated, “but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilized world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it…We do not desire the annihilation of Germany as a great power …We have no desire to deny Germany her place among the great commercial communities of the world.”
Though he was again lambasted by his British critics, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was said to have been “impressed” with Lansdowne’s arguments. They came to nothing, however, and as became clear through post-war research, even if the British establishment had agreed to pursue peace negotiations, Germany in 1917 would never have accepted peace based on the antebellum status quo.