A Liberal politician of advanced views, David Lloyd George acquired his vivid speaking style from Welsh churchgoing and his radicalism from his uncle, David Lloyd, who oversaw his education. First a lawyer, Lloyd George was elected to the House of Commons from Caernarvon in 1890. From 1905 he held cabinet office, notably as chancellor of the exchequer from 1908 into 1915, acquiring a reputation as a social reformer. A pacifist in 1914, he underwent a conversion after the invasion of Belgium, taking up the new Ministry of Munitions and transforming the nation into an arsenal. In 1916 he became war minister, upstaging the indecisive though once cunning prime minister, H. H. Asquith, architect of an ineffective multiparty coalition. British forces were then bogged down in a war of attrition in Flanders and in stalemate, at best, in the eastern Mediterranean.
When Asquith reacted to reverses with commissions of inquiry and continued tolerance of myopic and costly generalship, Lloyd George pressed for a small supercabinet to run the war. Although he preferred running a war cabinet to the more encompassing and unwieldy premiership, when Asquith declined a reduction to nominal prime minister, Lloyd George claimed both jobs in December 1916. He recruited efficient civilians to devise strategy and operations, proving to be a shrewd judge of talent. He persuaded key experts that Britain required a government that would prosecute the war with vigor and that he had the potential to lead. They took cabinet posts.
Overhauling the war-making machinery in Whitehall proved easier than remaking the bloodied expeditionary force in France. “Delay in war is as fatal as an illness,” he charged. “An operation which may succeed today is no good six weeks later… So in war.” Although his war cabinet, with an effective secretariat under a former colonel, Sir Maurice Hankey, managed the fronts from London, Lloyd George was frustrated by his commanding generals, Douglas Haig and William Robertson, who-despite the butcheries at the Battle of the Somme and Passchendaele-elicited steadfast loyalty from influential industrialists, politicians, press lords, and even the king. Lloyd George and Haig regarded each other as a misfortune. To Haig it was “a calamity for the country to have such a man at the head of affairs in this time of great crisis. We can only try and make the best of him.”
The prime minister did rid the navy of Haig’s counterpart, Admiral John Rushworth Jellicoe, who opposed the convoy system, despite a hemorrhage of sinkings, and safeguarded warships from U-boats by keeping the Royal Navy uselessly close to home. Admiral David Beatty proved more aggressive at sea; but ashore, Haig continued the trench war of expensive but minuscule movement until the spring of 1918, when necessity forced him into a unified command under Ferdinand Foch. While the Germans exhausted themselves in last-ditch offensives, Foch held on to await the mammoth American buildup that would force the enemy into acknowledging that an armistice late in 1918 would be preferable to a defeat on German soil in 1919.
At Versailles, Lloyd George put his prodigious energies to winning the peace for Britain, but, although harsher on Germany than the idealistic American president, Woodrow Wilson, neither could moderate France’s appetite for retribution. Radical elements across the Rhine, notablyAdolf Hitler’s fascists, would prosper on promises to reverse Versailles. Lloyd George’s near-dictatorial postwar ministry failed to exploit his wartime mystique. He retained office in December 1918 with a large Unionist majority but only 133 of his own Liberals. Although he negotiated an Irish settlement and influenced international disarmament treaties, external affairs caused his fall late in 1922 when his pro-Greek bluster in the Chanak crisis threatened war with Turkey and undid his coalition. He resigned that October.
His years as elder statesman were tarnished by a goatish sexual reputation and revelation of a traffic in honors to bolster party coffers. In 1940 he declined, on grounds of health, a war cabinet post underWinston Churchill. Elevated to the House of Lords as Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor only in the last months of his life, he died two months before the second surrender of Germany, in 1945.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.