Posts Tagged ‘the Somme’

Labour history uncut: Lloyd George topples Asquith as Labour sit tight in government

10/02/2013, 03:28:22 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

On the 13th November 1916 the battle of the Somme finally ended. Since its launch at the start of July, the British army had suffered 420,000 casualties to advance a grand total of 5 miles.

This rate of attrition revealed that the army’s brilliant “more men forward” approach would indeed get us to Berlin, just as long as we didn’t mind taking another 48 million casualties on the way.

A quick head count of the British population (46 million) led people to suspect the wisdom of this military strategy, despite the resolute self-confidence of generals.

Even Arthur Henderson and the Labour party, however much they tended to go weak at the knees for a man in uniform, had doubts. But as minor members of the government, there wasn’t a whole lot they could do. The sight of Labour men questioning the war effort could easily be mistaken for a lack of patriotism and they were getting enough criticism on that front already thanks to the barbs of Ramsay Macdonald and his anti-war chums.

Instead, Labour opted to stay quiet and look hopefully to prime minster Asquith for some inspiring leadership.


What they got instead in November 1916 was Asquith asking the cabinet to jot down any ideas they might have about what to do for “Herbert’s big book of war-winning notions.” As leadership goes, it wasn’t exactly “Once more unto the breach dear friends.”

Things got worse when Tory grandee Lord Landsdowne, did jot his ideas down. They weren’t exactly what Asquith was hoping for.

“[the war’s] prolongation will spell ruin for the civilised world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it.”

He put this upbeat prognosis in a letter he offered to the Times, to perhaps publish for a bit of fun alongside the horoscopes and sudoku. The Times was appalled by what they saw as the anti-British letter and refused to publish it, as they believed any decent paper would.

The Telegraph happily ran it.

Lord Landsdowne shows the sunny demeanour that inspired his famous letter


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Labour history uncut: More men for the meat-grinder please!

06/02/2013, 05:20:49 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

In January 1916, when Labour was wobbling over whether to stay in a wartime coalition that wanted to introduce conscription, prime minister Asquith had made a promise that his proposals would exclude married men.

Admittedly, just 7 months earlier, when the Labour party was wobbling about whether to join the wartime coalition in the first place, the same Asquith had said there would be no need for conscription at all. But surely this time Asquith meant it, having pinkie-sworn it and crossed his heart and hoped to die?

In April 1916, Asquith’s government brought forward a new conscription bill to call up married men.


This Australian war recruitment poster, handily doubles as a Soho cinema listing

After the usual “we do. we don’t.” hokey cokey from Labour on whether to support the bill, the leadership of the unions swung decisively behind the measure.

And so the bill passed with fulsome Labour backing.

Conscription had been (and continued to be) a difficult issue for Labour,  and the party may have changed their minds more frequently than they changed socks, but in one sense it was just a symptom of a more deep seated problem: the position in the war.

Bloody stalemate on the continent was devouring Britain’s resources. It had made conscription necessary and the resulting manpower shortages were fomenting rebellion within the Labour movement against the leadership.

In March 1916, shop stewards at Beardmores engineering works on “red Clydeside” in Glasgow went on strike in objection to the “dilution” of labour. This involved semi-skilled labour and unskilled labour, and often, god forbid, women being used to fill roles normally occupied by skilled labour. It enabled the skilled labour to be freed for more important activities, such as getting blown up at the front. (more…)

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