The Liberals and the First World War

Understanding the history of the Liberal Party during the First World War has been made harder by hindsight. Later Liberal decline has called into question the efficacy of Liberal ideology in wartime.

The Asquith-Lloyd George split has been treated as unmendable, thereby making December 1916 a critical turning-point in Liberal Party (and British) history. To what extent are such views sustainable and should what came after the war be seen as purely a consequence of the war?

British involvement in European war in early August was contentious within the Liberal Party and its ally the Labour Party. Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, was respected by many Liberals as a distinguished minister and a man of considerable integrity. However, British participation in the war caused an influential and vocal minority of Radicals in the Liberal Party as well as Independent Labour Party (socialist) members within the Labour Party to condemn him for secret pledges of military support for France, participation in non-democratic secret diplomacy before the war and failing to conduct effective diplomatic talks to prevent the war occurring. In late 1917, the publication of secret treaties found by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Foreign Office, involving substantial territorial gains for Britain and her allies confirmed at least part of such suspicions.

Yet the German army’s violation of Belgian independence and the sometimes very brutal treatment of Belgians in occupied territory provided powerful arguments and emotions in favour of British participation. David Lloyd George, who had opposed the British war with the Boer republics in 1899-1902, spoke out in favour of Britain backing little Belgium against the military might of Germany. Once committed to the war, he soon became committed to all measures necessary to ensure success in what he called a war of engineers. Controversy came with trying to agree what measures were truly necessary.

By spring 1915 it was clear that the war would not be brief. The Conservative Party gave support to the war effort but was not involved in major decisions. A general election was due at the end of 1915. So when Herbert Henry Asquith’s Liberal government was shaken by the munitions scandal (claims that the British army on the Western Front was being hampered by insufficient shells) and by Admiral John Fisher’s abrupt resignation as First Sea Lord over Gallipoli in May 1915, the Prime Minister was quick to agree to a coalition government. In keeping the major posts for Liberals, although sacrificing several Liberal ministers including Lord Haldane and downgrading Winston Churchill, Asquith was foolishly ungenerous to the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, who became Colonial Secretary.

Controversy continued within the Liberal Party, as well as between parties, as to what measures were truly necessary. At the outbreak of the war in August 1914 civil liberties were immediately curtailed through the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) with its successive amendments and its additional regulations. Freedoms of trade unionists and other workers were substantially restricted as mass voluntary enlistment disrupted the free labour market. Under the Munitions of War Act, June 1915, strikes and lockouts were made illegal and restrictions were placed on the mobility of labour from war work while encouraging mobility to essential work.

Most controversial of all was the introduction of military conscription, something opposed by many Liberals and Labour MPs. Herbert Henry Asquith reluctantly was pushed into conscription by the pressure of much public and political opinion. The war was not short. It had not ended by Christmas 1914. Britain could not play only a naval role. Indeed, from the outset her army had been critical in holding the German advance in the West. As early as August 1915, after one year of war, voluntary recruitment had taken roughly 20 per cent of the male labour from engineering and other key occupations for a technological war. By autumn 1915 the need was clear for more men in the Armed Forces and for greater selectivity in those taken from civilian employment. Those who believed that conscription was inescapable included Lloyd George and some other Liberal MPs. Asquith appeared weak as he was pushed from a compromise scheme (devised by Asquith but administered by Lord Derby and so known as The Derby Scheme) in October 1915 to conscription of unmarried men in January 1916 to full conscription in May 1916.

In all the major European belligerent nations governments fell and generals were sacked as optimistic expectations of early victory were dashed and as the stresses of wartime economies became very apparent. In Britain in 1916 there was widespread and growing dissatisfaction in Parliament and in the press concerning leadership and central organisation. There were increasing calls for a thorough approach to the war, one which would echo Oliver Cromwell and even what was thought to be Prussian efficiency and single-mindedness. Under pressure from within his coalition government, notably from Lloyd George, and from without, notably by the press and disaffected Conservative backbenchers, Asquith resigned. It is quite probable that he hoped this would lead to a consolidation of support for his premiership. It did not. Lloyd George replaced him as Prime Minister on 7 December 1916, heading a coalition government supported by half the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party.

David Lloyd George had seen himself as, and had frequently manoeuvred to be, Asquith’s crown prince. He undoubtedly wished to succeed Asquith as Prime Minister. Historians still debate as to whether his ambition led him to oust Asquith in December 1916 or if circumstances, including Asquith’s misguided political manoeuvres, created a situation where he felt he had to act. Certainly, there is much evidence to suggest he did not wish to supplant Asquith at that particular time, early December 1916. The immediate reason for Asquith’s fall consisted of serious disagreements over the organisation of the higher political command of the war. Underlying this, however, were too many people doubting his wartime leadership combined with the substantial economic, social and political stress accrued from more than two years at war. Several historians have suggested that Lloyd George’s style of government – with its greater emphasis on state direction and state control – stemmed as much (if not more) from the nature of the developing war than from Lloyd George himself. Under Lloyd George the government machine was overhauled, with a small War Cabinet directing the war, an efficient Cabinet secretariat under Sir Maurice Hankey, and the creation several new ministries (such as Labour, Food and Shipping), as well as a body of special advisers to the Prime Minister housed in the garden of Number 10 Downing Street (‘The Garden Suburb’).

Herbert Samuel, in declining to serve under Lloyd George, not only expressed doubts about his coalition government’s ability to survive but also stated he felt it was a patriotic duty to have available an alternative government with members who had experience of office. During the remainder of the war Asquith and the other leading Liberals were available as an alternative, but they could not oppose the country’s government waging war. Moreover, very few people saw their record in 1914-16 as such, as to dispose them to oust Lloyd George and his coalition government in order to restore them. When in May 1918 they did appear likely to mount a serious challenge with General Sir Frederick Maurice’s allegations of the War Cabinet’s responsibility for inadequate numbers of soldiers on the Western Front before the German breakthrough of that March, Lloyd George easily held the confidence of the House of Commons.

By the end of the war Lloyd George was ready to confront the electorate in partnership with those who had served in his coalition government, even if that meant opposing Asquith and his supporters. This decision, more than forming a government on 7 December 1916, was very damaging to the Liberal Party. Added to this, the existence and the several very illiberal policies of his post-war coalition government (1918-22) contributed significantly to the damage. Liberal reunion before 1923 could have occurred had Lloyd George been willing to dissolve the coalition at the end of the war; but it would perhaps have been politically unrealistic to expect him break with those who had joined with him to bring the country to victory. Reunion at the end of the war could also have occurred had Asquith been willing to serve as Lord Chancellor under Lloyd George (in the way that Lord John Russell had served under Palmerston in 1859-65 after being premier in 1846-52).

At the end of the war the Liberals were also harmed by its impact on their party organisation. This had initially been suspended for the recruiting campaigns. Many agents and MPs had died in action. Unlike Labour, there was no trade union organisation which could quickly organise in a khaki election. Like the other parties, the Liberals were faced with a huge new electorate. The unexpectedly rapid ending of the war on 11 November 1918 came with the Liberals being divided and unprepared for the general election which followed in December 1918.


Chris Wrigley has published three books on Lloyd George (1976, 1990, 1992) and written on Gladstone. His other books include such topics as British industrial relations, British trade unionism, Europe 1917-20, Churchill and Arthur Henderson. He is Professor of Modern British History at Nottingham University and was President of the Historical Association from 1996-9. This article was written in December 2003.