Monday, 11 May 2015

The British Government falls

Herbert Henry Asquith
Prime Minister 1908-16
" The British people are not slow to recognise facts when they are pointed out, but the recognition of facts is the rarest virtue among politicians, who are accustomed to a particular game, and object to any tampering with the rules and counters" (Buchan: History of the Great War. Vol II p147)
Imagine the mood in the country exactly one hundred years ago. Having gone to war (once its necessity had been accepted) positively, in many cases jingoistically, with the expectation of a successful conclusion before Christmas, it was now Spring of the following year and things were going badly. Having been force fed initially with nothing but good news and positive spin (not just a 21st century phenomenon), the real picture was emerging with the ever growing casualty lists published for all to see. More often, truthful reports from the front that evaded military censorship were appearing. Indeed some reports, such as the insufficient supplies of ammunition, were leaked by senior military people, including Sir John French. The beleaguered Prime Minister Asquith was a brilliant administrator, and had achieved a great deal as pre war Liberal PM, but struggled as a wartime leader. He was strongly under the influence of Churchill, Lloyd George and Kitchener, but sustained by not one, but two formidable women - his second wife Margot, and friend and correspondent Venetia Stanley. However, continuing with a Liberal only government was becoming very difficult.

The mess that was Gallipoli was now causing unrest in parliament and in public. It was compounded by the loss of 20,000 men at the fruitless battles for Neuve-Chapelle and other parts of the Western Front, and a munitions and weapons crisis. Added to the mix was the Italian vacillation about entry to the war, and further pressure on the Admiralty to release more ships for the Anglo-Italian accord in the Adriatic. This was all too much for Fisher who, after several earlier threats, resigned forthwith on 15th May. The timing of this was sufficient to provoke a political crisis, coming as it did on the heels of a censure motion on munitions by the Conservative opposition, and Asquith was forced into coalition to bring them onside.

Margot Asquith
His second wife, she was
an intellectual and socialite,
 almost a prototype for the
Bloomsbury Group.
Venetia Stanley- A great friend
 of Asquith's daughter and
another socialite. Asquith
became obsessed by her and
wrote regularly for her views.
He struggled to line up a new coalition government but by 26th May all ministers had been appointed. Churchill was moved to Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and Balfour replaced him at the Admiralty. The first meeting of the Government was held on 26th May, and its first decision was to re-create almost the War Council, naming it the Dardanelles Committee. It had seven members, including Asquith, Churchill and Kitchener. It did not meet until 7th June, when it resolved to reinforce Hamilton for further operations in Gallipoli. Four Division were committed – three of them from the ‘new’ army. However, there was opposition in the Cabinet to persisting in Gallipoli, and every step henceforth was challenged, creating further indecision and delay. As Churchill writes (paraphrased): “for a task which two Divisions might have been sufficient in February, seven were insufficient in April, and fourteen could not do it in August”. August had to be the time for the latest (and would prove to be final) onslaught, for the reinforcements could not arrive in time for the new moon phase of July. Between July and August, when Suvla Bay was eventually attacked, ten new Turkish Divisions came to the peninsula, some from the Caucasus, where Russia was withdrawing troops following defeats in Galicia in June and July.

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