Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Turbulent times for the new government

David Lloyd George in 1915
Simply creating a new government of 'national unity' was a sticking plaster, for there were deep seated issues of public dissatisfaction and split loyalties that were now becoming apparent at home. Nevertheless, almost everyone accepted that unprecedented unity of effort and sacrifice would now be needed to create the armies and munitions necessary to deal with the ever increasing efficiency of the German war machine. While Britain continued to trade with her empire and the world, and in many ways tried to carry on with business 'as usual', Germany was devoting her whole effort to the making of war. Conquered territories were being stripped of their assets in order to feed the German war machine. Asquith's Coalition Government had to raise armies for the continuing effort, but more importantly they had to make up the huge deficits in armour and munitions that resulted in so much suffering for the front line armies. The man charged with this was the most dynamic character in the government - David Lloyd George. On the face of it, a move from Chancellor of the Exchequer to Munitions Minister was hardly a promotion, but new legislation was to give Lloyd George unprecedented powers to direct the National effort.  

At the heart of the controversies was the ongoing debate about national service and conscription. Those in favour argued there was no alternative to putting all men at the government's disposal, and that the war would have been won already with this in place back in 1914. Pragmatic opponents argued that Kitcheners efforts for voluntary enlistment were already creating sufficiently large armies. More passionate opposition came from those workers who had fought for fifty years for trades union rights and autonomy, and who had been opposed to war at the outset. Lloyd George toured the country, making rousing speeches and pointing out the gravity of Britain's position and the need for total dedication to the war effort.Trades Union leaders agreed to suspend union rules in favour of the war effort (the coal miners were an exception), but could not always control their members.
On 9th June the Bill for the creation of a Munitions Department was passed. On 15th July the National Register Bill became law - a first halting step towards conscription. For the former, the definition of 'munitions' was broadened dramatically and gave Lloyd George, as Minister, authority over all industry however tenuously related to the war effort - not just armouries and weapons manufacturers. He was able to replace private management of any relevant company with government control. Arbitration was made compulsory in all trade disputes (increasingly common at that time), and strikes and lock-outs were forbidden in nearly all circumstances. The Minister could declare any company a 'controlled establishment'. This which involved four steps: limiting employers' profits; suspending trade union rules; wage control, and imposition of special regulations at the Minister's discretion. The country was divided into 10 administrative areas for maximum production of munitions. This set the scene for some ugly and divisive disputes.
Blaenavon Colliery, S Wales
The most notable occurred in South Wales, where coal miners ignored the provisions of the act (and the pleas of their leaders) and triggered a widespread strike for improved condition of service in mid July. There were 200,000 of them, so it was no easy matter to round up strikers and imprison them, as allowed by the act. Lloyd George was forced to travel to Cardiff and hammer out a deal. The Act itself, and the war effort were damaged; the country was demoralised, and the men at the front must have read with complete bewilderment their letters from home. These actions added to the financial strain now being felt all over the country, and a time of austerity and food shortages was being ushered in.
A 1915 Poster to support
women volunteers

But there were good developments also, including the huge voluntary contributions made by thousands - from caring for large numbers of refugees (especially Belgian) arriving in the country; to expeditions overseas to nurse, drive ambulances and care for displaced people near to the theatres of war.
Women demanded a role in every facet of the war effort - driving; manufacturing industry; postal services etc. The pre war actions of the women's movement had produced a generation whose determination and organisational skills were invaluable to the war effort, and at the same time accelerated the social changes being imposed on the nation by the scale of the war.
Vera Brittain's retrospective view of these years is powerful. Life must have bee nearly as tough for those at home:

Today, with middle-age just round the corner, and children who tug my anxious thoughts relentlessly back to them whenever I have to leave them for a week, I realise how completely I under-estimated the effect upon the civilian population of year upon year of diminishing hope, diminishing food, diminishing light, diminishing heat, of waiting and waiting for news which was nearly always bad when it came.

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