Parliament And World War One
On 7 August 1918, almost four years after Britain declared war on Germany, Prime Minister Lloyd George reviewed the military situation on land and sea. Due to its length his statement and the response to it from Herbert Samuel will appear in three parts.
PRIME MINISTER’S REVIEW. 07 August 1918. Part One
The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Lloyd George) Mr. Speaker,—Four years ago the British Empire decided to throw the whole weight of its might into the greatest War which the world has ever witnessed. It did so not because British soil was invaded or even threatened with invasion, but because of an outrage upon international right. Had it not been for that decision, the whole course of the War would have been different. The history of the world for generations to come would have followed a different course. I do not wish in the least to exaggerate the part which the British Empire has taken in that conflict. But a mere glance at the events of the last four years will show how great and how decisive its influence has been upon the turn of those events. When the War began we had the most powerful Navy in the world. It was as powerful as the three next Navies of the world, and, when unity of command is taken into account, it was more powerful than the three next Navies. We had, however, the smallest Army of any great Power in Europe. We had a compact with France that if she were wantonly attacked, the United Kingdom would go to her support.
Mr. HOGGE We did not know that!
The PRIME MINISTER If France were wantonly attacked.
An HON. MEMBER That is news.
The PRIME MINISTER There was no compact as to what force we should bring into the arena. In any discussion that ever took place, either in this country or outside, there was no idea that we should ever be able to employ a greater force than six divisions. Whenever there was a discussion in this House about the British Expeditionary Force the maximum was a six-division limit. Whatever arrangement was come to, I think history will show we have more than kept faith.
I should like to say one word about the part which the Navy has taken in redeeming that pledge. I do so because there is a real danger in the more minutely and constantly-described events on land to overlook the part which the British Navy is playing in this conflict. There are two great struggles being carried on—one on the land and one on the sea. One is carried on almost before our eyes. The incidents are pictured from day to day by men who are detailed specially for the purpose of describing them. Every turn in events is portrayed. Take the other struggle. Events there take place in the vast wilderness of the sea, over hundreds of thousands of square miles, with no one to witness them or to describe them except those who take part in the grim struggle. That struggle has been prolonged for four years without a break. No darkness arrests it. No weather, no winter stops it! The Navy never goes into winter quarters! The fighting is going on without ceasing, and I do not think many realise that that is the decisive struggle of the War. Upon its issue the fate of the War depends. If the Allies are defeated there, the War would be over; until they are beaten there, Germany can never triumph. And in the main this momentous deciding struggle is carried on by the British Navy. There is a disposition even here to take the British Navy for granted, exactly as you take the sea for granted; and thus there is no real attempt to understand the gigantic effort which is involved in constructing, in strengthening, in increasing, in repairing, in supplying, in maintaining, and in managing this great machine.
When the War began the British Navy was the largest in the world, representing a tonnage of 2,500,000 tons. Now it is 8,000,000 tons. That includes the Auxiliary Fleet, and were it not for that increase the seas might be barred to the commerce of the world. What is its task? Every trade route in the world is patrolled by its ships. Take its functions—take the blockade alone. From Shetland to Iceland, from Iceland to Greenland, from Greenland to the coast of Norway—the most savage waters in the world, always angry, resenting the intrusion of man by every device known to nature—for four years these seas have been incessantly patrolled by the British Navy. They have set up an impenetrable barrier to Germany. Elsewhere British ships are convoying, patrolling, mine-laying, mine-sweeping, escorting, chasing submarines over vast and tractless areas. They have destroyed at least 150 of these ocean pests—the submarines—more than half in the course of last year.
I will give one figure which indicates the gigantic character of the work done by the British Navy. In the month of June alone British ships of the Navy steamed 8,000,000 miles. To that must be added the efforts of the Mercantile Marine, which has now become a part and branch of the British Navy, and is facing the same dangers with the same daring, carrying for the Allies as well as for ourselves. Most of the American troops, who have so valiantly acquitted themselves in France in recent conflicts, were carried in British ships.
It is difficult to make those who do not understand ships comprehend the very gigantic effort it means to keep this immense machine going. There is rather a tendency to divide our efforts into two branches—men for the Army and ships for the Navy, I wonder how many people understand the number of men required to man and maintain the British Navy and the British Mercantile Marine. At least 1,500,000 for the manning and maintaining, and probably 800,000 or 900,000 of them men of military age. We have made every attempt to comb out when there was great pressure, but we found it was impossible to do so without letting the British Fleet down; and to let the British Fleet down was to let the Allies down. In order that at home and abroad this should be thoroughly understood, I will give one illustration of the importance of not in the slightest degree impairing the efficiency and strength, and, if necessary, the growth of the British Navy, and I am including the Mercantile Marine. The Germans during the last two years have made two definite attempts to force a decision—one at sea and one on land. They attempted the land offensive, because the sea offensive failed. They knew the sea offensive would have been the more final of the two. The land offensive was dangerous; the sea offensive deadly. The land offensive might have been disastrous; the other, had it succeeded, would have been final. If the submarines had succeeded, our Army in France would have withered away. No Americans could have come over to assist the French troops, and munitions could not have been sent across. We could not have sent across the necessary coal and material to enable France and Italy to manufacture munitions. France, Italy and Britain would not have starved, because the War would have been over before that stage was reached.
I mention these facts in no spirit of boastfulness about the British Fleet, although its achievements fill us with a national pride, and I am certainly not minimising in the least the great assistance rendered by the Fleets of America, of France, of Italy, and of Japan. But the British Fleet is so incomparably greater, and its operations are on a scale of so much greater magnitude, that I dwell specially on this, because it is desirable that the immensity of its efforts and its importance in the War should be realised. The American Naval Mission which came over here the other day saw a good deal of the efforts of the British Navy, and was immensely struck with the vastness of the work which is done. They were specially anxious that steps should be taken to make known not merely here, but in America, the gigantic character of the task which it had undertaken. That is why I have devoted these sentences to the subject. Unless the Allies had been completely triumphant at the outset of the War at sea, no efforts on land would have saved them. The British Fleet is mainly responsible for that complete triumph. It could not have been secured and maintained without its gigantic efforts in men and material. Any distribution of our resources which would impair in the least its efforts would be ruinous to the cause of the Allies.
I should now like to say a few words about our efforts on land. What was the problem that confronted us when we came to the Army? We had the greatest Navy; we had the greatest Mercantile Marine, and the maintenance of these two were the first charge upon the resources of this country. Then there were essential supplies of coal and other commodities, which we alone provided for the Allies, and our military efforts had to be subject to this first obligation upon our resources in men and material. We had other difficulties to confront. We were not a military nation in the same sense as were all the nations of the Continent. Britain had not, since a remote period in her history, had anything like military service for the whole of her population. We were unaccustomed to the idea of universal military service. Even the United States of America, within living memory, has had Conscription. That is not true of this country. British soil was not invaded; it was not threatened, and we were not afraid of it. Therefore, we had not the same visible, direct, appealing call to sacrifice which always arouses the manhood of any country whose soil is threatened with invasion.
We had a small Army. What have we accomplished? Since August, 1914, including those who were already with the Colours, this country has raised for the Army and the Navy, in Great Britain alone, 6,250,000 men. Most of them were raised by voluntary recruiting—the most unexampled feat in the history of any country in the world. I met today a distinguished statesman from an Allied country, and he was telling me what an impression that had made and how there was nothing in the history of any land which would bear comparison with the great voluntary effort made in the first two years of the War by this country. In order to give an idea what this means, if the United States of America were to call to the Colours the same number of men in proportion to population, it would raise very nearly 15,000,000 men. The Dominions have contributed 1,000,000, and may I say here, before I leave the Dominions, how valuable has been the aid of the Dominion representatives, especially the Prime Ministers, in our councils during the anxious months through which we have passed. They have taken part in all those deliberations and in all great decisions which have been come to; and, although I know how the nations they represent are anxious to have their leaders back to take part in the business of those Dominions, I trust it may be possible for them to remain here some time longer, inasmuch as there will be very great decisions in reference to the coming winter and next year, when their presence will be invaluable. India, as my right hon. Friend (Mr. Montagu) in his very remarkable speech yesterday, said, has raised 1,250,000 men since the beginning of this War.
With regard to the present military situation, the essential facts are well known, but perhaps I may be permitted to summarise them as they appear to one who has been working inside in reference to the great endeavour which has been made in this country during the last four months. What was the position on the 21st March? The enemy had been relieved of all apprehension on the Eastern Front by the peace of Brest-Litovsk. He had brought all his best divisions from the East, and was combing out the best men from the remaining divisions, and bringing them to the West. Most of those men had enjoyed a long rest on the Eastern Front, and had devoted their time to training and preparing specially for the great blow which was to be directed against the Allied Armies.
On the 21st March we had in front of us the flower of the German army, rested trained, and especially equipped for the campaign. Our troops were tired by a prolonged offensive in the most exhausting conditions under which any troops ever fought. Practically the whole British Front was new ground, which had been won from the enemy, where there had been no time to set up defences, and these tired troops, instead of enjoying rest, or instead of having time for training, had to make defences. What other facts were there? Considerable American forces had been expected by the spring, but as a matter of fact, on the 21st March, there was only one American division in the line. There were three or four American divisions behind the line, and they were brought up after the attack began. The weather conditions were the most favourable that the enemy could have possibly chosen. The united command was not an accomplished fact, in spite of all endeavours to achieve it, and each general was mainly concerned with the perils of his own front. So that when the blow came the reserves of the Allied Armies as a whole were not available to meet it where it fell. These were the conditions under which a long prepared and carefully prepared blow by the picked troops of Germany fell upon the British Army.
What was the object? It was to obtain a military decision this year, before the American Army could come up. How was that to be achieved? First of all by severing the two armies—driving a wedge between them, and then having separated the British and the French forces, to overwhelm the British Army and afterwards deal at their leisure with the French Army. That was the plan, and we have to realise the plan in order to see what the valour of the British Army has accomplished. If the first of the two objects had been attained, that is the severing of the British and the French Armies; if the second object had been attained, the overwhelming of the British Army, the American Forces could not have arrived in time to save the French Army. That was the German calculation, and let us not forget, in the light of what happened afterwards, that it was not such an impossible estimate. But how did the German plan prosper? There has been four and a half months of such fighting as has never been seen on the face of this globe. The magnitude of the armies, the ferocity of the conflict, the losses inflicted and sustained, the valour displayed by the men who took part in the contest—such fighting has never been witnessed on the face of this globe—and not merely in all that, but in the issues which hung in the balance of that fighting.
What has happened? At first the German Army achieved considerable success. We had anxious moments—very very anxious moments, and those who knew the most were the most anxious. The losses were considerable in men, especially in the number of prisoners captured, I regret to say, and in material, far beyond any anticipation that could have been made, and for which we could have been called upon to provide, and had they not been immediately made up, the second German blow might very well have overwhelmed the British Army. Before the battle was over, in a fortnight’s time, 268,000 men were thrown across the Channel—one of the most remarkable efforts of British shipping, and of organisation of our British transport, and let us say, of the War Office. In a month’s time 355,000 men had been thrown across the Channel. A fresh gun had been put back for every British gun and every machine gun that had been lost, and not merely had the deficiency been supplied, but increased; and at this moment there are more guns and more machine guns than the Army in France ever had.
This was the first German miscalculation. They calculated that we could not do it, and let me say that we owe a debt of gratitude to a section of the Press for misleading the enemy, who was foolish enough to believe it; and if you observed there was no Minister here who knew anything who ever contradicted it. Why? Because we knew perfectly well that it was the greatest service which they could render to this country to go on letting the Germans believe we had no men to make up the deficiency. The enemy made his plans accordingly and attacked. They hit here and they hit there: they hit South, they hit in the centre, and in the North. Why? They thought they were destroying the British Army, and that there was nothing behind it. In six weeks they were hurled back, and fought to a standstill by the British Army. They were defeated in two or three of the most sanguinary battles of the War, and they were left in unhealthy salients, under the fire of our guns, with extended lines. Their purpose was to overwhelm the British Army; they declared it, and they announced it in their inspired Press—”We are doing it,” they said. By the 1st of May they had left us to go South, to make another attack. They knew it could not be done. It is one of the finest achievements of tenacious valour in the whole story of the British Army.
Let me say a word here about one special class. The losses were great, and we had to make them up wherever we could find trained men. We took a step which only the emergency could have justified, and that was, sending the lads of eighteen and a half, who had received five or six months’ training, into the line—
Mr. HOGGE And giving their mothers nothing!
The PRIME MINISTER That is not true.
Mr. HOGGE It is true!
The PRIME MINISTER It is a monstrous libel!
Mr. HOGGE It is true, and it is a lie to say it is not. You know it is true!
The PRIME MINISTER I remember coming at nine o’clock one dark night to Boulogne, after I had been to see the generals, and I met these boys coming up by torch-light from the boat, and they went straight to the front. No sooner were these boys in France than they had to face veteran and victorious troops. No veterans ever fought with greater courage and with greater steadiness than those lads. They hurled back these legions who had vowed to destroy the British Army, and we must all be proud of the boys who have so upheld the honour of their native land, and helped so valiantly to save the cause of the Allies from disaster.
After the experience of this six weeks of fighting, it is a remarkable fact, when you know what was the German plan, that they left the British Army alone for three or four months. They may, and probably will, come back, but that is because they have failed elsewhere. Before I quit the part which the British Army played, let me recognise the assistance we had from our gallant Allies both on the Somme and in Flanders. No one knows better than those who took part in that conflict how invaluable was the aid received from the gallant French Armies in both these great battles. I only dwell upon the part the British force took because, in the main, the fighting was theirs, and the losses were, in the main, theirs.
The rest of this debate will appear next month.