2019 03 – Parliament And World War One

Parliament And World War One

by Dick Barry

Prime Minister’s Review.

07 August 1918. Part Two

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Lloyd George) After the 1st of May the Germans turned off to attack the French. There has never been since the 21st of March an offensive conducted by forces of the same magnitude. That was the biggest attack which has been made up to the present in numbers, in forces, and in concentration. After the 1st of May, they attacked the French Army, and here again they won a preliminary success on a considerable scale. What has happened since then? Not merely have they been fought to a standstill, but General Foch—Marshal Foch, if I may, with permission, for the first time call him by his new title, and I am sure that everybody here will join with me in sending a message of congratulation to him on a title which he has won by such skill, by such resource, and by such genius—by his counterstroke, which is one of the most brilliant in the annals of war, has driven the enemy back, and the enemy—who avowed that he was to capture Calais, perhaps Paris, by dates which vary according to the temperament of the prophets from May till August, August being the latest, who was to capture Paris, destroy the British Army, and overwhelm the French—is now retreating. The danger is not over, but he would be a sanguine man on the German General staff who would now predict that General Ludendorff’s plan of campaign will succeed in its objectives, and enable Germany to obtain a military decision this year.

I do not wish to go beyond that, but I should like to say one or two words about the elements of success, because they have their bearing upon the future. The first was the rapidity with which all losses were made up. I need not refer to that. The second was the rapidity with which the American troops were brought over. These two are essential parts of the German miscalculation. The first German calculation was that we could not make up our losses. Their second calculation was that the Americans could not be brought over. They looked at what had been done. In February the Americans brought over about 48,000 men. I think, in January, there were still fewer. The German General Staff, which seems fairly well informed, came to the conclusion that if what was said in the British Press about our having no men was true, if what they knew about troops being brought over in American ships was true, and if what a certain section of the Press said about our having no ships was also true, then the destruction of the Allied Armies was a certainty. That is one of the uses of a good Press. It is a mistake to contradict it, and that is my complaint about questions put here. It is very difficult not to contradict them. That was the German second miscalculation.

Soon after the blow of 21st March, the British Government made a special appeal to President Wilson to send men over, even if they were not formed in Divisions, so that they could be brigaded with British and French formations. President Wilson responded by return. It was prompt, it was decisive, but he stipulated that we should do our part of the carrying. It was true that we had no ships to spare, but we impressed upon the Shipping Controller the enormous importance of getting every American soldier over, and we pulled ships out of trades which were quite essential. Do not let anyone imagine that we had ships to spare. In order to carry over American troops, we have had to sustain a loss of 200,000 tons per month in essential cargoes, which means 2,500,000 tons per annum. But it has been justified by the result. I forget how many thousands,—800,000 or 900,000, troops—have been brought over since the date of the battle, mostly in British ships. In the month of July 305,000 American troops were brought over, of which 188,000 were carried in British ships.

That was the second element in the restoration of the situation, because everyone knows how valiantly these troops have fought. It is not merely, as I have repeatedly said here, that they have fought with courage—everyone would have expected that of the American Army—but that they have fought with a trained skill which no one had a right to expect. The men are brave, but the officers, who, after all, are not trained officers in the ordinary sense of the term, have shown a skill, a knowledge, and a management of men under trying conditions which you could hardly expect from men who have not had years of training, and who have not had a good deal of experience of war. That is one of the most remarkable facts in the fighting of the American troops at the present time.

What is the other element that has made for success? I am not sure that I would not almost put this first. Unity of command is at last achieved, but after a long struggle. The word “Generalissimo” is a misleading word. There is no Generalissimo in the real full sense of the term. A Generalissimo is a man who has complete command over his army, who appoints generals and dismisses generals, and who controls not merely the fighting in the field, but the troops behind the lines. That is not the position of Marshal Foch. It is not the position to which he aspired. In the ordinary sense of the term that has not been attained, and I am still of the opinion that it is not desirable that it should be attained. No one has claimed it; no one has argued for it. What has been established has been unity of strategic command, and that has answered every purpose, as the Germans know too well, and to their cost.

Our first experiment in this direction was last year with General Nivelle. General Nivelle was the Commander-in-Chief of the French Army. It is right when you have two great armies in the field that he who is in command of the greater army, other things being equal, should command the whole; but, apart from that, you were fighting on French territory. General Nivelle was an exceedingly able and experienced officer. He it was who in the main commanded in the great struggle round Verdun, which resulted in a disastrous defeat for the German Army. He had a great strategic plan for a combined attack upon the German Army in April of last year, and he was the first general in this War who devised the plan of an attack upon a wide front, which the Germans have since followed with such success. When that attack took place unity of command was established during the battle. It was to come to an end after the battle was over. That was the experiment. There has been a good deal of controversy about the French part in the battle, and into that I shall certainly not enter, but I have always thought that even there great results were accomplished. Even in that battle, taking the battle as a whole, 50,000 prisoners and from 400 to 500 guns were captured. Large tracts of territory, some of the first strategic importance, were captured. The British were to attack on the left of the Allied Army, and the main attack was to be on the heights of Vimy. The British part of the battle was the biggest success won by the British Army since 1914. Hon. Members will recollect that it ended in sweeping the German troops from the heights of Vimy, from which prolonged attacks by the French Army in 1915 had failed to dislodge them.

If hon. Members want to realise how important that is, they have only to look at the part which the Vimy Ridge has played in this great battle. Look at the map, study what has happened. The Vimy Ridge has been like a great bastion, which the Germans could neither capture nor turn. Every effort they have made has ended in the most sanguinary repulse, and yet as long as it was in British hands it made it difficult and even impracticable for them to carry out their great operation of severing the British Army, and ultimately destroying it. Think what a difference it would have made had the summit of the Vimy Ridge been in the hands of the Germans on the 21st March. It would have made all the difference in the world.

That was the first experiment in unity of command, and it achieved great results especially for the British Army. Then came the various efforts at Versailles and afterwards. Unfortunately, the controversies which raged round the decision to bring about such unity of command in February of this year were so prolonged that we had no time to reap the benefit of it before the great blow fell—controversies, I am sorry to say, not merely in the House of Commons, but in the Army itself. But the Germans succeeded by their blow in convincing the most obdurate as to the essential need for unity of command, and from the moment that Marshal Foch assumed the strategic command the fortunes of the Allied Armies were restored. There have since been, perhaps, mishaps, like the Chateau-Thierry disaster, but the masterly handling of the reserves—French, Italian, American, as well as British—gradually baffled the German efforts, and ended in this disastrous retreat from the Marne; which has produced such a wave of confidence and enthusiasm in the Allied countries and such depression, throughout the enemy lands.

It is too early to predict that the German effort is exhausted, and it would be a mistake for us to imagine that. It is no use fostering a false optimism. The Germans have still powerful forces in reserve, though not so many as they had. But although it is too early to say that their efforts are over, it is not too early to say that the chances of the 21st March will not come to them again. Those conditions cannot now be reproduced for the German General Staff. The Americans have already a powerful Army—a tried Army, and a victorious Army in France, equal to the best troops in the field, growing every day and there will be no break in the increase of that Army until America will have an Army not far, if at all, short of the German Army itself. On the other hand, Germany can never maintain the same number of divisions. They have already been reduced since the 21st March. They are now begging for Austrian support—rather a humiliation for the great German Army, when one knows what is their opinion of the Austrian Army! Begging for the support of the Austrian Army—the great army of Germany, which was to destroy the British Army by May!

The German Allies are rather disconsolate over the Piavé failure. Some of them are becoming a burden to Germany rather than a support. They are now beginning to be disillusioned as to German invincibility. Germany promised great things to her Allies this year. We can see the effect. Suddenly there was a withdrawal of all peace tentacles. When you probed, you found they were not there. Why? What had happened? What of the great promise?—”Do not you worry about peace; we can dictate it in a few months. We mean to have a great offensive in the West, which will destroy the Allied Armies.” The peace talk suddenly ceased! You could not hear the whispers. The tinkles of the telephone bell stopped. The great promise has failed! Economically, the position of the Central Powers and of their Allies is one of despair. Their harvests are not too good, and they are short of many essentials. They know that they have failed. Russia has been a complete disappointment to them. She has become a tangle to their feet.

I should like to say one word about Russia. It has broken into a number of confused and ill-defined entities. That makes the path of diplomacy exceedingly difficult in relation to that vast country. There is no de jure government there. They attempted to set one up by election. No sooner had the election taken place than the Constituent Assembly was dispersed by force. The idea that we are behaving hostilely towards free democratic governments has nothing in common with the facts of the case. There is no Government in Russia now, whatever its professions, which is not a Government by force. Our only policy was to deal, where we had to have relations, with de facto Governments, and that is not so easy. It is impossible to decide or to ascertain who, from day to day, is governing even a single village in the vast territory of Russia. We have not the slightest desire to interfere with the Russian people, and we certainly have no intention of imposing upon them any particular form of government. That is a matter entirely for themselves. But when we see Germany imposing her authority on large tracts, and exploiting them, or attempting to exploit them, to the detriment of the Allies, and against the will of the people themselves, we feel, at any rate, that the Russian people ought to be free to decide for themselves. They more and more resent the usurpation of Germany, and recent events, violent as they are, demonstrate that. They regard the Germans as marauders. Under these conditions the Russian people are more and more seeking Allied assistance, and we should not hesitate to render every help in our power to enable them to emancipate themselves from this cruel oppression wherever we are within reach.

I must also refer to the Czecho-Slovak movement in Russia, a very remarkable movement. The only desire of the Czechoslovaks was to leave Russia, and to go to the West to fight for the Allies. They stipulated that under no condition would they take any part in Russian politics on one side or the other. All they wanted was to get away. They asked us for ships. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and myself, at the Supreme War Council, came to an arrangement to do our best to get the ships to take them away, and when we returned—this is some time ago—we made arrangements to secure ships to bring them away. I want to say this in order to make it quite clear that we are not exploiting the Czecho-Slovak business, in order to interfere with Russian internal affairs. We were prepared to get the ships. We took the ships away from very important and essential work elsewhere, in order to send them to Vladivostock for that purpose. What happened? Acting undoubtedly under German duress—something like dictation—the Bolshevik Government refused to allow them to get through to Archangel and Vladivostock.

If the Czecho-Slovaks have now become the centre of activities which are hostile to the Bolshevik Government in Russia, the Bolshevik Government have themselves and no one else to blame. The Czecho-Slovaks were anxious to get away. What did they do? First of all, the Bolsheviks tried to disarm them. The Czecho-Slovaks would have been lunatics had they handed over their arms. What has happened since has proved their wisdom in refusing to comply with that demand. The result has been they have only made for themselves that great movement in Russia which centres round the Czecho-Slovaks. You cannot blame the Czecho-Slovaks for getting assistance wherever they could in order to save themselves. Who is attacking them? We are told that Siberia is Bolshevik, If it is, why do not the Siberians support that Government? They could not get a sufficient number of men amounting even to a decent sized Army, and they have had to employ German and Austrian prisoners in order to attack the Czecho-Slovak forces, and prevent them getting through to Vladivostok. It is idle to call that a “free democratic Government,” so far as Siberia is concerned. I wanted to make that perfectly clear, because there has been some criticism of the decision which the President of the United States has taken, in conjunction with the Japanese, to send a force to Vladivostock, in order to rescue the Czecho-Slovaks from the plight in which they were put by the organisation of German and Austrian prisoners of war as a force to intercept them and capture them.

What about peace? The longest war must end in peace. There are people in every country who regard any effort to make peace as in itself dishonourable and a treason to their country. That attitude must be steadfastly discouraged. But is this the moment—I put this to all those who only want an honourable peace—is this the moment when such a peace could be made? Why did we go to war? Because that instinct which is a compound of experience and conscience taught the British people that something which is fundamental to human happiness and human progress was put in jeopardy by the great military power of Germany. That will remain in jeopardy as long as the caste that made the War is in supreme command. Has there been any change in that respect?

Let us take three recent events. I mention these because they are real tests. The first is the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, when some of the statesmen of Germany went in, I think, with good intentions. I believe they were prepared to negotiate a peace which, according to their lights, would be on fair lines. What happened? As soon as there was any indication that there was to be anything except a most humiliating and drastic peace imposed upon Russia, the German High Command swept on one side Count Hertling, Von Kuehlmann’s and Count Czernin, and imposed their own terms. What is the next test? The humiliating and enslaving peace imposed upon Rumania. The third is what happened after Baron von Kuehlmann’s speech in the Reichstag. He said things which I should have thought would have been perfectly obvious to anyone who had witnessed the course of the War from the point of view of the Germans. In a few days he was swept away. What did that mean? The people who made the War, for the purpose for which they made it, are still there prosecuting the same sinister purpose. You cannot have peace as long as they are predominant in the councils of our chief enemy.

I believe in a League of Nations, but whether the League of Nations is going to be a success or not will depend upon the conditions under which it is set up. Some of us have been members of representative assemblies for a generation. I hope I shall say nothing which will offend the susceptibilities of my colleagues. But everyone knows that when there is any great decision here, what really determines it is not so much what is said in the course of the Debate as the fact that there is some power behind which takes a certain view, and has power to enforce that view. It is the electorate here. In the League of Nations let us take care it is not the sword. The same thing might conceivably happen in your League of Nations, unless you start it under favourable conditions. You might enter it, the Germans saying, not in words, but in their actions, “We invaded your lands. We devastated them. We trampled you under foot. You failed to drive us back. You made no impression upon our Armies. They were absolutely intact when peace was declared. Had it not been for our economic difficulties, you would never have won. We will take good care next time to prepare, and not to be short of rubber, corn, cotton and other essentials.” Every time you came to a decision the Prussian sword would clank on the council table. What is the good of entering into a league on such conditions? We all want peace, but it must be a peace which is just and which is durable. We do not want to put this generation again through the horrors of this War. Peace must be durable, it must be just, but it must be more. There must be a power behind that justice, a power which can enforce its decrees. All who enter that Conference must know that, and when we have demonstrated even to the enemy that such a power does exist on earth, peace will then come—but no sooner.