How Asquith’s world was overwhelmed by war
In the latest of his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley turns his attention to the Liberal PM Herbert Henry Asquith
29 January, 2019 — By Neil Titley
Herbert Henry Asquith as Chancellor in 1907
ALTHOUGH the First World War ended in 1918, there had been a very good chance of ending the conflict one or two years earlier, thereby cutting the appalling casualty lists and possibly avoiding the later ruin of Europe. The man who had been in a position to achieve that outcome was a mild-mannered lawyer who had lived at 27 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead.
Accompanied by his redoubtable second wife Margot, Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928) became Liberal prime minister in 1908 and spent the next six years promoting a series of radical reforms that were only surpassed by the more famous 1945 Labour government.
During that time he secured the rights of trade unions, introduced old-age pensions, destroyed the unelected House of Lords veto over the House of Commons, and pushed forward plans for Home Rule in Ireland.
A man of strong intellect, Asquith also possessed a sentimental streak. His wife reported that when her husband heard of the sinking of the Titanic “his eyes were full of tears and he could not speak”.
Some of his other characteristics were less well received. He was such a heavy drinker that he added a new word to the English dictionary – the term “squiffy” was adapted from his name.
Despite two marriages – his first wife died in 1891, leaving him with five children, while Margot bore him a sixth – he had a bad reputation for minor sexual harassment of women, his wandering hands under tablecloths at dinners becoming especially notorious. The politician Duff Cooper said that he was “lecherous of girls”.
In 1912, he began a possibly unconsummated affair with the 24-year-old Venetia Stanley, 40 years his junior, whom he described as “the pole and lodestar of my life”. This ended to his deep sadness in 1915. Margot remained complacent about the situation: “No woman should expect to be the only woman in her husband’s life.”
However, Asquith’s world was overwhelmed, as were so many others, by the onset of the First World War. As a war leader, he lacked military experience and relied greatly on the War Office.
Asquith became disillusioned with their efforts, claiming that the War Office worked with three different sets of figures: “One to mislead the public; another to mislead the Cabinet; and the third to mislead itself.”
Asquith as caricatured by Vanity Fair in August 1891
By 1916 the war had settled into a murderous stalemate and, on both sides, quiet efforts were made to secure peace. Towards the end of the year, Asquith’s close ally, Lord Lansdowne, began to have grave doubts about continuance of the war. As he later stated in a secret memorandum advocating negotiation “we are slowly killing off the male population of these islands”. He suggested that the allies should make it clear that they did not intend “annihilation of the enemy” as a war aim, and to appeal to the German peace party that the ruin of Europe should be avoided.
On their side the Germans responded: “Germany, together with her Allies, conscious of her responsibility before God, their own nation and humanity, have proposed this morning to the hostile powers peace negotiations.”
The German General Ludendorff later admitted in his memoirs that his high command realised that the war was lost by the end of 1916.
However, when rumours of these moves reached the British newspaper lords, they reacted with fury. Lord Lansdowne was vilified by the Harmsworth Press, notably the Daily Mail, (attacks that did not relent until Lansdowne’s death). Asquith, who had said of the German offer: “How I wish I could believe that someone would have the wits to keep this door ajar”, came under equal condemnation.
A conspiracy led by the press barons Lord Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook sought to impeach Asquith, using a newspaper witch-hunt to destroy him. Margot Asquith said of the attack: “If 20 or 30 newspapers keep repeating the same thing day after day they will be believed.”
Asquith was undermined even within his own party when David Lloyd George joined the Northcliffe camp. Margot seethed with indignation against “that little parvenu, Lloyd George” – “He could not see a belt without hitting below it.”
In December 1916, Asquith was forced to resign as prime minister. As Margot said: “Large fortunes were being accumulated and it is surprising how easily non-combatants get acclimatised to death.”
If the war had been halted, the consequences would have been incalculable. The USA would have remained neutral, the Russian Revolution might have been forestalled, the disastrous conditions of the Versailles Treaty would not have been implemented, and Germany may well have stayed steady and not descended into the Nazi abyss.
Asquith lost his premiership, the possibility of peace, and his eldest son Raymond. Margot wrote: “When Raymond lay dying on the battlefield he gave the doctor his water flask to give to his father. It was placed by HH’s bedside and never moved till we left Downing Street.”
• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details visit www.wildetheatre.co.uk