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Asquith's Choice: The May Coalition and the Coming of Conscription, 1915–1916

  • R. J. Q. Adams

The enactment into law in January 1916 of the first installment of mandatory military service in modern British history was an event whose importance few scholars dispute. While invariably considered a significant break in the British political and military tradition, recent scholarship has tended to treat the passage of the first Military Service Act as an episode that has little new to tell us about the political rivalry within the coalition cabinet presided over by Herbert Henry Asquith since May 1915. No student of the compulsory service debate can deny that he has been warned off, as Lord Beaverbrook wrote in the late 1920s that close study of the politics of conscription in the Asquith coalition would be “tedious to the last degree.” Most forbidding was the judgment of Lord Blake in his life of the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law: “The question of conscription would indeed be a tedious topic to pursue through all its ramifications. The endless discussions, the attitudes taken by public men at various times, the compromises, the disputes, constitute a chapter in English history to which, no doubt in years to come dull history professors will direct their duller research students.”

Many historians of the world war who have found the subject less dull than implied above have concluded that it presents a straightforward story: the implementation of conscription came about because the traditional policy of voluntarism had proven insufficient to raise an army of adequate size. The episode has been judged essentially a triumph of the Tory right wing (with the collusion of the maverick Liberal David Lloyd George) over orthodox Liberalism.

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1 For the moment, the sole monograph on the conscription issue remains Hayes, Denis, Conscription Conflict (London, 1949). There are a small number of works on the anticonscription movement during World War I, of which the most recent and the most insightful is Kennedy, Thomas C., The Hound of Conscience: A History of the No-Conscription Fellowship, 1914–1919 (Fayetteville, Ark., 1981). Also very useful on the same subject is Rae, John, Conscience and Politics (Oxford, 1970). Among the most useful discussions of the issue in the politics of the period are Wilson, Trevor, The Downfall of the Liberal Party, 1914–1935 (London, 1966), chap. 3; Taylor, A. J. P., “Politics in the First World War,” in Politics in Wartime (London, 1964), pp. 1144; and Gollin, A. M., Proconsul in Politics: A Study of Lord Mitner in Opposition and in Power (London, 1964), chap. 11. See also the recent essay by Stubbs, John O., “Beaverbrook as Historian: ‘Politicians and the War, 1914–1916’ Reconsidered,” Albion 14, nos. 3–4 (Winter 1982): 245–48.

2 LordBeaverbrook, , Politicians and the War (London, 1960), p. 200.

3 Blake, Robert, The Unknown Prime Minister: The Life and Times of Andrew Bonar Law, 1858–1923 (London, 1953), p. 282. Gollin took issue with Lord Blake and wrote: “It may, perhaps, be observed in this connection that dullness, like beauty, resides in the eye of the beholder” (p. 275).

4 For many years the most important pillar of the Religio Asquithiana has been Spender, J. A. and Asquith's, CyrilThe Life of Lord Oxford and Asquith (2 vols. [London, 1932]), which A. J. P. Taylor has appropriately termed “aggressively “Squiffite.’” Many sympathetic portraits of the prime minister in historical literature can be traced back to this source.

5 Beaverbrook, pp. 200–201.

6 Wilson, p. 73.

7 Bentley, Michael, The Liberal Mind, 1914–1929 (Cambridge, 1977), pp. 2930.

8 Taylor, A. J. P., English History, 1914–1945 (London, 1965), p. 53. In this regard, see also Rae, chaps. 1, 2.

9 Gollin, p. 256.

10 The task was not financially unprofitable for Kitchener, as he continued to receive his military salary, in addition to which was added his salary as secretary of state and a special allowance of £1,140 per year. Anticipating a successful end to his leadership, he presumed there would be a parliamentary grant as a reward for his winning of the war. (See Magnus, Philip, Kitchener: Portrait of an Imperialist [London, 1959], p. 278.)

11 See Churchill, Winston S., The World Crisis, 1914–1918 (London, 1923), 1:253.

12 Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Twenty-five Years, 1892–1916 (London, 1925), p. 68.

13 Public Record Office (PRO), Cabinet (CAB) 42/1/25, January 27, 1915.

14 For the raising of the New Armies, see Douglas, Roy, “Voluntary Enlistment in the First World War and the Work of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee,” Journal of Modern History 42, no. 4 (December 1970): 564–85; Green, Howard, The British Army in the First World War (London, 1968), passim; and Magnus, chap. 14. The most spirited defense of Kitchener's recruiting policies—and virtually alone among contemporary historians in his treatment of this subject—is Casser, George H., Kitchener: Architect of Victory (London, 1977), chap. 9.

15 Dearie, N. B., The Labour Cost of the War to Great Britain, 1914–1918 (London, 1940), p. 8.

16 In the three months October–December 1914, approximately 425,000 men enlisted in the forces (ibid.).

17 The sole defense of Kitchener's decision and methods of raising the New Armies may be found in Casser, chap. 21. Robertson, the first “ranker” to rise to the lofty place of field marshal, was an unvarnished conscriptionist and—while not an intriguer on the level of General Sir Henry Wilson—used his office to the fullest to hasten the advent of mandatory service.

18 For the confused nature of the conscription question in the formation of the May coalition, see McGill, Barry, “Asquith's Predicament, 1914–1918,” Journal of Modern History 39, no. 3 (September 1967): 290–91. For the contending views on the formation of the coalition, see also Hazlehurst, Cameron, Politicians at War: July 1914–May 1915 (London, 1971), passim; and Koss, Stephen, Asquith (London, 1976), chap. 8.

19 For the place of the ministry in both Lloyd George's and the war's development, see Adams, R. J. Q., Arms and the Wizard: Lloyd George and the Ministry of Munitions, 1915–1916 (London, 1978), passim.

20 For Asquith's exercise at coalition making, see Koss, pp. 188–90.

21 There is little doubt that, prewar animosities notwithstanding, the ginger groups were cooperating (see F. E. Guest to F. S. Oliver, July 23, 1915, enclosed with Oliver to Austen Chamberlain, July 26, 1915, University of Birmingham Library, Austen Chamberlain Papers, AC 14/6/35).

22 Kitchener chose the number of seventy divisions virtually without consultation with either his military or his cabinet colleagues, thinking that it approximated—given the variance in population—the French contribution.

23 Magnus, p. 347.

24 Taylor, , English History (n. 8 above), p. 45.

25 Bodleian Library (Bodl.), Asquith Papers, 8/82–83.

26 Sir Douglas Haig, since mid-July 1915, had been secretly sending his evaluation of the war directly to Kitchener and to the king, at their request. George V told Haig of a conversation with Kitchener: “‘If anyone acted like that, and told tales out of school, he would, at school, be called a sneak.’ K's reply was that we are beyond the schoolboy's age!” (Magnus, pp. 347–48).

27 The myth was widely believed during the world war and after that disastrous news from the front stimulated enlistment. Such was actually not the case at all. (See Osborne, John Morton, The Voluntary Recruiting Movement in Britain, 1914–1916 [New York, 1982], pp. 8687.)

28 Bentley (n. 7 above), p. 30.

29 Gilbert, Martin, Winston S. Churchill: Companion Volume 3 (London, 1973), pt. 2, p. 1132.

30 Asquith, perhaps accidently, had failed to include the name of the Tory leader Bonar Law; likewise, he had not consulted him regarding the names of the Conservative members he intended to appoint (though he had spoken to Curzon about the list). Bonar Law was much distressed over what he presumed to be this cavalier treatment at Asquith's hands. (See Blake [n. 3 above], p. 263.)

31 Gilbert, pt. 2, pp. 1155–56.

32 PRO, CAB 37/134/9.

33 PRO, CAB 37/134/3.

34 PRO, CAB 37/134/5.

35 LordHankey, , The Supreme Command, 1914–1918 (London, 1961), 1:427.

36 Taylor, A. J. P., ed., Lloyd George: A Diary by Frances Stevenson (London, 1971), p. 59, September 15, 1915.

37 It was soon after the publication of the celebrated preface that Lloyd George came publicly to be associated with the conscriptionist forces in the government. His parliamentary private secretary, J. H. Whitehouse, resigned in protest on September 16, 1915. and his letter to the minister of munitions is preserved in House of Lords Record Office (RO), Lloyd George Papers, D/1/12/20. Whitehouse would have been more upset had he known that Lloyd George was secretly meeting with Churchill and Curzon and, separately, Milner, to discuss hastening the policy. (See Taylor, ed., p. 59; and Gollin [n. I above], p. 295.)

38 For the Derby Scheme, see Douglas (n. 14 above); and Osborne (n. 27 above), chap. 7.

39 See Churchill, Randolph, Lord Derby: King of Lancashire (London, 1959), pp. 192–93.

40 Diary entry, September 5, 1915, British Library (BL), C. P. Scott Papers, Additional (Add.) MS 50902.

41 London Star (October 6, 1915).

42 House of Lords RO, Bonar Law Papers, 51/4/18, October 17, 1915.

43 Asquith indicated his willingness to consider the scheme the final test of voluntarism in a speech given on October 17, 1915, a position he reiterated more strongly in his “Secret Note to the Cabinet,” Bodl., Asquith Papers, 8/179–80.

44 House of Lords RO, Bonar Law Papers, 51/4/16, October 16, 1915.

45 PRO, CAB 37/135/15, October 8, 1915.

46 BL, C. P. Scott Papers, Add. MS 50902, October 14, 1915.

47 Kitchener Papers, PRO 30/57/76/25.

48 Bodl., Asquith Papers, vol. 8.

49 Blake (n. 3 above), p. 283.

50 Wilson, Trever, ed., The Political Diaries of C. P. Scott, 1911–1928 (London, 1970), p. 155, November 5, 1915.

51 Parliamentary Debates, 1915, 5th ser., vol. 75, cols. 522–24.

52 H. H. Asquith to Chamberlain, November 7, 1915, University of Birmingham Library, Austen Chamberlain Papers, AC 19/1/7.

53 PRO, CAB 37/139/41. These figures were revised upward several times until the total of unattested bachelors exceeded 650,000. Asquith wrote to King George V that the results of the Derby Scheme were so dismal that a cabinet committee would be created to draw up a conscription bill. He neglected to mention that he had already such a draft in hand, prepared at his behest by Curzon. The committee consisted of Curzon, F. E. Smith, and Walter Long, all fierce conscriptionists; Lord Crewe, a “realist”; and Sir John Simon, a committed voluntarist. As in the case of the War Policy Committee, a proconscription majority was guaranteed.

54 The earl of Oxford and Asquith, K.G., Memories and Reflections, 1852–1927 (London, 1928), 2:135.

55 Taylor, ed. (n. 36 above), p. 89, January 31, 1916.

56 PRO, War Office 106/368.

57 Simon later recanted his decision to resign: “I have long since realised [he recalled in his memoirs] that my opposition was a mistake …. But where I was wrong was in failing to appreciate the psychological effect, alike on our allies and on the men in the field, who were hard pressed, and their anxious relatives at home, of this demonstration that we would stick at nothing” (Retrospect: Memoirs of the Rt. Hon. Viscount Simon [London, 1952], p. 107). It is interesting that, while Simon's judgment of the ineffectiveness of mandatory service is frequently cited by historians of the period, this admission by the only minister to resign over the question—which appears on the same page—is (in my experience, at any rate) forgotten.

58 Koss (n. 18 above), p. 203.

59 Cited in Bentley (n. 7 above), p. 40.

60 Wilson (n. 1 above), p. 75.

61 See, e.g., Lord Kitchener's cabinet memorandum of February 7, 1916 (PRO, CAB 17/159). Lord Derby washed his hands of the Bachelors' Bill policy by March 1.

62 King's College, University of London, Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, Robertson Papers, 1/22/30.

63 PRO, CAB 22/80.

64 Taylor, ed., pp. 106–7, April 18, 1916.

65 Sir Maurice Hankey, diary entry, May 2, 1916, Hankey Papers, Churchill College, Cambridge University.

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