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Margot Asquith's Great War Diary 1914-1916: The View from Downing Street Hardcover – 26 Jun 2014
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This book is full of minor gems, throwing light on the extraordinary domestic bubble within which the wartime premier operated... the editors have provided us with a rollicking good read! (Journal of Liberal History, David Dutton)
Mrs. Asquith's diaries are both entertainingly and splendidly edited by the late Michael Brock and his wife Eleanor and copious footnotes add hugely to the context, accuracy, and frequent inaccuracy, of the writings. Perhaps even more valuable than Margot's own record is the editors' 147-page introduction and its corrective to the reputation of her husband Herbert, and the events of his wartime premiership and government. (Stand-To: Magazine of The Western Front Association, David Filsell)
The diaries may be 100 years old, but political life has changed little, it seems. (Suffolk & Norfolk Life, Chris Green)
Margot Asquith's long-awaited Great War Diary 1914-16 edited by Michael and Eleanor Brock takes the lid of No. 10 during Asquith's difficult wartime premiership, and gives a compelling picture of Liberal England and the belle epoque in meltdown under the nightmare stresses of a war that no one could have predicted or planned for. (Jane Ridley, Book of the Year 2014, Spectator)
The diaries never cease to entertain, and they turn out to be remarkably enlightening too. (London Review of Books, Ferdinand Mount)
Lovingly edited (Andy McSmith, Independent)
Sharply observant, witty, tactless, idiosyncratic, lacking in judgment, acerbic, invariably wrong headed in her loudly voiced opinions, Margot Asquith, was a peerless diarist. With her ringside seat as the wife of the Prime Minister, H. H Asquith, her writing adds an incomparable dimension to our understanding of politics and society during the First World War, its heroes and its incompetents. Superb. (Juliet Gardiner)
Margot Asquith's Great War Diary provides lively and outspoken comments on many of the leading personalities of the era. (Ronald Quinault, History Today)
In a mass of new volumes on the First World War, Margot Asquith's diaries stand out. (Oldie)
This is one diary that pulls no punches. (Steve Craggs, Northern Echo)
The diaries start with the lead-up to war and end with the fall of the last Liberal government and David Lloyd Georges extraordinary coup against the prime minister. Mrs Asquith is well placed to watch it all. Michael and Eleanor Brock have done a fine job as editors. Their footnotes signpost all the major events of the great war and provide the reader with some delicious quotes. (Economist)
[A] beautiful work of conjugal editorship by Eleanor Brock and her late husband. (Miranda Seymour, Daily Mail)
Almost every page of her diary carries an interesting remark. The introduction is a model of its kind, setting people and events in context in masterly fashion. (Johnny Grimond, The Spectator)
They may not constitute the most important historical work published in this centenary year, but by a country mile they are the most entertaining. (Max Hastings, Sunday Times)
Michael and Eleanor Brock have edited Margot's writing with meticulous academic precision. This diary is an invaluable and fascinating text, and we must be thankful to the Brocks for producing it. (Jane Ridley, Literary Review)
Reading these diaries has been a pleasure enhanced by its editors, who have set the stage and introduced the cast with lucidity and scholarship. (The Times)
In the present torrent of books about the Great War, this deserves to stand out. (New Statesman)
This book offers a first-hand insight into what was happening, from the perspective of someone who was at the centre of things ... Once it's on the library shelves it will be worth taking down. (Methodist Recorder)
About the Author
Michael Brock was a modern historian, educationalist, and Oxford college head; he was Vice-President of Wolfson College; Director of the School of Education at Exeter University; Warden of Nuffield College, Oxford; and Warden of St George's House, Windsor Castle; he is the author of The Great Reform Act, and co-editor, with Mark Curthoys, of the two nineteenth-century volumes in the History of the University of Oxford. With his wife, Eleanor Brock, a former schoolteacher, he edited the acclaimed OUP edition H. H. Asquith: Letters to Venetia Stanley. Michael Brock died in April 2014.
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Sometimes perceptive in her judgement of people and events, but often very wide of the mark, she was deeply (but not always helpfully) loyal to both Asquith and the Liberal cause, which she (and he) saw as being virtually identical and inseparable.
Mostly written alongside the events described, sometimes delayed when time pressed, her writing conveys great immediacy and personal belief to the reader. It is liberally supplied with fascinating, verbatim snippets of conversations with the elite, much as we learn her own conversation was sometimes indiscreet when talking with those who were social friends but political rivals.
We gain the most intimate possible view of the key moments in the final years of Asquith's premiership, from the outbreak of war to parliamentary triumphs such as the imposition of the naval blockade of Germany in response to the ruthless U-Boat policy against even neutral shipping. There is political and party political turmoil over the formation of the wartime Coalition and the introduction of conscription, with both of which Margot (as a staunch Liberal) strongly disagreed.
Within the national tragedy come the deaths of friends, cousins and Asquith's personal loss of his brilliant son Raymond, Margot's step-son, killed at the Somme, and the damage to Asquith's reputation as a war leader when a speech publically revealed his ignorance of the truth about munitions shortages affecting the British army in France. Asquith's eventual fall from office is shocking to both husband and wife as an event that neither of them could ever truly imagine. Lloyd George's increasing reliance on the Conservatives would finally expose the faultlines within the Liberal party, leading to its splitting and eventual near-extinction in Parliament.
The political and social world described in the diary is illuminated by the extensive footnotes by Eleanor Brock, and is presented here in a style which is clear and very readable. A superb 147 page Introduction by Michael Brock explains the Asquiths' personal and political journeys which took them to 10 Downing Street and formed their confident Liberal worldview, which in time may have lead to over-confidence, even complacency - and exit from power. The Diary is followed by a short Epilogue, family trees, a chronology, extensive biographical notes on many of the relatives, friends and political and military figures involved and a comprehensive bibliography and index.
This is really two excellent books in one, the Introduction and the Diary combining to give a rewarding insight into the Asquiths' world and his years in power, the last solely Liberal government and its great Prime Minister, the descent to War and two gifted people struggling to adapt to the loss of imperial certainty and a terrible new reality.
The real gem of this book, however, is Michael Brock's wise and erudite 127-page Introduction. This would stand future republication as a stand-alone monograph and would serve as a key text on Great Britain's entry into the Great War and its role therein until Asquith's political fall in 1916.
Taken together, the important primary source of Margot Asquith's diaries, and Brock's Introduction, make this book a must-have for those interested in Britain and the Great War.
As political diaries, they don't compared to those of Chips Channon, Duff Cooper, Harold Nicolson or Charles Greville (for example). They are not as interesting (or maybe gossipy) but suffer above all from Margot's almost incredible ability to be wrong in her assessments of other political figures and events.
As history, even though I consider myself well read on the topic, I learned a couple of very interesting things from the quite brilliant Introduction by the late Michael Brock. First, that a major cause of Grey's apparent vacillation on whether to declare war was the fact that the Belgians themselves declared that they would not invoke their treaty rights if Germany only committed a 'minor violation' of their territory (the southern corner), so it wasn't until it was clear that the Germans intended to go through Liege that King Albert did so. Second, while more of a benefit than deliberate policy, Kitchener fully appreciated that delaying the deployment of his New Army until he considered it to be ready to achieve victory in 1916 would substantially increase Britain's position at the subsequent peace negotiations. Which provides some substance to later French accusations of 'fighting to the last Frenchman' and was a policy deliberately copied by Pershing for the same reasons.
But my main learning was that based on these Diaries, the so-called 'strange death of Liberal England' that we used to discuss at university was not strange at all; their leadership was anachronistic and out of date, their two most vital components (Churchill and Lloyd George) essentially opportunists.
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