Lloyd George is a figure of considerable fascination to military historians. He brought drive and energy to the roles of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Minister of Munitions and Minister of War – overall succeeding in providing both the finance and machines of war for the armies to wield on the battlefield. As Prime Minister he prosecuted the war vigorously to achieve victory on his ‘watch’ in 1918. Yet he was also a diehard supporter of the ‘Easterner School’. Politicians who sought an easier route to victory by evading the bitter conflict on the Western Front looking instead to defeat of the lesser lights of the Central Powers: Turkey, Austro-Hungary and Bulgaria. He disregarded the necessity of standing foursquare alongside France to defeat the main enemy – Germany – on the Western Front. As such he nearly lost the war in 1918 by draining strength from the British Expeditionary Force (commanded by his bête noir Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig), just as they were facing their greatest threat after Russia had been driven out of the war. Lloyd George’s Easterner obsession was foolish and the epitome of bad judgement: he was no strategist. This new slimline biography offers the welcome chance to assess Lloyd George in his own terms – as a man, a politician and a national leader.
Less original research than a considered review of existing biographies, this book does not pull its punches in ‘calling out’ Lloyd George for his numerous faults including his rampant indiscriminate pursuit of women, lack of consistency, occasional financial corruption and near-constant lying. But we also get a clear sight of his manifest talents, especially in his role as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1912 – surely his finest moment. Although a lifelong opponent of socialism, he espoused a left-wing liberalism that sought to alleviate the lot of the poor and bring greater fairness to society with measures to introduce pensions and national insurance. His toils with Keynes and others in the 1920s can be said to have been the groundwork for the Welfare State. He certainly laid the foundation for the creation of Eire and Northern Ireland. We also see numerous examples of his mastery of the black arts of the politician: as exemplified by his ruthless replacement of Asquith in 1916. And then of course there was his talent for invective; there are many laugh-out-loud examples of his vituperative wit scattered through the book. Lloyd George’s eventual decline into political impotence in the 1930s, having effectively destroyed his own Party, is succinctly handled. The unwise dalliance with Hitler is dealt with within context and not blown out of proportion.
Sadly, the author is not a military specialist and has little grasp of the facts or issues at stake during the Great War. He refers to the ‘self-evident cluelessness of the generals’ marking his belief in the outdated tropes of ‘butchers and bunglers’ of which numerous examples litter the text. Typical is an unwise photograph caption poking fun at Kitchener for being ‘overdressed’ while visiting Birdwood at Gallipoli in April 1915 – it rather flounders as a jibe when one realises he only went there in November. Robinson thinks that the plans of attack during Third Ypres in 1917 were a repeat of the Somme. This was not the case. Plans of attack were mutating all the time as both sides developed new weapons and tactics to neuter each other in attack and defence. Wilkinson cannot see any merit Haig’s Western Front battles and sadly the few books consulted have not included much of modern scholarship. Yet even so he does at least try to be fair to Haig and acknowledges the subterranean depths of Lloyd Georges vitriolic campaign against that much-maligned general. It is then even more remarkable that he attributes Jellicoe’s inability to face the complexities of introducing a comprehensive convoy system in 1917 to stupidity – ‘not very bright’ - rather than the result of him suffering from excessive stress and exhaustion. Jellicoe was much admired for his intellectual capacity both by his contemporaries and most historians since.
The structure of the book, with a chronological approach inter-cut with thematic chapters, does lead to rather more repetition than one would expect in a slim volume – but then again, the themes he wishes to emphasise are clearly delineated and explored and not lost in the main story. All in all I would recommend this book for those wishing to learn more about the 'Welsh Goat'. As to the title: it is clear that Lloyd George was both a statesman and a scoundrel. But then us ‘not very bright’ military historians had always thought it might be so!