Lloyd George’s Greatest War Speech, 100 Years On

Lloyd George

Richard Toye
History Department, University of Exeter

Follow on Twitter @RichardToye

Today (19 September) is the centenary of David Lloyd George’s speech at the Queen’s Hall in the West End of London. As we digest the news that Scotland’s voters have rejected independence, it is interesting to reflect on the role that a different form of Celtic nationalism played in shaping the rhetoric of the Great War.

In the first autumn of the war, Lloyd George’s carefully cultivated public character was almost perfectly pitched. He could be seen as someone who had pursued peace up to the final moment, but who had reluctantly concluded that participation in the war was necessary, in line with his known commitment to use force, in extremis, to protect Britain’s honour. Who better, then, to win over waverers, for if even he supported the war, who else could possibly object? And there was, perhaps, more of a need to convert doubters than has traditionally been allowed. The standard picture of August 1914 is of widespread war enthusiasm, with men rushing mindlessly to join up before it was all over. As my colleague Catriona Pennell has shown, however, that things were much more complex, with people often taking weeks to mull over what they knew were momentous, life-changing decisions.[1] This means that, in the early weeks, leading public figures had a potential role to play in cementing public attitudes.

Lloyd George SpeechThe Queen’s Hall speech was a landmark. It was printed and circulated widely and was received with great enthusiasm by the press. The audience consisted primarily of the London Welsh and the purpose was recruitment. Lloyd George (at this time Chancellor of the Exchequer) was thus able to play on his own Welsh background. As biographer Bentley Gilbert has noted, he was in the midst of a battle to persuade Lord Kitchener, the War Secretary, to allow the creation of a specifically Welsh army corps: ‘A strong response to his call for men would be proof that an appeal for Welsh recruits could be made on a national basis.’[2]

The speech was an attempt to demonstrate that the war was being fought on behalf of Liberal values, including the rights of the ‘little nations’, specifically Belgium and Serbia, but also, by implication, Wales. Lloyd George also sought to show that the war could not have been avoided ‘without national dishonour’. This could be seen, superficially as a purely emotive appeal; but he also argued that national honour was fundamental to the proper working of international relations, notwithstanding the fact that many crimes had been committed in its name. Britain’s treaty commitment to Belgium represented a solemn duty. The alternative to fulfilling it was to adopt the German view of treaties as mere scraps of paper that could be violated if they conflicted with national interest. The Times report shows how the Chancellor used a combination of humour and rhetorical questions to work up his audience to fever pitch:

The whole house burst into laughter when Mr. Lloyd George asked: ‘Have you any £5 notes about you; or any of those neat little Treasury £1 notes?’ But the mood changed when he went on to exclaim:- ‘If you have burn them; they are only scraps of paper!’ And there were fierce cheers in response to his telling questions and answers:- ‘What are they made of? – Rags. What are they worth? – The whole credit of the British Empire.’[3]

The speech’s peroration centred on a metaphor from his Welsh boyhood. He had, he said, known a beautiful valley between the mountains and the sea, ‘sheltered by the mountains from all the bitter blasts’ of the wind, and therefore snug and comfortable, but ‘very enervating’. The British people had, he said, been living in a sheltered valley for generations.

We have been too comfortable and too indulgent, many, perhaps, too selfish, and the stern hand of fate has scourged us to an elevation where we can see the everlasting things that matter for a nation – the great peaks we had forgotten, of Honour, Duty, Patriotism, and, clad in glittering white, the towering pinnacle of Sacrifice pointing like a rugged finger to Heaven. We shall descend into the valleys again; but as long as the men and women of this generation last, they will carry in their hearts the image of those mighty peaks whose foundations are not shaken, though Europe rock and sway in the convulsions of a great war.[4]

As John Grigg has pointed out, Lloyd George’s claim that he envied young people their ‘opportunity’ to fight sat uncomfortably with his private desire to keep his own sons out of harm’s way. He used his influence to get them positions as aides-de-camp to generals (although they both later undertook more dangerous service).[5] But even when one knows this, the power of the speech is undeniable. It remains a master-class in oratory, and offers a fascinating insight into how Welsh national identity was fused into a broader UK patriotism, in support of a terrifying war that was tearing Europe apart.

————-

[1] Catriona Pennell, A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2012).

[2] Bentley Brinkerhoff Gilbert, David Lloyd George: A Political Life: Organizer of Victory 1912-16 (B.T. Batsford, 1992), p. 117

[3] ‘British Honour: Stirring Speech By Mr. Lloyd George’, The Times, 20 Sept. 1914.

[4] The speech is reproduced in Frances Stevenson (ed.), Through Terror to Triumph: Speeches and Pronouncements of the Right Hon. David Lloyd George, MP, Since the Beginning of the War (Hodder & Stoughton, 1915), pp. 1-15.

[5] John Grigg, Lloyd George: From Peace to War, 1912-1916 (Penguin, 2002), p. 171.

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