on Wednesday, 27 December 2017.
Posted in Military
Guest blog by John Boaler - originally published in the Wiltshire Local History Forum Newsletter
2017 marks the centenary of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres. After catastrophic losses at Verdun and the Somme, it is hard to comprehend how the politicians and generals at the time were again willing to expend the lives hundreds of thousands of soldiers in another such assault on the Western Front.
But the one senior politician did speak up against this military ‘strategy’, calling for a negotiated peace, was Lord Lansdowne (1845–1927), the fifth Marquess and a great-grandson of Lord Shelburne, one of George III's prime ministers.
He had succeeded his father, upon his sudden death in 1866, taking his seat on the Liberal benches in the House of Lords. Lansdowne was appointed a junior whip in Gladstone's first government (1869); was promoted to Under-Secretary for War three years later; and was made Under-Secretary for India at the start of Gladstone's second government (1880). However his opposition to the Irish Land Act soon caused him to resign from the Liberal Party.
In 1883 he was appointed Governor-general of Canada; and from 1888 to 1894 was Viceroy of India. Back in London he was made War Secretary (1895-1900) and then Foreign Secretary (1900 – 1905). He was Leader of the Unionist peers from 1903- 1916.
The First World War
Lord Lansdowne was a member of the Shadow Cabinet in 1914 and strongly supported the decision for war in August. Though Lansdowne's second son was killed in France in October he remained committed to the war. In May 1915 he took office as minister without portfolio in Asquith's coalition, and in Government he supported conscription.
He began to have doubts about the capacity of the allies to score a decisive victory after the disastrous Somme offensive of June 1916. Asquith as Prime Minister invited his cabinet colleagues to submit their views on the course of the war. Lansdowne concluded that while there was no question of defeat, outright victory was unlikely. He argued for a restatement of war aims that might open the way to a negotiated settlement. But Asquith was about to be replaced by Lloyd George, and Lansdowne left office at the same time.
Letter to The Daily Telegraph
In 1917, as deaths quickly mounted in the Battle of Passchendaele, Lansdowne again put the case for a negotiated peace. This time he went public, with a letter printed in the Daily Telegraph on 29 November 1917. His views were well known in senior government circles yet had made no impact. The letter caused a sensation:
"We are not going to lose this war, but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilised world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it...We do not desire the annihilation of Germany as a great power ... We do not seek to impose upon her people any form of government other than that of their own choice... We have no desire to deny Germany her place among the great commercial communities of the world.”
He was strongly denounced by the Northcliffe press (then publishers of the Daily Mail & Daily Mirror) and ostracised by the Unionist leadership. But his move attracted a lot of support. He received a large mailbag of which ‘The prevailing note is, “you have had the courage to say what we have been thinking for ever so long”’, he told his daughter.
President Wilson's ‘fourteen points’ were widely seen to be on Lansdowne lines, and he pressed on with further letters in March and July, supplemented by Lord’s speeches, calling for a careful restatement of war aims.
Among the numerous national anniversaries we are commemorating in 2015 (which includes those for World War 1, World War 2 and, of course, Magna Carta) is one that perhaps will get less attention, which is the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill who died on the 24th January 1965. The Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre has received a few enquiries on possible Churchill connections with Wiltshire and so I thought I would dig a little deeper by doing what all good Archives & Local Studies Managers do … ask my colleagues if they knew of any! So here is what they have come up with so far.
Clearly as a man with connections Churchill no doubt visited numerous notable friends and families in the county that we do not yet know of, perhaps including those whose archives we hold. However, the earliest reference appears to be in 1914 with a more unexpected connection. Churchill was a keen early aviator and despite his family’s fears of the danger of airplanes at that time, he was one of small group of people to learn to fly these machines and certainly the first politician. There is an image held by the Science Museum of Winston Churchill preparing to fly at Upavon, home to the Army Flying Corps. You can find out more about his love of flying and view the image at:
During and following the First World War Churchill was a prominent politician. He had become an MP in 1900 and having first attached himself to the Conservative Party he crossed the floor of Parliament to join the Liberal Party in 1904. He served at various times as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, President of the Board of Trade and First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1915 he resigned from government to serve on the Western Front, but returned to government in 1917 as Minister of Munitions, then Secretary of State for War in 1919 and Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1921 in the coalition government.
We have several letters within our archives at the History Centre to and from Churchill that can be found in the political papers of Viscount Long of Wraxall, who was an MP and, like Churchill, held several prominent positions during a long political career.