War Memoirs of David Lloyd-George: The Most Important History Book of the Twentieth Century, the Foundational Document of American Foreign Policy

            Americans really know almost nothing about World War I, because it entered the war late and the war ended soon after US troops started arriving in France in strength.  However, Lloyd-George shows that the United States was always the 800 pound gorilla in the room.  All through 1914, 1915, 1916 and 1917 every major decision by either belligerent was made with an eye on how it would play in the USA. 

            David Lloyd-George was the British Prime Minister during the last two years of World War I and during the Versailles peace conference.  Like many British politicians, he is an excellent wordsmith.  Question time in Parliament is conducive to the political success of highly literate people. For example: “Unquenchable heroism that will never accept defeat, inexhaustible vanity that will never admit a mistake.” P. 320 – 321, Volume 4.

            After leaving office, Lloyd-George spent five years writing War Memoirs.  Not for the faint hearted, it is six volumes, more than three thousand pages, but worth every word.  Lloyd-George was one of only two ministers on the allied side who served all through the war.  He is the only one to base his memoirs on original documents.  So, his book is an overview of World War I, the perspective from the catbird seat.

            The United States is the successor global power to the British.  So, the United States has, in a sense, inherited something that its ignorance of World War I prevents it from understanding.  British troops fought the Turks in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine where American arms are engaged today. The current conflicts in Iraq and Palestine are directly related to World War I.  World War II was really World War I redux, if not a resumption of the original conflict after a twenty year hiatus.  Much of what happened in World War II makes much more sense in the light of World War I’s events. Even the Cold War is related, because Communists came to power in Russia as a result of the war; monarchies were overthrown and women got the vote. Modern history begins with World War I and, in some ways, that war has never really ended.

            The British were desperate to get the United States into the war as an ally, while the Germans were equally anxious to keep it out.  The large German and Irish populations in the United States were far from eager to enter the war as an ally of Britain, probably the major reason the country remained neutral for so long.

            Lloyd-George was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the number two position in the British government, in the run up to the war.  In 1914, Britain had a small standing army of 250,000.  It depended on its fleet to keep sea lanes open to its colonies and on being an island to protect it from invasion. Once underway, the British found themselves outgunned 8 to 1 on the western front in France, hence the horrendous loses. The army had insufficient arms and ammunition, not to mention trained soldiers.

            Lloyd-George was asked to step down as Chancellor of the Exchequer to become Minister of Munitions, a new ministry.  He did, and basically was in charge of reorganizing the domestic economy in support of the war.  He solved the bottlenecks in armament supply and, when it looked like the Allies were losing the war at the end of 1916, became Prime Minister.

            Everyone has heard of the Balfour Declaration and some even know what it is, but how many know the history?  It is all here in vivid detail.  Lloyd-George was the Prime Minister when Arthur Balfour declared his support for the creation of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. Seeing as the Balfour Declaration is the proximate cause of the creation of Israel, it would behoove those interested in understanding the Arab anger at Israel’s existence to take a hard look at how it came to pass.

            This book also explains the Russian Revolution.  Czarist Russia was an ally with 5 million men under arms, but only 1.5 million rifles and little artillery.  In the trenches, the unarmed soldiers were told to clap their hands to make the sound of rifle fire, so the Germans would think there were facing more armed troops than they were.

            Naturally, the peasant Russian soldiers got massacred by the Germans.  The Russian strategy was for the three in every ten men with rifles to charge forward and when one went down, one of the unarmed seven behind was supposed to pick up the rifle of the casualty and fight on.  This only worked when the Russians advanced, in retreat it did not work out so well.

            So, villages sent 26 men off to war and only 2 returned.  The home front became demoralized and restless.  They demonstrated in Petersburg and the police showed up and shot them.  Even the Russian peasants found it hard to take that while the soldiers at the front lacked arms and ammunition, there seemed to be enough for the police to shoot the protesters at home.  This might explain one reason why after being invaded by Germany twice in twenty-five years, post-World War II Russia had a policy of never again being short of arms.

            Yes, it is all here.  The foundation of American foreign policy in the twentieth century. I discovered this book by accident.  It is not available in electronic form, and it is almost impossible to find even in libraries.  If I were of a conspiratorial cast of mind, I would say it was being suppressed.  But there is another reason why this essential book is unknown.

            After leaving office and spending years writing his War Memoirs, they were published in 1934, just in time to be ignored in the run up to World War II.  Many of the policies in World War II were a direct result of correcting the tactical errors of World War I.

            Aeschylus wrote: “In war, truth is the first casualty.”  He was talking about the mistaken ideas about history that form the basis for future conflict.

            A lot of people, especially military people, denigrate Lloyd-George as a meddling politician.  But Lloyd-George shows conclusively that in war the winner is not the combatant with the biggest army, best arms, soldiers and officers, the side that wins the most battles, or kills the most people, but the belligerent who makes the fewest mistakes and is able to convince its own population that the frightful cost of war in blood and treasure is worth it.

            If soldiers in combat fight, not for the cause, but for their buddies to the left and right, then, in Lloyd-George’s words: “Great leaders of men prove their gift of leadership, by the appeals they address to those who under their command are called upon to fight against odds.”

            Neither the Entente nor the Central Powers were fighting for particularly noble causes. The allies were fighting for freedoms that none of their subject peoples, who were also fighting and dying in combat, would see in the aftermath of the war.  Germany fought out of a sense of wounded pride.  What World War I did do, however, is prove, not once and for all, but at least once, that democracies are better and more effective ways of organizing a nation for war than monarchies and dictatorships.  It is a lesson that many nations, including our own, seem to need to learn again.

            Lloyd-George shows why it is impossible to learn the proper lessons from previous conflicts.  Maintaining morale among the population necessarily requires lying: trumpeting victories and minimizing, even hiding, defeats.  Thus, the war people thought they fought is not the war at all.  Lessons learned on the basis of official histories inevitably lead to the wrong conclusions.  It is not that armies are always prepared to fight the last war, it is they are trained and prepared to fight a war that never was.  In war, truth is the first casualty.

            For example, in 1917 the French importuned the British to take over more of the line on the Western Front.  Field Marshall Haig, obsessed with his impending attack in Flanders, resisted.  Histories treat this debate as a clash of egos.  In fact, mutinies in the French army after the attack on the Chemin des Dames made them incapable of attack and threatened the entire war effort.  The attack had used a rolling barrage of artillery behind which infantry advanced.  Deaths from “friendly” short shells were expected and common.  When the assault failed after horrendous loses, numerous units mutinied. Generals don’t call allies and say, “Hey, my armies are mutinying and we can’t conduct offensive operations.  How about taking over some of my line, friend?”  Nor do political leaders tell their citizens to “work harder because the troops are mutinying.”

            Another reason to read this book is for Lloyd-George’s thumbnail sketches of other leaders: Clemenceau, Wilson, and a multitude of generals and diplomats.  He shows how to analyze a situation, how to take into account positives and negatives of every person and situation.  He fleshes out all the dimensions of a decision and shows how to balance factors.  World War I was a good war to the extent that the children of the leaders died in it.  Lloyd-George does not mince words or dissemble over the graves of a generation of millions of young men, the children of his friends and colleagues.

            The crowning gem of this book comes at the end, in his defense accusations made against Douglas Haig’s Memoirs.  Lloyd-George deals with the structural differences between the military and civilian leadership.  In war, it is always easier to blame the politicians.  Blaming the generals can seem unpatriotic, and the civilian leaders in a democracy are chosen by the people, so in a way it is easier to blame the people and their representatives than themselves.  Here’s a little piece of Lloyd-George in his defense of civilian leadership:

            “Looking back on this devastating War and surveying the part played in it by statesmen and soldiers respectively in its direction I have come definitely to the conclusion that the former showed too much caution in exerting their authority over the military leaders….The difficulty, however, all Government experienced was in discovering capable commanders who could have been relied upon not only to carry out their policy but to do so efficiently and skillfully. The long siege warfare did not provide opportunities for resourceful men to come to the top by a display of superior skill. There was a rigidity and restrictiveness about the methods employed which allowed no play for initiative, imagination and inventiveness. The orders issued to divisional and brigadier Generals and to Colonels from headquarters were precise and could not be deviated from in any particular without risking a charge of insubordination. The men on the heights offered no encouragement or chances to genius down below. The distance between the châteaux and dugouts was as great as that from the fixed stars to the caverns of earth. No telescope was powerful enough to discern talent at that depth, even if a look-out were being kept. That is one reason why no one reached the highest ranks in the British Army except those who were there or thereabout when the War began. No civilian rose above the rank of Brigadier, although there must have been hundreds of thousands who had years of experience in the fighting line – many of them men of exceptional capacity. Thousands of these men had passed through our Secondary Schools, hundreds through our Universities, and not a few with distinction. It is incredible that amongst men of that training and quality there should not have been found one, fit for high promotion, after years of greater experience of fighting under modern conditions than any General in the field had acquired. The regular army before the war numbered something over 250,000. During the War four or five million young men drawn from every class of the community passed through its ranks. The wider the range of choice the better the chance of finding the right men for leadership. Besides, the Army was never considered to be a career for the talents. Rather the reverse. Boys who were endowed with brains above their fellows sought other professions where talent was more welcome and better requited. Independent thinking is not encouraged in a professional Army. It is a form of mutiny. Obedience is the supreme virtue. Theirs is not to reason why. Orders are to be carried out and not canvassed. Criticism is insubordination. The object of discipline is to accustom men to respond to a command instantly, by instant action, without thought of effect or consequence. There were many intelligent officers and men who knew that the orders given them during the War were utterly stupid and must have been given by Staffs who had no understanding of the conditions. But orders were orders. And with their men they went to a doom they foresaw was inevitable. Such an instinctive obedience to the word of command is essential to the efficiency of a body of men who have to face terror, death or mutilation in the discharge of their terrible duties. But a long course of mental subservience and suppression cramps the development and suppleness of the intellect. It makes ‘an officer and a gentleman’ but it is not conducive to the building up of an alert, adaptable and resourceful leader of men….” P. 342 – 344, Volume 6.

            War Memoirs is a book about the primacy in warfare of strategy over tactics.  Lloyd-George, first as a bean counter, and then as political leader, paints a unique picture of World War I that shows the relationship between the two. This is an indispensible book, especially as the centennial of World War I fast approaches.  It is important, because it shows the ease with which tens of millions of people can have their lives thrown away for nothing.  In the nuclear age, these are events the human race can not afford to see repeated.  But are we tough enough to put down the Bible, the Torah and the Koran and save the human race by reading true history in the War Memoirs of David Lloyd-George? You tell me.

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