Mr Lloyd George and the War
EAST OR WEST ?
WHETHER Mr. Asquith followed the best and wisest course when he formed the Coalition Government, and whether the continuation of his original Government in powerówith a rope round its neck, which could and would, assuredly, have been pulled by the Opposition, if the Dardanelles Expedition had failedówas advisable, are interesting matters for speculation. But we must content ourselves with noting that the fall of the old Government was accompanied by no explanation of the reasons which had led to the formation of the new, that the Coalition Government deprived the House of Commons of the only real power it possesses, namely, that of turning dot one Government and replacing it by another; that it robbed the country of a responsible Opposition, and an alternative Administration; that it killed all effective and responsible criticism in the House of Commons, and transferred this function with increased power to the Press; and we must then pass on to the problems which the new Government had to face.
Our offensive on the Western Front, as we have seen, bill been unable to penetrate the German line. And while the French attacks had met with more success, and had captured some German positions, they had produced no serious strategic result. While our shortage of munitions and the fact that the French armies were without sufficient shells for their big guns made any renewal of the offensive, on a large scale, impossible for the present.
Meanwhile, the Russian offensive in the Carpathians had come to a standstill on April 20, and at the same time the German offensive against the Baltic provinces had begun. The great Austro-German drive under Mackensen had opened on May 2, had resulted in the victory of the Central Empires at Gorlice on May 14, which led in due time to the fall of Prezcmysl, Lwow, Warsaw, and Brest-Litovsk.
These successes made Lord Kitchener fear that the phalanx tactics of Mackensen, which the Russians had been unable to withstand, might be repeated in a new German concentration and attack on the Western Front, and he was even apprehensive that the German General Staff might then think the moment opportune to hamper our sending reinforcements to France by an attack on our snores.
However, the more positive problem which had to be faced at the end of May and the beginning of June was that of the Dardanelles, and this was rendered the more pressing by the fact that the Russian reverses made them anxious to liberate their armies in the Caucasus.; The new orientation of our policy is well illustrated by the fact that the Coalition Government was no sooner formed than the inner Cabinet or War Council which was at once constituted and consisted of Mr. Asquith, Lord Kitchener, Mr. Balfour, Sir Edward Grey, Lord Crewe, Lord Curzon, Lord Lansdowne, Lord Selborne, Mr. Lloyd George, Mr. Bonar Law, and Mr. Winston Churchill, was known as The Dardanelles Committee.
As we have seen, a landing had been effected on the Gallipoli Peninsula, but by May 9 the further advance of our forces had been held up by the Turkish entrenchments. On May 14 Sir Ian Hamilton had been asked to state what reinforcements he Would require to deal with the new position, and on May 17 he had replied that three fresh divisions would be necessary. While our War Council had, on that date, practically decided that these reinforcements should be sent, the sudden intervention of the political crisis led to the postponement of effect being given to this decision. And as the delicate negotiations over the personnel of the new Government took time, and as the members of the new Government were, of necessity, bound to give some consideration to the policy for which they were now responsible, a decision by the new War Council to send three new divisions to the Dardanelles was delayed until June 7, and not ratified by the new Cabinet until June 9.
Now, although counted in days, the period of time between May 17 and June 9 may seem short and even trifling, the effect of this delay on the military operations was startling and even tragic. Sir Ian Hamilton had calculated that if the forces for which he had asked had been dispatched at once, they would have arrived in time for his attack to be renewed during the first fortnight of July. The attack contemplated by him was a surprise attack at a new point, the success of which depended on its being undertaken on a moonless night, at the end of one moon and before the beginning of another. But the delay in sending the three new divisions, which did not arrive until well on injury, meant that his new attack must take place in the first days of August, and not in the first days of July.
Unfortunately, this was not the only result of this, perhaps politically inevitable, delay.
Between July and August no less than five new Turkish divisions and fresh drafts had time to arrive on the Peninsula. The German control of the Turkish Army had leisure to increase, and the Turkish defences were, in consequence, able to be organised on improved and modern lines. Whereas during the same interval our forces were reduced by sickness and losses which were not made good by the dispatch of adequate drafts. Moreover, the Russian defeats in Galicia in June and July led to the removal of our Army Corps under General Istomine, which had been kept ready to embark at Odessa and Batum in order to co-operate with Sir Ian Hamilton's forces when the Straits had been forced, to the main battle-fields in Russia and thus liberated considerable forces which the Turks had been compelled to keep concentrated Kit at or near Midia, to guard against the possibility of a landing there.
Thus, although our War Council decided in July to reinforce Sir Ian Hamilton with two more divisions in addition to the three divisions, which had already been dispatched, the decisive battle, of Suvla Bay was not fought until August 5, and whatever chances of success it may have had on that day would have been in-dubitably increased if it had taken place in the first days of July.
We have indicated in an earlier chapter that the key of the military and diplomatic problem in the Balkans lay at Sofia, and that the intervention of Bulgaria on the side of the Allies would necessarily lead to decisive results. We have also indicated some of the difficulties which lay in the way of this happy consummation of our hopes.
During the period which we now propose to review the importance of securing the co-operation of Bulgaria grew daily more urgent and more imperative. While the attitude of King Ferdinand oscillated, now to this side, now to the other, until the fortunes of the battles on the Eastern Front swayed steadily in favour of the Central Empires, and against our Russian Allies, and until the failure of our efforts on the Gallipoli Peninsula became, at last, beyond dispute.
" What is the actual position ? " wrote Mr. Lloyd George, in a preface to a collection of his speeches, in August 1915. " It is thoroughly well known to the Germans and any one in any land, belligerent or neutral, who reads intelligently the military news, must by now have a comprehension of it.
" With the resources of Great Britain, France, Russia, yea, of the whole industrial world, at the disposal of the Allies, it is obvious that the Central Powers have still an overwhelming superiority in all the material and equipment of war. The result of this deplorable fact is exactly what might have been foreseen. The iron heel of Germany has sunk deeper than ever into French and Belgian soil. Poland is entirely German; Lithuania it rapidly following. Russian fortresses, deemed impregnable, are falling like sand-castles before the resistless tide of Teutonic invasion. When will that tide recede ? When will it be stemmed ? As soon as the Allies are supplied with abundance of war material."
Against the sombre background of this military position, fitfully broken by renewed hopes of success in the Dardanelles, Sir Edward Grey and the diplomats of the Allies from April to September were busily engaged in disentangling the Gordian knot of the Balkans.
During April and May King Ferdinand had been obviously marking time and watching events. But towards the end of May. in spite of the Russian reverses, which were balanced to some extent by the intervention of Italy, the time was thought to be sufficiently opportune, the claims of Bulgaria in Macedonia and Thrace sufficiently just, .the need for the assistance of her peasant armies sufficiently great, to justify the making of a formal offer.
At this date, therefore, the Allies offered Bulgaria the uncontested zone in Macedonia at the end of the war, subject to Serbia obtaining compensation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and on the coast of the Adriatic. And further promised all their efforts to secure the cession of Kavalla to Bulgaria, subject to Greece obtaining compensation in Asia Minor, if the Bulgarian armies would forthwith march against Turkey.
Much could be written of the interplay of politics, parties, and persons in the various Balkan States which followed, but it still is sufficient, for the broad effect, to say that Serbia, already irritated by the sacrifices of Serbian interests on the Adriatic made by the secret treaty with Italy, spent the greater part of June in seizing strategic points on the Albanian frontier, and of used to make any accommodation; that Greece entered an indignant protest against the proposals with regard to Kavalla; while Bulgaria played with the offer which had been made.
Then in July, as the German advance into Russia continued, and no headway was made in the Dardanelles, the Allies became lore and more insistent in their efforts to meet the wishes of Bulgaria, and at the beginning of August they again offered to guarantee Bulgaria the uncontested zone in Macedonia, by under-taking that any extension of territory to Serbia should depend Upon the cession by her of this zone, by guaranteeing Bulgaria the immediate possession of Thrace up to the Enos-Midia line, and by repeating their offer with regard to Kavalla. But the measure of the weakness of her military position was also the ensure of the determination of Serbia to make no concession her hated foe, in whose sincerity she did not believe. Diplomatic exhortations were supplemented by special appeals. The Prince Regent of Serbia was besought by the Czar, by King George, and by the President of the French Republic to make the concessions which had been asked for. But the Serbian Government and the Serbian Parliament turned a deaf ear to all appeals. Events then followed in quick succession.
The battle of Suvla Bay began on August 5, and by the end the second week in August the prospect of a decisive victory had vanished. On August 18 General Fichef, the Bulgarian Minister of War, who was reputed to be favourable to the Cause the Allies, was dismissed. On September 6 Turkey was compelled by Germany to cede Bulgaria a strip of territory along the Maritza River, which gave her continuous railway connection with the Aegean Sea. In the second week in September, in a last despairing effort, and in spite of Serbia's sullen refusal, the Allies offered themselves to guarantee Bulgaria the uncounted zone in Macedonia, if only she would intervene against Turkey. But all in vain. Bulgarian policy now moved forward with automatic precision, and on September 22 the order for the mobilisation of the Bulgarian Army was duty given. Serbia, however, in spite of the perils by which she was faced, and in spite of the entreaties, the cajolery, and even the threats of tin entente diplomatists, sullenly declined, even at the eleventh hour, to make the smallest concession to Bulgaria, and with passionate appeals to the Allies for help, prepared with a splendid, reckless, heroism to meet her fate.
The failure of our diplomacy in the Balkans, the disastrous effects of that failure on Serbia, deflected our military policy to such an extent, and its repercussion was so far-reaching and was felt in so many places, that we must revert, with some particularity, to the events Which preceded it.
We have already seen that by May 1915 the prospect of a continued deadlock on the Western Front, the fact of the Dardanelles expedition, had deflected our military policy in the direction of the "Easterners." As the importance of securing the intervention of Bulgaria had grown, so the importance of securing a victory on the Gallipoli Peninsula, on which Bulgaria's attitude so largely depended, had grown also ; and so our policy had become still further deflected in an easterly direction.
Under these circumstances, and under the conviction that no great strategic result could be achieved in 1915 by the small numerical superiority of the Allied over the German forces on the West (some 2,500,000 to 2,000,000), and with our scanty stocks of ammunition, we sought a conference with the French authorities to discuss the position. This Conference took place early in July, and the representatives of our Cabinet were successful in urging that our operations in the West should, for the rest of the year, be confined to an " active defensive" and that an offensive on a large scale should not be undertaken.
Our War Council, therefore, sent the bulk of our munitions to the Dardanelles, such quantities only as safety required to our forces in France, and all our fortunes, both in the East and the West, were staked on the coming struggle for the control of the Dardanelles. But, unfortunately, the defects in our military organisation, the want of a strong Chief of the Staff responsible for our strategic policy as a whole, instead of the accumulation of organisation and supply together with the control of strategy in the hands of one person, reacted on our policy as a whole. And, whereas political events of the greatest moment hung on a successful issue to the coming battle on the Gallipoli Peninsula; our War Council was unaware, until it was too late, that although, Ave new divisions had been sent to strengthen Sir Ian Hamilton's armies, his original forces, left unreinforced by the timely dispatch of fresh drafts, were lamentably below strength, while no wise and careful selection had been made of the commanders of the new divisions, and no measures had been taken to retrieve a possible partial failure.
The details of the battle of Suvla Bay must be read in the final report of the Dardanelles Commission, and in Sir Ian Hamilton's dispatches. It is sufficient for our purpose to remind our readers that this memorable and disastrous battle had been decided against us by the second week in August, and that any possibility of success in the future depended on the dispatch of large reinforcements.
But to do this was to seek to achieve the impossible. For although, as we have seen, both the French Government and our own had agreed in July to undertake no large offensive operation in France during 1915, yet a wish, perhaps an imperative demand, to relieve the Russian position on the East, it may be, also, the pressure of political events on General Joffre, all combined in August to produce a sudden change of plan. And on August 20 Lord Kitchener returned from France constrained or persuaded that the offensive on the Western Front should be resumed. War is a grim business, and under the best of direction those who are responsible are often forced to make it as they must, and not always as they would. The stream of drafts and munitions, which should have flowed East, were at once diverted and flowed West instead. And although Lord French was dissatisfied with the particular sector of the attack which had been assigned to him, and although he had only seven days' supply of munitions for an offensive battle, General Joffre's great offensive south of Rheims and north of Arras was launched.
The battle opened in the early hours of September 25 : the main attack by some forty French divisions in Champagne, a subsidiary attack by some thirty divisions in Artois. These armies were flung forward in the hope that they would carry, not only the enemy's front line, which had been swept by artillery preparation, but even the positions in the rear. In the result the front lines were stormed, advances were secured, guns and prisoners in number! which sounded imposing were captured and duly published. The German line was bent, but did not break, no decisive strategic success was achieved, and public attention was not directed to the fact that the casualties in the Allied Armies had exceeded 300,000.
Thus both " Easterners " and " Westerners saw in what had happened on the Western Front and on the Gallipoli Peninsula, the ruin of their plans on the West and on the East alike.