The Maurice Debate

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The Maurice Debate was a debate in the British House of Commons which took place on 9 May 1918. A senior army officer Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice made public the spectacular allegation that the War Cabinet had deliberately held soldiers back from the Western Front, and had lied to Parliament about it. Liberal leader H H Asquith, took up the allegations and attacked Prime Minister David Lloyd George, also a Liberal. It ripped apart the Liberal Party. While Asquith's attack was ineffective, Lloyd George vigorously defended his position, treating the debate like a vote of confidence. He won over the House with a powerful, if misleading speech, refuting all of Maurice's allegations. The debate did not cause the profound split in the Liberal Party, but did make it more visible and harder to heal. The main results were to strengthen Lloyd George, weaken Asquith, end public criticism of overall strategy, and strengthen civilian control of the military.[1]

Maurice’s allegations[edit]

The motion was tabled in response to the publication of a letter in The Times newspaper the day before [2] from Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice, who had recently been removed as Director of Military Operations. [3] Maurice was close to General Robertson, who had recently been removed as CIGS after months of argument with the government about manpower and deployment of resources between fronts, and who was suspected of engaging in political intrigues to return to power. Historians find that Robertson was instrumental in getting Maurice to write the letter, and that represented military interference in civilian roles. Historian John Grigg concludes, "Robertson is the person who comes worst out of the affair."[4]

Maurice's letter also appeared in The Morning Post, the Daily Chronicle and Daily News. [5]

In his letter, Maurice claimed that ministers in the coalition government of Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Unionist Party leader Andrew Bonar Law, had deliberately provided false information to Parliament about the strength of British troops on the Western Front in order to cover up the fact that the number of British troops there had been reduced following Lloyd George's decision (against military advice) to send additional forces to Palestine. [6] In his letter he accused both Bonar Law and Lloyd George of misleading the House.[7] As Jones elaborates, Maurice challenged:

"statements...made by Lloyd George in the House of Commons on 9 April: first, that notwithstanding the heavy casualties in 1917, the army in France was considerably stronger on 1 January 1918 than on 1 January 1917, and second, that in Egypt and Palestine there was a very small proportion of British as compared with Indian troops; and by Bonar Law on 23 April that the extension of the British Front which took place before the battle of 21 March was an arrangement made solely by the military authorities."[8]

The disputed statements indicated that the British forces on the Western Front were adequate, and the military defeats recently inflicted by Germany were the responsibility of General Headquarters.

Opposition reaction[edit]

The letter provoked serious concern both on the substantive issue of the right levels of manpower on the Western Front and their adequate support and because of the allegation that MPs had been misled. [9] Former prime minister and Liberal leader H H Asquith tabled a private notice question and Bonar Law for the government offered to establish a Court of Honour consisting of two judges to look into the matter but Asquith demanded a Select Committee to inquire into the allegations and pressed for a Parliamentary debate.

Maurice did not stay in London to coach those ready to attack ministers.[10]

The debate[edit]

In the debate Lloyd George was attacked by Asquith, although on the arguments put forward in the House, Lloyd George was judged to have demolished the charges Maurice had laid against him. One commentator, a former Liberal MP, noted that, "at the time it appeared that Lloyd George had completely routed his critics.” [11] Lloyd George even went on the attack himself pointing out that Maurice’s letter constituted a breach of military discipline. [12] Asquith’s performance in the debate has been judged as dry, formal and pedantic. According to his biographer, “...[T]here was no sense of a great Parliamentary occasion about his speech. He had chosen a minor key and he had played it without his usual sureness of touch.” [13]

Lloyd George on the other hand was direct and combative. He treated the issue as if it were a vote of confidence in the government and refuted Maurice's charges in a powerful, if misleading speech, based on doubtful material.[14] Hankey noted that Lloyd George (9 May) did not tell the whole truth in the debate, keeping “discreetly silent” about the Adjutant-General’s figures which did not show an increase in the size of the BEF.[15] Parliament had no desire to displace the government and in the vote on the debate the House of Commons divided in support of the Government by 295 votes to 108. One historian of the Liberal Party has commented that this was a larger majority than had appeared likely. [16] 98 Liberal MPs supported the Asquith motion, 70 Liberal MPs supported Lloyd George's government, while 93 Liberal MPs were either abstained or were absent. Labour MPs were also split by the debate with 15 MPs supporting the government, 8 supporting Asquith's motion and 12 being either absent or abstaining.[17] Lloyd George made the debate into a vote of confidence, knowing that if it carried the government would fall. Asquith would be the logical next prime minister, but Asquith had lost the fighting spirit and even his friends saw that Asquith would not be acceptable as a wartime leader.[18]

The impact of the debate[edit]

The Times newspaper reported that as a result of the debate it now sensed the existence of an organised opposition. [19] This was not the first time that Liberals had voted against the government but it was the first time that Asquith had led the opposition from the front. [20] Thoughts about formalising the Coalition Liberals into a distinct party group now began to take shape. The beginnings of separate Lloyd Georgeite Liberal constituency organisations began to appear [21] In the Summer of 1918 there were talks between Lloyd George’s Chief Whip, Freddie Guest and the Conservatives guaranteeing Coalition backing for 150 Liberal MPs in the next general election. [22] This was the birth of the coalition coupon and the formal divide in Liberal ranks which took place at the 1918 general election.

The Maurice debate may not have been the identifying factor for those Liberals granted or denied the coalition coupon at the 1918 general election but the personal rift between Lloyd George and Asquith was deepened by it. The disunity in the Liberal Party was transparent for all to see, to the clear electoral detriment of the party. By 1924 the Liberal Party had been reduced in Parliament to 40 seats and was never again able to form a government in its own right.

References[edit]

Hansard HC Deb vol 105

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ John Gooch, "The Maurice Debate 1918," Journal of Contemporary History (1968) 3#4 pp. 211-228 in JSTOR
  2. ^ The Times, 7 May 1918 p7
  3. ^ David Dutton, A History of the Liberal Party in the Twentieth Century; Palgrave Macmillan, 2004 p72
  4. ^ John Grigg, Lloyd George: War leader, 1916-1918 (2002) p 503.
  5. ^ Trevor Wilson and Robin Prior, Sir Frederick Barton Maurice in Dictionary of National Biography, OUP 2004-08
  6. ^ Liberal Democrat History Group website, 2009: http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk/item_single.php?item_id=55&item=history
  7. ^ The Times, 7 May 1918 p7
  8. ^ Thomas Jones, Lloyd George (1951) p 148
  9. ^ The Times, 8 May 1918 p10
  10. ^ Farrar-Hockley 1975, p317
  11. ^ Dingle Foot, British Political Crises: 1916; William Kimber, London 1976 p73
  12. ^ Roy Douglas, Liberals :The History of the Liberal and Liberal Democrat Parties; Hambledon & London, 2005 p179
  13. ^ Roy Jenkins, Asquith; Papermac 1994 edition, p 471
  14. ^ Wilson & Prior, DNB
  15. ^ Farrar-Hockley 1975, p317
  16. ^ Chris Cook, A Short History of the Liberal Party: 1900-1992; Macmillan, 1993 p73
  17. ^ Hansard
  18. ^ Ged Martin, "Asquith, the Maurice Debate and the Historians," Australian Journal of Politics and History (1985) 31#3 pp 435-444.
  19. ^ Dutton, p72
  20. ^ Cook, p72
  21. ^ K. O. Morgan, The Age of Lloyd George: The Liberal Party and British Politics, 1890-1919; Allen & Unwin 1971, p72
  22. ^ K O Morgan, Lloyd George’s Stage Army: The Coalition Liberals, 1918-1922; in A J P Taylor (ed.) Lloyd George, Twelve Essays; Hamish Hamilton, 1971 p227

Further reading[edit]

  • Farrar-Hockley, General Sir Anthony (1975). Goughie. London: Granada. ISBN -0246640596. 
  • Gooch, John. "The Maurice Debate 1918," Journal of Contemporary History (1968) 3#4 pp. 211-228 in JSTOR
  • Grigg, John. Lloyd George: War leader, 1916-1918 (London: Penguin, 2002), ch 27 pp 489-512
  • Martin, Ged. "Asquith, the Maurice Debate and the Historians," Australian Journal of Politics and History (1985) 31#3 pp 435-444.

See also[edit]