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, during the First World War. A senior British Army officer, Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice, made public the spectacular allegation that the War Cabinet had deliberately held British soldiers back from the Western Front, and had lied to Parliament about it. The leader of the Liberal Party, 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" on 7 May[2] from Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice, who had recently been removed as Director of Military Operations.[3] Maurice was close to General William Robertson, who had recently been removed as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (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. Robertson encouraged Maurice to write the letter, but did not back him openly, causing Lloyd George's biographer John Grigg to conclude, "Robertson is the person who comes worst out of the affair."[4] There is, however, little evidence to confirm Lloyd George’s suspicions of a wider plot involving senior military and political figures, to bring down the government.[5]

Maurice's letter also appeared in "The Morning Post", the "Daily Chronicle" and "Daily News".[6]

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 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.[7] In his letter he accused both Bonar Law and Lloyd George of misleading the House.[8] 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."[9]

The government's statements indicated that the British forces on the Western Front were adequate, and therefore implied that the near-defeat inflicted by Germany in March was the responsibility of General Headquarters. The truth of the matter remains somewhat murky, as the government had long since lost confidence in the figures with which the generals were presenting them. Lloyd George insisted privately that he had presented his original 9 April statement, which included non-combatants amongst the Western Front Forces, in good faith, a claim accepted by some historians. However, there is no doubt that he spoke dishonestly in the debate a month later.[10]

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.[11] Liberal leader and former prime minister H H Asquith tabled a private notice question and Bonar Law, on behalf of 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.[12]

The debate[edit]

Asquith’s performance in the debate was thought to be 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] Asquith had no answer when a heckler suggested that a setting up a select committee hadn’t worked over the Marconi scandal. At one point he asked rhetorically “What is the alternative?” and as he paused for effect Charles Stanton, MP for Merthyr Tydfil, shouted “Get on with the war!” to cheers and laughter.[14] Even Asquith's friends saw that he had lost his fighting spirit and would not be acceptable as a wartime Prime Minister.[15]

Lloyd George spoke for one and a quarter hours, twice as long as Asquith.[16] He 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.[17] 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.[12] Lloyd George even went on the attack himself, pointing out that Maurice’s letter constituted a breach of King's Regulations.[18] Lloyd George was judged to have demolished the charges Maurice had laid against him. One commentator, Dingle Foot, noted that, "at the time it appeared that Lloyd George had completely routed his critics."[19]

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.[20] Edward Carson, who had recently resigned from the government over Irish Conscription, supported Lloyd George.[21] 98 Liberal MPs supported the Asquith motion, 70 Liberal MPs supported Lloyd George's government, while 93 Liberal MPs 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.[22]

Lord Beaverbrook later alleged that Lloyd George's figures had included British troops in Italy, that Maurice had been entirely correct but that Lloyd George had burned an incriminating document.[23]

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.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26] In the Summer of 1918 there were talks between Lloyd George’s Chief Whip, Freddie Guest and the Conservatives prepared to guarantee Coalition backing for 150 Liberal MPs in the next general election.[27] This was the birth of the coalition coupon and the formal divide in Liberal ranks which took place at the 1918 general election.

At Newcastle on 29 October 1918, with the general election imminent, Lloyd George claimed that the Maurice Debate had determined which of the 159 Liberals received coalition "coupons", but research has shown that this was not strictly true.[28] Lloyd George also talked about the Maurice Debate at length in a speech at Wolverhampton on 23 November 1918.[29]

The Maurice debate may not have been the sole identifying factor for those Liberals granted or denied the coupon 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. ^ Roy Jenkins, Asquith; Papermac 1994 edition, p 469
  6. ^ Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, Sir Frederick Barton Maurice in Dictionary of National Biography, OUP 2004–08
  7. ^ Liberal Democrat History Group website, 2009: http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk/item_single.php?item_id=55&item=history
  8. ^ The Times, 7 May 1918 p7
  9. ^ Thomas Jones, Lloyd George (1951) p 148
  10. ^ Roy Jenkins, Asquith; Papermac 1994 edition, p 473
  11. ^ The Times, 8 May 1918 p10
  12. ^ a b Farrar-Hockley 1975, p317
  13. ^ Roy Jenkins, Asquith; Papermac 1994 edition, p 471
  14. ^ Roy Jenkins, Asquith; Papermac 1994 edition, p 470
  15. ^ Ged Martin, "Asquith, the Maurice Debate and the Historians," Australian Journal of Politics and History (1985) 31#3 pp 435–444.
  16. ^ Roy Jenkins, Asquith; Papermac 1994 edition, p 471
  17. ^ Prior & Wilson, DNB
  18. ^ Roy Douglas, Liberals :The History of the Liberal and Liberal Democrat Parties; Hambledon & London, 2005 p179
  19. ^ Dingle Foot, British Political Crises: 1916; William Kimber, London 1976 p73
  20. ^ Chris Cook, A Short History of the Liberal Party: 1900–1992; Macmillan, 1993 p73
  21. ^ Roy Jenkins, Asquith; Papermac 1994 edition, p 471
  22. ^ Hansard
  23. ^ Roy Jenkins, Asquith; Papermac 1994 edition, p 473-4
  24. ^ Dutton, p72
  25. ^ Cook, p72
  26. ^ K. O. Morgan, The Age of Lloyd George: The Liberal Party and British Politics, 1890–1919; Allen & Unwin 1971, p72
  27. ^ 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
  28. ^ Stephen Koss, Asquith; Hamish Hamilton 1985 edition, p 236-9
  29. ^ Roy Jenkins, Asquith; Papermac 1994 edition, p 477

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]