The War Office, LondonA further curious enigma, which was solved in those opening days of August 1914, was the vacant position of Secretary of State for War. Indeed the position had been covered by Asquith since the embarrassing resignation of John Seely on 30 March, [1] which meant that in the run up to a World War, he served as both Prime Minister and head of the War Office. One consequence was that in all of the Cabinet discussions about Belgium, France and Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the growing possibility of war in Europe, the War Office had no singular dedicated voice. Why had Asquith failed to appoint a successor to John Seely? Clearly his Secret Elite advisors had approved his decision, which on the face of things, appears to be quite strange. No other Cabinet post had been left unfilled during his period in office.

Asquith’s problem was embarrassing in that there was no member of his Cabinet who could be trusted with the War Office. He confessed so in writing to his beloved Venetia Stanley on 5 August. [2] Everyone who knew that war had been ordained against Germany already held key Cabinet Posts. Churchill at the Admiralty could not be moved. Neither could Sir Edward Grey from the Foreign Office nor Lloyd George from the Treasury. Richard Haldane, Asquith’s life-long personal friend and former incumbent, would have been a perfect choice, but Haldane had been unfairly tainted by the press as a pro-German, and his appointment would have caused disquiet. [3] Any in-comer would have had to be briefed about the preparations for war, the work of the Committee of Imperial Defence and the military ‘discussions’ that had been agreed with France. His dilemma was that there was no politician in his government whom Asquith dared trust with such knowledge, and certainly no back-bencher.

On the positive side of this equation, a vacant post suggested that Britain was completely unready for war. If, in the aftermath of the near revolt of the army over its possible involvement in Ulster, it appeared that the War Office had been downgraded, then Germany would see it as positive proof that Britain was unlikely to go to war.

Lord Kitchener

Although Asquith was tempted to defy public opinion and reappoint Richard Haldane, the Secret Elite inner-core was not. Whatever their previous difficulties over the ending of the Boer War, [4] Alfred Milner considered Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener as the only man with enough driving force for the job. [5] Kitchener should have been at his post in Egypt, but ‘happened’ to be in England in July 1914 to be created Earl of Khartoum and Broome in the county of Kent by King George V. [6] This too was no chance happening. Asquith had approved Kitchener’s membership of the Committee of Imperial Defence some years before, [7] and Winston Churchill was regularly in contact with him. They discussed the plans that emerged from the CID, and in the week before the outbreak of war Kitchener and Churchill lunched and dined together ‘two or three times’. [8] Yet Asquith hesitated to break with tradition and appoint a Field Marshal to his Cabinet. Sir Henry Wilson reported the prime minister’s hesitations to Alfred Milner and his Secret Elite colleagues who were dismayed that Asquith had failed to immediately dispatch the British Expeditionary Force to France. Fearing a weakness that might mortally wound their plans, they approached Kitchener directly and convinced him to go in person to 10 Downing Street and demand a definite appointment. [9]

A newspaper campaign in favour of Kitchener’s appointment at the War Office gathered quick momentum. Horatio Bottomley’s highly popular and patriotic one penny weekly, John Bull magazine, first suggested that Lord Kitchener be given the post of Secretary of State for War in April 1914, but little more was discussed in public until the morning of 3 August when The Times carried an article by Colonel Repington [10] making the same suggestion [11] On the following day the clamour for Kitchener’s appointment was championed by a Times Editorial which trumpeted public confidence in him and pressed the prime minister to make a formal appointment ‘at least for the term of the war’. [12] The Westminster Gazette and Northcliffe’s Daily Express insisted on Kitchener’s appointment. Rumours that Asquith intended to return Haldane to the War Office were later denied by him with a caustic parliamentary swing at the critical press;

‘The only person—and I should like this to be put on record—whom I ever thought of as my successor was Lord Kitchener, who happened, by a stroke of good fortune, to be at that moment in this country, on the point of returning to Egypt. I mentioned the suggestion to one or two of my colleagues, and I think it right to say that the one who most strongly urged the propriety, and even the necessity of that appointment, was my Noble and learned Friend Lord Haldane, who was then Lord Chancellor. Lord Kitchener’s appointment was received with universal acclamation, so much so indeed that it. was represented as having been forced upon a reluctant Cabinet by the overwhelming pressure of an intelligent and prescient Press’ [13]

Asquith’s bold claims do not hold true in the light of later memoirs. Leopold Amery revealed that Milner had gone so far as to put Kitchener into a taxi to Downing Street to confront Asquith into a decision. Kitchener was instructed to tell the prime minister that he would return immediately to Egypt unless Asquith gave him more important work. [14] As ever the Secret Elite got their man and Asquith was left to reconcile his Cabinet colleagues to the highly unusual idea of a Field Marshal in a Liberal Cabinet. A War Council was held on 5 August. It comprised select politicians and the top men from the ‘Roberts’ Academy’. [15] Lord Roberts himself was present with Kitchener, Sir John French, Douglas Haig, Haldane, Grey, Asquith and, since it was essentially an extension of the Committee of Imperial Defence, Maurice Hankey [16] Why Lord Roberts, who had retired ten years earlier, was present, has never been explained. Indeed, he was so intimately involved with the Secret Elite that the question was never even asked.  This was the Secret Elite War Council, an exclusive cabal of men who had planned the outbreak war, prepared the nation for war and proposed to run the war. Their task was to crush Germany. Many thought that it would all be over by Christmas.

Over by Christmas poster Aug-Dec 1914, kilted soldier saying farewell to his loved one

Student volunteers at Cambridge in August, expected to be back for the restart of term-time on 7 October. Even serving officers who were stationed abroad in Gibraltar feared that they would miss the war because they were not part of the British Expeditionary Force. [17] But the assumed simplicity of that task withered before their eyes within two short weeks. The theory that the war would be a brief affair was shot down immediately by Lord Kitchener. At his first Cabinet meeting he dominated the room and spoke a truth some found difficult to believe. In staccato sentences, Kitchener was never an orator, nor a politician, he bluntly told the Cabinet that the war would not be short, that it would not be resolved by sea-power and that millions of men would have to be involved in the conflict for several years. [18] The Cabinet sat in silence. Most were stunned by his unexpected prediction and we can only wonder at what point they began to fear the consequences of their inability to stop the warmongers three days before.

When he delivered his first speech in the House of Lords as Secretary of State for War, Kitchener quashed any notion of a quick-fix solution. His terms of service were the same as every man who stepped forward to the colours, for the duration of the war, or if that lasted for more than three years, then for three years, so that ‘if this disastrous war be prolonged’, others ‘fresh and fully prepared’ could step forward and ‘see this matter through’. [19] Kitchener was the inspired choice for whom the empty Cabinet chair had been specially reserved; but his inspiration had limitations and unforeseen consequences. Though he did not foresee trench warfare, Asquith, Grey and Balfour all talked of Kitchener having ‘flashes of genius’ or ‘instinct’ [20]

Kitchener’s prediction that the war would be prolonged has been recorded in history as an inspired insight, as though this was the first time that such a possibility had been considered. How could it have been? Kitchener had attended the Committee of Imperial Defence, discussed war with Churchill on several occasions and had been specifically chosen by the Secret Elite. They well knew that it would take a prolonged war to destroy Germany. As far as the Secret Elite was concerned, he was decidedly on-message. Three years or more of warfare promised rich and extravagant profits, which, coming from the mouth of the national hero, spoken in Cabinet, repeated in the House of Lords and carried solemnly in the press, meant that long term investment in the instruments of war could begin at once, and would be unquestioned.

Though he had detractors, Kitchener’s immediate impact on the British war effort was electric. His immense prestige with the public galvanised the nation in a manner that no other could have contemplated. Margot Asquith reputedly remarked that ‘if Kitchener was not a great man, he was at least a great poster, and there is absolutely no doubt that in those first weeks of war, it was Kitchener’s imposing posture pointing directly at the man in the street, which inspired hundreds of thousands of volunteers to join the army. [21]

kitchener 2

But Kitchener was dictatorial by nature, distrusting of politicians and schooled in foreign wars far from Europe. He was dismissive of Haldane’s Territorial Army which had been previously hailed as a great achievement, and his ‘bull-in-a-china shop manners and methods’ at the War Office caused Asquith concern.  The first bursts of enthusiasm for war encouraged Kitchener. He was the great magnet, and his hypnotic presence on billboards across the nation won the day. In the first eighteen months of the war, 1,741,000 volunteers joined Kitchener’s army, and a further 726,000 were added to the Territorials. [22]. But an immediate problem soon became evident. How would the weapons of war, the rifles, the heavy guns and shells, the uniforms and the provisions for huge armies, be provided?

Asquith grasped the moment on 6 August by seeking Parliamentary approval for a grant of £100,000,000 ‘for all measures that may be taken for the security of the country, for the conduct of Naval and military operations, for assisting the food supply, for promoting the continuance of trade, industry and business communications …and generally for all expenses arising out of the existence of a state of war.’ [23] He shamelessly intoned a litany of solemn obligations, of duty, honour, and the prospects of European Civilisation. His claim that ‘we are fighting to vindicate the principle that small nationalities are not to be crushed, in defiance of international good faith, by the arbitrary will of a strong and overmastering Power’, sat ill at ease with Britain’s conduct towards the Boer Republics, but did not stop Asquith from eloquently asserting that the principles for which Britain had entered the war were ‘vital to the civilisation of the world’ [24]. Naturally, his appeal for unprecedented funding was approved by the ‘opposition’ benches, even though the  granting of £100,000,000 meant that the government had no reason to seek parliamentary approval for expenditure for months to come, and consequently was freed from democratic accountability.

[1] After the embarrassment of the ‘Curragh Mutiny’ in 1914, John Seeley resigned from his post as Secretary of State for War. Asquith failed to appoint anyone in his Cabinet to the post and took over of both the government and the war office. See Hidden History, the Secret Origins of the First World War pp. 309-11
[2] Michael and Eleanor Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p. 157.
[3] Grey of Fallodon, Twenty-Five Years vol.II, pp286-287.
[4] Milner had been very annoyed by Kitchener’s willingness to accept compromises with the Boer leaders in 1901.
[5] J. Lee Thomson, Forgotten Patriot, p.309.
[6] Tony Heathcote, The British Field Marshals 1736–1997. p.195.
[7] Stephen Roskill, Hankey, 1877-1918, p. 134.
[8] Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918,  p190.
[9] A.M. Gollin, Proconsul in Politics, p. 240.
[10] He was the military correspondent for the Secret Elite’s Times newspaper. He had his own desk at the War Office.
[11] Brock, H.H. Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p. 152.
[12] The Times, 4 August, 1914, p.5.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Leopold Amery, My Political Life, Vol. II, pp. 21-23.
[15] Brock, H.H. Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, pp. 157-8
[16] CAB 21/ 1/ 1.
[17] Max Arthur, Forgotten Voices of the Great War, p. 16.
[18] Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, p.191.
[19] Hansard, HL Deb 25 Aug 1914 vol. 17 cc501-4.
[20] Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p.154 and Grey of Fallodon, Twenty-Five Years, vol. II p. 279.
[21] Arthur, Forgotten Voices of the Great War, p. 9.
[22] Brock, H.H. Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p. 154.
[23] Hansard, HC Deb 06 August 1914 vol.65 cc2073-100.
[24] Ibid.