The munitions scandal, the Dardanelles embarrassment, open warfare at the Admiralty, stalemate on the Western Front, criticism in the papers, riots in the streets and growing unrest in Parliament brought disruption to the heart of Herbert Asquith’s cabinet in May 1915. To make matters worse, the Prime Minister was in the midst of a personal crisis which consumed his every thought and weakened his capacity to carry through changes that the Secret Elite required.

Venetia Stanley, to whom Asquith wrote so indiscreetlyVenetia Stanley, the young socialite with whom Asquith corresponded so intimately that she would be seen today as a high-level security risk, announced that she intended to marry his friend Edwin Montagu and brought an end to their strange and potentially dangerous relationship. Indeed Churchill viewed Asquith’s relationship with Venetia as ‘England’s greatest security risk.’ [1] For nearly three years an infatuated Prime Minister had written to her on a daily basis, often more than that. He penned love letters between Cabinet meetings, detailing political and national intrigues, sharing private thoughts about his friends and colleagues, revealing state secrets and entrusting her with highly confidential government information.

Distracted by his addiction to the beautiful 27 year-old aristocrat, the Prime Minister was inattentive at Cabinet meetings and important debates in the House of Commons. He actually wrote to her during a crucial Cabinet meeting which was discussing the possibility of Italy entering the war – and just days before the disastrous Gallipoli invasion – admitting, ‘I have never written to you under quite such peculiar conditions: for every 2 or 3 minutes I am constrained to burst or break into the debate, so I think I will bring this to a close now…’ [2]

Consider the sequence of events. On 12 May Asquith was shattered when, out of the blue, Venetia informed him that she intended to marry his friend. Jealousy and despair consumed the 63 year-old father of seven like a spurned, love-sick teenager. Was this part of the reason why the War Council was not convened for five and a half weeks? The government was disorganised at best and incoherent when it came to overall strategy. Asquith was drowning in a sea of self-pity and criticism at a time when the Secret Elite were demanding firm leadership.

Anti-German riots in London 1915

There were major riots in Liverpool following the sinking of the Lusitania. On 13 May The Times stirred matters further by carrying a warning about ‘the coming German aerial attack on London’, and riots spread to the streets of the Capital. [3] By the time that the War Council had been assembled on 14 May, the shell shortage crisis had been headlined in the press and Colonel Repington’s report in The Times shook the nation.

The Secret Elite, of course, knew all about the shell crisis well in advance of the public declaration. [4] Milner himself had been forewarned of the report some three days before, and wrote to his life-long friend Harry Birchenough, an inner-circle member of the Secret Elite, [5] that he had had his fill of ‘the tomfoolery of politicians’ and added that ‘we have not much more time to use in fumbling’. [6] Admiral Fisher resigned his post as first Sea Lord on 15 May in disgust at the naval attack on the Dardanelles and the Conservative party homed in on this as a reason to force change on the Prime Minister. Asquith was in a deep depression. He later told Venetia that they were the most miserable days of his life. [7] It was under these constraints that he had to face the fact that the Secret Elite demanded change.

Milner believed that the answer lay in the proper selection of men for key posts in government. [8] His men. For the time being Asquith survived the cull because he epitomised the preservation of national unity. Removing him from the premiership in May 1915 would have required time to manipulate public opinion and time was of the essence. Decisions were clearly taken behind closed doors. The given story is that on 17 May, the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, whom Lloyd George considered a personal friend, [9] met with him at the Treasury, away from the glare of Parliament, to agree their strategy. Thereafter, Lloyd George went to 10 Downing Street to see Asquith in private and presented the arguments for a coalition government. The option that Asquith might resign was never publicly voiced, but given his state of mind over Venetia it surely must have been considered.

 Conservative Party leader, Andrew Bonar Law

Bonar Law was then brought by Lloyd George to the Cabinet Room to talk directly to the Prime Minister. We are told that within fifteen short minutes Asquith had agreed to put an end to ten years of Liberal government and embrace a coalition with the Conservatives. He had no option. Greater men than he had decided on the need for change. While the speed of his capitulation has long raised comment, Asquith had always been part of the establishment cabal. The protagonists – they could hardly be deemed conspirators – went through a charade of sending and replying to official letters in which Bonar Law suggested ‘some change in the constitution of the government…if we are to retain a sufficient measure of public confidence to conduct the war to a successful conclusion’. [10] Thus Asquith retained his dignity by appearing to invite the Conservative leader to ‘join forces in a joint administration’. His words appeared magnanimous. He extended the invitation to join a Cabinet which represented ‘all parties of the State’ including the leaders of the Irish and Labour Parties. [11]

On 19 May he explained his intentions in the House of Commons: ‘Steps are in contemplation which involve the reconstruction of the Government on a broader, personal and political basis.’ He then clarified three points: ‘The first is, that any change that takes place will not affect the offices of the Head of the Government or of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs….The second is, that there is absolutely no change of any kind in contemplation in the policy of the country in regard to the continued prosecution of the War with every possible energy and by means of every available resource. The third and last point …  is this: Any reconstruction that may be made will be for the purposes of the War alone…’ [12]

Bold words, but the political horse-trading for ministries and high office came at the insistence of the Secret Elite. The government had been reshuffled but wholesale change was not an option. For a start, Asquith and Sir Edward Grey remained in post and, distressed though he was by Venetia’s stunning decision, the Prime Minister managed to negotiate many of his own men into the most important offices.

women working in shell production

Lloyd George was ‘temporarily’ moved to lead a Ministry of Munitions with virtually unfettered powers to control and organise production. Kitchener, untouchable, remained at the War Office. Churchill was thrown to the wolves. His removal from the Admiralty had been the one absolute condition laid down by Bonar Law. The man who had reorganised the British Army from 1906-11, Richard Haldane, was sacrificed to pubic perception that he was too ‘pro-German’.

Churchill’s replacement was Arthur Balfour, a key member of the Secret Elite’s inner circle. [13] Andrew Bonar Law was made Secretary of State for the Colonies. Few realised the importance of the changes that took place in the lower profile ranks of government. If the clouds which had enveloped Asquith appeared to shift towards a bluer, more placid sky, his long-term outlook in government was darkened by an influx of Milner’s friends and associates from within the ranks of the Secret Elite.

In their first step towards taking over complete, undemocratic control of the British government, the Secret Elite moved other political place men into position. Lord Lansdowne was given a Cabinet post without portfolio. Lord Curzon became Privy Seal. Austen Chamberlain got the India Office, Lord Selborne, the Presidency of the Board of Agriculture. Walter Long the Presidency of the Local Government Board. Sir Edward Carson became the highest law officer in the land as Attorney General. F E Smith was installed as Carson’s second in command in the post of Solicitor General. Lord Robert Cecil became Under-Secretary in the Foreign Office and Arthur Steel-Maitland Under Secretary at the Colonial Office. [14] To a man, each was identified by Professor Quigley as intimately linked to the Secret Elite. Given that Lloyd George had taken overall responsibility for munitions, the most high profile of posts, and the burning issue in the public mind, the Secret Elite emerged from the 1915 reshuffle with its agents in control of much of the war production in Britain. Munitions, shipping, engineering, the railways, farming and local government were in their hands.

Viscount Alfred MilnerMilner took no part in the reconstructed government. He would not be shackled by collective responsibility. Asquith had not been swept away by the confluence of national scandals and personal distress, and Milner felt that the re-shuffling of ministerial places was no answer to either the leadership problem or the determined control needed to win the war and promote the dominance of English values. [15] What had the Prime Minister insisted in Parliament? ‘ No change in Policy.’ That just would not do. Milner’s men contemptuously called Asquith ‘Squiffy’, a reference to his frequent drinking, and resented the fact that he had denied their leader any place in the central direction of war. [16]

Milner himself expressed no such sentiment. He knew that the policies which the Secret Elite were determined to put in place would be unpopular. Asquith still had a role to play fronting a government which could more easily introduce the vital changes which the Secret Elite wanted. One of his key supporters, F S Oliver, wrote, ‘Squiff and Squiffery must go “Liberalism” in the worst sense of that vile word…is dead – dead – dead. Squiff was due to be buried under quicklime (along with all his horrid sort) [17] Yes, Liberalism was dead, but it didn’t know it. By staying out of government Milner was free to attack the last vestiges of laissez faire, and his main objective was to persuade the nation that compulsory conscription was essential for victory. How else could the war effort be controlled? How else could the country retain the engineers and skilled workforce which made the weapons of war?

But first the munitions debacle had to be solved. Lloyd George was tasked with the first and Milner shouldered responsibility for the second. Whether Asquith approved or not, greater changes were on the way. His ‘National Government’ was not a solution; it was simply a stepping stone towards a complete take-over by the Secret Elite.

[1] Annabel Venning, The Priapic PM who wrote Love Letters to his Mistress as he sent a Generation to die in the Trenches, Daily Mail, 27 April, 2012.
[2]  Michael and Eleanor Brock, HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, pp. 551-2.
[3]  The Times, 13 May 1915.
[4]  A M Gollin, Proconsul In Politics, p. 257.
[5]  Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 313.
[6]  Gollin, Proconsul,  p. 254.
[7]  Brock, Letters,  p. 596.
[8]  Gollin, Proconsul, p. 256.
[9] David Lloyd George, War Memoirs of David Lloyd George, vol. 1, p. 135.
[10] Bonar Law to Asquith, 17 May 1915.
[11] The Great War, The Illustrated History of the First World War, edited by Wilson and Hammerton, vol. 5, pp. 67-8.
[12] Hansard House of Commons Debate 19 May 1915, vol 71 cc2392-3.
[13] Quigley,  The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 312.
[14] Ibid., p. 141.
[15] Gollin, Proconsul, p. 266.
[16] Ibid., p. 273.
[17] Amery Papers, Oliver to Amery, 23 July 1915.