How the Great War Might Have Gone Otherwise,
by Gwydion M. Williams
Part One describes the outbreak of the 1914 war occurring almost exactly as it did in our world. The significant difference is that Lloyd George had been forced to resign in 1912 during the Marconi scandal. Being a back-bencher during the crisis, he successfully prevented the Liberal Party from going to war over Belgium. Asquith then split the party and remained Prime Minister, but in a wartime coalition with the Tories.
As leader of the majority anti-war faction of the Liberal Party, Lloyd George chose to avoid confrontation when the war actually began. He left it to others, including Labour Party leaders Kier Hardy and Ramsey Macdonald speak against the war, as they would undoubtedly have done even if Lloyd George had been pro-war. The case of Sir Roger Casement was different: it was later discovered that Lloyd George had helped and encouraged Casement in his efforts to remind the public of the appalling things that had been done in the Congo Free State under the authority of the Belgian king: natives having their hands cut off for failing to collect enough rubber to feed the colonial project. The existence of a large anti-War British opposition prevented Casement from going into alliance with hard-line Irish Nationalists, which he had been considering.
The war was initially popular, with hopes for a quick victory. But then came the German breakthrough into France, stopped only by the horrific Battle of the Marne. Britons were shocked by news of killing on a wholly new scale, with a quarter of a million casualties on each side. Britain’s share was relatively light, 13,000 casualties including 1,700 dead. But this was profoundly different from the colonial wars that the British public were used to – a mere 47 dead from the British-Egyptian force that secured the Sudan at the Battle of Omdurman, for instance.
This was war of a new sort. And it was gloomily predicted that a decisive result would cost the lives of vast numbers of young men, even if it ended with a British victory. Nor did it seem glorious: some radical and anarchist magazines carried horrific pictures of young soldiers mutilated by modern weapons, which circulated illegally but widely. Lloyd George was suspected of being behind this: but if so, he carried the secret to his grave. Several people later came forward claiming to have been involved in this “Black Propaganda” operation, but none of them were very credible.
On the eastern front, the Battle of Tannenberg had happened a few days earlier and had been less bloody than the Marne. No more than 50,000 dead, though this was bigger than the size of entire armies in earlier wars. But that had been a decisive Germany victory, and showed that British hopes for the effectiveness of the ‘Russian Steamroller’ had been exaggerated. Suddenly there were fears that this might be a long and costly war.
After Tannenberg in late August and the Marne in early September, Lloyd George decided that this was his moment. He had kept very nearly silent during the first weeks of the war, saying that he devoutly hoped and prayed that the war would not be as bad as he feared. But after the Marne, he came forward again, saying that the actual war had proved even worse. Many Liberals followed him on this, calling it a “Tory War”, even though it had been begun by a Liberal Prime Minister who was still leader of a wartime coalition.
Lloyd George took the sensible line that peace would be acceptable if Germany and Austria-Hungary would return to their own borders. The war could indeed be over by Christmas, but only with a peace treaty that put things back the way they were in July 1914. His predictions for an alternative were horrific, suggesting the war might last till 1917, 1918 or even 1919. That it might end with many millions dead and millions more hardened and brutalised. Historians have been reluctant to accept that a real war could have lasted so long or been so bloody. But men who experienced the horrific ‘Trench Warfare’ that happened after the Marne generally agree that it would have been dreadful. That gains of even a few miles were very hard to achieve, so a decisive victory might have been almost impossible.
Lloyd George also tackled the wider issues of the war. If Germany was thinking of world domination, why had they not attacked Russia in 1905, when Britain would have approved? And when many of the non-Russian subjects of the Empire might have seen it as a liberation? He mocked the idea floated by a few polemicists for a US audience, that it was a war for democracy against German autocracy. Voting in the British Isles had not included a majority of adult males until the 1880s. It still excluded four in ten men, as well as all women and most of the non-white subjects of the Empire. Germany had the same system as the USA and France, where all adult males could vote.
Lloyd George was also shrewd enough to attack some of the absurd populist fears and undermine them by ridicule. He said, “people speak of what a man would do if he saw a German or ‘Hun’ trying to rape his sister. Now I’m not a pacifist, if such a thing occurred I would have no scruples about using violence to defend her, including shoving a bayonet up the rapist’s arse if the dispositions were convenient. But then supposing that by one means or another I had seen the assailant off, should I then go rape the German’s sister by way of compensation? Surely not!”
This neat little speech was the subject of many cartoons and a lot of vulgar jokes, but also the point got through. Support for the war began to fade among ordinary Britons.
October brought further bad news for the Allies. Austria-Hungary defeated Serbia at the Battle of Drina, and by the end of October had captured the Serbian capital Belgrade. This was followed by another bombshell – the publication in Britain of a number of alleged secret government documents in a small suffragette newspaper called the Women’s Dreadnought. These suggested that a clique of ministers in Britain’s Liberal government had been plotting for years with France to fight a war very much like the one that was now happening. Appalling if true, but was it true? Several ministers and former ministers now opposed to the war insisted that they had known of no such agreements. Lloyd George himself made a point of saying that it was entirely new to him, if indeed the documents were genuine.
Then came the bombshell. Viscount Haldane, who had followed Asquith into coalition when the Liberals split and had remained Lord Chancellor, suddenly resigned. Moving quietly and decisively to a back-bench position intermediate between his former Liberal faction and that of Lloyd George, and with the eyes of the whole House and the entire nation upon him, he made the most important speech of his entire career. Speaking calmly but with clear signs of sorrow and shame, he admitted that the published documents were totally accurate. He had been Secretary of State for War – effectively Army Minister – during the years in question. With many expressions of regret, he admitted that arrangements had indeed been made behind the backs of most of the cabinet. He said also that he had never expected a war of the sort that was now emerging.
Though Viscount Haldane’s speech did not mention the death in a minor skirmish of his talented nephew J. B. S. Haldane, it was undoubtedly a factor. One random shot by some unknown German soldier on a relatively quiet section of the Western Front might have been the second decisive moment in changing history, after the matter of the Marconi Scandal. A German historian later unearthed a war diary in which a sniper called Remarque reported hitting a British lieutenant at about the right time and place, but this remains speculative. The man himself was killed in action a few days later, so details could not be checked.
Given private indications that Viscount Haldane had taken the death of his nephew very badly, it was suggested at the time that it had been Viscount Haldane who leaked the damaging document to the Women’s Dreadnought. He always denied this. Most who knew him believed him. The Chesterton brothers called him “honest though monstrously mistaken”, and asserted that Lloyd George was the “hidden hand” behind the leak of the documents. This has never been either proved or disproved, though those who knew him did privately say that “dirty deals” were part of his approach to politics, including selling knighthoods and seats in the House of Lords. (Of course this was not just a way of raising cash: letting the system become so blatant had the long-term effect of making it look ridiculous, which may have been the intention.)
Lloyd George himself insisted that he could not have leaked what he had never been told about. (Had it been otherwise, it would have been hard for him to explain why he kept silent until out of office and remained silent until the opportune moment.) Several individuals in a position to know later insisted that he was told. He was undeniably involved in the ruinous “Dreadnaught Race”, the wasteful production of vast warships that turned out to be of no real use for either war or peace.
One person who undoubtedly knew the real identity of Hidden Hand was Sylvia Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Dreadnought and the leading spirit within it. She had asserted at the time that she had received the documents through her letter-box with no indication of the source. After her tragic death from typhoid in China during the Great Far Eastern War, her co-workers felt free to say that Sylvia Pankhurst had privately told them she’d been given them by “someone whom we can trust in this particular matter”, but had refused to say more. This is definitely consistent with Lloyd George, but not only with Lloyd George. Every Liberal who had sided with Lloyd George against the war had an interest in the matter. And Sylvia Pankhurst’s surviving letters and unpublished papers cast no light on the matter –she probably never wrote down anything incriminating on this crucial matter.
The question of who leaked and why is ultimately trivial. What counted was strong evidence that Asquith had taken Britain into the war as part of secret and dirty Imperial politics aimed at ending Germany’s legitimate success in World Trade. That any supposed moral issue had been merely smokescreen for a plot that existed regardless of what Germany might do. It was asserted – and much later confirmed to be true – that there had been secret treaties sharing out the expected plunder from a successful war.
After all these disturbing revelations, the British public began to doubt whether this was a war they should be fighting. There was a dramatic fall-off in volunteers. Existing volunteers could not back out, but many who had previously been enthusiastic were now full of doubt. And there were suspicous outbreaks of clumsyness and incompetence, with formations falling into disorder during simple manouvres and many recruits scoring no hits at all during rifle practice. Also the “White Feather” campaign against men not in uniform died away, though not before several incidents of disorder when anti-war women joined in to support the men. Sometimes there were vulgar suggestions as to where the war-mongering ladies might stick their feather. Much more effective was the rival “bloody gloves” campaign, with women flinging white cotton gloves stained with red at known war supporters. Mostly the red was red ink or beetroot juice, but a variety of substances were used, including menstrual blood and even the blood of war wounded sent home to recover. In this matter also, the “hidden hand” of the devious and clever Lloyd George was suspected and accused, but never proven.
The Tories in 1914 were mostly keen on a war, so a failure by Asquith to bring the Liberal Party along with him would not have prevented Britain joining the war. But a division of opinion between the two traditional governing parties would have provided a much more solid basis for an early peace movement.
My belief is that the best hope of peace would have been Lloyd George, who unfortunately jumped the wrong way when the time came. Lloyd George kept the war going when it might have ended as a British defeat. I don’t view him as an admirable character, and even his opposition to the Boer War ignored the welfare of the black majority. But he did also introduce the basics of welfare in Britain, and was good at figuring out the overall logic of events.
In history as it actually happened, Lloyd George survived the Marconi scandal of 1912, retaining his post as Chancellor of the Exchequer until he moved to be Minister of Munitions in 1915. He had denied owning shares in “the company”, which was true for British Marconi, but not for US Marconi, a wholly owned subsidiary. No one noticed the trickery over the two Marconi companies until 1913, when it came out during a trial for libel when a French newspaper mistakenly accused him of buying shares in British Marconi. By that time, public interest had faded. He was one of several Liberal Ministers to feel qualms about starting the war, but he never the less did vote for it. Out of office, Lloyd George might have been a much more powerful, successful and unscrupulous opponent of the war than those who actually opposed it in Britain
I imagine an alternative history in which someone noticing the trick with the two Marconi companies much earlier than actually happened, and Lloyd George lost office. I also have the revelation made public by ‘the Chesterton brothers’ – novelist G K Chesterton and his brother Charles Chesterton, who in 1912 had a magazine called The Eye-Witness.
Sir Roger Casement had an excellent reputation in Britain in 1914, having exposed colonial abuses by foreigners in the “Congo Free State” and in Peru. He chose however to class the war as first “The Crime Against Ireland” and then “The Crime Against Europe”. Despairing of British intentions, he went into alliance with hard-line Irish Nationalists – at that time a fairly minor force – and laid much of the groundwork for what became the Easter Rising of 1916. But if Lloyd George had been there as leader of a substantial anti-war party, he might have acted otherwise and had more influence in Britain.
The “Battle of the Marne” is known to us as the First Battle of the Marne: there was a second battle there in 1918. It was otherwise just as described, though German casulaties might have been “only” 220,000.
What I have Lloyd George say about the electoral franchise is entirely true. The 1832 Reform Act standardised the electorate at one-sixth of the adult male population, which actually reduced the number of voters in the handful of constituencies that had traditionally had low property qualifications. The 1867 Reform Act extended the franchise somewhat, and the 1884 Reform Act extended it to 60% of adult males. Probably more important was the Secret Ballot Act of 1872, which ended the former system of everyone voting in public. Public voting made the vote wide open both to bribery and to intimidation by the rich – especially tenant farmers scared of being evicted by the land-owner. The effect was shown in the election of 1874, the first with a secret ballot, in which the Irish Home Rule League came from nowhere to win 60 seats at Westminster.
Germany in 1914 had votes for all adult males, something that Britain only acquired in the 1918 reform, which also gave votes to women over 30. Germany also had a system of unequal voting in Prussia, which was the former Kingdom of Prussia and remained a lower tier of government in the German Empire. But at a national level, Germany was more democratic than Britain.
The “Hun raping your sister” argument was used and evidently impressed the ignorant, however absurd it might seem to the educated. The counter-argument is my own invention, but is the sort of thing Lloyd George might have come up with.
Events in Serbia follow real history, with Belgrade captured by Austro-Hungarian forces. This might seem to meet their original desire for vengeance for the death of the Archduke – but by then the quarrel had got much bigger.
Sylvia Pankhurst was one of two notable daughters of pioneering suffragette Emily Pankhurst. She became much more radical than her mother or her sister Christabel. She had broken with them before the war and was co-founder of the Women’s Dreadnought, which first appeared in March 1914. She strongly opposed the war, whereas her mother and sister supported it. She was later involved in the founding of the British Communist Party, but soon left to form a small left-wing group that lasted till 1924. She was a notable anti-Fascist and became a strong supporter of Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia. She died there in 1960. In my alternate history, she would have been the logical person for an anti-war establishment figure to leak to.
Viscount Haldane as Secretary of State for War was indeed deeply involved in pre-war planning for the war. He also seems to me to have been the most likely member of the warmongering clique to have had second thoughts. In actual history, he was forced from office by improbably accusations of pro-German sympathies. But he did advocate compromise during the Irish War of Independence, and he switched from Liberal to Labour in 1923.
In actual history, Viscount Haldane’s nephew J. B. S. Haldane fought in the war but survived. He became a noted geneticist and evolutionary biologist, a career which began before 1914, with three years as a Fellow of New College, Oxford. He also later joined the British Communist Party. His popularisations of science were highly influential, and he wrote an excellent work of fiction for children called My Friend Mr Leakey and a thriller novella, The Gold Makers. He also began but did not complete a much more interesting story called The Man with Two Memories, about an earthling of our time who has somehow picked up the memories of a long-dead alien from a utopian planet. His sister Naomi Mitchison achieved equivalent fame as a novelist and was also very left-wing. Her 1962 science fiction novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman has an attitude towards sex and female independence that anticipated “New Wave Science Fiction”, generally credited to Michael Moorcock’s editorship of the English magazine New Worlds from 1964. (But she was also a friend of J R R Tolkien – life is never simple.)
The idea of J. B. S. Haldane being shot by “a sniper called Remarque” occurred to me while I was revising the main text. I’d already described it has happening on “a relatively quiet section of the Western Front”, which then reminded me of Erich Remarque’s famous novel All Quiet on the Western Front. (Originally “Im Westen nichts Neues”, literally “in West no news”, so the link was thanks to a bright idea by the English translator.) I also suspected and soon confirmed that Remarque the novelist was too young to have served in 1914, joining the war when it is well advanced, just like his protagonist. But there must have been other German soldiers called Remarque.
As for who knew what and when they knew, this is uncertain. As I have the Alternate Historian say, Lloyd George was involved in the Dreadnaught race, which ignored the fact that the German fleet was relatively small compared to other European powers and much weaker than the British fleet. When he was told about the covert plans for a “preventative war” against Germany is uncertain: perhaps not before his fall in the Marconi scandal in this Alternate History, or possibly not at all. So I leave it uncertain. The existence of secret preparations is real enough, as was the open propagation of the idea that Germany was becoming a mortal threat just by its success in world trade and without any need for Germany to fight a war.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams
This first appeared in Past Historic, the magazine of the Mensa History Group
 My main guide is the Wiki, especially [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_World_War_I]. I have read a lot more about both world wars, but did not have the books to hand. Besides, this is Alternate History.
 Published in 1976 but currently out of print