Solicitors at War: David Lloyd George (1863-1945): “The Man Who Won The War”

In this blog, I continue my annual Armistice Day series about UK solicitors and their contribution to the World Wars. Last year was Paddy Mayne, Commander of the SAS in World War II. This year, we go back to World War I and consider David Lloyd George, the “Welsh Wizard” and the “Man Who Won The War”. The only solicitor to date to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. 

David Lloyd George was and remains an extremely controversial figure. He has been described as the most important UK politician of the 20th century. This is not the place for a complete assessment of his career or life and times – you will have to settle for a brief whirl through his legal and wartime careers here. If Lloyd George had died in late 1918 when he contracted the Spanish Flu, instead of recovering, then he would presumably have been buried next to Lord Nelson in Westminster Abbey, having literally saved the nation. 

Born to a modest farming family in 1863 as David George, his father died when he was one year old, and he was brought up by his mother and uncle, Richard Lloyd. It was from Richard that he took the name “Lloyd George”. His uncle encouraged his interests in law and politics. Lloyd George became a solicitor in 1884 and set up his own practice in his uncle’s back room a year later. A lesson to anyone looking at the consultant solicitors’ model of working for yourself, perhaps? The business quickly grew to encompass new offices and partners. 

In 1888, religion, politics and law collided when he won the Llanfrothen Burial Case, a case involving what we would probably nowadays refer to as ‘human rights’. The case is worth a blog in its own right, as is much else in Lloyd George’s remarkable life, but suffice it to say that winning it catapulted him to national prominence. The next year, 1889, he became the Liberal MP for Caernarfon, which he remained until 1945. His rise after that was meteoric. 

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Lloyd George was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Prime Minister Asquith’s government. Lloyd George’s energetic and inspired performance as Minister of Munitions (1915) and Secretary of State For War (1916) outshone Asquith’s. The last straw came for Asquith with the “Shell Crisis” in 1915, where the British Army ran perilously short of artillery shells. Asquith was deposed, and Lloyd George became Prime Minister. From there, the war effort moved into a different gear. 

The Shell Crisis was solved, and under his leadership, Britain and its empire were put on a modern industrial war footing, organising the production of weapons, munitions, aircraft, tanks, and ships. Under his direction, virtually the entire Allied war effort was financed. He was instrumental in setting up the convoy system in April 1917, which defeated the U-Boats and stopped the nation starving. In turn, this meant that the Royal Navy could blockade Imperial Germany and strangle German trade and supplies. Mass conscription and, later, rationing were introduced, both extremely effectively. Beyond this, Lloyd George was also able to keep the nation unified at an incredibly difficult time while it was beset with labour disputes, shortages, and war in Ireland. 

Lloyd George was pragmatic and flexible. He put the best people in positions of power – for example, he brought Churchill back into government in 1917. The vast number of committees and organisations that he created were run dynamically, aggressively, and imaginatively. They were seen as so successful that most of them were simply replicated when World War Two began. Compare this to the Imperial German High Command of World War I, which was inflexible, bureaucratic, and overseen by two generals, Von Hindenberg and Ludendorff. Ludendorff unsurprisingly suffered a nervous breakdown under the strain in 1916, but amazingly stayed in his job. After victory in November 1918, Lloyd George was instrumental in negotiating the Treaty of Versailles – how successful this was has endlessly been debated by historians, of course. 

Why, then, do we not revere Lloyd George, as we do Churchill? Here are a few reasons. 

Lloyd George’s post-war career as Prime Minister from 1918 to 1922 was scarred by financial scandals and foreign policy disasters. He sold knighthoods, honours, and peerages for millions of pounds and basically kept the money – it would be hard to see the SRA approving of that nowadays. There were several foreign policy disasters, including promising to bring the nations of the British Empire into a new war with Turkey – without consulting them. Most lamentable of all was his very public ‘bromance’ in 1936 with none other than Adolf Hitler. It was Hitler who said he was pleased to meet “the man who won the war”. Lloyd George, in turn, called Hitler “the greatest living German”. 

This last part of Lloyd George’s later career is particularly contradictory and frankly quite odd. His post-war government of 1918 to 1922 (despite the corruption!) also had massive genuine achievements in social reform in health, education, labour, housing, votes for women, and women’s rights, amongst other things. And by 1939, Lloyd George, like so many others, had finally seen the reality of Hitler, even if it took another world war for him to do it. 

The very last service, often overlooked, that Lloyd George rendered Britain was a powerful speech in the House of Commons in 1940 during the “Norway Debate” – a speech that helped get Winston Churchill appointed as Prime Minister. 

Posted by Michael Large

Michael is a specialist property litigator with nearly twenty years of experience in getting results for his clients, working for a number of major law firms, and was described as “practical and efficient” by the Legal 500 in 2020.

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