Total War

Total War

Total war was introduced to Britain in May 1915 and was to last until the end of the war in November 1918. Total War put the whole country on a compulsory war footing with the government controlling it.

When war was declared in August 1914, a certain naivety enveloped the whole country. Many did believe that the war would be over by Christmas 1914 - hence the rush by young men to volunteer before the 'fun' ended. This whole belief that the war would be a short and sharp affair with Germany being defeated ended with the Battle of the Marne and the horrors of trench warfare that followed it. With so many men dying at the front - and with the horrors of trench warfare becoming known back in Britain by men returning on leave - the volunteers started to dry up. The May 1915 shell crisis showed that the country was not on a full war footing and with talk of the 'big push' being made with due frequency, the men on the front line had to be suitably equipped. With this in mind, the government introduced 'total war'.

In 1915, the war was not going well for the Allies. The predicted easy victory over the 'Hun' never materialised and even politicians such as David Lloyd George believed that victory was not guaranteed. Even as late as November 1916, Lloyd George told Colonel Maurice Hankey, the secretary to the cabinet's War Committee "We are going to lose this war".

The Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, was seen by many as not being up for the task of leading the country in war. He responded to a crisis by setting up a committee - one to deal with the Dardanelles, one to deal with administration etc - but none of these committees were given sufficient powers to be effective. Final decisions rested with the Cabinet with Lord Kitchener being given a great deal of authority within it. As Secretary of War, Kitchener wielded much power even if a contemporary saw him "as an ageing ignorant man armed only with a giant's reputation".

The one man who seemed to want a more vigourous approach within the government was David Lloyd George. He was a successful Minister of Munitions (May 1915 to June 1916) in the Cabinet and after Kitchener's death, he was appointed Secretary of War. Lloyd George was indeed an active politician able to grasp a problem and sort it out. There were many who rated him highly - but there was also a large group of influential politicians who distrusted him as they forever questioned his motives. "He lacks the one thing needful - he does not inspire trust." (Asquith in a letter to Arthur Bonar Law, leader of the Conservatives). Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, was used as a go-between to persuade Asquith to bring Lloyd George into the War Office.

Lloyd George wanted an immediate change to the War Office. He wanted it to be a much smaller unit (a War Cabinet) with him chairing it but with Asquith as the nominal head of it. Lloyd George believed that this would make the War Office a much more effective unit - and it would also allow him to bypass Sir William Robertson, Chief of the General Staff, who worked independently of Lloyd George and was not a supporter of him. Lloyd George's plan for a War Cabinet was rejected by Asquith on a number of occasions and Lloyd George resigned from the government. The loss of Lloyd George was not well received by MP's in both the Liberal and Conservative parties who recognised his ability and put the issue of trust to one side. They made their views clear to Asquith who resigned in response to their criticisms. The king asked Bonar Law to form a government (December 5th 1916) but he could not get sufficient support. On December 6th, the king asked Lloyd George to form a government and he succeeded where Bonar Law had failed. 

Lloyd George immediately formed his War Cabinet. In the first 235 days of its existence, the War Cabinet met 200 times. The cabinet included Lord Curzon, Bonar Law and Arthur Henderson (Labour). This Cabinet took total responsibility for the war and on three occasions it became the Imperial War Cabinet when prime ministers from the Dominions attended it. The structure of it gave it a vigour previously lacking. Highly able young men were appointed to collect and collate data and to bypass slow moving government departments. These men got nicknamed 'the garden suburb' because they lived in huts at the end of gardens near to Downing Street. They were not liked by die-hard civil servants because they bypassed them. However, the men from the 'garden suburb' gave Lloyd George the one thing that Asquith seemingly never had - up-to-date, meaningful statistics. The work of Joseph Davies proved invaluable. He provided the War Cabinet with data on merchant ships being sunk and farm production in the UK - an issue the War Cabinet had to address if the country was not to be starved into defeat.

DORA had already given the government of the day immense power over the people of Britain. This had led to disputes with the trade unions but one way or another, these disputes were resolved. Strikes, though outlawed for the duration of the war, did occur. In many areas the government took control of vital industries. At the start of the war, railways had been taken over by the government; in December 1916, the coalfields of South Wales were also taken under the government's wing. The government created 'national factories' to produce munitions - by the end of the war there were 218 of them. This was to ensure that a munitions shortage never occurred again. In 1916, in an effort to protect those who worked in munitions, the National Insurance Act was extended to them and to people who worked in industries closely linked to munitions. Nurseries were built in or near factories to help the many thousands of mothers who joined the workforce of factories. 

In May 1916, all men aged between 18 and 41 were eligible for conscription - even married men who had been exempt in the January 1916 Conscription Act. 

In 1918, rationing was introduced for certain foods (butter, eggs, sugar and meat). In April 1918, the government took over flour mills. The government also introduced powers that allowed it to take over land that was not being farmed properly or simply not being cultivated if it had farming potential. Two million acres of rough land was ploughed up and cultivated for grain crops. 

To finance the war, the government also extended tax. The 1913 budget allowed for the spending of 200 million. In 1918, the figure stood at 2,579 million. Income tax was raised from 1s 8d in the to 6s in the (24 shillings in the ); surtax was paid on incomes of 2,000 reduced from 5,000. What were classed as 'excess profits' were taxed at 80%.  

There can be little doubt that the role of Lloyd George from 1916 to 1918 was vital and in many senses mirrored that of Winston Churchill from 1940 to 1945. The one main difference is that Lloyd George never built up a strong relationship with the senior military figures of the day. That aside, he has to be credited with the turnaround with the way the war was run. Total war meant that the government was involved in nearly every aspect of life in Britain - however, it was to bring success in the war. 


MLA Citation/Reference

"Total War". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2011. Web.






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