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Prime Ministers in the First World War

Winston Churchill in 1916 with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. A formally posed group photograph.
Public image: Winston Churchill,1916, with the Royal Scots Fusiliers at Ploegsteert on the French-Belgian border.

The centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War has encouraged a variety of reflections. To previous generations, the role played by their prime ministers would have been amongst the first items worthy of comment. In a less hierarchical age priorities have changed: but prime ministerial responses to the Great War are, in fact, crucial to how we remember today in some quite unexpected ways.

'Great War generation'

For each of the 23 years between May 1940 and October 1963 men who had fought in the First World War held the office of Prime Minister. By contrast, Second World War veterans held the office for a mere seven years. Four British Prime Ministers saw active service in the Great War: Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan. Churchill’s road to the front was unique: he began the War in the Cabinet; after he resigned in the wake of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, he wangled his way into the command of a battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1916; he returned to senior political office in 1917.

Attlee, Macmillan and Eden were part of the more conventional ‘Great War generation’, men on who fell the burden of frontline fighting. All three volunteered. All three served as infantry officers, Attlee with the East Lancashire Regiment, Eden with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and Harold Macmillan with the Grenadier Guards.

War would later force the four men to work together. In May 1940 Churchill formed his wartime coalition government: Attlee entered the War Cabinet and, in February 1942, became Deputy Prime Minister. Eden became Foreign Secretary in December 1940. Macmillan entered the Cabinet as British Minister Resident in the Mediterranean at the end of 1942. Their co-habitation lasted until Attlee broke up the coalition following the defeat of Germany in May 1945.

The Great War prime ministers do not appear, at first sight, to have formed any cohesive identity. Most obviously they adhered to different political parties. The Great War bound its prime ministers together primarily in their rejection of attempts to capsize British politics and society. Attlee wrote in the 1930s that war was the ‘one overwhelming issue which may affect a union of people who differ widely in their conceptions of society but are united in the resolve to defend the particular society to which they belong.’

Strengthened faith in Britain

They were the ‘regulars’ who emerged from the War with their faith in British society, British institutions, British people, not only intact but also strengthened. ‘My war ended one June day in 1919,’ Eden wrote, ‘and I emerged tempered by my experience, but with my illusions intact, neither shattered nor cynical.’ They did not fit Sigmund Neumann’s inter-war characterisation of the ‘great war generation’ as ‘irregulars’, articulate, maladjusted, war veterans attracted to extremist politics. Hitler in Germany, and his pale English shadow, Oswald Mosley, celebrated the War for destroying the link between classes and generations. The regulars, on the other hand, deliberately pushed solidarity into the foreground.

Successful British politicians mythologized the volunteers of 1914 and 1915 as the epitome of a virile nation. The volunteer army of Loos and Gallipoli loomed more important than the conscript army of Passchendaele. But they did not overstate their case. Politicians of the Great War generation were happy to go by their military ranks, Major Attlee, Major Eden, Captain Macmillan, on the campaign trail.

However, by-elections at the very start of their careers had demonstrated the practical limits of such rhetoric. In March 1921, for instance, there had been a straightforward ‘war hero’ election in East Woolwich: Captain Robert Gee, VC defeated the future Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. MacDonald’s anti-war stance had forced him to resign as Chairman of the Labour Party and had exposed him to sustained vilification. Gee, despite his rank and decorations, was far from being ‘one of us’: he had completed a 22 year term in the Army as a private before the War. His commission was won for battlefield bravery. He was the member of a right-wing working class organization. As a political tactic the fetishization of heroic war service was likely to benefit the ‘irregulars’ not the ‘regulars’.

Only rarely, and in private, did the veterans allow themselves to snipe at non-combatants like Attlee’s successor, Hugh Gaitskell, whom Macmillan described in his diary as a ‘contemptible creature – a cold-blooded, Wykehamist intellectual and embusqué.

‘Poor Mr Gaitskell,’ he remarked near Armistice Day, ‘always seems a little conscious on these occasions that he had no medals.’ Macmillan, on the other hand, could point to a distinguished service record during which he was seriously wounded on three occasions. When the Opposition mocked him for his Edwardian unflappability he could riposte in a letter that unflappability was a virtue rather than a vice: ‘I learned that in early youth under fire on the battlefield. Unfortunately, for reasons which I wholly understand this experience was not vouchsafed to Mr Gaitskell, Mr Wilson, Mr Brown, Mr Jay and the other leading members of the Labour front bench.’

First-hand accounts

The most successful memorial of the era was not a prime ministerial memoir but a stage musical. Whilst Harold Macmillan was still Prime Minister, in March 1963, Oh! What a Lovely War opened at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It soon transferred to the West End; Richard Attenborough’s film version was released in 1969. Lovely War’s originality was to take first-hand accounts and combine them with contemporary songs. The jaunty tone of the songs clashed shockingly with the underlying tale of millions slaughtered as the dupes in a class war. One early scene set during the battle of Loos in 1915 – the battle in which Harold Macmillan first saw combat – transmogrified the story of the war from one of national virtue that Macmillan, Eden and Attlee preferred to tell, into a condemnation of the privately educated elite that they represented.

If the ruling class was to be forgiven, less scathing commentators argued, it was only on the grounds that Macmillan had put forward in 1966. Macmillan had claimed ‘an obligation to make some decent use of life that had been spared to us.’ He had ‘learnt for the first time to understand, talk with, and feel at home with a whole class of men.’ This sense of public service and sympathy for the plight of the working man was a legacy of the war. Harold Macmillan and his political contemporaries, ‘were permanently marked by the war,’ remarked the historian F. S. L. Lyons, ‘but for the public in Britain this was not all loss, for they carried with them into politics something of the truth which Owen thought must die untold – “the pity of war, the pity of war distilled.”’

The politicians had been hoist upon their own petard. Those who admired them, as well as those who execrated them, did so, because they appeared true to Owen’s creed. The Great War Prime Ministers did have acquaintances whose zest had been destroyed by the War: but they themselves were exactly the ambitious, hard-working, pragmatic, types who were always attracted to politics. For them the War was the ‘good war’ that confirmed them in their course. By the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, it was becoming natural to judge politicians against the yardstick of poets and artists. Only those who expressed similar sentiments had a legitimate voice. This trend has only intensified over the past fifty years. It is important to remember the actual experience and thoughts of those who reached the premiership rather than to ascribe views and feelings that did not exist.

Copyright Simon Ball. This article was produced as part of the No10 Guest Historian series, coordinated by History & Policy.

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