Taking Stock – 1915/16

There are three major factors which need to be noted before moving on from 1916.

The first of these was the introduction of a large and mysterious contraption explained to the men as a water carrier or tank.  The term ‘tank’ stuck and endured.  A few of them were deployed during the Somme engagement with mixed fortunes.  Their usefulness was immediately evident.  They could bridge trenches, flatten barbed wire and other obstacles and provide cover for advancing infantry using traversible guns – a form of mobile artillery.  The downside was unreliability, due to a proclivity for getting bogged down in the uneven terrain.  They were virtually impervious to small arms fire but could be destroyed, along with their crews of up to 8 men, by one direct hit from an artillery shell.  In the aftermath of the carnage at The Somme, Winston Churchill made the point that the offensive should have awaited the arrival of many more tanks.

The other significant changes in Britain’s fortunes occurred progressively at the command and political levels.

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig

As noted following the disastrous conduct of the Battle of Loos, there were tensions amounting to a lack of trust and respect between Sir John French and his deputy, Sir Douglas Haig which the latter was to turn to his advantage.  Both in parliament and the country there were grave concerns over the conduct and especially the casualties suffered in that failed offensive.  At the turn of the year General Haig used his influence at Court and also managed to engage with Prime Minister Asquith to give his opinion that Field Marshal French was inadequate for his role, resulting in his own promotion to Commander-in-Chief, Western Front, in French’s place.

David Lloyd George was the politician of vision, intelligence and energy to reverse the inadequate leadership in key government positions, starting with his appointment as Munitions Minister in May 1915.  Ammunition had been woefully short, of poor quality and with machine gun provision per battalion far inferior to that of the enemy.  He addressed these problems swiftly, mainly through quality control and the rapid extension of female employment within the armaments industry.

lloyd george
David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister, 1916 – 1922

In June 1916, following the death of Lord Kitchener, he took over as Minister for War.  Six months later he replaced Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister and was later to be acclaimed by the population as ‘the man who won the war’.  He earned that accolade, although he was unable to effect the one change he most advocated.  He did not have confidence in his Commander-in Chief, Douglas Haig.  The C-in-C , however, enjoyed the patronage and support of King George V and retained his position for the remainder of the war.  No such royal prerogative was exercised to over-rule command decisions taken by the prime minister in WW2.  Perhaps the concept of a constitutional monarchy finally came to fruition in this era.

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