Lord Lansdowne’s Peace Letter of November 1917

on Wednesday, 27 December 2017. Posted in Military

Guest blog by John Boaler - originally published in the Wiltshire Local History Forum Newsletter

2017 marks the centenary of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres. After catastrophic losses at Verdun and the Somme, it is hard to comprehend how the politicians and generals at the time were again willing to expend the lives hundreds of thousands of soldiers in another such assault on the Western Front.

But the one senior politician did speak up against this military ‘strategy’, calling for a negotiated peace, was Lord Lansdowne (1845–1927), the fifth Marquess and a great-grandson of Lord Shelburne, one of George III's prime ministers.

He had succeeded his father, upon his sudden death in 1866, taking his seat on the Liberal benches in the House of Lords. Lansdowne was appointed a junior whip in Gladstone's first government (1869); was promoted to Under-Secretary for War three years later; and was made Under-Secretary for India at the start of Gladstone's second government (1880). However his opposition to the Irish Land Act soon caused him to resign from the Liberal Party.

In 1883 he was appointed Governor-general of Canada; and from 1888 to 1894 was Viceroy of India. Back in London he was made War Secretary (1895-1900) and then Foreign Secretary (1900 – 1905). He was Leader of the Unionist peers from 1903- 1916.

The First World War

Lord Lansdowne was a member of the Shadow Cabinet in 1914 and strongly supported the decision for war in August. Though Lansdowne's second son was killed in France in October he remained committed to the war. In May 1915 he took office as minister without portfolio in Asquith's coalition, and in Government he supported conscription.

He began to have doubts about the capacity of the allies to score a decisive victory after the disastrous Somme offensive of June 1916. Asquith as Prime Minister invited his cabinet colleagues to submit their views on the course of the war. Lansdowne concluded that while there was no question of defeat, outright victory was unlikely. He argued for a restatement of war aims that might open the way to a negotiated settlement. But Asquith was about to be replaced by Lloyd George, and Lansdowne left office at the same time.

Soldiers carrying a wounded man over the muddy ground at Passchendaele, 1917

Letter to The Daily Telegraph

In 1917, as deaths quickly mounted in the Battle of Passchendaele, Lansdowne again put the case for a negotiated peace. This time he went public, with a letter printed in the Daily Telegraph on 29 November 1917. His views were well known in senior government circles yet had made no impact. The letter caused a sensation:

"We are not going to lose this war, but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilised world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it...We do not desire the annihilation of Germany as a great power ... We do not seek to impose upon her people any form of government other than that of their own choice... We have no desire to deny Germany her place among the great commercial communities of the world.”

He was strongly denounced by the Northcliffe press (then publishers of the Daily Mail & Daily Mirror) and ostracised by the Unionist leadership. But his move attracted a lot of support. He received a large mailbag of which ‘The prevailing note is, “you have had the courage to say what we have been thinking for ever so long”’, he told his daughter.

President Wilson's ‘fourteen points’ were widely seen to be on Lansdowne lines, and he pressed on with further letters in March and July, supplemented by Lord’s speeches, calling for a careful restatement of war aims.

Last years and assessment

Increasingly infirm, Lansdowne appeared only occasionally in the Lords after the war. He died on 3 June 1927. He was buried at his ancestral seat of Bowood, and was succeeded as sixth Marquess by his elder son.

Had the politicians been less arrogant; and the generals less inflexible – there need never have been anything like 750,000 (500 every day) British soldiers’ deaths in the First World War. And had the Government taken up Lord Lansdowne’s proposal and managed to negotiate peace with Germany, there might not have been the sense of national humiliation that arose from unconditional surrender and the vindictive terms and punitive reparations exacted by the Treaty of Versailles, which together were to spawn Nazism and all that led to.

Main Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

John Boaler, Wiltshire Local History Forum

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