Saturday, 2 December 2017

The Lansdowne Letter

Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, KG, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, was forty years older than Siegfried Sassoon and had very different antecedents. Despite this, in November 1917, the 72-year-old Lansdowne made a public gesture quite unexpected for one in his position. 

A former Liberal, Lansdowne had gone over to the Conservatives after a stint as Viceroy of India. He subsequently served as Secretary of State for War and later as Foreign Secretary, a role in which he was succeeded in 1905 by Sir Edward Grey, whose efforts to prevent war breaking out in 1914 had been in vain. Until 1916, Lansdowne led the Conservatives in the House of Lords, losing his position as Minister without Portfolio in the war cabinet with the arrival of Lloyd George. His departure from power was hastened by his outspoken opposition to the prolongation of the war.

Lansdowne's letter contained these words: "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."

If Neville Chamberlain was criticised in 1938 for "appeasement", he was not the first to be pilloried for trying to achieve peace when the rest of the country was baying for German blood. The widespread response to Lansdowne's public statement was unfavourable: he was irresponsible, said The Times, and the government disowned him. The Manchester Guardian, on the other hand, was encouraging.

Lansdowne himself claimed to have had a sackful of letters of support, from sources both humble and exalted. I do not suppose that any of them came from the lonely and disappointed solder who sat ostracised in a military hospital in Edinburgh, believing his own public gesture to have been futile and wondering how he was going to get back to his comrades on the Western Front. However, one of Lansdowne's tacit supporters was none other than former prime minister, Herbert Asquith, who had taken Britain into the war. Asquith and his wife would later become close friends of Sassoon's.

One of Lansdowne's great-great-grandsons, Simon Kerry, has just written the Marquess's biography, under the title Lansdowne: The Last Great Whig.  It came out so recently that I haven't seen a copy yet, and I wonder what his verdict will be on the Lansdowne Letter. For me, it illustrates that Sassoon was far from the isolated rebel that some would have him appear. His views were shared by many who were more politically astute than he was himself. Ironically, a review of the book in The Times says of Lansdowne's protest: "Such an act of political courage would be all but unthinkable today."  Would it? I'm not so sure.

Many would argue that Lansdowne's feelings about the war were coloured by the death of his own son, Charles, in 1914. Charles, an equerry to George V, was forty years old and is buried in the town cemetery at Ypres. His wife, Violet, later married again, her second husband being none other than the American-born millionaire John Jacob Astor V (who had himself been wounded while serving at the Western Front in the same month that Charles was killed). 

Of course the observation is correct. Bereaved parents of First World War soldiers tended to go one of two ways: either they continued to support the war, believing that a failure to do so would make their sons' deaths meaningless, or they recognised the sufferings shared by other parents and began to hope that no more sons would need to die, regardless of whether the cause was just. Sadly, not only were Lansdowne's pleas ignored, but one of his grandsons, 27-year-old Charles, the 7th Marquess, was killed in 1944 during another unwelcome military conflict. What would his grandfather have thought if he could have foreseen that event?
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