Lloyd George and Spanish Flu: In Sickness and in Health

The most treasured possessions inherited from my grandfather are undoubtedly two blue volumes that have been with me for most of my life, The War Memoirs of David Lloyd George. Lloyd George was my grandfather’s political hero, and so he became mine too. As a teenager, I read the Memoirs avidly, and they were probably the reason that I became a historian. They were, of course, very much a personal view and not necessarily to be relied upon as an accurate account of all events. But they were the words of Lloyd George.

One of the remarkable things about the Memoirs is that, while dealing with grave matters and costly military campaigns, they are largely silent on Lloyd George’s brush with death. The recent illness of Boris Johnson has inevitably drawn comparisons with Lloyd George’s contraction of ‘Spanish flu’ in September 1918. Lloyd George was the same age as our current Prime Minister and, like Johnson, had taken over the premiership at a time of a national crisis. Lloyd George’s illness was particularly poignant. Just as the Liberal premier was on the verge of a great victory at the end of a brutal war, his own life was in serious danger. At the time, few knew how grave matters had become.

Even today, the details are somewhat vague, and some recent media articles have relied on quite a lot of conjecture. What we do know is that when Lloyd George went to Manchester on 11th September 1918 to receive the Freedom of the City, it soon became clear he was very ill. Rather than stay in a Manchester hospital, he was cared for by doctors in a committee room at Manchester Town Hall. Equipment was brought in from outside, and he was placed on a respiratory aid. Although these aids were crude by today’s standards, doctors of the period had considerable experience of dealing with respiratory illnesses, as these were extremely common during these times. Lloyd George was confined to his committee room bed for over a week. His wife and close colleagues feared for his life.

The newspapers were given only a few details; reports indicated that the Prime Minister had a ‘chill’. Although the war was coming to an end, the long-term incapacity or death of Lloyd George could have changed the political dynamics of armistice negotiations. Germans read The Times too.

Britain was fortunate in having contingency plans. In 1916 Lloyd George had established a small war cabinet to take more effective control of the war effort. In September 1918 it included the political heavyweight’s Lord Curzon, Andrew Bonar Law, Austen Chamberlain and Jan Smuts.

Later anecdotes suggest that Lloyd George was not a good patient. He was apparently frustrated and irritable and desperate to return. In the end, determined to get back to Downing Street, he travelled back to London by train, with medical teams in attendance at his side. Some reports suggest he was still on a respiratory aid. His return was short-lived, however, and he was soon forced to take his doctor’s advice and spend more time to recuperate in the country. In due course, he came back to head the momentous armistice negotiations and lead the ‘Lloyd George coalition’ into the general election that split the Liberal Party.

Had Lloyd George died tragically in September 1918, his national reputation would have been secure and unquestionable. He would have been the man who had introduced national insurance and old-age pensions and who had ‘won the war’. However, subsequent events somewhat clouded his reputation, at least amongst rival Liberals. His decision to fight the rushed 1918 general election in coalition with the Conservatives split the Liberal Party for a generation and hastened is decline. The twentieth century became, to borrow the words of historian Stuart Ball, a ‘Conservative Century’.

Inevitably, a somewhat dark thought emerges. Had Lloyd George succumbed to Spanish flu in 1918, it is not too fanciful to believe that a new leader – possibly even Churchill – could have reunited the Liberal Party. Perhaps the party would have resisted the rise of Labour – a party that still only polled 20 per cent of the vote in 1918. My grandfather may have spent his life supporting a party of government, rather than living through a series of Liberal false dawns from 1929 to 1983.

But for all his flaws, Lloyd George was still our hero. Few men had a greater impact on twentieth-century Britain and fewer still could articulate Liberal values as trenchantly and passionately as the great man. The War Memoirs are still treated with reverence. My grandfather was fortunate to live in an age of heroes, in the age of Asquith, the last Liberal leader to win a general election, in the age of Lloyd George.

(James wrote this article on behalf of the Liberal Democrat History Group, which publishes the quarterly Journal of Liberal History and a range of books and shorter booklets on many aspects of Liberal, SDP and Liberal Democrat history, hosts speaker meetings and promote research and discussion. For more information, see our website at www.liberalhistory.org.uk).

* Dr James Moore is a member of faculty in the School of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester. He is a former Liberal Democrat councillor and parliamentary candidate and a member of the Liberal Democrat History group. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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  • John Littler 22nd Apr '20 - 4:19pm

    I concur with the assessment of Lloyd George, but my own Grandad born in the 19th Century and having been severely wounded fighting for a Lancashire Pals Regiment in the Somme, used to vote Tory and said that he didn’t like the Liberals, because Lloyd George introduced a tax on Whisky.

  • My granddad severely wounded at Gallipoli didn’t like Churchill but he wasn’t impressed with Lloyd George either.

  • I’m afraid I’m more critical of Lloyd George’s War Memoirs that Dr Moore, although I does put forward some caveats. My old friend and tutor Professor Peter Simkins (one time senior historian of the Imperial War Museum) has described them as ‘the self serving War Memoirs of David Lloyd George’.

    David French of UCL has described them as ‘foremost among the works of self justification written by former participants’ and Professor Brian Bond of KCL – President of the British Commission for Military History, has said that as PM, Lloyd George could have stopped Paschendaele at any time – but didn’t.

    Of course they were written fifteen years after the event and were designed to glorify his reputation after many of the people he criticised were safely dead.

    I would also criticise LLG on two other counts, his cruel and ruthless treatment of conscientious objectors – second, having signed a contract to receive the equivalent of many millions for the book in the USA he then double tracked back and announced it would all go to charity when it leaked into the Press….. presumably comforting himself with what was left from the sale of honours.

    I reckon Manfarang’s Granddad had a pretty shrewd view of those two slippery characters.

  • Sorry – typos in first sentence “that Dr Moore, although I ” should red “than Dr Moore, although he’.

    Apologies, James.

  • Dennis Wake 22nd Apr '20 - 7:26pm

    Politicians do not seemed to have changed much when you see what is going on at the moment although I doubt if any of them could bring a World War to a successful conclusion for the UK when they cannot even procure enough medical supplies during a pandemic although they were invited to take part in a European wide (not EU) scheme for providing them and have been telling various tales about it since they were caught out.
    The Government should resign but will not.

  • With the death of Lloyd George, possibly Churchill or Reginal McKenna could have been chosen as the compromise candidate, most likely McKenna because Galipoli was too big of an albatross for Churchill at that time.

  • @ Thomas McKenna as PM ? No way. He was an Asquithian to the core.

    The Tories would have wanted their man, almost certainly Bonar Law.

  • John Littler 23rd Apr '20 - 11:06am

    I think Lloyd George’s sale of honours and such like were wrong, but somewhat to be expected when the Commons and Ministers were poorly paid and the posts often regarded as part time positions of interest for the independently wealthy, who would have surrounded him. LG was a country solicitor from a humble background.

  • David Raw – I mean, McKenna could have been the compromised leader of the united Liberal Party. With Lloyd George’s death, the two factions could have been united, and McKenna was a “centrist” figure between the right and the left of the party, so he would have been a good compromise candidate for party leadership. Another fine compromise candidate would be Charles Masterman.

    The Tories would have won the Khaki election anyway, but with DLG’s death the party would have been reunited earlier.

  • @ Thomas, I’m afraid Charles Masterman hadn’t been an M.P. since 1914 at the time of Lloyd George’s illness….. so try somebody else.

    As to re-uniting the Liberal Party, Asquith wouldn’t shift an inch despite the efforts of the former Chief Whip the Master of Elibank to broker a deal, and insisted on staying as party Leader even after he lost his seat twice.

    The Elibank papers are in the National Library of Scotland and contain a graphic description of his conversations with both men during LLG’s recuperation in September, 1918.

  • @ Ruth Bright

    Hi Ruth, agree about Koss and Jenkins – Jenkins was (literally) too close to members of the Asquith family. Have you read Brocks’ Asquith’s letters to Venetia Stanley to get (a bit ) into Asquith’s mind – and George Cassar, ‘Asquith as War Leader’ and ‘Lloyd George at War, 1916-1918’ ?

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think Lloyd George won the war (he said he did)….. Germany lost it… to an extent because Asquith’s blockade policy hollowed them out and despite LLG’s meddling and Grandstanding – and Haig’s mistakes (some call it ‘a learning curve’) – the British Army under Haig finally got its act together in the last 100 days. Not surprisingly I think Asquith worn out beyond repair by December, 1916.

    On a different tack, A. J. A. Morris, (1977) ‘C. P. Trevelyan, 1870-1958: Portrait of a Radical’. and anything on Catherine Marshall by Jo Vellacot, on suffragism and politics from a feminist position : “Women are people too, Mr Asquith”.

  • @ Joe Bourke Yes, indeed, Joe. I think you you’ll find (if you’re a glutton for punishment) the five volumes written by Arthur Marder on the Royal Navy in WW1 very informative ‘From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow’.

    Marder demolishes LLG’s spurious claim to have invented the Convoy system, but then LLG had an elastic notion of what constituted modesty and truth. See vol IV, 1917 : Year of Crisis.

    @ Ruth Yes, a great read, and admirable commentary from the Brocks. Still have an affection for the old boy though, despite all. He had a very different world to that of my Durham miner Granddad who left school at twelve though.

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