LLOYD GEORGE was essentially a man of action; explosive, blasting action. Events acted on him like blows on dynamite, burst him up into a fury of action, though no one was ever quite certain which way he would blow up and what he would damage in the process. While the strain of the war sapped the fighting spirit out of others it made him more vigorously pugnacious. He became more dictatorial and more impatient of delay and of the departments. He grew bitterly contemptuous of the Army chiefs, especially of Sir William Robertson, the chief of the Imperial General Staff at the War Office, and Sir Douglas Haig in France. He used the members of the War Cabinet more and more to replace the officials and to side-track the recognised routine-and he placed more and more reliance on Smuts. In Smuts he found a man of action also, at times equally explosive, as impatient as himself of delay, and with the same lofty contempt for officials and recognised routine. He took Smuts' advice frequently and sent him on every sort of mission and duty.
In mid-June 1917, Sir Douglas Haig presented to the War Cabinet a scheme for a massed offensive by the British Army. This attack was to be made into the Flanders country beyond Ypres and Passchendaele, to swing northwards and threaten the German lines on Ostend from a flank, force them off the Belgian coast, take Bruges, and even go farther, even to forcing the Germans to come to terms.
The Naval chiefs, especially Admiral Jellicoe, backed the scheme. They wanted the Germans ejected from the Belgian and Channel ports.
Murdering ½ million Men On The Off-Chance
But such a scheme meant the employment of tens of millions of pounds and hundreds of thousands of men, and the ministers were divided whether to give their consent. Lloyd George, Milner, and Bonar Law were against it. Curzon and Balfour were doubtful, Smuts was strongly for the view that the generals had made out a case for at least having a try. Personally, he thought the chances were highly favourable.
To help him make up his mind he jotted down some notes, which ran:
Western Front remains.
(II) Larger Objective.
(1) Secures Ostend and Zeebrugge and north coast and Navy Saved.
(2) Extracts us . . . in case of French collapse.
(3) Forces Germany to Antwerp-Brussels-Namur line.
Losses at 100,000 per month — less than half a million, whom we can make good.
Very serious to veto operation on which military authorities are agreed.
He voted for this Larger Objective, which was Haig's scheme, and he was prepared to lose five hundred thousand men to carry it out.
Smuts' opinion carried the Cabinet. Balfour was impressed because Smuts supported the scheme. Lloyd George believed Smuts to be "a brilliant general.....with much experience of war," and treated him as his military adviser and accepted his view. All hesitated to veto a plan which the Army and the Navy chiefs backed.
But Smuts was a "politician to the core, and only an amateur soldier." Haig, who talked with him, said of him, "He does not know a great deal about strategy, but is anxious to support Robertson and myself." Botha might have been able, with his inherent military instinct, to have judged correctly, but Smuts had neither this instinct nor the capacity, nor the experience to judge the military details of such a scheme; and they were unsound. The staff work was inefficient and the intelligence worse, and Smuts had no training in either. If an offensive at that moment was sound strategy, it should have been made in some other area. Smuts did not know the country round and beyond Passchendaele. It was low, cut by streams, and only kept dry by a complicated system of irrigation and by canals. If rain came, it would turn this country into a bog, and rain was likely. Any bombardment with guns would break up the irrigation system, breach the canals, and turn the fields into lakes. When the French general Foch, the trained soldier, was shown the scheme, he exclaimed that it was "futile, fantastic, and dangerous," and wanted to know why Haig wished to make this "duck's march through the inundations to Ostend."
Cabinet, influenced largely by Smuts, gave its consent. The offensive was a disaster. The rain came. The artillery bombardment broke up the canals. Through deep mud and swamp and water the British troops staggered forward a few thousand yards. Over four hundred thousand men were killed or wounded, or drowned and choked in mud and filth. Nothing was gained and much was lost.
Lloyd George turned on Haig, accused him of concealing essential facts and so deceiving the Cabinet and giving it the wrong material on which to form its judgment. As well as being contemptuous, he now became suspicious of Haig; but in Smuts he kept his faith. They were both politicians, and the soldiers had, he said, deliberately deceived them.
By the time 1917 had come to the autumn the fight for victory had long ceased to be a fight of blows, but a weary clinching, as of two wrestlers, who with sagging, quivering muscles leant chest to chest, forcing themselves to hold on, to make one more heave, one more despairing effort. For help the Cabinet looked round for allies, great and small, any who could help them to heave Germany back: Arabs, Moslems of all sorts, Kurds, Greeks, Armenians, and, above all, the Jews, the Jews of the whole world, but especially of Germany and of America. To enlist the help of the Jews, Balfour, as the Foreign Secretary, with the consent of America and France, issued a declaration that if the Allies won the war, England would see that Palestine should be made into a national home for Jews.
The idea of Zionism, of a National Home for the Jews in Palestine, was put into practical politics by a Roman Catholic Norfolk squire, Sir Mark Sykes, who had specialised in the Near East and had much influence with Balfour. Balfour took it up with enthusiasm. Milner agreed with it at once: much might be gained, he considered, and nothing could be lost by it. The War Cabinet discussed it. Palestine would be an important strategical point in the British Empire: it would be well to develop it after the war. The only people with the money, energy, and the inclination to do that would be the Jews; both for the present crisis and for future needs Zionism ought to be backed to the full.
To Smuts the idea appealed in every way. Rhodes had dreamed of an all-Red Africa. Smuts dreamed the same dream. Palestine developed and made strong would be an auxiliary to that dream.
South Africans had no love for Jews, but Smuts, even in the early days of Het Volk, when he was ruling the Transvaal, had favoured them and encouraged Jewish immigrants. When criticised, he had said, "It is not because I love the Jews better than I love other peoples, but it is because I love justice." His enemies smiled, said it was just "slim Jannie"; for he needed the support of the Jews and they controlled the wealth, and that meant power and success.
Undoubtedly, Smuts loved both power and success. "What makes men trust their chief?" Balfour once asked him. "Success," replied Smuts; though history could have shown him a hundred cases where this was not true.
Smuts had also a personal liking for Jews; he liked them round him. They had the same background as his own people: the Dutch of the veld and the Jews of the desert. They had the same characteristics. Both were sour, bitter people; strictly religious, with their lives based on religion learned from the same Book — from the Old Testament. Both were patient in revenge, and never forgave or forgot an injury; intense individualists, refusing to allow that any man was superior to the next or to be ruled or disciplined, and yet with a profound respect for the law and for the written word.
Smuts had the brain of a Jew; not of the Jew who produced great music and art, nor of the Jew who handled the intricacies of small businesses or of big finance, but of the Jew who pondered over the minutiae of the Scriptures, who cogitated the labyrinthine arguments of the Talmud, and laboured out the erudite, dry-as-dust philosophies of Spinoza. Men with hard, material outlooks, yet with sudden streaks of idealism and great world conceptions, who dealt with facts as the cold desert moonlight deals with shadows, dividing light and darkness with a clear line, and not as the warm sunlight, which weaves them into colours that blend and change. Smuts, like the Jews, could understand, even glory in, Isaiah, but he could not enjoy a fairy story or laugh lightly at a thin joke.
But above all Smuts shared with the Jews their tremendous arrogance. Throughout history, the Jews had bowed and cringed and salaamed before their oppressors, but always they had known that they were superior to their enemies. They were the Chosen People — as the Dutch felt themselves to be the chosen people — chosen by God Himself, set apart and better than other men, and every Jew knew that he had been specially chosen to be a Jew.
Smuts had this intellectual arrogance, this sense of being superior to other men, and this made him impatient. He had no humility, nor had he the ability to come down to the level of ordinary men and so to understand and sympathise with them. As it had made men oppress the Jews, so this arrogance had made them dislike Smuts.
Zionism caught his imagination. He worked for it with enthusiasm. The leader of the Zionist Jews was Chaim Weizmann, a professor of chemistry at Manchester University. He came to see Lloyd George. "Go," said Lloyd George, "and talk with Lord Reading and General Smuts."
Weizmann saw Reading, but Reading, the Jew, met him coldly, and froze him with his icy reserve. He went to Smuts, the Christian, who welcomed him with warmth and enthusiasm. "One of the great objects for which we fight this war," said Smuts, "is to provide a national home for the Jewish people," and he worked zealously to help Weizmann and the Zionists.
From another direction there seemed a chance of help. The Austrians were throwing out feelers for possible peace terms. Word came through from various agents, from a rich Austrian merchant, and through a Bourbon prince who was related to the Empress and who was serving with the French army. The Austrian Government tested the French, but the French distrusted them and snubbed them at once. Then they got into touch with the English.
The Foreign Office considered the negotiations unsound. Balfour thought them not only unsound, but definitely dangerous: Austria, he said, was tied hand and foot to Germany and unable to make a separate move; this was a try-out by Germany, and Germany had no intention of making peace until she won; she had some other reason for this move, but it was not peace. But Lloyd George did not agree. He would try any possibility. There was labour unrest in England: the Trades Union Council was about to sit; if he ignored any chance of peace and was criticised, he would have no answer; he looked on the Foreign Office as timid and procrastinating. He determined to ignore the regular diplomats and to act independently. He asked Lord Reading to go to Geneva and meet an Austrian diplomat, Count Mensdorff, who before the war had been Ambassador in London for many years; but Reading was too shrewd: he agreed with Balfour, and he refused. Lloyd George asked Smuts, who accepted. Smuts did not realise the possible complications. Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson said of him: "Smuts has vague ideas. . . . He does not understand European questions, though he is learning."
All the arrangements were made in great secrecy. Smuts set off with credentials and passports arranged as for Mr. Smith. The weather was wild. Smuts, as always, was very sea-sick crossing the Channel. A car met him and drove him to Paris.
On the road he was dismally car-sick. He put up at an obscure hotel in a back street and then drove on by car again to Geneva, where he was met by M. Parodi, a Swiss, who had been employed by the Egyptian Government and was now working for the English. Geneva was the centre of the spy system of all Europe, and word went out of Smuts' arrival.
The next difficulty was how to meet. Mensdorff was in Geneva, staying with the Austrian consul, but neither he nor Smuts would take the first step, as it might be viewed as weakness. An elaborate piece of by-play had to be staged. At a fixed hour Count Mensdorff and General Smuts went to a street in a suburb of Geneva and entered it from opposite ends. Halfway down, as they passed each other, Mensdorff looked up, recognised General Smuts, and in surprise held out his hand in greeting. General Smuts, equally surprised, said how delighted he was to see Count Mensdorff and how nice it would be to talk with him. Parodi stepped up to say he had a house conveniently close — just round the corner, in fact — and he would be delighted if they would come in; and with honour satisfied, the two sat down to discuss.
The conversation was amiable and varied. Mensdorff wanted to find out all he could, but very soon Smuts saw he had nothing to offer. Austria could not make a separate peace. Smuts talked largely. He outlined the war objects of the Allies. He expressed his great regard for the German military power and its leaders. He said, "We in England do not believe that we can beat Germany in a military sense, but we are fighting to destroy Prussian militarism." Mensdorff asked him to define just what he meant. Smuts had been using a loose wartime propaganda term and could not. They parted with expressions of deep mutual regard. The German Government received a full report of all that had happened. Smuts returned to England to report that the negotiations were useless.
Balfour and Reading had been right. The Germans were preparing an immense massed attack on the British Army and wanted to know how England stood. Austria was only their agent. The French, and M. Briand in particular, were furiously angry: accused the English of allowing the enemy to get some sort of a wedge in between them. Lloyd George said he had told the French Prime Minister, but that did not satisfy the French. The French papers attacked Smuts, published ribald stories about him, and jeered at him and at Lloyd George for being so naive: Smuts did not understand the Austrians or Mensdorff at all. "Your people," said Smuts as a last appeal, so the story went, "your people are in a serious and hopeless condition."
"My people," replied the Austrian grandly, " may be hopeless, but they are never serious," and Smuts left, saying that the Austrians were very queer.
"Lloyd George," said Clemenceau, "is a fool, and an extra fool for sending Smuts, who doesn't even know where Austria is."
From the meeting the Germans gained some encouragement and the English gained nothing. Smuts, when asked, denied he had even been to see Mensdorff: in fact, he had never even left England or been near Geneva, he repeated sturdily.
After Passchendaele, Lloyd George grew virulent in his suspicion of everything done by the General Staff and the War Office. He used Smuts to watch them. He sent him repeatedly to make independent inspections and to report direct to the War Cabinet. He sent him on a tour along the front in France and instructed him privately to study the officers he met and to find someone to replace Haig; but Smuts reported that there was no one.
Lloyd George trusted Allenby in Palestine, but he suspected Robertson and the War Office of trying to ruin his policy of "knocking out the props" from under Germany by defeating the Turks.
As soon as Allenby took over Lloyd George urged him to push ahead. Robertson advised him to go slow. Allenby pushed on, broke through the Turkish lines before Gaza, where Murray had failed, and sat down to reorganise. Again Lloyd George urged him on and again Robertson advised him to go slow and again Allenby pushed ahead, and before Christmas of 1917 he marched triumphantly up to Jerusalem and entered the Holy City. Again the same process was repeated. Allenby sat down to reorganise. Robertson advised him to go slow. Lloyd George urged him to bustle on and smash the Turks back. He was now convinced that Allenby could defeat the Turks and force them to make peace. Robertson's attempts to slow Allenby down drove him into a fury of impatience. He decided to ignore the War Office and the General Staff and Robertson, and to act on his own initiative; and he sent Smuts post-haste to see Allenby and arrange all details for a final triumphant advance.
Smuts took a small staff with him and hurried to Allenby's headquarters in Palestine. The two went down to Egypt, pretended to be sight-seeing, and discussed schemes for an advance up to Damascus and even into northern Syria. With their staffs they decided on the general strategy, the line of advance, the quantity of shipping, supplies, and the reinforcements in men with guns and small arms.
Hardly had Smuts returned to England and reported to Lloyd George before the Germans made a tremendous drive straight at the British Army in France, overwhelmed the Fifth Army, and bent the whole British line back. From every front every spare man was sent to help. Allenby was told to dispatch all his white troops and to hold up his advance. Through March of 1918 the British Army hung grimly on. One break, and the war would have been lost. Faced with defeat, the Allies agreed to accept the French General, Foch, as supreme commander of them all.
Lloyd George sent Smuts to report on the situation in France. He came back weighed down with pessimism. He began to talk of defeat. Lloyd George aimed at an out-and-out victory and to dictate terms of peace to a crushed and defeated Germany. Smuts made speeches telling his audiences — as he had told Mensdorff — that an out-and-out victory was impossible: that it would be sound to approach the enemy at once and see if they would not come to terms. At Glasgow he made a speech that had so much the spirit of defeatism that Lloyd George was furiously angry. Smuts said the situation was desperate. "He seemed to revel in the idea that it was desperate and impossible." Lloyd George knew as well as Smuts that the facts were black, but that was no reason to lose heart. In such a crisis Lloyd George was at his best. He was full of boisterous enthusiasm. He toured the country, speaking of victory, the magnificent victory that was at hand, and he kept hope and enthusiasm in the people.
Foch too was sure of victory, and was steadily making his plans. He wished to concentrate troops round Rheims and he asked Haig to help him. Lloyd George opposed the idea, and he sent Smuts to tell Haig that if he appealed to the English Cabinet, they would forbid him to carry out Foch's wish.
Haig, whatever his faults, was solidly loyal. He resented this back-door way of doing things. He had not wanted Foch as his commander, but once Foch was appointed he would stand loyally by him. He told Smuts bluntly that whatever Foch ordered he would carry out.
Smuts returned sunk in depression. The strain of the war had begun to affect him. He had lost his old freshness and his old detached, superior air. He made the gloomiest of reports to the Cabinet: he was not sure that the Germans could be held back; even if they were held back the war would last into 1920; it might mean victory for the Allies, but at the cost of wrecking European civilisation. But Lloyd George would have none of it. He would not accept Smuts' estimate. He laughed him out and went on, undeterred and without fear or hesitation.
The Germans made a final blow. Foch held them up and counter-attacked. Allenby had worked out a plan of his own which was not that arranged with Smuts. As soon as he received fresh troops from India, he made a sudden encircling attack and drove the Turks helter-skelter in front of him.
The Germans staggered, began to retreat. In Germany there was revolution. Bulgaria, Austria, Turkey, and then Germany capitulated. The war was won.