The new issue of Liberator has a First World War theme and includes this article by me. The way it is presented in the magazine suggests that some of the direct quotes from Horne were my own work, but my debt to his article is made clear here.
Charles Masterman is an attractive figure among Edwardian Liberals.
Before being elected an MP in 1906, he undertook social work in the London slums and worked a journalist. His best book, The Condition of England, captures his temperament well. Though ardent for social progress, he had a melancholy streak and could look beyond politics for salvation, quoting the 19th-century nature mystic Richard Jefferies more than once.
Masterman was responsible, as a junior minister, for putting Lloyd George’s National Insurance Act of 1911, which laid the foundations of the welfare state, through the Commons.
This meant spending hour after hour at the dispatch box as the Conservatives fought over every line of the bill. It also won him the hatred of the Tory press and every reactionary voice from the British Medical Association to the headmaster of Eton.
He was lucky in his first biographer. Masterman’s wife Lucy, who was to survive him by 50 years, was later a parliamentary candidate herself and was active in the Women’s Liberal Federation in the 1970s, provided a portrait of “the vivid, tormented man I loved”.
There are too many undigested extracts from her diary for it to rank as great literature, but besides its value as a picture of Masterman, it is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to understand the big beasts of that Liberal government.
For not only did Masterman serve under both Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, he and Lucy became friends of both families. So in her biography you will read Lloyd George’s recollection of his childhood:
"If we kept the law about trespassing when we were children … we should have nowhere to play but a dusty strip of grass by the high road." I never remember during all our visit passing a 'trespassers will be prosecuted' notice without him remarking “I hate that sort of thing”.And you will read what happened when Masterman, who had been on holiday in France and reading reports of the Siege of Sidney Street with increasing alarm, got back to London:
He burst into Mr. Churchill's room at the Home Office with the query "What the hell have you been doing now, Winston?" The reply, in Winston's characteristic lisp, was unanswerable. "Now Charlie. Don't be croth. It was such fun."Masterman was appointed Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster in 1914 at the age of 41. In those days any MP joining the Cabinet was obliged to resign his seat and fight a by-election – this requirement was abolished a few years later by the first Labour government.
Because Masterman was identified with Lloyd George’s reforms – and because he had won the enmity of Horatio Bottomley and his populist John Bull magazine over a scandal where he was deemed to have shown insufficient zeal for investigating the mistreatment of boys in a reformatory – he had become a controversial figure.
As a result, he was defeated in his Bethnal Green constituency and again at a second by-election in Ipswich shortly afterwards.
It is easy to blame the Tory press, but it is worth pausing to reflect that reforms carried out on behalf of the people are not always popular with those people. If Lloyd George’s measures were such a leap forward, should Masterman not have benefited from being associated with them?
The same paradox may exist for the National Health Service too. The other day I heard Tim Farron claim that William Beveridge had lost his seat at Berwick in 1945 because of a campaign against him by the British Medical Association, and David Boyle has told me that some working class people were wary of the NHS after its establishment in 1948. Certainly, the (admittedly very middle class) 1950 Ealing comedy The Magnet shows people proud their local hospital is run by a charity and not part of the NHS.
At the very least, Charles Masterman’s career shows that policies that are right in the long term may be unpopular in the short term and that the usual description of him as an ‘unlucky’ politician does not tell the whole story.
The Liberal Party gave up its attempt to get Masterman back into the House of Commons just as the First World War broke out. Instead, he was put in charge of Wellington House, the organisation responsible for British war propaganda.
For many this has cast a shadow over his memory. As John Horne argued in History Today in 2002 (download a copy of his article), after the First World War was over public opinion was dominated by a backlash against the cost of victory and in particular against the industrialised killing of trench warfare. Scapegoats were needed to explain how this catastrophe had come about.
Propaganda was a key culprit. Liberals and socialists, in particular, considered the ‘people’ to be inherently pacific and rational. Ordinary individuals could only have continued the butchery of the Western Front because they were misled and ‘manipulated’.Atrocity propaganda was held to be the prime example of this manipulation. The Labour MP Arthur Ponsonby argued that “the exaggeration and invention of atrocities soon becomes the main staple of propaganda”. He asserted that Allied governments had circulated
stories of German ‘frightfulness’ in Belgium … in such numbers as to give ample proof of the abominable cruelty of the German army an so to infuriate popular opinion against them.The idea that German atrocities towards the civilian population when they invaded Belgium and France in 1914 were an invention of the Allied propaganda machine took hold to such an extent that many were slow to believe accounts of the Holocaust during the Second World War.
Yet the true position is different. As Horne argues, the contemporary argument between the Allies and Germany was not so much about what the German Army had done but whether it was justified:
There were official inquiries in Belgium, France and Britain, the last chaired by the Liberal peer Lord Bryce. The reports varied considerably in tone but all claimed that German soldiers had killed large numbers of civilians in cold blood and deliberately inflicted enormous physical damage. The German government responded with the White Book of May 1915. Curiously, this did not deny the ‘facts’ alleged by the Allies but argued that German actions were legitimate reprisals for the real atrocity in the German view – mass resistance by Franco-Belgian civilians in a war of francs-tireurs.'Francs-tireurs' – free shooters – was the term used to describe the irregular military formations deployed by France during the early stages of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and Horne cites research suggesting that the German military in 1914 was obsessed with the idea they would face such opposition again.
The result was killing on a scale that is startling to readers raised on the idea that German atrocities existed only in Allied propaganda:
Six-and-a-half thousand civilians perished, mostly in ten days in the second half of August. Deportations to Germany and the use of civilians as ‘human shields’ were widespread. Some 20,000 buildings (including whole villages) were burned down, including numerous historical and cultural monuments. In the worst incidents, scores or even hundreds of civilians were killed … The notorious destruction of Louvain, including the historic university library, with the death of 248 civilians, was the result of panic by German soldiers who, convinced that they faced a rising of the inhabitants, mistakenly fired on each other.Horne concludes that, though there was exaggeration and fantasy on the Allied side, the accounts of atrocities had their roots in the accounts of victims traumatised by the behaviour of the invading Germans.
Similarly, Masterman gave widespread publicity to the Ottoman Empire’s attempted genocide of the Armenian people. There is no doubting the truth of those reports, yet you will still find the Turkish government denying the genocide and blaming the very idea of it on Charles Masterman.
Masterman’s techniques were more subtle than Ponsonby allowed. Lucy paints a picture him insisting that all propaganda was factually based:
It was within a month of his taking up the work that I saw him facing complaints not markedly different from threats from a prominent newspaper owner, afterwards ennobled, who was aggrieved that the “news” he had sent in on “atrocities” on Belgians, in particular the assertion that the Germans had cut the hands from a Belgian baby, had not been made use of … Masterman remained immoveable … “Find me the name of the hospital where the baby is and get me a signed statement from the doctor and I’ll listen” was all he would say.Lucy’s biography was published in 1939, and it is interesting that by then she felt the need to put “atrocities” in scare quotes.
The writers Masterman recruited to the Allied cause – Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett, John Masefield, Ford Madox Ford, G.K. Chesterton, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells and many more beside – make a mightily impressive list.
He also commissioned an equally impressive list of war artists, with the result that the galleries of the Imperial War Museum remain one of the most rewarding places for lovers of 20th-century British art to explore.
One triumph of Wellington House was the use of the figure of Edith Cavell, a nurse celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides without distinction, who also helped some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. For this she was arrested by the German authorities, court-martialled, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad.
This year, when protestors understandably objected to the use of General Kitchener on a commemorative £2 coin to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the alternative portrait they suggested was that of Edith Cavell.
Masterman did return to Westminster in 1923 as MP for Manchester Rusholme, defeating a Conservative called John Thorpe - father of the future Liberal leader - in the process. He acted as something of a mentor to the numerous new Labour members, schooling them in parliamentary procedure and tactics, in a way that reminds the modern reader of Donald Dewar in the first reconvened Scottish parliament, where he was half first minister and half kindly professor.
Along with so many Liberals elected in that brief revival, Masterman was defeated the following year. By then he was struggling with addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs and he was to die in 1927 at the age of only 54. Lucy passes lightly over his decline, but a later biographer, Eric Hopkins, tells you all and (perhaps more than) you want to know.
Masterman remains a compelling figure for Liberals, and his period in charge of Wellington House was an honourable episode in a fascinating career.