Spartacus Blog

Raymond Asquith, killed in a war declared by his father

Wednesday, 28th June, 2017

John Simkin

It was claimed that Tony Blair would never have ordered the invasion of Iraq if one of his three sons were serving in the armed forces. It is no coincidence that Blair has always refused to meet the parents of the men who were killed in that war.

When H. H. Asquith declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, he probably did not consider that it might lead to his four sons fighting on the front-line. Their privileged education meant that they all had successful careers in the professions. The same was true of other Cabinet members. However, Lord Kitchener, the War Secretary, announced that Britain needed an army of 500,000 men to fight the war and on 7th August he issued an appeal for volunteers.

David Lloyd George was asked to use his great skills as an orator to persuade men to join the armed forces. On 19th September, he spoke at the Queen's Hall in London. "There is no man in this room who has always regarded the prospect of engaging in a great war with greater reluctance and with greater repugnance than I have done through the whole period of my political life. There is no man inside or outside this room more convinced that we could not have avoided it without national dishonour... They think we cannot beat them. It will not be easy. It will be a long job. It will be a terrible war. But in the end we will march through terror to triumph. We shall need all our qualities - every quality that Britain and its people possess - prudence in counsel, daring in action, tenacity in purpose, courage in defeat, moderation in victory, in all things faith." (1)

Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, wept when he read the speech. Asquith told him that it was a wonderful speech and Charles Masterman claimed it was "the finest speech in the history of England". The speech was also praised by the Conservative Party supporting newspapers, who described the man who they had been attacking for many years as a "British patriot". By the end of the month over 750,000 men had enlisted in the British armed forces. (2)

However, Lloyd George did not want his own twenty-year old son, Gwilym Lloyd George, to join the army. He wrote to his wife explaining his own position: "They are pressing Territorials to volunteer for the War. Gwilym mustn't do that yet... I am dead against carrying on a war of conquest to crush Germany for the benefit of Russia... I am not going to sacrifice my nice boy for that purpose. You must write, telling him he must on no account be bullied into volunteering abroad." (3)

Asquith was shocked and surprised when his three sons, Cyril (24), Arthur (31) and Herbert (33) immediately joined the armed forces. Herbert pointed out "England expects every man to do his duty" and if they did not offer their services "Father will be asked why he doesn't begin his recruiting at home". Arthur agreed and was the first to join: "I have two older brothers, both married, and one younger brother with an ailing colon... It is obviously fitting that one of my father's four sons ought to be prepared to fight". (4)

However, his eldest son, Raymond Asquith, was nearly 36 and was married with two young children, made a different A highly successful lawyer, he was less enthusiastic about the war than his younger brothers. Raymond was on the left of the Liberal Party and had doubts about the wisdom of declaring war on Germany. He had no confidence in Lord Kitchener, who he described as the "King of Chaos" and expected the war to last at least three years and predicted that "sooner or later they (his brothers) would all be under the turf". (5)

H. H. Asquith was pleased that his eldest son had refused to join the armed forces. He was being groomed to become a leading political figure. In 1913 he had been adopted as Liberal Party candidate for Derby, where the sitting member was retiring. John Buchan thought he would be a great success as a politician: "He had every advantage in the business - voice, language, manner, orderly thought, perfect nerve and coolness... Though he might scoff at most dogmas, he had a great reverence for the problems behind them, and to these problems he brought a fresh mind and a sincere goodwill." His brother, Herbert Asquith, commented "he was a brilliant speaker, and if he had entered the House, there is little doubt that he would have made his presence felt." (6)

Despite his doubts about the war, Raymond Asquith joined the Queen's Westminster Rifles in January 1915. His father, was furious with him for making this decision. "As the months went by with no sign of the regiment being sent abroad, Raymond... became increasingly frustrated with such futile tasks as stopping suspicious vehicles approaching London from the North-West." His wife, afraid that he would seek to serve abroad, tried to convince him to stand as a Liberal Party candidate in a by-election, but he rejected the idea as he saw it as an act of cowardice. (7)

Aware that he would not see active service in this regiment he transferred as a lieutenant into the 3rd battalion of the Grenadier Guards and went out to the Western Front in October, 1915. His stepmother, Margot Asquith, wrote: "Raymond left this morning... I was almost surprised at how sad I felt at parting with him - there was something so pathetic and incongruous in seeing so perfect and highly finished a being going off into that raw brutal primitive hurly-burly." (8)

Drawing of Charles Bradlaugh beingevicted from the House of Commons in 1880
Raymond Asquith (1915)

Asquith was furious with his son and refused to write to him while he was on the Western Front. However, he was posted to one of the comparatively quiet sections of the front line, where shelling was sporadic. He wrote to his friend, Diana Manners, that he was more concerned by the discomfort than the danger, complaining about "being up to his neck in dense, sticky blue clay; at the same time he was puzzled that while the sound of rifle fire seemed no more far off than the next gun in a partridge drive". (9)

In an early letter to his wife from the front he complained about the lack of dry trenches and the failures of the authorities in making no adequate preparations for winter, claiming that half of his men did not have trench boots. He also noted the contempt felt for staff officers behind the lines by those in the trenches, and felt that she would think he was right not to become one, "though of course one may find in the end that there are more uncomfortable things than general abuse". (10)

On the Western Front in December 1914 there was a spontaneous outburst of hostility towards the killing. On 24th December, arrangements were made between the two sides to go into No Mans Land to collect the dead. Negotiations also began to arrange a cease-fire for Christmas Day. On other parts of the front-line, German soldiers initiated a cease-fire through song. On Christmas Day the guns were silent and there were several examples of soldiers leaving their trenches and exchanging gifts. The men even played a game of football. (11)

In January 1916, Asquith was asked to work as defence counsel to Ian Colquhoun who was being court-martialled for "allowing his men to fraternise with the Germans on Christmas Day". Raymond was impressed by Colquhoun "for the vigour and nerve with which he faced his accusers" and in his "insolence, aplomb, courage and elegant virility". Despite his efforts, Colquhoun was convicted but escaped with a reprimand. (12)

Raymond Asquith resisted attempts by his father to use his influence to transfer him onto the General Staff but against his wishes he did serve for four months (January to May 1916) at general headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force, at Saint-Omer, where he "served unenthusiastically in intelligence work". (13)

During this period he became greatly concerned about the influence of Lord Northcliffe and his newspapers, The Times and The Daily Mail. There were constant criticism of Asquith, especially over the reluctance of accepting the need of conscription (compulsory enrollment). "Raymond was an indignant as anyone, telling Katherine Asquith that he had reached the stage when he would rather defeat Northcliffe than defeat the Germans. The press lord seemed to him just as belligerently crass and crassly belligerent as the enemy were, but far less courageous and capable". (14)

Raymond Asquith returned to the Western Front on 16th May 1916. He became increasingly critical of the way the war was being fought. He told his wife that "almost every night there were raids on the German lines accompanied by the usual ridiculous artillery barrage" and he "considered the whole business to be a charade, usually causing far more British than German casualties". (15)

On 7th September, 1916, Asquith visited the front-line and managed to obtain a meeting with his son. He wrote to Margot Asquith that evening: "He was very well and in good spirits. Our guns were firing all round and just as we were walking to the top of the little hill to visit the wonderful dug-out, a German shell came whizzing over our heads and fell a little way beyond... We went in all haste to the dug-out - 3 storeys underground with ventilating pipes electric light and all sorts of conveniences, made by the Germans. Here we found Generals Horne and Walls (who have done the lion's share of all the fighting): also Bongie's brother who is on Walls's staff. They were rather disturbed about the shell, as the Germans rarely pay them such attention, and told us to stay with them underground for a time. One or two more shells came, but no harm was done. The two generals are splendid fellows and we had a very interesting time with them." (16)

On 15th September, Raymond Asquith led his men on a attack on the German trenches at Lesboeufs. According to one of his men "such coolness under shell fire as he displayed would be difficult to equal". Soon after leaving the trench he was hit in the chest by a bullet. Raymond knew straightaway that his wound was fatal, but in order to reassure his men, he casually lit a cigarette as he was carried on a stretcher to the dressing station. A medical orderly wrote to his father to say he was not given morphia "as he was quite free from pain and just dying." (17)

Raymond Asquith died on the way to the dressing station. According to a soldier quoted by John Jolliffe: "There is not one of us who would not have changed places with him if we had thought that he would have lived, for he was one of the finest men who ever wore the King's uniform, and he did not know what fear was." Only five of the twenty-two officers in Asquith's battalion survived the battle unscathed. (18)

When his father was informed of his death "he put his head on his arms on the table and sobbed passionately". He told Margot Asquith: "The awful waste of a man like Raymond - the best brain of his age in our time - any career he liked lying in front of him. I always felt it would happen." Two days later he wrote to Sylvia Henley: "I can honestly say, that in my own life he was the thing of which I was truly proud, and in him and his future I had invested all my stock of hope." (19)

References

(1) David Lloyd George, speech at the Queen's Hall in London (19th September, 1914)

(2) Roy Hattersley, David Lloyd George (2010) page 360

(3) David Lloyd George, letter to Margaret Lloyd George (11th August, 1914)

(4) Christopher Page, Command in the Royal Naval Division: A Military Biography of Brigadier General A. M. Asquith DSO (1999) page 26

(5) Colin Clifford, The Asquiths (2002) page 232

(6) Herbert Asquith, Moments of Memory: Recollections and Impressions (1937) page 265

(7) Colin Clifford, The Asquiths (2002) page 232

(8) Violet Bonham Carter, letter to Maurice Bonham Carter (6th October, 1915)

(9) Raymond Asquith, letter to Diana Manners (27th October, 1915)

(10) John Jolliffe, Raymond Asquith: Life and Letters (1980) page 205

(11) The Times (1st January 1915)

(12) John Jolliffe, Raymond Asquith: Life and Letters (1980) page 236

(13) John Jolliffe, Raymond Asquith : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(14) Colin Clifford, The Asquiths (2002) page 248

(15) Raymond Asquith, letter to Katherine Asquith (7th July, 1916)

(16) H. H. Asquith, letter to Margot Asquith (7th September, 1916)

(17) Colin Clifford, The Asquiths (2002) page 367

(18) John Jolliffe, Raymond Asquith: Life and Letters (1980) page 296

(19) H. H. Asquith, letter to Sylvia Henley (20th September, 1916)

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