Clement Attlee and the First World War

Clement Attlee and the First World War

Clement Attlee was born in Putney in 1883. Educated at Haileybury and University College, Oxford he became a barrister in 1906. Attlee developed an interest in social problems while doing voluntary work at a boy's club in Stepney. Converted to socialism by reading the works of John Ruskin and William Morris, in 1913 Attlee became a tutor at the London School of Economics.

In 1914 Attlee joined the British Army and served in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia , where he was badly wounded at El Hanna. After recovering back in England, Attlee was sent to France in 1918 and served on the Western Front for the last few months of the war. By the end of the First World War Attlee reached the rank of major.

After the war Attlee returned to teaching at the London School of Economics. Attlee, a member of the Labour Party, became involved in local politics and in 1919 was elected Mayor of Stepney.

In the 1922 General Election he was elected Labour MP for Limehouse in London. Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the party in the House of Commons, recruited Attlee as his parliamentary secretary (1922-24). In the 1924 Labour Government Attlee was appointed as Under Secretary of State for War.

After the Labour Party victory in the 1929 General Election, MacDonald appointed Attlee as postmaster-general. However, like most ministers, Attlee refused to serve in the National Government formed by MacDonald in 1931. Attlee was one of the few Labour MPs to win his seat in the 1931 General Election and became deputy leader of the party under George Lansbury.

When Lansbury retired in 1935 Attlee became the new leader of the Labour Party. During the Spanish Civil War he supported the British volunteers fighting against General Francisco Franco and even visited the International Brigade on the front-line in December 1937.

In 1940 Attlee joined the coalition government headed by Winston Churchill. He was virtually deputy Prime Minister although this post did not formally become his until 1942. It was afterwards claimed that during the Second World War Attlee worked as a restraining influence on some of Churchill's more wilder schemes.

In the 1945 General Election Attlee lead the Labour Party to its largest victory at the polls. During his six years in office he carried through a vigorous programme of reform. The Bank of England, the coal mines, civil aviation, cable and wireless services, gas, electricity, railways, road transport and steel were nationalized. The National Health Service was introduced and independence was granted to India (1947) and Burma.

After being narrowly defeated in the 1951 General Election, Attlee led the Labour Party until resigning in 1955. He was granted a peerage and was active in the House of Lords until his death in 1967.

Primary Sources

(1) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954)

The outbreak of the war brought great heart-searchings in the ranks of the Labour and Socialist Movement, especially in the membership of the Independent Labour Party, which had always been strongly pacifist. The difference of view in the Party was well illustrated in our family. My brother Tom was a convinced conscientious objector and went to prison. I thought it my duty to fight.

I was told when I first tried to join the Army that I was too old at thirty-one. A relative of one of my pupils, who was commanding a battalion of Kitchener's Army, had applied for me, and one Sunday morning, on returning from doing a guard at Lincoln's Inn, I found a letter telling me to report as a Lieutenant to the 6th South Lancashire Regiment at Tidworth. There I found plenty to do, as I soon found myself in temporary command of a company of seven officers and 250 men.

(2) After training, Lieutenant Attlee was sent to Gallipoli.

We had been expected to be sent to France, but in the late spring we got orders to equip with tropical kit. I realised that our destination was either Gallipoli or Mesopotamia. In June, 1915, we sailed from Avonmouth for the East and had an uneventful voyage through the Mediterranean to Alexandria.

I had three or four weeks at Helles experiencing the heat and smells and flies. Like many others, I got dysentery. Eventually I fainted and was carried down to the beach and embarked for Malta. I thus missed the big attack at Anzac where our Division had six or seven thousand casualties, including many of my friends of the South Lancashires.

(3) In his book, As it Happened, Clement Attlee commented on the Gallipoli Campaign.

The Gallipoli campaign will always remain a vivid memory. I have always held that the strategic conception was sound. The trouble was that it was never adequately supported. Unfortunately, the military authorities were Western Front minded. Reinforcements were always sent too late. For an enterprise such as this the right leaders were not chosen. Elderly and hidebound generals were not the men to push through an adventure of this kind. Had we had at Sulva generals like Maude, who came out later, we should, I think, have pushed through to victory.

(4) Clement Attlee fought under General Frederick Maude at El Hanna in April, 1916.

Our Divisional Commander, General Maude, was a first-rate leader and explained everything to us very fully. We attacked on April 5th, 1916, at El Hanna but found, as I had anticipated, that the Turks had, for the most part, withdrawn. However, a shell - fired, as I found out years later, by one of our own batteries - caught me with a bullet through the thigh and a piece of nose-cap in the buttocks and I had to be carried off the field. In two subsequent attacks our Division suffered very heavy losses, so perhaps I was fortunate.

(5) After Major Clement Attlee had recovered from his wounds he was sent to Western Front in 1918.

I served in France for some weeks and saw the approaching end of the war evidenced by a reluctance of the Germans to attack. We were advancing towards Lille when I fell sick and had to have a minor operation. Evacuated to England in October, I celebrated the Armistice in hospital.

(6) Major Clement Attlee, speech at a Union of Democratic Control (11th November, 1920)

When we entered this war we were too credulous - we believed the Government. We should have been wiser if we had listened to the Union of Democratic Control, and less to other voices. I am proud today, as a man who has fought in the war, to stand on a Union of Democratic Control platform with those who always protested against the war and told us we were deceived. They were right and we were wrong.