Staring at God: Britain in the Great War by Simon Heffer

“This war has caught us at our worst,” recorded Margot Asquith on October 26, 1914, almost three months after Britain had entered the Great War, “and now that shrapnel is killing an entire generation, we are left staring at God.”

Although the wife of Britain’s prime minister, HH Asquith, was never knowingly understated, her words captured the shock of the first global industrialised conflict. The First World War has a good claim to be the greatest turning point in world history, shattering the German and Austro-Hungarian empires, exhausting France and Britain, bringing communism to power in Russia and stoking the hatreds that would bring forth Nazism.

“Now that shrapnel is killing an entire generation, we are left staring at God.”

Yet even now, despite the centenary commemorations, the Great War remains in the shadow of its successor. It has no Dunkirk, no Battle of Britain, no D-Day. In their different ways, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill have entered national legend. But who now remembers Asquith, or even his tirelessly egotistical, priapic successor David Lloyd George? Only one aspect is really fixed in the public imagination: the horror of the trenches, all mud, blood and maudlin poetry. To most people, the rest is just a blur.

Three cheers, then, for Simon Heffer, whose gloriously rich and spirited history of Britain in the Great War, Staring at God, takes its title from Mrs Asquith’s diary entry. The sequel to his fine books on the Victorians and Edwardians, it focuses almost entirely on the home front, and especially on high politics. His narrative takes us from the decision to join the European conflict to the tortured political crisis of 1915, when Asquith was forced into coalition with the Tories, and then on to the Easter Rising in Dublin, the horror of the Somme, the Lloyd George coup against Asquith in December 1916 and the long trudge towards victory.

“The Sledge-Hammer”

As with its predecessors, the great pleasure of Heffer’s book is precisely that it is the kind of colourful, character-driven political history that went out of academic fashion decades ago. In Asquith, for example, he finds a tragic hero: a brilliant, self-made lawyer whose command of the Commons had earned him the nickname “the sledge-hammer”, and who had been an impressive reforming prime minister for six years. But as the last Victorian Liberal in Number 10, Asquith failed to grasp the new demands of total war.

Herbert Henry Asquith, first Earl of Oxford and Asquith, with his wife, Margot.

While thousands were dying in the fields of Flanders, he would spend his afternoons reading novels at his club, the Athenaeum. During the offensive at Neuve Chapelle in 1915, in which Britain suffered some 7,000 casualties, the prime minister reclined in an armchair having his hair cut, absorbed in a collection of modern English essayists.

And what was worse, as Heffer shows, Asquith had become obsessed with his daughter’s friend Venetia Stanley, 35 years his junior. He spent cabinet meetings, when he should have been focused on the war, writing her love letters. And when she told him that she was marrying his cabinet colleague Edwin Montagu, he came close to a nervous breakdown.

During the offensive at Neuve Chapelle in 1915, Asquith was having his hair cut.

Yet Heffer tells his story with considerable sympathy. As he points out, Asquith was the last champion of a tolerant, laissez-faire, live-and-let-live liberalism that was being blown away by the pressures of war, but he was a better man than many of his critics. One of the chief villains of this story, for example, is the media magnate Lord Northcliffe, who owned almost half the newspapers in Britain, including the immensely influential The Times.

It was Northcliffe who had whipped up intense anti-German paranoia before the war, commissioning invasion stories in which the aggressors specifically targeted towns with very high Daily Mail circulation. Now he went to work with a will, his papers demanding internment of foreigners and haranguing the government about shell shortages. Asquith, said The Times in December 1916, incarnated the “spirit of pacifism”, which is why he had to go.

For the man who replaced him, David Lloyd George, Heffer has no time at all. He paints the mercurial Welshman as a “man on the make”, manipulative, “rampantly ambitious” and “schooled in deceit”. He shows how Lloyd George cold-bloodedly plotted with the Tories to stab Asquith in the back, and then spent three years bickering with his generals, starving the front line of men and lying about it to the House of Commons.

And behind this lies a deeper ideological point. As an admirer of Gladstonian liberalism, Heffer sees the war as the point when Britain abandoned the old high-minded faith for the cynical, corrupt politics of Lloyd George and his cronies, who extended the reach of government into almost every corner of life. “They helped win the war,” he writes, “but altered the tone of public life in Britain for ever, and for the worse.”

At more than 900 pages, Heffer’s book might seem a daunting read. But it zips along, not least because his political narrative is leavened by so many wonderful cultural and social details: the origins of Hubert Parry’s hymn Jerusalem, the banning of DH Lawrence’s book The Rainbow, even the huge appeal of spiritualists and mediums, thanks to the support of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

He ends with a characteristically telling vignette: a diary entry by George V after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. “Please God,” wrote the King, “this dear old country will soon settle down and march in unity.” No such luck.