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The miracle of 1918

Early in 1918 the Earl of Derby, War Minister, bet David Lloyd George, Prime Minister, 100 cigars to 100 cigarettes that the war would be over within the year. Lloyd George eagerly accepted.

He had good reason to. The Allies’ prospects did not look good. Russia was in chaos. Italy had suffered defeat at Caporetto. France had only just recovered from the Nivelle Offensive and the subsequent mutinies. America appeared to be doing little. Only Britain had an effective army in the field and while it had prevented the Germans from launching an all-out attack on the weakened French there was no decisive or significant victory it could point to.

Initially, with the combination of a predicted barrage and tanks Cambrai had looked like a stunning success. But when the Germans counter-attacked the Allies ended up with less territory than they had started with. It looked like a stalemate.

At home, although the U-boat campaign had failed to bring Britain to her knees its impact was being felt. While only sugar was rationed, there was a whole panoply of other restrictions such as price controls, bans on hoarding, standard loaves and standard meals. There were sporadic shortages of such essentials as potatoes and matches.

About the only bright spot was the Middle East where both Jerusalem and Baghdad were in British hands.

As if things weren’t bad enough already, Lloyd George made his own, unique contribution. Convinced that the Western Front was a stalemate he kept troops back at home. He then agreed that the British army should take over more of the line from the French. So, the British army was being asked to do more with less at a time when the enemy was being re-inforced with divisions from the East.

And yet, Lloyd George would still lose his bet. Spanish influenza might have had something to do with it.

The Times 17 January 1918 p6. Notice that bearers had to register with a retailer. Why? one wonders.

28 comments to The miracle of 1918

  • Notice that bearers had to register with a retailer. Why?

    Probably to make it harder to sell ration cards, that would be my guess, as it makes the cards not truly fungible.

  • As if things weren’t bad enough already, Lloyd George made his own, unique contribution. Convinced that the Western Front was a stalemate he kept troops back at home.

    He was acting on the idea that the way to reduce British losses was to give British generals less men. Obviously, it was all the fault of prodigal British generals that the British army was suffering so many casualties and if they were given less men (with which to face the upcoming German attack) then they would be more frugal.

    Afterwards, he displayed his usual corrupt political skill in avoiding a demanded enquiry.

    I assume no-one reading needs the error in Lloyd George’s thinking explained to them.

  • Sean

    I guess Lloyd George did not think much of America?

  • Mr Black

    The war minister was probably basing his bet on logistics, not battles.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I would like to know when and how Mr. Lloyd-George lost his hyphen.

    . . .

    By the way. Is she Miss Ali or Miss Hirsi-Ali? Do any of her admirers know, or must one repair to a Mrs. Ferguson for the real skinny?


    Then there are the Irish, author John Hara, actor and wonderful dancer Donald Connor, and, presumably, Madalyn Murray Hair; the French, such as Tocqueville or, in our own time, essayist Jasay (although born Hungarian, per the Foot), not to mention É. Pont, founder of the illustrious Pont Nemours Company; the Germans, fashionista Fürstenburg (she who, it is said, among other things teaches classes on how to brand fabrics: “Diane von Furstenberg teaches her first-ever online fashion branding class” — I wonder how that differs from branding bulls? — I weep for God and English 😥 ) Although apparently she’s actually Belgian, so maybe that’s different. And Werner Braun.

    I’m not sure if Abou Adhem’s tribe has increased or not. I do wonder whether Mr. Hur, a.k.a. Charlton Heston, is now expected to go about tribeless, or homeplaceless, whichever; and there’s the poor Israeli general and politician Binyamin Eliezer, who I hope has come to terms with his own loss….

  • CharlieL

    Perhaps he was right in doing so; the way things had been going there soon would not be enough men left to spread their pollen and keep the island populated.

    I shudder when reflecting on the insane loss of life on the fields of France and Belgium. And I am no pacifist.

  • staghounds

    I think that if I were around when this bet was made and I got to hear of it, I would have done my best to beat both men to death with an iron bar.

  • I would like to know when and how Mr. Lloyd-George lost his hyphen

    The correct answer to this is never, David Lloyd George was born to William and Elizabeth George (née Elizabeth Lloyd) with the “Lloyd” part being a middle name rather than a surname.

    William George died when his son was only 18-months old and to avoid poverty and destitution widow and son moved into shared accommodation with her brother Richard Lloyd who was a shoemaker and Baptist minister.

    Richard Lloyd became a replacement father to David and as well as teaching him the art of religious oratory, he also imbued him with his strong belief in Liberal politics and established him as an articled clerk (a trainee solicitor).

    Through personal usage and reference “David George” became “David Lloyd George” and it was only at his ennoblement that this was formalized as Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor (now with a hyphen).

    I don’t believe that his transformation from David George to David Lloyd George was an affectation (although it may have been), but rather an acknowledgement of everything that the Lloyd family (both Richard and Elizabeth) had done for him.

  • staghounds

    If I’d been the King and gotten to hear of it, both men would have been personally assisting the war effort in a wet ditch in Flanders before the next sunset, and would have stayed there until they found out who won.

  • Julie near Chicago

    JG, thank you very much for the explanation. I’ve been wondering about George’s hyphen issue for years; it used to be that I seemed never to see him unhyphenated, so to speak, and given that the English language seems have to devolved from a state of flux and constant confusion into complete chaos, I never know what’s meant by what is said anymore.

    Now at least one irritant to a mind which wishes desperately to be orderly (when beggars will ride…) has been removed.


  • Patrick Crozier

    “I shudder when reflecting on the insane loss of life on the fields of France and Belgium. And I am no pacifist.”

    It had a profound effect. I have seen more than one account of men decorated on the Western Front becoming passionate appeasers in the Thirties. I can’t help but think that part of the reason for the “Soft Underbelly” strategy and the Bomber Campaign was to stave off another Western Front for as long as possible.

    The irony, of course, is that Britain got off lightly. Every other power: France, Germany, Russia suffered worse.

  • Lee Moore

    Perhaps Lloyd George was the optimist. Maybe the War Minister was expecting defeat.

  • Edward

    Julie, he did gain the hyphen when he was ennobled as Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor shortly before he died. He had two children that entered politics, both of whom used Lloyd as part of their surname:

    Gwilym Lloyd George, 1st Viscount Tenby: His second son, Liberal then Conservative. Home Secretary 1954-57, when he retired and took his peerage title.

    Lady Megan Lloyd George: His youngest child, Liberal, then Labour.

  • Horatio Hufnagel

    Lions led by donkeys indeed

  • staghounds, while I despise Lloyd George as one of the most corrupt prime ministers we have had, I cannot imagine why you would even criticise the making of such a bet. It is extremely proper for a prime minister and a war minister to debate the likely future of the war, and a bet is often the way simply to say, “Let us agree to disagree, till time reveals the outcome.” Had the bet been for a sum that might motivate Lloyd George to influence the outcome, there might be a conflict-of-interest issue, but even Lloyd George could not be bought for 100 smokes – certainly not by that stage of his career.

    IIRC Monty and Ike had a similar bet over whether WWII would end in 1944, with Monty winning. Unless you see that as culpable too, you had better find another reason (there are many) for beating Lloyd George to death with an iron bar, and perhaps consider letting the Early of Derby (between whom and Lloyd George there was no love lost) off the hook.

    The Earl of Derby won his bet – but it was a somewhat close thing. On November 1st, he may still have been keeping an eye out for a cheap source of tobacco products. 🙂

  • The Sanity Inspector

    I can’t imagine facing those titanic events point-blank in real time.

  • Richarli

    So. Did the result hinge on the depredations of Spanish flu? Were the Germans hit harder?

  • Lee Moore

    I cannot imagine why you would even criticise the making of such a bet

    I think the theoretical social rule is that you don’t bet on tragedies, as that implies you’re taking the tragedy lightly. Obviously exceptions have to be made for people writing insurance.

    A better rule would be don’t bet on tragedies within the view of people who are afflicted by them. Lest you make them think you’re treating their tragedy lightly, and thereby increase their burden. Which then raises the further (rather questionable) rule – don’t do in private what you are unwilling to defend in public.

    But wars – they tend to go on for a while, so making a social rule that you can’t ever take the war light heartedly would seem likely to deal such a devastating blow to morale that you’d increase your chances of losing.

  • staghounds

    What Lee Moore said, I’m paragraph two.

    Also I don’t see how anyone who had spent three years of sending hundreds of thousands of people to kill and die, even in a righteous cause and doing his best, could “take it lightly”, ever. I suppose it’s good that our Masters have detachment so they can run the slaughterhouses. Which need running.

    The old men of my childhood all went to France, and maybe I feel a bit more connection than I ought. Lacking that detachment.

  • So. Did the result hinge on the depredations of Spanish flu? Were the Germans hit harder?

    In his 2008 work “Contagion and Chaos” Andrew T. Price-Smith made exactly that argument, since the mortality of Spanish flu in Germany and Austria appear to have been much greater than in Britain and France, this may have contributed to the victory of the Allies.

    Contagion and Chaos by Andrew T. Price-Smith

    What is seldom realised is that Spanish flu came in two waves, with the second wave far more deadly than the first. Those countries infected during the first wave had immunity from the deadlier second wave.

  • Alisa

    Those countries infected during the first wave had immunity from the deadlier second wave.

    It was the same strain?

  • TDK

    The Times 17 January 1918 p6. Notice that bearers had to register with a retailer. Why? one wonders.

    I recall reading in some book years ago (sorry I can’t be more specific):

    Because of two reasons
    1. Assuming you always shopped at the same location was an aid to Planning. eg. A butcher was himself rationed – his share was pro rata to his expected clientele
    2. It was easier to protect against fraud. eg. If you were counterfeiting coupons then they were worthless everywhere except at the nominated outlet

  • Paul Marks


    I just wrote a very long comment – I was almost at the end of it, then I pressed the wrong key (or something) and I lost it.

    I hate typing.

    I really hate typing.

  • Paul Marks

    I will try again. At least a shorter version – although my heart is not in this now.

    I used to think that David Lloyd George was too much of a coward to get rid of Haig (in spite of his endless disasters) and Robertson – now I suspect it was worse than that. In a way it was convenient for the Prime Minister to have men in charge (although he eventually replaced Robertson with Henry Wilson) that those-in-the-know understood he did approve of. Appoint your own man and you (the Prime Minister) are responsible for the deaths. Keep someone in place that you are known (by the people who count) to not approve of – and nothing is your fault. David Lloyd George was a deeply cynical man – of course so was Haig as he proved when he got rid of his henchman Gough (someone has to take the blame for the the early German Operation Michael victories – it is going to be you or me, and-it-is-not-going-to-be-me, but do not be too sorry for Gough he was actually just as useless as his master Haig himself, years on the Western front had taught Gough nothing, the organ grinder and the money were as bad as each other).

    An Irishman would have killed Haig (Sir John French, culturally Irish, had suggested [in jest or not – and partly motivated by a personal grudge, which is very Irish] having him taken out into Horseguards and shot – and Robertson as well), but this is England and the culture of the blood feud is considered out-of-date here (possibly a shame – as there is a lot to be said for the old way of doing things), the English way (and Scottish and Walsh way to) is to sack someone, not to kill them, but the Prime Minister thought he was too clever for that. It was Sir Henry Wilson who ended up being killed – shot down by two IRA men, who had come for him at a memorial event, as he advanced on them with his ceremonial sword (perfectly rational actually – if all you have have as a sword, close-the-distance). But I think that is how Sir Henry Wilson would have wanted to go – he was (Protestant) Irish himself, and no stranger to personal violence. As he used to say “I was not born with this ugly face” (he made a joke of how a bullet in the face in his youth had somewhat changed his looks), and he was full of good humor and jokes (especially when things were bad). For example (like Patrick) he totally opposed “Easterners” (people like myself), but he would warm their hearts with humor and funny stories (an unkind person would have called it Blarney) and he was known (as Sir John French was) for personal physical courage (if not the moral courage of being eager for actual command) – unlike some people already mentioned. Besides by 1918 a “Westerner” strategy was all there was, Russia was gone, thanks to the Germans managing to put “Lenin” in charge.

    I must confess that Sir Henry Wilson would have, most likely, wrapped me round his little finger (it is very hard to disagree with a man who is making you laugh) – whereas if Haig had tried his man-of-few-words-but-manly-words act on me I would have just told him to go away (ditto Robertson with his exaggerated proletarian act – “dropping his hs” as no-one-else-in-his-family-did). If someone under your command implies that they can not talk to you because you are not a professional soldier – then tell them to go away, and use those exact words.

    However, the Prime Minister violated one of the basic rules of war (and much else) either support your commander or replace him – “back him or sack him”. After his disgraceful conduct in relation to Loos, the Somme, Passchendaele….. Haig could not really be “backed” so he should have been “sacked”, not kept in place (essentially as an “Aunt Sally” to take the blame for deaths) and starved of men for fear he would get them killed. And that is exactly what the Prime Minister did.

    Turning one’s eyes from these matters…. there were positive things to report.

    The Earl of Cavan (a real aristocrat Cavan did not put on the endless act that Haig did – he did not need to pretend to be what he actually was) managed to restore the situation in Italy (as Plumer had done) and Plumer did well tactically in the later part of 1918 on the Western front – as his biographer Geoffrey Powell (an establishment man to his fingertips) explains, by 1918 Plumer had evolved a way of seeming to obey Haig’s orders whilst actually doing what he (Plumer) wanted to do.

    Foch did a good job as supreme allied commander seeming to be able to guess everything about the Germans in the latter part of 1918 – Foch did not really have telepathic powers, French intelligence had broken German security (but a good commander takes advantage of information he is given – and he does not reveal that he is playing cards with a loaded deck). Haig, in his writings, tries to take credit for the work of Foch – but that is just Haig being Haig, he reminds me of he fictional character Harry Flashman in his attitude to the truth, accept that old Flashy was vastly more entertaining than Haig.

    Pershing, the American commander, is a difficult case. As a battle commander he was no good (perhaps as bad as Haig) – Pershing had no experience of large scale warfare and he did not react well, indeed the young Douglas McArthur decided to inversely model himself on Pershing i.e. do everything radically differently if ever got command (which he did – in World War II in the Pacific), but there is another side to Pershing.

    Pershing organized a vast army from essentially nothing. Yes it was technically Bulgaria (their falling apart) that was the straw that broke the camel’s back in the case of German General Ludendorff – but it was really the millions of Americans who were arriving (and were preparing to arrive) that broke Ludendorff – he knew he had no answer to such numbers and such resources.

    For Patrick is correct Germany was cracking internally – in spite of the looting of the east of food and everything else (thanks to “Lenin”, the traitor the Germans had put in power in Russia), Germany was falling apart.

    One man knew above all others knew that Lundendoff’s “War Socialism” had failed – Lundendorff himself (although he would never admit it – and continued to be a totalitarian to his dying day). As Ludwig Von Mises pointed out in his “Nation, State and Economy” (written with the events still fresh in his mind) the German “War Socialism” was only a success in its PROPAGANDA – people who did not know the fact (especially outside the Central Powers) believed in it, people who watched it close-up knew it was a sick farce. In truth Prussian statism had always been a show – even Frederick the Great has only won because the British subsidized him (the Prussian economy under Frederick was actually a mess) and because his main enemy, the Russian Empress Elizabeth, died just as she was about to finally crush Prussia.

    Also, in spite of the looting of the east by the Germans, the Allied Naval Blockade was finally biting – what had been intended to break the Germans quickly (and would have done – had not the German who invented poison gas also worked out a way to produce artificial fertilizer on an industrial scale, indeed he has worked out the theory of that BEFORE the war).

    Disease hit the Germans harder partly because they were short of food – and, therefore, weaker.

    Should the Allies have gone on to real victory not the compromise peace of 1918?

    With HINDSIGHT of course they should – but it seemed different at the time with all the millions of dead and the prospect of even more dead, a march on Berlin seemed too much. The artificial German state (created as recently as 1871) would continue – thus creating the 2nd World War, and still creating problems for the independence of nations (not just Britain – but also Poland and other nations) to this day – as the German government refuses to stop interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, such as Poland, (through its “European Union” thing). They keep saying they have learned their lesson – but their actions (their deeds) show, sadly, they have not. This is very sad – as in many ways the Germans are better people than ourselves, more cultured, harder working, better educated, and-so-on. But they, or their leaders, will just-not-stop.

    Yes many French and Americans wanted to fight on – but the British position (not just Haig, for all I despise the man, it was the general British view – NOT just him) of compromise – won out.

    Even after four years of war such sayings as “do not talk to an enemy till after you have choked them to death on their own blood” sounded uncivilized to British ears – and perhaps they are uncivilized.

  • Paul Marks

    Sorry – the above should read “did NOT approve of” in relation to David Lloyd George and his keeping Douglas Haig, have a man in place who it is known you do not approve of, so you can play the “the deaths are not my fault” game.

    Appoint your own man – and everything that goes wrong is your fault. Clever was David – clever, but also a scumbag.

  • Those countries infected during the first wave had immunity from the deadlier second wave.

    It was the same strain?

    It was a mutated variant of the same strain of Spanish flu (hence the acquired immunity in those previously infected with the first wave). The lethality of the 2nd wave has been attributed to those with strong immune systems which overreacted causing what is known as a “cytokine storm”, it was this rather than the Spanish flu itself which killed them.

    The cytokine storm of severe influenza and development of immunomodulatory therapy

  • John K


    I am largely in agreement with you about Ludendorff and the effects of the British naval blockade on the German war economy.

    I imagine the reason Derby and Lloyd George had this bet was because they did not know how precarious the German position really was in January 1918.

    A sensible German government (which they did not have) might have tried to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. With the collapse of Russia, Germany was now in no danger from the east, but with the entry of America into the war surely faced defeat in the west in 1919.

    It follows that an offer of a compromise peace in January 1918 might have been met favourably in London and Paris. Germany could have offered to quit Belgium and pay for the damage they caused. Lorraine, which was historically French, could have been offered back to them, and Britain and France could have kept Germany’s African colonies, which they had captured anyway.

    In this way, the war aims of Britain and France could have largely been met, and Germany could have consolidated its position in the east, where Finland, the Baltic states and the Ukraine were free of Russia. The Ottoman Empire would still have fallen apart, and I don’t know what would have happened to Austria-Hungary. Perhaps Serbia could have been given Bosnia-Herzegovina? That would teach them not to murder Archdukes.

    I imagine President Wilson would have been unhappy with this, and his Fourteen Points would never have got off the ground, but you have to take the rough with the smooth.

    Sadly, Ludendorff was a fanatic, so none of this ever happened. In many ways World War One ended in the worst way possible. A compromise peace in January 1918 would not have been so bad. Nor would a total Allied victory, leading the the dismantling of Germany, in 1919. The November 1918 Armistice did not really settle the issue of what to do about Germany, which is why we had to revisit the question in 1939. We are still living with the consequences.

  • Paul Marks, (January 22, 2018 at 10:12 pm): “Appoint your own man – and everything that goes wrong is your fault. Clever was David – clever, but also a scumbag.”

    You may know, and if not be interested to know, that even John Terraine agrees with you on that one point. After describing Lloyd George’s desire to sack Haig at the end of 1916, he says (I quote from memory): “… and it could be argued that, regardless of the facts, as Prime Minister, he should have done so rather than retain a commander in whom he did not have confidence.” However Haig had powerful supporters (including press barons), and Lloyd George “knew weak political ground when he saw it”, so instead he kind-of put Haig under the command of Nivelle up to the latter’s disastrous offensive.

    (As before, we had better just agree to disagree about Haig.)