TV Review – Titanic’s Tragic Twin: The Britannic Disaster and Dan Snow on Lloyd George: My Great-Great Grandfather

Celebrations for the First World War centenary continued in 2016 with events and new books published commemorating and observing the centenaries of the Battles of the Somme and Jutland. It is therefore unsurprising that media attention was focused on the two main events – especially the Battle of the Somme owing to the number of lives lost and its significance to British history and the British psyche.

However, there are also two events that are also significant in their own way but have been overlooked and even forgotten. 1916 also saw the sinking of the hospital ship Britannic and David Lloyd George becoming prime minister, but unlike the Somme and Jutland, the sinking of the Britannic has been forgotten and Lloyd George is almost unknown. Why both have been consigned to near or full obscurity is something the BBC has attempted to address and rectify with two documentaries – Titanic’s Tragic Twin: The Britannic Disaster and Dan Snow on Lloyd George: My Great-Great Grandfather.

HMS Britannic was a hospital ship that began life as the sister ship to the ill-fated Titanic. So much has been written about the Titanic especially the circumstances of her sinking in 1912 that it has overshadowed the story of the Britannic. When the Titanic sank in 1912, Britannic was still being built, so both Harland and Wolff and the White Star Line decided to modify her design by adding a second watertight compartment and adding more lifeboats to avoid another disaster on the scale of 1912. Upon the outbreak of the First World War, Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital ship and by 1916 had already taken part in five missions transporting wounded soldiers from the front back to the UK. On November 1916, Britannic undertook what was to be its final mission before she sank – to go to the Mediterranean to collect the wounded who had been stranded in the aftermath of the Gallipoli campaign. But on 21 November, tragedy struck when the ship hit a mine and the Britannic sank in just under an hour with 30 people dead.

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The documentary was an attempt to piece together what had happened and this was done through the records of some of the survivors, including Charles Bartlett, the captain of the ship; Archie Jewell, a Britannic crew man; Violet Jessop, a White Star Line stewardess who also survived the Titanic and Sheila Macbeth, a nurse assigned to the Britannic. There were also interviews with descendants of the above but what was baffling was the presenter Kate Humble asking the descendants whether they ever “got a sense of what it was like on the day the ship went down”. Such a pointless question, on a par with a journalist asking disaster survivors ‘and how did you feel?’ – and one that didn’t have to be asked if the production had stuck to the story –  from the accounts, the sinking of the Britannic was every inch as dramatic as the Titanic. Captain Bartlett was still hoping to avoid the ship being sunk by heading towards the nearest island but it proved to be futile. In the end, bad luck and human error resulted into the sinking with the loss of 30 lives. Overall, Titanic’s Tragic Twin: The Britannic Disaster was a wasted opportunity for viewers to learn more about the Britannic and the important role played by ships such as these for the war effort, and a superb example of how history increasingly is dumbed down and trivialised for mass appeal.

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TV historian Dan Snow is on the trail of his great-great-grandfather David Lloyd George (fun fact: he’s descended from the older of Lloyd George’s two daughters Olwen), seeking to find out more about his ancestor including skeletons in the cupboard that his family would rather not talk about, and why despite the fact that he won the First World War for Britain, he has been overshadowed by his friend Winston Churchill who achieved the same feat during the Second World War. His journey takes him to North Wales where David Lloyd George grew up (and a young Dan Snow spent his holidays with his grandparents), to London where his political career grew from the strength to strength – ultimately achieving the premiership and Paris where he played a pivotal role in drafting the peace treaties that ended the First World War.

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Snow tries to assess Lloyd George’s life and career in a balanced way and with this documentary he has pretty much succeeded. He examines his great-great-grandfather’s rackety private life – a popular schoolboy song in the early 20th century went “Lloyd George knew my father/Father knew Lloyd George” which was thought to be a reference to his slippery character. Early in his political career he was cited as a co-respondent in a divorce case. Whilst this did not ruin his career, it taught him the necessity of taking a leaf out of the aristocracy’s book and conducting his infidelities with discretion. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George had begun an affair with his youngest daughter’s governess (later his secretary) Frances Stevenson and despite her desire for marriage and family she acquiesced in remaining his mistress and even underwent an abortion so as not to jeopardise his marriage to his wife Margaret. Margaret Lloyd George just like Queen Alexandra played her role too, condoning the affair so long as it did not threaten her own relationship with her husband.

While Lloyd George helped lay the foundations of the modern welfare state as Chancellor of the Exchequer, his greatest success was as Minister for Munitions and as Prime Minister where he introduced a number of innovations that were used again during the Second World War – such as the establishment of a war cabinet and ensuring that minutes were taken. He was also responsible for the idea of bringing in outside experts to help keep the business of the war economy ticking and reached out to the Empire as well, recognising the value of the member countries’ contribution to the war effort. He was seen as a contrast to his predecessor Herbert Asquith, whose languid ways and refusal to change his governing style as the war dragged on played a factor in Asquith being forced out of office in 1916.

Lloyd George was one of the key players during the Paris Peace Conference but the enthusiasm for peace quickly soured as the war economy wound down and the government was faced with millions of unemployed servicemen and women who were forced to step aside once the war was over. His leadership style which suited the war years did not translate well into peacetime and in 1922 he resigned and although he continued to sit in Parliament, never again was he to hold any position of power.

The documentary is not without its weaknesses. Much is made out of Lloyd George’s status as an outsider and fair enough that was the focus especially with regards to his early career but with regards to his relationship with Field Marshal Douglas Haig and King George V, the usual explanation of “establishment vs. outsider” is clichéd and simplistic. Snow could have made more of World War 1 being a war unlike any other and how each of the three men approached the handling of the conflict rather than resorting to the well-worn and overused class based narrative.

Over all Dan Snow on David Lloyd George is an interesting and informative documentary and in the end as Snow himself acknowledges, his great-great-grandfather was not a hero in the classic sense, just a man capable of both greatness and failure.

 

Titanic’s Tragic Twin: The Britannic Disaster was telecast on 5 November 2016 on BBC2

Dan Snow on David Lloyd George: My Great-Great-Grandfather was telecast on 7 December 2016 on BBC1 Wales.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Long Weekend by Adrian Tinniswood

In The Pursuit of Power, Professor Sir Richard J. Evans noted that “British industrialists seemed to many to be to be too keen on ploughing their fortunes into becoming country landowners, rather than reinvesting them into productive technological innovation,” and this observation is noticeable in Adrian Tinniswood’s The Long Weekend which charts country house living between the wars. Although the First World War’s economic and social effects further accelerated the decline of the British aristocracy that began in the 1870s, Tinniswood’s latest tome demonstrates that the country house and the old ways of living were not yet in their death throes but still surviving: albeit on a form of artificial life support.

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It is true that the high taxes imposed following the war and the loss of a generation led to the selling off of huge tracts of land and sometimes entire estates. Houses were also sold and while some were converted to other uses such as for housing, offices, schools, museums, hospitals and even as monasteries and convents, others were demolished and only live on in old photographs and magazine features.  However despite the destruction of a large number of country homes and the dispersal of several estates, many of these homes and estates found new owners while some like the Duke of Portland were even able to expand their homes.

The building and acquisition of country houses during this period was spearheaded by the royal family and the new rich drawn from the banking and entrepreneurial class. After the First World War, King George V had broadened the pool by which his children could find suitable spouses: which meant that, unlike previous centuries, members of the aristocracy were no longer out of bounds as royal marriage partners. His only daughter Princess Mary married the heir to the earldom of Harewood in 1922 and through this marriage the Princess became chatelaine of Harewood House with its impressive Robert Adam and John Carr interiors and gardens landscaped by “Capability” Brown. The union between royalty and aristocracy was further cemented by the marriages of the Duke of York and Duke of Gloucester to Ladies Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott respectively, which led them to set up homes in the manner befitting their status as royal dukes and allow their wives to continue living the lifestyle they had been accustomed to. Meanwhile the Duke of Kent’s marriage a foreign royal, Princess Marina of Greece, led him to acquire Coppins in Buckinghamshire (left to him by his aunt Princess Victoria in her will) which served as an introduction to English country life for the Duchess who with her impecunious upbringing was more used to life in the city.

Their bachelor brother the Prince of Wales acquired his own country house, Fort Belvedere and lived a life that combined both the traditional and modern. While he indulged in traditional country pursuits such as hunting (which he gave up in the mid-1920s), shooting and gardening,  the way he entertained family and friends was a marked contrast to his parents and the older generation. For a start, the food he served his guests was inspired by his travels abroad particularly America. Cocktails and jazz music interposed with the usual games such as cards and charades was also much a staple of dinners and house parties given by the Prince. He and his guests also swam, played tennis and picnicked in the grounds. Informality and comfort were also watchwords at Fort Belvedere, where guests would help themselves during meals and furniture was arranged in such a way as to encourage free flowing conversation. All these were a far cry from the more staid dinners and house parties at Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral.

As mentioned earlier despite the demolition of several country houses, the interwar years also saw the building of new country houses mostly for those who made their money in finance and trade such as the Sassoons and Courtaulds, as well as Americans such as William Randolph Hearst and Harry Gordon Selfridge. Other Americans were content to purchase demolished houses that were transported brick by brick to America, or fixtures that were incorporated into homes, office buildings and hotels. There is nothing new about the likes of the new rich such as Sir Philip Sassoon acquiring a country house as this was precisely one way by which nouveaux riche arrivistes could be accepted and in time join the aristocracy, but perhaps echoing Professor Evans’ quote that industrialists were more concerned about becoming aristocratic landowners than reinvesting their fortunes into industry was one of the reasons why eventually Britain fell behind further in industry and manufacturing.

These new country homes such as Eltham Palace and Port Lympne were built with the latest comforts: en suite bathrooms, electricity and heating. Two names recur time and again in this book – Sir Edwin Lutyens and Philip Tilden. Both were busy with designing or modernising houses ranging from the magnificent Castle Drogo for the entrepreneur Julius Drewe to Chartwell for Winston Churchill during the years between the wars. This was also the period when interior design was becoming a recognised profession and an acceptable career for aristocratic and upper middle class women who had fallen on hard times. A notable example was Sibyl Colefax who with her eye for design and colour as well as her social contacts became the interior decorator of choice for those in society building a new home or updating an old one.

Tinniswood is a master story teller with an eye for detail and he weaves both into his narrative. There is for instance an account of a day in the life of the future Edward VIII in residence at Fort Belvedere that put paid to King George V’s grumbling that his oldest son only wanted that “queer old place” for “those damned weekends”. Gardening, golf and quiet evenings doing needlework or playing the bagpipes are certainly a far cry from the Jazz Age stereotypes of dancing the Charleston while quaffing copious amounts of cocktails. There are also descriptions of the lifestyle of the likes of the Dukes of Westminster and Devonshire who still carried on as their predecessors had lived; the former especially with his various houses around Britain also had a hunting lodge in northern France and two yachts that could be described as “country houses at sea” with their panelled wood and Queen Anne furniture.

But Tinniswood is at his best when he writes about those who were the engine that kept the country house ticking – the servants. Although service became an even less attractive career after the First World War, the great houses such as those of the Astors at Cliveden still had a full retinue of servants that included a butler, housekeeper, lady’s maid, valet, cook, kitchen staff, maids, footmen and those who worked outdoors. The “servant problem” was more acutely felt among the poorer members of the aristocracy and middle class households but even grand households grappled with their own version thanks to to the high turnover of staff, especially among the junior ranks of maids, footmen and kitchen maids. Using Herbert Parker as a case study, Tinniswood charts the changing fortunes of someone who made his career in domestic service through the eleven households and various country houses Parker worked for and the author brings home the point that the high turnover of servants was down to factors such as desire for promotion, higher pay, ability to get on with the employer and colleagues as well as prestige.

Despite the anecdotes of house parties, shooting weekends and the progress of the likes of the Duke and Duchess of York or the Duke of Westminster, the reality was that they were clinging on to a way of life that was in its death throes and which would come to an end in 1939. The Long Weekend is a poignant look at country house life deftly mixed with the political, social, cultural and even artistic conditions of the interwar period in a way that Downton Abbey had the chance to show but consistently and inexplicably failed to present.