'A fit country for heroes': 100 years since Lloyd George made legendary speech in Wolverhampton
“What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.”
The timeless words of David Lloyd George, delivered in front of a packed crowd in the Black Country just days after the end of the First World War.
The Prime Minister, basking in the glory of being hailed ‘the leader who won the war’, chose Wolverhampton as the place to kick off his victorious general election campaign.
And the Welshman’s speech – delivered at the city's Grand Theatre 100 years ago today – has gone down in the annals as one of the greatest in British political history.
- Scroll down for the full text of DLG's speech
Lloyd George had gained a sterling reputation during his time as the Coalition Government’s Minister of Munitions from 1915-16, industrialising arms manufacture in places such as Dudley – where a National Projectile Munitions Factory was built – and boosting Britain’s war effort.
Having taken over as Prime Minister in 1916, the Liberal politician led the Allied Powers through the rigours of war to the Armistice on November 11, 1918.
So when he visited Wolverhampton just 11 days later, he was widely considered to be a national hero.
On his arrival at 2pm at Low Level Station, hundreds of people had gathered at the entrance to cheer him on, while others pushed their way onto the platform to get as close as possible to their hero.
He was accompanied by his wife Margaret and his private secretary, and was greeted by the Mayor, Councillor AG Jeffs, along with town clerk Sir Horatio Bevitt.
Once outside the station, Lloyd George was whisked away in Charles Tertius Mander's waiting car to the famous Wolverhampton family’s home The Mount, where he would stay during his short visit to the region.
The following morning at 11am, Lloyd George rose in front of a packed Grand Theatre to set out his debt of gratitude to those who had aided the war effort, as well as his vision for Britain's future.
He told the crowd: "The work is not over yet."
“What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in,” he continued.
“I am not using the word ‘heroes’ in any spirit of boastfulness, but in the spirit of humble recognition of fact.
“I cannot think what these men have gone through. I have been there at the door of the furnace and witnessed it, but that is not being in it, and I saw them march into the furnace.
“There are millions of men who will come back. Let us make this a land fit for such men to live in.
“There is no time to lose. I want us to take advantage of this new spirit. Don’t let us waste this victory merely in ringing joybells.”
He also called for a better standard of homes for British people, describing the state of housing in the country as ‘a national concern’.
Freedom of the borough
Following his speech – which was greeted by rapturous applause from the room of mainly Liberal supporters – he was given a reception at the Town Hall – now the Magistrates Court on North Street – where the freedom of the borough was bestowed, before he was served tea in the Mayor’s Parlour.
He left Wolverhampton for London that evening by train, and the following month his Coalition Government secured a landslide victory in the General Election.
It marked the first national poll to be held in a single day, and the first where all men aged over 21 and women over 30 could vote.
Historian Tom Larkin, 88, describes Lloyd George's visit as the most significant 48 hours in the history of the Black Country.
"It is probably on a par with Queen Victoria's visit to Wolverhampton in 1866 when she came to unveil the statue of her beloved Prince Consort,” he said.
"There was a great deal of pride around the region that he chose Wolverhampton to deliver such an important speech, although nobody is quite sure why he chose to come here.
"He clearly had a lot of respect for the Black Country, and my own view is that he believed that his political survival – and Britain's success in the War – was largely down to the hard work of people from these parts in the munitions factories.
"The desire to see him in the flesh was incredible. People were desperate to see him speak because they firmly believed he had won us the war."
Sadly, Lloyd George's bold vision never came to fruition, and years of low wages, poor housing conditions and unemployment followed.
He resigned as Prime Minister in 1922, but remained active in politics. He devoted his energies to social reforms and also played a key role in propelling Winston Churchill to power during the Second World War.
Churchill, incidentally, had graced the Grand Theatre stage nine years before Lloyd George, addressing the Budget League.
Read the speech in full here:
My lords, ladies and gentlemen, we have just emerged from a great peril, we have emerged triumphantly. The greatness of the peril we can hardly conceive, and it will take time for me to fully appreciate its vastness. The greatness of the triumph we can not estimate now.
I met a gentleman the other day who said to me “This victory is so great I can only take it in - in parts”. I think it was one of the truest things said about our triumph. He said “I see one phase of it today and one phase of it tomorrow and on the third day I see another”. This is true about the danger we have averted and about the victory we have gained. Your chairman has referred to the part played in the attainment of this victory by our soldiers and our sailors.
As to our sailors nothing so great in the record of the British Navy has ever before been attained. Never has its men and its leaders shown greater skills, greater resources, greater daring, greater efficiency and higher qualifications of seamanship. Never has the supremacy of our Navy been challenged so resolutely and by such insidious means and never has its triumph been so complete. The world, and especially the freedom of the world, owes much to the Navy.
The Navy of Britain saved freedom of conscience in the days of Elizabeth, when it was challenged by a gross and mighty Empire.
It saved it time and again when freedom was in peril in the days of Napoleon.
Today the freedom of the world owes everything to the daring, to the tenacity and to the valour of the men of the British Navy.
And as to our soldiers it is difficult to talk about them. The dauntless courage which they have displayed during the last four and half years, the human courage, the human endurance. Never in the history of the world has there been such a trial of continuous tests, and the heroism of the British soldiers stood it to the very last hour.
This is not a time for boasting. As your chairman truly said, it is an hour of thanks. Still the dramatic incidents of Thursday last when the German fleet came to the North of Scotland is something that thrills us with pride. When you saw the 30 year accumulation of such dangerous conspiracy, steaming into a British harbour and lowering its flag to the British Fleet, it was something to be proud of.
To this triumph all classes of the people have contributed. There has been no distinction of rank, no difference of creed or faith, of state or condition of life. All opinions, all ranks, all creeds, all faiths have contributed to this memorable sacrifice to save the world. It with this knowledge, that we much approach the next problem.
There is the readiness with which thousands of young men, tens of thousands of young men. left comfortable and luxurious homes to face privations, torture and death.
The stateliest homes on earth today are often the most desolate at this hour. On the other hand, the country realises in a way that it never did before, how much it owes to the citizens who dwell in the humblest of homes.
We sent millions of them thronging to the flag. What would have happened to the British Empire? Make no mistake about it – because I know the peril, I can see the thing working from the inside, and I knew where the danger lay – had it not been for those millions of men that came forward from humble homes to lay their lives on the alter of their country, the British Empire might have been swept away, and at this moment we might have been cowering at the foot of the most tyrannical masters that ever bullied the world.
This knowledge, of a common sacrifice, of a common patriotism, of common brotherhood, of suffering and of effort is sinking deep into the minds of the people of this country; and it is in this knowledge that we approach the next great field in front of us.
We all feel that these heroic men have made a new world possible, and they are entitled to full share of its gladness.
There is, as has never been witnessed before, a new comradeship of classes. I am glad of it, and I am glad that we are approaching the new problem in the spirit of comradeship. Let us keep this as long as we can. Let us finish the task together. Our work is not over yet – the work of the nation, the work of the people, the work of those who sacrificed. Let us work together first. This the appeal that I am making today. What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.
I am not using the word heroes in the spirit of boastfulness, but in the humble recognition of facts. I cannot think what these men have gone through. I cannot think of it. I have been there at the door of the furnace and that is nothing. I have seen them march into the furnace. Thank God there are millions who have come back.
We want England to be fit for such men to live in. There is no time to waste. I want us to take advantage of this new spirit.
The Great War has been like a gigantic star shell, illuminating all over the land, illuminating all the dark places, and we have places in the light that we have never seen before, and we mean to put these things right. There is another thing the great war has shown. The appalling waste of human material in this country. Human material. There is hardly one material placed by Providence in this country which is as much wasted as human life and human strength and human intellect – the most irreparable material of all.
Those in charge of the recruiting offices came to the conclusion that if the people of this country had lived under proper conditions – that is properly fed, properly housed, lived in healthy conditions that sustained life in its full vigour, then there would have been a million more men available who were fit to put in the army. There are millions that are below par.
You cannot bring up children in these conditions. There have been lives lost in this war, millions of men have been maimed, but believe me there are more lives being lost and maimed through the atrocious social conditions that prevail, than through the terrors of this war. Trade, commerce and industry all suffer through the absence of a vigorous community.
Let us deal with one point affecting housing conditions. Slums were not, and are not, intended for the men who have won this great war. They are not fit nurseries for the children who were to make to an imperial race, and there must be no patching up of this problem.
The problem has got to be undertaken in a way that has never been undertaken before, as a great national charge and duty. It is too much to leave it to the municipality. Some of them are crippled by the restricted income which is placed at their disposal. Some are good and some not so good, just like the rest of us – therefore the housing of the people must be a national concern, and must be undertaken as such.
What is the next point revealed by the great war? The enormous waste of the resources of our land. Britain is a very rich country as far as its soil is concerned, and yet we have been importing hundreds of millions of our supplies from abroad. I don’t say you can grow here all that you require, but you can grow a larger proportion than you have grown in past years. We want a more intelligent agricultural policy. The land must be cultivated to its full capacity. That ought to be an essential feature of the new Britain.
During the last two years we made a special effort to increase the cultivation of the land because we were not quite sure what would happen with the new submarines; and we made up our minds that whatever happened they were not going to starve us. Under great difficulty, because thousands of our best agricultural labourers had gone to the front, many of the farmer’s sons and farmers themselves, and the soil had been impoverished of its best labour and we had to increase cultivation of land with reduced labour. But in spite of this we increased the area of agriculture by four million acres. How was that done? By a great combined effort. Broad minded men, farmers and labourers, everybody concerned with the cultivation of the land – we got them to work together for that purpose, and in two years with reduced labour we brought the cultivation of England to where it was forty or fifty years ago. If we could do that with reduced labour, what could we do with the men back on the land. If we bring the population back to the land it relieves the pressures on the labour market, but still more it sustains the labour market.
I have lived a great many of my years in Wales. Perhaps you realise that from my accent. I live in an agricultural area. South Wales is an industrial area. If it had not been for the agricultural area the industrial areas could not have carried on. So the great agricultural policy is a great industrial policy.
A systematic effort must be made to bring the people back to the land. It is it a place to grow strong men. The touch of the soil invigorates and reinforces the people. When there are any signs of exhaustion bring the people back to the old Motherland and the old life of Britain flows through them and they become strong. It is an inspiring occupation. But it must be done systematically, intelligently. The principles of farming are better understood, and science has come into the farming industry like any other, and to increase capacity you must do it on scientific principles. You must have proper supplies of fertilisers which I contend the Government should be responsible for.
I now come to the next point. There must be a scheme for re-settling returned soldiers and sailors. How can soldiers be settled on the land. Those of you who have read the history of Rome know how this problem has cropped up at the end of every war. I do not say all soldiers will get back on to the land. The vast majority will prefer to return to their usual occupations; and I am told a good many of them after living an open-air life, do not want to return to the closer atmosphere of the workshop the factory or the counter. For those who desire to go on the land small-holdings should be provided for them, and they ought to be trained for them. Others might prefer allotments or a house and a large garden where they can earn their living in addition. These different classes must be provided for. There should be a special grant for the equipment of the holding. Where is a solider to get £100 for the equipment? Whatever the size the grant may be for this purpose, it will be small compared to the cost of the war. For these heroic men the cost of the scheme must be provided. That is the least we can do to reward them.
I now come to the question which undoubtedly the war has demonstrated clearly as being of great importance. That is improved transportation is as essential as all other details. Your housing schemes have to be outside of the towns, as your only chance to get land is there. Otherwise you will develop another set of slums. We do not want that.
I should like, if I had time, to develop the question of the importance of the canals. You in the Midlands should have communication with the sea.
In Germany and France great towns like this would certainly be in communication with the main waterways that carry goods to the sea and from the sea. No country was successful, nor could be, without water – and heaven knows there is plenty of it. At present canals are only adapted to the horse transport and this is no use in these days, and there should be canal development on a really grand-scale.
The question of the development of this area is more a matter for the state than the private individual.
Now to another matter. (I hope I am not keeping you too long). You must pay good wages, this is essential in order to enable people to keep up their strength and to bring up their children. You must improve the conditions of the people. You cannot pay the enormous debt of this war unless you increase production all round.
For the last four or five years there has been no manufacturing in the world. It has been burned in the furnace of war, but the world is determined that these arrears shall be made up. There are new countries to be developed. Take Mesopotamia for instance. At one time a great Empire with a population of millions, it is now desolate and a wilderness. Why is it desolate and a wilderness? It has the same soil and the same river flows through it. It is simply bad government. Provide good government and that country will be as rich as ever and it is the duty of Britain to see that it is so.
In spite of the enormous losses of the war, there is a natural increase in the numbers who are capable of productive purpose in this country. The first reason for this is there has been a complete arrest of emigration, and the second and more important reason is that you have a large number of women who for the first time have come into active productive work in our industries, and very excellent work they have done.
I believe it is possible to provide remuneration work for all. But it will take time to work out some of these plans I have laid down. There will necessarily be some dislocation of the labour market. What we have to take care of during the period of dislocation there is no privation.
That is why we want a new parliament at once to begin our plans. The difficulties of carrying it through are enormous. You cannot put it through without real support I know something of parliamentary work. I have faced difficulties and I have made difficulties. I know it from both sides. It is easy to criticise. There is a lovely old adage about the house under construction, not being not like the one that is built.
The critics come out during the building and say: “Was there ever such a place? A pile of bricks; but there is no roof. Can anyone live in a place like this? No windows, scaffolding and the plaster off. Is this not a holy mess?” That is what you say about every building that is half way through.
So you need a parliament that will take no heed of the criticism, either inside the house or in the press. You need to have a parliament that is determined to see the thing through, that will not take heed of the carping and nagging but will see the task done.
Through an election the nation needs to make it clear it is behind it’s ministers and government.
In the future, you will remember what I told you in Wolverhampton today.
The time has come when we must act courageously. The whole nation will join the in the prosperity. A prosperity in which only one class partakes is no prosperity at all.
The war has been won by the unity of all classes, by the sacrifices of every rank, in every condition of life. Patriotism is the common inheritance and virtue of all. So let us in these coming years show that Britain is not yet exhausted of it patriotism, and then you will see the affection for the old country well-up from the depth of our nature to fructify and enrich the land with the love of her children.