The Reading Room

1916 Year of Decision

Review of James Cameron’s 1916 Year of Decision…

Somewhat sadly I come to the final review of all of the late journalist James Cameron’s fascinating catalogue of books written during his remarkable career. It has been a labour of love, a mission to keep alive the memory of one of the all-time greats of twentieth century reportage.

In 1916 Year of Decision we find Cameron returning to the First World War and his second and final book on the subject. His book, 1914 paints a vivid, tragic picture of a country going into war and the battlefield of France. His collection of first-hand accounts breathed a new light and life into a terrible war historians have dissected for decades.

First published in 1962 by Oldbourne Book Company Ltd it was Cameron’s fifth book and he chose to concentrate on a fascinating aspect of British politics in which behind the scenes power battles would go on to create real and dramatic change in Britain’s lagging war effort. Cameron brings to the reader the parts played by Asquith, Lloyd George, Kitchener, Churchill, Beaverbrook and Haig with a real sense of being there in the moment.

By  1916 the war had reached a stalemate, hundreds of thousands of men on both sides had lost their lives and despite the stalemate the Germans were predicting victory. Dissatisfaction with Asquith, the British Prime Minister had grown and Cameron details the remarkable plots to replace him with Lloyd George, a man disliked by his fellow cabinet ministers but much admired by the public. There is also the battle to push through conscription, Kitchener and Lloyd George wanted it whilst Chamberlain opposed it on monetary grounds: “We were bearing the whole cost of the war (Chamberlain said) France had recently intimated that she could not pay her share of the £300 million Anglo-French subsidy promised to the Russians-more than that, the previous week France had asked for a £60 million loan herself, an would doubtless want even more” Chamberlain argued that to remain in the war would require further subsidies to their partners and so continued trade and a full labour market was essential. In the end of course, Lloyd George won but no sooner had they signed off 0n conscription than the reality of the government’s reliance on America came to light.

McKenna, the Chancellor told the cabinet of his  grave concerns for both the ability of a principal Ally to pay and the increasing power of the US to dictate terms to the British government: “At times we have been very dependant on the goodwill of the United States. But up till now I have always been able to last out financially any temporary wave of adverse sentiment or unfriendly action. If the President had publically deprecated the issue of loans to belligerents I should have been disconcerted, but not helpless, because of our considerable liquid resources in gold and securities. We ought never to be placed so that only a public issue in America within a fortnight stands between us and insolvency. Yet we are quickly drifting in this direction. If things go on as at present I venture to say with certainty that by next June or earlier the President will be inn the position, if he wishes, to dictate his own terms to us” It was left to J.M Keynes then of the treasury to reinforce the situation: “…It is therefore the view of the treasury that the policy of this country towards the U.S.A. should be so directed as not only to avoid any forms of reprisal for active irritation, but actually to conciliate and to please” Not an easy task when anti-British sentiment was running so high in America over their handling of Ireland and the treatment of Irish prisoners after the Easter Rising.

Cameron covers an extraordinary year in British political history, it’s value remains to this day, as does his. If you can find a copy it is well worth the read. It gets to the heart of the British establishment and shows how in-fighting and plotting was as rife then as it is today.

For the full bibliography of James Cameron, journalist please click here

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