In the later stages of the First World War there arose a widespread feeling that ex-servicemen deserved some kind of reward for the hardship they had endured during the conflict. This feeling was most eloquently expressed in the House of Lords in April 1918 by the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury who said: ‘To the young manhood of Britain today we owe now, and every coming generation will owe, a debt of gratitude which it is beyond the power of language to express.’ 4
There was also the fear in some circles that Bolshevism and the unrest prevalent in Europe at the time could spread to Britain. At a meeting of the War Cabinet on 3 March 1919 the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, was reported as saying: ‘In Europe we were now faced with very serious conditions. Russia had gone almost completely over to Bolshevism, and we had consoled ourselves with the thought that they were only a half civilised race; but now even in Germany, whose people were without exception the best educated in Europe, prospects are very black… In a short time we might have three-quarters of Europe converted to Bolshevism. None would be left but France and Great Britain.’ 5 He believed that Britain would hold out, but only if the people were given a sense of confidence – only if they were made to believe that things were being done for them. Sir Auckland Geddes considered that, if we were not prepared to settle men on the land, they would emigrate.
To counter such fears, Lloyd George advocated the kind of policy which had been pursued in Ireland at various times since the 1870s and in more recent times under a land purchase programme, introduced in 1903 by the then Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour. Balfour had found, said Lloyd George, ‘a condition of social disorder, chronic trouble, poverty, and misery, which he desired to ameliorate, and two Acts were passed. He had developed a large scheme for settling labourers on the land. It was not an economic scheme. It involved considerable grants from the State, certainly up to the beginning of the war, if not since. There was no doubt that Ireland had benefited thereby.’ 6 Under this legislation tenants were enabled to purchase land by borrowing from the Government and repaying the loan over 68 years.
But what were the views of the servicemen themselves? Some attempt was made to answer this question, as revealed in the House of Lords on 26 February 1918, when Lord Ernle, the President of the Board of Agriculture, was asked about the demand for smallholdings among the troops. He replied that a commissioner had been sent out to France, charged with explaining the present proposals to the men in one Army Corps. A few days later their votes had been taken. It appeared that for holdings up to 20 acres, the demand was very small, but 75% of the men had declared for a holding with only an acre or half-an-acre of land attached. They all appeared to realise that a smallholding was a very doubtful means of supporting oneself. They regarded it as ‘a very good crutch, but a very bad leg’.7 Lord Selborne, Assistant Director of the War Trade Department, summarised the findings thus: