Sir Eric Geddes threatens to hang The Kaiser – Cambridge Guildhall December 1918

Summary: 

General election time straight after the end of The Great War. Conservative candidate Sir Eric Geddes, parachuted into the seat standing for The National Coalition of Liberals and Conservatives against Rev T Rhonnda Williams standing for a Cambridge Labour Party still in its infancy.

Sir Eric Geddes at the time of this speech in the Cambridge Guildhall, was also First Lord of the Admiralty – a post Winston Churchill held at the outbreak of war. In his speech he made the case for the League of Nations needing to have a global police force of the seas, and that the Royal Navy was ideally suited for this purpose.

“The British Navy had performed the policing of the seas with impartiality and faithfulness – and the war had demonstrated as nothing had ever done that this country and Empire lives by the sea, and in the anxious days to come it would be the duty of those who represented it at The Peace Conference to see that nothing was done to weaken our position at sea.” 

On the now ex-Kaiser, he was unequivocal:

“The Kaiser must not escape punishment. The arch-criminal responsible for the murders of Capt. Fryatt, Nurse Cavell, the murders of children, the fiendish atrocities on prisoners, and other crimes too numerous to mention, the man on top had got in his own person to expiate those crimes.

“And not only him – he has got a son. That son is in Holland, possibly he is one of the 20,000 aliens waiting to come over here. However, believe me, be it coming over so sure as there is a British Navy on the sea. That man, the late All-Highest, and his late All-Highest son headed the organisation that fostered the spirit that brought this horror of 4 and a half years upon us, and they have got to be punished before we start on the smaller fry.”

“We have got a list of those smaller fry, but you cannot punish the subordinates unless you punish those at the top. That is my first reason why The Kaiser and his son should stand at the bar of the public opinion of the civilised world. Then let him prove his innocence if he can. If he cannot we know what to do. 

“There is another responsibility, and this is not a responsibility of an ordinary man, it is a responsibility of a ruler. If we are going to end this war – I don’t suggest we are, but some people think we should – without double-lining and again double-lining the lesson that a ruler, be he a King, Kaiser or President, who drives armies into war and to death without good reason – if we pass that without marking it with disapprobation of the civilised world, a great deal of this war has been fought in vain. They have got to realise that if they drive millions of men to death and plunge the world into an agony like this, they have got to pay for it in their own skins.”

After praising David Lloyd George as the Prime Minister who won the war, he then went on to consider indemnities Germany needed to pay.

“If I am returned, Germany is going to pay restitution, reparation and indemnity, and I have personally no doubt we will get out of her all that you can squeeze out of a lemon, and a bit more. (Prolonged applause). If you think you know anyone else who can squeeze better, put him in!”

This corroborates with what Leah Manning said in her autobiography, campaigning for Labour – stating that the electorate wanted revenge for what the Kaiser and his forces had done during the war. Voices of the likes of John Maynard Keynes, pleasing for leniency on the new democratic government were ignored. But Geddes was careful to note the Government did not want to damage UK industries as a result of reparations – eg coal reparations depressing UK markets.

“There are some things we do not want to take from Germany at all – our key industries. Every bit of property, movable and immovable, belonging to Germany in neutral and allied countries, be it State property or not, should be surrendered to its allies, and Germany could pay her citizens in her precious paper money. No German should be allowed to own anything in those countries.”

“The Allies should take from Germany all the gold she had got, but that all jewels and silver should be handed over, and that all her pictures, libraries and everything of that kind should be sold to the neutral and Allied world, and the proceeds given towards the indemnity. I would strip her as she stripped Belgium”

Geddes noted that British soldiers were not as healthy as their French counterparts and he put it down to poor health and housing.

“We ought to have realised it before, but did not. It was because we had been badly cared for from a medical point of view. We learnt a lot from the war. We learnt that this country could be cultivated even when the men were away, and we were the only country in which cultivation had increased since the beginning of the war. We have to see that that increase is maintained. We learnt during the war that with better organisation, more modern machinery, better wages and shorter hours, we could produce more, and produce it better. We we going to lose that lesson? I hope not!”

He then had something interesting to say about transport – interesting as he would later become transport minister.

“Transport was the lifeblood and nerves of the nation, and it had never been properly realised in this country. In many respects, our transport system was a model for the world, but there had been legislative restrictions, stumbling stones in the way of progress. It had not been developed in a way which would enable the country to expand as it should. 

“We had learnt in France what railways could do in the way of distribution. There we had a vast network of railways behind the front, and those railways were operating at rates which in peace time would absolutely revolutionise the agriculture and industries of this country. We saw that Belgium and Northern France were covered in a network of light, cheap, agricultural railways and it was that kind of development that we wanted if we were to get the best out of this country”

Unlike his predecessor, Almeric Paget, who was sent upstairs to the House of Lords to make way for Geddes in Cambridge, Geddes very early on declared he was in favour of full equality for men and women.

“It was the Coalition Government that gave you the vote, and stood for full legal equality of both men and women,  and the admission to all branches of national activity on terms of equality – equal pay for equal work. 

“I pay tribute to the way in which women came forward during the war and soot shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of us. I want women to occupy an even more prominent place.”

He also spoke about the impact of women being paid a wage less than what was required to live on – and how this forced some women into prostitution in order to survive – and that this needed to be dealt with.

“There is a certain minimum standard which every man has a right to expect if he is able and willing to work for himself and his children. I took half a day off on Sunday and went to the slums of London. I had never been there before. I was ashamed – ashamed for ourselves and for the women and children and men I saw there. The richest city in the world, perhaps no better or worse than other cities in this country, and our standard of health was about the lowest of all the Allies. Could anyone present, irrespective of creed or politics, say that was right? I cannot!”

“I am not for socialism – for socialism will bring far worse things in its train. But I am for making an end of that horror – for it is a horror. Man is not a machine – we are not entitled to look upon a man’s life as so many hours of work and so many hours of rest. A man is entitled to so many hours of pleasure, and the war has worked a change in all, and we see things differently to what we did before the war.

“We have seen that shorter hours and higher pay go with greater production and productivity. If I am right in my belief that a great majority of our problems are caused by health and housing conditions, if we tackled these conditions we should do far more to abolish the social and moral difficulties than anything else.”

Those are just some of the highlights of his speech which is in full with others in the British Newspaper Archive – requires £subscription.

Do any of the issues on housing, health and transport sound familiar a hundred years later?


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