Oliver Lyttelton

Oliver Lyttelton

Oliver Lyttelton was born on 13th March, 1893. After being educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, he joined the British Army in August 1914.

A member of the Grenadier Guards, he was sent to France in February, 1915. During the First World War Lyttelton served on the Western Front. By the end of the war he had reached the rank of major.

After the war he went into business and eventually became managing director of the British Metal Corporation. A member of the Conservative Party, Lyttelton was elected to the House of Commons in 1940 as the representative for Aldershot.

Winston Churchill appointed Lyttelton as President of the Board of Trade in October 1940 and he joined the War Cabinet in July 1941. This was followed by posts as Minister of State Resident in Cairo (July 1941 - February 1942) and Minister of State for War Production (March 1942 - July 1945).

Lyttelton lost office when the Labour Party won the 1945 General Election and became Chairman of Associated Electrical Industries (1945-1951).

After the Conservative Party won the 1951 General Election, the prime minister, Winston Churchill appointed Lyttelton as Secretary of State for the Colonies, a post he held until being created Viscount Chandos in August 1954.

Lyttelton wrote two volumes of autobiography, The Memoirs of Lord Chandos (1962) and From Peace to War (1968). He also served as Chairman of the National Theatre Board (1962-1971). Oliver Lyttelton died on 21st January 1972.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Oliver Lyttelton, letter home (21st February, 1915)

Things are quiet, a little shelling now and again, but not much. We lie very low when it is on, right under the bank or in a dugout. All the men have little fires in this and keep decently warm whilst they sleep, which they do in amazing positions. 'Make way' is the commonest remark as we go along the lines, with elbows rubbing the sides. It is impossible to keep really warm, one is either hot and fuggy or else dankly cold. It is not a very active kind of cold but is quite unpleasant. I have taken a photo or two which I hope to send home by someone going on leave.

You see in front of you a greyish clay bank to about two feet above your head, to your right and left about six men before a traverse stops your view. We have, I think, established a certain kind of ascendancy over the enemy lately and any half hearted attempts he has made at attack have been repulsed without difficulty. At night the parapets are improved and men show themselves freely.

The night I was in, we completed a line of trenches gaining connection with the French (we are the extreme right of the British position) digging quite openly above ground without casualties except one engineer hit in the thigh. This, mark you, within 150 yards of the enemy on only a darkish night.

The Royal Engineers are wonderful, they put up wire about 11.30 when the moon was quite bright, bang in front of a new sap trench, without loss. Amazing. The enemy though are chary of showing themselves and if they start fire they get a hottish reply. We buried a few of their dead who had been out for about three weeks, and who lay in the line of this new trench. There are 120 more about the place but we can't get to them.

This digging is ticklish work but losses are very small generally at it. However, it's all done now in the position from which advance is considered impossible, in face of a place known as the triangle on the railway held by the Germans which is impregnable. It will have to be turned elsewhere if it is ever to fall.

(2) Oliver Lyttelton, letter home (5th March, 1915)

We move off, marching to attention until clear of the town, not a man out of step though they are all carrying an enormous amount of kit, wood, charcoal, etc., every rifle properly sloped, every man looking to his front. A sergeant shouts, 'Hold your head up, Brown, you're not fit to be a blank highlander, put him in the report Idle Marching.' The time by the way is about six o'clock, the light rapidly going. Then out on to the famous high road Bethune-La Bassee. Absolutely straight with trees on both sides and pave underfoot. About four miles of this and then we reach Brigade Headquarters, the beginning of the danger zone. The houses are shattered here on both sides of the road and a few bullets sigh over head and a few strike sparks from the pave. A man is hit and the stretchers bear him away. Two shells then, not far off and most unpleasant as we are in column of fours. However no damages done. It is now moonlight and we turn off the main road, forming single file, the light showing up one side of the men very clearly and making their waterproof sheets glisten, and leaving the other in deep shadow. More bullets along this lane though all over our heads. These are all stray shots as we are out of sight of the enemy, as indeed we have been all along. Under the shadow of a building without a roof, but otherwise undamaged (used as a dressing station).

We turn into Hertford Street, the communication trench dug by the Hertford Territorials during the day, when there are only very occasional stray bullets about this area. Walking up a communication trench behind a lot of men is a beastly business. The trench is very muddy, and where the parapet is low and the bullets are coming two a minute (though high, mark you) you may bet the line is held up for a few seconds. This goes on for about three parts of a mile, and then we reach some farm buildings, the walls riddled with shell-holes, which make little irregular pools of moonlight on the floors as we file rapidly through; on again, skirting a big barn, without a tile on the roof, and the woodwork fined down by bullets and the moonlight, into a wonderful grey, gauze-like tracery. This barn has kept its dignity, unlike the other broken buildings that have all lost their self-respect.

(3) Oliver Lyttelton, letter home (6th April, 1915)

I was in charge of an officers' patrol the night before last. We had to crawl out in a mangle field which is planted along the top of Givenchy Hill and our object was to reconnoitre the German trenches which lie over the brow and which cannot be seen from anywhere in our lines. It is a most exciting business being out among the dead men with a revolver. The mangles, which of course have never been gathered, are very pulpy and feel to the touch like a man's head. But we can steer one's way by a sense other than sight. The great thing, and the most difficult thing, is patience. If you go slow enough and keep on your belly you cannot be heard or seen. Instinctively, though, you want to get on and get back quick, and it is hard to restrain the impulse. The Germans sent up several lights but they stood no chance of spotting us among the roots. We steered by a dead man (not by but for, I should say) on the brow and then waited under the parapet of the old German communication trench till one of their flares showed us what we wanted to see. Even then it is difficult to spot exactly how their trenches run. We were about ten yards from the German wire and about twenty-five from their fire trenches, that was the most important thing and showed that their line was a salient and came right up under the brow of the hill. The G.O. and the brigadier were very pleased with the information. I only saw the former - of course if you dig a trench or pull down a house or reconnoitre you always get thanked by the Brigade though they are none of them operations of a really dangerous kind.

(4) Oliver Lyttelton, letter home (1st June, 1915)

There we were in the gallery and the open bit in front of us. A jamb: one or two shells very near us. Then my orderly and I rushed the little open bit but couldn't get far as the men in front were still jambed: the rest of the platoon were then about ten yards behind me, and my orderly and myself and another man were immediately in rear of the platoon in front. About five minutes after the Germans plumped ten shells all exactly at the mouth of the gallery trench and wiped out two of my sergeants (one was not much good, he was wounded severely all down the left side but will recover, the other, the best junior sergeant I had has since died) and the whole of one section. The men were all wounded and buried except two who dug the others out. One man is missing completely. A shell burst on him, I believe. After these ten perfectly placed shells they switched off a little to our right where they did no damage.

All this time I could see nothing of the progress of 2 and 3 Companies as the trench and a fold in the ground hid them from our view. Bullets continued to strike round us. The German trench hereabouts was made by bundles secured to poles and filled in with earth. I sat there smoking and fingering that hurdle and could see about ten men in front of me behind me a little open space with some old equipment - a black leather pouch and a haversack, and then the trench with my platoon sergeant smoking a pipe, his back against one side, his feet against the other.

Suddenly they began to move forward in front. Up we scrambled along a piece where the breastworks were very low. I saw a man fall about twenty yards in front and soon after stepped over him. He was shot through the head, which was lying in a puddle of blood. Next, moving quickly, came on a German lying right in the trench. He pointed to his feet imploringly. They were wrapped and bandaged with sandbags and showed signs of having been trodden in to the mud. I just avoided them and shouted to the men to do the same. Here the trench branched off into a dugout with wallpaper and what looked like a gas apparatus outside. An unarmed German was limping about on one leg, smoking. The cigarettes I learned subsequently had been given him by our men.

We jambed again. This time, however, by looking over the top which I did sparingly, I could see the attack. On the extreme left, perhaps 800 yards away, I could see British infantry pushing forward in rushes of about a platoon, extended to three or four paces. The Germans were bursting wooleys right on the parapet of the hastily thrown up trench: nearer to me I could see a platoon of Grenadiers doubling forward thirty yards at a time whilst two platoons kept up a hot fire from the trench to cover them. It was a stereotyped attack and as far as I could see perfectly executed. Another platoon followed the first. I don't think I saw any fall but some motionless forms were left behind each time. I could see very little more and so sat down in the trench and waited.

An hour later heard: "Attack is held up by machine-gun fire, the Irish are not getting on on the left, no sign of the Canadians on the right. One company (No. 3) has got forward 250 yards but have been badly cut up. Major Barrington Kennet is killed, Mr. Creed is wounded, Mr. Garey is missing." This was not gathered all at once but dribbled through in various messages sent to the C.O. Then the wounded began to come along. Perhaps a hundred of them. Mostly slight wounds, feet, thighs, shoulders, two with smashed wrists. Very pale like all wounded and mostly profane. One said that only eight men of his platoon were left for the last rush, and that two other platoons had suffered heavily. The wounded all gave remarkably accurate accounts of the attack as we pulled them or helped them along the very narrow trench.

(5) Oliver Lyttelton, letter home (21st June, 1915)

The whole place was a sea of mud, and the scene still remains incoherent in my memory, plunging about for overworked stretcher bearers, falling into shell-holes, losing our way, wet and tired, we felt all the time rather impotent. But the work was done. All the wounded, including some of the Scots Guards who had lain out for forty-eight hours, were brought in and most of the dead buried. Some (I think it was three) died before we could get stretchers to take them back to the dressing station or on their way there. You see it takes four men to carry one wounded man and each journey to the dressing station could not be accomplished under four hours. This sounds rather incredible but no one realizes the difficulty of getting about, even for a man unhampered by anything. One mile an hour is good going in the mud for an officer, and you will always find yourself on the right when something has to be done on the left. No light can be shown, and you feel your way for about thirty yards as a rule before falling into a ditch or a shell-hole.

(6) Oliver Lyttelton, From Peace to War (1968)

When Sir Douglas Haig succeeded to the command of the British Expeditionary Force, a much more professional outlook was apparent. He was an intellectual soldier, and versed in his profession. Unfortunately, he too was indoctrinated with the belief that the West was first and last. On the German side, Falkenhayn's insistence on the Verdun offensive, which Von Hoffmann so acidly derided, matched the Allied mistakes.

Sir Douglas Haig is an underrated commander, partly because to regain the initiative was virtually impossible when he succeeded to the command, partly because the subordinate generals, his instruments, were not, with few exceptions, of high professional calibre, partly because the citizen army had little battle experience until 1916.

My own criticism of the High Command would not be sweeping, but would be confined to three faults.

The first was that an obsession for ground, as such, grew up, and permeated the minds of all the junior formations. Capture a pig-sty at the bottom of a hill, overlooked from three sides by the enemy, the sump for the local drainage, and hold it we must and did. Any local commander who wished to withdraw 500 yards to the ridge behind him would have been in danger of being relieved of his command. Even to suggest it provoked questions about his competence and his courage. The large-scale example was, of course, the holding of the Ypres salient: a military folly of the first order. "Ah, public opinion in France, Belgium and Great Britain would not have stood the shock of a withdrawal," would have been the argument. Yet that same public opinion remained steadfast and unshaken when we had to evacuate the Dardanelles.

Secondly, it must be confessed that many of the subordinate generals, at least as high as corps commanders, had little or no experience of handling large bodies of troops and had not, by their past or training, been able to replace experience by professional or theoretical knowledge of their art.

Lastly, arrangements and dispositions were made which tended to increase the disabilities under which many corps and divisional commanders suffered. For example, the system which often made the H.Q. of an Army Corps a static H.Q., through which passed different divisions as they relieved others, was a fundamental mistake. Administratively it had many advantages: tactically, psychologically and from the military standpoint it had none. Corps commanders settled into their chateaux like freeholders, not temporary tenants: their staff with them: the paper work grew comfortably under the military version of Parkinson's Law. No esprit de corps could be built up: none of the troops knew to which corps they belonged. Furthermore, this static bureaucracy got out of touch with the troops and the conditions under which they lived, fought and died. In all my time I only saw one corps commander further up than Brigade H.Q.: he was Sir Julian Byng.

(7) Oliver Lyttelton, letter home (9th January, 1917)

I cannot understand the French at all but I have come to the conclusion that offensively they are better though not very much than we are, but that defensively they are worse. They chance things which we ceased to chance two years ago. I don't think the French take any interest in soldiering unless they are pushing, whilst we rather over-elaborate the detail of defence. However there is very little that we haven't learnt.

8) Oliver Lyttelton volunteered to put up ten evacuees in his large country house. He wrote about it in his book, Memoirs of Lord Chandos (1962).

I got a shock. I had little dreamt that English children could be so completely ignorant of the simplest rules of hygiene, and that they would regard the floors and carpets as suitable places upon which to relieve themselves.

(8) Anthony Eden, Memoirs: The Reckoning (1965)

These new disasters (June 1942) caused a fresh outbreak of discontent with the Government's conduct of the war. On his return from Washington Mr. Churchill faced a censure motion in the House of Commons tabled by Sir John Wardlaw-Milne. Sir Stafford Cripps marshalled our forces, and he did it badly, choosing Oliver Lyttelton, a new hand in the House of Commons, to reply first for the Government. Lyttelton was soon in trouble, despite his courage and his knowledge, simply through not being familiar with the personalities and practices of the House. When he sat down beside me at the finish he was dripping with sweat and muttered: 'I don't know if this is your idea of fun, but it's not mine.' But it did not matter. The Government's critics ranged from Sir Roger Keyes on the right to Mr. Aneurin Bevan on the left and they got into each other's way, the Government finding safety in the strange assortment of their suggestions. In the division lobby they mustered only twenty-five votes.

(9) Oliver Lyttelton, Memoirs of Lord Chandos (1962).

Winston Churchill regarded as an opportunity for ventilating his own views, or even for giving his speeches a trial run: he was frequently irrelevant and often impatient.

(10) A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (1965)

Beaverbrook fought to control war transport. He won. He fought to control labour. He lost. His improvising zest broke on the rock of Ernest Bevin. Beaverbrook had a fatal weakness. He had no political following. He commanded no wide popularity in parliament or in the country. He was in his own words, a court favourite, who owed his position to Churchill's friendship. The protecting hand was now withdrawn. Beaverbrook's defeat was cloaked by the excuse of physical illness. No doubt more lay behind. Churchill could not go into battle against Bevin. Besides he did not want to. Beaverbrook was as enthusiastic for Soviet Russia and the Second Front as any factory worker. Churchill resisted these enthusiasms. This brought Beaverbrook down. He left the government. Oliver Lyttelton became minister of production in his place. Lyttelton belonged to the modern type of managing director who cooperated with trade union leaders. He made no claim to control labour. He did not at first even claim to control priorities and allocations, though he gradually gained this by his control of supplies from America.

(11) Herbert Morrison, An Autobiography (1960)

Oliver Lyttleton became Minister of Production and a member of the War Cabinet. Here was an example of Churchill's sometimes obstinate and determined manner in having his own way. He had favourites of whom he held a very high opinion and he would go out of his way amidst all the major problems of the war to see that these men had a chance to serve him. Usually, and Lyttleton is a case in point, his judgment was sound. Men who had the Churchill outlook were, broadly speaking, the right type for wartime responsibilities, and it could be taken that if he liked them they held much the same views as himself.

Lyttleton was the son of a former well-known Conservative Secretary of State for the Colonies and an old friend of Churchill's. He had not hitherto been prominent in politics and public affairs, and they were not, as subsequent events proved, his real interest.

I first met him at the Ministry of Supply where he was one of the departmental chiefs, using his knowledge from managerial duties in the non-ferrous metal industry. Soon after I was appointed minister Churchill asked me to promote Lyttleton. I had been Minister of Supply for only a matter of a week or two and I felt it would be unwise, as well as unfair to Lyttleton's colleagues, to advance him until I myself had gained some knowledge of the capabilities of both him and others of potential promotion standard.

Churchill very fairly accepted my views. He soon settled the matter in his own way by giving Lyttleton a promotion more important than that which he had asked me to arrange. In October, 1940, Lyttleton became President of the Board of Trade. During the war Lyttleton was a cheerful and cooperative colleague.