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Lord Halifax, Baron Irwin
Edward Frederick Lindley Wood

Edward Frederick Lindley Wood was born in April 1881 at Powderham Castle in Devon, the home of his maternal grandfather, the eleventh earl of Devon. He was the sixth child and fourth son of Charles Lindley Wood but became heir to the family viscountcy. He was born with an atrophied left arm.

He was educated at St David's preparatory school in Reigate, Eton, and Christ Church, Oxford. He took a first-class degree in modern history and was elected to a fellowship at All Souls in 1903, which he held until 1910. In 1904 he undertook a tour of South Africa, India, Australia, and New Zealand with his Oxford friend Ludovic Heathcoat Amory. In September 1909 he was married to Lady Dorothy Evelyn Augusta Onslow, daughter of the fourth earl of Onslow.

Wood won the parliamentary seat of Ripon in the general election of January 1910 which he held until 1925. During World War One he served in the Queen's Own Yorkshire Dragoons and was mentioned in dispatches in January 1917. From November 1917 until the end of 1918 he was Deputy Director of the Labour Supply Department in the Ministry of National Service.

In May 1920, he was appointed Governor-General of South Africa, although the offer of the position was subsequently withdrawn. In April 1921 he became Secretary for the Colonies in April 1921. He joined the Cabinet as President of the Board of Education from October 1922. After the short-lived Labour Government of 1924 he was appointed Minister of Agriculture from November 1924.

In March 1926 Wood departed for India to serve as Viceroy and Governor-General. Giving up his seat in the House of Commons he took the title of Baron Irwin of Kirby Underdale. A conference in December 1929 between Irwin and political leaders in India failed to produce agreement and Gandhi started his campaign of civil disobedience. Irwin was forced to order his arrest. On Gandhi's release in January 1931 the two scheduled eight meetings which culminated in the "Delhi Pact" of March 1931 which ended civil disobedience. Irwin returned home in May 1931 at the end of his five-year appointment, receiving a knighthood of the Garter,

In June 1932 Irwin was re-appointed as President of the Board of Education. In 1933 he succeeded Viscount Grey as Chancellor of the University of Oxford and on the death of his father in January 1934 became Viscount Halifax.

In June 1935 Halifax was appointed to the War Office, before moving in November 1935 to became Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords. In May 1937, he became Lord President of the Council while still leading the Lords. The office of Lord President of the Council was one of the great officers of state, and a member of the ministry, responsible for the formal direction of the Privy Council. The duties of the office consisted of presiding on the not very frequent occasions when the Privy Council met. The office was of considerable importance when the powers of the Privy Council, exercised through various committees, were of greater extent than at the present time. For example, a committee of the lords of the council was formerly responsible for the work now dealt with by the secretary of state for foreign affairs. The office was very frequently held in conjunction with other ministerial offices, for example, in Gladstone's fourth ministry the secretary of state for India was also lord president of the council. He is invariably a member of the House of Lords, and he is also included in the cabinet.

In the early months of 1936, quite probably before the Rhineland crisis, Chamberlain introduced a comprehensive peace plan which called for an appeasement of the de facto "Axis" Coalition with a premium on the preservation of peace. Chamberlain's appeasement policy was opposed by Sir Robert Vansittart at the Foreign Office from the beginning and, within the Cabinet, by Mr. Eden after the summer of 1937 and finally by Lord Halifax in 1938.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Chamberlain, Britain evinced a growing desire to come to terms with Hitler and Mussolini. War in the Far East and conflict with the fascist countries in Europe seemed to threaten British interests at too many points. Chamberlain was determined to relieve this situation through agreements with Berlin and Rome. Lord Halifax was sent to Germany late in November 1937 for conversations with Hitler and other German leaders. These interviews proved disappointing.

In a fateful meeting of the Nazi chiefs on November 5, 1937, Hitler had outlined his plans for the conquest of Austria and Czechoslovakia and of his general plans for the Nazi drive for Lebensraum. On November 19, 1937, Hitler was visited at Berchtesgaden by Lord Halifax, who held the position of Lord President of the Council and ranked second in the Cabinet to the Prime Minister. Lord Halifax made the fatal error of informing Hitler that any changes must be by peaceful means and not in a manner which would cause international repercussions. This tended to convince Hitler that the British would not fight for central Europe. Hitler reasoned that the French would never fight without Britain.

During their conversation, Lord Halifax led Hitler to believe that Britain would allow him free hand in Eastern Europe to pursue his desire for lebensraum. German documents show, these events precipitated Hitler’s action. He thought that the lights had changed to green, allowing him to proceed eastward. It was a very natural conclusion.” Hitler was convinced that with the controlled will of the people and the “green light” from Britain, nothing could prevent his dream of lebensraum from becoming a reality.

One of Halifax's closest friends was Lord Londonderry, a former leader of the Northern Ireland Senate and aircraft minister in the MacDonald coalition government. After being sacked from that job, Londonderry toured Germany in early 1936 striking up a friendship with Goering. Back home the Nazi ambassador, Ribbentrop (who would become Hitler's foreign minister), was a regular house guest. In 1938 Londonderry published Ourselves and Germany, a defence of appeasement and the Nazi regime, and in January of that year he signed a message of support published in the Berliner Tageblatt on the anniversary of the Nazi 'revolution'.

The statement which Lord Halifax made before the House of Lords, in October 1938, was completely incompatible with the intentions of Chamberlain. In October Halifax said, "if only Great Britain would say clearly and unmistakably for all to hear that she would resist any unprovoked aggression against Czechoslovakia, no such unprovoked aggression would be made."

After the resignation of Anthony Eden, Halifax was appointed as Foreign secretary in February 1939. Britain did not object to Danzig being returned to Germany, knowing that a plebiscite would result in an overwhelming vote in favor of return. Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, deemed Danzig and the Polish Corridor to be “an absurdity.” Hitler wanted an alliance with Poland, not war. He issued a directive to his army commander in chief: "The Fuehrer does not wish to solve the Danzig question by force. He does not wish to drive Poland into the arms of Britain by this."

In early February 1940 Lord Halifax passed a peace proposal to Hitler's deputy Goering through a Danish contact of the pro-Nazi historian Sir Arthur Bryant. Halifax remained in Chamberlain's, and then Churchill's War Cabinets until his departure in January 1941 to become British ambassador in Washington.

Halifax was equally as responsible as Chamberlain for the surrender to Hitler at Munich. In July 1939 Hitler's adjutant reported Halifax as saying that he 'would like to see as the culmination of his work the Führer entering London at the side of the English King amid the acclamation of the English people'.[A Roberts, Eminent Churchillians (Phoenix, 1995), pp 16-17] Halifax did not deny this statement when it was made public after the war.

The responsibility of Chamberlain, Halifax, Hoare, Daladier, and Bonnet for the disaster of 1940 was clear almost from the start of the Second World War. At various points in the course of World War II events could have progressed quite differently. A number of scenarios involve Lord Halifax’s rise to power in England rather than the more bellicose Winston Churchill following Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s demise.

Halifax was in the running for Prime Minister in May 1940; the job was his to refuse. The Tory Party, and the King both wanted him. When Chamberlain resigned he hoped Halifax would succeed him, but the matter was decided otherwise in a meeting between Chamberlain, Halifax, and Churchill. A “realist” prime minister in May-June 1940 might have explored the possibility of a negotiated departure of Britain from the war by formally accepting German hegemony on the continent (including British evacuation of Gibraltar) in exchange for Hitler’s guarantee of the British empire’s integrity. Indeed, some members of Churchill’s cabinet — notably Lord Halifax — are known to have favored exploration of a possible settlement via an approach to Mussolini.

In July 1940 Hitler called on the British to come to terms with Germany and "save themselves" from the horrors of war. Lord Halifax broadcast Britain's answer to the world. "Hitler has now made it plain that he is preparing to direct the whole weight of German might against this country. This is why in every part of Britain, in great towns and villages alike, there is only one spirit of indomitable resolution. Nor has anyone any doubt that if Hitler were to succeed it would be the end, for many besides ourselves, of all those things which, as we say, make life worth living. We realize that the struggle may cost us everything, but just because the things we are defending are worth any sacrifice it is a noble privilege to be the defenders of things so precious. . . . We shall not stop fighting until freedom, for ourselves and others, is secure.. .. Where will God lead us? Not, we may be sure, through easy or pleasant paths. That is not His way. He will not help us to avoid our difficulties. What He will do is to give to those, who humbly ask, the spirit that no dangers can disturb. . . ."

He continued as Ambassador until May 1946. In May 1944 he was awarded an earldom. In later life he served as Chancellor of the University of Sheffield and as Chairman of the General Advisory Council of the BBC. He wrote a volume of memoirs, "Fullness of Days", published in 1957. He died in December 1959.

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Page last modified: 29-01-2017 16:58:42 ZULU