Archive for the ‘Navy’ Category

September 1939 (II): All at Sea – Naval Developments & Diplomacy; Appendices – Documents and Debates.   Leave a comment

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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Even at the very late hour of August 1939, there were some ministers who publicly argued for the continuation of the appeasement policy. War is not only not inevitable, said Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Defence Co-ordination, seeking to reassure the British public, but it is unlikely. R A (Richard Austen) Butler, later responsible for the 1944 Education Act, then Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, praised Harold Nicolson’s Penguin Special book as a work of art and perfectly correct. As the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax sat in the Lords, Butler was the Government’s spokesman in the Commons, valiantly defending its policy. An enthusiastic Chamberlainite, he regarded Munich not as a means of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Hitler. An unrepentant appeaser down to the outbreak of war, Butler even opposed the Polish alliance signed on 25 August, claiming it would have a bad psychological effect on Hitler. Critics of Chamberlain’s post-Prague policy for ignoring the necessity of encirclement thus found common cause with the ardent appeasers, though Butler himself remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after his final fall from grace. He blamed the Prime Minister’s demise and ultimate disgrace on the growing influence of Sir Horace Wilson at this time, as, for different reasons, did Nicolson.

However, even the tiny window of ‘encirclement’ was soon shut and shuttered by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. For those on the Left of British politics, both inside Parliament and out,  this represented an unthinkable nightmare and spelt the immediate decapitation of the idea of a Popular Front with communism against the Fascist threat. In particular, Nicolson’s argument for an alliance with the Soviet Union was suddenly invalidated. When he heard of it, Harold Nicolson was, like Drake at the time of the Spanish Armada, on Plymouth Sound. He rushed back to London, to hear Chamberlain’s statement to the House. The PM was like a coroner summing up a murder case, Harold suggested. Although sympathetic to Chamberlain’s hopeless plight, he agreed with the verdict of Lloyd George and Churchill that the PM was a hopeless old crow… personally to blame for this disaster. 

002As Hitler wasted no time in crossing the border into Poland at daybreak on 1 September, the moral and diplomatic disaster became a military reality. Later the same day, Churchill was asked to join a small War Cabinet, a sign to all that Chamberlain had finally accepted that reality and now meant business. When the PM addressed the House that evening, visibly under tremendous emotional stress, he read out the allied dispatch sent to Berlin. This contained the familiar words that unless Germany gave a firm pledge to suspend all military activities and to withdraw its troops from Poland, Britain would instantly honour its obligations. However, there was no time limit attached to the word ‘instantly’ at this stage, so the dispatch could not be read as anything more than a warning. It was not an ultimatum. Apparently, this was largely due to the procrastination of the French Government, which, even at this late hour, was hoping for another Munich Conference to be held within 48 hours.

When the House met again the next evening, Chamberlain’s statement was still loosely-phrased.  Was there to be another Munich? was the unspoken question in everyone’s mind, if not on their lips. When the opposition spokesman, Arthur Greenwood, rose to speak, there were shouts from the Tory benches urging him to Speak for Britain. Chamberlain turned around to his own backbenches as if stung. The House adjourned in indescribable confusion and the Cabinet reconvened in Downing Street on what, by all accounts, was literally a very stormy night. The Cabinet decided to present the ultimatum at nine in the morning in Berlin, to expire two hours later. Chamberlain ended the meeting with the words Right, gentlemen..this means war, quietly spoken, after which there was a deafening thunderclap.

As Chamberlain himself remarked soon afterwards, no German answer to the allied ultimatum was forthcoming before 11 a.m. on the third. Harold Nicolson attended a gathering of the Eden group. At 11.15 they heard Chamberlain’s announcement. For them, as for the masses of British people listening, it seemed like the present did not exist, only the future and the past. What could any of them, with all their grandness and wealth, do now? In a strained and disgusted voice, Chamberlain told a benumbed British people that, after all, they were now at war with Germany. As if a harbinger of the nine-month ‘phoney war’ which was to follow, the air-raid siren sounded the last of the Thirties’ false alarms. In the chamber of the House of Commons, an ill-looking Prime Minister made a ‘restrained speech’. As Nicolson drove out of London towards his home at Sissinghurst in Kent, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist, and shouted, it is all the fault of the rich.  There was a real sense in which both the war itself and its aftermath, became a class war in which the aristocratic control of politics which had helped to cause it, was jettisoned by the British people.

British diplomats were even less enthusiastic about the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union than the politicians. In a secret telegram to the Foreign Office, the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir William Seeds, wrote:

I do not myself see what advantage war with the Soviet Union would be to us, though it would please me personally to declare it on M. Molotov. …the Soviet invasion of Poland is not without advantages to us in the long run, for it will entail the keeping of a large army on a war footing outside Russia consuming food and petrol and wearing out material and transport, thus reducing German hopes of military or food supplies.

In a public statement on 20 September, however, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain spoke to the House of Commons about the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland:

For the unhappy victim of this cynical attack, the result has been a tragedy of the grimmest character. The world which has watched the vain struggle of the Polish nation against overwhelming odds with profound pity and sympathy admires their valour, which even now refuses to admit defeat. … There is no sacrifice from which we will not shrink, there is no operation we will not undertake provided our responsible advisers, our Allies, and we ourselves are convinced that it will make an appropriate contribution to victory. But what we will not do is to rush into adventures that offer little prospect of success and are calculated to impair our resources and to postpone ultimate victory.

Fine words, but not matched by action. After the signing of the German-Soviet border treaty in Moscow a week later, Sir William revised his opinion in a telegram of 30 September:

It must be borne in mind that if war continues any considerable time, the Soviet part of Poland will, at its close, have been purged of any non-Soviet population or classes whatever, and that it may well be consequently impossible, in practice, to separate it from the rest of Russia. …our war aims are not incompatible with reasonable settlement on ethnographic and cultural lines.

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On the face of it, this was an incredible suggestion. The Soviet Union had just invaded and was subjugating the eastern territories of a nation to which Britain had given its pledge of protection, yet a senior diplomat was privately suggesting that this aggression should be immediately rewarded. Back in London, another senior diplomat, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick endorsed Seeds views in a report produced on 1 October to which he appended a sketch map of Poland, pointing out that the new Soviet-imposed border mostly followed the ‘Curzon Line’ proposed by the British Foreign Secretary in 1919, which had been rejected by both the Poles and Bolsheviks at the time.

The picture on the right shows German officers discussing with a Soviet officer (far left) the demarcation line between their various pieces of conquered territory after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the invasion of Poland from west and east. 

Nevertheless, there were many among the general population in Britain who were bemused as to why their country had not declared war on the Soviet Union. If the British treaty to protect Poland from aggression had resulted in war with the Germans, why hadn’t it also triggered a war with the USSR? What they were not aware of was that it was not only the Nazi-Soviet pact which had a secret clause, but also the 1939 Anglo-Polish treaty. That clause specifically limited the obligation to protect Poland from ‘aggression’ to that initiated by Germany.

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

The sixth-month hiatus between the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 is known as ‘the Phoney War’. With little going on in the West on land and in the skies, the British and French publics were lulled into thinking that the war was not truly a matter of life and death for them in the way it obviously was for the Poles, and their daily existence was carried on substantially as usual, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. The National Labour MP Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that… We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy.

The map below shows the full details of the war at sea, 1939-45:

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There was nothing phoney about the war at sea, however. It was perfectly true that the British Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood made the asinine remark that the RAF should not bomb munitions dumps in the Black Forest because so much of it was private property, but at sea, there were no such absurdities. As early as 19 August, U-boat captains were sent a coded signal about a submarine officers’ reunion which directed them to take up their positions around the British Isles in readiness for imminent action. Within nine hours of the declaration of war, the British liner SS Athenia was torpedoed on its way from Glasgow to Montreal, with 1,400 passengers on board, the captain of U-30 mistaking the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. Had they hit the radio mast, and the SOS signal not been transmitted, many more than the 112 passengers would have perished. A Czech survivor recalled:

There was a column of water near the ship and a black thing like a cigar shot over the sea towards us. There was a bang, and then I saw men on the submarine turn a gun and fire it.

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above: a poster recruiting for the German submarine service. Submarine attack was the main activity of the German Navy during the war, and it succeeded in reducing allied tonnage substantially. Submariners were often absent for up to eighteen months and returned weather-beaten and bearded. Casualties were very high. Some seventy per cent of all submariners were killed.

Neither side was prepared for sea warfare in 1939, but neither could ignore the lessons of the 1914-18 sea war: the German High Seas Fleet had remained largely inactive, while the U-boats had brought Britain perilously close to catastrophe. In the U-boat, Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon, and there was no reason not to attempt to use it more decisively in a second war. For Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and most critical of World War Two; defeat would have forced Britain out of the war and made US intervention in Europe impossible. Airpower was also crucial in the battle of the Atlantic. German spotter aircraft could locate convoys and guide U-boats to their targets, while land-based air patrols and fighters launched by catapult from convoy ships provided essential protection. While Germany had entered the war with a number of particularly capital ships, including three purpose-built ‘pocket battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, Germany was once again to use its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. The capital ships were used as raiders against British commercial vessels. Nevertheless, tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British naval resources. The pocket battleship Graf Spee enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war.

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Just as in the previous war, however, it was the U-boat that was to provide the greatest danger to Britain’s supply lines, causing Churchill intense anxiety as First Lord of the Admiralty. Had Hitler given first priority in terms of funding to his U-boat fleet on coming to power in 1933, rather than to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender. As it was, the navy was the weakest of Germany’s armed services when war broke out. Against the twenty-two battleships and eighty-three cruisers of the French and British navies, Germany had only three small ‘pocket’ battleships and eight cruisers. Early in the war, the German Navy under Admiral Erich Raeder recognised that the submarine offered the only effective German action at sea. In 1939 there were only 57 U-boats available, and not all of these were suitable for the Atlantic.  They had limited underwater range and spent most of their time on the surface, where they were vulnerable to Coastal command bombers. However, under Admiral Karl Dönitz the submarine arm expanded rapidly and soon took a steady toll of Allied shipping. To Dönitz, as commander of the U-boat fleet, it was a simple question of arithmetic: Britain depended on supplies that were carried by a fleet of about three thousand ocean-going merchant ships, and these could carry about seventeen million tonnes. If he could keep sufficient U-boats at sea and sink enough of this tonnage, Britain would be forced to capitulate. He had devised tactics to overcome the convoys, based on the simple concept of overwhelming the escorts. Dönitz introduced a new tactic to undersea warfare, with the ‘wolf packs’ hunting at night linked by radio, often attacking on the surface and at close range. But Dönitz simply did not have enough boats to launch sufficient attacks in groups.

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above: Convoy with escorts, seen at sunset in the Atlantic in July 1942. The adoption of the convoy system was a key element in defeating the U-boat threat.

At the same time, the British had made very few preparations. The first of hundreds of Atlantic convoys left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 15 September. Learning the doleful lessons of the Great War, the convoy system was adhered to rigidly by the British between 1939 and 1945, even for ships moving along the coastline between Glasgow and the Thames. Destroyers, frigates and corvettes used an echo-sounding device called ASDIC (named after the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) to try to track U-boats, while the convoys’ merchantmen sailed together within a protective cordon. But although it was initially seen as a complete solution to the U-boat threat, it proved less than perfect and was only really effective at ranges of two hundred to a thousand metres, when most U-boats were operating on the surface in any case. Britain’s escort fleet had been allowed to run down to such an extent that Churchill was prepared to trade valuable bases in the West Indies and Newfoundland in return for fifty obsolete American destroyers. Perhaps even more damaging was the misuse of resources: the Royal Navy insisted on largely futile attempts to hunt down U-boats instead of concentrating on escorting convoys.

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above: a depth charge explodes astern of a Royal Navy ship hunting for a submerged U-boat. Dropped from surface ships, depth charges could cause fatal damage to a submarine, but they had a limited effective range.

The convoys also adopted a zig-zagging route, the better to outfox their submerged foes. Overall the system was another success, but when a waiting U-boat ‘wolf-pack’ broke through, the losses among the huddled merchantmen could be correspondingly high, and on one occasion as many as half of the vessels were sent to the bottom. The Royal Navy started the war with only five aircraft carriers and so merchant shipping lacked essential air protection out at sea. RAF Coastal Command was left critically short of aircraft because of the priority given to Bomber Command, and the flying boats it received did not have enough range – there remained a gap in the central Atlantic where no air patrols were possible; the ‘Greenland gap’, where U-boats could congregate in relative safety. This was the period that the Germans referred to as the ‘happy time’ when their losses were slight and successes high. In a desperate attempt to extend the range of Britain’s air patrols, Churchill offered the Irish government unification with Northern Ireland in exchange for the use of bases in Lough Swilly, Cobb and Berehaven, but it insisted on maintaining its strict neutrality in the war.

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above: as in the First World War, German leaders gambled on knocking Britain out of the conflict by a submarine blockade. The map above shows the details of the first phase of this.

On 17 September the veteran HMS Courageous was sunk in the Western Approaches by two torpedoes by two torpedoes from U-29, which had already sunk three tankers. She slipped beneath the Hebridean waves in less than fifteen minutes, with only half of her thousand-strong crew being saved, some after an hour in the North Atlantic, where they kept up their morale by singing popular songs of the day such as ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’. One survivor recalled that the sea was so thick with oil we might have been swimming in treacle.

Why Britain was at War:

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After motoring home to Sissinghurst with Victor Cazalet on 3 September, Harold Nicolson found his sons waiting for him. Ben, aged twenty-five, thought the news ‘a tragedy’, an unwelcome interruption to his studies; Nigel, three years younger, who had just ‘come down’ from Oxford, ‘was immensely exhilarated’. Both were of an age to serve in the army; and both did, until final victory in the spring of 1945. In a symbolic act for what lay ahead, the flag flying above the Elizabethan Tower in the Sissinghurst garden was lowered. No sooner had the war started than Harold Nicolson was asked by Allen Lane, head of Penguin Books, to explain to the nation Why Britain is at War. He wrote the fifty-thousand-word Penguin Special in three weeks. Michael Sadleir, Harold’s regular publisher, called it ‘a masterpiece’. An instant success, it soon sold over a hundred thousand copies. Harold denied that the iniquities of the Versailles treaty had propelled Hitler to power, as so often presumed, claiming that by 1922 a majority of the German people had reconciled themselves to the treaty. By recklessly occupying the Ruhr in 1923, against British advice, French President Poincaré’s adventurism had galvanised German nationalist fervour, destroyed the German middle class and paved the way for the rise of Hitler. These arguments took little account of the first German economic miracle of the mid-twenties or the devastating effects of the world economic crisis of 1929. Nor was it prudent to reproach past leaders of Britain’s only ally in its war of survival against Nazi Germany, even if it was partly blameworthy.

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Harold was on firmer ground when he moved away from contemporary German history to justifying Britain’s motives for going to war. He wrote of a small island nation dependent for its survival not only on protecting the sea lanes to its imperial possessions but also on preserving the balance of power on the European mainland. Germany, then and now, threatened to violate these immutable principles. Britain’s reaction by going to war was prompted by a sound biological instinct … the instinct of self-preservation. By vividly contrasting the savage nature of the Nazi dictatorship, its ‘ruthless nihilism’, with the British conception of ‘decency and fairness’. Harold introduced a moral dimension to the conflict:

We entered this war to defend ourselves. We shall continue to, to its bitter end, in order to save humanity. … Only by imposing a just peace, one that does not outrage their pride or drive them to desperation can we guarantee thirty years to establish a new world order so powerful that even Germany will not dare to defy it.

But what kind of ‘new world order?’ It turned on rectifying the defects of the League of Nations, of organising its own armed forces and the need for its members to sacrifice a degree of national sovereignty. Harold looked forward optimistically to a ‘United States of Europe’, but whether Britain would play an active part in it remained a moot point. On one point, however, Harold was crystal clear: a social revolution was pending. Whatever the outcome of the war, we can be certain that the rich will lose … Their privileges and fortunes will go. His premonition that the war would generate ‘class warfare’, that the prerogatives of his class would be severely eroded, if not entirely swept away, haunted him throughout the war. Nicolson’s critique of Chamberlain’s diplomacy, and in particular the ruinous influence of Sir Horace Wilson may have found praise from R. A. Butler as wholly valid. But Butler remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after the PM’s downfall, describing Churchill as the greatest political adventurer of modern political history. Harold may have felt flattered, temporarily, by Butler’s words, but he would gain a more lasting satisfaction from knowing that his record of Britain’s misguided diplomacy had struck a sympathetic chord in hundreds of thousands of readers.

Harold wanted to find a wartime job commensurate with his talents. The Foreign Office, impressed by the success of Why Britain is at War, was keen that he should strengthen its Political Intelligence Department. Halifax was enthusiastic to make the appointment, but it was opposed by Horace Wilson, whom Nicolson had identified as a ‘chief sinner’ in the failure of British diplomacy. Nor did Harold make a significant impact in Parliament, where he had been elected as a National Labour MP in 1935. Apart from occasional questions about the activity of German propagandists in Britain, he remained silent. The Eden Group made up of Conservative dissidents, but with Harold in constant attendance, still functioned, usually over dinner at the Carlton Club. The general feeling of the company as autumn progressed was that Chamberlain had to be removed and replaced by Churchill. It remained an ineffectual group, however, which would only act when exceptional circumstances left it no option. Like many of his associates, Nicolson was in despair at Chamberlain’s lacklustre leadership. When urged to attack ‘these people at the helm’, he wavered, unwilling to disrupt national unity at that stage. Even so, no-one could deny that the war was going badly. Poland had fallen in less than a month, partitioned along the old Curzon line between Germany and the Soviet Union. In the west, the Allies were reluctant to take offensive action and Nicolson grew increasingly gloomy about the prospects of Britain, with France, emerging victorious from the conflict. However, even Harold could not help but be encouraged by immediate British successes at sea. He prematurely recorded that we have won the war at sea.

Appendices:

Historical Interpretation: Why was British resistance to Hitler left so late?

The historian Arthur Marwick emphasised the assumption, made by Chamberlain and others, that, regardless of their hateful ideologies and propaganda, Hitler and Mussolini were basically rational men who would keep their word, provided their main grievances were met. This assumption was not finally shaken until the occupation of Prague in March 1939. Borrowing a phrase from A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, he suggests that the Western statesmen believed that once the cloud of phrases which enveloped Fascist policy had been pushed aside there would be a foundation of goodwill on which a modus vivendi might be built. Both the dictators and the Western statesmen moved in the fog of their own beliefs and systems so that there was little fundamental understanding of each side’s position and precious little real communication. Sooner or later, therefore, a collision was almost inevitable. Arnold Toynbee, who had himself met Hitler, summed up this psychological gulf between the dictators and the Western statesmen:

An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany…and the outbreak of war…had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey…that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.

At the same time, the democracies were themselves divided between Left and Right just at the time when national unity was most needed in Britain and France. Although after the Prague coup the Pacifist tide was in sudden retreat, it is impossible to overestimate its significance prior to that event. The revulsion felt towards war was so strong that not even the series of German and Italian successes from 1935 onwards was enough to bring about the fundamental division in European opinions which manifested itself after the occupation of Prague. These divisions, especially in France, help to explain why there was no real attempt to resist Nazi Germany until 1939, and further encouraged Hitler in his belief that the Western powers were too weak to resist him. Added to this, the ideological conflict in Spain had served to distract attention from Hitler’s designs in central and eastern Europe in the previous three years.

Partly as a result of the Spanish conflict, a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union was not seen as a realistic possibility until after Hitler’s Prague coup of 14-15 March. Prior to this turning point, Soviet communism was still viewed as the greater of the two ideological evils. Hence Neville Chamberlain’s persistent attempts from May 1937 onwards to woo first Mussolini and then Hitler. Direct bilateral negotiations with the dictators seemed to be the only way to break the diplomatic deadlock. To resurrect the traditional alliance system, including Russia, would, it was argued, play into Hitler’s hands by allowing him to claim that Germany was being encircled again. However, it was this fear that actually played into his hands, because it enabled him to isolate and deal separately with his potential opponents. Moreover, it was the rumours of war which followed Prague, of impending German action against Poland and Romania, now entirely believable, which helped to reinforce the sea-change in mood which hardened and grew firmer throughout the summer of 1939.

It is also arguable whether, after the Munich Agreement, the rump Czechoslovak state was at all viable, never mind defensible. Relations between Czechs and Slovaks, who had never had more than the similarity of their languages in common, had reached a low point. The harsh reality was that the experimental state of Czechoslovakia, brought into being at Versailles out of the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, had to be written off. The only consolation for Chamberlain was that he had been able to demonstrate to important non-European opinion, that he had gone to the limits of reasonableness in pursuing the course that they had wanted, that Europe should work out its own salvation without calling on them to intervene, either diplomatically or militarily. After the Prague coup, the attitude of the British Dominions also began to change from the detachment shown six months earlier. This was crucial, as Britain could not go to war with the rearmed Reich without its Empire, especially at sea.

Despite the evidence of his critics, after the Prague debácle, Chamberlain became more defiant and determined in public, and his Cabinet was less nervous at the prospect of war than they had been at the time of the Munich Crisis. The military and intelligence reports were more encouraging and the Anglo-French relationship was better and more active than it had been.  At the end of 1936, Lord Vantissart had written, privately, that it was the job of the Foreign Office to hold the ring until 1939. They now felt confident enough to give a guarantee to the Polish government. This was a remarkable reversal of an attitude to central Europe held by all previous British governments. Perhaps it was given because, unlike Czechoslovakia, the Polish corridor meant that Poland was not land-locked and was therefore of direct interest to the British Empire, over which it now gained a measure of influence. However, there was little more, in reality, that Britain could do to preserve the independence or integrity of Poland in the event of a German attack. Moreover, the guarantee was not given in order to preclude German-Polish negotiation, but as a general warning to Hitler that Britain intended to make a stand. This warning was still vague enough for Hitler to believe that when it came to a crisis, Britain would back down, just as it had done over the Sudetenland.

If Britain and France had not pursued appeasement so vigorously for so long, there might have been some chance of an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance, though the price demanded by the Russians might have been too high.  Nevertheless, one further step Chamberlain had authorised after Prague was the opening of negotiations with Moscow.  All his instincts had previously recoiled from this step, both because of his dislike for the Soviet state and a belief that ‘encirclement’ would be counter-productive. The Anglo-Soviet discussions were slow and protected over the summer. There were sticking points, among them the status of the three independent Baltic republics and Polish concerns about Moscow’s intentions. A greater sense of urgency might have brought success, but the effort came to a dramatic halt on 23 August with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in Moscow.

Until that point, Stalin and Molotov were still prepared to consider a treaty of mutual assistance with Britain and France. But there were problems from the very start, since – in contrast to the attitude of Ribbentrop – the Western Allies were perceived as dawdling through the process of negotiations. The Soviet Ambassador to London had asked whether British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, would go to Moscow that summer to discuss matters directly with Molotov, but the British despatched a minor official and an obscure admiral instead who left England on a merchant ship at the beginning of August which took four days to arrive in Leningrad. Once the British delegation arrived in Moscow, the Soviets soon found evidence to confirm their London ambassador’s report that the delegates will not be able to make any decisions on the spot. … This does not promise any particular speed in the conduct of the negotiations. In fact, before he left for Moscow, Admiral Drax had been specifically told by Chamberlain and Halifax that in case of any difficulties with the Soviets he should try to string the negotiations out until October when winter conditions would make a Nazi invasion of Poland difficult. The British hoped that the mere threat of an alliance with the Soviet Union might act as a deterrent to the Germans.

Laurence Rees (2003) has suggested that it is not hard to see what caused the British to take their lackadaisical approach to negotiations with the Soviets. In the first place, British foreign policy had been predicated for years on the basis that a friendly relationship with Germany was of more value than an accommodation with the Soviet Union. Not only did many British loathe Stalin’s régime on ideological grounds, but there was also little confidence, in August 1939, in the power and utility of the Soviet armed forces. Moreover, the question of Poland was an obstacle in itself to the British reaching any kind of comprehensive agreement with the Soviet Union, as it was to in 1944. The British knew that for any military treaty to have meaning, the Soviets would have to be given permission to cross the Polish border to fight the Germans if, as looked likely, the Nazis decided to invade. But the Poles themselves were against any such idea. In the face of this impasse, the British delegation adopted the understandable, but ultimately self-defeating tactic of simply ignoring the subject whenever the question of Poland and its territorial integrity came up in discussion. When the Soviet Marshal Voroshilov asked directly on 14 August if the Red Army would be allowed to enter Poland in order to engage the Nazis, the Allied delegation made no reply.

However, Rees has also argued out that we must not run away with the idea that Stalin and the Soviet leadership were somehow driven into the hands of the Nazis by British and French misjudgment. Ultimately, the Western Allies had very little to offer the Soviets at the bargaining table. Stalin had no motivation for the Red Army being ‘drawn into conflict’ to help out other, unsympathetic régimes out of their self-created difficulties. He was just as much opposed to Britain and France, dominated by big business and oppressing the working people, as he was to Nazi Germany. On the other hand, the Nazis could offer something the Western Allies never could – the prospect of additional territory and material gain. So the meeting between Ribbentrop and Schulenberg for the Germans, and Stalin and Molotov for the Soviets whilst not a meeting of minds, was certainly a meeting of common interests. 

Through the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Germany succeeded in bringing the Soviet Union into the European conflict, thereby giving Hitler the assurance of Soviet neutrality in an attack on Poland. The Pact lifted an enormous burden from Hitler. He was free to attack Poland if he wished and British support was likely to be of little assistance to the Poles. There was some suspicion that Britain and France might decide, after all, not to go to war. However, the British hesitation in declaring war resulted more, in the event, from Chamberlain’s desire to act in concert with France than by any doubt about honouring its obligations. Chamberlain was forced by his Cabinet to declare the war he had consistently tried to avoid since 1937. Even after its outbreak, there was no anticipation of protracted conflict and he still hoped that there might be a place for negotiations, even if they must take place in the context of war.

That is not to suggest that Chamberlain’s psychological understanding and tactical methods were without blame. He did not understand either the nature and dynamics of the Nazi régime or the beliefs and practices of National Socialism. However, even Churchill displayed considerable naivety in this respect, describing Hitler as an old-fashioned patriot, determined to restore his country following its defeat. Lloyd George’s analysis of Hitler’s mind and intentions was no better.  Another set of men in power, or in power earlier, may have made some difference to the policies which were followed, but this would probably not have been vastly notable. Moreover, it was possible for many British people simultaneously to suffer anguish at the prospect of another war and to feel intense remorse at what they believed to be their leaders’ callous indifference to the plight of Czechoslovakia. However, Chamberlain and his colleagues, in common with the majority of British public opinion, supposed that it was quite reasonable to believe in a world in which there was an underlying harmony between nations. It was surely unbelievable that governments would set out deliberately to use force. After 1939, world politics evolved in a way that few observers could have predicted with confidence, even projecting from the events of 1938-1939.

Keith Robbins has argued that the policy of appeasement in Europe needs to be seen in the context of the decline of the British Empire in the thirties. However, the anxiety about the state of the Empire might have been excessive, in turn accelerating its decline. Certainly, Churchill saw signs of defeatism in government policies and believed that a display of resolution and self-confidence would bring its own reward. It is also possible that a greater willingness to threaten intervention might have deterred Hitler, at least in the short-term. In the longer term, however, Robbins concludes that it seems entirely likely that Hitler would have gone to war in circumstances which might have been as favourable as those of 1939.

In his diaries, at the beginning of November, Edmund Ironside reflected ironically on the military machine of command which was the War Cabinet. Men like Kingsley Wood and Belisha, together with Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare had no military conception of any sort, even lacking ‘general knowledge of how to fight a campaign. Whilst the Army was under French command, the Air Force was not, and the Cabinet loved directing its operations, rather than allowing the Chief of Staff to do so. Later the same month, he admitted to being ‘perturbed’ at the lack of a plan in Cabinet. The ‘wait and see’ attitude to events in Europe, the lack of any plan for the Middle East, and the long and tedious discussions upon all and sundry, all added to the sense of inertia which stemmed from the leadership of the weary old man who dominated the ‘mediocrities’ around him who were supposed to bear the responsibilities of war government with him. Only Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, revealed any talent for the task, partly because he was managing the worse things that by then were happening at sea…

Documents:

A. Parliamentary Debates, House Of Commons (fifth series), vol 351 cols 293-4 (1939):

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

‘…we decided to send our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at 9 o’clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows:

‘Sir, In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 1st September, I informed you… that unless the German Government were prepared to give… satisfactory assurances that (it) … had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.

‘Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks on Poland have continued and intensified. I have… to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a.m. British Summer Time today, 3rd September, satisfactory assurances… have been given… a state of war will exist between the two countries from that hour.’

‘This was the final note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.’

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

Entering London from the Great North Road the day after war had been declared, was rather like entering a besieged city. Terrible air attacks had been expected and London was considered the most likely target.

The barrage balloons overhead emphasised the difference between London and the country; notice boards at Hendon and Mill Hill giving notice of air raids seemed to mark the entrance. The motor coaches filled with evacuated children and occasional cars filled with luggage, all going in the opposite direction, added to the impression of impending danger…

Air raid shelters, sandbags and barrage balloons were, of course, already familiar, but the War Rescue Police came as a surprise. They wore ordinary clothes, and a blue tin hat, armlet and service respirator was their only uniform. Everybody was busy doing little odd jobs, sticking brown paper tape on windows, collecting precious papers and valuables together with a first-aid kit, and some spare clothes in a suit-case, just in case… When they had finished work and made their simple preparations, they walked out in the brilliant sunshine that seemed to have accompanied the outbreak of war, and tried to realise that this was it. But however short a walk they took, the gas marks were inevitably with them, uncomfortable and a nuisance, but from Prime Minister to charwoman everybody carried one.

We expected air raids on the H G Wells’ scale after nerving ourselves to expect Apocalypse after dark, felt almost disappointed when day brought the usual round of milkmen, newspaper boys, and the ordinary routine…

I found myself circling a church at 4 a.m. in the dark, vainly trying to find the way in to relieve the warden on duty inside. When I got in, I found him in the crypt sitting on a coffin reading a thriller… 

C. René Cutforth, Later Than We Thought (1976)

A Journalist’s personal account of the final year of the thirties:

Oddly enough, this great tide of woes seemed to put a new spirit into the British people. The news was so bad that none of the old attitudes was relevant any more. Peace Pledge Unions and Popular Fronts were now beside the point, like a man on the scaffold deciding to mount a ‘No more Hanging’ movement. The illusions of the Thirties gradually melted away, and there had been many. In the new cold light, the ‘committed’ could be seen as the self-licensed liars and con-men so many of them had become, whether Left or Right, whether Hitler’s ‘new manliness’ had held them mesmerised or Stalin’s ‘workers’ paradise’.

The last to go were the illusions about the power of Britain in the world. We might survive, we now knew, and that was all. Conscription came in on 1 July. In August there was a trial blackout and, since the whole world had now gone mad, the Russians signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  If you felt like being funny. it was a bit of a joke to listen to the Communists trying to find something nice to say about their new ally. 

The present seemed not to exist, we only had a past and a future. Works of art were being stored in the caves of Derbyshire and the mine shafts of Wales. From Canterbury, we evacuated the stained glass and from our great cities the children. We’d ‘bought it’ as the phrase then was, and at eleven o’ clock on 3 September, we heard Mr Chamberlain, speaking in a strained and disgusted voice, tell us that we were at war with Germany. We were surprised by how little we felt. A minute later, the air-raid siren sounded. It was the last of the Thirties’ false alarms.

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On 3 September, Chamberlain made his famous broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. An air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves and Churchill was at last brought in. (Picture: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library, published in Cutforth’s book).

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

A British poet reflects on a ‘low, dishonest decade’ from New York:

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Wystan Auden was the leader of a group of poets named after him, but all they had in common was a Marxist frame of mind which characterised the ‘new voice of the period’ (Cutforth). They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. They wanted to bring on the death of the old gang, the death of us. He always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, their audience was so small that it often seemed that they were writing to each other. Auden’s line, It is later than you think, might have been the motto of the whole group. George Orwell criticised their slavish worship of the Soviet Union, and regarded them as divorced from humanity: they had never met anybody from outside their own social class, he said, and this annoyed them greatly because he was right. Auden himself had left Britain with Christopher Isherwood for China in 1938 (pictured above, with Auden on the right), and was in New York in September 1939 when he wrote his famous and often misused poem on the outbreak of war. It begins in despair:

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

John Swift, Asa Briggs (ed.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books (chapter on ‘The Atlantic War, 1939-45’).

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (Historical Association Studies). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

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A Century Ago: Britain & the World in 1919 – ‘The Year of Victory’: Part One.   Leave a comment

Part One – January-June: A Tale of Five Cities.

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The Winding Road to World Peace:

The New Year’s Eve of 1918 that hiccupped a welcome to the first year of peace began a long procession of almost hysterically happy crowds which took possession of London on every possible excuse. Life was not yet back to normal (it never got back to whatever ‘normal’ was): food was only beginning to be de-restricted – meat, sugar and butter coupons were no abolished until August; five million men were taking time to demobilize and were not finding jobs easily, and money was short. Any spare money was needed by the country, as the photograph of Trafalgar Square at the top of this article shows. The Victory, or “Peace and Joy” loan brought in forty million pounds in three days, and the smallest amount that could be invested was five pounds. The total collected was seven hundred million. By November 1919 there would be just 900,000 still in ‘khaki’ uniforms. The wounded, like those photographed above, later in the year, were given blue uniforms. More than two million were wounded, and in January one man died as a result of a bullet wound received in 1918.

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At the beginning of 1919, “Hang the Kaiser!” was the cry in Britain. The newspapers discussed who would be his judges when he was brought from Holland to the Tower of London, and what they would do with him. Those who suggested that his life should be spared were considered unpatriotic, unless they also argued that, like Napoleon, he should be sent to St. Helena for the rest of his life. Despite an application for his surrender, he remained in the Netherlands. A Daily Express reporter who had first seen him at close quarters before the war said that over the previous four years, his hair had turned completely white.

At 11 a.m. on 3 January, Harold Nicolson (pictured below), a thirty-two-year-old diplomat at the Foreign Office, left Charing Cross station for Paris. He arrived at the Gare du Nord twelve hours later and drove without delay to the Hotel Majestic on the Avenue Kléber, where the British delegation to the Peace Conference was due to be housed.

Alwyn Parker, a Middle East specialist who had been made responsible for the well-being of the British delegates, had instituted a security-conscious, home-cooking environment consistent with sound British standards. Staffed by British domestic servants and reinforced by nameless security agents, the catering standards were, apparently, tasteless in the extreme.

 

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Overworked and underpaid, Nicolson served as a technical adviser on the committees that were drawing up the new maps of central Europe and the Balkans. Sketching in fresh boundaries for Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Greece and Turkey consumed his working hours. Although he found the work ‘passionately interesting’, it was not all plain sailing. His letters reveal how at times he was conscience-stricken by the burdens imposed on him:

How fallible one feels here! A map – a pencil – tracing paper. Yet my courage fails at the thought of people whom our errant lines enclose or exclude, the happiness of several thousands of people. … Nobody who has not had experience of Committee work in actual practice can conceive of the difficulty of inducing a Frenchman, an Italian, an American and an Englishman to agree on anything.

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Harold Nicolson & Vita Sackville-West at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919.

These committees were not concerned with constructing the framework of the newborn League of Nations, President Wilson’s obsessive brainchild. Still, they stood at the heart of the conference’s deliberations, dealing with the fate of national minorities, reconciling the all-too-often conflicting and exaggerated claims of the great and the small powers. It was approvingly noted that the French Premier, M. Clemenceau, always audible, was equally rude to both. And as the plenary sessions of the conference, the politicians had neither the time nor the knowledge to challenge the recommendations of the ‘experts’, they became, in effect, the arbiters of these disputes, the final court of appeal. It was a responsibility that Harold Nicolson could have done without. Interminable committee meetings, drafting endless position papers, irregular hours, hurried meals, late nights and competing with closed-minded politicians, all put Harold under an intolerable strain. Exhausted, he had reached the point when he found himself reading sentences twice over. He sought advice from Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, whom he usually found languid in his habits, usually draped over a chair, ‘always affable and benign’, at his apartment in the rue Nitot. Balfour told him to…

… return at once to the Majestic – arrived there, you will go to bed. For luncheon you will drink a bottle of Nuits St George and eat all you can possibly swallow. You will then sleep until four. You will then read some books which I shall lend you. For dinner you will have champagne and foie grás – a light dinner. You repeat this treatment until Sunday at three, when you drive alone to Versailles and back. In the evening of Sunday you dine – again alone, that is essential – at Larue and go to a play. By Monday you will be cured.

He did as he was told and on Monday he noted in his diary that he felt again a young and vigorous man. Refreshed, he returned to his duties which, of course, included faithfully serving Balfour’s needs. Harold worked in close tandem with Allen Leeper, an Australian graduate of Balliol College, Oxford with a working knowledge of French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Flemish, Russian, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Serbo-Croatian and Ladino. In keeping with the Zeitgeist, he was in favour of creating compact nation-states, to unite the Poles, Yugoslavs, Romanians, the Arabs and the Greeks, a process which would pave the way for the demise of the old, discredited system ruled by the Great Powers and lead to a new era regulated by the League of Nations and Wilsonianism. To Nicolson, at the time, these ideas were admirable, but later, writing in 1935, he thought they might appear utopian, but added even then that to many of us it still remains the most valid of all our visions.

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Thirty nations met at Paris to discuss the post-war world. Bolshevik Russia and the defeated Central Powers were excluded. On the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Each of the other four which were signed subsequently was also named after an area or landmark of Paris. The Conference opened officially on 18 January 1919 at the Quai d’Orsay. Raymond Poincaré, the French President, greeted the delegates, but his Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau soon took command in his typical high-handed, machine-gunning fashion:

Y a-t-il d’objections? Non? … Adopté!”

Edvard Beneš.

Harold Nicolson continued to be absorbed by the minutiae of the territorial commission’s deliberations, niggling questions that at a distance seem esoteric to an extreme, but which at the time took on grave importance. He explained to Balfour why the Italians should not be awarded Fiume, a judgement that was upheld by Wilson and Lloyd George. He was also considered something of a Czech expert and was impressed by Benes, the Czech Foreign Minister (pictured right), whom he described as altogether an intelligent, young, plausible little man with broad views. Benes based his case not so much on securing national rights as on sustaining the stability of central Europe. Nicolson agreed with this view and confidently told the Supreme Council that the historical border of Bohemia and Moravia needed to be respected, in spite of the fact that many Germans would be included. Teschen, Silesia, Oderburg were to be included in the new Czechoslovakia, along with Hungarian Ruthenia.

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All the Allies were invited to the Peace Conference which met at Paris in January 1919, but the important decisions were made by the ‘Big Four’, pictured below. The German government had accepted the terms of the Armistice of 11 November 1918 because the Allies made a solemn promise that the principles which US President Woodrow Wilson had set out in the ‘Fourteen Points’ of his War Aims (see the map above) which he, and they, thought would form the basis of the peace settlement.

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The ‘Four Big Men’ were (left to right), the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George; the Italian Prime Minister, Signor Orlando; France’s Premier, M.Clemenceau; and Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA. They were the big figures at the Paris Peace Conference.

Wilson’s ideas were, therefore, the hope of victors and vanquished alike, and he was sincerely anxious to carry out his promises. But he lost influence because he had few practical plans to offer upon which his ideas of a just settlement could be built. By the time John Buchan published his account of these events in 1935, many histories of the Peace Conference had already been written in detail in many volumes. Its work had been bitterly criticised, and on it had been blamed most of the later misfortunes of Europe. But, as he observed, …

… it is probable that our successors will take a friendlier view, and will recognise more fully the difficulties under which it achieved. Its position was very different from that of the Congress of Vienna in 1814. Then the victors held most of Europe and had armies ready and willing to carry out their commands: now they were so weary that the further use of force was almost unthinkable. Then a little group of grandees, akin in temper, met in dignified seclusion. Now a multitude of plenipotentiaries sat almost in public, surrounded by hordes of secretaries and journalists, and under the arc-lamp of suspicious popular opinion. 

The difference in the complexity and scale of the two conferences is shown by the resulting treaties. The hundred and twenty articles of the Treaty of Vienna were signed by seventeen delegates; the Treaty of Versailles contained 441 articles and seventy signatures. The business was so vast that the mechanism was constantly changing. At first, the main work was in the hands of a Council of Ten, representing the five great Powers; then it fell to the US President and the European Prime Ministers; at the end, the ‘dictators’ were Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George. Had the three ‘architects of destiny’ been fully in agreement, or had they been men with broader personalities and more open minds, both the peace process and its products might have been better. To be fair to them, however, all three had to take different circumstances into consideration besides the merits of each case.

Wilson, who had been detached from the actual conflict, might have been expected to bring a cool and dispassionate mind to the deliberations, as well as a unique authority. But he found himself, quite literally, on unfamiliar territory, and his political mistakes in his own country had made it doubtful that Americans would ratify his conclusions. In diplomatic skill, he was not the equal of the other statesmen. Because he believed that the establishment of the League of Nations was the only hope of permanent world peace, he soon had to compromise on matters where the views of the practical statesmen conflicted with the ideals of his fourteen points in order to secure their acceptance of the Covenant. Moreover, he had the support of only a small minority of his fellow Americans; those who upheld the traditional policy of non-intervention in European affairs were hostile to him. This hostility back home also weakened his prestige at the Conference. Eventually, the Senate of the USA refused to ratify his work in establishing the League of Nations so that the country did not join the organisation, and at the election following the treaties, he failed to be re-elected. It soon appeared to John Buchan, that Wilson’s was …

… the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and not the creed of a great people. His self-confidence led him to cast himself in too high a part, and he failed to play it … The framers of the Treaty of Vienna a century before were fortunate in that they were simpler men, whose assurance was better based, and who were happily detached from popular passions: “There are times when the finest intelligence in the world is less serviceable than the sound common sense of a ‘grand seigneur’.” (F.S. Oliver, The Endless Adventure: III, 109.)

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Georges Clemenceau (left), French Premier & Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA.

As Chairman of the Peace Conference, Georges Clemenceau was a realist and had no faith in Wilson’s ideals. He was also an intense nationalist, whose policy was to give absolute priority to the security of France, and he translated every problem into the terms of an immediate and narrowly conceived national interest. He worked for the interests of France and France alone. He knew exactly what he wanted, which was to crush Germany while he had the chance. He regarded Franco-German hostility as natural and inevitable and wanted revenge not just for the Great War but also for the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 in which Paris was occupied and Alsace-Lorraine was surrendered. Had Germany won, he believed, France would not have been spared destruction. Now that Germany had been utterly defeated, he had the opportunity he had desired, to destroy its power to threaten the security of France. He dominated the conference and his uncompromising attitude earned him the epithet, ‘Tiger’.

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David Lloyd George (above) was subtler and more far-sighted, taking broader views, but his power was weakened in his colleagues’ eyes by the election he had just fought and won on intransigent terms. Nevertheless, he recognised the need for a peace settlement that would help restore German prosperity as an important trading partner. He, therefore, favoured more moderate terms, but gave only limited support to Wilson’s ideals because Britain was bound by treaties concluded during the war for the satisfaction of her Allies at the expense of the defeated powers, and he was bound by his election pledge by which he had promised to ‘Make Germany Pay’, demanding penalties from the enemy. At least 700,000 British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another 150,000 were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some 300,000 children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out. By 1919, the euphoria of victory was tempered with the reality as ex-servicemen returned to the fields and factories to seek their old jobs. If anything, As Simon Schama has put it, …

… this had to be the moment, perhaps the last, when the conditions that had produced the general massacre were removed. Away with the preposterous empires and monarchs and the tribal fantasies of churches and territories. Instead there would be created a League of Free Nations … This virtual international government, informed by science and motivated by disinterested guardianship of the fate of common humanity, must inaugurate a new history – otherwise the sacrifice the sacrifice of millions would have been perfectly futile, the bad joke of the grinning skull. 

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Above: The Menin Road (detail), by Paul Nash, 1919

Fit for Heroes? – Boom-time Britain & the ‘Bolshevists’:

Britain was experiencing a post-war boom in trade, evidenced by the fact that the number of trade unionists rose to an unprecedented figure of almost eight million. As the unions flexed their muscles, thirty-five million days were lost by strikes and lock-outs, the highest figure since 1912. Trade unionists in Belfast and Glasgow fought bravely to reduce the working week to help absorb the demobbed servicemen. In Scotland, their demonstrations, which included (for the first time) serious demands for Home Rule, were viewed as ‘riots’ by the authorities. The demands were fuelled in part by the astonishingly disproportionate numbers of Scots casualties in the War: over a quarter of the 557,000 Scottish servicemen had been killed, compared with a rate of one in eight among the rest of the British army. Ironically, it was the long tradition of being the backbone of the imperial army, from the American Revolution to the Indian Mutiny, that had resulted in them being put in front line positions during the Great War, often in the ‘vanguard’ of some suicidal lurch ‘over the top’.

Despite this contribution, in Glasgow, an eighth of the population was still living in single-room accommodation and the Clydeside economy was especially vulnerable to retrenchment in the shipyards. As men were demobilized, unemployment rose and the unions responded with demands for a shorter working week, to spread the work and wages available as broadly as possible. The campaign for a 40-hour week, with improved conditions for the workers, took hold of organised labour. They also demanded the retention of wage and rent controls. When they were met with stark refusal, a forty-hour general strike was called, culminating on 31 January in a massive rally, organised by the trade unions, which took place on George Square in the city centre of Glasgow. Upwards of ninety thousand took part. A red flag and calls were made, for the first time, for the setting up of a separate Scottish workers’ republic. The police read the ‘Riot Act’ and their lines charged the demonstrators and, mindful of having been caught by surprise in Dublin by the Easter Rising of 1916, the government claimed that the demonstration was a ‘Bolshevist’ uprising, sending twelve thousand troops and six tanks (pictured above) to occupy what became known as ‘Red Clydeside’.

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Many of these ‘Red Clydesiders’ soon found themselves ‘victimized’, out of work and on the road to England and its ‘new’ engineering and manufacturing centres. By 1919, for example, Coventry’s population had continued to grow from 130,000 in 1918 to 136,000, partly due to the delayed expansion of the British motor industry, inhibited during the War as manufacturing industry turned its attention to meeting wartime demand. As soon as hostilities were over the production of motor vehicles was again embraced with enthusiasm as both old and new contenders entered the market amongst the heavy competition. In 1919 and 1920 at least forty new car producing firms emerged. Many of these firms later failed and their names disappeared or were taken over by companies like Singer in Coventry, but in 1920 the President of the City’s Chamber of Commerce reflected on its recent growth:

Few towns and cities can point to a growth as quick and extensive as that which has been the lot of Coventry in the last two decades … The way Coventry has moved forward is more characteristic of a new American city fed by immigrants, than of one of the oldest cities in Great Britain.

Growth and immigration were beginning to have an effect on local politics. In 1919, as the city enjoyed its boom, so the fortunes of the Labour movement also prospered, with Labour capturing a third of the seats on the City Council. The short but strong national economic boom funded some, at least, of  Lloyd George’s promise to make ‘a country fit for heroes to live in’. Christopher Addison, the minister of reconstruction, oversaw the building of 200,000 homes, effectively marking the beginning of council house construction in Britain. Again, in 1920, the Coventry Chamber of Commerce was keen to advertise the fact that the Corporation had already, since the war, built a thousand houses for its workers at rates varying from six to ten shillings per week which were regarded as ‘comparatively low’.

Lloyd George’s only obvious rival was Winston Churchill. Having banged away in the 1918 election campaign about making Germany pay through the nose, Churchill then made appeals for greater flexibility and leniency, opposing the continuation of the naval blockade. But his calls to strangle the Russian Revolution at birth seemed to spring from a deep well of sentimental class solidarity with the Russian aristocracy and the Tsars which marked him out, in the view of many, as an aristocratic reactionary himself. Churchill was reckless as well as tireless in calling for a commitment of men and money to try to reverse the communist revolution in Russia by supporting the pro-Tsarist White Army, which was certainly no force for democracy. But if he was deliberately goading British socialists by harping on about the Bolsheviks as dictatorial conspirators, it turned out that his diagnosis of what had actually in Russia in October 1917 was exactly right. There was ample reason to feel gloomy about the fate of liberty in the new Soviet Russia. By 1919, anyone could see that what had been destroyed was not just the Constituent Assembly but any semblance of multi-party democracy in Russia. After the war, British, as well as American troops, occupied parts of Russia. There was disagreement within the Cabinet as well as in the country as to what the British attitude toward Russia ought to be. Lloyd George felt that the perpetuation of the civil war by foreign intervention would give the revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin, the perfect pretext to institutionalize his police state and find reinforcements for the Red Army, and he wrote to Churchill pointing this out to him in February 1919:

 Am very alarmed at your… planning war against the Bolsheviks. The Cabinet have never authorised such a proposal. They have never contemplated anything beyond supplying armies in anti-Bolshevik areas in Russia with necessary equipment to enable them to hold their own, and that only in the event of every effort of peaceable solution failing. A military enquiry as to the best method of giving material assistance to these Russian armies is all to the good, but do not forget that it is an essential part of the inquiry to ascertain the cost; and I also want you to bear in mind that the War Office reported to the Cabinet that according to their information intervention was driving the anti-Bolshevik parties in Russia into the ranks of the Bolshevists. 

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The Empire – Nationalists Strike Back:

With the evaporation of the authority of the US President in Paris, and the limited tenure of the French wartime prime minister, his fellow peacemakers, it was Lloyd George who grew in stature as the future arbiter of the European settlement and world statesman. While France sought military security, Britain sought naval and commercial superiority through the destruction of the German Empire. The British Empire, as Curzon had boasted the previous year, had never been so omnipotent. But despite Curzon’s complacency, all was not well in the far-flung imperial posts. First of all, however, and closer to home, trouble was brewing again in Ireland. Following the 1918 general election, in which the old Nationalist party disappeared and Sinn Féin won most of the Irish seats. The members of Sinn Féin who had been elected to the Westminster parliament decided to set up their own Irish parliament, called Dáil Éireann, in Dublin, which first met in January 1919. It declared the Irish Republic in defiance of the British Crown for a second time. Eamon de Valera, who had escaped from an English jail, became its President and the King’s writ ceased to run in Ireland. At the same time, the Irish Volunteers, who now called themselves the Irish Republican Army (IRA) became increasingly violent.

In themselves, the pledges Britain made on imperial matters during the war did not determine anything that happened afterwards. Britain gave no one self-government simply because it had promised it to them. If it kept its promise, it was because the promise had raised expectations that could not be denied, making the plaintiffs stronger and even more resolute claimants. But if it had not had this effect, and if Britain could prevaricate or break a promise with impunity, it would. The colonial settlement when it came after the war, and as it was subsequently modified, was determined much more by the conditions of that time; the interests, strengths and weaknesses of different parties then, than by pledges and declarations made, cynically or irresponsibly, in the past. The conditions of 1919 determined that, initially, Britain would get a great deal out of the war for itself. In the first place, the fact that there were outright winners and losers meant that there were, suddenly, a large number of colonies ‘going begging’ in the world, with only Britain, France, Italy, the United States and Japan in a position to ‘snaffle them up’. Japan was satisfied with controlling the north Pacific, America didn’t want colonies and Italy, whose contribution to the Allied victory was seen as negligible, was not thought to deserve any. That left the German colonies in Africa and the Turkish territories in the Middle East as ‘gift horses’ for the British and the French if they wanted them, which they did.

Any British government of that era, of any colour, would probably have wanted its share, but the fact that the coalition government in 1919 was basically the same as the one that had fought the war and was full of imperialists made it even more probable. Balfour, Curzon and Milner (as Colonial Secretary) were not the kinds of men to look gift horses in the mouth and exercise colonial self-restraint, and neither were the Dominions which had fought, represented by Smuts in the Cabinet. Lloyd George himself was not much bothered about the empire either way and put up little resistance to his imperialists’ accepting extra colonies. If he had any qualms, Leopold Amery quieted them by writing to him at the end of the war, that whereas they had fought it over Europe, they would also…

… find ourselves compelled to complete the liberation of the Arabs, to make secure the independence of Persia, and if we can of Armenia, to protect tropical Africa from German economic and military exploitation. All these objects are justifiable in themselves and don’t become less so because they increase the general sphere of British influence. … And if, when all is over, … the British Commonwealth emerges greater in area and resources … who has the right to complain?

In 1919, the British empire seemed secure enough from external threats, but it was more vulnerable than ever to attacks from within. It might be able to deal with one at a time, but what if it were challenged by nationalists on three or four fronts simultaneously? The first of these opened up in North Africa in March, when Egyptian nationalists, inflamed by Britain’s refusal to allow them to put their case for independence to the Paris peace conference and by the arrest and exile of their leaders, began a series of demonstrations, riots, acts of sabotage, and assassinations of British army officers.

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M. K. Gandhi

Meanwhile, in India, there was a series of boycotts, walk-outs and massacres led by the lawyer and hero of the campaign against the ‘pass laws’ in South Africa, M. K. Gandhi, who had recently arrived ‘home’. Nearly a million Indian troops had been in service, both in the ‘barracks in the east’ in Asia itself, on the Western Front, and, earlier in the war, in the disastrous campaign in Mesopotamia. Before the war, there had been violence and terrorism, but mainstream colonial nationalism had been represented by Gokhale’s Congress; moderate in its aims, not embracing absolute national independence, and in its aims, which were constitutional. ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi’s movement, however, worked unconstitutionally, outside the system. His distinctive contribution to the nationalist struggle was ‘non-cooperation’. This spelt danger for the empire: danger which even in peace-time it might not be able to contain. In April there was a rash of rebellions in Punjab serious enough to convince General Dyer that the Indian Mutiny was about to be repeated: which persuaded him to open fire on a crowd of unarmed Indians in a public square outside the Sikh ‘Golden Temple’ in Amritsar, and to continue to firing into their backs until his ammunition ran out, killing at least 380 and wounding 1,200. Also in April, the first serious Arab-Jewish clash occurred in Palestine. In May, Britain was at war with Afghanistan, and about to go to war again, it seemed, with Turkey.

Towards the Treaties – The Big Three & The Council of Ten:

As the Paris conference moved forward, Harold Nicolson became increasingly depressed by the self-centred, ill-informed, arrogant behaviour of the world’s leaders who had gathered in Paris.

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Ion Bratianu, the Romanian Prime Minister was a bearded woman, a forceful humbug, a Bucharest intellectual, a most unpleasing man who aspired to the status of a Great Power; the Baron Sidney Sonnino, the Italian Foreign Minister, emerged as the evil genius of the piece, obstructing everything with a breathtaking obstinacy and malevolence, while Signor Vittorio Orlando (pictured right), the Italian Prime Minister, was never able to rise to the level of his own intelligence. When the Italians decided to leave Paris in protest at their allies’ refusal to meet them half-way on their demands, Nicolson waved them off with a hearty “good riddance”, but they returned a fortnight later.

During the rest of the conference, Orlando remained interested only in securing an expansion of Italy’s territory and in discussions which concerned the satisfaction of these ambitions. Nicholson soon concluded that the conference was proceeding in a rather irresponsible and intermittent way. For this sorry state of affairs, ‘the Big Three’ were culpable, as far as he was concerned, especially Wilson. Hampered by his spiritual arrogance and the hard but narrow texture of his mind, he appeared conceited, obstinate, nonconformist … obsessed, in fact no better than a presbyterian dominie (schoolmaster/ pedagogue). Nicolson was not alone in this opinion: Wilson’s traits were soon picked up on by the Parisian press. Bitter at these public assaults on his character, Wilson contemplated moving the conference to Geneva, where he hoped to benefit from the more Calvinistic, sober and sympathetic Swiss. Paris was an unfortunate choice for a peace conference, as passions among the people were inflamed by close contact with the War and its miseries. Statesmen could not free themselves from the tense atmosphere that prevailed.

Wilson, Nicolson believed, was also responsible for what he and others regarded as a totally impracticable agenda and timetable. The three main subjects were territorial adjustments, reparations, and the provision of machinery to ensure peace. Under the first, the map of Europe was to be redrawn, and some parts of the map of the world. The Conference did not, of course, with a clean slate; the Austrian Empire had collapsed and fallen into pieces, and Poland and Czechoslovakia had already come into being. A number of treaties, not just that of Versailles, would be needed to lay down the new boundaries – St Germain, Trianon, Neuilly and Sévres. Mandates dealing with territories taken from enemy states were to be settled later by Allied Ministers sitting in the Supreme Council. But instead of giving top priority to the main purpose of the conference, the peace settlement with Germany, Wilson kept his colleagues busy playing word games in drafting the Covenant of the League of Nations, his pet cause, and by fiddling with the maps of central and eastern Europe and Asia Minor.  In this way, the German treaty was effectively put on hold until the end of March, nine weeks after the conference had opened.

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David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister in 1919, at the height of his power, the man who won the war. As the head of the Conservative-Liberal-Labour wartime coalition, his government was returned at the General Election in December 1918, with an overwhelming majority of more than three hundred in the House of Commons. The majority in the total of votes was strangely less marked – five million for the government and 4.6 million against.

Neither did Lloyd George escape Nicolson’s criticism. Dressed in a bedint grey suit, the British PM hadn’t the faintest idea of what he is talking about, Nicolson complained. He tried to prime Balfour to protest against his Premier’s ‘madcap schemes’, but Balfour proved ‘infinitely tiresome’ and fobbed him off: Yes, that’s all very well, but what you say is pure aesthetics! But before long, Nicolson came to appreciate Lloyd George’s uphill struggle at the conference against those who were more extreme: Quick as a kingfisher, in Harold’s view, as he saw Lloyd George fending off excessive Italian or French demands, not always with complete success. He fought like a Welsh terrier, he told his father, as Lloyd George strove to modify the ‘punitive’ terms of the German treaty. Invited to attend meetings of ‘the Big Three’ in his capacity as an expert, Nicolson witnessed their capricious handling of affairs, which he recorded in his letters to his wife Vita:

Darling, it is appalling, those three ignorant and irresponsible men cutting Asia Minor to bits as if they were dividing a cake, and with no one there except Hadji … Isn’t it terrible – the happiness of millions being decided in that way?

When he politely protested, Nicolson was condescendingly put down by Clemenceau: “Mais, voyez-vous, jeune homme … il faut aboutir.” But there were opportunities to advise and influence, or educate the three men, usually over a huge map on the carpet of a nearby study. Already dispirited at the way the conference was, or rather was not, proceeding, by mid-February Nicolson was beginning to despair, as he wrote to his father:

The Council of Ten are atrophied by the mass of material which pours in upon them … We are losing the peace rapidly and all the hard work is being wasted. The ten haven’t really finished off anything, except the League of Nations, and what does that mean to starving people at Kishinev, Hermannstadt and Prague? It is despairing.

In a similar vein to Oliver’s statement above, Nicolson added that What we want is a dictator for Europe and we haven’t got one: And never will have! As the conference ‘progressed’, both Europe and the Middle East continued in a state of confusion. The old empires had fallen; new nations had already set up governments. Starvation and disease aggravated the horrors resulting from war. The statesmen were forced to act quickly. They had to consider not only what they believed ought to be done, but also what their electorate demanded. On April Fool’s Day, Harold Nicolson and Leeper left Paris on a special mission headed by General Jan Smuts, the South African member of Britain’s War Cabinet. They were bound for Budapest where Nicolson had spent part of his childhood during his father’s diplomatic posting there and where, on 21 March, a communist revolution led by Béla Kun had taken place; their assignment was to investigate its ramifications. For the world’s leaders gathered in Paris, the spectre of Bolshevism was truly haunting Europe: it threatened widespread starvation, social chaos economic ruin, anarchy and a violent, shocking end to the old order. Harold wrote to his wife, Vita, about how the Germans made use of this threat:

They have always got the trump card, i.e. Bolshevism – and they will go Bolshevist the moment they feel it is hopeless to get good terms.

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This was one of the main themes of Lloyd George’s cogently argued but largely ignored Fontainebleau memorandum. Small wonder, then, that Béla Kun’s strike for communism in Hungary registered many anxious moments for the Supreme Council. I have written more about Smuts’ mission to Budapest elsewhere on this site. During Nicolson’s absence from Paris, the prospects for a settlement based on Wilson’s new world order had receded. The French put forward extreme ideas that would extend French sovereignty or influence into the Rhineland. Lloyd George and Wilson hotly opposed these demands, seeing in them the seeds of another war. Eventually, a compromise was worked out that called for an allied occupation of the Rhineland with staged withdrawals, backed by an Anglo-American guarantee of the French frontiers. But Nicolson and many others harboured a ‘ghastly suspicion’ that the United States would not honour the signature of its delegates: it became the ghost at all our feasts, he wrote. From mid-May to mid-June the German treaty hung on a razor’s edge. Word reached Paris that the German government was prepared to sign it but that public opinion would not allow it without allied concessions. Nicolson agreed with the German public:

The more I read (the treaty), the sicker it makes me … If I were the Germans I shouldn’t sign for a moment. … The great crime is the reparations clauses, which were drawn up solely to please the House of Commons.

The peace treaties which resulted reflected the spirit of the conference, in which were represented opposing forces demanding, on the one hand, the rewards of victory, and on the other, the magnanimous settlement of conflicting claims designed to secure permanent peace. The result was a decisive triumph for the victors, but the influence of the need for a permanent peace was not entirely lost. On the one hand, there was no open discussion, and the main points of the settlement were secretly decided and imposed by the ‘Big Three’. The defeated Powers were disarmed, but the victors maintained their military strength.  On the other hand, it may be claimed that the map of Europe was redrawn to correspond with national divisions, to some extent at least and that the ‘Covenant of the League of Nations’ seemed to be a definite step towards the preservation of international peace. It formed the first part of each treaty, followed by territorial changes and disarmament clauses, such as the following from section one of the Treaty of Versailles:

By a date which must not be later than 31 March 1920, the German Army must not comprise more than seven divisions of infantry and three divisions of cavalry. 

By this article, the German Army was limited to a hundred thousand men and committed to the maintenance of order within the territory and to the control of frontiers. The long list of other restrictions included the prohibition of German use of submarines, tanks and poison gas. The disarmament of Germany was to be strictly enforced, but it was combined with a solemn pledge by the other nations themselves to disarm, which promised trouble in the future. In spite of Wilson’s principles, penal clauses were added to the treaties. The penal proposals, which had played so great a part in the ‘khaki’ election in Britain, were reduced more or less to the matter of reparations. Reparations were to be exacted from Germany alone; she had to undertake to pay the cost of the War, as her Allies were bankrupt. John Buchan commented on the futility of this exercise:

No victor has ever succeeded in reimbursing himself for his losses, and a strange blindness seemed on this point to have overtaken the public mind. 

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While rich in capital wealth, this could not be ‘extracted’ for its creditors, and its exportable surplus had never been great and was now likely to be very small. It could only pay large sums by borrowing from one or other of the Allies. At Paris, there was no agreement on the total sum of reparations to be paid, but there was much talk about what items should be included in the reparations bill. Smuts, whom Harold Nicolson considered a splendid, wide-horizoned man, now showed that his character, though ‘simple’, was also exceptionally ‘intricate’. Concerned that the bulk of the reparations would go to France, he concocted a creative formula to include separation allowances for soldiers’ families, as well as pensions for widows and orphans. His prescription effectively doubled the potential bill, however, and would not have been to Nicolson’s liking. Yet a special committee of solemn ‘pundits’ in Britain had fixed its capacity to pay at the preposterous figure 24,000 million pounds sterling. The Conference reduced this sum to less than half, and in 1921 a special allied commission whittled it down to 6,600 million, then to two thousand, and in 1932 further payments were dropped. But more unfortunate still was the clause which extorted from Germany a confession of her sole responsibility for the War. This was article 231 of the Treaty, the notorious ‘war guilt’ clause, that compelled Germany and her allies to accept full responsibility for…

… causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed on them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.  

It was not, Buchan suggested in 1935, …

… the business of any conference to anticipate the judgment of history, and to force a proud nation to confess that her sacrifice had been a crime was a breach of the human decencies. 

The Final Week – Scuttling Ships & Salvaging the Settlement:

Could anyone salvage something from this mess? Surprisingly, perhaps, Nicolson looked to Lloyd George for this. Hitherto, he had been quite critical of Lloyd George’s policies, especially in Asia Minor, which eventually to lead to his downfall. As he sought to scale down the reparations bill, which he saw as ‘immoral and senseless’; to revise the territorial settlement in Silesia to Germany’s advantage; and to grant Germany membership of the League of Nations, Nicolson’s admiration grew, particularly as he fought alone. The French were, quite naturally, furious at him for what they considered to be a betrayal of their interests. By contrast, Wilson’s passivity infuriated Harold, who couldn’t understand why the US President would not take the opportunity to improve the draft treaty. He wrote again to his father, voicing the view of the younger generation of British diplomats:

There is not a single person among the younger people here who is not unhappy and disappointed at the terms. The only people who approve are the old fire-eaters.

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After much hesitation, and under the threat of renewed force, the German government accepted the treaty. Despite his disappointment with its terms, Harold Nicolson breathed a huge sigh of relief that there would be no return to hostilities. Exactly a week before the treaty was due to be signed, however, there was a dramatic turn of events when Admiral von Reuter ordered the scuttling of the German fleet blockaded at Scapa Flow off Orkney, eight months after its surrender. This is shown in the pictures above and below. Of the seventy-four warships interned, forty-eight sank within an hour when the German sailors opened the sea-cocks on the Admiral’s order. He said that he was obeying the Kaiser’s orders, given to him before the war, that no German battleship should be allowed to fall into enemy hands, and denied that he was in breach of the Armistice terms, since he had had no notice of its extension beyond 21 June, the day of expiry. The German sailors risked their lives in carrying out von Reuter’s orders. At noon on the 21st, the German ensign was run up, the battleships began to settle, and their crews crowded into boats or swam for it. Some of the British guardships, uncertain of what was happening, opened fire, and there were over a hundred casualties.

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The treaty was signed on 28 June 1919 in the Galerie des Glaces (‘Hall of Mirrors’) at the palace of Versailles, where half a century before the German Empire had been founded on the degradation of France. Harold Nicolson witnessed the occasion and recorded it in careful detail. The ‘Galerie’ was crowded, with seats for over a thousand. Clemenceau, small and yellow, orchestrated the proceedings. “Faites entrer les Allemands,” he called out. Dr Hermann Müller and Dr Johannes Bell, heads held high, eyes studying the ceiling, one looking like “the second fiddle” in a string ensemble, the other resembling “a privat-dozent“, were led to the table to sign the treaty. No-one spoke or moved. Having committed Germany to the treaty, they were escorted from the hall “like prisoners from the dock”. Over the “breathless silence”, Clemenceau rasped: “Messieurs, la séance est levée.”  Outside, salvoes were fired, while a squadron of aeroplanes flew overhead. Crowds cheered and yelled, “Vive Clemenceau … Vive l’Angleterre.” After the ceremony Clemenceau, with tears in his eyes, was heard to say: “Oui, c’est une belle journée.” Exhausted at the end of an extraordinary day, Nicolson lamented that it has all been horrible … To bed, sick of life.

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General Smuts signed the Versailles Treaty only on the grounds that something of the kind, however imperfect, was needed before the real work of peace-making could begin. But, according to John Buchan, the Treaty proved to be a grave hindrance in that task. For John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, the ‘peace’ was a ‘Carthaginian’ imposition. In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, first published in 1919, he wrote a damning indictment of both the process and product of the Treaty:

Moved by insane delusion and reckless self-regard, the German people overturned the foundations on which we all lived and built. But the spokesmen of the French and British peoples have run the risk of completing the ruin. … Paris was a nightmare. … A sense of impending catastrophe overhung the frivolous scene. … Seated indeed amid the theatrical trappings of the French Saloons of State, one could wonder if the extraordinary visages of Wilson and Clemenceau, with their fixed hue and unchanging characterisation, were really faces at all and not the tragi-comic masks of some strange drama or puppet-show. …

010For John Buchan, the hopeful element in what had been signed lay in its prefix – the Covenant of a new League of Nations, the one remnant left of Wilson’s dreams; the hope was that the reaction against the horrors of war might result in an abiding determination for peace. Machinery was provided to give a system to fulfil this desire. Membership of the League was open to any self-governing state which accepted its principles; it required its members to refrain from war until the quarrel had been submitted to its judgement and to take corporate action against any breaker of the peace. It was not a super-state with a military force as its sanction, but a league of states whose effectiveness in a crisis would depend upon how far its members would be prepared to act collectively. There was no abandonment of sovereign rights, except to a very minor extent. It began as a league of the victorious and neutral Powers, but the defeated Powers were given the right of delayed entry.

 

Above (Right): a facsimile of some of the signatures on the Treaty.

Concluding Versailles – A Toothless Treaty? The Covenant & Council of the League of Nations:

From the start, the League was handicapped by the facts that it was widely regarded as the caretaker of the Peace treaties and therefore suspect to those who found them difficult to come to terms with, and by the fact that the USA refused to join, thereby weakening any chance of collective action. But it was the best that could be done at that juncture by way of international cooperation, and even its flawed and modest beginnings were soon seen as an advance in peacemaking and peacekeeping in the world. It was often said in the 1920s and ’30s that a fundamental weakness of the League of Nations that it ‘lacked teeth’, that it was not prepared to threaten potential and actual aggressors with military force. However, the original clauses in the Covenant contradict this contention. They state that in the case of aggression or threat of aggression, the Council of the League should advise upon how this threat should be met: military action was not excluded. Moreover, if any member of the League did resort to war, the Council would recommend to the governments concerned what effective military, naval and air force the members of the League should contribute. Members of the League were expected to permit the passage through their territories of the armed forces of other members of the League. These articles, therefore, totally envisage the possibility of military action by the League in order to deter aggression. Although the requirement of unanimity on the part of the Council could effectively negate these provisions in certain circumstances, the ‘teeth’ were there, if only the principal Powers were willing to put them to work. In his course notes for the Open University, prepared in 1973, Arthur Marwick pointed to the scope of the problems facing the peacemakers in 1919:

A war on such an unprecedented scale obviously left problems of an unprecedented nature. Insulated as we have been in these islands, we can easily forget the immense problems involved in the collapse of old political frontiers, from the mixing of races in particular areas, from the reallocation of territorial boundaries, and from the transfer of populations…

The Treaty of Versailles altogether consists of 440 articles and it takes up 230 pages of Volume LIII of the ‘Parliamentary Papers’ for 1919. From the document itself, we can see the very real complexities and difficulties which faced the peacemakers. From the detail in some parts of the Treaty, we can see what peacemaking is really like, as distinct from the brief text-book accounts which merely summarise the broad principles; we can see what is involved in putting those principles into practice. The Treaty of Versailles expressed certain intentions about settling the map of Europe. But, as with all historical documents, we do learn things from it about the fundamental assumptions of the men who drafted it. And throughout the entire Treaty, there is a good deal of ‘unwitting testimony’ about the political events, social conditions and cultural attitudes in Europe in 1918-19. A rapid glance at the map below will show that a serious attempt was made in 1919 to arrange the frontiers of the states so that the main boundaries coincided with the national divisions of the European peoples. As a result of the treaties, only a small minority, about three per cent, was still under the subjection of other nationalities. In many cases, the peoples themselves had taken the initiative and proclaimed their independence and the peacemakers simply had to accept what had already been accomplished. Their task was ‘simply’ to fix the new boundaries of these ethnic groups. But in doing so, they were responsible for some gross injustices, as the map also shows.

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(to be continued).

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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: For the Fallen – An Appendix of Poetry.   Leave a comment

This is a collection of poems (and pictures) which were published in 2014 (27 July) in The Daily Mirror. 

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Note: Wilfred Wilson Gibson was born in Hexham, Northumberland. Originally a social worker in the East End of London, he became a private on the Western Front. His poems are usually narrative in form even when short. During the war, he was one of the first poets to introduce savage realism into his writing. He had been a friend of Rupert Brooke.

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Note: Brooke’s best-known poem, one of his War Sonnets, was first recited from the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday in 1915. It was then published the next day and quickly became renowned as one of the finest war poems. Later the same month Brooke died from an infected mosquito bite he got a month earlier serving with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. Although serving in the Navy, Brooke had fought on land in the initial campaigns in Belgium. In the picture by teenage German gunner Walter Kleinfeldt, a crucifix survives the shelling while troops lie scattered.

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Note: Probably Owen’s most famous poem, though possibly not his best, Dulce et Decorum Est was written in August 1917, though it may not have been fully edited until October 1917. When he wrote it, he was recovering from shell-shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. The quotation, from the Roman poet Horace, which Owen wishes to brand as a lie, means, It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country. In the poem, he dwells on the horrible details of deaths and terrible physical effects of wounds. Owen sets out to shock civilians with unrelenting details of a man’s death from gas, which was ‘obscene as cancer’:

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Note: In the following poem, Sassoon mimics civilians who try to console wounded soldiers with silly arguments. By ‘the pit’ he is referring to the depth of despair:

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Note: McCrae’s famous poem first appeared anonymously in Punch on 8 December 1915. In it, McCrae imagined how the dead lying beneath the poppies of Flanders would call on future generations to sustain the causes for which they died. He was appointed to take charge of a hospital at Boulogne but died of pneumonia in January 1918 before he could take up his appointment.

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Note: In the picture above, thousands gather for Armistice Day at London’s temporary cenotaph in Whitehall in 1919.

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Note: After she was appointed poet laureate in 2009, Carol Ann Duffy wrote this poem to mark the death of Harry Patch, the last surviving veteran of the Great War.

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Note: Since Kipling had written imperialist poetry before 1914 he might have been expected to write crudely jingoistic poetry to support the war effort; instead he wrote surprisingly bitter poetry, especially after he wrote surprisingly bitter poetry, especially after the loss of his son, a lieutenant in the Irish Guards, killed in action at the Battle of Loos. As an act of remembrance of him, Kipling helped pay for many years for the endowment which made it possible for the Last Post to be sounded every night at the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres. He died in 1936.

This selection of poems is extracted from The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. http://www.penguin.co.uk

 

Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part Two – Poetry, Remembrance & History.   Leave a comment

The Trauma of the War in the Twenties and Thirties:

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The traumatic effects of loss were also clearly visible on many inter-war politicians like Neville Chamberlain (seen here, on the right, in 1923, as the new Minister of Health and Local Government) and Anthony Eden, who on one occasion, had once sorted through a heap of dead bodies to identify them.

Like Chamberlain, Prime Minister in 1936-40, most Britons feared a repetition of the First World War, so the psychological trauma resulting from the sacrifices that it eventually involved was of a different order and type, including the fear of aerial bombing. As Arthur Marwick wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the Armistice, all war is…

… a matter of loss and gain: loss of life and limb and capital; gain of territory, indemnities and trade concessions. War is the supreme challenge to, and test of, a country’s military institutions, and, in a war of any size, a challenge to its social, political and economic institutions as well. War needs someone to do the fighting, and someone to furnish the weapons and food: those who participate in the war effort have to be rewarded. … War is one of the most intense emotional experiences… in which human beings as members of a community can be involved.

Arthur Marwick referred to a cluster of ‘sociological factors’ among the causes of the First World War, and historians have identified a similar set of causes of the Second World War, resulting from the effects of the First. What they had in mind were the psychological effects of the First World War, firstly the universal detestation and horror of war, and secondly the breakdown of accepted liberal values, a process which J. M. Roberts described as the shaking of liberal society.  In western Europe in the 1920s, this was a very real and painful process, working itself out into identifiable social, cultural and political effects. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) was a lament on the decadence of Western civilisation in which society had become ‘a heap of broken images’, a stained-glass window shattered into countless pieces that his poem attempted to put back together. The powerful wave of patriotism which had propelled Britain and France into the War had gone, and there was nothing to replace it.

C. E. Montague, a noted leader writer and critic for the Manchester Guardian was forty-seven when he enlisted in 1914, dying his grey hair to persuade the recruiting sergeant. After his return to England, he became disillusioned with the war and, in 1922, published Disenchantment, which prefigured much later critical writing about the war. He wrote of how, on 7 December 1918, two British privates of 1914, now captains attached to the staff, crossed the cathedral square in Cologne and gained their first sight of the Rhine, which had been the physical goal of effort, the term of endurance, the symbol of attainment and rest. Although the cease-fire order on Armistice Day had forbidden all fraternising…

… any man who has fought with a sword, or its equivalent, knows more about that than the man who blows the trumpet. To men who for years have lived like foxes or badgers, dodging their way from each day of being alive to the next, there comes back more easily, after a war, a tacit league that must, in mere decency, bind all those who cling precariously to life … Not everybody, not even every non-combatant in the dress of a soldier, had caught that shabby epidemic of spite. But it was rife. 

At the end of the 1920s, there was a spate of publications on the First World War. For example, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929) and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1929) had an important impact, and it was perhaps only in this 1929-35 period that the experience of the war was for the first time fully realised and digested. Allied to this growing ‘pacifism’ was a deep dislike for the old pre-1914 balance of power and alliance system, which many believed had brought about the war in 1914. The resulting loss of identity left the two Western democracies extremely vulnerable to attacks from the extreme right and extreme left at home and abroad. Just as in the approach to 1914, the ‘will to war’, so well exemplified in the literature of the time, helped to mould a climate of opinion in favour of war, so in the 1920s and 1930s a ‘will to peace’ developed which marked opinion in Britain, France and the United States which prevented an effective response to the threats posed by Italy, Germany and Japan.

In the 1930s, too, the writer Arthur Mee identified thirty-two villages in England and Wales that had not lost a man in the First World War. They were known as the “Thankful Villages”. In every other parish, there were widows, orphans and grieving parents; it is not an exaggeration to say that every family in the British Isles was affected, if not by the loss of a husband, son or brother, then by the death, wounds or gassing of someone near to them. And most of this slaughter had taken place in Europe, the birthplace of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and, in recent centuries at least, the world’s leading continent in science, medicine and philosophy. Something was still missing in the thirties, along with the lost generation of young men, who by then would have been husbands and fathers. Just as it took families years to assimilate their traumatic losses, so the nation took decades to do the same, as has been shown by America’s more recent struggle to come to terms with the Vietnam War. Then, at a moment when Europe might finally have comprehended the events of 1914-18, it found itself at war again.

The breakdown of accepted liberal values left Britain and France in a defensive, introspective state, ill-equipped to respond to the challenge of Fascism. But when the Nazis tried to bully and intimidate Europe into submission, it made people look at the war of 1914-18 in a new light. Somehow Hitler’s actions made the motives of the Germany of 1914 seem clearer and the First World War seem more justifiable. It also made the death of all those young men in the earlier war seem all the more tragic, since the Allied politicians of 1918-39 had thrown away what little the soldiers had gained. But the revulsion from war was so strong that although public opinion in Britain and France was changing after 1936, it took a series of German and Italian successes to bring about the fundamental shift in opinion which manifested itself after Hitler’s Prague coup on 14 March 1939.  Even then, the Manchester Guardian reported on 2 August that year, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War,  that a Nazi party newspaper had compared the economic situation then with the 1 August 1914, arriving at the conclusion that the western powers were not in as good a position as they had been twenty-five years previously.

Herbert Read (1893-1968) expressed some of these confused feelings in his poem, To a conscript of 1940, which he wrote soon after the beginning of the Second World War, as the title suggests. In an unusual mood he argues that the bravest soldier is the one who does not really expect to achieve anything:

TO A CONSCRIPT OF 1940

“Qui n’a pas une fois désepéré de l’honneur, ne sera jamais un heros” – Georges Bernanos (“He who has never once given up hope will never be a hero”).

 

A soldier passed me in the freshly-fallen snow,

His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly grey;

And my heart gave a sudden leap

As I gazed on a ghost of five-and-twenty years ago.

 

I shouted Halt! and my voice had the old accustomed ring

And he obeyed it as it was obeyed

In the shrouded days when I too was one

Of an army of young men marching

 

Into the unknown. He turned towards me and I said:

‘I am one of those who went before you

Five-and-twenty years ago: one of the many who never returned,

Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

 

We went where you are going, into the rain and mud;

We fought as you will fight

With death and darkness and despair;

We gave what you will give -our brains and our blood. 

 

We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.

There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets

But the old world was restored and we returned

To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

 

Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.

Power was retained where powerhad been misused

And youth was left to sweep away

The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

 

But one thing we learned: there is no glory in the deed

Until the soldier wears a badge of tarnish’d braid;

There are heroes who have heard the rally and have seen

The glitter of a garland round their head.

 

Theirs is the hollow victory. They are deceived. 

But you, my brother and my ghost. If you can go

Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use

In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

 

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,

The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired.’

Then I turned with a smile, and he answered my salute

As he stood against the fretted hedge, which was like white lace. 

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A column from the East Yorkshire Regiment marches into battle.

Read was born at Kirbymoorside, in the remote eastern hills of the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1893. He earned his living for some years as a bank clerk in Leeds, before becoming a student of law at Leeds University. He joined the Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards, from the University Officers’ Training Corps. He fought in France for three years with the regiment and won the MC and the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He wrote many important books on prose style, art appreciation and other cultural topics. As a poet, he was a consistent admirer of the Imagists, who revolted against what they saw as the unreal poetic language of the Georgians, making use of precise, vital images. He wrote most of his poetry in the 1930s by which time the Imagists had achieved wide acceptance.

In Memorium – Unknown & ‘Missing’ Warriors:

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At the end of the war, the Empire’s death-roll had reached 900,000. More than two million were wounded. And it was only in January 1919 that another man died as the result of a bullet wound received in France in 1918, perhaps the last of the war dead. On Armistice Day, 1920, George V unveiled the Cenotaph, the “empty tomb”. It took the place of the temporary memorial that had been erected for the Peace celebrations in July 1919 (pictured above); Sir Edward Lutyens, who designed it, deliberately omitted any religious symbol because the men it commemorated were of all creeds and none. The concept of ‘ The Unknown Warrior’ was first suggested by J. B. Wilson, the News Editor of the Daily Express in the issue of 16 September 1919. He wrote:

Shall an unnamed British hero be brought from a battlefield in France and buried beneath the Cenotaph in Whitehall?  

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The suggestion was adopted, but Westminster Abbey, not Whitehall, was chosen as the resting place. Early in November 1920, the bodies of six unknown men, killed in action at each of the four battles of Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres were brought to a hut at St. Pol, near Arras. The Unknown Warrior who was to receive an Empire’s homage was chosen by an officer who, with closed eyes, rested his hand on one of the six coffins. This was the coffin which was brought to England and taken to Westminster Abbey where it was placed in the tomb of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November, in a service following the unveiling of the Cenotaph by King George V (shown above). The tomb was built as a permanent tribute to those soldiers who have no named gravestone. France, the USA and Italy also created similar memorials.

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Just before midday on 10 November, HMS Verdun, with an escort of six destroyers, left Boulogne with the Unknown Warrior. The destroyer Vendetta met them half-way with its White Ensign astern at half-mast.

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A Hundred sandbags filled with earth from France were sent over for the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The porters pictured below (left) reloaded the earth at Victoria Station. George V placed a wreath on the coffin (pictured right below), which rested on the gun carriage that took it from the Cenotaph to Westminster Abbey.

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Each evening at 8 p.m. traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres for a ceremony where the Last Post is played. This bugle call was played at the end of each ‘normal’ day in the British Army but has taken on a deeper significance at remembrance services as a final farewell to the dead. The commemoration has taken place every evening (apart from during the Second World War) since 1928. The Memorial displays the names of 54,415 Commonwealth soldiers who died at Ypres and have no known grave. In 2018, a bugle found among the possessions of Wilfred Owen went on display at the Imperial War Museum. He removed it from the body of one of the men in his battalion who was killed in action before he was in 1918. British and South African soldiers numbering 72,203 who died at the Somme with no known grave are commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial within the site of the battlefield. A programme of building memorials and cemeteries had begun straight after the war, and there were soon over fifty-four thousand of them throughout the United Kingdom. Every sizeable village and town possesses one, at which wreaths of poppies are laid every Remembrance Sunday. The Newburgh War Memorial in Fife bears the names of seventy-six men from this small Scottish town who were killed. Their names are listed below:

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Because of the way men were recruited in 1914, in “pals’ battalions” drawn from particular towns and villages, some of these lost almost their entire population of young men. In these places, there was also almost an entire generation of women of widows and ‘spinsters of this parish’ who never married.

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The events of 1939-45 were commemorated more vigorously and immediately – in cinema and Boys’ Own narrative and, over a longer period and to a different end, by the persistence of Jewish community leaders and historians.

By the 1960s, a new generation began to look at the First World War in a new way. It was not the living memory of the First World War that had gone missing (there were, after all, plenty of not-very-old men alive to talk about it – as many did, to the BBC for its series in 1964); it was more that there did not seem to be a way of thinking clearly about it. The poetry of Ted Hughes expressed the spirit that also made books and plays and television programmes about the First World War fashionable in 1964. Hughes found in its soldiers’ admirable qualities a positive vitality and a violent power that he found lacking in modern urban life. At the same time, he believed in the essential goodness of our powerful instinctive impulses. It was in that sense that he found the war exciting, too different from the tragedies of nuclear warfare to be recognizable as the same thing. He once said that what excited his imagination was the war between vitality and death.

In the fifty years that had elapsed since Wilfred Owen’s death, his poems and those of Sassoon appealed to a smaller public than those of Brooke, but they did retain a degree of popularity. Then, in the sixties, their literary reputation grew steadily in the eyes of critics and scholars alongside their increasing popularity with the common reader. There were two reasons for this: firstly, in 1964 the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1914 triggered off a series of books, television programmes and stage shows that made the First World War a fashionable topic; secondly, the war in Vietnam seemed to repeat some of the features of the earlier war, such as its lack of military movement, and its static horrors for the private soldier.

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The first performance of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop production of Oh! What a Lovely War took place just before the fiftieth anniversary, at The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, on 19 March 1963, and then transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre, London in June of that year. In 1964 it transferred to Broadway. The original idea for the musical came from Gerry Raffles, Littlewood’s partner. He had heard a BBC radio programme about the songs of the First World War and thought it would be a good idea to bring these songs to the stage to show the post-World War Two generation that war was not the thing of glory that it was being presented as, at that time. Over a period of time, four writers were commissioned to write a script, but Raffles and Littlewood were unhappy with all of them and decided to give the acting company the task of researching into aspects of the War and then working these into improvised sketches that referenced the findings of that research. Joan Littlewood’s original production was designed to resemble an ‘end of pier’ show,  the sort of seaside variety in the style of music hall entertainment which was popular in late Victorian and Edwardian times. To this end, all her cast members wore Pierrot costumes and none wore ‘khaki’ because, as Littlewood herself put it, war is only for clowns. She was an exponent of ‘agitprop’, a method of spreading political propaganda through popular media such as literature, plays and films.

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A world war was not something that most of Littlewood’s younger audiences had experienced directly, except perhaps as very young children, though many were familiar with it through the experiences and stories of parents and grandparents, and would also have heard many of the songs used in the show. The ‘music hall’ or ‘variety show’ format was still familiar to many through the new medium of television, and the play was designed to emphasise that the war was about ordinary individuals who chose to wear the emblems of their country and make the ultimate sacrifice for it. From a historical standpoint, however, the play tended to recycle popular preconceptions and myths which all effective propaganda is based on. As a satirical ‘knees-up’ it seemed to acknowledge that the remembrance of the First World War had reached a cultural cul-de-sac. As a play which is designed to reflect the impact of the horror of modern warfare on the everyday life of the private soldier, it has its strengths as well as its limitations.

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Joan Littlewood, one of the most radical voices in British theatre in the sixties.

The villains of the piece are, clearly, the non-combatant officer classes, including the generals and the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ is one of the key themes of the play, but this has now been widely debunked by historians. Nevertheless, the First World War was, for the most part, a war of attrition in which huge numbers of men had to pay the ultimate price for military mistakes and minimal gains. In this sense, the play still does a useful job in encouraging audiences to consider for themselves the human cost of war and its impact on individuals. In 1969, Richard Attenborough marked his debut as a film director with his version of the play and, although most of the songs and two scenes from the play remain, the film version bears very little resemblance to the original concept. Despite its stellar cast, many see the film as a travesty of the stage show.

The Last Casualty on the Western Front:

On 11 August 1998, almost eighty years after the armistice, Lieutenant Corporal Mike Watkins of the Royal Logistics Corps was killed when a tunnel he was investigating at Vimy Ridge collapsed.  Watkins had been a bomb disposal expert in Northern Ireland and the Falklands and had carried out work left under First World War battle sites. As far as we know, he was the last casualty of that great conflict.

The Verdict of Historians – Finding a Language of Understanding and Remembrance:

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After a hundred years of commemorating the Great War, it may be that, belatedly, we have found a language and a way of understanding, or at least remembering in an informed and enlightened way, the real and diverse experiences of those lost legions. This has emerged from a dispute about what exactly, a hundred years on, we should actually be commemorating. The silence of the mid-twentieth century meant that, in the popular imagination, the witness of the poets loomed larger than some historians thought it warranted. One of Wilfred Owen’s best poems, by critical acclaim, was entitled Futility, but its use as a by-word for the First World War in popular culture has irked ‘revisionist’ historians. To put the debate at its simplest: on the one hand, there is a vein of literary writing that began with Owen and presents the experience of the War as so terrible, so unprecedented and so depressing that it stands outside the normal considerations of history. Professional historians disagree with this, and narratives influenced by this belief, including recent novels such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, are viewed by some historians as having failed to do justice to the average soldier’s devotion to what he believed, wrongly or rightly, to be a just cause.

As Britain began to gear itself up for the centenary commemorations in about 2012, a group of historians, including Margaret MacMillan, Max Hastings, Gary Sheffield and Hew Strachan, who disagree on many points, agreed on one purpose: that Britain should be weaned from its dependence on the “poets’ view”. They argued that the fact is that the majority of the British public supported the war and that Wilfred Owen went to his grave a week before the armistice with an MC for conspicuous bravery in pursuit of the justice of the cause he signed up for. The historians of the First World War also argued that idea that great powers “sleepwalked” into war is a misinterpretation: German militarism and expansionism needed to be curbed, and a war between Britain and Germany over the control of the seas became inevitable after the German invasion of Belgium and its threat to the Channel ports.

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Writing in the Sunday Times on 11 November 2018, Niall Ferguson (pictured above) seems to take issue with this view. He pointed out that to his generation (also mine) the First World War was ‘not quite history’. His grandfather, John Ferguson had joined up at the age of seventeen and fought on the western front as a private in the Seaforth Highlanders. He was one of the lucky ones who survived and returned, though not unscarred. He was shot through the shoulder by a German sniper. He also survived a gas attack, though his lungs suffered permanent damage. His most vivid recollection was of a German attack. As the enemy advanced towards them, he and his comrades were preparing for the order to go over the top, fixing bayonets, when at the last moment the command was given to another regiment instead. So heavy were that regiment’s casualties, that John Ferguson felt sure that he would have been killed if it had been the Seaforth’s turn. A fact that never fails to startle his grandson was that of the 722,785 men from the United Kingdom who did not come back alive, just under half were aged between sixteen and twenty-four.

Niall Ferguson has argued that the current generation of seventeen-year-olds is exposed to a different sort of enemy – ‘dangerous nonsense’ about the First World War. In the run-up to the Centenary Commemorations, he encountered four examples of this. The first of these he summarises as the view that… despite the enormous sacrifices of life … the war was worth fighting. Ferguson argues that an unprepared Britain would have been better off staying out or at least delaying its intervention. He counters with ten points that he would like all his children to understand in terms of what happened to their great-grandfather’s generation. First of all, the war was not “for civilisation”, as claimed on John Ferguson’s Victory Medal. It was a war for predominance between the six great European empires – the British, the French and the Russian against the German, the Austrian and the Ottoman. It broke out because all the leaders miscalculated that the costs of inaction would exceed the costs of war.

It was also a myth, he claims, that the war was fought mainly by infantrymen going ‘over the top’. It was fought mainly by artillery, shellfire causing 75% of casualties. The war-winning weapons were not poison gas or tanks so much as the improvements in artillery tactics, especially the ‘creeping barrage’ in the final offensive. Neither were the Germans doomed to lose. By mid-1917 the French were finished as an attacking force and German U-boats were sinking frightening numbers of the ships supplying Britain. With Russia consumed by Revolution, a German victory seemed possible as late as the spring of 1918. Certainly, their allies in the Triple Alliance were weak: Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Their excessive use of submarine welfare in the Atlantic made American intervention likely. Fifthly, the Germans were at a massive disadvantage in economic terms. The Entente empires were bigger, the powers had bigger economies and budgets, and greater access to credit. However, the Germans were superior in killing or capturing their opponents. Overall, the Central Powers killed 35% more men than they lost, and their average cost of killing an enemy soldier was roughly a third of the other side’s.

According to Ferguson, the Germans ultimately lost because the British Army proved more resilient than theirs. Men such as John Ferguson simply would not give up, despite all the hardships they had to endure. Both patriotism and propaganda played a part in this, as did military discipline, but it also mattered that British officers were generally competent; that the average Tommy’s lot was made bearable by plentiful “plonk” and “fags”; that, despite high casualties, the bonds between “pals’ and “mates” endured. An eighth point he cites is that the German Army eventually fell apart during the summer and autumn of 1918 when it became clear that the resilience of Entente forces, bolstered by the arrival of the US troops made a German victory impossible. Beginning with the Battle of Amiens (8-11 August), the Germans lost the will to fight on and began to surrender in droves. Finally, the pandemonium with which the war ended with a series of revolutions and rebellions also brought about the disintegration of the great multi-ethnic empires, with only the Saxe-Coburgs surviving from among the royal dynasties of Europe. Communism seemed as unstoppable as the influenza pandemic which killed four times as many people as the war had.

In an article printed on the same day, Daniel Johnson echoes earlier historians in arguing that the Great War marked the moment when the nations of Europe first grasped the true meaning of total war. Every man, woman and child felt its effects. Johnson’s grandfather, an artist and teacher, never fully recovered from his service on the western front, where he was wounded three times and gassed twice. Most British families, he points out, had terrible stories to tell from the Great War. It afflicted not only those who fought and died, but also those who returned and those who remained behind. No-one who survived the slaughter could ever abide empty jingoistic slogans again. Conscription meant that one in four British men served in the forces, a far higher proportion than ever before. Almost everyone else was involved in the war effort in some way, and of the twenty million who died on both sides, there were as many civilians as soldiers. Women played a huge role everywhere, with the war finally settling the debate about women’s suffrage, although the vote was only granted to those with their own property, aged thirty and over.

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Australian troops at the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917

Sebastian Faulks first visited the Somme battlefield some thirty years ago. He was walking in a wood on Thiepval Ridge when he came across a shell casing. This thing is still alive, he thought, if you care to look. He went over to the huge Lutyens stone memorial and looked at the names of the lost – not the dead, who are buried in the nearby cemeteries, but of the British and Empire men of whom no trace was ever found, their names reeling up overhead, like footnotes on the sky. He wondered what it had felt like to be a nineteen-year-old in a volunteer battalion on 30 June 1916, waiting and trusting that the seven-day artillery bombardment had cut the German wire; not knowing you were about to walk into a wall of machine gun fire, with almost sixty thousand casualties on 1 July alone. He wondered if one day the experience of these youngsters might be better understood and valued.

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Gary Sheffield, Professor of War Studies at Wolverhampton University, believes that the Second World War was not an inevitable result of the ‘futile’ failures of the First. Rather, he thinks the two wars should be viewed as instalments of the same battle against German militarism, and that that struggle, in turn, should be seen in the longer perspective of European bloodshed going back through the Napoleonic campaigns to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48. The ‘poet’s view’ was epitomised by Henry James, who wrote that to see the static carnage of the Western Front as what the long years of European civilisation had all along been leading up to was “too sad for any words”. By contrast, the revisionist historian’s view is that the 1914-18 war was just another if egregious episode in Europe’s long-established and incurable bloodlust.

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But the public appetite for commemoration has been spectacular, and diverse over the past four years, in non-poetic ways. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has awarded a hundred million to more than two thousand local community projects in which more than 9.4 million people have taken part. In addition, the efforts of 14-18 Now, which has commissioned work by contemporary artists during the four-year period, has led to the popular installations of the nationwide poppies tour, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, among other initiatives. Meanwhile, Philip Dolling, head of BBC events, reported that 82% of adult Britons had watched or heard some BBC Great War centenary programme, of whom 83% claimed to have learnt something. His colleague, Jane Ellison, thought the BBC’s greatest success had been with young audiences, helping them to see that the soldiers were not sepia figures from ‘history’, but young people just like them.

In researching for Birdsong, Faulks read thousands of letters, diaries and documents in the reading room of the Imperial War Museum. He remembered a buff file that came up from the basement, containing the papers of a private soldier on the Somme in June 1916. “There is going to be a big push,” one letter began, “and we are all excited. Don’t worry about me. Thumbs up and trusting to the best of luck.” Like most such letters, it was chiefly concerned with reassuring the people at home. But towards the end, the writer faltered.  “Please give my best love to Ma, Tom and the babies. You have been the best of brothers to me.” Then he gathered himself: “Here’s hoping it is au revoir and not goodbye!” But he had obviously not been able to let it go, and had written a PS diagonally across the bottom, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be OK!” There was nothing after it in the file except a telegram of condolence from the king.

Ordinary men had been given a voice by the Education Act of 1870, providing them with an elementary schooling to the age of thirteen. Their witness was literate, poignant, but not ‘poetic’. It was authentic, unprecedented and, until recently, largely overlooked. But over the last forty years, they have been heard. Scholars of all kinds, editors, journalists and publishers have read, shared and reprinted their accounts; and the local activities funded through the HLF have uncovered innumerable different stories. They had not been missing; they were there all along, waiting to be discovered by ‘people’s remembrancers’. Faulks writes convincingly about their contribution:

The experience of the First World War was most valuably recorded not by historians or commanders, but by the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker. In what you can now discover in archives or online, there is no party line or school of thought. It was difficult to know how to value all this material, because what had been experienced for the first time by civilian-soldiers was not just any war… but the greatest bloodbath the world had ever seen. It was simply indigestible.

You cannot travel far in the history of war, especially 1914-18, before you stray into anthropology. What kind of creature could do these things? During the past hundred years, it is perhaps not only the events of 1914-18 but the nature of warfare and the human animal itself with which we have to grapple. That is the buried legacy of Kitchener’s citizen army.

Perhaps that is not just an anthropological question either, but a theological one, which is where the poets still make a valuable contribution. They also wrote letters, like those of Wilfred Owen as well as Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain, in which they questioned their hitherto-held beliefs in fundamental human goodness. Therefore the poets’ view is reconcilable with that of the ‘revisionist’ historians. Interestingly, in his ‘afterword’ to a recent new collection of war poetry in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, Andrew Motion wrote that Wilfred Owen had shown how it was still possible for war poets to celebrate individual acts of courage and to commemorate losses, but not to glorify conflict as such. Owen’s maxim, true poets must be truthful, Motion maintained, had held firm through the years, even in wars which are generally considered ‘just’, such as the Second World War. It also applied even more in the case of Holocaust commemoration poems and to Vietnam, or the Gulf War of 1990, or, we might add, to the wars in former Yugoslavia. ‘Pity’ and ‘truthfulness’ remain the crucial ingredients even – or especially – when the realities of war are blurred by euphemisms, such as ‘friendly fire’ or ‘collateral damage’. The best war poets, he argued…

… react to their experience of war, rather than simply acting in response to its pressures. They are mindful of the larger peace-time context even when dwelling on particular horrors; they engage with civilian as well as military life; they impose order and personality as these things are threatened; they insist on performing acts of the imagination when faced with barbarism. In this respect, and in spite of its variety, their work makes a common plea for humanity.   

The varied commemorations of the past five years have also made it substantially easier for young people, in particular, to form their own ideas of what happened and what its implications for their lives may be. But historians are not simply ‘people’s remembrancers’, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out. Reconciling historians’ expectations of the centenary and the feelings of the general public has been challenging. It has been suggesting that with the passing of the centenary of the armistice, it is time to review the way we remember the Great War. First of all, Faulks argues, there must always be a sense of grief. The War killed ten million men for reasons that are still disputed, and it was the first great trauma in the European century of genocide and the Holocaust.

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According to the Sandhurst military historian John Keegan, the Battle of the Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered. Professional historians have their eyes trained on the long view, but they can be drawn back to the moment and to the texture of authentic experience of the nineteen-year-old volunteer in Kitchener’s army. But historians do not have a monopoly of memorial acts (I always hated the assumption that history teachers like me should, automatically, be responsible for these ceremonies). Peter Jackson’s new film, They Shall Not Grow Old is the director’s attempt to stop the First World War from fading into history, placing interviews with servicemen who fought over footage from the Imperial War Museum’s archive. The colourised footage is remarkable, immediately bringing a new dimension to images of the living and the dead; combined with the emotional testimony of the veterans it is an immersive experience and a powerful new act of remembrance that keeps the conflict’s human face in sharp focus.

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Sources:

The Sunday Times, 11 November 2018 (articles by Niall Ferguson, Sebastian Faulks & Daniel Johnson)

Alan Bishop & Mark Bostridge (1998), Letters from a Lost Generation. London: Little Brown (extracts published in The Sunday Times, November 1998 & The Guardian, November 2008).

The Guardian/ The Observer (2008), First World War: Day Seven – The Aftermath. (introductory article by Michael Burleigh; extract from C E Montague (1922), Disenchantment. London: Chatto & Windus).

E L Black (ed.) (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2010), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green (Herts): Transatlantic Press.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester (West Sussex): Summersdale.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-1935. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (eds.) (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Arthur Marwick (1970), Britain in the Century of Total War. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Arthur Marwick & Anthony Adamthwaite (1973), Between Two Wars. Bletchley: The Open University.

Vera Brittain (1933), Testament of Youth. London: Gollancz (Virago-Fontana edn., 1970).

 

Posted December 2, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Australia, Balkan Crises, Britain, British history, Britons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, East Anglia, Education, Elementary School, Empire, Europe, Falklands, Family, First World War, Flanders, France, General Douglas Haig, Genocide, George V, Germany, Great War, Gulf War, History, Holocaust, Humanitarianism, Imperialism, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Jews, liberal democracy, Literature, Memorial, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Ottoman Empire, Population, populism, Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Second World War, Technology, terror, theology, USA, USSR, Warfare, Women at War, Women's History, World War One, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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Centenary of the End of the Great War: The Western Armistice of November 1918 and its Aftermath in Britain & its Empire.   Leave a comment

Celebrating the Armistice in Britain:

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Londoners celebrating the Armistice.

Even before the Armistice was signed on the Western Front, there was a clattering down of thrones in Europe, and the world was a little dazed by the sound and dust which this created. But to those thrones that endured – in Britain, Belgium and Italy – the peoples turned, as they had always done, to the symbols of liberty for which they had always fought. On 11th November great crowds assembled outside Buckingham Palace, following a common impulse, and the King and Queen appeared on the balcony to receive such an acclamation as had rarely greeted the sovereigns of an unemotional people. The writer H. G. Wells described military trucks riding around London picking up anyone who wanted a ride to anywhere, and ‘vast vacant crowds’ consisting mostly of students, schoolchildren, the middle-aged and the old, and home-front soldiers choking the streets: Everyone felt aimless, with a kind of strained and aching relief. A captured German gun carriage was thrown on to a bonfire of ‘Hun’ trophies in Trafalgar Square.  Vera Brittain, who had left Oxford University to be a Red Cross nurse witnessed the jubilant atmosphere of Armistice Day, drawn out from the hospital where she was working to observe the celebrations with mixed emotions, including a chilly gloom resulting from the realisation that almost all her best friends were dead and that she would be facing the future without them. She later wrote about her memories of it, and those she had lost in the war, in her biography, Testament of Youth (1933). She noticed that…

When the sound of victorious guns burst over London at 11 a.m. … the men and women who looked incredulously into each other’s faces did not cry jubilantly: “We’ve won the War!” They only said: “The War is over.”

From Millbank I heard the maroons crash with terrifying clearness, and, like a sleeper who is determined to go on dreaming after being told to wake up, I went on automatically washing the dressing bowls in the annex outside my hut. Deeply buried beneath my consciousness there stirred a vague memory of a letter that I had written to Roland in those legendary days when I was still at Oxford …

But on Armistice Day not even a lonely survivor drowning in black waves of memory could be left alone with her thoughts. A moment after the guns had subsided into sudden, palpitating silence, the other VAD from my ward dashed excitedly into the annex.

“Brittain! Brittain! Did you hear the maroons? It’s over – it’s all over! Do lets come out and see what’s happening!” …

Late that evening … a group of elated VADs … prevailed upon me to join them. Outside the Admiralty a crazy group of convalescent Tommies were collecting specimens of different uniforms and bundling their wearers into flag-strewn taxis. … Wherever we went a burst of enthusiastic cheering greeted our Red Cross uniform, and complete strangers adorned with wound stripes rushed up and shook me warmly by the hand. …

I detached myself from the others and walked slowly up Whitehall, with my heart sinking in a sudden cold dismay. Already this was a different world from the one I had known during four life-long years, a world in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, in which themselves and their careers and their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. And in that brightly lit, alien world I should have no part. All those with whom I had really been intimate were gone; not one remained to share with me the heights and the depths of my memories. As the years went by and youth departed and remembrance grew dim, a deeper and ever deeper darkness would cover the young men who were my contemporaries.

For the first time I realised, with all that full realisation meant, how completely everything that had hitherto made up my life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey. The war was over, a new age was beginning, but the dead were dead and would never return.   

On the late afternoon of Armistice Day, in the wet November dusk, the King and Queen drove in a simple open carriage through the city of London, almost unattended and wholly unheralded. The merrymakers left their own occupations to cheer, and crowds accompanied the carriage through the newly lit streets, running beside it and shouting friendly greetings. It was an incident which interpreted the meaning of a ‘People’s King’. Next morning, 12 November 1918, ‘Victory’ dawned upon a western world too weary even for comprehension. The crescendo of the final weeks had dazed minds as ordinary people could not grasp the magnitude of a war which had dwarfed all other, earlier conflicts, and had depleted the world of life to a far greater extent than centuries of invasions, conflicts and wars put together. There were some eight million dead combatants in addition to twenty-five million non-combatants worldwide. In Britain, the figures were too astronomical to have much meaning – nearly ten million men in arms from the Empire as a whole, of whom over three million were wounded, missing or dead. At least seven hundred thousand British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another hundred and fifty thousand were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some three hundred thousand children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out.

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But the statistics of the conflict, meticulously recorded by the War Office to the very last man and the very last minute of the war, convey nothing of the sheer agonising misery of the limbless, blinded, deformed and shell-shocked survivors from the Western Front. John Buchan, journalist and war correspondent, commented that the ordinary citizen…

… could only realise that he had come, battered and broken, out of a great peril, and that his country had not been the least among the winners of the victory.

The newspaper headlines from around the world were:

 

Great War Ends

Chicago Daily Tribune

Armistice Signed, End of the War!

The New York Times

Germany Gives Up: War Ends at 2 p.m.

New York Journal

Germany Signs Armistice

Sydney Morning Herald

The World War At An End

Yorkshire Telegraph and Star

Allies Drastic Armistice Terms to Huns

How London Hailed the End of War

The Daily Mirror

Peace!

Greatest Day In All History Being Celebrated

The Ogden Standard (Utah)

World Celebrates Return of Peace, End of Autocracy

Oregon Journal

Germany Surrenders

New Zealand Herald

War is Over

The Washington Times

Armistice Is Signed

The Toronto Daily News

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Britain’s fleet had conducted the blockade which sapped the enemy’s strength and had made possible the co-operation of Allies separated by leagues of ocean. Its wealth had borne the main financial burden of the alliance. Its armies, beginning from small numbers, had grown to be the equal of any in the world, in training, discipline and leadership. Moreover, the resolution shown by the British forces and people had been a bulwark to all her confederates in the darkest hours. Such had always been Britain’s record in European wars. At the beginning of the war, Germany had regarded it as a soft, pacifistic power already on the decline. It had come to a decision slowly, entered the war unwillingly, but then waged it with all the strength and determination it could muster and did not slacken until its aims had been achieved.

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The next few days and weeks were pregnant with ceremonial events. On the 12th the King and Queen went solemn procession to St. Paul’s to return thanks to the ‘Giver’ of victory. In the following week, they drove through all the districts of London and paid a brief visit to Scotland. On the 27th, the King visited France. He had been on the battlefield during the final offensive of 8th August and was now able to examine the ground on which victory had been won and to greet his troops as they moved eastward to the German frontier, or westward to return home to Britain. In Paris, at banquets at the Élysée and the Hotel de Ville, he spoke words of gratitude and friendship to the French people. On Tuesday, 19th November, in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, he replied to the addresses of the two Houses of Parliament. In the presence of political leaders, and the great officers of State, and representatives of the overseas dominions, he expounded in simple words the debt of the nation to its fleets and armies for their achievement; the pride of Britain in her Allies; the unspectacular toil of the millions at home who had made victory possible, and the task still before the nation if a better world was to be built out of the wreckage of the old:

In what spirit shall we approach these great problems? How shall we seek to achieve the victories of peace? Can we do better than remember the lessons which the years of war have taught, and retain the spirit which they have instilled? In these years Britain and her traditions have come to mean more to us than they had ever meant before. It became a privilege to serve her in whatever way we could; and we were all drawn by the sacredness of the cause into a comradeship which fired our zeal and nerved our efforts. This is the spirit we must try to preserve. … The sacrifices made, the sufferings endured, the memory of the heroes who have died that Britain may live, ought surely to ennoble our thoughts and attune our hearts to a higher sense of individual and national duty, and to a fuller realisation of what the English-speaking race, dwelling upon the shores of all the oceans, may yet accomplish for mankind. For centuries Britain has led the world along the path of ordered freedom. Leadership may still be hers among the peoples who are seeking to follow that path. … 

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He was entitled to exhort his people in this way because he and his family had played their part in the struggle, performing hard and monotonous duties, sharing gladly in every national burden. John Buchan commented that it was also beginning to dawn on the British people that they had also been well-served, in the end, by the military leader to whom they had entrusted their ‘manhood’:

Haig could never be a popular hero; he was too reserved, too sparing of speech, too fastidious. In the early days his limitations had been obvious, but slowly men had come to perceive in him certain qualities which, above all others, the crisis required. He was a master in the art of training troops, and under his guidance had been produced some of the chief tactical developments of the campaign. He had furnished the ways and means for Foch’s strategic plans. Certain kinds of great soldier he was not, but he was the type of great soldier most needed for this situation, and he succeeded when a man of more showy endowments would have failed. Drawing comfort from deep springs, he bore in the face of difficulties a gentle and unshakable resolution. Gradually his massive patience and fortitude had impressed his efforts for the men who had fought with him won their deep and abiding affection. The many thousands who, ten years later, awaited in the winter midnight the return of the dead soldier to his own land, showed how strong was his hold upon the hearts of his countrymen.

For many others, however, his name became synonymous with the way the war was waged with a contempt for human life on a scale unparalleled in history, as well as being stamped on billions of artificial poppies. For them, his name became a byword for stupid butchery. He himself felt that every step in his plan was taken with divine help. After the Armistice, the higher ranks were rewarded with knighthoods and peerages, while the ‘other ranks’ were lucky if they had been lucky enough to survive intact, while the families of every member of the armed forces who were killed were given what became known as the ‘Death Penny’. This was actually a four-and-a-half-inch circular bronze plaque depicting Britannia, a lion and the name of the deceased. The disabled faced the future on pitiful pensions and some were reduced to the helplessness of the wounded soldier being pushed around Leicester in a pram in the picture below, taken in 1918.

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A Fit Country for Heroes? The Political Aftermath of the Armistice in Britain:

As the new minister for ‘war and air’, Winston Churchill understood the strange mix of emotions the country was feeling. He was responsible for demobilization which, before he took office, had already become a source of great anger and distress for all those who had survived the inferno. They were supposed to be discharged according to industrial and economic priorities, which inevitably meant slowly. Judging this inhuman, Churchill speeded up the rate of discharge and made wounds, age and length of service the priorities instead. But there was an outpouring of meaningless platitudes from politicians. Lloyd George proclaimed the fruits of victory with his usual eloquence in speeches like the following as the General Election approached at the end of the year, the second made in Wolverhampton on 23 November:

“Let us make the victory the motive power to link the old land in such measure that it will be nearer the sunshine than ever before and that at any rate it will lift up those who have been living in dark places to a plateau where they will get the rays of the sun.”

” … the work is not over yet – the work of the nation, the work of the people, the work of those who have sacrificed. Let us work together first. What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.”

‘Never again’ and ‘homes fit for heroes’ fell easily from the tongues of those who had ‘kept the home fires burning’ while persuading others to do the fighting.

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The purpose of the politicians to maintain the same corporate national effort as had been successful in the war did them credit, but it was shallowly interpreted and led to the blunder of the 1918 Election in Britain. The instinct which led to the election was right, but its conduct was disastrous. A fresh mandate from the people was required for the work of peacemaking and to continue, the war-time coalition of all parties; both worthy aims to tap the patriotism of the country. But for sitting MPs the test of patriotism was a solitary division in the House of Commons from the previous May on a criticism of the Coalition Government by a distinguished staff officer, a criticism which may have been ill-timed, but was fair. Those who supported the government in that vote had been given ‘coupons’, whereas the malcontents were ‘outlawed’ as far as their candidature in the forthcoming election was concerned. The immediate consequence of this was a descent from the Prime Minister’s high words after the Armistice about a peace based on righteousness, and the need to put away base, sordid, squalid ideas of vengeance and avarice. The coupon candidates swept the board in the election and gave the government a huge working majority with 484 members (see the caption above). Labour returned fifty-nine MPs and the non-Coalition Liberals were reduced to a little more than a score.

But the mischief lay more in the conduct of the campaign than in its result. Responsible statesmen lent themselves to cries about “hanging the Kaiser” and extracting impossible indemnities from Germany. Britain stood before the world as the exponent of the shoddiest form of shallow patriotism, instead of the reasoned generosity which was the true temper of the nation. The result of the election produced one of the least representative parliaments in British political history. A batch of leaderless trade unionists constituted the official opposition; the rest was, in Lloyd George’s words, more like a chamber of commerce than a House of Commons. It did not represent the intelligence, experience or wisdom of the British people since it was mainly an assembly of well-to-do mediocrities. It also left out certain vital elements of opinion, which as a consequence were driven underground. It mirrored the nation at its worst and did much to perpetuate its vengeful mood. The feverish vulgarities of the election created impatience in many classes, in returning soldiers, in munitions workers and engineers, and made infinitely harder the business of economic reconstruction. It gravely weakened the prestige of Parliament, which had been held in abeyance during the War and which could not afford any decline in esteem at a time when many minds were turning away from constitutional politics to more revolutionary ideas, attitudes and methods, as apparent on the continent.

The returned prime minister’s aspirations and promises were not met or fulfilled, and by 1919, the euphoria of victory was replaced by reality as the ex-servicemen found that their old jobs in fields and factories were no longer available. There followed a great deal of dissatisfaction amongst returning servicemen who often found themselves unemployed, as did many women who had worked in the munitions factories and other engineering works during the war. At the same time, the number of trade unionists had risen to its highest level since 1912 and the second highest since figures were kept in 1893. Trade Unionists in Belfast and Glasgow fought bravely to reduce the working week to help absorb the ‘demobbed’ servicemen. The post-war boom was suddenly replaced by a trade slump, throwing many more out of work. The number of unemployed reached two million in 1921, and ex-servicemen stood on street corners selling matches, playing the barrel organ and singing for pennies. Some remembrance events were disrupted by protesting ex-soldiers as the year turned, and especially on the anniversary of the armistice, which had become ‘Poppy Day’. The picture below was taken outside the British Legion offices on 11 November 1921, showing a protest by the Discharged Soldiers and Sailors’ Federation.

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Dominions, Colonies & Mandates:

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John McCrae was born in Canada in 1872 and died of pneumonia in January 1918. He was a distinguished doctor who wrote an important book on pathology. He went to Europe in 1914 as a soldier, a gunner, but was transferred to the medical service and served as a doctor in the front line during the Second Battle of Ypres. His famous poem, In Flanders Fields, appeared anonymously in Punch on 8 December 1915. He was appointed to take charge of a hospital in Boulogne but died before he could take up his appointment. Although written and published in the early years of the war, it is one of a number of poems that in various ways manage to look at the War from a distance. McCrae imagined how the dead lying beneath the poppies of Flanders would call on future generations to sustain the causes for which they died.

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McCrae’s poem also serves to remind us of the contributions of the British Empire’s dominions to the war on the Western Front, and the effects it had upon them. But while the British only have to be reminded of the contributions of the ANZACs and the Canadians to the war in Gallipoli and on the Western front, their ‘gratitude’ to those from what Simon Schama has called the ‘off-white empire’ has been a lot less apparent. Nearly a million Indian troops were in service, both in the ‘barracks of the east’ in Asia itself, on the Western Front and in the ultimately disastrous campaign in Mesopotamia. Official estimates of Indian losses in that campaign were put at fifty-four thousand dead and sixty thousand wounded. At least forty thousand black Africans had served as bearers and labourers in the British armies in France, as well as a larger force fighting in the colonial African theatre; their casualty rates were not properly recorded, but they are likely to have been very high.

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The contribution of Indians made it less likely that the promise of Liberal reforms to India, when it did come, would suffice to stem the nationalist tide, which Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India (pictured right), had described in November 1917 as a seething, boiling political flood raging across the country.  For a while, the Montagu Declaration and the Montagu-Chelmsford Report had held it back; if he had done nothing else, wrote Montagu in February 1918, I have kept India quiet for six months at a critical period of the war. The reforms represented the biggest concession Britain had yet made to the demands of the nationalists.

In the middle east, a whole gamut of British interests which previously had rested fairly heavily on Turkish neutrality was imperilled, chief among them, of course, the Suez Canal and the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. The Arab Revolt which began in 1916 had helped to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east, and so take the pressure off the Suez Canal and the oil fields. But this did not solve Britain’s longer-term problems of how to safeguard its middle eastern interests now that the old Turkish buffer was gone; or the short-term problem of how to avoid quarrelling with its friends over it. To settle these problems, the British had come to a secret arrangement with France in April 1916 – the Sykes-Picot Treaty – which was supposed to determine how the Ottoman Empire would be partitioned after the war.

Then, in November 1917, the Balfour Declaration had given the British government’s blessing and support to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. It was the kind of commitment which could only have been made in wartime when political geography was so fluid that such an artificial creation could be considered. To reassure both the Arabs and the growing number of critics at home, the British government stepped up its promises to the Arab leaders in a series of ‘declarations’ from January to November 1918.

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By the end of the war, the middle east was a tangle of promises which Britain had made to the Arabs, to the Jews, to France, and to itself. They were contradictory, although no-one knew quite how contradictory, or how intentional the contradictions had been. Words like ‘self-determination’ and ‘independence’ were capable of different degrees of interpretation in the middle eastern context as much as they were in the European one. The British believed that Arab ‘independence’ was quite consistent with a ‘sphere of influence’ over them, and Curzon said at the end of the war that he was quite happy to accept ‘self-determination’ because he believed that most of the Arab people would ‘determine in our favour’.

In October 1915, the Egyptian High Commissioner, Sir Henry MacMahon had promised, with reservations, that Britain would recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in order to encourage the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire which had begun with British military and financial help in June 1916. But in one of the reservations to Arab independence contained in ‘the MacMahon Letter’ there was ambiguity in the use of one word, which in Arabic could refer either to a district or a province, and on that ambiguity hung the fate of Palestine. The most ambiguous term of all was in the Balfour Declaration, however, because although Balfour himself was subsequently clear that he had intended the promise of a national home in Palestine for the Jews to refer to a Jewish state, on the face of it the term could be taken to mean a number of lesser things. Yet no-one pretended that all the pieces of the diplomatic puzzle could be put together in such a way as to make them fit. Curzon was sure that MacMahon had promised Palestine to the Arabs, but Balfour read the exclusion of Palestine from Arab control into MacMahon’s ‘reservation’. These were contradictions of interpretation which led, after the war, to accusations of ‘betrayal’.  T. E. Lawrence (…of Arabia), who was to accompany the Arab delegation to Paris in January 1919, claimed that it had always been evident to him that Britain’s promises to the Arabs would be ‘dead paper’ after the war, and confessed that he was complicit in deliberately misleading them:

I risked the fraud, on my conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose. 

The African-Near Eastern empire was much shakier in its loyalty after the war than before. In 1918, partly driven by the accumulating momentum of post-Khalifa Muslim nationalism and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a delegation of Egyptian intellectuals and politicians – the wafd – asked the British authorities to set a timetable for the end of the protectorate that had been in force since 1914. The high commissioner in Egypt did not dismiss them out of hand but was not optimistic. Even this degree of cooperation was laughed at by Curzon in London as being deeply unwise. When the rejection became known, the Egyptian government resigned and there were strikes and riots, precisely the same kind of demonstrations which occurred contemporaneously in India, and with even more tragic results. Some fifteen hundred Egyptians were killed over two months of fighting between the British army and the nationalists. As in Iraq, the anti-wafd monarchy was established on the understanding that Egypt would be ‘protected’, along with the Suez Canal, by British troops. The resentment caused by these events towards the British created the context for future conflicts over Egypt and Suez, and therefore in the middle east more widely.

In themselves, the pledges Britain made during the war did not determine anything that happened afterwards. Britain gave no one self-government after the war simply because she had promised it to them. It might keep its promise and very often it did, but if it could prevaricate or break a promise with impunity, it would. The colonial settlement when it came after the war, and as it was modified subsequently, was determined much more by the immediate post-war conditions – the interests, strengths and weaknesses of the different parties at that time – than by pledges and declarations made, cynically or irresponsibly, in the course of the war itself. The conditions which existed at the end of 1918 determined that, in colonial terms at least, Britain would get a great deal out of the war for itself. Britain and its allies had won the war, Germany and Turkey had lost. This meant that there were a number of colonies ‘going begging’ in the world, and only Britain and France were in a position to ‘snaffle them up’, as Porter (1984) has put it. Japan would be satisfied with expanding its empire in the north Pacific, the USA did not want colonies, and Italy, whose contribution to the Entente victory had been negligible, was considered by the other allies not to deserve any.

The ‘Khaki’ election of December 1918 had returned Lloyd George’s wartime coalition with an unstoppable majority; Balfour, Curzon and Milner were all in it, and they were not the kind of men to exercise self-restraint in colonial matters. Neither was Churchill, the jaw-jutting, table-pounding belligerent defender of empire, as Schama has characterised him. Nor were the leaders of the Dominions. For his part as their Prime Minister, Lloyd George was not bothered about the empire either way and put up little resistance to his imperialists accepting whatever fell into their laps. In the final days of the conflict, Leopold Amery had soothed his conscience by emphasising that while the war had been fought over Europe, incidentally …

… if, when all is over, … the British Commonwealth emerges greater in area and resources … who has the right to complain?

This was probably the interpretation of Britain’s position that most people in Britain and the Dominions shared. The first result of the war for Britain was, therefore, a considerable augmentation of its empire. The middle east was divided up almost according to the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Arabs were given the Arabian desert. Britain took Palestine, Transjordan, the Persian Gulf states and Iraq, which may at first have looked like ‘annexations’ but were not called that at the time. In 1919 at Paris, they became ‘Mandates’ under the League of Nations, which meant that they were entrusted to Britain and France to administer in the interests of their inhabitants, and with a view to their eventual independence. Nevertheless, in the short-term these territories, together with Britain’s existing protectorates in Egypt, Cyprus and Aden made up, in Porter’s words, a tidy little middle eastern empire. As a result, the British Empire was larger than it had ever been. But in adding new territories to Britain’s collection of colonies, the war had also weakened her grip on old ones. The fact that the self-governing dominions had co-operated in wartime did not necessarily mean that they wished to be shackled to the empire in peacetime. In all of them, not just in India, the experience of war had stimulated local nationalism just as much as did a common imperialism, whether among Afrikaners or French-speaking Canadians.

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The war had provoked or provided an opportunity for, a more vigorous assertion of forms of nationalism with a harder edge than had existed before it. In India, the war had given the Muslim League over to Congress, and Congress over to the extremists. Before the war there had been violence and terrorism both in India and Ireland, but the mainstream of colonial nationalism had been represented by Gokhale’s Congress or Redmond’s Irish Home Rule Party: moderate in their aims, generally not in favour of absolute independence, and in their methods, which were constitutional. Sinn Féin in Ireland shared with Gandhi’s campaign of ‘non-cooperation’ a willingness to work unconstitutionally, outside the system. Many had assumed that the shared experience of fighting for a common cause would unite the Irish, but the unexpectedly long duration of the war changed everything. Support for the war by constitutional nationalists, and their willingness to compromise in the preceding negotiations exposed them to criticism from more extreme nationalists when the war dragged on. Dissatisfaction with the Irish Party – who sought Home Rome by constitutional means at Westminster – was galvanised by the events of Easter 1916. Ireland might possibly have accepted old-fashioned ‘Home Rule’, self-government in domestic affairs only, which had satisfied the constitutional nationalist leader, John Redmond, in 1914, had it not been for the fifteen punitive executions carried out after the ‘Easter Rising’, as depicted above. Moderate ‘Home Rulers’ were appalled by the heavy-handed reaction to the rebellion, the executions and the thousands of arrests which followed it.

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This alienation from British rule of any kind, combined by the willingness of the Irish Party to compromise and the looming introduction of conscription in Ireland turned the population away from the Irish Party to the more revolutionary objectives of Sinn Féin. This became increasingly apparent in the increasingly daring nature of the actions of the reorganised Irish Volunteers, but even clearer in the 1918 general election. The Republican party almost swept the board in the 1918 election, winning seventy-three seats compared with just six won by the constitutional nationalists, all of them in the North, though Sinn Féin actually only won forty-eight per cent of the vote, conducted on an all-Ireland basis. It was also clear that in Ulster, the contribution made by Irish regiments in the war had strengthened the determination of Protestants to remain within the United Kingdom. The Republicans refused to take their seats in Westminster and instead set up their own Irish parliament, called Dáil Éireann, in Dublin. The electoral success of Sinn Féin was subsequently used to justify the republican’s violent campaign for independence, but their 1918 manifesto did not suggest the use of physical force but rather had strongly advocated passive resistance and an appeal to the Versailles Peace Conference. When this failed, the Irish Volunteers, who now called themselves the IRA (Irish Republican Army) became increasingly violent, leading to the outbreak of the bloody Anglo-Irish War in 1920.

The nationalist struggle in India and Ireland had shifted into a higher gear and this foreshadowed danger for the empire as a whole. By the end of 1918, it seemed secure from attacks from outside but was now more vulnerable than ever before to threats from within. It might be able to contain one of these at a time, two – as with India and Ireland – with difficulty, but if it were challenged on three or four fronts at the same time, it could collapse. With the troops back from the western front, the empire should have been in a position to contain trouble in Ireland or/and India. Its armies were big enough if they could be kept in ‘khaki’, but they could not, not because of the expense alone, but because of the very real threat of mutiny. Many of the soldiers were restless at not being demobilized immediately, and there were strikes and mutinies both in Britain and France. When they had beaten Germany the British soldiery felt they had done their job. They had not joined up to police the empire.

Churchill argued that the government had no choice but to speed up demobilization and in this, as in so many other matters in the immediate aftermath of the war, he was right. Looked at from the twenty-first century, the post-First World War Churchill was proved correct in almost all of his positions and prophecies – on Russia, Ireland, the Middle East and even on the issue of German reparations and the blockade put in place by Balfour to force assent. Often he would swerve from a hard-line to a soft one, so that having banged away like Lloyd George in the election campaign about making Germany pay through the nose, he then made appeals for greater flexibility and leniency, as did Lloyd George, in opposing the blockade. After all was said and done, the Great War was a war which Britain only just won, with the help of its empire but also that of the USA. There had been many defeats along the way, as Lloyd George himself noted: the prestige and authority of the British Empire were still intact, even if dented and damaged.

Sources:

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1936), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.

E. L. Black (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (ed.) (1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents & Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. London: Longman.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

Centenary:
Armistice & Aftermath, 1918

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Britain and the World, 1984-89: From local difficulties to global conflicts.   Leave a comment

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The ‘Iron Lady’ at the peak of her powers, with tank and flag, in 1986.

The Brighton Bombing:

During the 1984 Conservative Conference, an IRA bomb partly demolished the Grand Hotel in Brighton, almost killing the Prime Minister and a number of her cabinet. The action was intended as a response to Mrs Thatcher’s hard-line at the time of the 1981 Hunger Strike at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. The plot had been to assassinate her and the whole of the cabinet in order to plunge the country into political chaos, resulting in withdrawal from Northern Ireland. When the bomb went off at 2.50 a.m., Margaret Thatcher was working on official papers, having just finished her conference speech. The blast scattered broken glass on her bedroom carpet and filled her mouth with dust. She soon learned that the bomb had killed the wife of cabinet minister John Wakeham, he himself narrowly escaping; killed the Tory MP Anthony Berry and had badly injured Norman Tebbit, paralysing his wife. After less than an hour’s fitful sleep, she rewrote her speech and told the stunned conference that they had witnessed an attempt to cripple the government, commenting that…

… the fact that we are gathered here now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.

The final death toll from Brighton was five dead and several more seriously injured, but its consequences for British politics, which could have been momentous, turned out to be minimal. If the IRA could not shake her, could anything else?

The Gorbachevs in London:

In November 1984, Mikhail Gorbachev arrived at the VIP terminal at Heathrow airport, together with his wife, Raisa. The British had spotted him first, in the summer of that year, if not earlier. He was a lawyer by training, which he had done at the end of the Stalin period. So, while he accepted there were rules to be obeyed, he also knew that they were only really there to be bent. He and Raisa did a great deal in their few days in London, but they did not perform the obligatory ceremony of laying a wreath on Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery. Instead, they paid impromptu visits to Westminster Abbey and Number Ten Downing Street. The Foreign Office arranged a formal lunch for the Gorbachev at Hampton Court Palace, to which they invited a couple of hundred worthies, including BBC journalist John Simpson. He was seated next to a man from Moscow who was to become Gorbachev’s most senior advisors. Simpson asked him whether Gorbachev would really be able to make a difference to the Soviet Union. The Russian replied:

“He will have to,” he said. I noticed he didn’t trouble to question my assumption that Gorbachev would get the top job.

“Why?”

“Because a great deal has to be done. Much, much, more, I think, than you in the West realize.”

The Thatcher Revolution at Home – “Don’t tell Sid!”:

If Labour had been accused of creating a giant state sector whose employees depended on high public spending and could, therefore, be expected to become loyal Labour voting-fodder, then the Tories were intent on creating a property-owning democracy. The despair of Labour politicians as they watched it working was obvious. By the end of the 1980s, there was a large and immovable private sector in Britain of share-owners and home-owners, probably working in private companies, SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and increasingly un-unionised. The proportion of adults holding shares rose from seven per cent to twenty-five per cent during Thatcher’s years in power. Thanks to the ‘right to buy’ policy for council tenants, more than a million families purchased the hoses they lived in, repainting and refurbishing them and then watching their value shoot up, particularly as they had been sold them at a discount of between a third and a half of market value. The proportion of owner-occupied homes rose from fifty-five per cent in 1979 to sixty-seven per cent in 1989. In real terms, total personal wealth rose by eighty per cent in the eighties.

Looking below the surface, however, the story becomes more complex. Of the huge rise in wealth, relatively little was accounted for by shares. The increase in earnings and the house-price boom were much more important. The boom in shareholdings was fuelled by the British love of a bargain than by any deeper change in the culture. There was always a potential conflict between the government’s need to raise revenue and it hopes of spreading share ownership. In the early eighties, ministers erred on the side of the latter. The breakthrough privatization was that of fifty-two per cent of British Telecom in November 1984, which raised an unprecedented 3.9 billion. It was the first to be accompanied by a ‘ballyhoo’ of television and press advertising and was easily oversubscribed. In the event, two million people, or five per cent of the adult population bought ‘BT’ shares, almost doubling the total number of shareholders in a single day. After this came British Gas, as natural gas fields had been supplying Britain from the North Sea since the late sixties, pumping ashore at Yarmouth and Hull, replacing the coal-produced system. With its national pipe network and showrooms, natural gas had become the country’s favourite source of domestic energy and was, therefore, a straightforward monopoly. The government prepared for the sale with another TV campaign featuring a fictitious neighbour who had to be kept in the ‘dark’ about the bargain sale – “Don’t tell Sid!” This raised 5.4 billion, the biggest single privatization.

With the equally bargain-price shares offered to members of building societies when they de-mutualised and turned into banks, Britain developed a class of one-off shareholders, ‘kitchen capitalists’. They soon sold off their shares at a profit, few of them developing into long-term stock market investors, as had been hoped. Those who kept their shares did not go on to buy more, and rarely traded the ones they had acquired as a result of the privatizations, demutualisations and former employment options. The long-term failure to nurture a deeply rooted shareholding democracy has added to the contemporary criticism that public assets were being sold off too cheaply. The then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson later admitted that wider share ownership was an important policy objective and we were prepared to pay a price for it. The failure, ultimately, to achieve that objective showed that there were limits to the Thatcher Revolution. The most successful privatizations were the ones where the company was pushed into full competition, as with British Airways, Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace. The utilities – gas, electricity, water – were always different, because they were natural monopolies. Yet without competition, where would the efficiency gains come from? This question was left as a rhetorical one, unanswered until decades later. The water and electricity companies were split up in order to create regional monopolies, with power generation split into two mega-companies, National Power and Powergen. In reality, few people outside the ‘Westminster village’ cared who owned the companies they depended on, so long as the service was acceptable. Britain was becoming a far less ideological country and a more aggressively consumerist one.

Heseltine and the Helicopters:

In the winter of 1984-85, the great Westland Helicopter crisis that broke over the Thatcher government was a battle between ministers about whether a European consortium of aerospace manufacturers or and American defence company, working with an Italian firm should take over a struggling West Country helicopter maker. While this was a government that claimed to refuse to micro-manage industry, yet the fight about the future of the Yeovil manufacturer cost two cabinet ministers’ jobs and pitted Thatcher against the only other member of her cabinet with real charisma, Nigel Heseltine. The small storm of Westland gave early notice of the weaknesses that would eventually destroy the Thatcher government, though not for another five years.

One weakness was the divide throughout the Tory Party over Britain’s place in the world. By the 1980s, helicopters were no longer a marginal defence issue. They would become crucial to Britain’s capabilities, the new army mule for hauling artillery over mountains and across stretches of water. United Technologies, the US company whose Sikorsky subsidiary built the Black Hawk helicopter, wanted to gain control over part of Britain’s defence industry. Alexander Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State who had been so helpful to Mrs Thatcher during the Falklands Campaign was now back at his old company and ‘called in his markers’ for the American bid. Adopting a position of outward neutrality would probably have favoured it anyway as a further strengthening of the Special Relationship between the UK and the US. But on the other side, supporting the European consortium, were those who felt that the EC had to be able to stand alone in defence technology. Michael Heseltine and his business allies thought this was vital to protect jobs in the cutting-edge science-based industries. The US must not be allowed to dictate prices and terms to Europe. So the conflict was concerned with whether Britain stood first with the US or with the EC. It was a question which would continue to grow in importance throughout the eighties until, in the nineties, it tore the Conservatives apart.

The second weakness exposed by the Westland Affair was the Thatcher style of government, which was more presidential and more disdainful of the role of cabinet ministers than any previous government. The Prime Minister was conducting more and more business in small committees or bilaterally, with one minister at a time, ensuring her near absolute predominance. She gathered a small clique of trusted advisors around her. Just before her fall, Nigel Lawson concluded that she was taking her personal economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, more seriously than she was taking him, her next door neighbour in No 11, her Chancellor of the Exchequer. She used her beloved press officer, Bernard Ingham to cut down to size any ministers she had fallen out with, briefing against them and using the anonymous lobby system for Westminster journalists to spread the message.  In his memoirs, Ingham angrily defends himself against accusations of the improper briefing of the press, yet there are too many witnesses who found the Thatcher style more like that of the court of Elizabeth Tudor than that of a traditional cabinet, a place which demanded absolute loyalty and was infested with sycophantic favourites. In the mid-eighties, this was a new way of doing the business of government and to ministers on the receiving end, it was freshly humiliating.

But if there was one minister unlikely to take such treatment for long, it was Michael Heseltine (pictured below at a Conservative Party Conference). He was the only serious rival to Thatcher as the ‘darling of the party’ and media star, handsome, glamorous, rich and an excellent public speaker. He was said by his friend, fellow Tory MP and biographer, Julian Critchley, to have mapped out his future career on the back of an envelope, while still a student at Oxford, decade by decade, running through making his fortune, marrying well, entering Parliament and then, 1990s, Prime Minister. Though Heseltine commented that he could not remember doing this, it was in character. As a young man, he had flung himself into the characteristic sixties businesses of property investment and magazine publishing. A passionate anti-socialist, he had won a reputation for hot-headedness since once picking up the Mace, the symbol of Parliamentary authority, during a Commons debate about steel nationalization, and waving it at the Labour benches in such a violent manner as to earn himself the nickname ‘Tarzan’. His speeches to Tory Party conferences were full of blond hair-tossing, hilarious invective and dramatic gestures. In her memoirs, Thatcher portrayed Heseltine as a vain, ambitious man who flouted cabinet responsibility. The Westland crisis was, in her view, simply about his psychological flaws. However, they agreed about much, but was a more committed anti-racialist than she was and more deeply in favour of the EC, and she always regarded him as a serious and dangerous rival.

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The two bigger beasts of the Tory Party in the eighties went to war on behalf of the two rival bidders for Westland. She was livid that he was using his position as Defence Secretary to warn the company’s shareholders about the dangers of going with the Americans, potentially shutting out European business. She thought he was tipping the scales against Sikorsky, despite Westland’s preference for them. Certainly, Heseltine repeatedly made it clear that the Ministry of Defence would not be buying their Black Hawk helicopter and did much to rally the European consortium. Thatcher, meanwhile, was deploying the public line that she was only interested in what was best for the shareholders while trying to make sure the Americans were kept in the race, ahead of the Europeans. Eventually, she sought advice from the government law officers about whether Heseltine had been behaving properly. A private reply was leaked in order to weaken his case. Furious about this wholly inappropriate act which he suspected was the responsibility of Thatcher and Ingham, Heseltine demanded a full inquiry. During a meeting of the cabinet, she counter-attacked, trying to rein him in by ordering that all future statements on Westland must be cleared first by Number Ten. Hearing this attempt to gag him, Heseltine calmly got up from the cabinet table, announced that he must leave the government, walked into the street and told a solitary reporter that he had just resigned.

The question of exactly who had leaked the Attorney General’s legal advice in a misleadingly selective way to scupper the European bid then became critical. The leaking of private advice broke the rules of Whitehall confidentiality, fairness and collective government. The instrument of the leak was a comparatively junior civil servant to the Trade Secretary, Leon Brittan. But it was unclear as to who had told Colette Brown to do this, though many assumed it was her boss, Bernard Ingham. He denied it, and Mrs Thatcher also denied any knowledge of the leak. After dramatic Commons exchanges during which she was accused of lying to the House, she pulled through, while Leon Brittan was made a scapegoat. Some of Thatcher’s greatest business supporters such as Rupert Murdoch then weighed in on the side of the American bid. Eventually, amid accusations of arm-twisting and dirty tricks, the company went to Sikorsky and the storm subsided. But it had revealed the costs of the Thatcher style of government. Getting the better of foreign dictators and militant trade union leaders was one thing, but behaving the same way with senior members of the cabinet and the Tory Party was quite another. Heseltine wrote later:

I saw many good people broken by the Downing Street machine. I had observed the techniques of character assassination; the drip, drip, drip, of carefully planted, unattributable stories that were fed into the public domain, as colleagues became marked as somehow “semi-detached” or “not one of us”.

‘Shadowing’ the Deutschmark & ‘Diva’ Diplomacy:

There were also debates and rows about economic policy in relation to the EC. The Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, wanted to replace the old, rather wobbly system of controlling the money supply targets, the Medium Term Financial Strategy, with a new stratagem – tying the pound to the German mark in the European Exchange Rate System (ERM). This was an admission of failure; the older system of measuring money was useless and in the world of global fast money. Linking the pound to the Deutschmark was an alternative, with Britain subcontracting her anti-inflation policy to the more successful and harder-faced disciplinarians of the West German Central Bank. Lawson was keen on this alternative ‘shadowing’ method; in effect, he was looking for somewhere firm to plant down policy in the context of the new global financial free-for-all. Thatcher disagreed, arguing that currencies should be allowed to float freely, but at the time little of this debate was known beyond the specialist financial world.

Other ‘Europe’- related debates were conducted more openly in general political life. The mid-eighties were years of Thatcherite drift over Europe. Jacques Delors, later her great enemy as President of the European Commission, had begun his grand plan for the next stages of ‘the union’. Thatcher knew that the ERM was intended one day to lead to a single European currency, part of Delors’ plan for a freshly buttressed European state. Lawson ignored her objections and shadowed the Deutschmark anyway. But when the cost of her Chancellor’s policy became excessive, she ordered him to stop which, under protest, he did. However, the Single European Act, which smashed down thousands of national laws preventing free trade inside the EC, promised free movement of goods, capital, services and people, and presaging the single currency, was passed with her enthusiastic support. She rejected the sceptics’ view that when the continental leadership talked of an economic and political union, they really meant it.

Back in the mid-eighties, personal relationships mattered as much in modern diplomacy as they had in Renaissance courts, and the Thatcher-Gorbachev courtship engaged her imagination and human interest. She was becoming the closest ally of Ronald Reagan, in another international relationship which was of huge emotional and political significance to her. In these years she became an ‘international diva’ of conservative politics, feted by crowds from Russia and China to New York. Her wardrobe, coded depending on where an outfit had been first worn, told its own story: Paris Opera, Washington Pink, Reagan Navy, Toronto Turquoise, Tokyo Blue, Kremlin Silver, Peking Black. Meanwhile, she was negotiating the hard detail of Hong Kong’s transitional status before it was handed over to Communist China in 1997. She got a torrid time at Commonwealth conferences for her opposition to sanctions against the apartheid régime in South Africa. At home, the problem of persistently high unemployment was nagging away, though it started to fall from the summer of 1986 seemed to fall.

The Bombing of Libya and ‘BBC Bias’:

Then there was the highly unpopular use of British airbases for President Reagan’s attack on Libya in 1986. This provoked a controversy, not for the first time, between the BBC and the Thatcher government. The PM’s supporters on the right of the Tory Party had long been urging her to privatize the BBC and she herself appeared to believe that it was biased against her government; by which she meant that it was too independent. She still remembered the irritation she felt at some of the phrases its leading broadcasters had used back in the Falklands War: if we are to believe the British version, etc.  Her view was that as the British Broadcasting Corporation, a public service broadcaster supported by the television license fee, it should give the British government’s view without questioning it. Yet it was perfectly obvious that the reason the BBC was so respected both in Britain and abroad was that it was genuinely independent of the British government. The BBC was legally obliged by its Charter to remain independent of party political control. Lord Reith, its first Director-General, had successfully resisted Churchill’s attempt to take over its radio service for government propaganda during the General Strike of 1926. It was one of the few great organs of state which Margaret Thatcher was not able to dominate in some way, a constitutional reality which made her visibly restless on occasions.

Because the American aircraft which bombed Libya took off from bases in Britain, that made it a British issue. The pretext for the attack was a terrorist attack on a Berlin nightclub used by American servicemen, but far from being the work of Libyan agents, it proved to have been carried out by a group linked to the Syrian government. There was a good deal of public disquiet about it, especially since it was strongly suspected that the Reagan administration was primarily bombing Libya to teach bigger and more formidable countries, chiefly Iran, a lesson. Libya was a feeble, though intermittently nasty little dictatorship which could never organise significant acts of state terrorism. The real battle was a propaganda one. Colonel Gaddafi (pictured below in 1979) claimed that his daughter had been killed in the raid, and showed her body to the journalists in Tripoli at the time. It wasn’t until some time later that it became clear that he had adopted the little girl as she lay dying from her injuries. But whoever’s daughter she was, she was certainly killed by the American bombing.

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The British government was rather rattled by the hostility which sections of the public were starting to show over the bombing; and since, at the times of crisis, people tend to turn to the BBC for their information, some senior ministers felt that this public opposition was the fault of the BBC and wanted it to be taught a lesson. The chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit, announced that he would be investigating the BBC’s coverage of the raid. The BBC allowed itself to seem rattled by the threats he and his party made, which made him feel justified in his approach. John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor recalled sitting with a few journalists in the canteen at the Television Centre when the tannoy went:

‘PBX. Calling Mr John Simpson.’

I hurried over to the phone. The deputy editor of television news was on the other end.

“We’ve just had Tebbit’s report,” he said. “It’s serious. The editor would be grateful if you could get up here.”

I finished my fish and went up. A small group of worried-looking people were sitting round in the editor’s office. The editor handed me a copy of the document Tebbit and his researchers at Conservative Central Office had compiled. I looked through it rather nervously, anxious to see what it had to say about my own reporting of the attack. It made a few neutral comments, then one which was rather complimentary; that was all.

“That’s all OK,” I blurted out, voicing my own relief. Nothing much there.” 

The editor turned to me. I could see a faint ray of hope was glimmering for the first time.

“You think so?”

I realised that I had been speaking purely for myself. But it seemed unkind and unreasonable to destroy his only cause for optimism. He must have felt that his career was on the line.

“Oh sure, it’s full of loopholes. Just go through it carefully and you’ll find them all,” I said.

I hadn’t read it carefully enough to know if that were true, but I have never yet read a long document that you couldn’t pick holes in.

Chris Cramer, a tough character who was the news editor at the time… agreed. Cramer and I were both affronted by the idea that in a free society the government should presume to dictate to the broadcasters and try to make them report only what the government wanted. Maybe we were both chancers too.

“John’s right,” he said. “We should go through this with a fine-tooth comb. We’ll find lots of things wrong with it.”

Which is what happened. We divided the Conservative Central Office document up between us, and spent the next couple of days going through it point by point. The document compared the BBC’s coverage of the raid unfavourably with ITN’s, and tried to make the case that the BBC had been deliberately biased. Some of the individual points it made were reasonable enough: the news presenter on the night of the bombing had added various inaccuracies to the sub-editors’ scripts. (Soon afterwards she left the BBC.)

But it was silly to try to pretend that there was some underlying bias. I have never yet found a senior Conservative who really believed that…  

It hadn’t occurred to Norman Tebbit that the BBC would stand its ground since in the past it had fallen over itself with nervousness at the mere suggestion that the government of the day was upset with it. When it issued its response there was a big wave of public support for the BBC, partly because Kate Adie had established herself in the public eye as a brave, serious reporter, staying in Tripoli when the bombs were falling. Previously, women reporters had tended to be given social affairs to report on. Here was a woman who had become a war correspondent; something unprecedented on British television at that time, though there have been many equally brave successors since. But there was also public support for the BBC because, for all its failings, the BBC was considered to be as British an institution as any other in the country, and ninety per cent of the population had some contact with it each week in the pre-internet era. Norman Tebbit had failed to realise the British people did not like party political attacks on ‘Auntie’. An opinion poll taken shortly afterwards indicated that Conservative voters supported ‘the Beeb’ on almost the same scale as voters for other parties. Thatcher, aware that she would have to call a general election within the next year or so, quickly distanced herself from her erstwhile lieutenant’s campaign, leading to the first rift between the two of them. On the night she won the 1987 election, Simpson tried to interview her by the railings of St John’s, Smith Square, next to Conservative Central Office, amid rabid Young Conservatives chanting calls for the privatisation of the BBC:

Transcript of interview with Prime Minister, 18.6.87:

Speakers: Rt Hon Margaret Thatcher, PC MP (non-staff), John Simpson (contract)…

JS: The crowd here seem to want you to privatise the BBC. Are you planning to do that?

MT: Well, I think… Well, you know, I must really go and speak to them.

Of course, she never again considered doing so, even if she had been temporarily persuaded by Tebbit’s arguments. She knew what people would stand for, and what they wouldn’t; it was when this instinct finally deserted her that her decline and fall began.

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The ‘Poll Tax’ and the Peasants:

After the election, a wider dilemma emerged right across domestic policy, from the inner cities to hospitals, schools to police forces. Thatcher believed that government should set the rules, deliver sound money and then stand back and let other people get on with providing services. In practice, she often behaved differently, always more pragmatic and interventionist than her image suggested. At least, however, the principle was clear. But when it came to the public services there was no similar principle. She did not have the same respect for independent ‘movers and shakers’ in the hospitals, schools and town halls as she had for entrepreneurs and risk takers she admired in business. Before the Thatcher revolution, the Conservatives had been seen, on balance, defenders of local democracy. They had been strongly represented on councils across the country and had been on the receiving end of some of the more thuggish threats from Labour governments intent, for instance, on abolishing grammar schools. The town and county hall Conservatives had seen local representatives on hospital boards and local education authorities as bulwarks against socialist Whitehall. Margaret Thatcher herself had begun her political apprenticeship doing voluntary public work for her father, Alderman Roberts, sitting on various unpaid committees.

Yet in power, Thatcher and her ministers could not trust local government, or any elected and therefore independent bodies at all. Between 1979 and 1994, an astonishing 150 Acts of Parliament were passed removing powers from local authorities and switched to unelected quangos. The first two Thatcher governments transferred power and discretion away from people who had stood openly for election, and towards the subservient agents of Whitehall, often paid-up Tory party members. Despite his apparent love for Liverpool before the Militant takeover, Michael Heseltine attacked the whole of local government with new auditing with new auditing arrangements, curbs on how much tax they could raise, and spending caps as well. In the health service, early attempts to decentralize were rapidly reversed and a vast top-down system of targets and measurements was put in place, driven by a new planning organisation. It cost more and the service, undoubtedly, got worse. Similar centralist power-grabs took place in urban regeneration, where unelected Urban Development Corporations, rather than local councils, were given money to pour into rundown cities. The biggest city councils, most notably the Greater London Council, were simply abolished. Its powers were distributed between local borough councils and an unelected central organisation controlled by Whitehall. By 1990 there were some twelve thousand appointed officials running London compared with just 1,900 elected borough councillors. Housing Corporations took ninety per cent of the funds used by housing associations to build new cheap homes. In the Thatcher years, their staff grew sevenfold and their budgets twenty-fold.

Margaret Thatcher would say the poll tax, the name associated with the tax per head which was the catalyst for the bloody Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was actually an attempt to save local government. Like schools, hospitals and housing, local councils had been subjected to a barrage of ministers trying to stop them spending money, or raising it, except as Whitehall wished. Since 1945, local government had been spending more, but the amount of money it raised independently still came from a relatively narrow base of people, some fourteen million property-owners. Thatcher had been prodded by Edward Heath into promising to replace this tax, ‘the rates’, as early as 1974, but nobody had come up with a plausible and popular-sounding alternative. She had always disliked the rates system intensely, regarding them as an attack on self-improvement and other Tory values, and in government, the problem nagged away at her. Once, local elections were not national news; they were about who was best suited to run towns and counties, but in the late sixties and seventies they became national news, a regular referendum on the central government. Under Thatcher, the Conservatives lost swathes of local councils, resulting in more Labour-controlled councils which were even more distrusted by the central government, resulting in more powers away from them. The elections became even less relevant, fuelling more protest voting, and it soon became clear to government ministers that more councils were aping Liverpool by pursuing expensive hard-left policies partly because so few of those who voted for them were actually ratepayers themselves, therefore feeling no personal ‘pinch’.

One way of correcting this anomaly would be to make all those who voted for local councils pay towards their cost. This was the origin of the poll tax or community charge as it was officially called, a single flat tax for everybody. It would mean lower bills for many homeowners and make local councils more responsive to their voters. On the other hand, it would introduce a new, regressive tax for twenty million people, with the poorest paying as much as the richest. This broke a principle which stretched back much further back than the post-war ‘consensus’ to at least the 1920s and the replacement of the Poor Law. But Public Assistance or social security as it was now known, was no longer charged or administered locally so that there was some logic in the change to a flat, universal charge. This proposal was sold to the Prime Minister by Kenneth Baker at a seminar at Chequers in 1985, along with the nationalisation of business rates. Nigel Lawson tried to talk the Prime Minister out of it, telling her it would be completely unworkable and politically catastrophic. The tax was discussed at the same cabinet meeting that Michael Heseltine walked out of over the Westland affair. It might have worked if it had been brought in gradually over a whole decade, as was first mooted, or at least four, as was planned at that meeting.

But at the 1987 Tory Conference, intoxicated by the euphoria of the recent third election victory, party members urged Thatcher to bring it in at once. She agreed since there was some urgency resulting from the dramatic increase in property prices in the eighties. Rates, like the subsequent council tax, were based on the relative value of houses across Britain, changing with fashion and home improvement. This meant that, periodically, there had to be a complete revaluation in order to keep the tax working. Yet each revaluation meant higher rates bills for millions of households and businesses, and governments naturally tried to procrastinate over them. In Scotland, however, a different law made this impossible and a rates revaluation had already happened, causing political mayhem. As a result, Scottish ministers begged Thatcher to be allowed the poll tax first, and she also agreed to this. Exemptions were made for the unemployed and low paid, but an attempt, by nervous Tory MPs, to divide the tax into three bands so that it bore some relation to people’s ability to pay was brushed aside despite a huge parliamentary rebellion. When the tax was duly introduced in Scotland, it was met by widespread protest. In England, the estimates of the likely price of the average poll tax kept rising. Panicking ministers produced expensive schemes to cap it, and to create more generous exemptions, undermining the whole point of the new tax. Capping the tax would remove local accountability; the more exemptions there were, the lesser the pressure would be on the councils from their voters. Yet even the PM grew alarmed as she was told that over eighty per cent of voters would be paying more. Yet she pushed ahead with the introduction of the tax, due to take effect in England and Wales on 1st April 1990.

Bruges Bluntness & Madrid Madness:

The poll tax was one of the causes of her downfall in that following year, the other being Europe. This factor began to be potent in 1988, when turned against Jacques Delors’ plans and went to Bruges in Belgium to make what became her definitive speech against the federalist tide which was now openly advancing towards her. The Foreign Office had tried to soften her message, but she had promptly pulled out her pen and written the barbs and thorns back in again. She informed her audience that she had not…

… successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new level of dominance from Brussels.

There was much else besides. Her bluntness much offended continental politicians as well as her own Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe. Next, she reappointed her monetarist economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, who was outspokenly contemptuous of Lawson’s exchange rate policy. So, she was taking on two big cabinet beasts with great Offices of State at the same time, creating a serious split at the top of government. Then, Jacques Delors, the determined French socialist re-entered the story, with a fleshed-out plan for an economic and monetary union, which would end with the single currency, the euro. To get there, all EU members would need to put their national currencies into the ERM, which would draw them increasingly tightly together, which was just what Lawson and Howe wanted and just what Thatcher did not. Howe and Lawson ganged up, telling her that she must announce that Britain would soon join the ERM, even if she left the question of the single currency to one side for the time being. On the eve of a summit in Madrid where Britain was due to announce its view the two of them visited Thatcher together in private, had a blazing row with her and threatened to resign together if she did not give way. She did, and, for the time being, the crisis abated.

Piper Alpha – The Price of Oil and Who Profited?

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In June 1988, 185 men were burned or blown to death in the North Sea when an oil platform, Piper Alpha, blew up, yet there has been little commemoration of the tragic event over the past thirty years, in popular memorials (as contrasted with earlier coal-mining disasters of a similar scale), political memoirs or the general media. In the case of oil, the great adventure was lived out at the margins of British experience, halfway to Scandinavia, with its wild scenes played out in the bars of Aberdeen and Shetland, far removed from the media in Glasgow, never mind London. Exploration, equipment and production were also largely controlled by American companies. The number of British refineries actually fell in the eighties, the peak decade for oil production, from twenty-one to thirteen, and forty per cent of those were also owned by US-based companies. According to Nigel Lawson, the revenues from oil taxes gave ‘a healthy kick-start’ to the process of cutting the government deficit, though he always argued that the overall impact of North Sea oil was exaggerated, especially by the Scottish Nationalists (SNP). Ireland also benefited greatly from new investment from the United States in the search for new sources of oil and gas in Irish waters from the 1970s, and their exploitation in the eighties. In addition, as a poorer member state of the EU, the Republic gained a disproportionately larger share of the EU budget than the UK as a whole, so that by the end of the decade the Irish economy was expanding rapidly and the long-term pattern of Irish emigration was being reversed. Both British and Irish trade with the EU increased, and Ireland’s economy became less dependent on Britain’s.

Birt, the BBC & Beijing:

Following its own battles with Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit following the bombing of Libya, by the end of the eighties the BBC went on to become the biggest newsgathering organisation in the world and its reputation for accurate, impartial reporting continued to grow around the globe. In 1988, John Birt joined the Corporation as head of news and current affairs, reforming and revitalising that area before going on to become director-general. Under his leadership, there was a five-fold expansion. The foreign affairs unit grew to eleven people, and Simpson was made the head of it. The expansion came just in time considering how much the world was to change in the following year, in a series of seismic upheavals which affected almost every country on earth. In May 1989, Simpson and Adie teamed up in Beijing, covering the infamous massacre in Tiananmen Square:

In the BBC’s offices I found the redoubtable Kate Adie. She had been out in the streets all night with her camera team, and was in bad shape. A man had been killed right beside her, and her arm had been badly grazed in the incident. Together we assembled our reports. There was no time to edit words to pictures, nor even of seeing the pictures. All we could do was write our scripts, record them, and send them off to Hong Kong with the cassettes.

I sat at the computer, numbed by everything I had seen and determined not to get too emotional about it. I’d made real friends among the students in Tiananmen Square. The thought that they might now be dead or injured, that one of their best and most decent manifestations of recent times had been snuffed out in front of me was too disturbing and too painful for me to deal with. And so I took refuge in the old BBC concepts of balance and objectivity; there wasn’t an ounce of emotion in my script.

Kate’s report was very different. It was full of emotion. Six months later, when I finally watched the two reports side by side, I thought that while mine was perfectly accurate it had nothing to do with the real feeling of what had taken place. Hers did. I suppose the two were complimentary, and they were certainly used side by side on the news in Britain. 

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Above. The Morning of 20 May in Tiananmen Square.

A Tale of Two Cities – a Hell of a Dickens:

On 14th July 1989, Simpson was in Paris, reporting on the meeting of the ‘G7′, the leaders of the West’s seven leading capitalist powers, hosted by Francois Mitterrand, the French President. With hindsight, the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution was perhaps the single moment which best reflected the triumph of liberal democracy over all rival systems of government. The wealth, the grandeur, the personal liberty, the prestige and power which were on display were greater than the world had seen before. Soon, however, the decline in the power of the United States became more obvious. Margaret Thatcher still seemed unassailable as Britain’s prime minister, but would be politically vulnerable within a few months. While President Bush handed over the key to the Bastille which Lafayette had taken with him to America shortly after the Revolution, her gift to Mitterand was a first edition copy of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: inexpensive, and not very good as history. It was a grudging, insular gesture, typical of British attitudes towards France in the 1980s, which had chosen to follow an economic policy which was the exact opposite of Thatcherism. She disapproved not just of France, but of the occasion and the whole business of celebrating revolution. Her view was that evolution was greatly preferable to revolution, which was of little use to those, in 1789 or 1989, who lived under an autocracy which refuses to evolve. Although Mrs Thatcher may have helped to persuade Ronald Reagan that Mikhail Gorbachev was ‘a man to do business with’, according to John Simpson…

It wasn’t Mrs Thatcher’s economic principles which caused the changes in the Soviet bloc, but the simple, verifiable fact that Western capitalist society was effective, rich and reasonably free, while the countries of the communist bloc were manifestly not.

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In the same month, four weeks after her climb-down at the Madrid summit, Thatcher hit back at her Chancellor and Foreign Secretary. Back in London, she unleashed a major cabinet reshuffle, compared at the time to Macmillan’s ‘night of the long knives’ in 1962. Howe was demoted to being Leader of the Commons, though she reluctantly agreed to him having the face-saving title of Deputy Prime Minister, a concession rather diminished when her press officer, Bernard Ingham, instantly told journalists that it was a bit of a non-job. Howe was replaced by the relatively unknown John Major, the former chief secretary. Lawson survived only because the economy was weakening and she thought it too dangerous to lose him just at that point. He was having a bad time on all sides, including from the able shadow chancellor John Smith. When Walters had another pop at his ERM policy, he decided that enough was enough and resigned on 26 October, telling the PM she should treat her ministers better. He was replaced by the still relatively unknown John Major.

Budapest, Berlin & Bucharest: Falling Dominoes of 1989:

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Meanwhile, all around them, the world was changing. On 23rd October I was in Hungary on a third, personal visit, when the country changed its name and constitution. It had dropped the word ‘People’s’ from its title and was henceforth to be known simply as the Republic of Hungary. My first visit, an ‘official’ one, as a member of a British Quaker delegation, had been exactly a year earlier, when the withdrawal of Soviet troops had been announced, along with the decision of the then communist government that the 1956 Revolution, which had begun on the same day, would no longer be referred to by them as a ‘counter-revolution’. A few days later in 1989, East Germany announced the opening of its borders to the West and joyous Berliners began hacking at the Berlin Wall.

Then the communists in Czechoslovakia fell, and at Christmas the Romanian dictator Ceaucescu was dragged from power and shot, along with his wife. According to John Simpson, who also witnessed all these events, including those in Bucharest at close quarters (as pictured above), found among the dictators’ possessions was a Mont Blanc pen given to him by the British Labour Party, presumably during the couple’s visit to London in 1978. This was instigated by the then Foreign Secretary, Dr David Owen who, along with James Callaghan, persuaded the Queen against her will that the Ceaucescus should be invited. The pictures below show them riding in State along the Mall. But I have written about all these events elsewhere.  Suffice it to say, just here, that, since the early seventies, politicians of all persuasions were prepared to overlook Ceaucescu’s increasing megalomania and the unpleasantness of the government he controlled because he represented an independent voice within the Warsaw Pact, refusing to send Romanian forces to crush the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968. As early as 1972, a left-wing Labour MP had written:

As a result of unconditional acceptances of the past abuses of the legal system, Ceaucescu has declared that steps must be taken to ensure that such injustices can never occur in the future. The importance of democracy is therefore being increasingly stressed and… there is no question of rigging trials as occurred in the past. … Interference by anyone, no matter how important, is unacceptable in Ceaucescu’s view. 

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The not-so-beautiful relationship which came to an end with the shooting of the ‘Tsar and Tsarina’ who built their own palace (below) in Bucharest after visiting Buckingham Palace.  It was due to be completed just weeks after their overthrow.

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After meeting Ceaucescu on his state visit in 1978, Margaret Thatcher, then the leader of the opposition, commented:

I was impressed by the personality of President Ceaucescu … Romania is making sustained efforts for consolidating peace and understanding.  

The ‘domino’ events of the Autumn and Winter of 1989 in the eastern part of the continent, in which Margaret Thatcher had played a ‘bit part’ alongside Reagan and Gorbachev, would have a ripple effect on her own fall from power the following year. That was not something many of us involved in East-West relations anticipated even at the end of that year.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

 

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A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War in 1918 – Winter into Spring.   Leave a comment

Soldier-Poets, Philosophers,Treaties and Retreats:

We must strike at the earliest moment… before the Americans can throw strong forces into the scale. We must beat the British.

General Erich Ludendorff, November 1917.

The following letter appeared in The Scotsman newspaper on 14 January 1918:

Sir,

Might I suggest that you would be doing a public service if you could induce the authorities to relieve the peaceful inhabitants of the city from the diurnal shock of the One O’clock Castle Gun? At the present time it is all the more an intrusion in that there are so many convalescent soldiers within range of the concussion. Two of these from Craiglockhart, suffering from shell shock, had to be carried home from Princes Street the other day after the shot was fired. We abolish police whistles in the vicinity of hospitals, why keep up this more violent reminder of their sufferings?

I am, etc, Citizen.

Shell-shock was the common name given to a range of emotional and mental disorders suffered by troops. The symptoms included hysteria, anxiety, physical tremors, sensitivity to noise, and nightmares. Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart War Hospital treated soldiers suffering from shell shock; it was where Siegfried Sassoon met Wilfred Owen and encouraged him in his writing of poetry. At Craiglockhart, Sassoon wrote or completed the poems that were to be published in Counter-Attack (1918). Many of them were protest poems indignantly implying that the war was being needlessly prolonged by politicians and generals who could have stopped it.  Sassoon also directed his indignation against the old and the rich who were making a handsome profit out of the war and who did not share the young soldiers’ terrible discomforts and dangers, yet had the effrontery to conceal their selfishness behind a front of self-righteous flag-waving. In Blighters, he aims his anger at the vulgar jingoism of a music-hall show and the shallow applause of the civilian audience:

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin

And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks

Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;

‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

 

I’d like to see a Tanks come down the stalls,

Lurching to rag-time tunes or ‘Home, sweet Home’,

And there’d be no more jokes in music-halls

To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

In certain of his poems Owen imitates Sassoon’s irony; for instance, in ‘The Dead-Beat’, he tells how a soldier suddenly drops unconscious and is taken to casualty clearing-station. The stretcher-bearers label him a ‘malingerer’, but the poem ends with Owen mockingly mimicking anyone who talks callously about another’s death:

Next day I heard the Doc’s well-whiskied laugh:

‘That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!’

Another special target for satire was the hypocrisy, self-righteousness and insincerity of the Church. Sassoon’s poem, They, satirises the Bishop who is delighted with the way in which war ennobles soldiers:

We’re none of us the same’, the boys reply.

‘For George lost both his legs, and Bill’s stone-blind;

‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die…’

In At a Calvary near the Ancre Owen also attacks the military chaplains:

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,

And in their faces there is pride

That they were flesh-marked by the Beast

By whom thegentle Christ’s denied.

Owen, who as a patient at Craiglockhart had seen Sassoon’s angriest poems before they were published, is here imitating Sassoon’s mood and techniques. He also condemns the old when in The Parable of the Old Men and the Young he envisages Abraham killing Isaac despite God’s command to sacrifice a ram instead:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Despite their anger, both men returned to the western front to be with their men within a few months of writing these lines. The firing of ‘Mons Meg’ at Edinburgh Castle at one o’clock, an age-old tradition, was halted in April 1918 and it remained silent for over a year.

 

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With the coming of 1918, the initiative passed to Germany. For three years every attempt to decide the issue on the western front had proved a costly failure, but in 1918 Ludendorff decided to risk his entire reserves in a final effort to break the Allied line. The collapse of Russia enabled them to put larger forces on the front than the Allies could muster. They had resigned themselves to a defensive campaign until the USA could send her armies; it was Germany’s purpose before that date to reach a decision in the field. It was their last chance. The submarine had failed; Britain could not be starved into submission. On the contrary, the Allied blockade was undermining the health and morale of the German people. They were weak with privations and sick with hope deferred. A little longer and their wonderful fortitude would break. With all the strength they could muster, with their new tactics to aid them, and with a desperate necessity to goad them, they undertook the last great sally, staking everything on victory. Germany’s allies were giving way under the strain of prolonged war: the Turkish armies were in retreat; the Bulgarians, having already got all they wanted, were anxious for peace; the subject peoples of the Austrian Empire naturally faced privations with less fortitude than the Germans. It was ‘now or never’; the American troops were not yet in the field, but would be very shortly.

Ludendorff’s general plan was to isolate the British Army, roll it up from its right, and drive it into the sea, or pin it down to an entrenched camp between the Somme and the Channel – a ‘Torres Vedras’ from which it would only on the signature of peace. This done, he could hold it with a few troops, swing around on the French, and put them out of action. He must, therefore, strike with all his might at the point of junction of Haig and Pétain, on the western face of the great salient, where the Allies were weakest and the ground easiest. His position on interior lines gave him the chance of surprise, for until the actual attack the Allies would not know on which side of the salient the blow was to fall. His admirable communications would enable him to obtain a great local predominance. For the first stage of the great battle, he had sixty-three divisions in line or in immediate reserve.

The Versailles Council, formed by the Entente towards the end of 1917, miscalculated both the place and the date of the attack. Haig’s Intelligence service informed him of the exact hour, but he had neither the time nor the resources to prepare an adequate defence. He held 130 miles of line, and these were the most critical in the West, with approximately the same numbers as he had had two years before when his front was only eighty miles long and Russia was still in the fold. An initial German success was almost inevitable. Nineteen divisions in line and thirteen in reserve could scarcely stand against a first attacking wave of thirty-seven divisions, which was soon to grow to sixty-three.

Meanwhile, back at home, the historian and philosopher Bertrand Russell was jailed for six months in February for writing an article criticising the US Army. His action was described by the judge as being ‘a very despicable offence’ and in contravention of the Defence of the Realm Act, as it was likely ‘to prejudice His Majesty’s relations with the USA’. Also in February, William MacCaw MP was found guilty of hoarding foodstuffs (listed below). For this contravention of the 1917 Food Hoarding Order he was fined four hundred pounds:

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During the build-up of Germany’s forces on the western front, it also consolidated the territory it had gained in the east as a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and actually occupied considerably more Russian territory than they were entitled to by the treaty. Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War after the Bolshevik takeover was formalised by the settlement between Lenin’s Russia and Germany and her allies on 3 March 1918 at Brest-Litovsk. The treaty, deeply unfavourable to Russia, revealed the in part the Europe Berlin hoped would be the outcome of the war. Russia lost all of its western provinces: Finland, the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine (as well as Georgia under the Treaty of Berlin of August 1918).

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They took Belorussia simply to shorten their line, but in the Black Sea region, where they advanced to the lower Don and crossed from the Crimea to the Taman Peninsula, they were clearly aiming at taking over permanently. In due course, they would doubtless have imposed a third round of concessions on the Revolutionary Russian government. Bolshevik power in this area was at a very low ebb. The Don Cossacks were refusing to accept the authority of Moscow, which became the seat of government in March when Lenin decided that the Germans were getting too close to Petrograd. Anti-Bolshevik forces rallying to the white flag of General Denikin were proving more than a match for the local Bolsheviks. In Caucasia, in the far south, the Turks had occupied not only the town they had lost in 1878, which they were entitled to as a result of Brest-Litovsk but everything else that wasn’t already in the hands of their German allies.

The Romanians also badly needed some compensation. After the completion of the initial Brest-Litovsk negotiations in March, it was their turn to sign on the dotted line. When they eventually did so (in May), they lost the southern half of Dobruja to the Bulgarians and the northern half to the Germans (another area to be included in the Black Sea Province) besides having to make major frontier adjustments in favour of Austria-Hungary. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had brought the war in the east to a successful conclusion, they now had to try to do the same in the west.

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They had until the summer to do so, before the Americans appeared in France in strength. For the moment, after the transfer of the eastern armies to the west, the German Army had superiority: 192 divisions facing 165 Allied divisions on the Western Front, but this would not last long. The critical blows would have to be struck during March and April, a Spring Offensive, of which ‘Operation Michael’ was the first part. It eventually became known as the Second Battle of the Somme, which continued until 5th April. It wasn’t just a case of overall numerical superiority; Ludendorff also had seventy specially trained ‘assault divisions’ facing just thirty-five similar British units on the Somme battlefront.

This most perilous stage for the British Army – and, except for the First Marne, the most perilous for the Allied cause – opened in the fog of the early morning of 21st March, when at a quarter to five four thousand German guns were released against the British front, firing more than a million shells over the following five hours, while all the back areas were drenched with gas, which hung like a pall in the moist air. When the guns crashed out and the attack went in, the British line simply disintegrated: whole battalions vanished, never to be heard of again. Reinforced with half a million troops from the Eastern Front, the German Infantry made strong breakthroughs using airpower and shock troops to bypass defensive positions in foggy conditions that hampered the defenders. By the end of the first day, twenty-one thousand prisoners were taken as the Germans overran the British positions. Lieutenant Ernst Jünger of the 73rd Hanoverian Regiment commented; We had but no doubt that the great plan would succeed. 

The narrative of the Somme retreat, however, was a tale of confused operations, improvised plans, chances, mischances, and incredible heroism. On the first day, a fifty-mile gap had opened in the Allied line, forty miles of the British line were submerged, and, in a week, forty miles off, the enemy tide was lapping the walls of Amiens. In the face of the German advance, General Carey was given the task of organising a last-ditch defensive unit to be positioned at Hamel, to protect Amiens. As well as infantry stragglers, ‘Carey’s Force’ was composed of an assorted collection of 3,500 soldiers, including kitchen staff and storemen, most of whom were not well versed in infantry tactics. ‘The Péronne Handicap’ was the name given to the ‘race’ by the 17th Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, in their bid to reach the French town before being caught by pursuing German forces. Forty-six out of the British Expeditionary Force’s fifty-six divisions took part in the battle.

Within the first week, the leading German formations had advanced forty miles, a penetration ten times better than anything the Allies had ever achieved. The attack had broken the British Fifth Army and nearly severed the British communications link with the French. German schools were closed to allow celebrations but they were premature. The advance was magnificent, but it was not enough. Allied reinforcements were rushed in while rushed in while hungry German troops slowed, gorging on appropriated food and drink. After a fortnight, the impetus had gone out of the attack and German losses were beginning to exceed Allied casualties. In their advance, the Germans had outstretched their supply lines and losses of over a quarter of a million men couldn’t be sustained, so the offensive was halted and closed down.  The Germans sent forward large Krupp cannons, capable of long-range firing, their shells able to hit Paris from a distance of seventy-five miles. The huge shells were in the air for three and a half minutes. The French capital was hit by 183 of them, which killed over 250 Parisians.

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Ludendorff achieved much, but he did not achieve his main purpose. By 5th April, though, the main battle had died down, Amiens had not been taken, the front had been restored, and the French were not separated from the British. The ultimate failure was due to many factors; Ludendorff was false to the spirit of his own tactics and, instead of exploiting a weakness when he found it, wasted his strength on the steadfast bastion of Arras; half-way through he fumbled, forgot his true aim, and became a hasty improviser.

Perhaps Ludendorff sought to achieve the impossible, for his troops outmarched their supplies and their stamina, and, accustomed to short commons, lost discipline often when they found Allied stores to plunder. Yet he won a notable victory, and, to the ultimate advantage of the Allies, was encouraged to continue, for, had his blow been parried at the outset, he might have relapsed on the defensive, and thereby protracted the war. For his role in the success, commander Paul von Hindenburg was awarded the ‘Iron Cross with Golden Rays’, the highest medal of honour available. The only previous recipient was the Prussian Field Marshal von Blücher, honoured for his part in defeating Napoleon in 1815 at Waterloo.

For its part, the British Army had written a shining page in its history, for a retreat may be as glorious as an advance. By the end of March seventy-three German divisions had engaged thirty-seven British. The disparity was, in reality, far greater than two to one, owing to the German power of local concentration, in many parts of the field the numbers had been three-to-one. Added to this, after the second day, the British had no prepared lines on which to retire, and the rivers parallel to their front were useless from the drought. It was a marvel, war correspondent John Buchan noted, that our gossamer front wavered and blew in the wind but never wholly disappeared. He went on:

Again and again complete disaster was miraculously averted. Scratch forces held up storm troops; cavalry did work that no cavalry had ever done in the history of war; gunners broke every rule of the textbooks. The retreat was in flat defiance of all precedent and law, and it succeeded only because of the stubborn value of the British soldier.

The moment was too solemn for half-measures. A divided command could not defend the long, lean front of the Allies against Germany’s organised might, directed by a single brain towards a single purpose, one strong hand only must be on the helm. On 23rd March, General Haig, after seeing Pétain, telegraphed to London for the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. At the request of Lloyd George, Lord Milner also crossed the Channel on the 24th, and on the 26th he and Sir Henry Wilson met Clemenceau and Poincaré, Haig, Foch and Pétain at Doullens. This conference, held amid the backwash of ‘the great retreat’, was, in a sense, the turning point of the war. The proposal for a supreme commander-in-chief, urged by Milner and supported by Clemenceau, was accepted and Pétain and welcomed by Haig, and for the post, Foch was chosen unanimously. The Allies in their extremity turned with one accord to the slight, grizzled, deep-eyed man of sixty-six, who during a life of labour had made himself into a master of warfare.

The ordeal of the Second Battle of the Somme was the source of other blessings, though some of them were somewhat mixed. The renowned Australian Corps had come under the command of the British Army’s General Rawlinson in early 1918. He was pleased, if bemused by the troops, as he wrote in his diary:

They are certainly original fighters and up to all sorts of dodges, some of which would shock a strict disciplinarian. Some of the German shells were falling short into the pools of the Somme river and exploded under water. Two Australians spent the day in a boat rowing about and watching for a shell to explode and then picked up the stunned fish. They wore their gas masks to prevent recognition!

The US increased its recruiting and strained every nerve to quicken the dispatch of troops, so that it might soon stand in line with the Allies. Lloyd George and Clemenceau appealed to President Wilson and their appeal was generously met. General Pershing postponed his plan of a separate American section of operations and offered Foch every man, gun and lorry which they had in Europe. France was showing that quiet and stoic resolution to win or perish which two years before had inspired her troops at Verdun. In Britain, the threat of industrial strikes disappeared and of their own accord the workers gave up their Easter holiday in order to make up by an increased output for lost guns and stores.

Nonetheless, when King George visited his armies in France in the last days of March, the situation was still on a razor’s edge. He had gone there for a week during the flood-tide of the first Battle of the Somme and again, accompanied by the Queen, on the eve of Passchendaele. Now he went to them in the throes of their sternest trial. He saw remnants of battalions which had been through the retreat, and he saw units which in a week or two were to be engaged in the no less desperate Battle of the Lys. Already his armies had lost more men in the German offensive than in the whole thirty-four week Dardanelles campaign. His appeal to his troops now was to “take counsel from the valour of their hearts”, an appeal which, two weeks later, Haig put into his own grave and memorable words.

In the meantime, divisions were being transferred from Palestine and Salonica to France and the old precautions against invasion were dropped. On 10th April, the House of Commons had passed a Bill raising the limit of the military age to fifty, and giving the Government power to abolish the ordinary exemptions. These mobilisations meant that within a month from 21st March, 355,000 extra men were sent across the Channel.

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However, few of these reinforcements arrived in time to soften Ludendorff’s second blow, which came on 1st April. Originally designed as a mere diversion, Operation Georgette, it grew by its startling success into a major effort, the Battle of the Lys, and thereby further compromised his main strategy. His aim was to drive for Ypres, pushing through between La Bassée and Armentiéres and then, pressing north-west, to capture Hazelbrouck and the hills beyond Bailleul. This would, he hoped, result in a British retirement and a direct threat to Calais and Boulogne, eating up the Allied reserves. That it achieved, but it also ate up his own reserves.

Depleted British units which had been involved in the great retreat across the Somme of the previous month were now stationed on what was known as a ‘quiet sector’. Portuguese troops were also in the line here, but were under strength and lacking motivation; a third became casualties as the Germans broke through. In three days they had advanced eleven miles,  and Allied troops were moved in hastily to stem the tide. For a week or more he met stern resistance from the British, against all the odds, in what became known as the Fourth Battle of Ypres (9-29 April). Haig’s patience was sorely tried by Foch’s delay in sending help, but on 11th April, with the Allies under severe threat by the onslaught, Haig issued his famous order:

There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man; there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind depend alike on the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment. 

The British front sagged and bent, but held, and by the end of April Ludendorff realised that he must try elsewhere, and called off the offensive at the end of the month. His second blow had proved yet another tactical success, but a strategic failure. He was now becoming desperate; his original strategic scheme had gone, and his remaining efforts were now in the nature of a gambler’s throw. The Fourth Battle of Ypres also became known for the first combat between two tanks, or ‘armed tortoises’ as they were first described by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell of the British Tank Corps. Three British Mark IV’s faced three German A7Vs. The British were the victors in this first historic engagement, which took place on 24 April at Villers-Bretonneux. Overall, the April attack had forced the Allies to abandon all the territory they had so dearly bought in the Passchendaele campaign and, for a while, had seriously threatened the Channel ports.

 

Sources:

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

András Bereznay (2001), The Times Atlas of European History. London: HarperCollins.

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

E. L. Black (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Irene Richards (1937), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-35. London: Harrap.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-1935. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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