Archive for the ‘Versailles’ 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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September 1939 – Blitzkrieg & Spheres of Influence: A Narrative of Actions & Reactions…   Leave a comment

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Chronology of The First Week of War; September 1-8:

1   German invasion, blitzkrieg, of Poland began.

2   Chamberlain’s second statement to the House of Commons; emergency Cabinet meeting issued an ultimatum to be presented on 3rd.

3   Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. Within nine hours, 1,400 passengers aboard a blacked-out British liner SS Athenia were torpedoed on their way from Glasgow to Montreal by U-30, whose captain mistook the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. 112 passengers perished. Chamberlain’s War Cabinet formed, with Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.

5   The Polish Corridor entirely cut off; the Polish government fled to Lublin and then to Romania. A thousand civilians were shot by the SS at Bydgoszcz, and the Jewish district of Piotrków was torched. The entire Jewish population began to be herded into ghettos across Poland.

6   France invaded Germany in the Saarland; Germans retreated to Siegfried Line. No further action was taken by either France or Britain.

8   The Polish Pomorze Army encircled in the north; Reichenau’s Tenth Army reached Warsaw but was repulsed by the Polish resistance.

A Short Summary of Events from June to September:

At the end of June, Hitler’s demand that Poland agrees to the incorporation into his Reich of the City of Danzig, overwhelmingly German, and the territory cutting off East Prussia, produced a crisis. The Poles refused to negotiate and were backed up by Britain and France. They also refused to allow Soviet troops into their country. Again, however, Hitler wrong-footed them the Western Allies. In August, he signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, despite his previously unwavering antipathy to communism, neatly sidelining the one country he took to be his most serious enemy. Thus guaranteed, on 1 September Germany invaded Poland. When their demands for German withdrawal were ignored, Britain and France declared war. Surprised, but not undaunted, Hitler continued with the invasion. The Danzig corridor, separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany, was bridged and the land-grab was augmented by the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in mid-September. By 29 September, Germany and Soviet Russia had partitioned Poland between them. Apart from a ‘rump’ area of central Poland, ruled from Kraków, the country was annexed either by Germany or the Soviet Union.

The Final Steps to European War:

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At the start of 1939, Hitler had had no plans for war even against Poland. Since the Munich crisis, diplomatic pressure had been put on Poland to consider the return of the Prussian city of Danzig to the Reich, and to discuss possible readjustments to the status of the ‘Polish Corridor’ which separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany.

In March, the Polish Foreign Minister, Josef Beck, had given a firm refusal to these requests. Stung by what he saw as intransigence on the part of the Poles, Hitler ordered the armed forces to prepare for war against Poland. At the end of April, the Polish-German Non-Aggression pact of 1934 was abrogated by Germany, and across the summer months, German forces prepared ‘Plan White’, the planned annihilation of the Polish resistance. But Lord Halifax, the British Foreign Secretary was not so taken aback. Four months previously, he had warned the British Cabinet of the possibility of a deal between Stalin and Hitler. Both the British and French governments now realised that the agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany freed Hitler’s hands for an invasion of Poland – and so it proved.

On 1 September, German troops crossed into Poland and two days later, Britain, in accordance with its treaty obligations with Poland, declared war on Germany. Hitler had expected a local war with Poland, lasting a matter of weeks. Instead, he now faced, at least potentially, a major European war with Britain and France.

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The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, 23 August:

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above: Molotov (seated), Ribbentrop (standing, left) and Stalin at the moment of the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in the Kremlin in August 1939. Stalin, as this picture shows, was happy and at ease with the Nazi Foreign Minister.

Laurence Rees (2008) has pointed out that, by the summer of 1939, pragmatism had taken precedence over principle. Hitler wanted the German Army to invade Poland within a matter of days. As he saw it, there were German territories to retrieve – the city of Danzig, West Prussia, and the former German lands around Posen, as well as the rest of Poland’s valuable agricultural lands to conquer. But he knew that any into Poland risked war with Britain and France. Moreover, from the Nazi point of view, a vast question hung over their plan to invade Poland; what would be the reaction of the Soviet Union, Poland’s neighbour to the east? If the Soviet Union formed an alliance with the French and the British, how would the Germans react to encirclement by enemies?

So, that summer, off the back of trade talks that were happening in Berlin, the Germans began to sound out the Soviets about a possible treaty of convenience. By 2 August, the urgency of the Germans was palpable. The economic treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed on 19 August in Berlin. Ribbentrop then pressed the Soviets to allow him to come to Moscow to sign a non-aggression treaty. When the Soviets seemed to dither, Hitler stepped in personally and wrote an appeal to Stalin to allow Ribbentrop to go to Moscow. The Soviets relented and Ribbentrop arrived there on the 23rd. The motivation of the Germans was not difficult to fathom. Hitler’s long-term policy was still to view the Soviet Union as the ultimate enemy. As far as he was concerned, its Slavic people were not ‘worthy’ of owning the rich farmland they currently possessed. His almost messianic vision was that one day soon there would be a new German Empire on that land. But he was not concerned, for now, to pursue visions. This was the time to deal with the urgent, practical problems of neutralising a potential aggressor. The Nazi régime acted with at a speed that impressed even the Soviets, as Molotov testified in a speech in September:

The fact that Mr Ribbentrop acted at a tempo of 650 kilometres an hour called forth the Soviet government’s sincere admiration. His energy and his strength of will were a pledge to the firmness of the friendly relations that had been created with Germany.

Yet whilst it was relatively easy to see what the Germans were getting out of the deal, it was, initially, far less simple to explain the attitude of the Soviets. Unlike the Germans, they had a choice and could have accepted the offer of an alliance with the British and the French. At a cursory glance, that seemed to be the logical course of action, not least because they had signed a non-aggression treaty with Poland in July 1932 and neither of the two western democracies was as vehemently antipathetic to the USSR as the Nazis. In addition, the British had already made peaceful overtures towards Moscow. But Stalin knew that Britain had preferred a policy of appeasement to the Germans to an alliance with the Soviets, and he still felt insulted by Chamberlain’s failure to consult him about the Munich Agreement of a year earlier. Moreover, the fact that it had taken the British until the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands on 15 March 1939 to realise the potential benefits of a treaty with the Soviet Union did not impress Stalin. Five days earlier, he had made a speech to the 18th Party Congress in Moscow in which he talked of a war being waged by…

aggressor states who in every way infringe upon the interests of the the interests of the non-aggressive states, primarily Britain, France and the USA, while the latter draw back and retreat, making concession after concession to the aggressors. Thus we are witnessing an open redivision of the world and spheres of influence at the expense of the non-aggressive states, without the least attempt at resistance, and even with a certain connivance, on their part. Incredible, but true.

‘Spheres of Influence’:

Ribbentrop began the negotiations with the following statement:

The Führer accepts that the eastern part of Poland and Bessarabia as well as Finland, Estonia and Latvia, up to the river Duena, will all fall within the Soviet sphere of influence.

Stalin objected at once to these proposals, insisting that the entire territory of Latvia fall within the ‘Soviet sphere of influence’. The meeting was immediately adjourned until Ribbentrop had contacted Hitler about this request. The Führer was waiting for news of the negotiations at the Berghof, his retreat in the mountains of Bavaria. Herbert Döring, the SS officer who administered the Berghof and witnessed the events of that day, noted the reactions of the commanders meeting there to the news that Ribbentrop was about to sign a non-aggression pact with the Soviets:

The generals were upset, they were looking at each other… It took their breath away that such a thing could be possible. Stalin the Communist, Hitler the National Socialist, that these two would certainly unite. What was behind it, nobody knew.

Suddenly, the call came through from Ribbentrop with the news of Stalin’s demand. Döring recalled:

Hitler was speechless during the phone call, everybody noticed. Stalin had put a pistol to his head. 

Hitler agreed to ‘hand over’ the whole of Latvia to Stalin. The main details of the ‘spheres of influence’ were enshrined in a secret protocol to the pact. Then the conversation in Moscow became more discursive as Stalin revealed his frank views about his ‘dislike and distrust’ of the British:

… they are skilful and stubborn opponents. But the British Army is weak. If England is still ruling the world it is due to the stupidity of other countries which let themselves be cheated. It is ridiculous that only a few hundred British are still able to rule the vast Indian population.

Stalin went on to assert that the British had tried to prevent Soviet-German understanding for many years and that it was a ‘good idea’ to put an end to these ‘shenanigans’. But there was no open discussion in Moscow of the Nazi’s immediate plans to invade Poland, nor what the Soviet response to it was expected to be. The nearest Ribbentrop came to outlining Nazi intentions was when he said:

The government of the German Reich no longer finds acceptable the persecution of the German population in Poland and the Führer is determined to resolve the German-Polish disputes without delay.

The Polish Corridor, which had been intended by the framers of the Versailles Treaty to cut off East Prussia from the rest of Germany, had long been presented as a ‘casus belli’ by the Nazis, as had the ethnically German Baltic Port of Danzig, but as Hitler had told a conference of generals in May 1939,

Danzig is not the real issue, the real point is for us to open up our ‘Lebensraum’ to the east and ensure our supplies of foodstuffs.

Yet Hitler was driven by more than simple practicalities. The forthcoming war over Poland was to be an existential conflict, fulfilling the promises he had made fourteen years before in his political testimony Mein Kampf. The German master race would subjugate the Slavs – Untermenschen  (subhumans) according to Nazi precepts of racial hierarchy – and use their territory to nurture a new Aryan civilization. This was to be the world’s first wholly ideological war, and, as Andrew Roberts has written, the reason why the Nazis eventually lost it. By August 1939, Danzig and the Polish Corridor had become the focal point for Nazi propaganda.

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The Non-Aggression Pact between the Soviet Union and Germany was finally signed in the early hours of 24 August 1939. German and Soviet photographers were allowed into the room to immortalise the unlikely friendship that had blossomed between the two countries. But Stalin’s last words to Ribbentrop were spoken with apparent sincerity:

I assure you that the Soviet Union takes this pact very seriously. I guarantee on my word of honour that the Soviet Union will not betray its new partner.

Back at the Berghof, the atmosphere grew ever more anxious in the hours before news of the signing of the pact came through. Herbert Döring watched that evening as Hitler and his guests stared at a dramatic sky over the high mountain peaks. He recalled that:

The entire sky was in turmoil. It was blood-red, green, sulphur grey, black as the night, a jagged yellow. Everyone was looking horrified – it was intimidating. … Everyone was watching. Without good nerves one could easily have become frightened.

Döring observed Hitler’s reaction to the remark of one of his guests, a Hungarian woman:

“My Führer, this augers nothing good. It means blood, blood, blood and again blood.” Hitler was totally shocked. … He was almost shaking. He said, “If it has to be, then let it be now.” He was agitated, completely crazed. His hair was wild. His gaze was locked on the distance. Then, when the good news that the pact had been signed finally arrived, Hitler said goodbye, went upstairs and the evening was over.

The reaction in Britain to the rapprochement between Germany and the Soviet Union might have lacked the drama on the terrace at the Berghof, but it was certainly one of immense surprise. It was a new and incomprehensible chapter in German diplomacy, as one British newsreel declared, asking what has happened to the principles of ‘Mein Kampf’?… what can Russia have in common with Germany? All over the world, Communist parties, who had been campaigning for a ‘Popular Front’ against Fascism, struggled to make sense of the new reality. In Germany, the Nazis were equally non-plussed by the news. SS officer Hans Bernhard heard of the news of the signing of the pact as he waited with his unit to invade Poland. For him, it came as…

… a surprise without doubt. We couldn’t make sense of it. …in German propaganda for years it had been made clear that the Bolsheviks were our main enemy. … (it was) politically unnatural.

Blitzkrieg & the Partition of Poland:

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The German armed forces made meticulous preparations for the Polish war. They committed fifty-two divisions (against Poland’s thirty), organised into five armies surrounding Poland on three sides. They included five Panzer divisions of three hundred tanks each, four light divisions, with fewer tanks and some horses, and four fully motorised divisions, with lorry-borne infantry. These tank and motorised divisions spearheaded the attack, supported by 1,500 aircraft. Altogether, they had 3,600 operational aircraft and much of the ‘Kriegsmarine’, the German navy. Poland had only thirty infantry divisions, eleven cavalry brigades, two mechanised brigades, three hundred medium and light tanks, 1,154 field guns and four hundred combat-ready aircraft, of which only thirty-six were not obsolete. They had a fleet of only four modern destroyers and five submarines. Although these forces comprised fewer than a million men, Poland tried to mobilise its reservists, but that was far from complete when the devastating blow fell at the hands of 630,000 German troops under Bock and 886,000 under Rundstedt.

Polish forces planned to fight a holding action before falling back on the defence of Warsaw. When the campaign opened German forces moved with great speed and power, quickly penetrating the defensive screen and encircling Polish troops. At 17:30 hours on 31 August, Hitler ordered hostilities to commence the next morning, and at 04:45 on Friday, 1 September, German forces activated Plan White, which had been formulated that June by the German Army High Command (OKH), with Hitler merely putting his imprimatur on the final document.  At this early stage in the war, there was a good deal of genuine mutual respect between Hitler and his generals, so that the Führer did not interfere too closely in the troop dispositions and planning. Neither was he cowed by his generals, as he knew that, had he been a German citizen, he would have been commissioned and have emerged from the Great War in command of a battalion. Moreover, his two Iron Crosses gave him some standing with his generals. Despite being mocked as ‘Corporal Hitler’ by the former Lieutenant-Colonel Churchill, he showed no inferiority complex when dealing directly with soldiers who had outranked him by far in the previous conflict.

According to ‘Plan White’, on either side of a relatively weak and stationary centre, two powerful wings of the Wehrmacht would envelop Poland and crush its armed forces. Army Group North would smash through the Polish Corridor, take Danzig, unite with the German Third Army in East Prussia and move swiftly capture Warsaw from the north. Meanwhile, an even stronger Army Group South, under von Rundstedt, would punch between the larger Polish forces facing it, push east all the way to Lvov, but also assault Warsaw from the west and north. As dawn broke on 1 September, Heinkel bombers, with top speeds of 350kph carrying two thousand kilogram loads, as well as Dorniers and Junkers (Stuka) dive-bombers, began pounding Polish roads, airfields, railway junctions, munitions dumps, mobilisation centres and cities, including Warsaw. Meanwhile, the ship Schleswig Holstein in Danzig harbour started shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte. The Stukas had special sirens attached whose screams hugely intensified the terror of those below. Much of the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground, and air superiority was quickly won by the Luftwaffe. The Messerschmitt Me-109 had a top speed of 470kph, and the far slower Polish planes stood little chance, however brave their pilots. Furthermore, Polish anti-aircraft defences, where there were any, were wholly inadequate.

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The strategy of having a weak centre and two powerful flanks was a brilliant one, believed to have derived from the pre-Great War Schlieffen Plan. Whatever the provenance, it worked well, slipping German armies neatly between the Polish ones, enabling them to converge on Warsaw from different angles almost simultaneously. Yet what made it irresistible was not the preponderance in men and arms, but above all the military doctrine of ‘Blitzkrieg’. Poland was a fine testing ground for these tactics. Although it had lakes, forests and bad roads, it was nonetheless flat, with immensely wide fronts and firm, late-summer ground ideal for tanks. Since the British and French governments had given their guarantee to Poland on 1 April 1939, with the British PM Neville Chamberlain formally promising ‘all support in the power’ of the Allies, Hitler was forced to leave a large proportion of his hundred-division Army on the Siegfried Line or ‘West Wall’, a three-mile-deep series of still-incomplete fortifications along  Germany’s western frontier. The fear of a war on two fronts led the Führer to leave no fewer than forty divisions to protect his back. His best troops, however, along with all his armoured and mobile divisions and almost all his aircraft, he devoted to the attack on Poland.

In charge of the two armoured divisions and two light divisions of Army Group North was General Heinz Guderian, a long-time exponent of the tactics of Blitzkrieg. Wielding his force as a homogeneous entity, by contrast with Army Group South where tanks were split up among different units, Guderian scored amazing successes as he raced ahead of the main body of the infantry. Polish retaliation was further hampered by vast numbers of refugees taking to the roads. once they were bombed and machine-gunned from the air, chaos ensued. It soon became clear to everyone, except the ever hopeful Poles, that the Western Allies were not about to assault the Siegfried Line, even though the French had eighty-five divisions facing the forty German. Fear of massive German air attacks devastating London and Paris partly explained Allied inaction, but even if they had attacked in the west, Poland could not have been saved in time. Although the RAF had reached France by 9 September, the main British Expeditionary Force (BEF) did not start to arrive until the next day.

What the Allies did not fully appreciate at this stage was the ever-present fear in Hitler’s calculations that there would be an attack in the west before Poland was defeated. In particular, he thought there might be a secret agreement between the French and Belgian general staffs for a surprise thrust by the French high-speed motorised forces through Belgium and over the German frontier into the industrial zone of the Ruhr. In addition, he suspected that there might also be an agreement between the British and the Dutch for a surprise landing of British troops in Holland in order to attack the German north flank. In the event, it turned out that no such agreements were in place. As the Poles retreated, seven thousand ethnic Germans in Poland were massacred by their Polish neighbours and the retreating troops. The Poles did this on the basis of their fear of betrayal, but the Nazis soon responded in cold blood, and on a far larger scale.

By 5 September, the Polish Corridor was completely cut off. On the night of 6 September, France made a token invasion of Germany, advancing five miles into the Saarland along a fifteen-mile-wide front, capturing a dozen abandoned German villages. The Germans retreated behind the Siegfried Line and waited. As France was still mobilising, no further action was taken and five days later, the French troops returned to their original positions with orders only to undertake reconnaissance over the frontier. This was hardly the all-out support of the Allies, and Hitler did not have to remove a single soldier from the Polish front. Meanwhile, by the eighth, the Polish Pomorze Army was encircled in the north and the German Tenth Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw but was initially repulsed by the fierce Polish resistance.  Despite years of threats by Hitler, the Poles had not built extensive fixed defences, preferring to rely on counter-attacks. This all changed in early September when the city centre of Warsaw witnessed makeshift barricades being thrown up, anti-tank ditches dug and turpentine barrels made ready for ignition. However, at the same time, the Eighth Army had soon broken over and around the Polish Kraków and Lodz armies by the 17th. The Polish Government fled first to Lublin and then to Romania, where they were welcomed at first, but were later interned under pressure from Hitler. Hitler’s plan had been to seize Warsaw before the US Congress met on 21 September, so as to present it and the world with a fait accompli, but that was not quite what was to happen.

On 9 September, Hermann Göring predicted that the Polish Army would never emerge again from the German embrace. Until then, the Germans had operated a textbook attack, but that night General Tadeusz Kutrzebra of the Poznán Army took over the Pomorze Army and crossed the Bzuta river in a brilliant attack against the flank of the German Eighth Army, launching the three-day battle of Kutno which incapacitated an entire German division. Only when the Panzers of the Tenth Army returned from besieging Warsaw were the Poles forced back. According to German propaganda, some Polish cavalry charged German tanks armed only with lances and sabres, but this did not, in fact, happen at all. Nonetheless, as Mellenthin observed:

All the dash and bravery which the Poles frequently displayed could not compensate for a lack of modern arms and serious tactical training.

By contrast, the Wehrmacht training was completely modern and impressively flexible: some troops could even perform in tanks, as infantrymen and artillerymen, while all German NCOs were trained to serve as officers if the occasion demanded. Of course, it helped enormously that the Germans were the aggressors, and so knew when the war was going to start. In fact, they were fighting their fifth war of aggression in seventy-five years, and they were simply better at it than the Allies. Blitzkrieg required extraordinarily close co-operation between the services, and the Germans achieved it triumphantly. It took the Allies half a war to catch up.

But as the Germans invaded Poland from the west, the Soviet Union made no more to invade from the east. Consequently, Ribbentrop was concerned about Stalin’s reaction to any German incursion into eastern Poland, the region that adjoined the Soviet Union and that it had just been agreed was within the Soviet sphere of influence. He cabled Schulenberg, the German ambassador in Moscow, on 3 September:

We should naturally, however, for military reasons, have to continue to take action against such Polish military forces as are at that time located in the Polish territory belonging to the Russian sphere of influence. Please discuss this at once with Molotov and see if the Soviet Union does not consider it desirable for Russian forces to move at the proper time against Polish forces in the Russian sphere of influence and, for their part, to occupy this territory. In our estimation this would not only be a relief for us, but also, in the sense of the Moscow agreements, be in the Soviet interest as well.

But the Western Allies had just declared war on Germany because they had agreed by treaty to protect Poland against aggression. If the Red Army moved into eastern Poland, would they now decide to fight the Soviet Union as well? The Soviet leaders were concerned that a pact which, from their point of view, was designed to keep them out of European war might now drag them into it. But there remained strong arguments in favour of military action. The Soviets recognised the material benefits to be gained from annexing a large chunk of the neighbouring country with which they had historical scores to settle. Stalin was still bitter about the war the Bolsheviks had fought with the Poles after the Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles, and before the USSR came into being. The Curzon Line, the proposed border at that time between Poland and its neighbours, was used to agree on the spheres of influence in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Moreover, ethnic Poles were not in a majority in these eastern territories. Around forty per cent of the population were of Polish origin, thirty-four per cent were Ukrainian and nine per cent Belarusian. This, the Soviet propagandists realised, allowed any incursion to be couched as an act of ‘liberation’, freeing the ‘local’ population from Polish domination. A combination of all these factors meant that on 9 September, Molotov finally replied to Ribbentrop’s cable of the 3rd, to say that the Red Army was about to move into the agreed Soviet ‘sphere’ in Poland. At a meeting in Moscow the following day with the German ambassador, Molotov told Schulenburg that the pretext for the invasion would be that the Soviet Union was helping Ukrainians and Belarusians. This argument, he said, …

… was to make the intervention of the Soviet Union plausible and at the same time avoid giving… it the appearance of an aggressor. 

With only three Polish divisions covering the eight-hundred-mile-long eastern border, it came as a complete surprise when at dawn on 17 September, in accordance with the secret clauses of the Nazi-Soviet Pact that had been agreed on 24 August. The Russians wanted revenge for their defeats at Poland’s hands in 1920, access to the Baltic States and a buffer zone against Germany, and they opportunistically grabbed all three, without any significant resistance. Soviet forces began to cross the frontier in the east against only light resistance, led by Marshal Kovalov in the north on the Belarusian front and Marshal Timoshenko in the south on the Ukrainian front. In a radio broadcast the same day, Molotov justified the Soviet action by the ‘plausible’ argument he had outlined to Schulenberg. Caught between the two great powers, Polish fighting power evaporated. Warsaw surrendered on 27 September. The following day all Polish resistance ceased. The Red Army was initially welcomed in many places and there was confusion in some places as to whether this was an actual invasion at all. Perhaps, some thought, the Soviet troops had really come to ‘help’. Maybe they would just motor through the flat countryside of eastern Poland and confront the Germans, who had already captured most of the west of the country. The photograph below reveals that there was little panic on the streets.

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The total losses of the Red Army in Poland amounted to only 734 killed. Stalin continued to use Polish ‘colonialism’ in the Ukraine and Belorussia as his casus belli, arguing that the Red Army had invaded Poland in order to restore peace and order. The Poles were thus doubly martyred, smashed between the Nazi hammer and the Soviet anvil, and were not to regain their independence and self-government until November 1989, half a century later. By mid-September, the Germans had already moved into several areas behind Warsaw and had indeed taken Brest-Litovsk and Lvov, but some fighting had broken out between Cossacks and Germans, with two of the former killed in one incident and fifteen Germans in another. The campaign cost 8,082 German lives with 27,278 wounded and the loss of 285 aircraft, whereas seventy thousand Polish soldiers and twenty-five thousand civilians had been killed, with 130,000 soldiers wounded. Mellenthin concluded that:

The operations were of considerable value in “blooding” our troops and teaching them the difference between real war with live ammunition and peacetime manoeuvres.

The whole of western Poland came under German control. On 28 September, Soviet and German representatives met to draw up a demarcation line which gave Warsaw to the Germans and the Baltic states as a sphere of interest to the USSR. Almost at once the German authorities began to break Poland up. Silesia and the Corridor became parts of the Reich, and a central Polish area called the General Government was placed under a Nazi administrator, Hans Frank. Thousands of Polish intellectuals were rounded up and murdered. Peasants were removed from their villages in parts of western Poland and replaced by German settlers. Hitler had been right to calculate that Britain and France would give Poland little help, but he was wrong about localising the conflict. Although Britain and France declared war on 3 September, there were only isolated raids by Allied scouting parties and aircraft. After the defeat of Poland Hitler wanted to wage a winter campaign in the west, but was prevented from doing so by bad weather, and both sides sat through the winter and early spring of a ‘phoney war’.

In eastern Poland, casual abuse of the ‘class enemies’ of the Communist system turned into a widespread and systematic arrest. On 27 September, just ten days after Red Army troops had crossed into Poland – the Soviets came for Boguslava Gryniv’s father. He was a prominent lawyer and head of the regional branch of the Ukrainian National Democratic Party (UNDO), a legally constituted organisation. When there was a knock at their door the Gryniv family were surprised to see a member of the local Soviet authority, as it was a church holiday and they were about to celebrate with a family meal. But they took his father away anyway, leaving the family to pray for him not to be punished and to be returned to them. He was one of the first of many to suffer at the hands of the Soviets in eastern Poland. Altogether, between September 1939 and June 1941, around 110,000 people were arrested during the reign of terror facilitated by the occupation of eastern Poland. Aristocrats, intellectuals, trade unionists, churchmen, politicians, veterans of the 1920-21  Russo-Polish War, anyone who might form the nucleus of new national leadership, were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps from which virtually none emerged.

As in the case of Boguslava Gryniv’s father, individual arrests of members of the intelligentsia and others thought of as a threat to the new régime began from the moment the Red Army arrived in mid-September. Gryniv was sent to the local jail immediately upon arrest, a small cell that usually held drunks and petty criminals. All the most important people who had remained in the town were in this prison. They thought it was simply a ‘misunderstanding’. However, about three weeks later he was taken to Chertkov, where he discovered that all he was accused of was membership of UNDA, a legal organisation before the invasion which was by no means anti-Bolshevik. However, in reality, he was seen as a dangerous member of the previous ‘ruling class’. He disappeared from the prison towards the end of 1939 and fifty years later his family finally learnt that he had been murdered by the NKVD in the spring of 1940.

On the same day that Boguslava Gryniv’s father was arrested, the Soviet government’s new best friend, Joachim von Ribbentrop returned to the Kremlin to finalise the exact borders that would exist between them. After tough negotiations lasting until five in the morning, it was agreed that the Germans would get Warsaw and Lublin, and the Russians the rest of eastern Poland and a free hand in the Baltic. The Germans withdrew from towns such as Brest-Litovsk and Bialystock in the new Russian sector, and the fourth partition in Poland’s history was effectively complete. The Soviets had obtained the lands in their ‘sphere’ without meeting any serious opposition and without even making a formal declaration of war on Poland. Molotov would have done well, however, to take note of Hitler’s statement made many years before in Mein Kampf:

Let no one argue that in concluding an alliance with Russia we need not immediately think of war, or, if we did, that we could thoroughly prepare for it. An alliance whose aim does not embrace a plan for war is senseless and worthless. Alliances are concluded only for struggle.

The Germans had faced fierce Polish resistance in the west, but they had completely consolidated their hold on these lands. After a full day of bombing on 25 September, with no prospect of meaningful help from the Western Allies, a full-scale ‘invasion’ from the Russians in the east, and communications cut between Smigly-Rydz and much of his army, and with food and medical supplies running dangerously low, Warsaw capitulated on 28 September. It was then three days before the Germans agreed to help the wounded in the city, by which time it was too late for many of them. Field kitchens were set up only for as long as the newsreel cameras were there. By 5 October, all resistance had ended; 217,000 Polish soldiers were taken captive by the Russians, and 693,000 by the Germans. On that day, Hitler travelled to Warsaw in his special train to visit his victorious troops. Take a good look around Warsaw, he told the war correspondents there, … that is how I can deal with any European city.

What was to be called the policy of  Schrecklichkeit (frightfulness) had begun as soon as the Germans had entered Poland. For the master race to have their ‘living space’, large numbers of Slavic and Jewish Untermenschen had to disappear, and during the rest of the war, Poland lost 17.2 per cent of its population. The commander of three Totenkopf (Death’s Head) SS regiments, Theodor Eicke, ordered his men to ‘incarcerate or annihilate’ every enemy of National Socialism they found as they followed the troops into Poland. Since Nazism was a racial ideology, that meant that huge swathes of the Polish people were automatically classed as enemies of the Reich, to whom no mercy could be shown. Fortunately, between ninety and a hundred thousand Polish combatants managed to flee the country via Lithuania, Hungary and Romania, eventually making their way to the west to join the Free Polish forces under General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Prime Minister in exile, who was in Paris when the war broke out and set up a government in exile in Angers in France.

The Wehrmacht took an active part in the violence, burning down 531 towns and villages, and killing thousands of Polish POWs. The claim made by German soldiers that they had been simple soldiers who had known nothing of the genocide against the Slavs and the Jews, was a lie. The nature of the SS had become immediately apparent upon the invasion of Poland. On 5 September 1939, a thousand civilians were shot by them at Bydgoszcz, and at Piotrków the Jewish district was torched. The next day nineteen Polish officers who had surrendered were shot at Mrocza. Meanwhile, the entire Jewish population began to be herded into ghettos across Poland. Even Jewish farmers were forced into ghettos, despite the obvious need for efficient food production in the new eastern satrapy of the Third Reich, early evidence that the Nazis were willing to put their war against the Jews even before their war against the Allies. In Bydgoszcz, they were locked in their synagogue on the Day of Atonement and denied access to lavatories, forcing them to use prayer shawls to clean themselves. Far worse was to come…

(to be continued…)

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

Part Two; June – December:

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The British Delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, including (in the centre),

Arthur J Balfour & David Lloyd George, Foreign Secretary & Prime Minister.

This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.

(Marshal Foch at Versailles)

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Victory Celebrations in London & Paris:

In the victory celebration parade that took place in London in July 1919 units of every ‘race and creed’ from Britain’s worldwide empire marched in symbolic unity. Men in their millions, latterly conscripted, had responded to the call to uphold the glorious traditions of the British race. 

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Below: British sailors march through Whitehall in July 1919 to celebrate ‘Victory’.

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Two weeks after witnessing the humiliating scenes in the Galerie des Glaces, Harold Nicolson watched the Allied victory procession make its way through the Arc de Triomphe. Perched high on the roof of the Hotel Astoria, he was overcome by a wave of patriotic fervour as he applauded the British Grenadiers and behind them hundreds and hundreds of British regimental flags – stiff, imperial, heavy with gold lettering, “Busaco”, “Inkerman”, “Waterloo” – while the crowd roared with enthusiasm. Cries of “Good Old Blighty” were heard. Harold wept at the spectacle of the most glorious, the most democratic and the most final of Britain’s victories. For Nicolson, these three months in Paris, despite his private agony and professional frustration, ended on an emotional high. But this sense of relief and elation at the coming of peace did not last long, either in Paris or London. The Treaty of Versailles did not deal, except incidentally, with the problems arising out of the liquidation of the Austro-Hungarian empire, nor with the two other ‘enemy’ powers, Turkey and Bulgaria. Four further treaties were required to deal with these: St. Germain, concluded with Austria in September 1919; Neuilly, with Bulgaria in November 1919; Trianon, with Hungary in June 1920, and Sévres, with Turkey in August 1920, though later replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

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Above: At the Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay, by Sir William Orpen.

Unfinished Business – Break-up of the Austrian Empire:

The most spectacular change in the post-war map of Europe was the disappearance of the Hapsburg Empire, which for seventy years had been saved from collapse by its dynastic rulers. There was no unity between the different nationalities. Czechs, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Poles, Croats, and Slovenes were dominated by German and Magyar masters; yet because one dynasty had linked together in its chain of bondage a huge territory in Central Europe, centring on the Danube Basin, certain economic advantages accrued to its million inhabitants. There was free trade within the vast empire; a unified railway and river transport system and an outlet to the Adriatic Sea assisted the national trade and commerce. But the empire had already collapsed and its former territories were already split into seven territories before the conference started. Austria and Hungary were both reduced to the status of minor states before the treaties of St. Germain and Trianon were signed and sealed. The fragments of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy were in a dire condition. Austria was reduced to one great city and a narrow arc of productive land around it which could never form an economic unit by itself, and Hungary, recovering from Bolshevik Revolution was also bankrupt, confused and impotent. The map below illustrates the areas, races, population, and economic resources of the partitioned empire. A comparative study of the four sketch-maps reveals the different characteristics of these divisions:

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From the ruins of the old Hapsburg Empire there emerged the small republic of Austria, mostly a mountainous territory in the Alps, with its huge capital, Vienna, retaining all that was left of its former greatness. Reduced by disease and starvation, its very existence threatened, Austria was one of the first states whose difficulties engaged the attention of the European statesmen. As a result of the Peace Settlement, there were many more small states than there had been in 1914. The League of Nations gave them their opportunity to co-operate and thus influence the decisions of the Great Powers. The frontiers of the countries in the Danube Basin were settled upon national lines. As a result, a group of aggressively national states was brought into being intent on securing economic as well as political independence, a situation dangerous alike to the prosperity and peace of Europe. Jealous of their neighbours and fearful of their former ruling peoples, the Germans of Austria and the Magyars of Hungary, they immediately began strengthening their military resources. At first, the ‘Peace’ appeared to be a decisive victory for democracy, as the autocratic empires of the Hohenzollerns, Hapsburgs and Romanovs were replaced by democratic republics. But the rival doctrines of Communism and Fascism began to undermine their stability almost as soon as they were created, and in these ideological positions, there was little room for representative institutions.

The Economic Consequences of the Peace:

While the Austrian and Turkish Empires were broken up, the German Empire was not drastically partitioned, as we saw in the first part of this article. This was chiefly because except at its eastern edges there were fewer national minorities under its sovereignty. However, it did lose all its overseas colonies and many thousands of German-speakers were placed under the rule of the new neighbouring states. These territorial losses alone were enough to create a sense of injustice in the minds of many Germans, but the effect of the economic provisions of the Treaty of Versailles was to convince them that the Allies were bent on their total ruin. The prosperity of Germany depended on her industrial and commercial development. The territorial annexations had taken away from her valuable mineral resources as well as fully grown industrial enterprises, e.g. textile-mills in Alsace. Not content with this, the Allies proceeded to imperil what remained by demanding reparations in the form of coal, the cession of railway stock, and its mercantile shipping; they interfered with her control over her navigable rivers and took away the special rights it had obtained in Morocco, Egypt and China. The reparations were to be paid in recompense for damage done to civilians in the Allied countries where the fighting had taken place.

The overall effect of these arrangements was to ruin Germany economically, and since all nations were, to some extent, mutually dependent on trade with each other, they caused economic distress throughout Europe. Germany had been at her last gasp before she surrendered, but surrender did not break the fortitude of its people. They crushed a communist attempt to follow the Soviet Russian model and produced, even while starving and bewildered, some semblance of a national Government. They received the harsh conditions of Versailles with protests but with dignity, and then they set themselves against desperate odds to rebuild their economy and society. The Allied blockade was continued well into the second half of 1919, and it was only the protests of the British soldiers on the Rhine that forced the Allies to attend to their duty of provisioning a starving population. A huge proportion of this, children especially, were suffering from malnutrition. There was an extreme shortage of raw materials, and there was no money to purchase these abroad, nor were there ships to import them. The highly developed agricultural system was in ruins and yet the country was saddled with a huge but yet undetermined debt. The new republic had to quickly improvise a new social order and governmental system, threatened by anarchy at home and Bolshevism from both within and without.

For a moment, but only for a moment, after the signing of the treaties, there was a sense of peace and stability. Then everywhere came unsettlement and confusion, economic or political, or both, except in the United States. Britain, desperately busy with setting her own house in order, was compelled to lend a hand in straightening out the world’s tangle which, of course, it had been party to creating. On the peace and prosperity of the globe depended its export trade, vast system of overseas lending and its position as a financial centre, as well as its hope of building up a new and better society and thereby winning something  from the sacrifice of war; and the interests of its Empire was vitally engaged in this ‘project’. The background to any picture of inter-war Britain must, therefore, be, as John Buchan put it in 1935, the vast shifting kaleidoscope of the world. By then, J M Keynes’ damning contemporary indictment of the French attitude at the Paris Conference had helped to develop the policy of ‘appeasement’, often confused with the ‘policy of fear’ of 1937-39. Appeasement had a coherent intellectual foundation with a high moral tone, as in Keynes’ famous book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which he published soon after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles:

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In this forecast, he found support from Lloyd George and Winston Churchill among other leading politicians and thinkers in the early twenties. Although particularly critical of the French attitude at Paris, Keynes understood clearly enough its economic motives for this:

In spite … of France’s victorious issue from the present struggle … her future position remained precarious in the eyes of one (Clemenceau) who took the view that European civil war is to be regarded as a normal, or at least a recurrent, state of affairs for the future. … Hence the necessity of ‘guarantees’; and each guarantee that was taken, by increasing irritation and thus the probability of a subsequent ‘Revanche’ by Germany, made necessary yet further provisions to crush. Thus … a demand for a Carthaginian peace is inevitable. … By loss of territory and other measures (Germany’s) population was to be curtailed; but chiefly the economic system … the vast fabric built upon iron, coal, and transport, must be destroyed. … 

It is evident that Germany’s pre-war capacity to pay annual foreign tribute has not been unaffected by the almost total loss of her colonies, her overseas connections, her mercantile marine, and her foreign properties, by the cession of ten per cent of her territory and population, of one-third of her coal, and three-quarters of her iron ore, by two million casualties amongst men in the prime of life, by the starvation of her people for four years, by the burden of a vast war debt, by the depreciation of her currency to less than one-seventh of its former value, by the disruption of her allies and their territories, by Revolution at home and Bolshevism on her borders, and by all the unmeasured ruin in strength and hope of four years of all-swallowing war and final defeat.

Al this, one would have supposed, is evident. Yet most estimates of a great indemnity from Germany depend on the assumption that she is in a position to conduct in the future a vastly greater trade than ever she has had in the past. …

We cannot expect to legislate for a generation or more. … We cannot as reasonable men do better than base our policy on the evidence we have and adapt it to the five or ten years over which we may suppose ourselves to have some measure of prevision. … The fact that we have no adequate knowledge of Germany’s capacity to pay over a long period of years is no justification … for the statement that she can pay ten thousand million pounds.

If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long that final civil war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilisation and the progress of our generation.

(1924 edn.)

According to Gilbert, writing in the mid-1970s, Keynes destroyed British faith in Versailles by opening the ‘floodgates of criticism’. For the following twenty years, the Treaty was ‘assailed by means of his arguments’. But he may have underestimated the difficulties of peacemaking in 1919. The task of the Allied statesmen was indeed difficult, because they had to take into account the views of the peoples of Europe, not just their leaders, in re-drawing the map of Europe. In the former treaties in Vienna in 1815, for instance, they only had the claims of the rulers to consider.

Lines on the Map of Central Europe:

In the main, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Serbs and Greeks had every reason to be satisfied with the treatment they received. Though divided for a century, the Poles had never ceased to resist their conquerors, and they speedily asserted their independence on the collapse of their oppressors. They were generously supported at the conference. Clemenceau welcomed the renaissance of Poland as a bulwark against Germany and Russia, and Wilson had proclaimed at the outset that it was the duty of European statesmen to assist the Poles. The Czechs were a cultured people long oppressed who had resisted their Austrian masters in the nineteenth century. France realised that the position of their land gave the northern Slavs a strategic position in Central Europe, forming a barrier against potential Austrian and Hungarian aggression. President Wilson was impressed by the Czech leaders, who welcomed the setting-up of the League of Nations enthusiastically.

Czechoslovakia was, both industrially and politically, the most important of the new states which emerged out of the ruins of the Austrian empire. It consisted of Bohemia, a rich industrial and manufacturing region, with a fertile and intensively cultivated soil, densely populated with a literate people, the Czechs; Moravia, another important area, with a strategic position between the plains of the Vistula and the Danube, and the mountainous area in the Carpathians, Slovakia, where the cultivable areas were few and the minerals unimportant. The population there was sparsely distributed and illiterate; communications were difficult. Czechoslovakia, therefore, inherited from the Austrian Empire industrial wealth and fertile land which enabled it to be self-supporting. However, it still had large numbers of minorities along its frontiers, including Germans, Magyars and Ruthenians, which created internal difficulties in administration and led to unfriendly relations with Germany, Austria and Hungary, which surrounded it. These negated the advantages of its position in central Europe.

Romania had taken advantage of the weakness of Hungary to seize Transylvania, and the preoccupation of Russia with its civil war to take possession of Bessarabia; at the Peace Conference, it successfully asserted its claims to these on the grounds that Romanian people were in the majority. In many parts of these new territories, the ethnicities were very mixed, and the problem of achieving a fair division of the territories proved insoluble. In Southern Dobruja, however, there was unquestionably a Bulgarian majority, but this territory was left in Romanian hands. As a result of the Treaty of Neuilly in November 1919, Bulgaria was also forced to cede Western Thrace to Greece. The northern boundaries of Serbia and the Southern Slavs, what became the new state of ‘Yugoslavia’, were finalised under the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary in June 1920, but before that, Wilson supported the claims of the Southern Slavs against Italy, to whom the Allies had promised the lands along the Dalmatian coast, which was peopled by Slavs. Clemenceau agreed with Wilson, not because he was interested in the idea of satisfying the national aspirations of the Slavs, but because it afforded a practical method of detaching the provinces from Austria without the dangerous necessity of transferring them to Italy.

For the first time in modern history, Europe was divided along national lines, yet there were many injuries and injustices to minorities, especially to those who lived in the defeated countries. People of different nationalities, especially in the south-east of Europe, were inextricably intermingled; a great number of different solutions to the problems, apparently equally just, was possible. Frontiers which would enable nations to have a chance of economic existence had to be devised. To ensure this alongside satisfying national demands, the Allied statesmen were faced by an almost impossible task. Harold Nicholson’s views on the ‘mistakes’ and ‘misfortunes’ of the treaties scarcely changed over the years. He would argue that Britain’s freedom of action had been severely limited by its war-time treaties with Italy, France and Romania, and with the Arabs, in the short run beneficial but in the long run positively harmful. He would further argue that democratic diplomacy, being captive to narrow, partisan, democratic pressures, was ‘irresponsible’, and that the fundamental error of Versailles was the ‘spirit not the letter’ of the treaty. He blamed the peacemakers. They had not combined to elaborate a ‘formal procedure’, nor had they settled upon an ‘established programme’, the upshot being that their deliberations were ‘uncertain, intermittent and confused’.

The Allied Powers were in every case deliberately antagonistic to the claims of the defeated and it became obvious that decisions reached were frequently the result of other considerations than that of satisfying nationalities. Lands were transferred on the grounds that they were strategically important for the security of the new states, e.g. the Southern Tyrol, peopled by Austrians, was handed to Italy, while the German minorities of Bohemia, once in the Austrian Empire, were still included in the new northern Slav state of Czechoslovakia. Attempts were made to solve some of these difficult problems of satisfying nationalities by the use of ‘plebiscites’ where there was a doubt about to which state territory should be transferred. With the creation of the League of Nations, some states pledged to treat alien populations fairly and to respect their rights. The League undertook the responsibility of supervising the care of such governments towards their minority subjects. The map below illustrates the boundaries which were adjusted on the decision of the Allied statesmen as well as the principal areas where plebiscites were arranged:

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The new Austria comprised a large area of the Eastern Alps, of little economic importance except for its forests, alpine pastures and scenic attractions, and a small plain along the Danube surrounding Vienna and along the Hungarian border (Burgenland). A third of the country’s population lived in the old capital, previously one of the most important cities in Europe. It had thus attracted in pre-war days large numbers of officials engaged in government, banking, insurance, transport and administration. These professionals were no longer required in such large numbers by 1919, as Vienna no longer supplied the needs of so large an empire; neither were its newspapers, clothes and furniture required in great quantities any more. The luxury-manufacturers of the city were excluded from the new countries which surrounded it by their imposition of high tariffs, and Austria could not easily export goods to buy the food that its people could not grow for themselves. The satisfaction of the national aspirations of the various peoples included in the old Austrian Empire created economic problems which affected the prosperity of all the states. Each tried to be self-supporting and erected tariff barriers against the others. Though they came to realize the folly of these restrictions on trade, attempts to form a Danubian Trade Federation proved unsuccessful.

Germans in Austria were forbidden to unite with Germany under article eighty of the Treaty, despite being entirely German in language and culture. This was confirmed in the Treaty of St. Germain, by which Austrians in the Tyrol, Galicia and Bohemia were also left under alien rule. Control of Galicia, a wealthy area across the Carpathians, passed to Poland. Its soil was fertile and productive, with coal, iron, zinc, salt and petroleum resources also contained beneath its earth. The western part of the region was inhabited by Poles, but in the eastern part, the people were Ruthenians, creating a difficult minorities problem. Attempts made by these people to unite with their fellows in sub-Carpathian Ukraine (then part of the USSR) were frustrated by the Polish Government, and an insurrection was ruthlessly crushed by Pilsudski (see below) in 1919. South Tyrol and Trentino were both Alpine territories. In the latter the majority of the population was Italian, but in South Tyrol, the Germans were in the majority, and the union of both provinces to Italy created grave dissatisfaction.

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The Peace Settlement also disappointed Italy, however. The Allied offers made in the Secret Treaty of London by which Italy entered the war in 1915 were not fulfilled. Having acquired Trieste under this treaty, Italy now wished to consolidate its control over the northern Adriatic, including the entire Dalmatian coast down to, and including Albania. Meanwhile, the break-up of the Austrian empire had left the lands to be claimed by the Italians in the hands of the Serbians with the creation of Yugoslavia out of the south-western provinces of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia. They were largely mountainous areas of little economic importance. Their people were largely Slav in identity and so united with the Serbs to form the new Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which soon became known as Yugoslavia. Although a large country, its economic resources were limited and undeveloped. Its population also included large Magyar, German and Albanian Muslim minorities, within a country already combining Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. From the beginning, the Croats resented the greater influence of the Serbs and therefore grew closer to their coreligionist Germans.

Italy failed to secure what it had been promised in 1915, the Dalmatian Coast, including Istria, and a Protectorate over Albania (see the map above). It did not even secure the port of Fiume, ‘the jewel of the Adriatic’, which had a large Italian population and had become a symbol of Italian nationalism and at the centre of Italy’s demands. In August 1919, Harold Nicolson attended an Allied meeting in Paris convened to sort out these problems. Italy put forward a series of transparent formulas designed to mask its true aims. The Italian delegate, M. Scialoga, suggested that Fiume and its hinterland should be recognised as a ‘free state’, but the island of Cherso, which dominated and effectively blocked the Gulf of Fiume, should be annexed to Italy, as should the high ground surrounding the port. The railway system, extending from Fiume island, should also be under Italian control. Abandoning all claims to Dalmatia, Scialoga nevertheless insisted that the Dalmatian coast must be neutralised, and called for Italian sovereignty over certain key areas; the zone of Zara, for example. Lastly, he put in a claim for a mandate over Albania.

By these means, Italy hoped to achieve mastery of the Adriatic, but their strategies failed to gain support from the British and the Americans, though the French were prepared for a deal ‘on any terms’. Nicholson backed the American delegate, Major Johnson, in repudiating Italian claims to Fiume and Istria. Eventually, it was agreed to set up Fiume as ‘a free city’, an arrangement ultimately accepted by both Italy and Yugoslavia. Bitterly disappointed, however, the Italians turned on their government, and there was great discontent throughout the country. This manifested itself in September 1919, a month after the Paris talks, when a group of soldiers, led by D’Annunzio, an admired national poet, attacked and seized Fiume. Nicholson considered him a fine poet, but a political dimwit, barnstorming out of ‘sheer swank’. D’Annunzio’s posturing proved him right. The Allies forced the Italian Government to expel them, and they returned to Italy indignant and disgusted at the weakness of their government.

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Polish leaders realised that the War provided them with an opportunity to gain their freedom, though at first they did not anticipate complete independence and struggled only for self-government. Though the mass of the Poles fought in the Russian armies, an influential group, led by Pilsudski, supported Austria. In 1918 a group of Poles organised a National Committee in Paris and raised an army which fought on the Western Front. The Allies in return promised the Poles to complete independence. The independent Polish state was proclaimed at Warsaw and in Galicia immediately after the collapse of the Central Powers. The new state was represented at the Peace Conference, and its independence was recognised. The western frontier was agreed upon, with the provinces of Posen, West Prussia and Galicia to be included in the new Poland. The eastern frontier was settled provisionally, with the disturbed state of the Soviet state giving the Poles an opportunity to secure a more favourable frontier than they had had to begin with.

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President Wilson had promised that Poland should have access to the sea. This involved adding to the indisputably Polish territory an area along the coast west of the Vistula delta in which there was a mixed population of Germans and Slavs. Germany strongly objected because East Prussia would be cut off from the rest of Germany; when the German President wished to visit his family estates in East Prussia he would have to cross a foreign state. In spite of the fact that its population was overwhelmingly German, the Poles claimed that the city of Danzig was the ‘natural outlet’ of the Vistula basin (see map above left). A compromise resulted in the creation of the tiny independent state of the ‘Free City of Danzig’, under the supervision of the League of Nations. Neither Germany nor Poland was satisfied with this arrangement, however. The fate of Upper Silesia was eventually settled by plebiscite (see map above right).

The division of the former Austrian territory of Teschen, an area with valuable coal-mines and the centre of a major railway network, on the Polish-Czechoslovak border, was arranged by the Allied Statesmen. How many members ever heard of Teschen? Lloyd George asked the House of Commons, disarmingly admitting that until recently he had not. Teschen presented the peacemakers with an intriguing problem: whether to honour the sacrosanct principle of national self-determination; or whether to secure the prosperity of a model, democratic state emerging in central Europe. Edvard Benes, then Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, told Nicolson, who had been charged with producing a report, that the fate of Teschen depended on the attitude adopted by the British Delegation. The territory was ethnically Polish by a ratio of two to one, but it was considered essential to Czechoslovakia’s economic well-being. In early 1919 fighting had broken out between the rival parties, a ceasefire being imposed by the Allies with some difficulty. Nicolson set out the options for the delegation: either appeasing Polish nationalism or, more precisely chauvinism, as he saw it, or allowing Czechoslovakia some economic breathing space. There was considerable friction between Poland and Czechoslovakia over this; the final settlement, reached after strong French pressure, effectively partitioned the region: the Czechs acquired the coal mines and most of the industrial basin of approximately 1,300 square kilometres; the City of Teschen was divided into Polish and Czechoslovak quarters, with the latter containing the invaluable railway station.

Policies of Punishment & Appeasement – Britain & France:

For the following ten years, Gilbert claimed, appeasement was the guiding philosophy of British foreign policy. British official opinion doubted whether a secure Europe could be based upon the treaties of 1919, and had strong hopes of obtaining serious revisions to those aspects of the treaties that seemed to contain the seeds of future conflict. With the disintegration in 1918 of the Russian, Turkish, German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the final stage had been reached in a process that had begun in Europe during the Napoleonic wars – the evolution of strictly national as opposed to dynastic or strategic frontiers. Post-1918 diplomacy was geared towards securing the final rectifications of frontiers still not conforming to this principle. Most of these frontiers were the result of the Versailles boundaries which had been drawn to the disadvantage of Germany. Thus there were German-speaking people outside, but contiguous to the German frontier with Poland and Czechoslovakia. Many Germans lived in the frontier provinces of Alsace-Lorraine and Holstein, which were also lost to Germany. Germans in Danzig and Memel were detached from their mother country. The claims of Poland were preferred to those of Germany in the creation of the Polish Corridor to the sea and the in the division of the Silesian industrial area.

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There were other national ‘inequalities’ which were also part of the Versailles Treaty, and which were equally prone to the ‘egalitarian touch of appeasement’. The German Government could only maintain itself against communist and nationalist opponents by a continuing protest against the impossible severity of the reparations clauses of the Treaty. They docilely submitted to the disarmament provisions at first. The problem of the next few years was how to square what France regarded as her rights and necessities with the hard facts of the difficult and dangerous situation Europe was in. For France, the War had ended in anxiety and disappointment. Germany had been defeated, but that defeat had not been the victory of France alone; without the help of Britain and America, the French leaders knew that they would have been beaten to the ground. The glory which was due of their soldiers’ heroism was revealed as tarnished and insubstantial. With a population of forty million, France had to live side-by-side with a population of sixty or seventy million who were not likely to forget Versailles. As John Buchan put it, …

She was in the position of a householder who has surprisingly knocked out a far more powerful burglar, and it was her aim to see that her assailant was not allowed to recover freedom of action. Therefore her policy … must be to keep Germany crippled and weak, and to surround her with hostile alliances. The terms of the Treaty, both as to reparations and disarmament, must be interpreted according to the strict letter. No one can deny that her fears were natural. It is easy for those who live high above a river to deprecate the nervousness of one whose house is on the flood level.

To Britain, it seemed that, with every sympathy for French anxiety, it was impossible to keep a great Power in perpetual tutelage, and that the only hope for France, as for the world, lay in establishing a new international system which would give political security to all its parts. Lloyd George, while he remained in power, strove honourably for this end. The disarmament of Germany, while France rearmed, was a German grievance which could either be met by disarming France or allowing Germany to rearm. Both alternatives were considered by British policy-makers, and when the first proved impossible to secure, the second became logically difficult to resist. A further ‘inequality’ was the exclusion of Germany from the League of Nations. British policy worked for German inclusion and looked forward to a time when the differences between the ‘Allied’ and ‘Enemy’ Powers, as embodied in the Treaty would disappear. The policy of appeasement, as practised from 1919, was wholly in Britain’s interest, of course. Britain’s policy-makers reasoned that the basis of European peace was a flourishing economic situation. Only by success in this policy could Britain avoid becoming involved, once again, in a war arising out of European national rivalries and ambitions.

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At Paris, the British diplomats had vacillated between the Americans, who contended that under the League of Nations all international disputes would be settled by ‘sweet reasonableness’ and the French, who, obsessed with their own security, suffered from no such illusion. Harold Nicholson took his reasoning a step further by suggesting that if only the British had wholeheartedly supported either the American or the French perception of peace, a golden age of worldwide tranquillity and harmony might have been inaugurated for a century. Nicholson also remained consistent in his view that war-torn Paris was clearly the wrong venue for a peace conference. Geneva, he wrote, would have been a more judicious choice. In addition, given the circumstances, with passions running high among both public and politicians, he would have preferred to see an initial treaty followed by a final one, after a suitable cooling-off period. With the Congress of Vienna still in mind, he argued that it was a grave mistake to have treated Germany as a ‘pariah state’: the stability of Europe would have been better served by inviting it to participate in the conference, particularly as Bolshevism threatened to despoil the defeated country further. He damned the reparations clauses as patently absurd. As a result of the infamous ‘war guilt’ clause, the peace which emerged was unjust enough to cause resentment, but not forcible enough to render such resentment impotent. Summarising his overall disillusionment, Nicholson wrote (in 1933):

We came to Paris confident that the new order was about to be established; we left it convinced that the new order had merely fouled the old. We arrived as fervent apprentices in the school of Woodrow Wilson; we left as renegades.

If he had had to choose a hero at Paris, he would surely have chosen Lloyd George, fighting valiantly for a moderate peace, with Venizelos, the Greek Prime Minister, and Smuts running a close second and third. Until the end of 1919, Nicolson was based mainly in Paris, working for Sir Eric Drummond, a senior Foreign Office mandarin and designate Secretary-General of the League of Nations. He was supremely confident that the League was a body which was certain to become of vital importance. … a great experiment. He was also putting the finishing touches to the treaties with Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey. Lloyd George and Balfour had left Paris to immerse themselves in Westminster politics. Much committee work was delegated to him, particularly on those bodies dealing with the Czechoslovak and Greek questions. He scored a minor success regarding the vexed question of Teschen, and continued his involvement with the Austrian and Bulgarian treaties and delineating Albania’s frontiers in the face of Yugoslavia’s demands. He clashed with Lloyd George over the Italian policy, arguing for a tougher line in view of Italy’s recent mischievous behaviour. Lloyd George responded angrily: The Foreign Office always blocks me in whatever I wish to do. But as the year drew to a close, the most pressing issue was how to meet British commitments to Greece, an undertaking that was slowly but relentlessly unravelling.

Independence Struggles & Imperial Designs:

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Above: (Unofficial) President Eamon de Valera inspects an IRA unit of ‘levies’

Refusing to sit in the British Parliament, the Sinn Féiners continued to meet in the Dublin Dáil (parliament), where they had declared the Republic of Ireland earlier in the year (see part one of this article). Eamon de Valera was elected President of the Republic and the MPs also elected their own ministers, set up their own law-courts and disregarded the authority of the Crown and the British Parliament altogether. Although severe measures were taken against them and the Dáil was suppressed, British law and order could not be restored. After the failure of the appeal to the Peace Conference in Paris, and amid the growing repression of Republicans, a more coherent campaign began for independence began, leading to the outbreak of a brutal war between the levies of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on the one side and the police on the other, enlarged by the “Black and Tan” auxiliaries, a part of the British army. James Craig, the Ulster Unionist MP and founder of the protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, who became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in 1921, was already preparing for ‘partition’ in 1919:

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From 1919 to 1921 the IRA killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers, and the police and ‘black and tans’ killed hundreds of IRA men in retaliation. In Dublin, there were IRA men and women everywhere, but it was hard for the British to find them. Michael Collins, the IRA leader, was known to the British authorities as a prisoner after the 1916 Uprising, but they didn’t even have a photo of him.

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Meanwhile, another imperial dream came true in 1919 when Cecil Rhodes’ ‘Cape to Cairo’ scheme came into fruition when Britain took Tanganyika (now Tanzania) from Germany, completing that chain too. The Union of South Africa took over the administration of South-West Africa from Germany, and the spoils in the south Pacific were divided between Australia and New Zealand. With Britain’s existing Dominions and colonies, this all meant that the British Empire in 1919 was more extensive than it had ever been. But in fact, while the war had added new colonies to Britain’s ‘collection’, it had also weakened her grasp in her old ones. In the self-governing dominions, the co-operation with Britain which imperialists gloried in was misleading. That they had co-operated in wartime did not necessarily signify that they wished to be shackled in peace. The Great War was a European war which Britain only just won, with their support and at great cost in lives, especially for the ANZACs. Gallipoli had been just one of many defeats along the way; in itself, this had damaged the prestige and authority of the ‘mother country’. She had had to issue ‘promissory notes’ of ‘self-determination’ to the Egyptians, the Palestinian Arabs and the Indians, which they expected her to honour. The war had therefore provided an opportunity for a more vigorous assertion of nationalism with a harder edge than before.

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The overthrow of the Turkish armies in 1918 was complete; all the provinces from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf were overrun, and the great cities of Baghdad, Jerusalem, Damascus and Aleppo were captured. The Turks were forced to acknowledge defeat and signed an armistice at Mudros in October 1918. Allied troops occupied Constantinople. However, it soon became apparent that settling the conflicting claims of the victorious powers would prove very difficult. By secret treaties made during the war, promises of Turkish territories had been made to Russia, Italy, France, Greece and to the Arabs. The Allied statesmen postponed the settlement of the difficult issues until they had settled the more urgent needs of Europe. They permitted the Greeks, however, to occupy the port of Smyrna in 1919 and supported the occupation with an Allied fleet. This action aroused indignation among the Turks.

The ‘Greek question’ had begun on a high note, with a virtual agreement between the British and American delegations in meeting most of the Greek Prime Minister Venizelos’s territorial goals. These included Smyrna and its hinterland, roughly corresponding with the Ottoman vilayet of Aydin, some form of international régime over Constantinople, and the whole of western and eastern Thrace up to the vicinity of the Turkish capital, claims that, if realised, would have given the Greeks control over the Straits. Harold Nicolson was, initially, among the many who fell for Venizelos’s charm, but he soon recognised, as did the Americans, that the Greek PM’s extravagant empire-building heralded disaster. Harold was instructed to inform Venizelos that there would have to be a compromise regarding the future of Thrace. Then the Smyrna landings were besmirched by Greek atrocities against the local Turkish populace, which sparked off the Turkish national revival under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk).

Map of the Sykes–Picot agreement, which was signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot on May 8, 1916.

In the British Empire, the support and the opportunity for colonial aggrandisement were both there; consequently, the main result of the war for Britain was a considerable augmentation of its empire. The middle east was divided up in accordance with the secret war-time Sykes-Picot agreement (see map above, showing the division into ‘A’, for France, and ‘B’ for Britain). The Arabs were given the Arabian desert, Britain took for herself Palestine, Transjordan, the Persian Gulf states and Iraq: which together with its existing protectorates in Egypt, Cyprus and Aden made up a tidy little middle-eastern empire. Of course, Palestine and the other middle-eastern territories were not ‘annexations’ or even ‘colonies’. They were called ‘mandated’ territories (see the map below), which meant that they were entrusted to Britain and France by the League of Nations to administer in the interests of their inhabitants with a view to their eventual independence. Nevertheless, this award almost fulfilled Curzon’s old dream of a continuous belt of influence or control between the Mediterranean and India, which was completed in August 1919 when the final link in the chain, Persia, was secured by means of a one-sided, widely resented treaty.

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In India, General Dyer’s violent massacre of the crowds at Amritsar considerably increased the natives’ resentment and united Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs against the British ‘Raj’. ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi continued to mount his campaign of ‘passive resistance’, encouraging his mainly Hindu followers to refuse to co-operate with the British Government. Dyer’s unnecessary action was the child of the British mentality then dominating India. Jallianwalla Bagh quickened India’s political life and drew Gandhi into politics. In his evidence to the Hunter Committee Appointed by the Government of India to Investigate the Disturbances in the Punjab, given in November, he re-articulated his commitment to passive resistance and non-violence, Ahimsa, without which he said that there would be confusion and worse. He stated:

All terrorism is bad, whether put up in a good cause or bad. Every cause is good in the estimation of its champion. General Dyer (and he had thousands of Englishmen and women who honestly thought with him) enacted Jallianwalla Bagh for a cause which he undoubtedly believed to be good. He thought that by one act he had saved English lives and the Empire. That it was all a figment of his imagination cannot affect the valuation of the intensity of his conviction. … In other words, pure motives can never justify impure or violent action. …

Gandhi had always resisted political involvement. After his return to India, he had attended annual sessions of the Congress, but his public activity at these assemblies was usually limited to moving a resolution in support of the Indians in South Africa. But on the other hand, he was not simply interested in building a mass movement. In his November testimony, he commented:

I do not regard the force of numbers as necessary in a just cause, and in such a just cause every man, be he high or low, can have his remedy.

In Gandhi’s non-cooperation campaign, his followers boycotted British goods, refused to teach in British schools and ignored the British courts. They were imprisoned but offered no resistance. Gandhi’s programme included a number of ‘self-improvement’ elements:

  • the development of hand-weaving in the villages;

  • the prohibition of drugs and spirits;

  • the granting of increased freedom to Hindu women;

  • the co-operation of Hindus and Muslims;

  • the breaking down of the ‘caste system’ as it affected the ‘Untouchables’, the lowest class of Hindus, who had been debarred from the communal life of India (they were banned from the temples and were not allowed to use the drinking-wells in the villages.

These points were also the key elements in his Satyagraha, his struggles with truth or the ‘spiritual force’ of non-violent resistance to British rule which dominated the next the next three decades in the campaign for Swaraj, the ‘self-rule’ or Independence of India.

Race Riots and Reconstruction in Britain in 1919:

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As 1919 progressed, civil strife in Britain continued, principally among the miners, shipbuilders, railwaymen and farm workers, that is, in the declining sections of the economy. The standard of living had improved dramatically during the war, and the working-classes were determined to resist any diminution in their wages when it came to an end. There were also mutinies among those awaiting demobilization in the armed forces which reminded the upper classes uncomfortably of the Russian Revolution; they were followed by a series of strikes which led The Times to proclaim that this war, like the war with Germany, must be a fight to a finish (27 September 1919). The railwaymen, miners and transport-workers formed themselves into a ‘triple alliance’ in which they agreed to support each other in disputes.

The ‘showdown’ did not begin in earnest until 1921 and came to an end five years later, but in 1919 comparisons were drawn with the unforgiving bitterness of class war on the continent. The social divisions within Britain, however, were always mitigated by a number of factors: a common heritage of what it meant to be British; reverence for the monarchy; a residual common religion and national churches; the instinctive ‘communion’ of sport and a saving, self-deprecating humour.

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This popular myth of social integration in Britain was exposed as somewhat fraudulent when it came to matters of ‘race’, ‘colour’ and ethnicity, however. The Cardiff ‘Race Riots’ of 1919 were an attack on the black and coloured community of Cardiff living in districts adjoining ‘the Docks’ when certain boarding-houses occupied by them were attacked. At 10.15 p.m. on the night of Wednesday 11 June, disturbances broke out in Butetown, as a result of an earlier incident involving black men and their families returning from a picnic. Some white women accompanied by coloured men had been passing in carriages through one of the main streets of Cardiff (possibly St Mary’s Street, see map above). When uncomplimentary remarks were made by people in the street, the coloured men left the carriages and an affray took place in which a number of white men and Police were injured. Some five minutes later, a white man named Harold Smart was killed. This escalated events as crowds were formed and began a more serious assault on Butetown, where the black population lived. The next day a prolonged storm restricted the disturbances until it cleared in the evening. About eighty soldiers were held in readiness, but the police and stipendiary magistrate deemed it unnecessary to use them. The Chief Constable’s report of the disturbances provides a clear statement of the distribution of ethnic settlements in 1919 and the effect of this on policing:

The coloured men comprised principally West Indians, West Africans, Somalis, Arabs and a few Indians. They live in boarding houses kept by coloured masters in an area bounded in the north by Bridge Street, the east by the Taff Vale Railway not very far distant, on the West by the Glamorganshire Canal, and on the South by Patrick Street. Some of the Arabs and Somalis live in the northernmost portion of this area but the majority, particularly the West Indian negroes, live in the southern portion. The area is divided by a junction of the Glamorganshire Canal which has two bridges, one in Bute Street and one at East Wharf.

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The riots ripped through Cardiff’s Docklands. Credit: British Pathe

At first, the violence centred on the multi-ethnic neighbourhood of Tiger Bay. But it quickly spilt over to other parts of Cardiff. The police concentrated their attention on the southern portion of the area and, having secured this, they proceeded to clear the northern area, although they failed to prevent damage being done there. That evening many of the attacks were concentrated in that zone, while the police continued to defend the southern area, which had long been seen as the proper place for black minorities, known as early as 1907 as ‘Nigger Town’. The police decision to defend that area may have owed something to their view of what the proper social geography of the city was. The Northern district became a ‘no go’ area for blacks during the riots, and some black families had to move out of their homes, though they returned afterwards. Physical boundaries between, for example, the blacks and the Irish, were very important, and the policing of 1919 played its part in strengthening them. The Police claimed that they had done their best to cope with the Riots. After the turbulence had subsided, the Chief Constable observed:

The coloured races, the majority of whom were practically segregated in their own quarter in Bute town, are showing a tendency to move more freely in that portion of the city where the disturbances took place. … The police made strenuous efforts and succeeded in keeping the white population from the Southern portion by guarding the bridges as otherwise if they had penetrated into that area the black population would have probably fought with great desperation and inflicted grave loss of life.

Below – A newspaper report from June 1919:

riots newspaper

Credit: ITV/Glamorgan Archives

What were the causes of the riots? They were sparked by racial tensions during a period of acute unemployment. In Cardiff’s docklands, servicemen who had returned from the war found themselves competing for jobs with a local workforce of largely black and Asian men, who were also desperate to make ends meet. The Chief Constable summarised the grievances of the black population as follows:

The coloured men resent their inability to secure employment on ships since the Armistice as they are being displaced by white crews; 

They are dissatisfied with the actions of the Government;

They regard themselves as British subjects;

They claim equal treatment with whites and contend that they fought for the British Empire during the war and manned their food ships during the submarine campaign.

newspaper 'negroland'

By June, unemployment was a serious problem among the black community. According to the Chief Constable, the number and ‘nativity’ of the coloured seamen who were unemployed and living in the port were as follows:

Arabs – who claim to belong to Aden:  400

Somalis:  200

Egyptians:  50

Portuguese; Indians, Cingalese and Malays:  60

West Africans – Sierra Leone: 100

West Indians:  400

Roughly a half of these were seamen of different grades and the other half consisted of different men who had no experience as seamen until the war made it necessary to recruit them to man British Merchant shipping. Four of the principal Arab and Somali boarding masters met the Chief Constable in the middle of June to ask him to make representations to the Government on their behalf, as they had a large number of men ‘on their hands’ who were in debt to them and wholly dependent on them for subsistence. Some of these men had been unable to get a place on a ship for the past six months. This was, in part, due to the imposition of a ‘colour line’ on the engagement of crews.

newspaper 'wild scenes at Cardiff'

The race riots of 1919 brought bloodshed to Cardiff. Three men died and hundreds more were injured. That same summer, the South Wales docklands of Newport and Barry also experienced brutal outbreaks of racial violence. The effects of the riots rippled throughout the Empire. From the start, the police felt that the answer lay in repatriation and this suggestion was made to the Home Office in a telephone conversation after the first two nights of the riots. However, the scheme which was introduced offering financial inducements failed to have an impact, unable to tempt people out of their established homes and relationships. Some were married to white women and so could not be repatriated; for other married men, the terms were simply impracticable. The funds available covered only a fraction of the costs involved and proved impossible to administer fairly. By August of 1919, some six hundred men had been repatriated. The voyages did not prove to be plain sailing either. The SS Orca which sailed from Cardiff on 31 August with 225 black mercantile ratings on board experienced what its owner described as a mutiny, exacerbated by the fact that the seamen went on board with arms, including revolvers, in their possession. The mutiny was instigated by a group of eighty prisoners who were boarded at Le Havre, but the mercantile ratings joined in what became a ‘general uprising’.

Nor did discontent end when they arrived in the West Indies. One group of repatriated men sent a complaint about their treatment to the Acting Governor of Jamaica. This took the form of a petition, dated 1 October 1919, in which they claimed that there had been an undercurrent of hostility towards blacks in Britain for some time before the riots began:

… there was a premeditation  on the part of the whites which savoured of criminality that before the mob started the race riot it was published in a newspaper in England that the Government must deport all the coloured people in England. … it was also further published that if the Government did not deport the coloured they the whites would take the law in their hands and see to it that they be got rid of;

… as we heard the cry of riot in the streets knowing that we were and are still loyal British subjects we kept in our houses but this did not deter the whites from their wanton and illegal attack for on the following day our houses were attacked… and we were compelled to hide ourselves in our houses as the rioters (whites) outnumbered us in the ratio of 100 to 1… and as we had no intention of rioting we had to lock ourselves in all the time and at one o’clock in the night we were taken out of our houses by the Government Black Maria and there locked up for days before we let out. … while the Government was taking out some of us the rioters… were setting fire to some of the coloured lodging houses; 

… on the following day a detective was detailed and sent round to all the houses taking statements of our entire debts and after receiving same he told us that the Government would give us the amount of money to pay same and when we arrived at our native home (British) we would receive ample compensation for our ill-treatment as we were bound to leave on the first ship; if we didn’t worst trouble would come on us.

… the riot by the whites on us was going on for fully eight days before the Authorities there could cope with it and attempted to take any proceedings to stop it.

… we have no monies; we are in a state of almost want and destitution having to move away so quickly all our belongings goods and chattels were left behind all we have to subsist on is the 25/- which was given to us by this Jamaica Government and this is a mere trifle as the high prices of food stuffs and the high cost of living, food, clothing etc. make it hard to live on.

In response to the allegations made in the petition, the police claimed that they were not aware that racial feeling was incited by the publication of articles in the press. Welsh Labour historian Neil Evans has suggested that this more general atmosphere of hostility was partly in response to racial clashes elsewhere in Britain and stemmed from the general mood of chauvinism engendered by the war. The authorities in Cardiff denied that any houses were fired during the riots, but reported that some furniture had been burned. They also denied the claim that ‘refugees’ were taken from their houses by night and conveyed in a “Black Maria”. The repatriation scheme was in place before the riots under the administration of the Board of Trade. Apparently, the Treasury arranged for payment of a re-settlement gratuity of six pounds per man on his arrival in his colony of origin. The Town Clerk of Cardiff claimed that the Riots only lasted for two days and were intermittent rather than continuous.

The Corporation had agreed on compensation claims to two of the boarding-house keepers and twelve other claimants, who had left Cardiff without leaving a forwarding address. But when some of the repatriated men arrived in Trinidad, the stories of their mistreatment in Cardiff played a part in the upheavals on the island in December 1919. One particularly gruesome story circulated there that a crowd in Cardiff had stopped the funeral of a black man, decapitated him and played football with the head. There is no documentary evidence of this, but references exist, apparently, in Colonial Office Papers. Eye-witnesses asserted later that the press had not told the full story of the riots, and that many violent incidents associated with the outbreak had not been reported to the police. Some of this testimony has only recently come to light. Leslie Clarke’s family found themselves caught up in the conflict. Leslie’s mother and grandparents were living in a quiet terraced street in the Grangetown area of the city, near where this author used to live as a student in the early eighties.

somerset street
                           Above: Somerset Street in Grangetown. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Leslie’s grandmother was white; her grandfather was from Barbados: “A thousand people came rioting down the street looking for black people,” Leslie explained in a 2018 interview for HTV Wales.

Leslie's grandmother
                         Above: Leslie’s grandmother, Agnes Headley. Credit: Leslie Clarke 

“So my grandmother persuaded my grandfather to go out the back way and to climb over the wall and go and hide. She reckoned that nobody would hurt her.

“But they did. They beat her up. They beat her really badly.

“My mother was only nine at the time and she was terrified. She hid behind my grandmother’s skirts.”

Leslie's mother

Above: Leslie’s mother, Beatrice Headley. Credit: Leslie Clarke

 

The family home was looted. Rioters doused the downstairs rooms with paraffin, planning to set the building on fire. All that stopped them lighting the fuse was the discovery that the house was rented, owned by a white man. Leslie’s grandmother never recovered from the incident:

“She changed from then onwards. From being a bright, confident woman she became very withdrawn and quiet. She suffered a lot.”

Quite clearly, much of this oral testimony of the victims of the riots was not shared at the time because of fear of further reprisals. Even in recent years, white supremacists and extremists have continued to publish propagandised versions of the Riots. Despite the claims and counter-claims, the black ratings’ petition provides further evidence of such incidents and is a rare example of black victims’ viewpoint of racial violence, which would otherwise be hidden from history. In modern-day Cardiff, you won’t find any reminders of those riots. No memorial, no marker. They’ve become a forgotten chapter in the city’s history.

The promised post-war economic ‘Reconstruction’ of Britain was, however, not quite the ‘myth’ that some historians have made it out to be. In the economics of heavy industry, ‘war socialism’ disappeared as Lloyd George always meant it to, and with it went the sense, in the Labour movement at least, that an activist government would do something to moderate the inequities of the old industrial system. The coalition government, largely Conservative and Unionist in composition, was determined to dismantle as quickly as possible the state control of raw materials, manufacturing, communications, wages and rents. Demands by the trade unions for the nationalisation of the coal industry, the docks and the railways were swiftly swept aside. The termination of ‘war socialism’ and the restoration of monetary orthodoxy became synonymous with post-war ‘reconstruction’ in Britain. Tory traditionalism trumped any idea of the development of social democracy along continental lines. But there was still room for a continuation and perhaps completion of the ‘new Liberal’ reforms which had led to a nascent ‘welfare state’ before the crises of 1910-1914 and the impact of the World War.

The liberal historian and president of the Board of Education, H. A. L. Fisher raised the school-leaving age to fourteen, a small act, but one of immense significance, and wages and salaries were standardised throughout the country. Old-age pensions were doubled, and unemployment insurance extended to cover virtually the entire working population of Britain. Through the extended Unemployment Insurance scheme, which began to operate at the beginning of 1920, the state became involved in the ‘problem’ of unemployment in a way it had never been before the First World War. This was to lead, through all the stumblings of a stubborn mule, into unparalleled intervention in the social conditions of working-class communities throughout the nations and regions of Britain. Mass unemployment was to become a new phenomenon in the inter-war years, and one which had not been properly quantified before the War. The pre-war trade union figures had revealed an annual rate of under five per cent between 1883 and 1913, never getting above eight per cent. Between 1912 and 1914 London had the highest level of unemployment with an average of eight per cent, whereas south Wales had the lowest level at under three per cent. In the decade following the end of the war, these positions were entirely reversed, and average unemployment increased by as much as tenfold in certain regions and ‘black spots’.

Party Politics, ‘Pacifism’ & Foreign Policy:

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During the war, party politics had been discarded, and the Coalition Government was set to continue under Lloyd George. In 1918-19 the Liberal Party was in a grave condition due to its internal divisions and the Labour Party had taken its place as the main party of opposition. It appeared that the party structure might change profoundly. In one way or another, it can be argued that the ‘challenge of Labour’ after the war confronted all the politicians who had come to prominence before 1914. Their uncertainty moving forward was to be compounded by the major extension of the franchise, among all adult males and partially among females in 1918. Lloyd George was convinced that he could govern through a combination of sheer charisma and tough political muscle. The coalition faced little opposition in parliament, where there were only fifty-nine Labour MPs and a withered ‘rump’ of ‘pure’ Liberals led by Asquith, who had never got over Lloyd George’s ‘coup’ against him in 1916. The prime minister rarely put in an appearance, preferring to preside instead from Downing Street, which became headquarters for a circle of cronies. Honours were up for sale and insider commercial favours were expected in return. Under the leadership of J. Ramsay MacDonald (pictured below), the Labour Party had adopted a Socialist programme in 1918; so for the first time, the party system had to adapt to the two opposition parties, Labour and the Asquithian Liberals, holding fundamentally opposite views. It failed to do so.

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As early as 1919, it was evident that the relationship between the new democracy, based on universal suffrage, and foreign policy, might have to be worked out afresh in an international environment which was still far from stable. During the war, a group of intellectuals, publicists and politicians, both Liberal and Labour, had formed the Union of Democratic Control. In the view of this group, the outbreak of war had shown the futility and inappropriateness of existing diplomatic procedures and assumptions. Secret diplomacy belonged to a bygone era and it was time to involve ‘the people’ in policy-making, or at least to ensure that there was democratic control over decision-making. However, when it came to details, there was little unanimity about how either ‘democratic control’ or the League of Nations was to work. For some, the former concept went beyond parliamentary control and there was talk of plebiscites and referenda. Others concentrated on trying to devise mechanisms whereby the executive would be subject to scrutiny and restraint by various foreign policy committees of the House of Commons.

There was another popular post-war myth, that ‘the British people’ were inherently pacific and had only been involved in wars by the machinations of élites who initiated conflicts for their own ends. These views enjoyed some support and bore some influence on policy-makers. They blended with the contempt for secret treaties displayed both by Vladimir Lenin on the one hand and Woodrow Wilson on the other. They also related, albeit awkwardly, to the enthusiasm for the League of Nations on the centre-left of British politics. The more these matters were considered, however, the more difficult it became to locate both ‘foreign policy’ and ‘public opinion’. A similar range of views surrounded the League of Nations. Some supporters saw it as an embryonic world government, with ‘effective’ military sanctions at its disposal, whereas others believed that its essential purpose was to provide a forum for international debate and discussion. Enthusiasts supposed that its creation would render obsolete the notion of a specific British foreign policy. But, at the end of 1919, supporters of these new concepts and structures were still four years away from truly coming to power.

Sources:

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

Irene Richards, et. al. (1938), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After. London: Harrap.

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

J. M. Keynes (1919, 1924), The Economic Consequences of the Peace. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Neil Evans (1983), The South Wales Race Riots of 1919: a documentary postscript. Llafur (The Journal for the Study of Welsh Labour History), III. 4.

ITV REPORT, 3 November 2018 at 9:00am, https://www.itv.com/news/wales/2018-11-03/one-thousand-people-came-rioting-down-the-street-reliving-a-notorious-chapter-in-cardiffs-past/

A Pictorial Appendix – These Tremendous Years:

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Below: Piccadilly in 1919. Note that it is not a roundabout, and there was still room to move at walking pace across Piccadilly Circus. Note also: The “Old Bill” type bus, on what is now the wrong side of the street; as many men in uniform as not; “As You Were,” on at the London Pavilion; the ageless violet seller installed on the steps of Eros.

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Above: The Summer of 1919 was very hot. The grass was burnt yellow, and the cricket ball dropped like a cannonball on the cracked earth. Victory weather, just right for a summer of Peace parades and celebrations. And just right for those who had to sleep out: the returning warrior found London short of houses.

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Lady Astor, the first woman M.P., went to the House of Commons dressed as above. She was elected member for Plymouth in a by-election. Her speech after the declaration of the poll began: “Although I cannot say that the best man has won…” This first woman M.P. took the oath in the House sponsored by Lloyd George and Balfour. “I wish to be regarded as a regular working member,” she said, “not as a curiosity.”

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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).

Posted January 24, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Affluence, anti-Communist, Arabs, Armistice Day, Assimilation, Belfast, Berlin, Britain, British history, Britons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Churchill, Colonisation, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Communism, Compromise, Coventry, David Lloyd George, democracy, Demography, Education, Egalitarianism, Egypt, Elementary School, Empire, English Language, Europe, Factories, First World War, Flanders, France, George V, Great War, Gulf War, History, Home Counties, Humanism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Imperialism, India, Integration, Iraq, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Italy, Japan, Jerusalem, Labour Party, liberal democracy, liberalism, manufacturing, Marxism, Mediterranean, Middle East, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalisation, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Normalcy, Palestine, Paris, Population, privatization, Proletariat, Scotland, Security, Serbia, south Wales, Trade Unionism, Turkey, Unemployment, Unionists, United Kingdom, USA, Versailles, War Crimes, Warfare, World War One, Yugoslavia

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