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

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Britain was at War:

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

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

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

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

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

Appendices:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Documents:

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

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

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

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

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

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

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

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

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

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Winding Road to World Peace:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edvard Beneš.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Empire – Nationalists Strike Back:

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

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

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

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

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

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M. K. Gandhi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was not, Buchan suggested in 1935, …

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

The Final Week – Scuttling Ships & Salvaging the Settlement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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(to be continued).

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A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War in the winter of 1916-17.   Leave a comment

It is impossible for us to go on with the war if losses like this continue.

First Sea Lord John Jellicoe,  April 1917

Germany is finished.

German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, on the decision made by the Kaiser and the military chiefs allowing unrestricted U-boat warfare.

The U-boat Menace:

Although they had been used in warfare since the eighteenth century, it was during the First World War that the submarine, especially the German U-boat (Unterseeboot), came to play a crucial role. But this did not develop until 1916-17. In 1914 to 15 the number of Allied ships lost to U-boat raids increased from just three to almost four hundred, and this number had increased to 964 in 1916. Debate raged in Germany over whether their submarines should attack civilian ships without warning or conform to prize rules and warn the ship’s crew first. Some amongst the German high command thought that unrestricted submarine war could antagonise America to enter the war; others reasoned it would finish the war early. Those who reasoned the latter were justified by the increase of allied ships lost to 2,439 in 1917, and even in 1918 over a thousand were lost. Even more costly was the loss of British merchant ship tonnage, which reached its peak of 545,282 in April 1917. Before the introduction of the convoy system, the rate of British shipping loss was at a rate of twenty-five per cent, dropping to just one per cent afterwards.

In February 1917 Germany opted to allow unrestricted U-boat warfare. In the next three months they sank over five hundred ships. This action had a major effect on the transportation to Britain of supplies, leading even to the banning of rice being thrown at weddings. New tactical and technical methods were brought in, such as the use of convoys, Q-ships (disguised armed merchant ships) and depth charges, which could sink  U-boats while still submerged, or force it to the surface where it could be fired upon, so that by the end of 1917 the Atlantic was safe enough to allow huge numbers of American troops to be transported to Europe. One of the Austro-Hungarian submarine commanders, Georg Ludwig von Trapp, became an Austrian national hero for sinking thirteen ships. His later marriage to his children’s tutor and their escape from the Nazis after the Anschluss of 1938 provided the inspiration for the 1960s musical, The Sound of Music.

Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!

In Germany itself, the Royal Navy’s blockade of its ports was starting to ‘bite’ by the winter of 1916-17, with a scarcity of home-grown potatoes leading to turnips and other foods being turned into sustenance. Up to this point the War had been fought by traditional methods, by combatants whose national integration was still intact. But with the coming of the New Year of 1917 a change came over the scene. Ancient constitutions began to crack, old faiths were questioned, and potent, undreamed of historical forces began to be released. Everywhere in the world the sound of the old order beginning to crack was heard but, as yet, it was drowned out by the noise of war.

Nevertheless, in half-conscious anticipation of these permanent fractures, a fumbling movement towards peace began across the continent. The wiser heads in every country were coming to fear that their nations might crumble through sheer weariness, and that absolute victory, even if it were won, might only mean chaos. The first sign of movement came from Germany, but its peace offer of December 1916 was framed in the arrogant terms of one who felt that they had the winning cards. The main German motive was prudential. The Somme had shown them that their military machine was being strained to breaking-point; if it broke all would be over, and at any cost that catastrophe must be averted. If the belligerents consented to come to terms, however, the Germans believed that they would have certain advantages at any peace conference. They had much to lose which they might have difficulty holding on to by fighting on, whereas their renunciation of the war might help them win things considered by them, at least, to be vital to Germany’s future.

Moreover, once Germany’s opponents were entangled in discussion, there was a chance of breaking up their unity and shifting the argument to minor issues. For the German government, it was a matter of life and death that a rift should appear among the Entente powers before they suffered any irremediable disaster. They also had an eye on neutral states, especially the USA, which was interested in promoting negotiations. Finally, there was a tactical motive, since the Kaiser and the high command were contemplating their new and anarchic methods of naval warfare. To justify an all-out war at sea, Germany had to appear as an angel of peace, rudely repulsed in its efforts to secure a truce. Action proceeding from so many mixed motives was likely to result in blunders, and the Allies saw through this strategy. On 30 December, they rejected the German overtures, and the German Chancellor agreed to the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which very nearly led to Britain’s defeat in the short-term, but ultimately helped to secure its victory. Writing in April 1935, John Buchan put the German strategy of the winter of 1916-17 into a broader contemporary context:

The effects of the War were so catastrophic and terrible that the historian, looking back, is not inclined to be contemptuous of any effort to end it. But it is clear that the German offer was impossible. There was more hope in the overtures of Austria, whose new Emperor Charles , through the medium of his brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon, made secret proposals for a separate peace. They shipwrecked principally upon the opposition of Italy and France, whose reply was that of Lucio’s comrade in ‘Measure for Measure’ – “Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!”

President Wilson’s re-election as a peace President also strengthened the case for an agreement to end the war and led to his offer of mediation at the end of 1916. He saw the clouds thickening ahead, and knew he would have to justify himself to the American people were he to be forced into a less pacific, more pragmatic, reality. He asked for a definition of war aims,

… that soundings be taken in order that we may learn, the neutral nations with the belligerents, how near the haven of peace may be for which all mankind longs.

The Allied governments, in spite of certain of a certain irritation among their peoples, had the wit to see Mr Wilson’s purpose. In a remarkable document the American diplomats set out, calmly and clearly, not a set of war aims as such, but a general purpose, which was wholly consistent with the ideals of the USA. More than two years before the Treaty of Versailles, what came to be known as Wilson’s Fourteen Points stated almost all the principles on which the Paris peace settlement was founded.

Lloyd George’s rarer gift: A sense of political atmosphere…

Alone among the Allies, Britain had now attained a certain unity in the political direction of the war, with a Prime Minister who could draw together and maximise all the powers of the nation as a whole. His pre-War record had revealed his unsurpassed talents as a demagogue, but his Premiership was also beginning to demonstrate his sense of political atmosphere. He might make mistakes in his ultimate judgments, but rarely did so in his initial intuitions; his quick sense of reality made him at heart an opportunist, so that, as Buchan found of him…

This elasticity, combined with his high political courage, had made him even in his bitterest campaigns not wholly repugnant to his opponents, for he was always human and had none of the dogmatic rigidity, the lean spiritual pride of the elder Liberalism.

Lloyd George had now found his proper task, Buchan felt, and was emerging as one of the most formidable figures in the world. Lord Milner, with a strong sense of historical perspective, considered him the greatest War Minister since Chatham. His social, legal and then political campaigning had shown that he was ‘in his element’ when leading in times of strife, including war. He was more than a democrat, a representative of democracy, he was a personification of it, both in its strengths and weaknesses. For his critics who often accused him of inconsistency, Buchan cautioned…

… for a tyrant or an oligarchy may be consistent, but not a free people. He had a democracy’s short memory, and its brittle personal loyalties. Perhaps his supreme merit as a popular leader was his comprehensibility. No mystery surrounded his character or his talents. The qualities and the defects were evident to all, and the plain man found in them something which he could not himself assess – positive merits, positive weaknesses, so that he could give or withhold his confidence as if he were dealing with a familiar. This power of diffusing a personality, of producing a sense of intimacy among millions who have never seen his face or heard his voice, is the greatest of assets for a democratic statesman, and Mr Lloyd George had it not only for Britain but for all the world…

Lacking the normal education of British public servants, he had large gaps in his mental furniture, and consequently was without that traditional sense of proportion which often gives an air of wisdom to mediocrities. He had a unique power of assimilating knowledge, but not an equal power of retaining it. Hence his mental processes were somewhat lacking in continuity; all was atomic and episodic, rather than a steady light. His mind had in it little of the scientific, it was insensitive to guiding principles, and there was no even diffusion of its power through many channels…

The fact that his mind was not a ‘continuum’,… but a thing discrete and perpetually re-made, kept him from lassitude and staleness… His loose hold on principles kept him from formalism, and opportunism is often the right attitude in a crisis… Many of his endowments, such as his parliamentary  tact, his subtlety in the management of colleagues, his debating skill, … however invaluable to a statesman in in normal times, were of less account in war. But that one gift he had which is so rare and inexplicable that it may rightly be called genius… He could not be defeated, because his spirit and buoyancy and zeal was insatiable… and that spirit he communicated to the nation.

The machine which he fashioned, the War Cabinet, worked with a synchronised vigour, on the whole, though not always with great precision. Its secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, showed an uncanny foresight and a supreme competence. The special executive duties fell to General Smuts, who was often charged with almost impossible diplomatic missions, and to Lord Milner, who was the ablest living British administrator, with a powerful intellect and devoted to public service. Milner cared little for personal popularity, and possessed none of Lloyd George’s oratorical gifts, which made him a natural ‘foil’ for his Prime Minister. The presence of these two men underlined that the War Cabinet was actually an Imperial Council, especially as it also contained representatives from India and the Dominions. The Prime Minister of Canada pointed out at the time that the establishment of the cabinet turned a new page in the history of the Empire. There was a war purpose in this step, since the whole Empire was in arms. Under the pressure of war, the old individualism of industry was breaking down as the state enlarged its sphere of interest and duty, and on some there broke the vision of a new and wiser world coming to birth while the old world was dying.

Women at War: The Rise of the ‘Business Girl’.

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Woman working on a cartridge machine during the First World War

One of the signs of an old world dying and a new one dawning was the impact of the imposition of universal conscription in the previous year on the growth of women’s employment. It determined that the changes involved would go far beyond a limited expansion and upgrading of industrial labour. In July 1914 there had been 212,000 women employed in the various metal and engineering industries that were to become the ones most directly connected with war production. The figure for July 1915 was 256,000, a relatively small increase; but by July 1916 this had more than doubled 520,000 and by July 1917 the figure had reached 819,000. In industry as a whole 800,000 more women were in employment in 1918 than in 1914.

By February 1917 the total number of bus conductresses had jumped to around 2,500, and transport in general showed the biggest proportionate increase in women’s employment – from 18,000 in 1914 to 117,000 in 1918. There were also big proportionate increases in clerical, commercial, administrative and educational activities. In banking and finances there was a fantastic rate of growth, from a mere 9,500 in 1914 to 63,700 in 1917. In these statistics we can discern what Arthur Marwick referred to as a central phenomenon in the sociology of women’s employment in the twentieth century, the rise of the business girl. By creating simultaneously a proliferation of Government Committees and departments and a shortage of male labour (all men aged 18 to 41 were eligible for call-up from May 1916, except ministers of religion those engaged in the ‘reserved occupations’ of munitions, mining and farming), the war had brought a sudden and irreversible advance in the economic and social power of a category of women employees. They worked as lamplighters and window cleaners as well as doing heavy work in gasworks and foundries, carrying bags of coke and working among the furnaces. A simple remedy for when women succumbed to these arduous conditions was, afterwards, well-remembered:

Many is the time the girls would be affected by the gas, the remedy being to walk them up and down in the fresh air, and then (get them to) drink a bottle of Guinness.

Despite repeated government-initiated attempts to recruit women workers for the land, these had not been conspicuously successful. In fact, in July 1915 there were actually 20,000 fewer permanent female workers on the land than there had been twelve months earlier. As was the case with domestic service, the war provided a blessed release for women who had had very little alternative employment, if any, available to them beforehand. However, as Marwick has pointed out, we must be careful to see the question of changes in women’s roles and rights in the broader context of social relationships and political change. Many men also preferred a move into the army or reserved occupations to poorly-paid work on the land or in service, and many women found it impossible to hold on to factory jobs once the able-bodied men returned. Nevertheless, the war did bring a new self-confidence to many women, dissipating apathy and silencing the female anti-suffragists. Undoubtedly, the replacement of militant suffragette activity by determined patriotic endeavour also played its part.

More than this, by 1917 the all-out, total war was generating a tremendous mood favourable to change and democratic innovation. Whatever might or might not have happened to the roles of women in British society had there been no war, and therefore no ‘home front’, only that concentrated experience, as Marwick put it, showed up the absurdities of the many preconceptions about what they were capable of. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, speaking in January 1918, was already claiming victory in the long campaign for women’s rights:

The great searchlight of war showed things in their true light, and they gave us enfranchisement with open hands. 

Sources:

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

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

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

Arthur Marwick (1977), Women at War, 1914-18. London: Croom Helm.

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