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A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War – The Final Hundred Days, 1918, from Amiens to the Armistice.   1 comment

The Battle of Amiens, 8-12 August:

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British troops watch as German prisoners are escorted away.

The Allied attacks of July 1918 had shown the effectiveness of ‘all arms’ battle tactics: troops and tanks advancing behind a ‘creeping barrage’ of artillery fire as ground-attack aircraft swept overhead. Local counter-attacks were so successful that they quickly developed into a general offensive. Every day the Germans had to withdraw somewhere along the line; every day the Allies completed the preparations for another local push. The tactical situation seems to have loosened up slightly; the attacks were expensive but not prohibitively so and, as the Allies ground steadily forward, week in, week out, the morale of the German army finally began to fray.

At Amiens in August, these new tactics were put into operation to even greater effect. It was the most brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed of any British-led action on the Western Front. If this never quite matched the pace Ludendorff had set in March, it was better sustained and so, in the long run, more effective. The success of the advance was due to the profound secrecy in which the forces of the attack had been assembled. The offensive began with British, Australian, Canadian and French troops attacking to the east of the city. On the first day, the Australians met their objectives by early afternoon, taking eight thousand prisoners. But it was the Canadian troops who advanced the furthest, eight miles, taking five thousand prisoners. The Canadian Corps, supplied with ten million rounds of small-arms ammunition, were regarded by the Germans as ‘storm-troops’ and their attack from the north was cunningly concealed by the absence of a preliminary artillery bombardment. Instead, a swarm of 456 tanks were deployed alongside the troops, under the cover of the early morning ground mist. Haig himself attacked in the Somme area. As the troops left their trenches to advance, the artillery barrage began firing two hundred yards in front of their starting line. The guns then began to ‘lift’, increasing in range at timed intervals in their ‘creeping barrage’. The barrage included forty adjustments of a hundred yards every three minutes in this phase of the attack.

The advance slowed by the 12th, as the Allies over-reached their heavy artillery support and ran up against German troops determined to defend their 1917 trench positions, aided by the tangled wastes of the old Somme battlefield. On paper, the material gains by Allies did not appear extensive, for both in ground won and prisoners taken, Germany had frequently exceeded such gains, though it had failed to consolidate its offensives. By contrast, the Allied advance had not only given an indication of how the war could be won, but it had also achieved its essential purpose of striking a deadly blow at the spirit of an already weakening enemy. Ludendorff later confessed that…

August 8th was the black day of the German army in the history of the war. … It put the decline of our fighting force beyond all doubt.

After 8th August, the Kaiser concluded that…

We are at the end of our resources; the war must be ended.

At a conference held at Spa, the German generals informed him and the Imperial Chancellor that there was no chance of victory and that peace negotiations should be opened as soon as possible. The most that could be hoped for was an orderly retirement to the prepared defences of the Hindenburg Line, a strategic defensive action which would win reasonable terms from the Allies. Ludendorff himself offered his resignation, which was not accepted. He had lost hope of any gains, and his one remaining aim was to avoid an abject surrender. This was a far from the optimistic mood required to enter upon the most difficult operations which were still ahead.

The Hundred Days Offensive:

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When the initial momentum of the assault at Amiens died away, Haig was no longer willing to batter against stiffening opposition. Instead, he set the Third Army in motion farther north. This proved a more economical method of attack and from this point onwards a series of short, closely related offensives kept the Germans retiring until they reached the Hindenburg Line, from which they had started their offensive in the Spring. Foch was determined to hustle Ludendorff out of all his positions before he could entrench himself along the Hindenburg Line, driving the whole vast German army back to the narrow gut which led to Germany. But, at this time, he anticipated a gradual advance which would see the war continuing into 1919. As soon as serious resistance developed, Foch would, therefore, call a halt to the advance in that sector, only to renew it in another one. Tanks permitted him to mount a new offensive rapidly and frequently, so that his strategy became one of conducting a perpetual arpeggio along the whole of the Front, wearing down the enemy’s line and his reserves. Of this great plan,  to which Haig had undoubtedly contributed, the latter was also to be its chief executant. But, being closer to the field of battle, Haig was steadily coming to believe that, this year, it really would be all over before Christmas.

The ‘Hundred Days Offensive’ was a series of Allied engagements, that put continuous pressure on the retreating Germans. It began at Amiens and finished on 11th November. In all, there were a further twenty-two battles. Although the Germans realised they were to be denied victory they fought tenaciously, inflicting heavy casualties. The advance to victory, like the Somme retreat, cannot be painted in broad lines since it was composed of a multitude of interlinked actions. The first stage, completed by the first week in September, was the forcing of the enemy back to the Hindenburg Line, an achievement made certain by the breaking by the Canadians on 2nd September of the famous Drocourt-Quéant switch. Meanwhile, in the south, the Americans under Pershing had found immediate success at Saint-Mihiel on 12th August, flattening out the Saint-Mihiel salient, cutting it off, and advancing northwards towards Sedan. The next stage was the breaching of the Hindenburg defences, and while Pershing attacked towards Meziéres, the Belgians and the British attacked in the north towards Ghent, movements which took place towards the end of August. Between these movements, the Hindenburg Line was breached at many points, and the Germans were compelled to make extensive evacuations.

The Allied advance was slower than had been expected, however, and the German army was able to retain its cohesion. Nevertheless, it was sadly pressed, and its fighting spirit was broken. The German soldiers had been led to believe that the Allies were as exhausted and as short of supplies as they themselves were. During their spring offensives, however, they had captured stores of allied clothing, food and metals which had opened their eyes to the deception being practised on them. Their casualties had been enormous, and the Allied reserves seemed unlimited. Their letters from home told of their families’ distress, making further resistance seem both hopeless and pointless.

Yet the news of this turn of the tide at Amiens and in its aftermath did not immediately change the popular mood on the home front in Britain. Everybody was over-tired and underfed, and an influenza epidemic was claiming hundreds of victims each week. My grandfather’s battalion, training at Catterick barracks to go to France, was almost wiped out. He was one of few survivors since he was an underage recruit, his mother presenting his birth certificate at the camp gates.   All over the country, there were strikes among munition-workers, followed by trouble with transport services and in the coal mines. Even the London police joined in. These difficulties were overcome very simply by increasing wages. Those in authority, perhaps more aware than most that the last stage of the ghastly shooting-match was finally coming to an end, and knowing something of the state of the German people, were anxiously questioning themselves as to whether a rot might set in.

At this juncture, it was the turn of the British War Cabinet to have doubts, and, as it would have put the brake on Allenby in Palestine, so it would also have held back Haig. But, as John Buchan wrote in 1935, the British commander had reached the point which great soldiers come to sooner or later when he could trust his instinct. On 9th September he told Lord Milner that the war would not drag on till next July, as was the view at home, but was on the eve of a decision. Buchan continued:

He had the supreme moral courage to take upon himself the full responsibility for a step which, if it failed, would blast his repute and lead to dreadful losses, but which, if it succeeded, would in his belief mean the end of the War, and prevent civilisation from crumbling through sheer fatigue.

Haig was justified in his fortitude. With the order, “Tout le monde à la Bataille,” Foch began the final converging battles of the war. One of the most major battles was that of Meuse-Argonne, which began on 26th September and was the American Expeditionary Force’s largest offensive, featuring over one and a quarter million troops by the time it ended on 11th November. This attack proved to be more difficult than the one at Saint-Mihiel on 12th August, as they faced strong German defences in the dense Argonne forest. The weather did not help; it rained on forty of the battle’s forty-seven. On the 26th September, two British and two American divisions faced fifty-seven weak German divisions behind the strongest entrenchment in history. It took the British troops just one day to cross the battlefield at Passchendaele. Brigadier General J. Harington of the 46th (North Midland) Division commented on his troops’ breaching of the Hindenburg Line on 29th September by telling them, You boys have made history. They had been given the difficult task of crossing the heavily defended St Quentin Canal, a feat which they had accomplished using rafts and pulled lines, with troops wearing cork lifebelts taken from cross-Channel steamships. Prisoners were captured at the Bellenglise Tunnel, which had been dug under the canal by the Germans after Allied soldiers fired a German ‘howitzer’ into it.

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By the 29th, the combined British and American troops had crossed the Canal du Nord and the Scheldt Canal, and within a week they were through the whole defence system and in open country. Despite their adherence to outdated tactics that brought about heavy casualties, the Americans prevailed and continued their assault right up to the end of the war. By 8th October the last remnants of the Hindenburg zone had disappeared in a cataclysm. Foch’s conception had not been fully realised, however; Pershing had been set too hard a task and was not far enough forward when the Hindenburg system gave, pinning the enemy into the trap which had been set. Nevertheless, by 10th October Germany had been beaten by the US Army in a battle which Foch described as a classic example of the military art.

The Collapse of Germany’s Allies:

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The day of doom was only postponed, and Ludendorff no longer had any refuge from the storm. Long before his broken divisions could reach the Meuse Germany would be on its knees.  The signs of Germany’s military decline were quickly read by her partners. It was now losing all its allies. They had been the guardians of Germany’s flanks and rear, and if they fell the country would be defenceless. On 15th September, the much-ridiculed Allied armies comprising British, French, Greek, Italian and Serbian troops, attacked the German-led but mainly Bulgar forces in Macedonia, moving forward into Salonica, and within a fortnight Bulgaria’s front had collapsed and its government sought an armistice. This was concluded on 29th September at Thessalonica. British forces were moving across the country towards the Turkish frontier. French columns had reached the Danube and the Serbs had made a good start on the liberation of their homeland.

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The Turks held out for a further month, during which the British conquered Syria, then they too surrendered. On 19th September, General Allenby in Palestine had opened up an action which provided a perfect instance of how, by surprise and mobility, a decisive victory may be won almost without fighting. Algerians, Indian Muslims and Hindus, Arab tribesmen, Africans and Jewish battalions came together to liberate the Holy Land from Ottoman rule. Breaking the Turkish defence in the plain of Sharon, Allenby sent his fifteen thousand cavalry in a wide sweep to cut the enemy’s line of communications and block his retreat, while Prince Faisal and T. E. Lawrence (a young British officer who had attained an amazing ascendancy over the Arab tribes) created a diversion east of the Jordan. This played an important role in Allenby’s victory at Megiddo. In two days, the Turkish armies to the west of Jordan had been destroyed, its right-wing being shattered, while its army on the east bank was being shepherded north by the merciless Arabs to its destruction. By 1st October Damascus was in British hands, and Aleppo surrendered on 26th October. The elimination of Bulgaria exposed both the Danube and Constantinople to attack and the French and British forces diverged on these two objectives. A Franco-British force sailed in triumph past Gallipoli and took possession of Constantinople. With her armies in the east shattered, Turkey made peace on 30th September by the Armistice of Mudros.

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The Allied armies in the Balkans still had a fair way to travel before they could bring Austria-Hungary under attack, but it was a journey they never had to make.: the Habsburg Empire was falling to pieces of its own accord. October saw Czech nationalists take over in Prague and proclaim it the capital of an independent Czechoslovak state, while the Poles of Galicia announced their intention of taking the province into the new Polish state – a programme disputed by the Ruthenians of Eastern Galicia, who looked towards the Ukrainian Republic for support and integration. At the same time representatives of the various south-Slav peoples of the empire – Slovenes, Croats and Bosnians, repudiated Austro-Hungarian rule and expressed, with surprising unanimity, their desire to fuse with Serbia and Montenegro to form a single Yugoslav state. All that was left was for revolutions in Vienna and Budapest to declare in favour of separate Austrian and Hungarian republics and the Habsburg Empire had ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, on the anniversary of Caporetto, Italy had made her last advance and the Austrian forces, which had suffered desperately for four years and were now at the end of their endurance, melted away. So did the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  On 3rd-4th November an Armistice was signed at Villa Giusti with Austria-Hungary, and the Dual Monarchy immediately broke up into fragments. The Emperor was left alone and without friends in the vast echoing corridors of the Palace of Schönbrunn. Thus, even as it resisted Allied pressure on the Western Front, Germany saw all its chief allies fall away, collapse and disintegrate.

The Internal Collapse of Germany:

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These blows broke the nerve of the German High Command. Ludendorff told the political leaders that an armistice was imperative, and Prince Max of Baden was appointed Chancellor to use his international reputation for moderation in the negotiations. Ludendorff stuck to his idea of a strategic defence to compel better terms, till his physical health failed and with it his nerve; but the civilian statesmen believed that the army was beyond hope and that there must be no delay in making peace. From the meeting at Spa on 29th September till the early days of November there was a frenzied effort by the German statesmen to win something by negotiation which their armies were incapable of enforcing. While Foch continued to play his deadly arpeggio in the West, Germany strove by diplomacy to arrest the inevitable. They knew what the soldiers had not realised, that the splendid fortitude of the German people was breaking, disturbed by Allied propaganda and weakened with suffering. The condition of their country was too desperate to wait for an honourable truce at the front since the home front was dissolving more quickly than the battlefront. The virus of revolution, which Germany had fostered in Russia, was also stealing into her own veins. Popular feeling was on the side of Scheidemann’s view, …

“Better a terrible end than terror without end.”

On 3rd October, the new German Chancellor made a request to Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, to take in hand the restoration of peace on the basis of his Fourteen Points, published in January as a way of justifying the USA’s involvement in the war and ensuring future peace. In particular, they were interested in securing a general disarmament, open diplomacy (no secret treaties) and the right of Germany to self-determination. Wilson replied that the armistice now sought by Germany was a matter for the Allied leaders in the field. In the exchange of notes which followed, it became clear that the Allies demanded little short of unconditional surrender. Wilson’s points were, however, used as the basis for the negotiation of the peace treaty at Versailles the following year. Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister, remained sceptical about them:

“God was satisfied with Ten Commandments. Wilson gave us fourteen.”

Faced with the certainty of being faced with a demand for an unconditional surrender from the Allies, Ludendorff now wished to fight on, but neither the new government nor the people supported him. Short of proper clothing and fuel, weakened by semi-starvation and racked by the influenza epidemic which killed 1,722 in Berlin on one day, 15th October, they demanded peace and turned on the leaders who had promised victory but brought defeat.  Ludendorff resigned on the 26th, and the High Command was superseded by the proselytes of democracy. Everywhere in Germany kings and courts were tumbling down, and various brands of socialists were assuming power. Steps were taken to transfer the real power to the Reichstag. President Wilson had refused to enter negotiations with military and “monarchical autocrats” and therefore required “not negotiation but surrender.” But the height of the storm is not the moment to recast a constitution, and for the old Germany, the only way was not reform but downfall.

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With political unrest in Germany, it was thought the removal of the Kaiser would placate the popular mood. Civil War was threatened since the Kaiser, despite relentless pressure, was unwilling to abdicate. On 29th October, he left Berlin for Spa, the army headquarters, where Hindenburg had to tell him that the army would not support him against the people. Some army officers proposed that he go to the front and die an honourable death in battle. It was now early November. On the 3rd, the sailors of the German fleet mutinied rather than sail out into a death-or-glory mission against the British. By 4th November, the mutiny was general, and Kiel was in the hands of the mutineers.

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The same day, the army fell into confusion in Flanders, and the Austrian armistice exposed the Bavarian front to hostile attack. The temper of many army divisions was reported to be equally uncertain as the navy. An armistice had now become a matter of life or death, and on 6th November the German delegates left Berlin to sue for one. President Wilson had indicated that an armistice was on offer to the civilian leaders of Germany, but not to the military or the monarchy. Any hopes that this armistice would take the form of a truce between equals were quickly dispelled by an examination of its terms. Haig and Milner were in favour of moderation in its demands, but Foch was implacable, arguing that it must be such as to leave the enemy no power of resistance, and be a pledge both for reparations and security.

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A few days later the mutineers had occupied the principal cities of North-west, and an insurrection had broken out in Munich. On 9th November revolutionaries occupied the streets of Berlin. A Republic was proclaimed from the steps of the Reichstag and, at last bowing to the inevitable, the Kaiser abdicated and fled to the Netherlands, where he lived out his life in the Netherlands. Already, on 7th November, the German delegates had passed through the Allied lines to receive the terms drawn up by the Allied Commanders. They had no choice but to accept Foch’s terms for what was an unconditional surrender, but it also became clear that the Armistice could not have been refused by the Allies, both on grounds of common humanity and in view of the exhaustion of their own troops, yet it was negotiated before the hands of fighting Germans were formally held up in the field, leading to the accusation that the politicians who signed it had stabbed the German army in the back. In Buchan’s view, …

… It provided the victors with all that they desired and all the conquered could give. Its terms meant precisely what they said, so much and no more. Wilson’s Fourteen Points were not a part of them; the Armistice had no connection with any later peace treaties. It may be argued with justice that the negotiations by the various Governments between October 5th and November 5th involved a declaration of principle by the Allies which they were morally bound to observe in the ultimate settlement. But such a declaration bore no relation to the Armistice. That was an affair between soldiers, a thing sought by Germany under the pressure of dire necessity to avoid the utter destruction of her armed manhood. It would have come about though Mr. Wilson had never indited a single note.  

There was only one mitigating circumstance. President Wilson had declared that the frontiers of post-war Europe would be decided by its people, not its politicians. Self-determination was to be the guiding principle in this process; plebiscites would take place and make clear the people’s will. On this basis, Germany would not do too badly. This was why the Germans had chosen to negotiate with Woodrow Wilson and not his European allies. True, the President had indicated that there would be exceptions to this general rule: Alsace-Lorraine would have to go back to France and the new Polish state, whose existence all parties had agreed upon, must be given access to the sea. But, if Wilson stuck to his Fourteen Points, Germany should emerge from the war clipped rather than shorn.

The Armistice and its Terms:

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With no other option available to them, the German representatives met their Allied counterparts in railway carriage 2419D in a forest near Compiegne on 8th November. In 1940, Hitler symbolically used the same railway carriage to accept the French surrender. The location was chosen to ensure secrecy and no one in the German delegation was a senior military figure. The German Army High Command were keen to remain distant from the proceedings to preserve their reputations. There was little in the way of negotiation, and the Allies presented the Germans with the terms and if they did not sign, the war would continue. The Germans had three days to decide. Early in the morning of 11th November, at 5.20 a.m. to be precise, they concluded that they had no alternative but to agree to the stringent Allied terms and they signed the Armistice document. It detailed what Germany was required to do to secure the peace. Thirty-four sections laid out reparations and territory that had to be given up. Material to be surrendered included:

1,700 aircraft

2,500 field guns

2,500 heavy guns

3,000 Minenwerfer (German trench mortars, nicknamed ‘Moaning Minnies’ by British soldiers)

5,000 locomotives

5,000 motor lorries

25,000 machine guns

150,000 wagons

All submarines

The most important section of the document as far as most of the troops were concerned was the very first:

Cessation of hostilities by land and in the air six hours after the signing of the Armistice (Naval hostilities were also to cease).

It was agreed that at 11 o’ clock on that morning the Great War would come to an end. At two minutes to eleven, a machine-gun opened up at about two hundred metres from the leading British Commonwealth troops at Grandrieu. John Buchan described that last morning’s action:

In the fog and chill of Monday morning, November 11th, the minutes passed slowly along the front. An occasional shot, an occasional burst of firing, told that peace was not yet. Officers had their watches in their hands, and the troops waited with the same grave composure with which they had fought. At two minutes to eleven, opposite the South African brigade, which represented the eastern-most point reached by the British armies, a German machine-gunner, after firing off a belt without pause, was seen to stand up beside his weapon, take off his helmet, bow, and then walk slowly to the rear. Suddenly, as the watch-hands touched eleven, there came a second of expectant silence, and then a curious rippling sound, which observers far behind the front likened to the noise of a light wind. It was the sound of men cheering from the Vosges to the sea.

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In fact, some US Army artillery guns continued to fire until 4 p.m., believing the sound of nearby engineering work to be enemy gunfire. But it was soon confirmed that this was indeed the last day of a First World War that had lasted 1,568 days. In the field since 15th July, Germany had lost to the British armies 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns; to the French 139,000 prisoners and 1,880 guns; to the Americans 44,000 and 1,421 guns; to the Belgians 14,500 prisoners and 474 guns. In the field, because she could not do otherwise, she made a full and absolute surrender. The number of Commonwealth personnel who died on 11th November was 863, and almost eleven thousand were killed, wounded or recorded as missing on 11th November. The following are the records of the last of the combatants’ countrymen to die in battle in the Great War:

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The last Australians to be killed in action on the Western Front were Sappers Charles Barrett and Arthur Johnson and Second Corporal Albert Davey, who had been killed at Sambre-Oise Canal on 4th November. Private Henry Gunther’s death, recorded above, is described in the US Army’s 79th Divisional history:

Almost as he fell, the gunfire died away and an appalling silence prevailed.

Private Gunther’s death was the last of 53,402 losses sustained by the US Army during its sixth-month participation in the war. In the same period, there were 360,000 casualties out of the 1.2 million men in the British Army.  Sixty years later, in eight years of fighting in Vietnam, 58,220 Americans were killed. While the loss of so many young men in Vietnam had a significant impact on American society and culture in the late twentieth century, the losses of World War One had, arguably, an even more profound effect on the USA from 1918 to 1943, when the country finally got over these costs of getting involved in European conflicts and agreed to send its soldiers back to the continent. Another important social effect, though a secondary one, was that resulting from the participation of two hundred thousand African-American troops who served in France. Having been integrated into the fighting forces in western Europe, many of them returned to continuing poverty and segregation in their home states and counties.

Poetry & Pity:

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In Shrewsbury, as the bells were ringing to celebrate the armistice on the 11th November, the parents of Wilfred Owen received a telegram informing them of their son’s death. Although like his friend and fellow soldier-poet, Siegfried Sassoon, Owen had come very close to becoming a pacifist during his convalescence at Craiglockart War Hospital in Scotland, where he had met Sassoon in August 1917, he had insisted on being sent back to the front in September 1918. He had felt that he had to return to France in order remain a spokesman, in his poetry, for the men in the front line, through sharing their experiences and their suffering. on 4th October, after most of his company had been killed, he and a corporal captured a German machine gun and scores of prisoners; for this feat, he was awarded the Military Cross. But a month later, and just a week before the Armistice, on 4th November 1918, he was trying to construct a make-shift bridge so as to lead his company over the Sambre Canal, in the face of heavy machine-gun fire, when he himself was killed. Just before he left England for the last time on 31st August 1918, Owen was planning a volume of poetry that he never lived to publish, but which he thought of as a kind of propaganda. He scribbled a preface for it, which began:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.

Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.

Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity.

Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

Owen’s best and most typical poetry, written earlier in the war, is in harmony with this Preface. As Andrew Motion has written more recently (2003), Owen believed that it was still possible to celebrate individual acts of courage and to commemorate losses, but not to glorify conflict as such. He stressed the tragic waste of war, and so his characteristic attitude is of compassion rather than anger. He fills us with a sense of pity for the dead who died such agonising and undignified deaths. He makes us painfully aware of all the good that these young men, British and German, could have achieved if only they had lived. Two types of tension give a cutting edge to Owen’s best poetry. He cannot quite make up his mind about whether God exists and whether pacifism is the only answer to the problem of war. So he carries on an internal debate on these two problems just below the surface of his meaning: the consequent tension gives a terrible intensity to his poetry. Two of his later poems reject Christianity more openly: Futility arraigns God in the most direct way for ever allowing Creation to take place:

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?

A less well-known poem, The End, expresses the most serious doubts that Owen ever put into poetry. He asks what will happen on the Last Day:

Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth

All earth will He annul, all tears assuage?

His pious mother removed the second despairing question mark from these lines when she chose them for his tombstone, but her more pessimistic son ended his poem with a speech by Earth who says:

It is death.

Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,

Nor my titanic tears, the seas, be dried.

His finest poetry, however, is not that in which he despairs; it is that in which his faith and his doubts quiver in the balance. But in his letters Owen sometimes puts the case for Christian pacifism with passionate intensity:

Already I have comprehended a light which will never filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was, Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed, but do not kill… pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.

Arguments such as this are made explicitly in his letters but are only hinted at below the surface of his poems. Sassoon was more negative in tone, better at rousing indignation against warmongers than at raising pity for dead soldiers. But in some of his poems he managed to do both:

He’s young, he hated war! How should he die

When cruel old campaigners win safe through!

Such tragedies impelled Sassoon to his desperate protest, O Jesus, make it stop! Owen and Sassoon impelled other poets, both civilians (like Edith Wharton, below) and soldiers, to similar expressions of pity or protest. Kipling, so often unfairly dismissed for his earlier jingoism, compares the modern soldier’s agony to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane, 1914-18, and Edward Thomas’ As The Team’s Head-Brass tells of a Gloucestershire farm labourer who cannot move a fallen tree because his mate has been killed in France. This simple example typifies all that the men might have accomplished whose lives were wasted in war. If Owen had lived, it is generally agreed among literary critics that he would have gone on to be at least as great as his inspiration, John Keats. Perhaps more importantly, his maxim has held firm through the years, even in wars which have generally been considered to be ‘just’. ‘Pity’ and ‘truthfulness’ remain the crucial ingredients, especially when the realities of war are blurred by euphemism, propaganda and ‘fake news’.

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Sources:

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History (Europe since 1815). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green: Transatlantic Press.

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

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

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

Irene Richards, J.B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1938), A Sketch-Map  History of the Great War and After, 1914-35. London: Harrap.

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

Posted August 10, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Africa, American History & Politics, Arabs, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Berlin, Britain, British history, Bulgaria, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, Coalfields, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Communism, democracy, Egypt, Empire, English Language, Europe, First World War, Flanders, France, General Douglas Haig, Germany, Great War, guerilla warfare, History, Hungary, Integration, Italy, Jerusalem, Jews, Literature, Marxism, Memorial, Middle East, Monarchy, nationalism, Palestine, Remembrance, Revolution, Rudyard Kipling, Serbia, South Africa, Syria, terror, Turkey, Uncategorized, USA, Warfare, World War One

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‘Stand by Israel!’ or ‘Israel! Stand by…’…?: Researching an Antidote for Anti-Semitism…   1 comment

 

Sykes-Picot, Balfour, Imperialism & Zionism, 1916-36.

The row about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party rumbles on, with ‘Labour’ forums reduced to open censorship of criticism online in order to uphold its leaders’ line that this is mainly a problem of envy among long-established MPs and party members who do not like the amount of power and influence wielded by the ‘new’ members he has attracted to the party. Yet we know from the nature of the comments made that many of these new members are simply aping the discourse of anti-Zionists among the ‘Fabian Left’, dating back to Labour’s rise to power, which coincided with the emergence of serious tensions between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. I have already written about this elsewhere, so I don’t want to risk repeating myself here.

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However, given that this week sees the hundredth anniversary of that ‘infamous’ agreement between two civil servants, Mr Sykes of Britain and Mnsr. Picot of France, I thought I would add a ‘tailpiece’ about the role of imperialism in the middle east in this era, having previously focused on the development of Zionism in Europe. Much of this context is drawn from Bernard Porter’s seminal 1984 work on British Imperialism, 1850- 1983, The Lion’s Share. This work should be on a bibliography given to new Labour members who may not have had the opportunity, as I did, to study this historical context to contemporary controversial issues. Before I read this, I was as keen as them to take sides in the Arab-Israeli Conflict and in other post-imperial conflicts, such as the Irish Question. Having grown up in a home where casual anti-Semitism was not rare, stemming from my father’s belief in ‘replacement theology’ (the doctrine that the Jews had foregone the right to be ‘God’s chosen people’ by their rejection of Christ), I remember (now with some sense of shame) my act of vandalism in the sixth form when, during the 1974 War I changed the word order of a sticker which one of the Jewish students had stuck on the board. It said Stand by Israel, but a strategic cut soon changed it into Israel, Stand by. I was young, and many of my ideas were inherited from my father. So, however, was my name (or at least my initials), since he was named after Arthur James Balfour, in 1914. This had always intrigued me, until I came to realise that Balfour’s protestant ‘restoration’ theology which fuelled his pro-Zionist stance could, ironically, be distinctly anti-Semitic in its view of European Jewry. This only goes to show that anti-Semitism can take many different forms and heresies, often quite deliberately passed on from one generation to another through somewhat subliminal ‘troping’, applying varying stereotypes to ‘the Jew’. Young people rarely become anti-Semites through reading and discussion with diverse people and viewpoints. It isn’t a logical, educational process, though its antidote may be. It is a poison spread from one generation to the next through the dominant cultures and ideologies, whether on the Right or the Left. I will attempt to apply the antidote again here.

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

The Sykes-Picot Treaty is usually referred to simply as ‘an agreement’ because it was a secret arrangement, first drafted in April 1916 and signed in mid-May. It was supposed to determine how the Ottoman empire would be partitioned after the war. The French were to rule directly or indirectly the area of a line running from Acre to a point on the Tigris some seventy miles south of Mosul, while the British were to have the same rights in the area south of that line extending as far as Aqaba and along the Saudi Arabian border. Palestine, defined in the agreement as the area bordered by the Jordan river in the east, the sea in the west, and from Acre in the north to a line from El Arish to Be’ersheva in the south would be governed by an international regime. However, most of Palestine was effectively earmarked for British control, as part of a ‘sphere of influence’ stretching from Jordan to the Gulf. In this territory was land which the Arabs understood to have been pledged to them in October 1915 by the Egyptian High Commissioner, Sir Henry MacMahon when he promised, with reservations, that Britain would recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in order to get the Arab Revolt going, which it did in June 1916, helping to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east.

On the face of it, Sykes-Picot was a blueprint for a cynical piece of imperial plunder, and Britain was embarrassed by the look of it both to the Arabs and to the Americans, who had to be told of it when they entered the war in April 1917. It was then revealed to the world by the new Bolshevik government in Moscow towards the end of 1917. The USA preferred to believe that it was fighting for democracy and self-determination, while the Arabs believed that they were fighting for their own liberation and independence. To reassure both, the British government stepped up its promises to the Arabs in a series of ‘declarations’, which, though increasingly ardent in tone were no more specific than MacMahon’s statement.

At the same time, it had committed itself just as firmly to the Zionists, who wanted to found a middle eastern nation based on the biblical lands of Israel, Samaria and Judea. The Balfour Declaration of November 1917 gave the British government’s blessing and support to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. Like the MacMahon promise to the Arabs, it was a promise which could only have been made in wartime, when political geography was so fluid that so artificial a creation could be considered; when the government was so pressed and distracted as to be able to ignore or neglect its obvious drawbacks and pitfalls. For British ministers there were a number of substantial arguments in favour of such a declaration, including a genuine Zionism on the part of some, and a devious but ingenious imperialism on the part of others. Leopold Amery, who claimed to have drafted the Declaration, acknowledged that his main motive was…

… largely strategical. I was keen on an advance into Palestine and Syria on military grounds, and the idea of consolidating that advance by establishing in Palestine a prosperous community bound to Britain by ties of gratitude and interest naturally appealed to me. I already had doubts as to the permanence of our protectorate in Egypt.

The chief reason was, however, probably less grandiose, and more immediate: the need to gain the support of American Jews for the war effort, and perhaps to turn the German Jews against their government, a move which sadly backfired on them in the 1920s. Balfour himself remarked that…

… the vast majority of Jews in Russia and America, as indeed, all over the world, now appeared to be in favour of Zionism. If we could make a declaration favourable to such an ideal, we should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America.

Lloyd George also saw it as useful propaganda, and at that point in the war his coalition was desperate for some victories of any kind. Nevertheless, they knew that it was a big long-term risk to take for a short-term propaganda point. In the autumn of 1917, the young diplomat Harold Nicolson, later a Labour Party MP, was seconded to work with Sir Mark Sykes, the co-author of the infamous agreement, one of the two political secretaries to the Cabinet, the other being Leopold Amery. Sykes acted as the main channel of communication between the Cabinet and the Zionist movement. He had been negotiating with both Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolov, the two leading Zionists in Britain, since the beginning of the year, as they worked together to produce a pro-Zionist pledge. Sykes saw no contradiction between this and his staunchly pro-Arab outlook. Indeed, he told himself, one would complement the other. Both the Arab and the Zionist Palestinians, indebted to Britain, would serve British imperial interests. Later developments proved these presumptions wildly optimistic, but at this time most British policy-makers, not to mention both Arab and Zionist leaders, shared them. Harold Nicolson was among them, his pro-Zionism did not stem from anti-Semitism. He once said…

Although I loathe anti-Semitism, I do dislike Jews.

It’s interesting that Beatrice Webb made exactly the reverse of this remark, yet today the Labour Party seeks to draw a line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that few would have understood a hundred years ago. Nicolson, unlike Sykes, had no great knowledge of recent Jewish history, nor was he on intimate terms with any Jews. He certainly disliked the Hungarian Jews accompanying Béla Kun’s short-lived delegation, as a Paris Peace Conference envoy to Budapest two years later, and wrote to that effect in his diary. Although he did not acknowledge his dislike as anti-Semitism, it certainly fuelled his support for Zionism, as it did with many others who thought of themselves as ‘Gentile Zionists’, including some later Nazi leaders like Adolf Eichmann, (as I have mentioned elsewhere):

Zionism, they claimed, would repair perceived defects in the Jewish character. It would restore to the Jews their dignity, that corporate national confidence and self-respect they so clearly lacked: it would, so to speak, stiffen the backbone of the Jewish people. Once given a national home, they would no longer misuse their considerable gifts for mischievous ends. It ‘would be a nice place,’ Harold reflected, ‘in which to collect all the Jews of the world, as Butlin’s collects the noisy holidaymakers’.

There were other aspects of Gentile Zionism, more historical and theological, that appealed to people like Nicholson. Balfour himself expressed these aspects clearly in a speech to the House of Lords in June 1922 on the position of the Jews:

Their position and their history, their connection with world religion and with world politics is absolutely unique. There is no parallel to it… in any other branch of world history… deported, then scattered, then driven out… altogether into every part of the world, and yet maintaining continuity of religion and racial tradition of which we have no parallel elsewhere… Consider how they have been subject to tyranny, consider whether… our whole religious organisation of Europe has not from time to time proved itself guilty of great crimes against this race… do not forget what part they have played in the intellectual, the artistic, the philosophic and scientific development of the world… Christendom is not oblivious to their faith, is not unmindful of the service they have rendered to the great religions of the world.

Having supported Balfour, Sykes and Amery, Harold Nicholson was at pains to point out that the Balfour Declaration was not an ‘impulsive and ill-considered’ statement; nor could its authors be accused of ‘ignorance or cynicism’. It took months to negotiate, went through five drafts, and was debated at three sessions of the War Cabinet before it was finally approved on 31 October 1917. Writing in 1947, after almost thirty years of bitter experience, he admitted that it would now be drafted in different terms, but he continued to vehemently to defend Balfour against accusations of cynicism, of opportunism, of imperialism. In 1939, as a National Labour MP, Nicholson spoke out over the May White Paper affair. The government declaration of policy limited Jewish immigration into Palestine to a maximum of 75,000 over the next five years, afterwards any further immigration to be subject to Arab consent, or veto, as the Zionists saw it. Nicholson and other Zionist supporters naturally saw this as flatly contradicting the Balfour Declaration. Apart from his great admiration for Chaim Weizmann, he considered this to be the Chamberlain government’s reneging on its contractual obligations as part of its appeasement of the Nazi dictatorship. Having sacrificed the Czechs, it was now prepared to sacrifice the Jews by giving into Arab demands and leaving them to their fate in Europe. On the eve of the debate he and Leo Amery dined with Weizmann, who appeared ‘calm, dignified and wretched’ as, a master lobbyist, he put his case with his customary persuasive skill. Harold, however, felt ‘helpless and ashamed’, so much so that he did not speak in the two-day debate on the May White Paper, though he did call it a terrible act of treachery. In the Commons, the National Government suffered a massive cut in its majority, to just 89. It survived for another year until Chamberlain’s majority was cut again, this time to 81, forcing him to and his government to resign.

lloyd george 1915

Returning to the end of the First World War, the middle east had become a tangle of promises which the British government had made to the Jews, the Arabs, the French and themselves. Despite Sykes’ early view, they were already becoming contradictory by the time of the Paris Peace Conference, though not perhaps irrevocably so. There was also a great deal of room for confusion in them, since words like ‘self-determination’ and ‘independence’ were capable of different degrees of interpretation. British diplomats, as we have noted, were able to believe that ‘independence’ for the Arabs was not inconsistent with them maintaining a ‘sphere of influence’ over them, and Curzon, Balfour’s successor as Foreign Secretary (1919-24) said, just after the war, that he was quite happy to accept the term ‘self-determination’ because he believed that most of the people would determine in our favour. In one of the ‘reservations’ in the MacMahon letter there was a genuine ambiguity in one of the arabic words used, which could be taken to mean either ‘district’ or a ‘province’, and on this interpretation depended whether the Arabs had been promised Palestine or not as part of their independent territory. The later declarations promised greater degrees of ‘independence’, still not defining these degrees either in terms of powers or territory. The most ambiguous statement of all was Balfour’s ‘national home in Palestine’, which he clearly meant to refer to a Jewish state of Palestine, but could be, and was, taken to mean that Jews would have to settle for federated territory within an Arab-controlled Palestine. As the differing interpretations of previous texts came under the pressures and frictions of settlement ‘on the ground’, they became widening contradictions, leading on to accusations of betrayal on both sides.

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All the promises had the mark of expediency about them, being designed to reap some short-term advantage or respite, or to win favours from one side or the other. T E Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) claimed that it was obvious to him that Britain’s promises to the Arabs would become ‘dead paper’ after the war, and confessed that he had played a role in deliberately misleading them:

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

To those higher up who made the promises, the ‘fraud’ or ‘conspiracy’ might not have been so clear, simply because little thought was given as to whether the cheques so freely given out could actually be redeemed by the recipients. Things changed very rapidly in time of war, so that October 1915 was a long way away from November 1917. For the British government, every present moment might determine whether there would be a future for the Empire, so that it became vital to put every effort into seizing and controlling that moment. It could not be surrendered on consideration of a hypothetical future. The contradictions which were already emerging during the war itself would have broken a peace-time coalition, but in wartime dissidents felt obliged to give way under more pressing necessities. No doubt, however, the result was that irresponsible, inconsistent declarations were made.

The result of the war for Britain was a considerable augmentation of her empire. The middle east was divided up literally along the lines of Sykes-Picot. The Arabs were given the Arabian desert. Britain took Palestine, Transjordan, the Persian Gulf States and Iraq, adding to her existing protectorates of Cyprus, Egypt and Aden. Of course, the newly acquired territories were not considered ‘annexations’ or ‘colonies’. They were ‘mandated’ territories, entrusted to Britain by the newly established League of Nations, to be administered in the interests of their inhabitants with a view to their eventual independence. The irritation felt at this by more traditional imperialists had already been inflamed by the first serious Arab-Zionist clash in Palestine in April 1919.

As we have seen, Zionism was always a popular cause among British imperialists, though it was not supported by all of them, especially, like Curzon, by those more associated with India. Nor was it only an imperialist cause. It had many virtues, but two which endeared it especially to imperialists. Firstly, it was seen as a means of safeguarding British imperial interests in the middle east, especially as Egypt had been granted what effectively amounted to ‘home rule’. Secondly, Zionism, taking away its religious aspect, seemed to be a typically imperialist way of running and developing ‘primitive’ countries: by a European settler population with the energy and expertise to make more of them than the indigenous peoples. In many ways, the history of Palestine in the inter-war period closely resembled that of Kenya, where Labour’s Lord Passfield (the Fabian, Sydney Webb) successfully resisted the claims of the European settlers: the differences being that settler minority was always much larger in Palestine, that it had greater support from outside, and that the relations between settlers’ claims and natives’ rights became confused with the rights of Jewish refugees. Despite the obvious sympathy which the Jews earned so tragically during the Nazi persecutions which preceded the holocaust, there was considerable resistance to their immigration from the Palestinian Arabs. In addition to this, the British had the subsidiary duty under the mandate to safeguard the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine. This presented an immediate handover to the settlers of the country, even had there been enough of them to hand it over to. So the first years of Britain’s mandatory rule in Palestine were devoted to trying to reconcile Zionist and Arab claims, with neither urgency nor success. In fact, this was partly because between 1921 and 1929 there was very little trouble there. In 1929 there was an Arab rising against Jewish immigration, which led the new Labour government to appear to repudiate the Balfour Declaration. Although this was largely an illusion, the Passfield White Paper (1930) did threaten to restrict Jewish immigration and the sale of Palestinian Arab lands to Jews. This was provocative enough and was greeted with a furore of protest from Zionists worldwide, and Conservative imperialists and pro-Zionists Labour  in Britain. With MacDonald’s tacit approval, the MPs were able to sweep away Passfield’s anti-Zionist White Paper.

As the events of the 1930s unfurled, this proved to be a crucial decision because, although pro-Zionist feeling was never again so strong, matters were taken increasingly out of the British government’s hands. The Jewish population of Palestine, which had increased from 150,000 in 1926 to 172,000 in 1931, more than doubled by 1936, reaching 384,000. Most of these new immigrants were fleeing from Nazi persecution, and with their entry to countries like the USA and the UK being restricted, it seemed heartless to successive governments in Britain to deny them refuge in Palestine. Had they tried to do so, the international outcry would have been as deafening as it had been in 1930. The greater the number of refugees, the better they were able to assert their claims to settle the land, which they did, sometimes forcibly. Britain’s role was reduced to policing an already intractable situation, now with ever decreasing enthusiasm. Throughout the 1930s repeated attempts were made to find new ‘settlements’, but they failed. What determined the outcome in Palestine, the creation of the state of Israel on the left bank of the Jordan in 1948, and its subsequent expansion into Arab territory, was the balance of strength on the ground between the two populations, which had changed in favour of the Zionist settlers by 1936. Between the wars, however, Palestine had to remain a British mandated territory. The British were unable to delegate their responsibilities to the Zionist organisation, as many wanted them to do. It remained in the same state as the ‘dependent’ territories within the British empire, a colony ruled directly from London, like Kenya.

What emerges from these further portraits and documents concerning Zionism, imperialism and Palestine in the period 1916-36 is that there was no imperialist conspiracy to create the state of Israel as it existed after 1948. Certainly, there were good relations between leading Zionists and imperialist politicians in Britain, but it was the confusion of competing claims and rights in Palestine itself, together with the inability to control the flow of migrants and refugees under the terms of the British mandate which led to the development of the country through settlement into the self-governing state of Israel following the handover of the mandate to the United Nations in 1948. It is difficult to imagine how the outcome of these events could have been any different, especially given the refugee crisis created by the war. The idea that the state of Israel was an artificial creation, a ‘mistake’ as Ken Livingstone has called it in his recent interview on arabic TV, does not match the reality of the emerging patterns of population on the ground in inter-war Palestine. There was no rational alternative to the decisions that were made, and no other alternative humanitarian solution.

We need to accept the burden that history has given us to bear from the past hundred years. Either we support the creation of the state of Israel, whether we think it happened by accidental evolution or deliberate design, as Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee finally did in 1949, or call for its dismantling and destruction, by one means or another, which is what the current leadership of the Labour Party, in the Fabian tradition of the Webbs, would like us to do. Of course, criticism of the government of Israel in its home and international relations is essential to it continuing to thrive as a modern democracy, but this should be given in the spirit of critical friendship. Otherwise, it can legitimately be taken as providing succour to Israel’s enemies, who would destroy it by violent means, given the chance, as they have tried to by warfare in 1948, 1967 and 1974 and, more recently by terrorist acts directed by Hezbollah and Hamas. The Labour leadership must make it clear that these organisations are not ‘our friends’ but our enemies who are sworn to commit acts of genocide against our true friends, the Semitic peoples of Israel, both Jew and Arab. To do otherwise would not eradicate the cancer of anti-Semitism which is multiplying in our midst every day.

Sources:

Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico

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

 

 

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