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

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

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The Winding Road to World Peace:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edvard Beneš.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Empire – Nationalists Strike Back:

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

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

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

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

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

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M. K. Gandhi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was not, Buchan suggested in 1935, …

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

The Final Week – Scuttling Ships & Salvaging the Settlement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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(to be continued).

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

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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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A Hundred Years Ago: The British Empire in 1917.   Leave a comment

Jan Smuts 1947.jpg

Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950), pictured above, was a South African statesman and member of the British Imperial War Cabinet from 1917 to 1919. In June 1917, as a colonial prime minister, he joined the ‘new imperialists’ – Curzon, Milner and Balfour – in the cabinet, giving his view of the development of the British Empire and Commonwealth as he saw it:

The British Empire is much more than a State. I think the very expression ‘Empire’ is misleading, because it makes people think as if we are one single entity, one unity, to which the term ‘Empire’ can be applied. We are not an Empire. Germany is an Empire, so was Rome, and so is India, but we are a system of nations far greater than any empire which has ever existed; and by using this ancient expression we really obscure the real fact that we are larger and that our whole position is different, and that we are not one nation, or state, or empire, but we are a whole world by ourselves, consisting of many nations and states, and all sorts of communities under one flag…

I think that this is the fundamental fact which we have to bear in mind – that the British Empire, or this British Commonwealth of Nations, does not stand for unity, standardisation, or assimilation, or denationalisation; but it stands for a fuller, a richer, and more various a life among all the nations that compose it. And even nations who have fought against you, like my own, must feel that they and their interests are as safe and as secure under the British flag as those of the children of your household and your own blood. It is only in proportion as that is realised that you will fulfil the true mission that you have undertaken. Therefore, it seems, speaking my own individual opinion, that there is only one solution, that is the solution supplied by our past traditions of freedom, self-government and the fullest development. We are not going to force common Governments, federal or otherwise, but we are going to extend liberty, freedom and nationhood more and more in every part of the Empire.

T E Lawrence was one of those who took Smuts’ vision of Empire at face value. He became closely identified with this new strategy of ‘extending liberty’ by inciting an Arab Revolt against Turkish rule, under the leadership of the Sharif of Mecca, Husain Ibn Ali. Lawrence was an Oxford historian turned undercover agent, an archaeologist, a linguist, a skilled cartographer and an intuitive guerrilla fighter, as well as a masochist who yearned for fame, only to spurn it when it came. He was the illegitimate son of an Irish baronet and his nanny; a flamboyant Orientalist who delighted in wearing Arab dress. His affinity with the Arabs was to prove invaluable. His aim was to break the Ottoman Empire from within, by stirring up Arab nationalism into a new and potent force that he believed could trump the German-sponsored jihad against the British Empire. Turkish rule over the deserts of Arabia had been resented for centuries and sporadically challenged by the nomadic tribes of the region. By adopting their language and dress, Lawrence set out to turn their discontent to British advantage. As liaison officer to Husain’s son Faisal from July 1916, he argued strongly against deploying British troops in the Hejaz. The Arabs had to feel they were fighting for their own freedom, Lawrence argued, not for the privilege of being ruled by the British instead of the Turks. His ambition, he wrote, was…

…that the Arabs should be our first brown dominion, and not our last brown colony. Arabs react against you if you try to drive them, and they are as tenacious as Jews, but you can lead them without force anywhere, if nominally arm-in-arm. The future of Mesopotamia is so immense that if it is cordially ours we can swing the whole Middle East with it.

It worked. With Lawrence’s support, the Arabs waged a highly effective guerrilla war against Turkish communications along the Hejaz railway from Medina to Aqaba. By the autumn of 1917 they were probing Turkish defences in Syria as General Edmond Allenby’s army marched from Sinai towards Jerusalem. The Arab revolt helped to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east, and so take the pressure off the Suez Canal and the oil fields for the duration of the war. But this did not solve Britain’s long-term problem of how to safeguard her middle eastern interests now that the old Turkish buffer was gone; or the short-term problem connected with it, of how to avoid quarrelling with her friends over it. To settle these problems she had come to a secret arrangement with France in April 1916 – the Sykes-Picot Treaty – which was supposed to determine how the Ottoman empire would be partitioned after the war. When it was revealed to the world after April 1917, following the entry of the USA into the war, Sykes-Picot was on the face of it a blueprint for a cynical piece of imperialistic plunder, and Britain was embarrassed by the look of it to the Arabs, who got to know of it from the Russian Bolsheviks later that year. T E Lawrence claimed that it was evident to him that Britain’s promises would amount to nothing, and confessed that he himself had been party to deliberately misleading them:

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

Writing in 1954, Lord Vansittart claimed that Lawrence’s Arab army was overrated, and that it had raced rather than fought its way to Damascus. He had believed that the Arabs occupied the city first, but later found out that it was the Australians who bore the brunt of the siege.  Of Lawrence himself, he wrote that…

He felt too big for the pumps in which he entered my office, boasting of having torn off his British decorations… Lawrence was one of the people I was glad to have known and not to have known better. He was an acquaintance, not a friend, a relative so distant that we never mentioned the subject… He wanted to go far with him, seeming to think that I could ‘do something about’ the kingdom terrestrial yet not of this world, on which he had set his public heart.

In June 1917, there were six ‘young imperialists’ in the wartime cabinet, including Leopold Amery and Mark Sykes, who were there to advise on eastern and middle eastern affairs. Harold Nicolson was seconded to work with Sykes. John Buchan was deputy director of a new Information Ministry created to brief ministers. It was a remarkable resurrection of a school of imperialism which had been thought to be dead and buried for years, spurned by successive electorates since 1906. In ordinary times it would have remained mouldering under the ground, but the extraordinary circumstances of war had acted like an earthquake, throwing up the coffin and breaking it open. As Bernard Porter has put it, Joseph Chamberlain walked the earth again. Leopold Amery’s first and foremost war aim was the immediate security and, still more, freedom for the development and expansion of the British Commonwealth in the world outside Europe. A Cabinet Committee on Territorial Desiderata chaired by Curzon in 1917 recommended that this expansion be concentrated in east Africa and the lands between Egypt and India. It was clear what these new imperialists had in mind, if they were still in control of government when the war was over.

The Great War was a total war, and, for its duration, it stretched the Empire’s resources to the limit. When peace eventually came, she would be much less able to hold the empire by force: even now she could ill afford to keep tied up in the colonies troops which were badly needed in Europe, or to count on reinforcing them in an emergency. In India, for example, the number of British troops numbered only 15,000, which was 23,000 fewer than on the eve of the mutiny, sixty years earlier. The perils of the situation were clear, and could only be met by compromising with any insurgency or emergency which might arise. Given the somewhat feigned antipathy of the USA for being harnessed to imperialists after April 1917, concession was a means by which the British could retain control of their empire, but it was also a way in which that control was diluted as well. The war forced it into all kinds of actions which were unwise in the long-term, but the sort of war it was made these almost inevitable. In wartime there could be no long-term coherent policy for the empire. Everything was overshadowed by the war on the Western Front. Consequently colonial policy decisions could not be other than pragmatic, unplanned, short-term, often inconsistent. Quite often they came to be regretted afterwards, especially those made to curry favour from various quarters, to nationalists in India and the middle east.

In India the promises came very slowly, because until 1917 it looked as if they might be done without. India was relatively tranquil when war broke out, and Indians refrained from exploiting the difficulties of their British ‘masters’. It seemed that Britain would not need more than 15,000 troops to control them. Nevertheless, some of the members of the government, including Edwin Montagu, were keen to announce reforms from the beginning. India’s representation at Imperial Conferences of the ‘white’ self-governing dominions, were met with considerable opposition from those dominions who protested that India was neither ‘white’ nor ‘self-governing’. Despite this, India was admitted at the beginning of 1917, and promises of political reforms followed in August. Both concessions were late enough to suggest that they were born out of fear rather than persuasion, for in the year before the nationalists had healed both of the main breaches: between Congress and the Muslim League by the Lucknow Pact of December 1916, and between moderates and extremists when Tilak, released from gaol in 1914, was readmitted to Congress in the same month, capturing it soon afterwards. In 1916 the nationalists had gone on the offensive under him and, ironically, the Englishwoman Annie Besant. Montagu wrote later that it was her activity which really stirred the country up. By June 1917, they were threatening enough to persuade the Indian government to intern Mrs Besant, which provoked further agitation. In July the viceroy wrote home that the situation was urgent, and any further prevarication over the reforms would be fatal. It was at this moment that Montagu, who had returned to the India Office as Secretary of State in July, was allowed to make a declaration of intent for India to provide…

…the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration, and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.

Montagu was able to use the words ‘responsible government’ in 1917, even though it provoked a storm in the House of Lords and a flurry of resignations in India, because the situation was then more desperate: nationalist opposition more widespread, the need to arrest the further defection of moderate opinion, according to Chelmsford, more urgent, the country, according to Montagu, rolling to certain destruction. This was the result of the war, but the war had also made it less likely that the promise of Liberal reforms to India, when it did come, would be enough to stem the nationalist tide.Indian nationalism was fired enormously by the war: its grievances compounded, its following augmented, its organisation greatly improved, its expectations increased; a seething, boiling, political flood, as Montagu described it in November 1917, raging across the country. Yet the Montagu Declaration and the Montagu-Chelmsford Report had held it back; if nothing else, as Montagu wrote in February 1918, I have kept India quiet for six months at a critical period of the war. The reforms represented the biggest concession Britain had yet made to the demands of the nationalists.  Whether they were big enough to keep pace with them was yet to be seen when the war finally ended.

                 

Sources:

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

Niall Ferguson (2005), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson.

            

Must Rhodes Fall?: History, Legacy & Commemoration   2 comments

Introducing the Issues:

On 28th December (2015), The Daily Telegraph reported that the student leading a campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from an Oxford college has turned his fire on the university itself, accusing it of spreading “injustice” around the world by educating future leaders with a “skewed” and “Eurocentric” mindset.

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Ntokozo Qwabe and the Cecil Rhodes statue on Oriel College in Oxford

(Photo: Rex).

 

South African Ntokozo Qwabe, himself a beneficiary of a Rhodes scholarship, claimed that students at Oxford endure “systemic racism, patriarchy and other oppressions” on a daily basis. The 24-year-old also said that the university’s admissions and staff recruitment systems “perpetrate exclusion” and suggested that even Oxford’s architecture is laid out in a “racist and violent” way. And he accused the British media of treating him and his supporters like “terrorists” for challenging the establishment.

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His comments came in a lengthy posting on Facebook in response to reaction to his remarks likening the French Tricolor to the Nazi swastika or the hammer and sickle under Stalin as a “symbol of violence, terror and genocide for many”. He said he had suffered a media “onslaught” as a result. Mr Qwabe shot to prominence earlier this month after Oriel College agreed to remove a plaque under a statue of the colonial era mining magnate and politician and consider talking down the statue itself. It followed protests by Mr Qwabe’s “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign group, which takes its inspiration from a movement in South Africa which has succeeded in having statues of Rhodes removed.

 

South Africa Statue Uproar

The campaigners say the statue at Oriel College glorifies a figure seen as one of the architects of South African apartheid and is therefore “offensive and violent” to students. But others have argued that taking the statue down would amount to purging the past to conform to contemporary political demands.

This rather strange, if not bizarre, set of circumstances, reminds many in Eastern Europe of the controversies of the late nineties and ‘noughties’ when the statues and commemorobilia of the Soviet Era were systematically removed, including war memorials. Many of the statues of Lenin and other Soviet leaders were removed to a theme park near Budapest in the case of Hungary. More controversially, perhaps, street names were changes, often against the wishes of residents, in order to expunge any memory of the collaboration of Hungarians in the forty-year occupation.

More recently, there have been further controversies about what, who and how to commemorate the previous dark period in Hungarian history which led to the Nazi occupation of 1944-45 and the Holocaust and Hungarian Fascist regime. The erection of a statue of the Regent of Hungary from 1920 to 1944, Miklós Horthy, caused a furore, since many associated his regime as anti-Semitic, passing anti-Jewish Laws from the early twenties to the 1940s, facilitating the deportation of Hungary’s Jews from rural towns and villages, and then collaborating with the Nazis in the occupation of his own country, only belatedly heeding advice to leave the Axis and seek an armistice with the Allies. Was he, perhaps like János Kadar after him, a saviour or a traitor?

The Hungarian government also became unpopular with the current Jewish community in Budapest by commissioning a national memorial to ‘all the victims of the German occupation’, symbolised by a rampant eagle, rather than recognising the events of 1944-45 as a Hungarian Holocaust, Hungarian in origin, willingly participated in by Hungarian politicians, armed services and police. In some provincial towns, local figures who collaborated in these events, whether actively or passively, have had their previous contributions recognised in the commissioning and raising of statues, most recently in Szekesfehérvár, not without provoking both local and national outrage.

The who, what, why and how of acts of commemoration will, of necessity, change from generation to generation. As the events of the two World Wars become more remote from current generations, the annual Acts of Remembrance in the UK are bound to focus on more recent wars and their victims, whether fallen or surviving. Commemoration is about the needs of current communities for remembrance, not about an agreed, detailed version of the past. It is about the gathering together of diverse individual experiences into a collective memory. Just as two people’s memories of the same family members and events can be diverse, so collective memory is also heterogeneous.

However, to be true nations, we must be true to our common heritages, and that means that we must have regard to the historical bedrock from which we sculpt, both actually and metaphorically, the memorials we leave for future generations. We carve them in stone because they are supposed to represent lasting truth, not some contemporary fad. The same applies to their removal as to their erection. In deciding what and who to commemorate, politicians need to consult other craftsmen before they commission architects and artists. These metaphorical craftsmen, the historians, will no doubt have their own principles and perspectives, but they are also charged with testing all the available sources of evidence, before producing a synthesis about the legacy of past people(s) and events.

This coming year will be marked by a number of commemorations, including controversial ones such as the Battle of the Somme and the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin. As a second-year undergraduate I can remember reading about this latter event in some detail. Soon after submitting my essay, I met an Irish republican, and tried to apologise to him for the legacy of bitterness which originated from these events. Somewhat older and better studied than me at the time, he pointed out that I could not take responsibility for what the British Empire had done three or even two generations before. All either of us could do was to deal with the legacy as we both perceived it in our own lifetimes.

My experience of that legacy had begun with a visit to Nelson’s other column, in Dublin in the mid-sixties, shortly before it was blown up by the Official IRA. A warning was given in that case, so only the monument suffered. More recently, it had culminated in the blowing-up of two pubs in the centre of Birmingham in November 1974. This was by the Provisional IRA, and no warning was given.  Twenty-one people were killed, and many more suffered life-changing injuries. Most of them were teenagers; many, like me, aged seventeen. In fact, I could easily have been one of them, had I left the Bull-Ring Centre burger-bar minutes later than I did. Those responsible have never been held to account; instead six Irishmen were falsely imprisoned for more than fifteen years, compounding the confusion felt by the general victims, the people of Birmingham, including its well-integrated Irish community. The point is that, in wanting to apologise, I was doing what many with emotional connections to current or past events do, confusing history with legacy.  I desperately wanted to help set things straight. Much later, as part of a Birmingham-Belfast Education for Mutual Understanding Project, I had the opportunity to do so. Reconciliation became possible, but it was not history which absolved us. Nor did it condemn us; that is not its role.

Similarly, some time ago, one of my students asked to do her special study on the Amritsar Massacre. One of her reasons for this was that she first wanted to come to terms with the family legacy that General Dyer, the officer commanding the British troops that day in 1919, was a relative. She was able to write a fascinating prologue on this before providing a well-researched, dispassionate account and interpretation of the events surrounding that day. Her present-day family are Quakers pacifists.

Chronicling Cecil Rhodes and his Empire:

So, what is the legacy of Cecil Rhodes and why has it provoked such controversy both in South Africa and the UK? To understand this, we first need to examine the chronicle of events surrounding his life, and then put this in the context of South Africa’s later history in the twentieth century, asking the questions, in what sense can he be described as a ‘racist’ and to what extent can he be seen as one of the key architects of the ‘apartheid’ state?:

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  • Born in 1854, the son of a clergyman from Bishop’s Stortford, Rhodes had emigrated to South Africa at the age of seventeen before going to Oxford. He was at once a business genius and imperial visionary. It was not enough for Rhodes to make a fortune from the vast De Beers diamond mines at Kimberley. He aspired to be more than a money-maker. He dreamt of becoming an empire builder.

  • Cecil Rhodes became the wealthy chairman of the Kimberley diamond-mines, following the annexation of Griqualand West by the British Government in 1871 at the request of the Griqua chief. The extension of the Cape Colony across the Orange River checked the westward expansion of the Boer Orange Free State.

  • Though his public image was that of a lone colossus bestriding Africa, as in the cartoon above, Rhodes could not have won his near-monopoly over South African diamond production without the assistance of his friends in the City of London; in particular, the Rothschild bank, at that time the biggest concentration of financial capital in the world.

  • When Rhodes had arrived at the Kimberley diamond fields there had been more than a hundred small companies working the four major ‘pipes’, flooding the market with diamonds and driving one another out of business. In 1882 a Rothschild agent visited Kimberley and recommended large-scale amalgamation; within four years the number of companies was down to three. A year later, the bank financed the merger of Rhodes’s De Beers Company with the Compagnie Francaise, followed by the final crucial fusion with the bigger Kimberley Central Company.

  • Now there was just one company: De Beers. Rhodes did not own the company, since Rothschild was the largest shareholder, and by 1899 the Rothschilds’ stake was twice that of Rhodes. When Rhodes needed financial backing for a new scheme in October 1888, he turned to Rothschild, who by then had become the first Jew to enter the House of Lords.

  • The proposition that Rhodes wanted Rothschild to consider was the concession he had just secured from the Matabele chief, Lobengula, to develop ‘simply endless’ gold fields that Rhodes believed existed beyond the Limpopo River. The terms of his letter made it clear that his intentions towards the chief were anything but friendly. The Matabele king, he wrote, was

    the only block to Central Africa, as once we have his territory, the rest is easy, as the rest is simply a village system with a separate headman, all independent of each other… the key is Matabele Land, with its gold, the reports as to which are not based solely on hearsay… Fancy, this Gold Field which was purchasable, at about £150,000 two years ago, is now selling for over ten million.

  • Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana) was in a key position in South Africa, as it lay on the direct route to the rich Zambesi valley, which Rhodes wanted to control. He had used his influence with the home Government to secure a protectorate over the territory in 1884, fearing that the Germans in south-west Africa would intervene and block British expansion northward. He now dreamed of a united Africa under British rule, extending northwards from the Cape, with a Cape-to-Cairo railway across British territories.

  • When Rhodes joined forces with the existing Bechuanaland Company to create a new Central Search Association for Matabeleland, the banker Rothschild was a major shareholder, and increased his involvement when this became the United Concessions Company in 1890. He was also among the founders of the British South Africa Company, acting as the Company’s unpaid financial adviser.

  •  Rhodes established the British South Africa Company in 1889, and was granted the right by charter to develop the resources of the country now bearing his name – Rhodesia.

  • Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890. Like many of his contemporaries, he was inspired by a sense of Great Britain’s mission to extend a civilising influence throughout its Empire, known as ‘the White Man’s Burden’, as most clearly expressed in Kipling’s poem. He saw his own part in this as extending British influence in South Africa, aiming to create a South African Federation  out of the British and Afrikaaner colonies.

  • The first step towards this was to consolidate his control over Matabeleland. When Lobengula realised he had been hoodwinked into signing over much more than mere mineral rights, he resolved to take Rhodes on. Determined to dispose of the chief once and for all, Rhodes responded by ending an invasion force – the Chartered Companies’ Volunteers – numbering seven hundred. By African standards, the Matabele had a powerful and well-organised army, numbering in the region of three thousand. But Rhodes’s men brought with them devastating Maxim guns which could fire five hundred rounds a minute, fifty times faster than the fastest rifle available.

  • Maxim testing his gun…001

Above: Hiram Maxim with his gun, c. 1880.

  • The Maxim gun had been invented by an American, Hiram Maxim, who had an underground workshop in Hatton Garden, London. As soon as he had his prototype ready for the British market, he invited several members of the Royal Family and the British aristocracy to give the weapon a trial. Among those who accepted were the Duke of Cambridge, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Devonshire and the Duke of Kent. The first of these, who was then Commander-in-Chief, felt ‘confident they will, ere long, be used generally in all armies’. When the Maxim Gun Company was established in 1884, Lord Rothschild was on its board. In 1888 his bank financed the £1.9 million merger of the Company with the Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company.

  • The Battle of Shangani River in 1893 was among the earliest uses of the Maxim in battle. One eyewitness recorded what happened:

    The Matabele never got nearer than 100 yards led by the Nubuzu regiment, the king’s body-guard who came on yelling like fiends and rushing on to certain death, for the Maxims far exceeded all expectations and mowed them down literally like grass. I never saw anything like these Maxim guns, nor dreamed that such things could be: for the belts and cartridges were run through them as fast as a man could load and fire. Every man in the laager owes his life under Providence to the Maxim gun. The natives told the king that they did not fear us for our rifles, but they could not kill the beast that went pooh! pooh! by which they meant the Maxim.

  • To the Matabele it seemed that ‘the white man came… with… guns that spat bullets as the heavens sometimes spit hail, and who were the naked Matabele to stand up against these guns?’ Around 1,500 Matabele warriors were wiped out. Just four of the seven hundred invaders died. The Times reported that the Matabele

put our victory down to witchcraft, allowing that the Maxim was a pure work of an evil spirit. They have named it”S’cockacocka”, owing to the peculiar noise it makes when in action.

  • The conquered territory was renamed Rhodesia, since he had masterminded the operation. However, it could not have succeeded without the financial might of Rothschilds. One member of the family noted with satisfaction the connection between ‘a sharp action having taken place with the Matabeles’ and ‘a little spurt in the shares’ of Rhodes’s British South Africa Company.

  • The official Matabeleland souvenir, published on the fortieth anniversary of the one-sided conflict, long after Rhodes’s death, opened with his ‘tribute’ to the men who had conquered the Matabele ‘savages’. The ‘highlight’ is the following hymn, originally written as a Liberal satire on the expedition, which Rhodes’s men adopted as their anthem:

Onward Chartered Soldiers, on to heathen lands,

Prayer books in your pockets, rifles in your hands.

Take the glorious tidings where trade can be done,

Spread the peaceful gospel – with a Maxim gun..

  • Rhodes’s ambitions brought him into conflict with the Boers whose leader, Paul Kruger, resented his policy of expansion which meant the encircling of Boer territory. The Boers were farmers, but the discovery of gold in the Witswatersrand in 1886 and the rapid development of the mines by British settlers led to the outnumbering of the Boer population by the Uitlanders in the Transvaal. Kruger adopted a hostile policy towards them, denying them all political rights and taxing them heavily. Moreover, monopolies granted to Europeans and heavy railway rates hampered the expansion of the mining industry.

  • The Jameson Raid (1896) was a plot engineered by Dr Jameson, administrator of Rhodesia, and supported by Rhodes, to use the Uitlanders to overthrow the Boer Government of the Transvaal. Its failure led to Rhodes’ resignation and discredited the British Government in the eyes of the world, uniting both Boer states against Britain.

  • The Wars in…007

  • The Uitlanders of the Transvaal continued to agitate for improved conditions and petitioned the British government to intervene on their behalf. Negotiations failed to reach a compromise, due to the obstinacy of Kruger on the one hand and the uncompromising imperialism of Joseph Chamberlain, on the other. The Boers declared war in 1899. The Boer War came to an end in 1902, after Roberts and Kitchener finally wore down the resistance of the Boers, partly through the use of concentration camps for the women and children of the irregular fighters. The Boer republics were annexed, but the Boers were to continue to rule themselves and their farmers were compensated for war damage.

  • During the Second Boer War Rhodes went to Kimberley at the onset of the siege, in a calculated move to raise the political stakes on the government to dedicate resources to the defence of the city. The military felt he was more of a liability than an asset and found him intolerable. Rhodes insisted that the military should adopt his plans and ideas instead of following their orders. Despite the differences, Rhodes’ company was instrumental in the defence of the city, providing water, refrigeration facilities, constructing fortifications, manufacturing an armoured train, shells and a one-off gun named Long Cecil.

  • Rhodes used his position and influence to lobby the British government to relieve the siege of Kimberley, claiming in the press that the situation in the city was desperate. The military wanted to assemble a large force to take the Boer cities of Bloemfontein and Pretoria, but they were compelled to change their plans and send three separate smaller forces to relieve the sieges of Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith.

Funeral of Rhodes in Adderley St, Cape Town on 3 April 1902

 

  • Although Rhodes remained a leading figure in the politics of southern Africa, especially during the Second Boer War, he had been dogged by ill-health throughout his relatively short life. From age 40 his heart condition returned with increasing severity until his death from heart failure in 1902, aged 48, at his seaside cottage in Muizenberg.

  • The Union of South Africa came about in 1909, and included the two British colonies, the Cape and Natal, and the two Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. A constitution was drafted and accepted by the British Parliament which agreed, among other matters, a common policy towards the native African populations.

As PM of Cape Colony

As PM of Cape Colony

 

The Jameson Raid

The Jameson Raid

Churchill’s Adventures in South Africa

Of course, many others were attracted by a sense of imperial adventure to South Africa. Among them was the young Winston Churchill, who had already spent time in India with the Queen’s Own Hussars, before arriving on a ‘new’ continent as a journalist-adventurer.

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Above: Churchill as chief Boer War correspondent on The Morning Post, 

South Africa, 1899

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

In South Africa fame and fortune went together. Randolph (Churchill) had invested in Rand mining shares, which had appreciated by at least fifty times their original face value – a small fortune that, unhappily for Jennie and Winston, was largely consumed by the late Lord’s equally substantial debts. But Churchill also shared the indignation of the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, and the empire builder Cecil Rhodes that the might of the British Empire was being held to ransom by the obstinacy of a bunch of Dutch farmers who dictated what political rights British settlers might and might not enjoy in the Transvaal. Mostly, however, the Boer War was another opportunity for the kind of military-literary adventure that Winston had made his trademark… he resigned his commission in the Hussars and was made chief war correspondent for ‘The Morning Post’. He sailed with the commander-in-chief of the expedition, Sir Redvers Buller; managed to be taken prisoner while defending an armoured train against Boer attack; escaped from a military gaol at Pretoria…, hid in a coal wagon and then walked hundreds of miles to freedom; and finally returned to active duty with the South African Light Horse in time to be at the relief of Ladysmith. The escapades were almost too fabulous to be true, and they turned Churchill from a purveyor of ripping yarns on the frontier into a genuine, nationally known war hero. Writing about his Boer War and lecturing with lantern slides in Britain, Canada and America… put £10,000 into his bank account.  

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Must Rhodes Fall in Oxford?

A prominent statue of Rhodes on the main campus of the University of Cape Town was vandalized with human excrement in March 2015, giving rise to a student-led campaign called “#RhodesMustFall” which drew attention to what the activists considered the lack of systemic racial transformation in South African institutions after apartheid. The university’s management took the statue down for relocation on 9 April 2015.

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A statue of Rhodes adorns the frontage of Oriel College, Oxford. In 2015, a group of students demanded the removal of his statue, stating that it “symbolise[d] racism and colonialism”. Certainly, the statue dominates the High Street. Rhodes was an Oriel alumnus and left the College £100,000 in his will, though he stipulated that his trustees should enquire closely into how it was spent since ‘the college authorities live secluded from the world and so are like children in commercial matters’. Appropriately, like the young Winston Churchill, he looks like a man who has just come in from a walk on the dusty veldt. The inscription is a ‘chronogram’: concealed within the message is the date of the building’s erection in Roman numerals. It is 1911, but takes some unravelling.

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There is also a plaque to Rhodes in King Edward Street (pictured above) marking where Rhodes lived as a student in 1881, and commemorating his ‘great services rendered… to his country’. Many imperial animals, including lions and elephants, also occupy important positions on Oxford’s buildings. The loftiest of these are, of course, the birds, including an eagle and a pelican, the latter being the target for a bottle thrown by an angry scholar, John Keble. Perhaps the most unusual and impressive of these statues is the Zimbabwe bird on the roof of Rhodes House (below).

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This is a copy of one of eight soapstone effigies of birds found during the excavation of the ancient Shona city of Zimbabwe in the 1880s, the only representations of animals found in any archaeological site in sub-Saharan Africa. Rhodes is known to have bought one in 1889. Of course, by logical extension, both the plaque and the bird would be additional candidates for the iconoclasm suggested for Rhodes’s statue, the former for its celebration of the man as a national hero, and the latter, in addition to its association with the house named in his honour, due to Zimbabwe’s more recent fall from grace within the Commonwealth.

Quotations from Rhodes:

 Cecil Rhodes (Sketch by Mortimer Menpes)
  • “To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annexe the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.”

  • “Pure philanthropy is very well in its way but philanthropy plus five percent is a good deal better.”

  • “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race… If there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible…” (as an undergraduate in Oxford)

  • “Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.”

  • “Equal Rights for all Civilized Men South of the Zambesi.”

  • “I could never accept the position that we should disqualify a human being on account of his colour.”

  • “To be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life.”

  • “Take Constitution Jesuits if obtainable and insert English Empire for Roman Catholic Religion” (outlining the original conception of the Rhodes Scholarships to Lord Rothschild, 1888).

Secondary Sources and Interpretations:

A Simple School Text Narrative of The British Empire in Africa:

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The map shows the extent of the European empires at the end of the nineteenth century. European influence… extended considerably… between 1870 and 1900 when a scramble for overseas possessions in Africa, Asia and elsewhere took place.

The largest of the European empires in 1900 was the British Empire. This occupied about one quarter of the world’s land surface and included between one quarter and one fifth of the world’s population.

It included two types of colony. Canada, Australia and New Zealand, together with the South African states of Cape Colony and Natal, were self-governing colonies which meant that they controlled their own internal affairs. They were also colonies of settlement, for throughout the nineteenth century European settlers, most of them British, were attracted to these sparsely populated lands.

… Britain came to feel that it was her duty to lead the native peoples along the path of progress. As Joseph Chamberlain, who was Colonial Secretary between 1895 and 1903, put it: ‘We feel now that our rule over these territories can only be justified if we can show that it adds to the happiness and prosperity of the people…’ . Rudyard Kipling stressed the same idea, that possessing an empire involved obligations to the peoples ruled:

Take up the White Man’s burden –

Send forth the best ye breed –

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need….

In the first place, however, the Empire existed for the benefit of trade, as it had done in the eighteenth century… In 1885 Britain’s exports to the Empire were valued at £26 million; in 1905 this figure was £113 million. Referring to Britain’s new African territories, Lord Salisbury, who was Prime Minister for the greater part of the period 1885-1902, said: ‘It is our business in all these new countries to make smooth the paths for British commerce, British enterprise, the application of British capital, at a time when … other outlets for the commercial energies of our race are being gradually closed…’.

The acquisition of vast new territories… was accompanied at home by mounting public interest in and enthusiasm for the Empire. These feelings reached their climax in 1897 during the celebrations held to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (pictured below).  

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 Above: Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, London 1899

Extracts from Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A short history of British Imperialism. Harlow: Longman

The encirclement of the Transvaal was completed at the end of the decade, when the diamond millionaire Cecil Rhodes (who always had British colonial interests more at heart than the British Colonial Office) formed a commercial company to occupy Matabeleland and Mashonaland to the north. The idea was that the company should take over the administration of the country in return for its profits. There was opposition to this scheme from humanitarians, worried by the implications of a situation whereby native Africans were governed by their exploiters. But for a parsimonious government it was a tempting bargain. The profits to be got from the country were as yet merely notional, whereas the expense of governing them was predictable. So the company got its royal charter in October 1889. In this way Rhodesia was born, and for the British government another potential counterbalance to Afrikanerdom secured at almost no expense.

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… one constant factor in British policy… was that British interests in South Africa be secured as cheaply as possible. As much as in mid-century, national interest had to be balanced against national economy; and ways could generally be found of reconciling the two. This was one of the purposes of the federation policy, and of the constant efforts of British governments to persuade the  colonists themselves to assume responsibility for new territories annexed. It was also a reason why Rhodes’ offer was so eagerly accepted in 1889. One result of this, however, was a kind of paradox: that in order to maintain cheaply a general British supremacy over southern Africa, Britain was tending to lose her particular authority there – her authority over the white colonists’ conduct of their domestic affairs, including, of course, their ‘native policies’.  As yet the concept of British imperial trusteeship for native races was not quite dead, and the humanitarian lobby in Britain won some minor victories, where it did not cost much in money or local goodwill. Where larger interests were at stake, however – agreement with the Boers at the London Convention, containment of the Boers by Rhodes in 1889 – trusteeship could make little headway. Slowly Whitehall’s powers were devolved upon the men on the spot, to secure their co-operation and spread the burden. Consequently, as the area of the British empire in southern Africa expanded, so its real effective control there diminished.  (pp 99-101)

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Because of the many thousands of Britons and British organisations which had established themselves in far-off places, long before governments feared to tread there, it was seldom difficult for governments, if they wanted to, to find people to delegate to… in southern Africa the government of the Cape. Elsewhere a favourite instrument of vicarious colonial administration in the 1880s was the chartered company, like Rhodes’s in South Africa. The disadvantages of the giving commercial companies licence to rule colonial territories were that they discouraged free competition; and that their exploitative functions might not always be compatible with their subjects’ welfare – although current economic orthodoxy tended to assume that profits arising from exploitation did filter down. The great advantage of the chartered company was that it disburdened the British taxpayer of the cost of colonial administration. The Liberal and avowedly anti-imperialist Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir William Harcourt was reported in 1892 to have said that ‘even jingoism is tolerable when it is done “on the cheap”.’…  (104-5)   

For men like Chamberlain, Rosebery, Curzon, Milner, Rhodes, their imperialism was a serious matter: in a very literal sense a matter of life and death. It was a question of fitting Britain for survival, preparing her, as Lord Rosebery put it, ‘for the keen race of nations’. Consequently, it would involve quite drastic changes in Britain as well as abroad: all agreed, or said they did, that a true imperialism began at home. ‘An Empire such as hours’, wrote Rosebery to The Times in 1900, ‘requires as its first condition an Imperial Race – a race vigorous and industrious and intrepid. Health of mind and body exalt a nation in the competition of the universe. The survival of the fittest is an absolute truth in the condition of the modern world.(129-130)

Of course some people would not be fully satisfied until the whole world was British. Only when there were no foreigners would Britain be entirely secure from foreigners. This was the ultimate in imperialist paranoia. Cecil Rhodes as a young man envisaged Britain taking over and settling

the entire Continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, the islands of the Pacific not heretofore possessed by Great Britain, the whole of the Malay Archipelago, the seabord of China and Japan;

The whole process to be completed by ‘the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire’; and this, he concluded, would ‘render wars impossible’. This was clearly over-ambitious; but it was a common desire of imperialists to want to make existing colonies secure by surrounding them with more… there were many who saw Egypt’s frontier stretching as far as Uganda, and South Africa’s boundary way beyond the Zambesi. There were supposed to be other reasons why it was so imperative, in the interests of national survival, to take more colonies. The most common one was the economic one: an old familiar argument for imperialism, but given a new urgency… by the prevailing climate of fear. Cecil Rhodes… put it sensationally, as if the survival of the capitalist system depended on it:

In order to save the forty million inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide for the goods produced by them in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.

… Ideas like these were widespread amongst self-styled ‘imperialists’ in the 1890s… Fundamentally they believed in their own abilities: were confident that they had it in them to run a great empire – that they were, if they organised themselves properly, fit to rule a quarter of mankind. ‘We happen to be’, said Cecil Rhodes, ‘the best people in the world, with the highest ideals of decency and justice and liberty and peace, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better for humanity’. Many others doubtless shared his patriotic self-esteem, but it was not common to voice it so crudely, and it was in any event not necessary to the imperialist’s  case to believe that his ‘race’ was overall and absolutely superior to others. What late Victorian imperialists did like to claim was that they were better at the practical and pragmatic science of managing the affairs of other people. In this they fancied themselves greatly. ‘I believe,’ said Joseph Chamberlain in 1895, ‘that the British race is the greatest of governing races that the world has ever seen’ (131-5).

The association of capitalism with imperialism … was commonplace: but nowhere in the late nineteenth century British Empire… was the association quite so close or so blatant as in South Africa in the 1890s. In South Africa the tissue of industrial capitalism, grafted late, had taken hold firmly in the 1880s and spread phenomenally thereafter; by the mid-nineties, for those who believed capitalism should be kept in its place and that place was outside politics, it was clearly out of control. The cause of this was the domination of the South African industrial scene by Cecil Rhodes, a man whose conception of financial and political power would not admit of any necessary demarcation between them: who believed that what was good for his Consolidated Gold Fields was good for South Africa, and would bury political power to achieve that good. Rhodes was the reason why South African capitalism in the 1890s became a force on the side of British imperialism… Of the handful of big European capitalism scrapping for riches amongst the gold reefs of the independent Transvaal… only a tiny minority believed that their interests would be furthered by an extension of British rule there; most of them… were happy digging for gold under the auspices of the relatively ordered, if not very friendly, government of the Afrikaners… Rhodes was exceptional partly because his financial interests were spread over more of southern Africa than theirs, and partly because he had very special imperial visions of his own; his capitalism was imperialistic… The consequence was that, in the imperial history of Southern Africa in the 1890s, the forces of industrial and financial capitalism played a more prominent role than they would have done otherwise.

Rhodes’s influence in South African affairs was partly the outcome of his wealth and the use he made of it, partly the result of the favour shown to him by British government ministers for reasons of their own. The two things were connected, of course: Rhodes used his wealth to cultivate ministers’ favour, and ministers favoured him partly because of the power he wielded through his wealth… Rhodes’s power had been built up in the Kimberley diamond fields, which he came to monopolise in 1888, and the gold reefs of the Witwatersrand, which he could never control absolutely, but which he shared with two or three other great magnates in the 1890s. With the wealth from these two gigantic concerns, and with winning ways with all kinds of men which none of his rivals could begin to compete with, he established for himself a predominant position in South African politics. In 1890 he became Prime Minister of Cape Colony at the head of a party which had preached and practised co-operation between the white races, and which practised, though it did not preach so loudly, co-operation too between politics and capital: of his dual role as company director and premier, ‘I concluded’, he wrote, ‘that one position could be worked with the other, and each to the benefit of all’. …in England he had the admiration of the Queen, the backing of Lord Rothschild… and the support of at least two influential journalists… This kind of influence was of great assistance to him when… in 1889 (he) secured from the Liberal government a charter to carve a whole country in his own commercial image… In the early 1890s his company took possession of its inheritance, swindled and shot the Matabele and Mashonaoples who lived there into a sullen subservience, and dug for the promised gold: but failed to find it. It was when the prospect of big dividends… receded in ‘Zambesia’ that he turned his full attention, and the powers – legal and illegal – that his wealth gave him, towards making the Transvaal British.

Rhodes always insisted that he valued riches not for their own sake but for the power they gave him to help extend and consolidate the British empire: which grand ambition, he held, justified any use he might make of those riches – ‘you must judge of my conduct by the objects that I had in view’. …It followed for Rhodes that, for southern Africa to be secured for the British Empire, the Transvaal must become part of it; and he believed he had the means to help this on. …When the Rand’s gold had first been discovered the Cape had reaped some profit from it by transporting it to the sea. By 1894, however, the Transvaal could export and import goods without touching British territory at all, by means of a new, independent railway just completed to Delagoa Bay in Portuguese East Africa. …There were rumours too Paul Kruger, the Transvaal president, was planning a republican takeover of the whole of South Africa… And from 1894 there were more solid reports of German involvement in the Transvaal, with the Transvaal’s encouragement, which gave the situation a more sinister outlook still. Ministers in London were worried, but not worried enough yet… to take overtly aggressive action against the Transvaal… Rhodes, however, had more urgency, fewer scruples, and the power to make an African war almost on his own.  

Rhodes’s decision to use his considerable powers to incite revolution in the Transvaal, to abet it when it came, and to use it to force the Republicans into some kind of compliant union with the British colonies, arose from his conviction that a rebellion was going to break out in the Transvaal anyway, and that it had better be turned into a British imperial direction by him than into another direction, less favourable to the British, by others. For years there had been unrest amongst the largely foreign mining community on the land, the ‘Uitlanders’, who were daily subjected to innumerable aggravations and disabilities by a dominant people they regarded as rude and inferior, and who regarded them, with rather more justice, as a threat to their whole national way of life… During 1894-95 there was talk of armed rebellion on the Rand: wild talk, as it turned out, from the ordinary Uitlanders, but more serious from some of the big capitalists, who took measures – like gun-running – actively to promote it. Rhodes’s involvement in this plotting would ensure that the revolution, if it came and succeeded, would be to the advantage of the empire.

It also led the British government to be dragged into the affair: not necessarily because it approved of Rhodes’s cloak-and-dagger ways of solving its South African problem, but it was because it was coming to accept his diagnosis of that problem, and because his power and prestige in South Africa made him the readiest means to hand, if not the best, towards a solution… Rhodes was the agent she was given to work through, and Rhodes had ideas of his own… Before the autumn of 1895 he had secured the co-operation he needed from the British government to put his plot into effect: troops, a friendly High Commissioner, and a strip of land on the western border of the Transvaal he could start an invasion from. Joseph Chamberlain at the Colonial Office… played along with Rhodes… His connivance in Rhodes’s schemes rested on the assumption.. made on the best authority, that an Uitlander rebellion would take place… In that event intervention by Britain, or by a British colonial in Britain’s name, could be presented as a response to a situation generated independently of her, made in order legitimately to safeguard her nationals in the Transvaal. What ruined things for the government was that the Uitlanders never rebelled, yet the intervention took place regardless. On 29 December 1895 Dr Leander Starr Jameson rode into the Transvaal at the head of a band of 500 mounted troops and carrying a Union Jack, to aid a rebellion which never happened. He was easily stopped. The results of this fiasco were disastrous for everyone except the Boers… Chamberlain tried to cover the traces of imperial involvement, but could not… To all intents and purposes Britain was implicated in a squalid conspiracy against a foreign state… The result of the Jameson Raid was the complete opposite of what had been intended. Instead of weakening Kruger it strengthened him; instead of persuading him to compromise it made him more intransigent…

The lesson of the Jameson Raid for the British government was that it could no longer pursue its policies in South Africa on the coat-tails of capitalists.Rhodes and the government had done a great deal for each other in the past, and Chamberlain was convinced that Rhodes could do something for him still in the future – but in the north, where his buccaneering methods were likely to be more successful against black Africans than against white Afrikaners, and less likely to arouse strong feelings at home or diplomatic repercussions abroad. …Before he had raided the Transvaal Dr Jameson had been Rhodes’s viceroy in Zambesia; in this capacity he had managed to provoke the Matabele, and even their neighbours the Mashona… to seething unrest… they both rebelled, reasserted their old sovereignties, and put ‘Rhodesia’ – and the value of Chartered Company shares – in very real danger. Rhodes had to restore the authority of the Company or his whole world would have collapsed: and this he did during the course of 1896 in one of the bloodiest and most ferocious of southern Africa’s ‘punitive’ wars, capped – when it was clear the Africans were not going to be tamed by force alone – by a remarkable exercise by Rhodes in peaceful persuasion. In the north, therefore, Rhodes was left to repair his own breaches; but in the south he was, for the time being, a spent force, too discredited to be of use… The British government had perforce to disown him, and to secure its South African salvation by its own efforts – as it should have done all along.

Britain was stalemated. She could neither persuade the Transvaal to join the empire nor force her into it… The stalemate was broken slowly, in 1897-99… Chamberlain nursed public opinion in Britain on to his side in a series of speeches calculated to make it hostile to Kruger.And in south Africa he got what he needed most: a handle to turn his policy by, to fill the gap left by Rhodes’s departure. The ‘South African League was formed in 1896 to rally imperialist opinion in the two British colonies and the Transvaal… its policies were Rhodes’s, and in April 1899 Rhodes himself returned from the political wilderness to become its president. This time, however, it was not Rhodes who would take the initiatives. That duty lay firmly with… Chamberlain and his new High Commissioner, Alfred Milner…

Milner was move positively for war. A self-declared ‘British Race Patriot’, he could not conceive of the Afrikaners of the Cape being loyal to the empire while there remained an independent nation of their ‘race’ to the north to divert their loyalties…(168-176)

Cases came to light around the turn of the century of the most shocking abuses of trust by exploitative concerns. One was Cecil Rhodes’s conduct in Zambesia in the 1890s. But the worst was the Congo Free State, entrusted to King Leopold of the Belgians by the Berlin Conference in 1884, where the most horrific tales of systematic massacre and mutilation in the search for profits were revealed to the European public in the 1900s, and provoked widespread agitation which eventually led to Leopold’s surrender of his Congolese kingdom to the Belgian parliament in 1909. Rhodes and Leopold together made Liberals highly distrustful of capitalists in the tropics, and especially of capitalist monopolies with title over vast expanses of territory, which were the cause of the worst abuses. (223)

1919 was a year for dreams to come true; another one which did was Cecil Rhodes’s ‘Cape to Cairo’ scheme, when Britain took Tanganyika from Germany and so completed that chain too… further down the Union of South Africa took over the administration of South-West Africa. (248-9) 

Extracts from Niall Ferguson (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Penguin Books.

So close was Rhodes’s relationship with the Rothschilds that he even entrusted the execution of his will to Lord Rothschild, specifying that his estate should be used to fund an imperialist equivalent of the Jesuit order – the original intention of the Rhodes Scholarships. This would be ‘a society of the elect for the good of the Empire’… Rothschild in turn assured ; ‘Our first and foremost wish in connection with South African matters is that you should remain at the head of affairs in that Colony and that you should be able to carry out that great Imperial policy which has been the dream of your life.’

The creation of his own personal country and his own imperialist holy order were indeed merely components of a much bigger Rhodesian ‘Imperial policy’. On a huge table-sized map of Africa (which can still be seen in Kimberley today) Rhodes drew a pencil line stretching from Cape Town to Cairo. This was to be the ultimate imperial railway. From the Cape it would run northwards like some huge metal spine through Bechuanaland… Rhodesia… Nyasaland… then on past the Great Lakes to Khartoum and finally up the Nile to its final destination in Egypt.

By this means, Rhodes envisaged bringing the whole African continent under British domination… There were literally no limits to Rhodes’s ambitions.

At one level, wars like the one waged against the Matabele were private battles planned in private clubs like the Kimberley Club, that stuffy bastion of capitalist conviviality of which Rhodes himself was among the founders. Matabeleland had become part of the Empire at no cost to the British taxpayer since the entire campaign had been fought by mercenaries employed by Rhodes and paid for by the shareholders in the British South African and De Beers companies. If it turned out that Matabeleland had no gold, then they would be the losers. In effect, the process of colonization had been privatised, a return to the early days of empire when monopoly trading companies had pioneered British rule from Canada to Calcutta. Rhodes was indeed consciously learning from history. British rule in India had begun with the East India Company; now British rule in Africa would be founded on his business interests. In one letter to Rothschild he even referred to De Beers as ‘another East India Company’. (227-8)

By the beginning of the new century, the carve-up was complete. The British had all but realized Rhodes’s vision of unbroken possession from the Cape to Cairo:their African empire stretched northwards from the Cape Colony through Natal, Bechuanaland (Botswana), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), and Nyasaland (Malawi); and southwards from Egypt, through the Sudan, Uganda and East Africa (Kenya). German East Africa was the only missing link in Rhodes’s intended chain… the lion’s share belonged to Britain. (239-40)

To Rhodes, Chamberlain and Milner, the Boer’s independence remained intolerable. As usual, British calculations were both strategic and economic… the Cape remained a military base of ‘immense importance for England’ (Chamberlain) for the simple reason that the (Suez) Canal might be vulnerable to closure in a major European war. It remained, in the Colonial Secretary’s view, ‘the cornerstone of the whole British colonial system’. At the same time, it was hardly without significance that the Boer republics had turned out to be sitting on the biggest gold seams in the world. By 1900 the Rand was producing a quarter of the world’s gold supply and had absorbed more than £114 million of mainly British capital. Having been an impoverished backwater, the Transvaal suddenly seemed set to become the economic centre of gravity in southern Africa. But the Boers saw no reason why they should share power with the tens of thousands of British immigrants, the ‘Uitlanders’, who had swarmed into their country to pan for gold. Nor did they approve of the (somewhat) more liberal way the British treated the black population of Cape Colony. In the eyes of their president Paul Kruger, the Boers’ strictly Calvinist way of life was simply incompatible with British rule… Ever since 1895, when Rhodes’s crony Dr Leander Starr Jameson had led his abortive ‘raid’ into the Transvaal, it had been obvious that a showdown was imminent.

(273-4)

Not only was imperialism immoral, argued the critics. According to the Radicals, it was also a rip-off: paid for by British taxpayers, fought for by British soldiers, but benefiting only a tiny elite of fat-cat millionaires, the likes of Rhodes and Rothschild. That was the thrust of J. A. Hobson’s profoundly influential ‘Imperialism: A Study’, published in 1902. ‘Every great political act’ argued Hobson,

‘must receive the sanction and the practical aid of this little group of financial kings… They have the largest definite stake in the business of Imperialism, and the amplest means of forcing their will upon the policy of nations… Finance is the governor of the imperial engine, directing the energy and determining the work.’ 

H. N. Brailsford took Hobson’s argument further in his ‘The War of Steel and Gold: A Study of the Armed Peace’, (written in 1910, but not published until 1914). ‘In the heroic age,’ Brailsford wrote,

‘Helen’s was the face that launched a thousand ships. In our golden age the face wears more often the shrewd features of a some Hebrew financier. To defend the interests of Lord Rothschild and his fellow bondholders, Egypt was first occupied and then practically annexed by Great Britain… The extremest case of all is, perhaps, our own South African War.’ 

Was it not obvious that the war had been fought to ensure that the gold mines of the Transvaal remained securely in the hands of their capitalist owners? Was not Rhodes merely, in the words of the Radical MP Henry Labouchere, an ‘Empire jerry-builder who had always been a mere vulgar promoter masquerading as a patriot, and the figurehead of a gang of astute Hebrew financiers with whom he divides the profits?’

Like those modern conspiracy theories which explain every war in terms of the control of oil reserves, the Radical critique of imperialism was an over-simplification (Hobson and Brailsford little knew what a liability Rhodes had been during the siege of Kimberley.) And like those other modern theories that attribute sinister power to certain financial institutions, some anti-imperialism conveyed more than a hint of anti-Semitism. (283-4)

Conclusion: The ‘Crux’ of the Issue

In this last comment by Niall Ferguson we reach the crux of the issue. Certainly, Rhodes was a colonialist and imperialist, as were most leading figures of his day, not just within the British Empire, but within all the European empires. In Africa, as noted here, the French were equally aggressive in their pursuit of land and resources, and the Belgians and subsequently the Italians also used what, even within the terms of this ‘scramble’ were excessive means against the native African populations. That is not to justify the actions that Rhodes was involved in, but just to place them in a broader context. It also needs to be noticed that his while his strategy for developing Rhodesia was a classical colonialist one, through the control of trading companies, his involvement in the Transvaal and later in the relief of Kimberley was concerned with achieving British supremacy over a white race, the Boers and that, if anything, his attitudes towards the original natives were far more liberal than those of the Afrikaners, certainly than those of Kruger. There is also evidence that, as a business man, he retained a practical antipathy for everyday racial discrimination. On this question, he should not be judged by today’s standards, but as living at a time when theories of racial hierarchy and paternalism were dominant throughout Britain and Europe.  These theories are certainly evident in the architecture of Oxford, Bristol, Liverpool, London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and other cities which grew rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. If every surviving reminder of slavers, colonialists and imperialists were to be torn down, the cityscapes of Britain would look radically different, and greatly impoverished.  More importantly, much of modern human history has been about the replacement of one great ‘construct’ with another, whether in economics, politics, or art and architecture. As Niall Ferguson has pointed out, the liberal imperialism of the late Victorian period was criticised by Radicals who revealed themselves as overtly anti-Semitic. The new empires of fascists and communists which characterised the 1930s and 1940s were far more universally destructive than the old ones, yet we do not seek to remove every trace of them. Finally, far from being an ‘architect of apartheid’, there is a fundamental ‘disconnect’ between the imperialism of Rhodes and his contemporaries in Africa and the post-1948 racist regimes in Southern Africa. They drew their inspiration from a heretical view of sectarian Calvinism which was very far removed from the Victorian paternalism of ‘the white man’s burden’ to which Rhodes subscribed.

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