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Dreamland of the Armistice

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Alan Sharp looks at the factors shaping national policies in the weeks preceding the Paris Peace Conference, when the failure of the victorious allies to agree on aims and a process for negotiations with the Germans resulted in a ‘tragedy of disappointment’.

1918 Armistace Day Celebrations, King and Bay Streets Downtown Toronto.On the morning of November 11th, 1918, Harold Nicolson, a young British diplomat, chanced to look from the Foreign Office towards Downing Street:

It was 10.55 am. Suddenly the front door opened. Mr Lloyd George, his white hair fluttering on the wind, appeared upon the front doorstep. He waved his arms outwards. I opened the window hurriedly. He was shouting the same sentence over and over again. I caught his words. ‘At eleven o’clock this morning the war will be over’.

The end of the war had come suddenly and unexpectedly early. In March 1918 German forces on the Western Front, reinforced by men released by the defeat of Russia, very nearly split the British and French armies. As late as June the French government contemplated evacuating Paris, but when the tide turned it was inexorable and the Central Powers collapsed, accepting the Allies’ terms – first Bulgaria on September 29th, then Turkey on October 30th and Austria-Hungary on November 3rd. On October 4th Germany sent a telegram via Switzerland requesting that the American president, Woodrow Wilson, negotiate a settlement based on the Fourteen Points speech that he had delivered to Congress on January 8th, 1918.

The two months between the Armistice on November 11th and the official opening of the Paris Peace Conference on January 18th, 1919, were characterized by Ernst Troeltsch, the German theologian, historian and sociologist, as the ‘dreamland of the armistice period’. The expectation that republican Germany would immediately be forgiven the sins of Wilhelm II was soon exposed as unrealistic, though the Germans still continued to hope that US President Woodrow Wilson’s policies would prevail over those of the vengeful European Allies. It was a time for the Germans of hope, fulfilment and expectation – but also exhaustion, anxiety and despair. The leaders of the new German government of November 1918 under Ebert found themselves torn between the desire to distance themselves from the militarism of the imperial era and the need to retain the conditions negotiated for the Armistice by the Kaiser’s last government. These, theoretically at least, provided some assurance that the eventual treaty would conform to Wilson’s precepts. Reluctantly they opted for continuity, thus finding themselves the unwilling apologists for the previous régime – although it is unlikely that the victors would ever have cast them in a different role. Later, their belief in Wilson turned to despair; by June 1919, German cartoonists showed Wilson’s ‘genuine American paint’ running to transform the Fourteen Points into ‘Scorn’ and ‘Hate’.

The visit to Lorraine and Alsace on December 8th and 9th, 1918, by the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau and his bitter rival President Raymond Poincaré – the two in harmony for once – represented the triumphant fulfilment of the French policy of revanche for the loss of the two provinces in 1871. Unique among all the territorial revisions of the Treaty of Versailles, the official date for the return of Alsace-Lorraine was November 11th, 1918, not January 10th, 1920, the day on which the treaty was ratified and became operative. Whether Clemenceau could deliver the more ambitious French schemes – eagerly advanced by Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the supreme Allied commander, and Poincaré – to detach the Rhineland from Germany or to annex the Saarland was less certain.

For Lloyd George victory represented an opportunity to turn his popular support into political capital. He was the leader of a coalition consisting of the Conservatives and his supporters in a Liberal party divided between them and those who preferred the former prime minister, Herbert Asquith. There was a compelling constitutional case for the general election that Lloyd George and the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, immediately called – the current parliament had been sitting since the election of December 1910. However, for both leaders there was also, crucially, the hope of electoral reward.

Early reports from the electoral agents encouraged Lloyd George to change his original manifesto, focused on domestic issues, to enthuse a much-expanded electorate angry and tired of war. The reforms in the Representation of the People Act of 1918 had added to the electoral registerwomen over thirty, many men previously excluded for lack of property and, for this one election, servicemen aged between eighteen and the normal qualifying age of twenty-one. Of the 21 million voters, 13 million were new and their intentions were not easily predictable. David Lindsay, the earl of Crawford and the first commissioner of works, summarized what happened in his diary for December 28th, 1918:

The electoral process has been significant. Lloyd George’s original campaign fell rather flat. He pulled himself together on realizing he was being left high and dry on the shore. He revised his programme, or rather enlarged it by adding items about indemnities, aliens, punishment of the kaiser, and pledges to end conscription. Then he got on to the wave again, and with an advancing tide has been borne to victory. 

The popular perception of the election was thus that the government undertook to extract the Allies’ war costs by squeezing Germany ‘as a lemon is squeezed, until the pips squeak’ and to hang the Kaiser. Lloyd George promised neither (despite his private belief that Wilhelm should be shot) but he did not repudiate Eric Geddes or George Barnes, the two ministers who respectively made the suggestions. 

Coalition candidates, endorsed in a joint letter from Bonar Law and Lloyd George which was scathingly dismissed by Asquith as a ‘coupon’, achieved a resounding victory – but for whom? Bonar Law declared: ‘He can be Prime Minister for life if he likes’; but, by March 1919, Conservatives like Walter Long took a different line: ‘George thinks he won the election. Well, he

didn’t. It was the Tories that won the election, and he will soon begin to find that out.’ The next month over 200 MPs sent a telegram to Paris demanding that Lloyd George fulfil his electoral pledges, present the full bill for war costs to Germany and extract payment. On that occasion Lloyd George routed his critics, but it was a clear reminder that his hands were not free and that the British election would have important implications for the peace in crucial areas such as reparations.

For Wilson the results of the mid-term Congressional elections in November 1918 were much less ambiguous, and were ultimately calamitous for the settlement. His disastrous partisan appeal for the country to elect Democrats, rather than candidates of either party who supported his policies, backfired. He found himself with a Republican Congress, where his authority was further undermined by his failure to select a prominent Republican to be one of the five American peace plenipotentiaries in Paris. Subsequently, a year later, he could not persuade the Senate to ratify the treaty and endorse the League of Nations.

Some contemporaries and later historians believed that the peace conference should have immediately followed the signature of the Armistice, but this did not happen. Wilson wanted to give his annual ‘State of the Union’ address to Congress on December 2nd before he departed for Europe, where he was determined to be America’s main negotiator. Lloyd George was fighting an election and Clemenceau was inclined to await the outcome of the revolutionary developments in Germany that followed Wilhelm’s abdication on November 9th. Then Christmas and the New Year intervened. Although each leader knew that their victory in war now needed to be translated into a satisfactory peace, it was difficult to readjust immediately to a new task after such an exhausting and draining conflict. In the inevitable relaxation of tension that followed, some key decision-makers fell ill during the virulent influenza epidemic. Many more people, the young in particular, died in this worldwide epidemic than the eight to ten million soldiers killed in the war.

In response to the German approach to broker a peace deal based on his Fourteen Points, Wilson demanded the additional inclusion of the programme he had outlined in three further speeches – the ‘Four Principles’ (February 11th, 1918), the ‘Four Ends’ (July 4th, 1918) and the ‘Five Particulars’ (September 27th, 1918). He also insisted on regime change in Germany, where he would negotiate only with a democratic government. He waited until October 8th to tell his European friends about the German communication – but they already knew of it: their cryptographers had broken the Swiss codes. They were understandably angry. ‘Have you ever been asked by President Wilson whether you accept the Fourteen Points? I have never been asked,’ exploded Clemenceau. ‘I have not been asked either,’ replied Lloyd George. Their tempers cannot have been helped by their perception that they had little choice but to accept.

These exchanges established three key premises. First, by agreeing to make the treaty conform to Wilson’s ideas (many of which Lloyd George shared) the peacemakers set themselves both higher moral standards than any previous post-war gathering and the delicate task of reconciling the real world to the aspirations of a political statement that was a brilliant clarion call to liberal values but lacked the precision of a diplomatic document. For example, Wilson’s thirteenth point promised secure access to the Baltic for an independent Poland, made up of indisputably Polish populations. The definition of ‘indisputably Polish populations’ already offered massive scope for disagreement, but Wilson’s promises were contradictory – on the one hand, secure access to the Baltic and, on the other, national self-determination. Danzig, the obvious port, was  equally obviously German; and Poles were in a minority in the lands that would be needed to make a ‘corridor’ to Danzig. The extent to which the peacemakers could overcome such contradictions would be a crucial benchmark for their efforts but the probability was that they had set themselves an impossible task. The Germans may well have seen this as a good two-way bet – either Wilson would deliver or they could cry foul. Others, too, hoped to exploit the vagueness of the programme and to use Wilson’s obsession with establishing the League of Nations to their own advantage.

Secondly, they confirmed that Wilson enjoyed huge prestige, not only as the spokesman for the masses of ordinary people in every combatant country who needed to believe that a better world would emerge from the carnage, but also as the inspiration for intellectuals like Harold Nicolson or John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, who believed that the leader of the United States had both the vision and the means to deliver that outcome. As he crossed the Atlantic to Europe, where he would receive a messianic welcome, Wilson himself experienced grave doubts, fearing that the result of the conference would be a ‘tragedy of disappointment’. Later Nicolson, and especially Keynes in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), a devastating attack on the peace conference and all its works, turned the full fury of their scorn against the President for his shortcomings.

Thirdly, despite the fears of Clemenceau and Lloyd George that the Germans would dupe Wilson, the military terms of the armistice were crippling, amounting to a German surrender. When the disappointed German delegates returned with the draft treaty in June 1919 they found that Germany had been deprived of any realistic hope of resuming hostilities and had no option but to sign the treaty.

On October 25th Lloyd George urged his cabinet to voice its objections to Wilson’s agenda; otherwise:

… the Germans would have a perfect right to assume that the Fourteen Points were the worst conditions that could be imposed upon them.

He had two particular issues: ‘Freedom of the Seas’ and reparations. A potentially disastrous Anglo-American dispute over what constituted legitimate interference with neutral shipping in wartime was averted when he compromised to the extent that he agreed the matter might be discussed at the conference (in fact it never was). More significant were Wilson’s intentions about potential demands on Germany for compensation. Wilson believed that Belgium was entitled to its war costs, in addition to any restoration payments, because the German invasion was illegal. Speaking of the other invaded Allied territories, he stipulated only that they be ‘evacuated’ and ‘restored’.

Edward House, sent by Wilson to deal with any Allied concerns arising from his ‘program for the peace of the world’, agreed a definition of ‘restoration’:

By it they understand that compensation will be made by Germany for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allies and their property by the aggression of Germany by land, by sea, and from the air.

The phrasing owed much to Lloyd George, who drafted and redrafted it until he was satisfied, finally substituting ‘aggression’ for ‘invasion’ to safeguard British claims for compensation. This was incorporated into the note from the American secretary of state Robert Lansing, sent to Germany on November 5th, 1918, formally agreeing to the German request for an armistice and clarifying some definitions upon which that assent depended.

Lansing’s note thus apparently settled the issue of what were, in a very simplified form, alternatives. Either Germany should pay the Allies for all their wartime expenditure (an indemnity) or it should repair only the damage done to civilians and their property (reparations). The note’s definition endorsed Lloyd George’s repudiation of an indemnity in his war aims speech to the Trades Union Congress on January 5th, 1918, echoed by Wilson’s ‘Four Principles’ of February 11th, 1918, which stated: ‘There shall be ... no contributions, no punitive indemnities’. This seemed a clear decision for reparations.

Yet both in December and when the conference opened, Lloyd George advanced a claim for an indemnity, even though he recognized the strength of American objections. He claimed later that his actions were at odds with his own moderate instincts, but were driven by the large amounts demanded by a powerful body of imperial and domestic opinion personified by three men: William Hughes, prime minister of Australia, and the ‘Heavenly Twins’, Lord Cunliffe, an ex-governor of the Bank of England, and Lord Sumner, a law lord (so called because they were always in each other’s company and suggested astronomical sums). When Hughes complained bitterly in November 1918 that an undamaged Australia would receive no compensation, despite losing more men and spending more money than Belgium, Lloyd George insisted that he chair a committee to investigate what Germany could pay. Without offering any evidence, it recommended that Germany could afford £24,000 million in annual instalments of £1,200 million, including five per cent interest. The general notion, expressed by a committee member, was that since the cost of the war would ruin either Germany or the Allies, ‘on the whole I think we had better ruin them’.

A recent alternative explanation to Lloyd George’s claim that he was trapped by the electorate’s expectation that he could deliver the ‘wild and fantastic chimera’ of the Twins’ figures is that, for him, the Lansing note was a deception, a promise given only for the moment. He used the Twins as a front, so that he could appear moderate, sheltering behind their extremism whilst all the while they were articulating his real wishes. They refused, on his orders, to compromise, because his true and consistent aim was as large and punitive a German payment to Britain as possible. 

The clash between the Anglo-French demand for and Wilson’s resolute refusal of an indemnity set up one of the most contentious debates of the conference, leading to a classic compromise that was rich in unintended consequences. To protect Lloyd George and Clemenceau from the wrath of the overinflated expectations of their electorates, the conference sought to separate Germany’s moral responsibility to pay an indemnity, established in Article 231 (the ‘War Guilt’ clause), from the Allied intention to demand only that Germany pay reparations for those categories specified in Article 232. The waters were further muddied by Wilson’s later controversial acceptance of the argument, advanced on Lloyd George’s behalf by Jan Christian Smuts of South Africa, that since soldiers were only civilians in uniform, the cost of pensions and allowances paid to Allied soldiers and their dependants could legitimately be added to the list of what might more conventionally be termed reparations. Some of the parameters of the controversies surrounding reparations were thus established before the conference opened and continue to generate historical debate.

The location of the conference was itself controversial. Lloyd George and Wilson originally favoured Geneva or Lausanne, but Wilson then decided that Switzerland was ‘saturated with every kind of poisonous element and open to every hostile element in Europe’. When House agreed to Clemenceau’s strong plea for Paris, Lloyd George was left isolated. He acquiesced with bad grace:

I never wanted to hold the Conference in his bloody capital … but the old man wept and protested so much that we gave way.

Only somewhere the size of Paris could accommodate the thousands of delegates who would soon flood there, but the atmosphere in a city so recently menaced by German armies, raided by German planes and bombarded by the terrifying ‘Big Bertha’ shells – one of which, hurtling through the roof of Nôtre Dame Cathedral, killed many of those at prayer – was hardly likely to be conducive to moderation or generosity.

There is a strong case that the most important decision to face the conference was one that was not taken. Many assumed that peacemaking in 1919 would follow the pattern established in 1814-15. Then the immediate issues relating to France and its former enemies were settled by the Treaty of Paris (May 1814) before France joined the other great powers, some of the smaller states and former neutrals at the Congress of Vienna (November 1814 to June 1815) to consider the wider aspects of the settlement. This model was the basis of the French proposals for the organization and protocol of the conference circulated on November 29th, 1918. These assumed that the Allies would establish their terms and dictate them, without negotiation, to Germany. Then former enemies and neutrals would meet with the victors to settle broader questions, significantly including the League, placed last on the proposed agenda – a move hardly likely to endear the suggestion to Wilson, especially when the French stated that the Fourteen Points were ‘not sufficiently defined in their character to be taken as a basis for a concrete settlement of the war’. The plan was disregarded and not replaced.

Thus, when the peace conference opened, it had a number of parallel structures, some allowing the Allies to establish their peace terms for Germany, some considering wider aspects of the shaping of the new Europe and yet others studying broader questions, such as the League. The lack of a clear decision as to the process of peacemaking helped to create the profound sense of confusion apparent in many of the contemporary letters and diaries of participants. Paul Cambon, the veteran French ambassador to London, summed it up thus:

No matter how hard you try, you cannot imagine the shambles, the chaos, the incoherence, the ignorance here.

His brother, Jules, predicted after the opening ceremony that the result would be ‘une improvisation’.

This was certainly true of the early work of many of the commissions to establish the Allies’ terms. Assuming that, in the absence of a firm alternative directive, there would be negotiations with the Germans, the Allied representatives set out their maximum demands in order to allow room for later manoeuvre and concession. It soon became clear that it was only with great difficulty that the Allies could agree among themselves on a number of the questions. It also became obvious that, with only a modicum of the skill and finesse with which Talleyrand had set France’s enemies at each others’ throats in 1815, any competent German negotiators could create havoc with Allied unity. Gradually, and tacitly, the presumption of no negotiation evolved but the lack of a firm decision helped to create what has been criticized as the mathematical absurdity of the treaty, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Nicolson later reflected: ‘Had it been known from the outset that no negotiations would ever take place with the enemy, it is certain that many of the less reasonable clauses of the Treaty would never have been inserted.’

The Paris Peace Conference opened formally on January 18th, 1919 – a Saturday; an unusual choice, but one made for a definite and rather ominous reason. On January 18th, 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors in Louis XIV’s showcase palace at Versailles, the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck had proclaimed the formation of the German empire, following Prussia’s victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The formidable Clemenceau had already provided the railway carriage used by the defeated Napoleon III as the location for the signature of the Armistice at Compiègne in northern France. Although he saved Versailles for the signature of the treaty itself, he lost no opportunity to remind the world that the boot was now on the other foot. The British diplomat Esmé Howard recorded the following scene:

I hear that when the delegates were putting on their hats to leave, Wilson, who saw Clemenceau putting on an old soft felt, said ‘I was told I must wear a tall hat for this occasion.’ ‘So was I’, retorted C. cramming his soft hat over his eyes.

 It did not bode well.

The Fourteen Points

I. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.

II.  Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants.

III.  The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.

IV.  Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.

V.  A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.

VI.  The evacuation of all Russian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia as will secure the best and freest cooperation of the other nations of the world in obtaining for her an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her own political development and national policy and assure her of a sincere welcome into the society of free nations under institutions of her own choosing; and, more than a welcome, assistance also of every kind that she may need and may herself desire. The treatment accorded Russia by her sister nations in the months to come will be the acid test of their good will, of their comprehension of her needs as distinguished from their own interests, and of their intelligent and unselfish sympathy.

VII. Belgium, the whole world will agree, must be evacuated and restored, without any attempt to limit the sovereignty which she enjoys in common with all other free nations. No other single act will serve as this will serve to restore confidence among the nations in the laws which they have themselves set and determined for the government of their relations with one another. Without this healing act the whole structure and validity of international law is forever impaired.

VIII. All French territory should be freed and the invaded portions restored, and the wrong done to France by Prussia in 1871 in the matter of Alsace-Lorraine, which has unsettled the peace of the world for nearly fifty years, should be righted, in order that peace may once more be made secure in the interest of all.

IX. A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.

X. The peoples of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development.

XI. Rumania, Serbia, and Montenegro should be evacuated; occupied territories restored; Serbia accorded free and secure access to the sea; and the relations of the several Balkan states to one another determined by friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality; and international guarantees of the political and economic independence and territorial integrity of the several Balkan states should be entered into.

XII. The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.

XIII. An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.

XIV. A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.

Further reading: 

Manfred Boemeke, Gerald Feldman, Elisabeth Glaser (eds), The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment After 75 Years (CUP, 1998); Erik Goldstein, Winning the Peace: British Diplomatic Strategy, Peace Planning, and the Paris Peace Conference, 1916-1920 (Clarendon Press, 1991); Antony Lentin, Guilt at Versailles: Lloyd George and the Pre-History of Appeasement (Methuen, 1985); Antony Lentin, The Last Political Law Lord: Lord Sumner (1859-1934) (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008); Bullitt Lowry, Armistice 1918 (Kent State UP, 1996); Margaret MacMillan, Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War (John Murray, 2001); Alan Sharp, The Versailles Settlement: Peacemaking after the First World War, 1919-1923 (Palgrave Macmillan, 1991, 2008).



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