No Man’s Land: 1918, The Last Year of the Great War
The End of Order: Versailles 1919
Great War and World War, or in more conventional terms, World War I and World War II. These two wars take a large place in the history of the twentieth century. More than any other events they stamp the century as an age of troubles. Yet at first glance they appear to have shrunk into the distance: Great War more than sixty years away, World War thirty-five. The veterans of the Great War are few, those of the World War are dwindling. Despite this the memories of both wars are still very much alive. Oddest of all, the memories of the Great War seem more alive than those of the World War. Aged men are still filing their recollections in public archives. Revelations are pursued and sometimes found. Controversies provoke more acrimony than any over the World War. Here is a topic worth some reflection. Why should the Great War live longer than the World War in folk memory?
It is not as though there were more to remember. The World War was far more exciting; it ranged widely over the globe; it provided everything from dramatic defeat to crushing victory. Perhaps it has counted less for this very reason. The World War was a prosaic war. By and large it was efficiently conducted despite some great errors. The political leaders and the military commanders came up to the standard of their responsibilities. It is still possible to argue, say, over. Churchill’s preference for the Mediterranean or Roosevelt’s putting Europe before the Pacific and the Far East. But it is easy to grasp from the record why these and other decisions were made. Even the most closely guarded secrets have been in large part revealed. In short few mysteries remain to be solved about the Second World War.
With the Great War things are very different. It took people by surprise. War governments had to be improvised even in the countries such as Germany that imagined themselves to be well prepared. Despite pronouncements about war aims it was difficult to discover what, apart from victory, the Great War was about. The methods of conducting the war were also puzzling. In retrospect the record seems to offer four years of stalemate, with futile operations that achieved nothing except casualty lists that grew ever longer. On a more practical level the Great War is still the more attractive subject for the writers of popular history. There is more doubt, there is more speculation, there are more surprises. Above all there are more fruitful diaries and memoirs, still breathing the anxieties of that distant war. For those who regard high-minded gossip as the stuff of history, the Great War is undoubtedly a more rewarding field. What public men say to each other in private or the reactions they record the same evening in their diaries often provide rich material. As a mere humdrum historian I accept gossip as light relief and consider that there are deeper excavations to be made into the past.
However that may be, here are two writers who specialize in building up a composite picture from what individuals experience and say to one another. John Toland is a master of this art. His efficiency in research is staggering. So is his accuracy. After ruthless search I found only two mistakes, both trivial. Clemenceau was not “sometime socialist mayor of Montmartre”—he was a radical. William I was not hailed in the palace of Versailles as “Emperor of Germany,” but as “German Emperor,” a distinction to which the Germans, or at any rate the German princes, attached great importance. Apart from this his book is impeccable. Its scope is clear from its title. The year 1918 was when the long deadlock was broken, first by the Germans and then by the Allies. The reversals of fortune were almost beyond comprehension. As late as mid-July the French expected that Paris would fall and the war be prolonged for years. By the end of September the German commander had acknowledged almost total defeat.
The detailed accounts from the frontline trenches provide the most sensational chapters. Being based on genuine recollections they are beyond question accurate. However there is also some trouble here. For sixty years past we have had memoirs about life in the trenches. Some are by straightforward humble narrators. But some are semi-fictional accounts by writers of the first rank. Maybe the trenches lay in No Man’s Land. Long since they passed into the realm of Every Writer’s Land. We know the sites of the trenches as well as we know our own suburban street.
There is a further drawback. Adhering strictly to the trenches John Toland does not explain what happened on the Western Front in 1918. The explanation is simple. Ever since the first winter of the war the soldiers had been trained for trench warfare. They had no experience of war in the open field. When the Germans broke through the Allied lines in March the Allied troops fell back forty miles before they could stabilize the front. Once this happened the Germans discovered that they had lost momentum and had achieved nothing except occupying valueless territory. Nor does John Toland emphasize the remarkable fact on the other side that in the autumn the Allies, despite their great victories, failed to make any decisive break through the German line. It is hardly too much to say that Ludendorff caused his own defeat and that of the German army by taking the offensive in March. If he had sat tight the Allied offensive later might have had less effect. Of course quite other arguments pushed him forward: the advancing food crisis in Germany, the weakness of Germany’s allies, and above all the prospective arrival of the American armies—a factor that was more decisive psychologically than it was materially.
Toland does not stay in the trenches all the time. He moves in high places, with the commanders in chief and the wielders of political power. Here, I think, he tends to exaggerate the tension, partly by relying too much on his sources. All these great men were in a state of great nervous strain, almost on the verge of breakdown. They blew off steam to their intimates or in private letters. But they had to face the fact that they must work together. Lloyd George and Haig were hostile to each other even in private. But Lloyd George retained Haig as commander in chief and Haig followed Lloyd George’s instructions, though often muttering contemptuous phrases under his breath.
Lloyd George and Clemenceau had many violent scenes, but again each of them knew that his fate was bound up with that of the other. The same applies to Haig and Foch. Reading about these characters in after years one often finds it difficult to grasp that they were all in their different ways men of ability. Lloyd George for instance is often written off as a rogue or an intriguer. Many good judges however regard him as the greatest British prime minister of the twentieth century and few, I suppose, would dispute Clemenceau’s claim to an equally high place. Sometimes reading Toland’s account of the political and military exchanges, I wonder how such men ever won the war.
Still, Toland’s account of the Western Front, though rather prolonged, is dramatic and competent. The same can be said regarding his account of how the German leaders moved from expectations of victory to accepting a humiliating armistice. But he has largely neglected the rest of the world where events were important even if less decisive. He describes somewhat cursorily the beginnings of Allied intervention in Soviet Russia, which provoked in its turn the Bolshevik Terror and with it the cleavage between Soviet Russia and the rest of the world. Most of this is derived from the somewhat self-centered recollections of Bruce Lockhart, an entertaining but not always reliable writer. An entire book could have been written on this subject and indeed many have been. There are few references in Toland’s book to the campaign in Italy which often caused great anxiety in Allied quarters. Yet this campaign provoked the collapse of Austria-Hungary which in its turn shattered the confidence of the German High Command.
Even more decisive was the belated advance of the Allied armies from Salonica which led to Bulgaria’s withdrawal from the war. With this the Allied backdoor into Europe, so long sought in vain, was at last open. So perhaps the war was won in Italy and the Balkans as much as on the Western Front. At any rate these spheres were worth a mention and perhaps more. The same might be said of the fact that by the end of the war the Turkish Empire was in dissolution and the Allied fleets were at Constantinople. No doubt all this would have made Toland’s book even longer than it is already. The American reader has apparently an insatiable appetite for a long book. I am more easily satisfied especially when I have already learned most of what is in it. Exhaustive and brilliant as is Toland’s book, I am afraid it is a case for the rule: when confronted with a new book, read an old one.
Charles Mee has written another book of the same kind, this time about the process of peacemaking in Paris. Again the emphasis is on the great men and what they said to each other. The standard of accuracy is by no means so high. He starts off badly with the statement, often repeated, that the treaty ending the earlier war between France and Germany was signed at Versailles on January 18, 1871. This is not so. On that day William I, King of Prussia, was hailed as German Emperor. The Franco-German armistice was signed on January 28, the preliminary peace on February 26, and the definitive treaty of Frankfurt on May 10, 1871. The peace conference of 1919 was held in Paris not in Versailles, which was used only on a few formal occasions—especially the signature of the peace treaty with Germany. Other palaces were brought into service for the signatures of other treaties—St. Germains (Austria), Trianon (Hungary), Neuilly (Bulgaria), and Sèvres (Turkey—abortive).
There are many lesser errors. Lord Curzon was never British prime minister. Foch was not made French commander in chief by Clemenceau; he was made commander in chief of the Allied armies by the Allied leaders. Italy did not promise Fiume to Yugoslavia—quite the contrary. Admiral Lord Fisher ceased to be the first sea lord in 1915; the Fisher who appears in 1919 is quite a different person. Talleyrand did not attend the Congress of Vienna in order to make peace with the Allies; this had been concluded at Paris in the previous May.
The proceedings at Paris are totally misconceived. Mee echoes the judgments of J.M. Keynes at their worst—judgments that Keynes soon retracted. According to Mee “the negotiations really dealt with the relations among the victor powers—couched in terms of Germany, settled almost invariably at Germany’s expense, but almost never with any sense of what Germany was, or what Germany had become.” This is a bewildering sentence. The negotiations hardly touched on relations among the victors, apart from an Anglo-American guarantee to France that was never implemented. Mee lays great stress on the scandal of reparations which, he thinks, were designed to ruin Germany forever. He even quotes the German delegate Brockdorff-Rantzau that the treaty was “the death sentence of many millions of German men, women, and children.” No such catastrophe took place and the allegedly starving children of 1919 became the hardened Nazi invaders of France in 1940. What was wrong with reparations anyway? For four years the Germans had waged war on foreign soil. No part of Germany had been touched. Belgium, a totally innocent victim, and northeastern France had been devastated. Was it not fair and reasonable that the Germans should help to restore the damage they had caused? And was it not wise also of Lloyd George to propose that settlement of the actual figures should be postponed until war passions had abated? In the outcome the Germans did nothing to restore the damage but built much-admired housing for their own people instead.
Mr. Mee fails to appreciate that the Allied peoples had fought a long and exhausting war against an enemy who they believed rightly or wrongly had initiated the war for purposes of conquest. For many years after the war British, American, and German scholars stoutly maintained that Germany was no more responsible for the war than any other power. Times have changed. German scholars now assert that the Great War was provoked mainly by the aggressive policies and outlook of Germany. In view of this was it not reasonable that Germany should be disarmed for a period? And what harm did this disarmament do to Germany? She was not in the slightest danger during the period of disarmament. German alarms, and with these new German aggressions, began only as she began to rearm. The Allied statesmen with the record of German aggression and German behavior during the Great War might well have said with Robert Clive that they were astonished at their moderation.
Take some other aspects of the peace negotiations. President Wilson arrived in Paris with the conviction that the Allies were determined to thwart his plans for a League of Nations. On the contrary. The Allies agreed to put first the negotiations over a League of Nations. It was then discovered that Wilson had no detailed draft on which to negotiate. The Covenant of the League of Nations was primarily a British draft, a little amended by the French and by General Smuts. The only practical American contribution to the League of Nations was to refuse to join it. As a result the League only worked, not ineffectually, for some ten years. But it is a little hard to blame those who tried to make it work, not those who caused it to fail.
Mee is also distressed about the territorial losses inflicted on Germany. None of them offended against ethnic principles. The Germans had seized Alsace and Lorraine by conquest and made no great complaint at losing them. Mee makes the extraordinary statement that Poland was created out of German, Russian, and Austrian territory. Seeing that these three empires had partitioned Poland between themselves in the eighteenth century, it is difficult to understand how Poland could have been recreated otherwise. The later inclusion of Ukrainian territory in Poland was unwise but it was not the doing of the peacemakers. On Poland’s western frontier the settlement was unfair to the Poles. More Poles were included in Germany than Germans in Poland. And Lloyd George insisted that Danzig should become a Free City, not a Polish possession.
The French claimed that, as the Germans had destroyed the French coal mines during their final retreat, the Saar with its mines should be transferred to France. This, too, was not unreasonable. Again Lloyd George produced a fair compromise that the Saar should be administered by France for fifteen years after which a plebiscite should decide its future. And so one could continue. The peace conference of 1919 ran into many problems but its leaders tried to treat them reasonably. The real German grievance against the treaty of Versailles is that it did not enshrine German victory and German ruthlessness as the treaty of Brest-Litovsk between Germany and Russia did. Were the Allies expected to apologize for their victory, perhaps even to undo it? That was very much what they did in the end after stern reproaches from Keynes and his disciples.
The peacemakers of Paris were much occupied with Europe outside Germany. Mee has some scathing remarks on this also. He seems to imagine that the Allies dissolved the old Austrian Empire or, to use its correct title, Austria-Hungary. This, too, is entirely wrong. The Habsburg Empire broke up of itself because of revolts by its constituent nationalities. All the succession states, as they came to be called, were in existence not only before the peace conference met but even before the armistice between Germany and the Allies was signed. The negotiators in Paris had to define some of the frontiers between these new states; no one questioned their existence.
Mee makes another extraordinary statement that millions of defeated Germans were placed under the rule of Czechs. These so-called Germans were defeated only in the sense that like their Czech neighbors they had been citizens of Austria-Hungary. They had never been citizens of Hohenzollern Germany. They were German-speaking Bohemians and when Austria-Hungary broke up they wished to set up a minute German-Bohemian state, not to join the German Reich. Until 1936 they were not under the rule of the Czechs. They were under Czechoslovak governments that included German ministers. There were certainly injustices in the territorial settlement of Eastern Europe, particularly regarding Transylvania. These injustices were caused by the march of events, not by the malice of negotiators in Paris. The best tribute to the settlement of 1919 is that the frontiers then defined have, with the exception of Poland’s frontiers, endured to the present day. Not bad for peacemakers who were both ignorant and ill-willed.
I was tempted to describe this book as worthless. And so it is from the point of historical or political understanding. But it is also full of entertaining stories, usually at the expense of the most distinguished delegates. So to end on a happy note after much academic carping, here is one. It is headed “Protocol”:
After the official opening of the conference, Balfour walked down the steps with Clemenceau. Balfour wore a top hat; Clemenceau wore a bowler. Balfour apologized for his top hat. “I was told,” he said, “that it was obligatory to wear one.” “So,” Clemenceau answered, “was I.”