20 MARCH, 1919: Words And Deeds

I’m sticking with this month’s theme today, forgetting about anniversaries and talking about a country that seems much more important now than it did during or after the War.  Korea fits the bill nicely, and although it played no part in the First World War it was changed by the conflict in ways that resonated down the twentieth century.

Korea’s modern history before 1914 had, like that of Poland or Afghanistan, been dominated by its geographical position between powerful empires.  Though hardly touched by European and American incursions during the late nineteenth century, when the long-term political and economic dominance of an enfeebled Chinese Empire was on the wane, Korea had been subject to strong Japanese influence since the mid-1890s.  Increasing economic and military involvement by the neighbouring Russian Empire came to an end with the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–05, which transformed the regional balance of power and left the Japanese free to pursue long-held colonial ambitions in Korea.  Japanese forces occupied the Korean peninsula in 1904, established an effective protectorate in 1905, deposed the monarchy two years later and unilaterally annexed the country in 1910.

Surrounded… and from 1904 Korea was under Japanese military occupation.

The Japanese regime treated Korea much as the most brutal European powers treated their African colonies, imposing modernisation to suit Japan’s economic requirements, provoking famine by exporting food crops and forced labour to Japan, and exercising ruthless, often brutal socio-political control over the native population.  It was not, needless to say, a popular regime, and occasional governmental attempts to mollify public opinion were generally undermined by an aggressively nationalist military.  But although a small Korean National Association, based in Hawaii and given support when possible by Chinese authorities, was formed in 1909 to make the case for Korean independence, any organised internal resistance to the occupation existed only in the vacuum created by Japanese oppression and censorship.  That changed in 1919.

Korea had not been spared the viral popular optimism spread across the world by US President Wilson’s sketchy outline of liberal principles for world peace, the Fourteen Points.  Like so many others in search of independence and perceived freedoms, Korean nationalists clearly believed that Wilson’s programme was both believable and practicable, because by the end of 1918 activists were starting to come out of the woodwork.

Korean students in Tokyo published a manifesto demanding independence from Japan in December 1918, and launched a series of protests in the Japanese capital.  The biggest rally, on 8 February 1919, was accompanied by a declaration of Korean independence, and although police quickly dispersed protesters, the gesture convinced nationalists inside Korea to plan something similar on a larger scale.

The decision was encouraged by an atmosphere of national grief and outrage surrounding the sudden death on 22 January of the last Korean monarch, Emperor Gojong.  A consistent thorn in the side of the occupation since his removal from the throne in 1907, Gojong’s demise was attributed to natural causes by Japanese authorities, but most Koreans believed he had been poisoned.  As the last of a Confucian dynasty that had ruled Korea since 1392, Gojong was a perfect symbol for national loss and became an instant martyr. Protests were planned to exploit the mood, timed for a Saturday, 1 March, two days before the start of the late Emperor’s funeral, a period of deep national mourning.

Posters, leaflets and copies of an independence manifesto were printed at secret presses and distributed in advance of what organisers expected to be a small and non-violent protest in Seoul on 1 March.  On the day, a large crowd took to the streets and marched into a violent confrontation with Japanese police, while the original organisers signed a proclamation of Korean independence, made sure it was delivered to the Japanese governor-general and then gave themselves up for arrest.  Similar proclamations were announced in towns and cities across Korea, with similar immediate results.

Japanese authorities were ready for protests on March 1 1919, very ready…

The First of March Movement had been born, and protests spread across the country during the next few days.  The demonstrations were largely peaceful in urban areas under tight Japanese control, but the country’s peasant majority was more inclined to violence, as were the occupying authorities.  Military units joined police in suppressing protests, and while Japanese records admit to 553 civilian deaths and some 12,000 arrests during the month, Korean figures of about 7,500 dead, 16,000 injured and almost 50,000 arrests are generally accepted as more reliable.

Christian, Buddhist and Confucian town-dwellers were generally non-violent in occupied Korea. Country folk weren’t.

Protests had died down by the beginning of April, and had never remotely threatened Japanese control, but they had announced Korea’s case for independence to the world.  That seems to have been the organisers’ basic aim, as a platform for an appeal to the Paris Peace Conference, where they hoped to claim independence on the basis of the Fourteen Points.

Meanwhile, in Paris, the First World War’s ‘winners’ were mired in the business of diluting hope.  Thanks to the diplomatic clout of the ‘great powers’, and to a global outbreak of bandwagon jumping once the defeat of the Central Powers appeared likely, the winners’ enclosure included representatives of thirty-two nations or peoples with claims on national status – but every major decision around the peace process was arrived at by arrangement between the ‘Big Five’ of France, Britain, the United States, Italy and Japan.

In practice, the small Japanese delegation’s functions were to protect Japan’s considerable territorial and economic ambitions, to formally endorse the decisions of its allies, and to seal Japan’s acceptance as a major and reliable diplomatic force in the post-War world.  As such it played little active part in the process, and most people referred to the decision-makers at Paris as the Big Four. Nobody mentioned it to Italian delegates – because international prestige mattered to the men running the young and troubled ’empire’ of Italy – but everyone knew that the Big Four was really the Big Three.  France, Britain and the United States were all richer and more powerful than Italy, had all spent money and materiel bailing out Italy’s failing war effort, and all treated Italy as a junior partner to whom terms could be dictated.

Predictably and understandably, the three big players were using the peace conference to pursue their own agendas.  Conventional wisdom has the French and British chasing old-school imperial ambitions, while the US was concerned with creating a world it could safely leave alone while becoming its economic master – but all three were also anxious to please outside audiences.

World opinion mattered to the Big Three, as it had never done before.  This reflected the growth spurt in global communications promoted by new technologies (and hot-housed during the War), and the victorious allies’ desire to save face around the ruthless use they had made of global communications to present their enemies as devils and themselves as paragons of liberal virtue.  But the Big Three’s big reason for caring about how the world viewed them was fear that the new creed of bolshevism, a contagion that evidently thrived on the fruits of mass communication, was about to spread around the planet and, from their point of view, wreck everything.

The same fear lay just beneath the surface of the Big Three’s concern to keep their home populations happy with the First World War’s final score.  In France and Britain in particular, but also in the United States, ruling elites were braced for popular socialist uprising in 1919, and the power-brokers gathered in Paris were acutely aware of a need to show the existing geopolitical system in a positive light.  Bottom line, they all needed to give their voters at least the illusion of what they wanted.

The liberal values sketched out in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points ran contrary to Anglo-French imperial ambitions and offended a potent strand of US isolationism (at least where the League of Nations was concerned), but they were world record holders when it came to global mass approval.  At the same time, the British government was coming off a general election in which the voting population had made perfectly clear its desire for revenge on the defeated Central Powers, and the French government stood firmly in line with its constituency’s overwhelming determination to both punish and cripple Germany.  In other words, like many a Brexiteer today, British and French voters wanted to have their cake and eat it, a state of affairs that forced the peace negotiators into some very convoluted compromises.

A compromising attitude to liberal values was easy enough to slide past the watching world when applied to defeated enemies, so they could be fleeced dry to satisfy popular demands for revenge.  Their former territories, along with those of the fallen Russian Empire, could meanwhile be parcelled out to independent authorities in line with popular Wilsonian principles.  For the men making decisions in Paris, the latter process proved to be time-consuming, fiendishly complex and inclined to open up local cans of worms.  It was also a nuisance to be ignored whenever it messed with Anglo-French imperial ambitions.

For all that French strategists glorified and protected their empire, the British were the world’s great imperialists in 1919.  In some ways, albeit expensive ones, the War seemed to have been good for the British Empire, strengthening its cohesion through the bonds of shared struggle and offering opportunities for expansion into valuable territories.  A tsunami of troubles rooted in the changes wrought by world war was on its way, but for now British imperial strategists were all about the war dividend, and although they were happy enough to hold onto a few former German colonies in Africa and the Far East, the big payoff was control of that oil-rich global hub, the Middle East.

The mandate system – by which the British (and their fellow travellers in the region, the French) took control of the Middle East, trampled on the well-developed aspirations of native peoples and still contrived to pay lip service to liberal values – matched any of the self-serving diplomatic and semantic contortions performed by the Paris negotiators for barefaced doublespeak.  It also left the British and the French, a working majority in Big Three terms, in no position to publicly oppose any other empire’s pursuit of post-War security or expansion.

This wasn’t a problem in relation to most other empires.  The Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had ceased to exist, the United States was still pretending not to be empire and not openly interested in fighting like one, and Italy’s persistent demands for imperial expansion could be safely ignored on the grounds that debtors couldn’t be choosers.  Only one empire in the world fell outside the Big Three’s control.  Healthy, wealthy, powerful, aggressive and on the winning side – not to mention a very long way from Paris – Japan could do what it liked in 1919.

So it was that, while the Japanese prevented a nationalist delegation from leaving Korea, the Korean National Association set up a provisional independent government in Shanghai and sent a three-man delegation to Paris.  When it arrived it met with instant and unambiguous rejection from the Big Three on the grounds that Korean affairs were Japan’s business.  It left without achieving anything more than recognition that Wilson’s promise of ‘impartial adjustment’ of colonial claims according to popular wishes applied only to the colonies of defeated empires.

The small Japanese delegation at the Paris conference was made up of retired grandees – but the big Three let them punch above their weight.

The sudden, noisy eruption of the First of March Movement has been credited with helping Korea emerge from the cultural isolation promoted by five centuries of Confucian rule, and with igniting a torch of organised, nationalist agitation that was never extinguished.  It also persuaded post-War governments to relax some of Japan’s more Draconian control measures in Korea, but they were tightened again after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1930 and the country would remain under strict colonial rule until the end of the Second World War.

By that time, with Japan finally out of the empire business and replaced in the region by a rather different US imperial model, the Chinese and Russian Empires were ready to resume their interests in Korea, albeit under different names.  The various strands of Korean nationalism, germinated in 1919 but left to grow untended amid the compromises of Paris, had by then hardened into mutually hostile factions, each taking support from different imperial sponsors, and we’re still living with the legacy of their differences today.

6 MARCH, 1919: Dangerous Liaisons

You’ll notice I’ve slowed the pace with Poppycock, scaling down from about once a week to about twice a month.  This is partly because I’m busy with other things, partly because the world is less crammed with easy-hit centenaries than it was during the previous four years, and partly because I feel the need to ease down, use the advent of relative peace and quiet to reflect a little on the big picture, and identify some of those details that may have been overlooked amid the Great War’s information overload.

A century ago in Versailles, peace negotiations between the victors were approaching their first fruition, and they’ll merit a rant or two in the near future, as will the global panoply of wars, revolutions and geopolitical shake-ups I’ve been referencing during the last few months.  Not today though, because I want to talk about Afghanistan.

One of the world’s most high-profile modern trouble spots, Afghanistan has long been a victim of geographical misfortune because, like Poland, it has sat on the frontiers of powerful, competing empires.  Its existence as a political entity, though not as a sovereign state, dates from the late nineteenth century.  The British Empire, anxious to prevent the neighbouring Russian Empire from approaching India’s Northwest Frontier, had invaded the territory of Afghanistan in 1839 and did so again in 1878, leaving occupying forces in place until 1880, when they withdrew and left a puppet ruler in charge.

Emir Abdul Rahman Kahn ruled from Kabul and performed the role required of him by the British, relinquishing control over foreign affairs in return for an annual subsidy of 1.2 million rupees (roughly £150,000).  Given a fifty percent raise for good behaviour from 1893 (when he agreed a new frontier with what was then part of  India, known as the Durand Line), and technically an absolute ruler, he silenced or exiled any and all opposition to his regime, refused offers of foreign investment in Afghanistan and did little, beyond the construction of a few roads and boys’ schools, to upset the country’s traditional way of life.

After Abdul Rahman’s death in 1901 his eldest son, Habibullah Kahn, became Emir and maintained arrangements with the British, but made important modifications to his father’s internal policies. Though he remained aloof from foreign investment, he relaxed border regulations to encourage regional trade, he allowed some criticism from within his extended family and tribal grouping, and he let some of those exiled by his father come home.  They included committed modernizer Mahmud Tarzi, who returned from Damascus in 1902 to found Afghanistan’s first newspaper, which became a focus for like-minded opposition to the regime’s cautious policies.

Rising tension in Europe generated an Anglo-Russian agreement in 1907 to leave Afghanistan under British influence, but during the next few years Tarzi and an emerging ‘Young Afghan’ movement won the support of the Emir’s oldest son, Inayatullah Kahn, and several other high-rankng family members.  The movement generated some mistrust among British officials, but its influence was largely restricted to the region around Kabul and even there it had little impact on the largely traditional concerns of the tribal council that formed Habibullah’s consultative base.  Secular nationalism had almost no impact on the country as a whole, most of which was still a tribal wilderness by 1914, with no real sense of national identity, few common cultural denominators and minimal connection, infrastructural or emotional, with the central regime.

The broadest unifying influence across Afghanistan was religion. Sunni Muslims formed by far the largest religious group, and by 1914 it included a high-profile strand of support for the pan-Islamic ambitions of the Ottoman Empire’s Young Turk regime.  As soon as war in Europe broke out, Sunni leaders and conservative tribal chiefs – led by the Emir’s brother and prime minister, Prince Nasrullah – joined modernizers in demanding Afghan allegiance to the Central Powers.  British money and solid support from his military and political allies enabled Habibullah to hold his line for neutrality, on the reasonable grounds that declaring war on Britain and Russia would, one way or another, bring invasion and swift conquest.

Emir Habibullah Kahn played nice with the British, but you couldn’t say he enjoyed it.

The Emir probably expected that his fidelity would bring reward from the British, and may have hoped for a post-War grant of full independence, but he had to work to earn either.  Nasrullah retained close contacts with tribal groups near the Indian frontier, and from early 1915 he encouraged regular cross-border raids in conjunction with various anti-British groups, some (like the Muhajidin) sponsored by Indian Moslems.  Although the Emir’s frequent attempts to control local officials did have some effect, and the attacks became less frequent in 1916, sporadic anti-British activity around the frontier would continue in some form throughout the War.

In Kabul, Nasrullah was a major player in conspiracies to turn border raids into a full-scale anti-British uprising, an aim shared by a German diplomatic mission that reached the capital in October 1915.  Though it received a cool reception from the Emir, for which he was rewarded with a £25,000 rise in the subsidy and a letter of thanks from King George V, the mission was in regular contact with anti-British elements.  That no major uprising took place reflected rivalries between the tribes on the frontier, power-struggles among their chieftains and the loyalty of the Afridi people, masters of the strategically important Khyber Pass, to their British paymasters – but the Emir’s political efforts to discredit and divide anti-British elements in and around the capital were also important.

Aware that the Central Powers could not promise direct military support for an alliance, but as anxious as any neutral to avoid antagonising either side, Habibullah played a canny game with the German mission.  He listened to its offers of money and arms, accepted its immediate help with military training and kept up the appearance of indecision.  While stringing the mission along with talks that consistently hinted at the possibility of an alliance, he made it clear in private meetings with British officials that he had no intention of abandoning neutrality.

The balancing act was helped by a letter from the mission to the German minister in Persia, intercepted by Russian forces and passed to Habibullah by the British, that suggested the possibility of a coup d’état in Kabul as prelude to an invasion of British India.  The reveal both undermined Nasrullah’s credibility with anti-British traditionalists, and gave the Emir an excuse to summon a permanent council of tribal leaders to Kabul, where he could keep an eye on them.

The Emir’s position eased during the spring of 1916.  Russian successes on the Caucasian Front in February removed any immediate prospect of Ottoman military intervention in Afghanistan, for or against the regime, and in April a new British viceroy in India, Lord Chelmsford, agreed to an immediate loyalty payment of around half a million pounds, with the same again to follow if Afghanistan was still neutral at the end of the War.  Talks with the German mission then cut to the chase, with Habibullah demanding military support on a scale he knew was impossible.  Not convinced or tempted by offers from both Nasrullah’s traditionalists and modernizers to seize power and invade India, the mission left Kabul on 21 May.

The German mission’s sole aim in Afghanistan, and the basic point Germany’s entire Middle Eastern policy, was to divert British forces from Europe to the defence of India.  As such it failed (although London did transfer four divisions of second-line infantry, a drop in the ocean, to the subcontinent in late 1915), but it still had profound if unintentional effects on Afghanistan’s future.  Apart from providing focus, resources and encouragement for anti-British, and by extension pro-independence elements, its presence and arguments demonstrated to the Afghani ruling elite that the country could function on the world stage without British or Russian sanction, a vital step along the path to its unhappy recent history.

The Emir’s problems were by no means over.  Raids into India by frontier tribes continued, anti-British opposition in Kabul was still demanding allegiance to the Central Powers (on religious grounds or as a step towards independence), and Habibullah faced the constant threat of overthrow.  His position was weakened by the rising price and increasing scarcity of some foods, which was popularly attributed to his inner circle’s undoubted profiteering, and by the Russian revolutions of 1917, which removed the only real possibility of Allied military intervention in Afghanistan and so ruined his best excuse for refusing alliance with the Central Powers.

Tribal raiders, probably armed by Indian independence activists, getting frisky near the frontier of what is now Pakistan but was then British India.

Publication of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points in January 1918 produced a fresh clamour for independence in Kabul, as did the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March, the wording of which guaranteed Afghanistan’s security as an independent state.  The latter also encouraged a belief in Kabul that the Central Powers could still win the War, and created a (theoretically) clear path for Ottoman forces to intervene in Afghanistan.  Meanwhile a fall in the value of the rouble and turbulence along Afghanistan’s former Russian frontiers had contributed to a spike in supply problems and inflation, so that factional and popular opposition to Habibullah were at new peaks by July, when he survived one of several assassination attempts.

The Emir’s regime remained on a knife-edge until armistice put an end to the neutrality debate, and to the opposition alliance between modernizers and religiously inspired traditionalists, but he struggled to regain popularity in its immediate aftermath.  He was hardly helped by continued economic problems or the effects of the influenza pandemic, but his biggest problem was failure to secure a political pay-off that would justify his wartime commitment to the Allies.  It can be argued that Habibullah deserved substantial reward for his four-year tightrope walk on Britain’s behalf, but the only prize that mattered was a shot at independence, and his goose was effectively cooked once the British, as they had done during the War, rejected his demand for Afghan representation at the Paris Peace Conference.

The Emir was assassinated on 20 February 1919, and in the power struggle that followed Prince Nasrullah’s traditionalists lost out to the modernizers, led by Habibullah’s third son, Amanullah Kahn. Amanullah set about attempting to force the British into granting independence by resuming attacks across the Indian frontier in May 1919, but a British bombing raid on Kabul encouraged an armistice in early June, and a peace treaty followed that ended the subsidy but gave Afghanistan control over its foreign policy.

Kabul’s first experience of modern airfare was one of these, an RAF Handley Page v/1500 heavy bomber. On 26 May 1919, the plane – which had just completed a record-breaking direct flight from Britain to India – attacked the Emir’s palace, and a week later the terrified Afghan regime agreed to end its war with Britain.

Treaties with foreign powers followed – including a mutual non-interference pact with the Soviet Union in 1921 and a friendship treaty with Germany in 1926 – and foreign investment was encouraged into the country for the first time, enabling the new Emir to proceed with a radical and rapid programme of infrastructural, industrial and educational modernization.  In a society built on deep religious and cultural traditionalism, this amounted to extremism, and its polarizing effects drove Afghanistan to civil war in 1928, a conflict ended by Amanullah’s abdication in January 1929.  His more gradualist successor, Nadir Kahn, was assassinated in 1933, and although the reign of Nadir’s son, Zahir Kahn, lasted for forty years it can be summed up as a continuous, unresolved struggle between mildly secular reformers and diehard traditionalists.

Emir Amanullah – can you spot his modernising tendency?

Although even I can’t blame the First World War for modern problems that form part of a country’s DNA, there are grounds for guessing that Afghanistan’s future might have turned out better without it.  The crisis in relations with Britain and Russia brought about by the sudden importance of Afghan neutrality in 1914 put the country’s longstanding cultural fault lines on steroids.  The dose was intensified by the presence and promises of the German diplomatic mission, and by clandestine contacts with the Young Turk regime in Constantinople, both of which gave modernizers an irresistible taste of what a developed, secularized economy could produce.  By the time the modernizers seized power in 1919 they had been hot-housed to missionary zeal, a condition history tells us seldom ends well.

Of course Amanullah’s radicals might never had taken power, and Afghanistan might have had a shot at healing its wounds under the moderate, cautious Habibullah, if the British Empire’s DNA had allowed it to grant independence in 1919.  Ah, but that was a very big if, never remotely on the cards, and just another small way in which the nature of the world in 1919 is still stinking up the place today.

20 FEBRUARY, 1919: Coughs And Sneezes…

This has nothing to do with any particular anniversary, and I’ve got nothing particularly eye opening to say about it, but it really is time I talked about the flu.  The global influenza pandemic of 1918–19 is often referenced by popular history, but usually in the most general terms.  The estimated worldwide death toll of at least fifty million people, about one in ten of those infected, is bandied about anywhere you care to look, and the effects of the pandemic on developed civilian societies receive plenty of coverage.  As is the case concerning most major issues a century ago, the picture presented by our heritage history is far from complete, focusing on home populations and ignoring vast swathes of the planet, so some basic 101 on the subject seems to fit my brief.  Here we go.

The ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic of 1918–19, which came in three waves, killed more people than any single outbreak of disease in human history to date, reducing the global population by between three and four percent.  Contrary to much popular thinking at the time, and to anyone on the Internet still peddling the idea, the arrival of the sickness had nothing to do with the four years of world warfare in progress when it arrived, though its rapid spread across the planet would not have been possible without the unprecedented crowding together of belligerent populations (in trenches, factories, mass protests, etc.) or the simultaneous surge in long-range transportation of humans.

Relatively minor outbreaks of a flu virus had taken place all over the world during 1915 and 1916.  It is now generally accepted that a mutated version of the same virus was responsible for outbreaks of what is seen (with hindsight) as a milder precursor of ‘Spanish Flu’ in military camps at Étaples in France and Aldershot in England between late 1916 and the following March.  Neither of the latter spread further, but a similar, much more infectious virus struck in the US state of Kansas a year later.  It quickly spread through military camps all over the country, crossed the Atlantic aboard ships and had become an epidemic across much of Europe by the early summer of 1918.

This first epidemic was no killer and most people recovered within a month, though it often left victims tired and lethargic for weeks afterwards.  It was also very big news, but in the midst of a global propaganda war the news was distinctly partial.  Highly disruptive wherever it struck, influenza’s effects on the fighting strength of belligerent armies were, for instance, concealed from public view at the time and have received little attention since – but modern historians generally agree that the sick condition of the German Army, which was struck by the disease after it passed through the Allied trenches, was an important contributor to the failure of its spring offensives on the Western Front.

Meanwhile a relative flood of news about disruption in neutral Spain, which had an uncensored press, was creating the false impression (promoted by the world’s press) that the virus was Spanish in origin.  And so the outbreak of early 1918 became ‘Spanish Flu’, for posterity and for millions at the time, but not for everyone.  The Spanish called it Italian, black South Africans called it ‘white man’s sickness’, white South Africans called it ‘black man’s disease’, Poles called it the Bolshevik disease, and dozens of other names, not all of them politically inspired, were used by contemporaries to describe a mysterious, apparently unstoppable affliction that was about to turn very nasty.

In Spain they called it the ‘Neapolitan Soldier’, and it killed.

According to modern medical orthodoxy, epidemic conditions produced rapid adaption in a virus that had mutated several times during the previous three years.  From August 1918, a new strain emerged that attacked the human lungs quickly and with potentially lethal ferocity, leaving many victims prey to bacterial pneumonia and proving particularly dangerous to vigorous young adults, whose strong immune systems over-reacted to cause viral pneumonia and respiratory crisis.

Arriving at a time of unprecedented human traffic as the Great War reached its climax, the new killer made its first appearances in three busy ports during late August.  It quickly hitchhiked around the world in the populations of ships and penetrated inland trade routes. From Boston it spread rapidly through the Americas, from Brest through Europe and from Freetown in Sierra Leone to western and southern Africa.  This second wave was by far the most destructive, infecting an estimated 500–600 million people during the autumn and winter of 1918 and responsible for the great majority of deaths. Just as the pandemic seemed to be abating, in early 1919, a third wave struck and a fresh mutation of the virus swept across the world, killing another 3–4 million people before it finally subsided in mid-summer.

The killer virus wasn’t understood in 1918, but people knew something about how to avoid it. US public medical advice, late 1918.

The pattern of influenza deaths was by no means regular, but was broadly explicable.  Generally speaking, Europe and North America suffered the least, while the worst hit areas were sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, southern and eastern Asia, and the islands of the Pacific – in other words the world’s poorest and least medically aware societies.  Death rates could also vary dramatically between regions or even localities in the same country.  These apparently inexplicable anomalies encouraged a wide spectrum of homespun superstitions surrounding the disease, everything from intervention for wartime sins by a divinity of choice to the idea that a source of death with ‘germ’ in its profile must be a German secret weapon.  There were, again with hindsight, more rational explanations.  The imposition and success, or otherwise, of quarantine regulations was often a local matter, as was the prevalence or otherwise of the crowds that spread the disease like lightning.  There is also evidence that those places most affected by the first wave of influenza had developed some degree of immunity to the second.

Most photographic records of the pandemic come from the United Sates – but this was a Maori hospital in New Zealand.

The disease killed more males than females, a difference attributed to social mores that encouraged men to keep on fighting or working when the most effective treatment was complete rest, but the flu also proved particularly dangerous to pregnant women, and controversy has bubbled ever since about whether to add unborn or stillborn babies to the overall death toll.  Some surviving children born to infected mothers are thought to have suffered developmental damage in the womb, and a large (though incalculable) number of adult survivors were left with permanently damaged respiratory systems.  Overall, the pandemic’s long-term physical effects on human society are difficult to quantify, not least because vast swathes of the infected world were bureaucratically challenged in 1919.

The psychological effects of such a massive global catastrophe on the heels of such a terrible war are equally impossible to pin down, but it does seem to fair to say that grief, fear, bitterness, pessimism and partying like there was no tomorrow were all significant influences on human history during following decades, and were all promoted by the pandemic experience of 1918–19.  On the positive side, the evident failure of contemporary medicine to understand or combat influenza prompted a frenzy of analysis and research in its aftermath.  Along with a transformation of first-world attitudes to disease prevention through quarantine and sanitation, a worldwide effort eventually produced decisive breakthroughs in the field of virology, enabling final identification of the virus responsible for the pandemic in 1933.

Apart from the usual reminders about first-world perspectives on relatively recent history, the enduring power of wartime propaganda and the links between the First World War and pretty much everything since, all I’ve been trying to do here is wrap some context around a well-known catastrophe.  Apologies if there’s nothing new on offer, but it always seems a good idea for us white folks from rich countries to season our unsalted heritage with a little context.

8 FEBRUARY, 1919: Empire Games

During the last few years, I’ve been at pains to point out the part played by the First World War in spreading European imperial control through the Middle East, and in shaping the region for the conflicts it still endures.  I’ve tended to focus on the southern provinces of the Ottoman Empire and on the British, who planned and carried out wartime Allied invasions of the Middle East, and were the prime movers behind its reorganisation in the wake of Ottoman collapse – but it wouldn’t do toss around blame for the mess without giving the French Empire its fair share.

A century ago today, General Franchet d’Espèrey, the grizzled French firebrand latterly in command of Allied forces on the Salonika Front (15 September, 1918: Walkover), arrived in Constantinople to begin work as c-in-c of Allied occupation forces in the Ottoman Empire.  That sounds straightforward enough, albeit laden with symbolism as the Christian world once more took formal control of a region it had been invading in vain since the eleventh century, but in fact the general’s ceremonial entry into the city was both controversial and provocative.

Here comes the general… Franchet d’Espèrey hits Constantinople, 8 February 1919.

For one thing, no Allied occupation of Constantinople had been agreed or pre-arranged.  The Mudros Armistice, which halted fighting between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire from 30 October 1918, had made provisions for occupation of those areas where Allied forces might be under military threat, but the British didn’t waste much time on such niceties.  The Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet steamed into Constantinople on 12 November, accompanied by French, Italian, Greek, US and Japanese vessels, and substantial (predominantly British) ground forces began landing the following day, cheered through the streets by the city’s Christian population while its Moslem folk stayed quietly indoors.  The Allies did not occupy the capitals of the other wartime Central Powers – Berlin, Vienna and Sofia – and exactly why British foreign minister Lord Curzon decided to seize Constantinople has never been established, but plausible motives aren’t too hard to find.

Control of the Bosphorus provided the Allies with a valuable conduit for support of anti-Bolshevik forces scattered around the Caucasus, while control of the Ottoman administrative hub offered the most efficient means of speeding up disarmament of an empire long since marked for dismemberment in the event of an Allied victory.  Other, less tangible motives ascribed to British imperial strategists included a desire to expunge the public embarrassment of the Gallipoli campaign by occupying its ultimate target, and a broad concern to discourage pan-Islamic movements in India and elsewhere in the Middle East by controlling one of the faith’s major seats of power.

Whatever the precise mix of motives behind it, the British move on Constantinople triggered a minor stampede.  A few French troops had actually been the first Allied units to reach the city on 12 November, and more soon followed, while Italian forces landed at Galata, the district on the opposite bank of the Golden Horn, on 7 February.  By way of giving the occupation a formal connection with the peace process underway in Paris, token US, Greek and Japanese forces also arrived in the Ottoman capital.  The city was divided into British, French and Italian occupation zones, and high commissioners from each of the six occupying countries formed the new administration’s highest authority, though in practice power rested with the British and French representatives.  Beneath that level, administration was strictly military, with a committee of generals controlling commissions responsible for various departments concerned with disarmament, public order or requisition.

The British were clearly in charge.  The commissioners were led by the British representative – c-in-c of the Mediterranean fleet, Admiral Gough-Calthorpe – and military command on the ground rested with General Milne, whose force from the Salonika front had been the first to enter the city and who had been named by the British in September 1918 as commander-in-chief of ‘Black Sea operations’.  The arrival of Franchet d’Espèrey, Milne’s c-in-c at Salonika and still claiming seniority, sent a loud message to the contrary that complicated the administrative command structure, annoyed the British and generated high-level arguments between London and Paris until the Frenchman’s eventual departure in March 1920.  So why did the French bother?

French influence pre-dated British in the Middle East, which had begun with the expulsion of French revolutionary forces from Egypt at the start of the nineteenth century.  The two empires had squabbled over their competing ambitions for the next hundred years, until entente between them taught each to treat the other’s Middle Eastern interests with some respect, albeit a grudging, narrow-eyed respect riddled with mutual suspicion.  Once a great war for survival was underway, the two empires had entered into mutually dependent alliance, and once the Middle East had become a battleground both Britain and France were ready to cut a definitive deal.

That deal was the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, and I’ve discussed its details before, as well as its incompatibility with promises of independence made to leaders of the Arab Revolt (9 May, 1916: Big Deal).  Now is a good time to take another look at the map it sought to create, because by early 1919, long before the signing of any formal agreements made in Paris, it was being turned into reality.

One more time – this was the Anglo-French blueprint for carving up the Middle East after the First World War.

Sykes-Picot was out of date by the start of 1919, because the British and French were no longer required to consider Russian ambitions. One Ottoman zone designated for Russian control had been the area around the Bosphorus Strait and Constantinople, opening the door for occupation of the capital.  The land between the Black Sea and the Persian frontier, also designated for Russian imperial control, was now being claimed as sovereign by Caucasian states on the frontline of the battle between the old ways and bolshevism, a position that made independence for Georgia, Azerbaijan and above all Armenia worth promoting from an allied point of view.

The British were already in effective control of their planned area of dominance in the south of the former Ottoman heartlands. France had neither a major army in position nor the resources to send one, so the British had agreed to mind the southern section of the area marked in blue while the French used what resources they could muster to take control of the northern section.

Some 15,000 French troops had landed in the province then known in Western Europe as Cilicia (the part of Anatolia north and northeast of Cyprus now called Cukurova) on 17 November 1918. They had spread out to occupy the region by the end of the year, and moved into towns further east in early 1919.  To the apparent surprise of the French, who seem to have decided the British had already subdued any potential opposition in Cilicia, regional nationalists immediately began organising resistance (in collaboration with Arab elements), and resistance quickly matured into guerilla warfare, becoming part of a wider nationalist struggle for an independent, largely intact Turkey.

Cilicia in 1919, since you ask…

It’s hard to believe that French authorities weren’t ready for trouble in Cilicia.  In order to field such a large force, they had cashed in on their wartime support for Armenian nationalists, and most of the occupying troops in Cilicia were Armenian volunteers with the French Legion of the East (which was rebranded as the French Armenian Legion on 1 February 1919).  With Turks and Armenians in a state of virtual civil war, and the French openly in support of Armenian separatism, civil unrest in Cilicia was inevitable and predictable.  The conflict, known as the Franco-Turkish War, would escalate and splutter on until March 1921, but the failure of a first treaty to halt nationalist violence meant that French troops did not finally withdraw from the region until the following January.

So France had military reasons to install a senior general at Constantinople, but Franchet d’Espèrey’s presence was also a means of keeping an eye on British adherence to the Sykes-Picot terms and of maintaining international pressure for Armenian independence, a cause promoted to the max by wartime propaganda and correspondingly important to the French public.  The British behaved themselves, and at the end of 1919 handed over those regions they were holding for the French, but Armenian independence, while logical in the context of western anti-Bolshevik plans, was both difficult to achieve (and another story) and anathema to most Turks.  Along with the generally harsh and overtly anti-Moslem nature of the occupation, Allied support for the Armenian cause helped spur Constantinople’s Turkish population to active resistance.

The occupation was administered under the notional umbrella of the Sultan, his grand vizier and cabinet, and the Ottoman parliament.  Grand viziers, some more apparently collaborative than others, came and went in rapid succession, but none of them made much effort to prevent the smuggling of weapons to nationalists in Anatolia from the stores of arms confiscated as part of the disarmament programme.  Meanwhile underground organisations were springing up all over the city’s Turkish quarters, and parliamentary deputies kept up a barrage of nationalist rhetoric.  To further complicate matters for the Allies, a steady inflow of ‘White Russian’ refugees evacuated from the Crimea (eventually some 200,000 of them) added to the stress on both an administration terrified of Bolshevik infiltrators and a population that, apart from its (largely Greek) Christian element, treated the occupiers with sullen hostility.

In Constantinople, though not among nationalist leaders in the provinces, official hostility to the occupiers was deliberately muted in early 1919, because the Sultan’s government and parliamentary politicians were hoping to convince the Allies that they were the good guys in Turkey.  The Turkish press, public and politicians all agreed that the criminal wartime leadership of Enver Pasha and his Young Turk colleagues (who had done a David Cameron and fled the disaster they had caused) was entirely to blame for any Ottoman disagreements with the Allies.  If the Allies could be persuaded of the same, the argument ran, Turkey might yet secure a relatively lenient peace.

Even without hindsight this seemed a faint hope, and it quickly achieved unicorn status.  Once the second phase of peace talks in Paris got underway, from mid-March 1919, it was clear to anyone paying attention that the European Allies were set on a punitive peace, because their political constituencies demanded revenge and because their wartime diplomacy demanded a carve-up of Ottoman territories to be shared among the victors.  Long before the spring of 1920, when final Allied demands presented to the Sultan’s regime triggered its collapse and replacement by a nationalist assembly in Ankara, nationalist leaders away from Constantinople were operating in the belief that only armed defence of the frontiers could prevent Turkey’s dismemberment.

The Allied occupation of Constantinople strikes me as interesting in itself, and as a fairly major example of important stuff either forgotten or deliberately left out of Western Europe’s historical narrative, but it was only one facet of a much bigger story.  In Cilicia, for instance, the French might have been driven out more quickly if Turkish nationalist leaders hadn’t prioritised another war that kicked off in May 1919, when Greece invaded at Smyrna (Izmir) in a doomed attempt to secure territories promised by the Allies. Meanwhile nationalists were competing with Bolshevik Russia and independence campaigners in Armenia and the rest of the Caucasus for control of Turkey’s eastern heartlands… but these were all long stories and they’ll have to wait, as will an overall picture of the national struggle led by Kemal Ataturk.

I can’t claim that this particularly long and unstructured ramble has much of a point to make.  Think of it as a reminder that the British and French didn’t let an outbreak of peace interrupt the business of empire building, and that any sense of mistrust emanating from modern Turkey has a basis in Anglo-French mistreatment a century ago.

31 JANUARY, 1919: Dream Ticket

Ever since its centenary, I’ve been telling anyone who’d listen that the Armistice of November 1918 may have silenced the guns on most of the First World War’s major battlefronts but didn’t, even for a moment, bring about anything remotely close to world peace (11 November, 1918: Peace Off).  Anyone taking their view of history from mainstream media can be forgiven for thinking otherwise, because the commemoration industry has been all but silent since the Armistice, giving the impression that the planet was taking a much-needed breather from conflict in early 1919.

To be fair, the silence is only partly induced by a shortage of populist stories about British men and women at war.  The regular flow of battles and other dated events generated by the gigantic propaganda machines of empires at war has dried to a trickle, and without those kind of headlines modern popular media finds it hard to talk about history.  In that respect, the years immediately after the First World War are both something of a forgotten period (as are the years immediately after the Second World War), and something of a challenge to anyone trying to hang a blog on centenary dates.  So I’ll ease off on anniversaries for now, and wander around taking snapshots of a world in motion, starting in Hungary.

In common with the contemporary world, I’ve tended to refer to Hungary in the context of the Habsburg Empire, or Austria-Hungary, but though it was tied to Austria by a shared monarch, who was King of Hungary under a separate constitution, Hungary was a distinct cultural and political entity with considerable military and economic autonomy.

Wartime Hungarian governments were politically very conservative and concerned to protect the interests of a landed elite that had dominated the country for centuries.  They were more or less jealous guardians of a separate national identity and of national territorial ambitions, and in October 1918 the arch-conservative government of Alexander Wekerle made a botched attempt to completely separate Hungary from the failing Empire (16 October, 1918: With A Whimper).  The failure left a power vacuum in a country that was, like much of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, seething with every kind of political instability.

The imperial monarchy was patently on its last legs, and the conservative parliamentary government had been dismissed but not replaced.  The recognised political opposition – a strongly pro-Allied, avowedly liberal party, openly committed to US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points peace plan and led by its founder, Mihály Károlyi – was proposing an independent republic, and Károlyi had established a self-proclaimed Hungarian National Council (HNC), dominated by liberals and social democrats, as an alternative parliament in waiting.  Most moderate socialists, social democrats largely concentrated in the major towns and cities, were wavering between lukewarm support for Károlyi and alliance with the hard left, which was becoming a formidable force as revolutionary workers’ and soldiers’ councils sprang up all over the country’s industrial and urban regions.  Meanwhile Romanians, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Serbs, Bosnians, Croats and Slovenes within Hungary’s imperial frontiers had all erupted into separatist organisation, demonstration and agitation, and a full-scale border war was brewing against Romanian Army units in the east of the country.

So it was complicated, but whichever way you cut it revolution of some sort appeared inevitable in Hungary by late October.  It came, after a fashion, at the end of the month.

On 31 October Károlyi seized the day, mobilising the HNC, disaffected Hungarian Army troops and widespread popular support in Budapest to take control of public buildings in the capital.  What became known as the Aster Revolution, after the flowers handed out to gleeful soldiers and civilians on the streets of Budapest, had taken power by the end of the day, when King Carol IV (aka Habsburg Emperor Karl I) accepted the fait accompli and appointed Károlyi as prime minister.

Proclamation of the Hungarian People’s Republic in Budapest, 16 November 1918.

The new provisional government’s first act was to formally terminate the union with Austria, a gesture confirmed as fact on 13 November, when Karl announced his withdrawal from Hungarian political affairs.  Three days later Károlyi proclaimed a Hungarian People’s Republic, naming himself as interim premier and president, and set about attempting to make it a nation in more than name.

It was, with hindsight, a doomed enterprise.  While the hard left worked for soviet-style government of and by the people, conservatives sought to protect traditional power structures, and ethnic groups pursued separatist aims, support for Károlyi’s regime was (very broadly speaking) an uncomfortable mix of liberal democracy at the leadership level and basic nationalism on the streets.  The new government’s only hope of maintaining support, and of eroding opposition support, lay in sounding to the rest of the world like a liberal democracy with no responsibility for Vienna’s crimes, and trusting that Wilson’s principles would spare Hungary the kind of economic or territorial punishment guaranteed to fan the flames of more radical revolution.  The trouble was, that hope was never real.

Thanks to Lenin’s exposure of imperial Russia’s secret treaties, neither foresight nor hindsight was required to know that the Allies had agreed to give a lot of territory to a lot of people during the War, and that they needed to carve up Hungary (among other places) to even come close to keeping their promises.  It was also made clear, in a series of French and British territorial proposals during the weeks after the Armistice, that for all its independent posturing Hungary was to be treated as a fully culpable wartime partner of Austria.

A justifiable sense of pessimism about the forthcoming peace did nothing to quell political unrest in Hungary, and by late January, with the Paris conference underway, it was already obvious that Woodrow Wilson could do little or nothing to prevent a peace founded on Anglo-French priorities.  Without ever establishing secure control over the capital, let alone the political maelstrom of the wider nation, but trading on Károlyi’s liberal reputation and close French contacts as the nation’s best hope, the provisional government would hold on to office for as long as the fantasy of a lenient peace could be maintained.

Mihály Károlyi – looks worried, and so he should.

The fantasy finally evaporated on 20 March 1919, when the Allies delivered their territorial demands in a note to Budapest.  Having made plenty of noise about being the Allies’ natural friends in Hungary, and anyway under the implied threat of military occupation, the cabinet could hardly refuse the demands, but it couldn’t accept them either, so it resigned on the spot.  Károlyi, still president of the republic, announced that only the social democrats could form a new government, but was not aware that they had merged with Budapest’s communists on the back of a promise that the Soviet Union would restore Hungary’s pre-War frontiers.  Károlyi was expelled from office the following day when the communists, as is their way, ousted the social democrats and seized political control at the moment of power transfer, establishing a Hungarian Soviet Republic under the leadership of Bela Kun.

Communist leader Bela Kun was ready to reject any Allied peace terms and rely on support from the Soviet Union.

I’ll get back to Bela Kun and Hungary another day, but meanwhile this skim through the first Hungarian republic is intended as a reminder that, beyond the headlines about German punishment and American retreat, the imperial attitudes of the pre-War years were still at work shaping the new world as it emerged from the conflict. Their impact on smaller countries was often powerful, immediate and destabilising, generating outcomes that were as inimical to imperial thinking as they were to the peaceful prosperity of affected populations.  It could also be argued that the fate of Mihály Károlyi and his pitch for liberal democracy says something about the dangers of pinning a nation’s political fate on a deal that’s impossible to seal – but I wouldn’t bother mentioning it anywhere near Downing Street.

18 JANUARY, 1918: Showtime!

The Paris Peace Conference – probably the biggest, flashiest, most important international summit meeting ever convened ­– opened a hundred years ago today.  The anniversary comes at an appropriate time for we British, who have been re-learning what it means to go into negotiations without a clear agenda, and is anyway well worth commemorating as the start of a shambles that is generally considered one of the modern world’s defining moments.  A lot of people have written a lot of words about an event that merits a long book, and has inspired one or two very fine books – Margaret MacMillan would be my recommendation – but casual bloggers like me are allowed to relax into snapshots and hope some kind of big picture emerges from the collection.

So I’ll start by saying the Paris Peace Conference was set up to fail, in general because each of the three states making all the important decisions wanted something different from the peace, and in detail because they had been manipulating the conference for their own ends during the planning phase.

Press and public referred to the ‘Big Four’ throughout the conference, meaning Britain, France, the USA and Italy, but the title barely disguised the fact that Italy was one of the also-rans, in no position to argue with anything decided by the others.  Of those three, the USA had made its position abundantly clear, or rather its president was abundantly clear that the peace should embody his Fourteen Points in all their liberal sanctity and produce a League of Nations to police its enforcement.  The British government, informed by its electorate in no uncertain terms that a pound of flesh was required, wanted to satisfy the public and pay for the War, but above all (and as ever) wanted to rebuild prosperity by securing and enlarging Britain’s enormous empire, a process that ran directly contrary to Wilsonian principles.  The French negotiators wanted payment and imperial expansion, and like the British they considered Wilson’s liberal ideology dangerously anti-colonial, but above all they represented their public in wanting to take revenge on Germany, and to make absolutely sure that Germany would never again threaten France.

Liberal platitudes coming out of Europe weren’t fooling the Chicago Tribune.

All of the above is generalisation, in that the delegations themselves were crammed full of bigwigs and seldom of one mind, but you get the picture.  That the picture involved punishing Germany, Wilson notwithstanding, was made abundantly clear by the location and timing of the conference.  Held not in some neutral country but in Paris, it opened at the Salle d’Horloge on the Quai d’Orsay on 18 January, the anniversary of unified Germany’s proclamation under Kaiser Wilhelm I at exactly the same location in 1871.  All this had been arranged at the insistence of fiercely nationalist French premier Clemenceau, for once in tandem with French President Poincaré, but the British – in some ways as incapable of taking responsibility for European affairs as they had been in 1914 – were happy enough to let him have his way (for all that Lloyd George later claimed to have been against the idea).

At work in the Salle d’Horloge

Posterity has not been kind to the principal negotiators.  Wilson is seen as naive and inflexible, Lloyd George as the artful dodger concealing a greedy imperialist agenda, and Clemenceau as the equally cunning fury willing to sacrifice future peace for revenge. Months of negotiations lay ahead, and that should give me plenty of time to undermine those facile judgments, but whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the protagonists they were hobbled from the start by their collective failure to come up with an agenda before the conference began.

The French had put forward an agenda.  Based on the precedent of the peace congress that had ended the Napoleonic Wars, it proposed that the matter of Germany be dealt with first, followed by the many issues arising from the late war’s impact on the rest of the world.  The implementation of Wilson’s cherished plan for a League of Nations, something the French described as far too vague for consideration at an early stage, was to be left until last.  This very Gallic take on priorities was universally ignored, and no serious discussions about an agenda took place before 18 January, presumably because nobody wanted inevitable disputes to go public before the conference had started.

The result was noisy chaos.  While the figureheads debated general principles, a series of international commissions went to work to formulate Allied demands as the basis for future negotiations with German representatives.  It soon became clear, although it was never formally stated, that the Germans would not be invited to negotiate, a misunderstanding that meant the very harsh terms intended as opening Allied bids often ended up in the final treaty. Meanwhile delegates were still arriving in Paris from all over the world, many from regions seeking international recognition as independent nations, some making rival claims for control of the same territories, all demanding attention from the decision makers. Many of them – including (among many) delegations from Ireland, Vietnam, Tonga, all the new states in the Caucasus, Egypt and Korea, along with a Zionist delegation – were not accepted as voting members of the conference plenary session, and I’m going to list those that were because it makes for a good snapshot.

This is the Egyptian delegation arriving at the conference (and destined to be denied a voting voice).

The surviving Central Powers (Germany and Bulgaria) were not invited to the conference, and the Soviet Union, having signed a peace at Brest-Litovsk in 1918, was also excluded.  Otherwise, the Big Four aside, old European states were represented by Belgium, Romania, Greece, Portugal and tiny San Marino , while Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, Montenegro and Lithuania were new or aspiring European states. The ‘British Empire’ fielded a delegation that included Canadian representatives, but South Africa was merely a strong voice at the British imperial table through Jan Smuts, and Africa was otherwise represented only by independent Liberia.

Latin America sent delegations from Brazil, Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, all of them invited on the coattails of declarations of war in support of the US, and the Arab Revolt was represented as ‘the Hejaz’.  Siam (modern Thailand) was a wartime ally and one of three Asian states recognised as voting members of the conference.  Another was China, which was primarily concerned with protecting its territory and economy against the third: the only nation outside the Big Four with any real clout, Japan.

Japan’s interest in the peace was purely regional, but two Japanese delegates sat on the Council of Ten, along with the premiers and foreign ministers of the Big Four, which became the principal arena for meaningful debate once it became clear that no full session would ever achieve anything.  Not that the Council of Ten achieved anything much, beset as it was by petitions from all over the world and arguments about basic agenda points.  By the time Wilson went back to the States for a month in mid-February, it had managed to agree that Germany should forfeit its colonies and to produce a (very rough) draft covenant for the League of Nations.

That’s a good place to stop for now, because a lot went on while Wilson was away from Europe and because, from March onwards, the Council of Ten would be recast as the Council of Four, comprising Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Italian premier Orlando.  While the committees wrestled to resolve literally hundreds of diplomatic and political issues on every continent, these four men would have the punishment of Germany organised by late June and then, like a big football club in a minor cup competition, the stars would depart and let the fringe players get on with reshaping the world.

The show would go on for another year after that, and although British popular history is inclined to focus on the disastrous outcome of the treaty with Germany signed at Versailles, it can be argued that the most lasting, and certainly the most wide-ranging effects of the Paris Peace Conference – those that still need sorting out a hundred years on – were unleashed by the treaties with the rest of the world that followed.  I’ll get down with the diplomatic chutzpah at a later date and, because the conference was a show, I’ll find a time to look at how its performance played with the public, and how it helped redefine global relationships between mass politics and high politics.  Meanwhile this was a small reminder that, while your world was conceived in fire during the First World War, its was brought to life by the diplomatic fireworks ignited on the Quai d’Orsay.

15 JANUARY, 1919: Sticky Business

So the Great War was officially over but, like a big meteorite dropped into an ecologically diverse lake, it was still sending dangerous ripples in all directions as 1919 got going.

Pretty much every country in the world was trying to cope with major geopolitical, political, social, economic and cultural changes wrought by the conflict.  While the major combatants, or their surviving components, wrestled with the momentous consequences of losing or winning the war, the rest of the planet was busy trying to sort out the mess created by more or less voluntary commitment to imperial wars, by direct exploitation by warring empires (as either proxy battlegrounds or resource pools) or by the sudden absence of imperial landlords.  Even in Latin America, the region least directly affected by the First World War, economic upheaval and the spectre of US economic domination had fuelled political turmoil that was still playing out across the continent in 1919.

There were two major exceptions to this rule of thumb.  One was Japan, which had suffered a little economic and political upheaval while prosecuting a very canny and profitable war, but was proceeding along lines of national ambition that were essentially unchanged since the late nineteenth century.  The other was the United States, viewed by the rest of the world as having emerged from its short, victorious war fabulously rich, apparently very clever and generally admirable.  The War had triggered tectonic shifts in that nation’s economic, political and cultural life, but on the whole the US was acting as if it had been a mere blip, a temporary diversion, and as if it was back to business as usual, on the road to a serene, separate prosperity based firmly and (almost) exclusively in the New World.

The US president and his advisors may have been busy putting the world to rights, and the press was carrying news of returning servicemen along with the first official reports on their performance in the field, but the US public mind was once again focused on its home patch – and on 15 January it had some very strange news to absorb.  I had intended to spend today with the Estonian War of Independence, which was on the point of expelling Red Army forces from the country in mid-January, but although the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1915 had little to do with the First World War, it did shine a small light on its aftermath in the US… and it was too weird to leave alone.

Homecoming US troops got their parades, like this one in New York, but then it was back to business.

The Purity Distilling Company of Massachusetts, a subsidiary of United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA) since 1917, had been doing a roaring wartime trade in molasses, which were fomented to create ethanol, or grain alcohol.  Ethanol was useful for various culinary, industrial and agricultural processes, including the manufacture of munitions, and Purity couldn’t get enough of the stuff once war broke out in Europe.

Molasses landed from Cuba were stored at the company’s Boston facility and fomented before rail transfer to a distillery in nearby Cambridge, and rocketing demand required construction of an enormous new storage tank close to the waterfront.  The tank took its first shipment in December 1915, days after it had opened and before it had been fully tested for strength.  Peace brought the molasses boom to an abrupt end, but the prospect of prohibition in the US offered an alternative market during the one-year period of grace allowed before the legislation became active, and USIA sought to exploit it by stocking up big time as prices fell.

The tank

Locally renowned as a leaky source of free supplies to passers by, and inclined to internal rumblings, the Boston tank was spectacularly full in mid-January 1919, containing some 8.7 million litres of molasses that weighed almost 11.8 million kilos.  Whether because of leaks in the tank, a rapid rise in outside air temperature (which rose from -17C to 5C on 14 January), miscalculations about expansion during the fomentation process, or some or all of those factors in combination, the tank exploded just after 12.30pm on 15 January.

Preceded by a powerful shock wave that instantly reduced nearby wooden structures to splinters, a tsunami of molasses, reportedly either five or eight metres high and either 27 or 50 metres across, ripped out of the tank at a speed estimated at around 55kph.  The surge devastated the dockyard area, buckling girders supporting the overhead railway, derailing a train, tearing brick structures from their foundations and obliterating street furniture. People in its path were blown away, smothered or hit by flying debris from the tank.

The wave caused damage amounting to several hundred million dollars in modern terms, killed 21 people and injured 150.  Most of the dead drowned in molasses or were mortally wounded by debris, but a few died after being tossed into the harbour.  Once the tsunami lost momentum a flood spread through the streets of Boston’s North End, burying them under up to a metre of sweet, sticky goo, while rescuers arrived on the scene to dig bodies and survivors out of the morass.  The clean-up and rescue operation took weeks, and by the time it was finished visitors to the scene had spread a residue of molasses all over the city.

There goes the railway…

Investigators decided almost immediately that the tank had been too thin and held together with too few rivets, and US Industrial Alcohol was subject to a class action that reached court in August 1920.  The company was eventually found guilty of neglect in 1925, after which it settled out of court, paying compensation to the city of Boston, the Elevated Railway Company and the families of victims, each of which received $7,000 (around $120,000 today).

In historical terms, the vedict had important consequences for the US construction industry, prompting the city of Boston to introduce new building regulations that required all major structures to undergo official inspection before opening, and that were rapidly copied elsewhere.  Less obviously, and in a small way, the case said something about post-War attitudes to the rest of the world in the United States.

When the lawsuits against USIA came before their first hearing, in August 1920, the company claimed that anarchists had sabotaged the Boston storage tank to prevent use of the molasses for munitions.  It cited rumours of Italian anarchist conspiracies reported in the press since the Armistice, threats received by telephone and the discovery of a bomb at another of its installations in 1916.  Rubbished without much difficulty by prosecutors, the plea was a reminder that, while companies like USIA were selling business (and boozing) as usual for all they were worth, even they felt the shadow of the Great War and kept one eye on a world in revolutionary turmoil.  USIA’s decision to go with the anarchist argument also suggests it had reason to believe the public – or at least the public in cosmopolitan, coastal Boston – shared a concern for the wider world that no amount of isolationist wishful thinking could completely suppress.

This sense of involvement in world affairs, though sporadic and far more prevalent near coasts and frontiers, was part of the First World War’s enduring legacy in the USA.  It doesn’t get much space in a standard narrative that has the nation diving back into isolationism between the wars, yet it would have momentous, global consequences for the rest of the twentieth century, and it remains fundamental to the stark divisions exploited by modern politicians in the USA.  There, I knew I’d find an excuse for this one…

These are Finnish troops in Estonia, where they joined an invasion by some 3,000 native independence fighters that won a crucial battle against an equally small Red Army force at Utria on 17-20 January 1919. Important stuff for Estonians everywhere – sorry, Estonians.

4 JANUARY, 1919: The Revolution Will Not Be…

Despite more than four years of fighting to bring stability to the world’s geopolitical systems, or perhaps because of the path taken by the struggle, the survivors among Europe’s traditional stakeholders entered 1919 braced for a battle to preserve the political systems that kept them in place.  Speaking in the broadest possible terms, they had been very afraid of mass revolution in 1914, and pleasantly surprised when the outbreak of war provoked nothing of the sort, but by the beginning of 1919 they were terrified of it.

The roots of the fear weren’t hard to find.  The siren song of socialism demanded change and, having been all but silenced by the national crises of 1914, had come roaring back as a political force since the ghastly military stalemate of 1916.  The spectre of revolution, which had loomed ever larger over Europe’s comfortable classes through the nineteenth century, had developed undeniable substance by toppling the mighty Russian Empire in 1917, and seemed to menace every unstable or war-torn body politic during the turbulent denouement of 1918.

As 1919 got underway, viewed from a conservative perspective, it looked as if revolution’s day had come.  Not just Russia, and not just the many small, faraway countries thrown into revolutionary turmoil by wars – in early January it seemed Bolshevism was about to swamp Germany and was even, if your conservatism came with an alarmist streak, flexing for action in Britain.

I’ll start with Germany, which was showing every outward sign of going the way of imperial Russia.  This isn’t the place for detailed analysis of a very complex and often incoherent story, but the bare bones were reasonably straightforward.

The collapse of the imperial regime had left relatively moderate socialist politicians of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and its left-wing splinter group the Independent Social Democratic Party (USDP) in charge of a state disintegrating under pressure of war economics and along all the crevices of its endemic political divisions.  As reformists or ‘gradualists’, seeking peaceful change within the framework of parliamentary politics, these guys had long been an accepted part of the German political landscape, and had spent the years before the War pushing back against radical socialist demands across Europe.  They didn’t want a revolution governed by soviets or peoples’ councils.  They wanted a reformed version of normalcy and, in the optimistic belief that their allies in the military represented a genuine faith in representative democracy across the officer corps, they were prepared to use troops and right-wing militias (known as Freikorps) to get it.

The revolutionary left had also been a force in pre-War Germany, and had been actively fostering and preparing for revolution, regionally and nationally, since the eruption of street protests, street violence and soviet-style politics that had followed the Keil Mutiny in November (11 November, 1918: Peace Off).  After the ‘Christmas Crisis’ in Berlin, during which sailors’ councils occupied the imperial chancellery but were forced to withdraw after a fight with troops and Freikorps units, the most radical elements formally split from the SDP and USPD, forming the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) at the end of the year.

Germany was a de facto federation of states, and each faced its own political upheavals as royal or aristocratic government collapsed, but the centre of national power lay in Berlin and the industrial north, where the Spartacist League dominated revolutionary politics and the KPD.  The League and its dashing young leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, went on to become poster children for romantic revolutionaries everywhere during the twentieth century, and its ‘Spartacist Uprising’ of January 1919 is seen as the defining crisis of the German Revolution, but its actual impact was fleeting, limited and damaging to its cause.

Karl and Rosa, dashing but doomed.

While the moderate parties and radical union leaders (organised as the Revolutionary Stewards) remained committed to participation in forthcoming parliamentary elections, the Spartacists wavered for a couple of days before opting to seek revolution ‘on the streets’ (despite Luxemburg’s preference for a parliamentary campaign).  To their surprise, an opportunity to spark said revolution broke out almost at once.

Against the alliance of landowners, capitalism and new militarism… that was the Spartacist message in 1918.

On 4 January 1919, a Saturday, Chancellor Ebert dismissed Berlin police chief Emil Eichhorn, who had refused to act against protesters during the Christmas Crisis.  Eichhorn’s call for a demonstration of support from those he had spared was backed by the USPD, the Revolutionary Stewards and the KDP, and was answered by hundreds of thousands of protesters, many of them armed, in Berlin the following day.  While Ebert’s government made arrangements to hire Freikorps units as peacekeepers, revolutionary groups occupied newspaper offices and the city’s police HQ, where a 53-strong revolutionary committee was formed.

The committee failed to reach any kind agreement on what to do next, but did call a general strike, which brought another half a million or so people onto the streets of Berlin on 8 January.  By that time the USPD had opened talks with Ebert and the KPD was effectively split between those who wanted revolution right then and those who thought it doomed to fail without deeper popular support.  The former won the argument, but the latter had it right.

Talks between Ebert and the USPD broke down later that day, triggering a call by the Spartacists for armed uprising and a call from Ebert to Freikorps commanders.  Easily and often derided as naive, calling in the Freikorps was not an unpopular move by the new government.  Even centrist and moderate left-wing newspapers had been calling for firm military action against revolutionary groups since the turn of the year, and their right-wing counterparts were demanding mass executions of revolutionary ‘traitors’.  Ebert and his ministers, their regime staggering in the shadow of Kerenski, had reason to hope that restoration of order could bring consensus around the idea of a liberal democratic Germany.

The fight that followed in Berlin was extremely one-sided, as combat veterans with state-of-the-art weaponry routed poorly armed, undisciplined, outnumbered revolutionaries.  Freikorps troops took full control of the city during next three days, losing seventeen dead but killing more than 150 insurgents, including Luxemburg and Liebknecht, who were arrested on 15 January and shot during the night.  Berlin’s conquerors never received any official government sanction and their actions were never officially investigated, but they did save the infant German republic, albeit at the cost of its dependence on independent right-wing groups.  Revolution in Germany was far from done, and would define its regional politics into the 1920s, but revolution by an extra-parliamentary coup d’état at the centre would never come so close again.

These were the January revolutionaries in Berlin, occupying the newspaper district…
… and these were the hardened veterans responsible for wiping many of them out.

I hadn’t intended to spend quite so long in Germany today, but information got the better of argument.  My point was to illustrate how fragile the established world order felt to its stakeholders in early 1919, by way of providing context for the fleeting moment of revolutionary Zeitgeist experienced by Britain at the same time.

Britain had suffered a lot of strikes in the latter part of 1918, including a police strike, but 3 January 1919 saw the beginning of a strike by serving soldiers.  Of course it looked like a mutiny to those convinced revolution was coming, and technically that’s exactly what it was – and it was a big one.  It began in Folkestone, where some 3,000 men refused orders to embark for France, reached troops at Dover the next day and spread to dozens of camps in southern England during the next few days.

The rest of the month saw similar incidents, involving tens of thousands of servicemen (and a few women), at camps across the UK provinces and among British troops still stationed in northern France.  The government and military authorities did their best to keep the whole thing quiet, and succeeded to some extent.  The original ‘mutinies’ on the south coast received some press coverage before the government stepped in, and basic news of major incidents at Southampton and around Calais was reported, as were the negotiations with senior officers that brought them to an end (in mid-January and the end of the month respectively), but the public had no idea how widespread the trouble had become.

Pictures of the soldiers’ strike? You’re kidding… so here’s one of the 1918 strike by British police.

From the perspective of a British government in the habit of imposing wartime censorship and well versed in the mechanics of contemporary mass politics, this smelled like revolution in the making.  The soldiers’ actions might, it was felt, be the prelude to formation of political councils and demands, revolutionary behaviour that could spread to infect the civilian workforce and trigger scenes parallel with those in Germany.  Right in tune with the times, this view made smothering the story, and keeping it smothered in the aftermath, a government no-brainer – but it was nonsense just the same.

Modern historians tend to refer to the soldiers’ actions in January 1919 as a strike, and they are right.  Peace had arrived, and conscripted soldiers quite naturally wanted to get home as soon as possible, or at the very least enjoy a relaxation of wartime routines. Instead they were being kept in uniform, subjected to full military discipline and discharged at snail’s pace.  Far from being demobbed, many troops were being ordered to or readied for further overseas service, either as occupying forces or to fight in those parts of the world the British Empire still considered war zones.  Everything we know about the demands of the soldiers and the concessions made to them suggests that they were on strike over working conditions, and the actions were all brought to a peaceful end once the demob process was speeded up, leave granted to those still in uniform and guarantees given against transfer overseas.

Hindsight tells us that the post-War British were, as usual, more interested in peace, quiet and comfort than in revolution – but thanks to the (understandable) paranoia of their ruling classes the soldiers’ strike of early 1919 has been consigned to the misty lands of myth and legend.  Britain wasn’t denied a workers’ paradise or saved from Bolshevik tyranny (delete as preferred) by government repression in 1919, but national propaganda’s enduring need to keep the strike a secret means that most people today have never heard of it, while the shortage of detailed information about it (particularly the lack of published contemporary memoir) has enabled polemicists on both right and left to claim it as a key moment in modern British history.  The strike did achieve its aims, and had important short-term effects on British military thinking, in particular helping to dissuade the government from committing large numbers of troops to the war in Russia, but any association with revolution existed purely in the minds of the converted.

26 DECEMBER, 1918: Waving And Drowning

It’s Boxing Day 2018, and in Britain we’re either shopping or slacking, the latter a clear dereliction of our duty to save the nation by spending more than we can afford.  Some of us are watching professional sport but these days that counts as a form of shopping, as does taking a holiday during the ‘festive’ season.  What we are not doing, with parliament on vacation and world news restricted to natural disasters or routine ceremonials, is politics – which, given Britain’s current political circumstances, says something about how completely we buy into the primacy of commercial Christmas over everything else in late December.  It wasn’t quite like that in 1918.

Christmas was big by 1918.  The habits we now call traditions were well established, though as bare bones compared with today’s sophisticated exploitations, and the implied pause for religious reflection was taken seriously by a very large chunk of the population.  Then again, the holiday did not, as it does today, blot out the real world, and on Boxing Day 1918 the attention of the informed nation, and especially that of more than seven million people living in and around London, was firmly fixed on one event that had nothing to do with nativity.  For the first time in history, a sitting US president was visiting Europe, and on 26 December he was arriving in Britain.

Even by the fanfare standards surrounding the office today, Woodrow Wilson wasn’t just any old sitting US President.  As 1918 drew to a close he was by far the most famous person in the world, and although it’s probably fair to say he loomed less large in the thinking of radical socialists, he was at the absolute peak of his personal influence over world affairs.  Millions of people in dozens of countries regarded Wilson’s ideas as the greatest, if not the only hope for the peaceful development of human civilisation, and hoped that the power of his office combined with his much-vaunted commitment to principles would deliver just that.  In an age when reputations were relatively immune to mass scrutiny on a personal level, he was rock star, Messiah and geopolitical colossus rolled into one.

They loved him in Paris – but the romance wouldn’t last.

Up there on his pedestal, Wilson did have enemies.  A small but fierce minority in many countries – wartime winners and losers alike – regarded Wilson as a potentially deadly threat to civilisation as they liked it, less violent than the bogeyman menace of Bolshevism but much more in their face.  Significant in that they represented many of the most powerful people in those countries, these minorities ended 1918 determined to scupper Wilson’s liberal agenda for the forthcoming peace negotiations by any means acceptable to their populations.  Broadly speaking, and judged largely through the medium of the popular press, those populations were deeply committed to the principles embodied by Wilson’s Fourteen Points peace plan, but rather more committed to either gaining rewards or escaping punishment for their parts in the late war – so Wilson’s overseas enemies felt they were in with a chance.

Wilson was probably the most famous person in his own country, though Charlie Chaplin could give him a run for his money, but he was never a particularly messianic figure.  Though granted a certain hallowed status by press, politicians and propaganda while the USA was actually at war, his ungainly and unsuccessful intervention in the midterm elections had reduced him to the ranks of ordinary, if high-profile politicians by late 1918.  This meant Wilson was open to personal criticism, like any other political leader, and his much-heralded departure for Europe on 4 December 1918 – an extended visit that would keep him away for more than six months, apart from a one-month spell back in the US – was seen by some US observers as evidence of his arrogance, self-importance and belief in his own legend.  I’ll get around to the controversies surrounding those chosen or not chosen to accompany Wilson’s delegation when the peace conference itself gets going, but for now I want to concentrate on the President’s instant impact on European life.

Wilson travelled aboard the SS George Washington (a German liner interned in 1914), arrived at Brest, France, on 13 December and proceeded to Paris.  He had visited France before, as president-elect in 1912, but this time the population gave him the full superstar treatment, thronging every street through which he passed and every perch from which he could be seen.  He remained in France until Christmas, accepting adoration wherever he went, and took the boat train next day to London.

Wilson’s advisors – well aware that the newly re-elected Lloyd George government regarded the President and his ideas with deep suspicion – expected a more restrained welcome from the British, but they were wrong.  From the moment Wilson’s train arrived at Charing Cross station he might as well have been in Paris.  The streets were packed with civilians in party mood, military honour guards accompanied his progress and he triggered a major outbreak of flag draping and waving.  Only the fact that he rode the two-mile carriage journey to Buckingham Palace accompanied by a king distinguished the day from its French counterpart.

Wilson with President Poincaré in Paris – the smiley face made a big impression in every country Wilson visited, largely because the world was used to…
… stern, serious Woodrow.

Wilson beamed a lot that day in London, and gave a short speech to the adoring multitudes from the Palace balcony, but he’d been to Britain several times before becoming president and didn’t stay long in the capital.  After a meeting with Lloyd George he travelled north for a little rest and relaxation, setting in motion what would become something of a presidential tradition by visiting Carlisle, the birthplace of his mother, and stopping on the evening of 29 December in Manchester, where he was given the full rock star welcome next day and delivered a speech at the Free Trade Hall.  He returned to Paris on New Year’s Eve, but just for the night before setting off for Italy.

Speaks for itself, and for Carlisle.

The Italian welcome for Wilson put Britain and France in the shade, at least in terms of hyperbole, with plenty of popular calls for sainthood to match his local nickname as the ‘god of peace’, accompanied by a torrent of praise for his beatific good looks from a gushing press.  If there is an explanation for this extreme excitement that doesn’t involve national stereotyping, it lies in the difference between contemporary Anglo-French and Italian attitudes to the USA.

The Italian population, like the British and French, was cheering because it was understandably and madly in love with peace, and besotted enough to overlook the fact that Wilson’s brand of peace expressly rejected many of their most cherished national ambitions – but Italians also saw Wilson (and by extension the USA) as a protector against their other powerful allies.  Italians had spent much of the last three years carping about a perceived lack of material support or strategic respect from the British and French, and since the Bolsheviks had made public all the wartime secret treaties to which Russia was party, they had known the promises that brought them into the War could not and would not be kept. Simply put, most Italians expected the British and French to stitch up Italy at the forthcoming peace conference, and wanted to believe that Wilson was principled enough, powerful enough and sufficiently steeped in traditional US hatred of empires to stop them.

Different city, same reaction – crowds greet Wilson in Rome.

Wilson stayed in Italy until 6 January, fitting in talks with King Victor Emmanuel, Prime Minister Orlando and Pope Benedict XV, the latter an irritant to an Italian government on very frosty terms with the Vatican.  With no time to undertake a proposed visit to Belgium – which eventually took place in June – he returned to Paris in time for the official opening of the peace conference on 7 January.

I’ll no doubt fall to chatting about the peace negotiations during the next few months, but today is about Woodrow Wilson’s pioneering display of global superstardom.  A spectacularly bloated product of circumstance and a somewhat arrogant academic’s self-belief, Wilson’s triumphant progress as something between Christ and the Beatles was something new in the world, and announced an age of mass adulation for individual leaders fuelled by ever-expanding, increasingly efficient global communications networks.

Be careful what you cheer for.

You see where I’m headed here?  Wilson’s reputation as the great bringer of peace fell apart as soon as it was seriously tested, and his ideas collapsed when they were applied to geopolitical reality.  From the moment the peace conference got underway his star was on the wane, and it never recovered.  At home and abroad, he proved to be a let-down, and the lesson for his adoring millions should have been clear – but we never did get the message that media fantasies always let you down, and whole populations have been falling for global superstardom ever since.  So a happy new year to both my readers, and put those flags away.

14 DECEMBER, 1918: Politics, Populism… Don’t Panic!

I’ve already mentioned that a general election took place in the UK and Ireland a century ago today.   I’ve outlined the basic political landscape during the brief campaign that preceded the election, which had been called straight after the Armistice, and I’ve touched upon the many factors that made this one special (30 November, 1918: Wh’appen?).  Because what was known as the Khaki or Coupon Election owed much about its shape and outcome to the First World War, and because it offers some (vaguely reassuring) parallels with the political weirdness currently afflicting the British parliament, I think it merits a little more song and dance.

The expansion of the franchise in 1918 was big enough to render electoral precedent redundant.  About 7.7 million citizens had been eligible to vote in the previous British election, in 1910, but the electorate now included most women over thirty, virtually all men over twenty-one and men over nineteen who had served in the War, so that almost 21.4 million voters had the right to their say.  Nobody could be sure how the nation’s new constituents would line up in party terms, with the millions on active service viewed by the political elite as even less predictable than women (seen by many male observers as likely to follow the advice of husbands or other male figures) or workers tempted to the left by the revolutionary flavour of the times.  All informed observers were sure the election would redefine Britain’s political landscape for the post-War era, and the prospect worried a lot of them.

Quite a few of the same informed observers, particularly those with a solid stake in the status quo, spent the campaign complaining that the election had been called too quickly.  The logistic challenge of collecting and counting millions of votes from overseas was cited as one good reason for delay, and another was the ongoing flu epidemic, which was just passing its autumn peak and expected to hobble the hustings.  Influenza did cause the cancellation of many election meetings – which were still an important form of political communication in 1918 – and forced some candidates to stand down, but for many social conservatives the real reason for demanding delay was the hope that more time and a proper dose of conventional campaigning might clarify the state of the parties and dissuade the new electorate from anything too radical.

The two-party system that had dominated mainland British politics for decades needed clarifying.  The biggest party in the House of Commons, the Liberal Party, was split between 145 ‘Coupon’ candidates for the governing coalition led by Lloyd George – known as such because they carried a coupon identifying them as the coalition’s sole candidate in a constituency – and 276 representing party leader Asquith’s anti-coalition bloc.  Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservative Party, which had last formed a government in 1905 but had won only one seat less than the Liberals in 1910, stood solidly behind the ideological shelter of the coalition, fielding 362 of the coalition’s candidates against only 83 non-coalition Tories, but the real fly in the ointment was the relatively new Labour Party.

A surprise choice as Conservative Party leader in 1911, Andrew Bonar Law would survive to serve as prime minister in the early 1920s – but is possibly the least remembered major political figure of the age.

The socialist Second International’s bid for peace in the years before 1914, doomed at the time but looking smart with hindsight; the apparent disillusion with conventional nationalism that accompanied war weariness; the hope for a new world order, nurtured by propaganda promises and by the practical reforms introduced to make total war possible; the belief fostered by revolutions elsewhere, especially in Russia and now in Germany, that no regime was immune to the sudden expression of popular anger… all these factors would, it seemed, conspire to launch the British Labour Party into the forefront of parliamentary politics in 1918.  Only 5 Labour candidates took the Coupon – along with 18 (of a total of 23) candidates from the National Democratic and Labour Party (NDLP), an anti-pacifist, nationalist centre-left splinter group fighting its only election – but nobody had any real idea how far (predominantly urban and military) voters would support the other 361 Labour candidates.

The days before the election passed in a Brexit-like frenzy of anticipation, laden with dramatic predictions of national transformation but, partly because press and politicians regarded much of the new electorate as incapable of sophisticated political thinking, hooked on populism.  The issue  of reparations dominated debate and, broadly speaking, the coalition campaigned on its war-winning record, presenting itself as the ideal group to prosecute the peace and punish Germany for its crimes.  Trade was another axis of dispute, with Lloyd George and the Conservatives promoting the policy of ‘colonial preference’ agreed with the Empire’s ‘white’ dominions, while non-coalition Liberals argued for free trade –but Asquith’s lethargic, underfunded campaign failed to make trade a major popular issue.  Unable to summon a clear programme to compete with the Labour manifesto, which promised radical reform to match the ambitions kindled by wartime social measures, Asquith’s party paid for what historians regard as either weariness or complacency.

Only 36 Asquith Liberals were elected, and he lost his own seat, while 127 coalition Liberals were returned along with 332 coalition and 50 non-coupon Conservatives.  The big story was the Labour Party, which had won 42 seats in the 1910 election and now mustered 57 non-coupon MPs, alongside four Labour and nine NDLP coalition members.  This wasn’t revolution, despite a surge in the Labour vote that saw the party come second on lots of places, but it was steady growth and it did mark a shift in Britain’s basic political dividing line.

Fought to a chorus of ‘Hang the Kaiser!’, the election had produced a victory for the nationalist, patriotic sentiment associated with conservatism, but the immediate triumph of right-wing values masked an underlying shift to the left that has yet to be reversed.  It would force Conservatives to focus on social welfare as never before, see the Liberal Party permanently relegated to the margins of British political life, and establish the Labour Party’s various shades of reformist (rather than revolutionary) socialism as one of the twin pillars of a new two-party system that is only now falling apart.

A simple, populist message for a naive electorate… and it was enough to win the 1918 election.

Given that women and troops did not vote en masse for immediate reform of the political system, or even come out in strong support of one particular party (or gender), it could be argued that the 1918 election, while an important watershed moment, didn’t quite live up to the hype – but only if you ignore Ireland, where the it brought the expedient politics of wartime British rule home to roost.

Ireland accounted for 105 seats in the UK parliament (though the vagaries of double constituencies meant this only produced 101 MPs), but the issues upon which the election was fought had little to do with the preoccupations of mainland voters.  The War had brought to the boil the long, often violent, three-way argument about independence that had dominated Irish politics since the late 19th century.  Supporters of full Irish independence were principally represented by Sinn Fein, while supporters of Home Rule (autonomy within Great Britain, as proposed by the coalition government) were represented by the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and its offshoots.  The IPP and Home Rule had been fatally compromised by British government’s wartime behaviour (25 July, 1917: Green Shoots), and Sinn Fein reaped the benefits of popular disillusion with compromise.

This worked pretty well too…

Fighting its first general election, having taken six seats in wartime by-elections, Sinn Fein took 73 seats in 1918, while the IPP suffered a spectacular collapse, leaving it with only six of the 73 seats it had held in 1910.  The third corner of Ireland’s political triangle, those wishing to remain as a fully integrated part of Great Britain, almost all of them Protestants from Ulster, didn’t budge from its usual position, voting in 22 Ulster Unionist and three Labour Unionist MPs.  Sinn Fein’s landslide victory in the south owed a lot to the first-past-the-post system that stills skews British politics but was still a clear statement of popular opinion, as was Ulster’s rock solid support for the Union.  Irish politics had clearly polarised.  Home Rule was dead, and the status quo was doomed.

Proof of the sea change came almost at once.  Sinn Fein, which refused to take up its seats in Westminster, called Ireland’s 101 elected MPs to an Irish assembly, the Dáil, which met for the first time on 21 January 1919.  Only 27 deputies attended the meeting – most other Sinn Fein MPs were in prison and other parties joined the British government in refusing to recognise the assembly – but they immediately declared an independent Irish Republic with the Dáil as its parliament.  This date, which coincided with the death of two Royal Ulster Constabulary officers during an ambush by members of the Irish Volunteers (a militant organisation soon to change its name to the Irish Republican Army under the aegis of Sinn Fein), is usually taken as the beginning of an Irish war against Great Britain that brought independence in 1921, followed by almost two years of civil war between republicans and unionists.

So the 1918 general election brought a permanent shift in the balance of political power in mainland Britain, and finally released the dancing genie of Irish independence from the imperial bottle.  It marked the true birth of British mass politics as we understand them today, both as the first occasion on which voting wasn’t restricted to male property holders and as the first confrontation between voters and a sophisticated government propaganda machine, bolstered by mass communication and aimed at the emotions of the poorly informed.  As such, the vote was preceded by far and away the noisiest election campaign in British history to that point, brief but awash with hyperbole, and was anticipated with the kind of apocalyptic fervour we’re learning to expect around Brexit electioneering.

For all that, life in mainland Britain was not fundamentally changed by the outcome in December 1918, and the election attracted a very low turnout, at 57.2 percent the lowest of any British general election before or since.  Big storm, big teacup, a little erosion of some longstanding pedestals, and life goes on… something to remember that the next time Britain’s current political crisis freaks you out.

THE REAL FIRST WORLD WAR