Category Archives: Diplomacy

15 MAY, 1919: Izmir Is Or Izmir Ain’t…?

I’ve mentioned this once or twice before but historians, like history, never mind repeating themselves, so I’ll say it again:  the outbreak of the First World War cut across and influenced, one way or another, a number of regional wars that were brewing or in progress by 1914.  The most powerful states in South America were, for instance, already engaged in an arms race that was broadly aimed at resolving economic rivalries between Brazil, Argentina and Chile, a process barely interrupted by a smouldering civil war inside Brazil, while the Far East was becoming a war zone in response to the wealthy, militarist Japanese Empire’s aggressive expansionism – but the real hotspots in 1914 were the fringes of the failing Ottoman Empire.

The Italian government, bent on establishing an empire, had fought Ottoman forces for control of Libya in 1911–12, and the First Balkan War had pitched the Ottoman Empire against Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro, each a former province of the Empire and each seeking to expand its independent territories.  A Second Balkan War in 1913 had seen the big winner of the first, Bulgaria, taken down a few pegs by an alliance of the Ottomans, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Romania – but a lot of regional business was still unfinished when the summer of 1914 plunged the Great Powers into war.

The Great War and its aftermath resolved much of the unfinished business in the Balkans, because the victors were free to reward their Serbian, Romanian and Greek allies by taking territory from the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria.  By the spring of 1919 only two major running sores remained open, both centred on important port cities near disputed frontiers, and both looking likely to turn nasty.

The Adriatic port of Fiume (Rijeka) was one outstanding hotspot.  Formerly part of Austria-Hungary, it had been promised to both the new ‘Yugoslav’ state and Italy.  The decision in favour of Belgrade by the ‘Big Three’ in Paris, and the failure of Italian premier Orlando’s attempted protest, had unleashed popular and political fury in Italy that was approaching revolutionary levels and rising by May 1919.  The other port in a storm was Smyrna, otherwise known as Izmir, and on 15 May the storm broke.

Smyrna had long been one of many bones of contention between the Ottoman Empire and Greece, which had won independence from the Empire in 1829 and had been expanding into Greek-speaking Ottoman territories ever since.  Strategically well placed on the Aegean coast of Anatolia, and therefore part of the Empire’s Turkish heartland, Smyrna housed the kind of ethnically and religiously mixed population typical of Ottoman cities, but ethnic Greeks probably made up the largest contingent, followed by Turks, and possession of the port was a long-standing ambition among a powerful group of aggressive nationalists within Greece.  This blog has documented the tortuous path taken by Greece towards finally joining the Allies in 1917, but the eventual agreement included an informal British promise to pro-Allied premier Eleutherios Venizelos of control over post-War Smyrna (27 June, 1917: Eyes Wide Shut).  Like most wartime promises by big players to prospective allies, this one wasn’t to be trusted.

It’s altogether too much map, and not really the right map, but it was the best I could steal.

For a start, the Anglo-French carve-up of the future Middle East, aka the Sykes-Picot agreement, had allocated control over the Anatolian region to Italy in 1916.  This meant Italy was also laying claim to Smyrna in 1919, an embarrassment that encouraged the French and some British leaders to support the idea that Anatolia should remain in the hands of a post-Ottoman Turkish state.  This idea chimed nicely with President Wilson’s high-profile views on national self-determination, and was of course very popular in Turkey, where nationalist calls for a secular, post-Ottoman state were getting louder all the time.  It was no wonder the Greek government, led again by Venizelos, felt the need for some heavy lobbying in Paris.

Venizelos, who headed the Greek delegation in Paris, didn’t just pester British and French delegates for some kind of commitment to a future Greek Smyrna, he did his best to force the issue on the ground.  Alongside a major propaganda campaign that claimed Christian Greeks in the Smyrna region needed protection from systematic Islamic attacks, Venizelos dispatched a diplomatic mission to the city in late February 1919, charged with firing up local Greeks in anticipation of an occupation.

The suggestion of religious persecution worked, at least on British premier Lloyd George, who began openly planning for a future Greek administration in Smyrna during February 1919 despite objections from his own foreign office, the French and the Italians.  An Italian response wasn’t long coming.  On 12 March an Italian warship sailed into the southern Anatolian port of Antalya, and on 28 March Italian troops occupied the town, ostensibly to provide security against reported banditry in the surrounding countryside.  Using the same pretext, occupation forces began moving north towards Smyrna in early April – but Orlando’s walkout from the Paris conference on 21 April gave the Big Three a chance to break the diplomatic deadlock in his absence.

Uneasy about Italian ambitions in Anatolia, and willing to accept the Venizelos line that Christians in the Smyrna region needed protection, Clemenceau and Wilson joined Lloyd George in authorising a Greek occupation of Smyrna.  Planning was well advanced by the time the Italian delegation returned to Paris on 7 May, so Orlando had little choice about accepting the fait accompli and believing assurances that the emergency occupation did not necessarily imply post-War Greek control of the region.

One problem around the future of Smyrna had been solved, thanks to the usual combination of Big Three compromise and rapid wheeler-dealing, but as was so often the case in Paris, the bigger, underlying problem between Greece and Turkey had been left to solve itself.  An Allied fleet under British command was assembled in the Aegean to support the Greek occupation, and on 14 May the Greek mission in Smyrna that Greek forces would be arriving next day.  From that moment the city was a noisy, violent powder keg, doomed to resolve its problem the hard way.

Smyrna’s Greeks came out in force to welcome 20,000 troops when they arrived on 15 May, while the city’s Turkish population began organising political and physical resistance.  For reasons that are disputed, and hardly important given the mood on both sides, shooting broke out between Greek and Ottoman troops as the former passed a garrison fort en route for the city, and the landing turned into an orgy of looting and violence by soldiers and civilians on both sides.  Several hundred people were killed on the first day, and although casualty figures are also a matter of wide-ranging academic dispute it’s safe to say that about threequarters of the dead were Turks.

Greek troops arrive in Smyrna on 15 May 1919… things were about to turn nasty.

Aristide Stergiadis, a close friend of Venizelos and official head of the Greek mission in Smyrna, arrived in the city on 19 May and quickly set up an administration that did its best to stem the incipient civil war, or at least convince the powers in Paris of its fitness for permanent control – but rampant inter-ethnic violence accompanied Greek attempts to secure and expand their zone of control into western Anatolia during the following months.  Mustafa Kemal – the former Ottoman general, future Ataturk and already a major player in the Turkish nationalist movement – also landed in Anatolia on 19 May, at the northern port of Samsun, as the Greek occupation provided a rallying point for nationalist groups all over Turkey to organise mass protests and armed resistance.

Mustafa Kemal was a famous wartime general in the Ottoman Army, but he preferred civvies as a post-war nationalist.

Meanwhile the sponsors of the mess looked on in increasing horror and did what little they could do tidy it up.  An inter-Allied commission, sent to Smyrna in August to apportion blame and limit future conflict, concluded that Greek aggression was responsible for much of the violence, that Turkish armed resistance would keep growing as long as the occupation continued, and that future clashes were likely between Greek and Italian forces in southwestern Anatolia. By October, when the commission reported back to Paris, the latter problem was already being addressed, and later that month the Greeks agreed to respect a frontier, the Milne Line, restricting their movements to the Smyrna region.

Once again, the Paris peacemakers had found a way to keep Italy quiet but failed to solve the bigger problem of Greek and Turkish claims to Anatolia – a failure that would come back to haunt them during the summer of 1920.  By that time Turkish nationalism based on a provisional government at Ankara had become a strong enough force to unite the British and Ottoman governments in support of Greek claims, and so British forces provided support on the ground for further Greek expansion in Anatolia.  The Greek advance beyond the Milne Line in June, though initially very successful, ignited a full-scale war against the nationalists that would rage on in spite of the final peace treaty signed by the Ottoman Empire (at Sèvres in August), and eventually end with Greek withdrawal in October 1922.

The rise of Ataturk and the war that created his new Turkey are stories for another day.  This story has been a reminder that a war almost forgotten outside Greece and Turkey was at least partly created by the clumsy machinations of British, French and Italian imperialists.  Last week I devoted a couple of thousand words to giving the same Paris peacemakers a break, so this has also been a reminder that, for all their good intentions and laudable pragmatism, they managed to break almost everything they touched.

7 MAY, 1919: Bad Deal Or No Deal?

Negotiations are all the rage in Britain at the moment, so this seems a good time to take another look at the negotiations going on in Paris a century ago.  More than three months into its active life, the Paris Peace Conference was still busy trying to design a new world to replace the old.  Its proceedings so far had been mired in a swamp of high-profile chaos and deadlock that even Brexit can’t match, but on 7 May 1919 it delivered proof that the stalemate had been broken.

Proof took the form of a draft peace settlement delivered to the German government, a document that went on to form the basis of the treaty signed by Germany in June 1919, and that has been despised ever since by everyone, everywhere.  I’m not about to defend the peace cobbled together in Paris – no one does that – but I would like to offer a little more sympathy for its principle negotiators than modern orthodoxy tends to allow.

Despite its name, the Paris conference was about dividing up prizes among the winners rather than negotiating peace.  Beaten, broken and at the mercy of their former enemies, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria – the Central Powers – played no part in the talks, and although dozens of other nations were in Paris, thirty-two of them with accredited delegates at the conference, all important decisions were made by the ‘Big Three’ of Britain, the USA and France, with Japan and Italy as their most favoured subordinates.

While the leaders of the Big Three were pursuing their separate and frequently incompatible national/imperial agendas, they faced constant distraction on multiple fronts.  The important business of bickering among themselves was interrupted every day by delegations from all over the world petitioning for crumbs from the top table, and almost as often by proof that the old world, though mortally wounded by fifty-one months of the Great War, was refusing to lay down and die.  All over Europe in particular (but not exclusively), revolutions, civil wars and invasions were in progress, as was pretty much every other conceivable form of sociopolitical instability.

By way of muddying even those choppy waters, discussions in Paris were being conducted with no formal agenda or guidelines fixed in advance, and the whole shebang was taking place in the biggest blaze of global publicity ever seen.  With popular audiences more numerous and politically powerful than ever before, every important delegate at the peace conference needed his home audience to be satisfied by the outcomes.  I’ve talked about this before and taken the narrative, such as it is, as far as President Wilson’s return to the USA on 14 February (18 January, 1919: Showtime!), so let’s move on from there.

Wilson’s departure was followed by that of British premier Lloyd George, who remained in the UK to address domestic issues – above all mounting labour unrest – until 8 March.  On 19 February, French premier Clemenceau survived an assassination attempt on the Champs Elysées, when one of seven shots fired into his car by an angry anarchist pierced his chest but just missed vital organs.  As rugged as his reputation, Clemenceau was back at the conference table on 1 March, still carrying the bullet but more secure than ever in his role as the man fighting hardest for French interests.  Wilson eventually returned to Paris on 14 March, but in the meantime things had changed.

In the absence of the leaders their understudies – US Secretary of State House, British foreign minister Balfour and his French counterpart, Stephen Pichon – had been trying to speed up the peace process.  Balfour secured agreement from the Council of Ten that the various commissions set up to investigate particular issues would report by 8 March, and promised that their reports would be acted upon quickly.  By that time broad agreements had been reached on enough issues to raise hopes that they could be incorporated into some kind of partial and preliminary draft treaty that would demonstrate progress to the world.

Some commentators have since described this period as an attempt by almost everyone else of importance in Paris to slip a treaty past Wilson, who had always insisted that no agreement be signed without including a League of Nations covenant.  The theory, based on guesswork, deduction and the conflicting claims of memoirs rather than evidence, may or may not be accurate – but is anyway redundant.  Wilson simply repeated his terms as soon as he was back in France, while Clemenceau still refused to consider the League of Nations until the peace itself had been agreed.  The conference was therefore required to face the vexed questions of, among others, German reparations, Italian claims to Fiume (Rijeka in modern Croatia), Anglo-French ambitions in the Middle East and German frontiers before any treaty could be signed.

With one eye on the ever-terrifying and massively exaggerated threat of a Bolshevik surge to the Rhine, the reconvened Big Three agreed that matters pertaining to Germany and Austria-Hungary needed to be settled first and quickly.  They and Italian Prime Minister Orlando, who returned to the conference after his own spring break on 24 March, also recognized the obvious fact that the cumbersome Council of Ten was incapable of reaching any decisions, let alone quick ones.  Informal meetings between House, Lloyd George and Clemenceau had been going on since early March, as part of the speeding-up process, and by the end of the month they had become regularised as what became known as the Council of Four.  From 9 April, British cabinet secretary Sir Maurice Sankey was employed as secretary to the new council, providing the professional organisation needed to turn an unguided talking shop into a body capable of finalising decisions.  By the latter part of that month, things were actually starting to get done.

That’s not the same as saying they were being done well.  Like its predecessor, the Council of Four faced a chaotic agenda, dealing with delegations from all over the world on an essentially ad hoc basis, and took or rejected advice from experts at the whim of its members.  When free to debate among themselves the four members tended, according to most witnesses, to squabble from fixed positions and waste a lot of valuable time exercising their egos.  It is from this period and those witnesses – most notably the economist JM Keynes – that popular history has taken its stock, unflattering images of the main participants.  Lloyd George was the silver-tongued schemer, sly and untrustworthy; Clemenceau the granite avenger, unmoving and impervious to argument; Wilson the feckless idealist, unwilling to accept the realities around him; and Orlando, barely able to follow the English used by the others, was effectively powerless and ignored accordingly.

Orlando’s marginal status became crystal clear after he stormed out of the conference on 21 April, in protest at Wilson’s refusal to grant Italy control over Fiume, only to come back on 7 May with nothing but embarrassment to show for his gesture.  In the meantime, the other three leaders – abetted by the Council of Five, which comprised the foreign ministers of Britain, France, the USA, Italy and Japan, and dealt with myriad issues seen as peripheral to the big questions – did manage to find compromises.  Leaving everything else until later (in particular the fate of the former Ottoman Empire), the Big Three found ways round problems that, while satisfying nobody and causing affront almost everywhere, at least allowed them to get out of Dodge with a line worth spinning to their constituents at home.

Feeling good about themselves? Best enjoy it while it lasts…

I could spend another couple of thousand words describing territorial arrangements made in Paris that redesigned central and eastern Europe from Greece and the Balkans to the Baltic coast – but ‘before and after’ maps will have to do because this piece is primarily about how the big boys found a way to mix their various ambitions and the needs of a watching world.

1914
1919

Italy, of course, had the mix largely thrust upon it, but even Orlando wasn’t left empty handed in territorial terms.  His main aim was to extract what he could from the wreckage of the Treaty of London, which had brought Italy in the War in 1915 by promising the impossible (26 April, 1915: Secrets and Lies), and Italy gained the South Tyrol from Austria-Hungary (putting a quarter of a million native German speakers under Italian rule in spite of Wilson’s commitment to national self-determination) along with territories in Trentino and Dalmatia.  Italy also took over the port of Trieste, but Wilson wouldn’t budge in his opposition to Italian control of Fiume, and Orlando’s temporary walkout in April merely scotched Italian hopes of taking over the Turkish port of Smyrna (Izmir).  A Japanese threat to do the same carried more weight, convincing Wilson to compromise his principles by accepting Japan’s possession of former German colonies in China, a position that satisfied the minimum requirements of an empire bent on conquests in mainland Asia with or without international sanction.

If you were an Italian imperialist – and plenty were – adding Fiume to the enlarged nation made obvious sense.

French territorial demands presented a major problem, not least because they had nothing to do with fairness or liberal values and everything to do with crippling Germany to guarantee future security.  What Clemenceau wanted was to give as much as possible of eastern Germany to other countries, and to take as much as possible of western Germany for France, including not just the ‘lost’ provinces of Alsace and Lorraine but the entire Rhineland and (coal-rich) Saar regions.  Add in a reparations bill that would prevent German military recovery for the foreseeable future, along with a League of Nations army ready to enforce the peace, and Clemenceau would be satisfied.

What he got was Alsace and Lorraine, an Anglo-American guarantee of military support if Germany attacked France, and the right to occupy the Rhineland for fifteen years, after which it would be permanently demilitarized.  France could take control of the Saar coalmines, but the League of Nations would administer the region for fifteen years, after which it would vote to remain German or become French.  Germany was also to lose the provinces of Malmedy and Eupen to Belgium, Schleswig-Holstein to Denmark, Posen and part of Upper Silesia to Poland (along with a ‘corridor’ of territory diving West and East Prussia that connected Poland to the sea), and the port of Danzig (Gdansk) as a free city under League of Nations control.

These were the key compromises, along with Anglo-American agreement that Germany and its allies should pay reparations in full for the war they were deemed to have started.   What ‘in full’ actually meant, and the price it carried, remained to be argued, but acceptance of the principle represented a major compromise for Wilson (the kind that has seen him dismissed as spineless ever since), and a significant if much smaller shift for Lloyd George, whose fears of future European economic destabilisation were already being eroded by the clamour for revenge coming from British newspapers and politicians.  Nobody needed to compromise much around stripping Germany of its military equipment and prohibiting its rearmament, around forbidding any union between Germany and the relatively tiny rump state that was now Austria, or around sharing former German colonies among the victors.  Meanwhile, the new idea that Germany should submit ‘war criminals’ for future trial was accepted with less fuss than its future impact deserved.

These were the essentials agreed by the Council of Four and communicated to Germany as a draft treaty on 7 May.  During the following two decades, many of the diplomats involved in drafting the details fell over themselves trying to explain that the treaty’s clauses were written as first bids in a negotiation, and therefore excessively harsh for tactical reasons.  That excuse only works if they really thought Germany would be allowed to negotiate.  They didn’t.  Nobody did.  Germany was given no chance to negotiate and some six weeks later, threatened with a resumption of the war, it was forced to accept the draft treaty without significant changes.

Plenty of commentators at the time regarded the treaty imposed on Germany – not to be confused with all the other, equally important treaties subsequently arranged at Paris to deal with the rest of the world – as a recipe for political and economic disaster across Europe.  History wasted no time proving them right, and the brunt of the posterity’s blame has fallen on Clemenceau, Lloyd George and above all Wilson.  Their efforts in Paris have been subject to withering condemnation by every kind of historical commentator, and there is no doubt that they arrived at a bad deal – but they did at least make a deal, and it’s hard to see how they could have found a better one.

Short of some kind of simultaneous epiphany that turned all three men into radical free thinkers with no responsibility to the peoples they represented, long-term deadlock was the only real alternative to a muddy compromise that persecuted Germany.  Deadlock was unthinkable, both because the world desperately needed someone to push the restart button and because, from their perspective, it was the gateway to a communist future.  Faced with the Devil, they reluctantly dived for the deep blue sea, somehow managing to do so promptly and together.  Next time you hear their names drenched in infamy, it might be worth considering how Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or any European leader you care to mention would react under those kind of circumstances.

Clemenceau, Wilson and Lloyd George… oh wait!

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.

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, it was brought to life by the diplomatic fireworks ignited on the Quai d’Orsay.

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.

7 SEPTEMBER, 1918: Talk Is Cheap… Or Not.

It has been said, often and on the whole wisely, that Allied insistence on making Germany pay for the First World War in cash, goods and assets was one of the worst of many world-historically bad things to come out of the peace process that followed the conflict. The payments were known as ‘reparations’. They were based on calculations made without consulting Germany, they were enormous, they proved impossible to collect in full (or anything like it), and they wreaked enough economic damage on a global scale to ensure that nobody, not even the payees, really benefitted from their imposition.

Of course, the German economy suffered the most immediate, comprehensive and dangerous damage from post-War reparations, which combined with political chaos to generate epic levels of hyperinflation in the country.  Post-War German commentators (along with academic voices elsewhere) regarded reparations as a spiteful, essentially criminal act of revenge by the Allies, in particular by the prime movers behind the punishment, the French, and that view has passed into modern historical orthodoxy.

Fair enough, up to a point.  Reparations were spiteful, stupid, counterproductive and dangerous, not to mention grossly unfair and imposed on Germany as the only major empire among the Central Powers still around to take punishment.  On the other hand the heritage history of the twentieth century – born into world-war propaganda but these days committed to a polar opposite picture of the War as a pointless exercise in elite machismo, won by stupid people – has a tendency to suggest that the folly of reparations was responsible, or at least bore prime responsibility, for Germany’s subsequent lurch into National Socialism.

The implication that Germany was essentially a victim of Allied imperial greed would have pleased Ludendorff and other contemporary apologists for the appalling regime that actually deserves most of the blame, but any examination of German history during the previous fifty years exposes it as nonsense.  I’ll leave you to confirm that.

The heritage view also allows the otherwise uninformed to assume that Allied imposition of reparations was a new idea, conjured up out of the collective need for a scapegoat at the end of a recognisably disastrous war, and that their scale was a gargantuan expression of the vitriolic looting carried out by victorious soldiers throughout recorded history.  There was indeed a strong element of angry revenge in the air at Versailles, at least among the European victors, and it did influence proceedings by shouting down voices for moderation, but it wasn’t the inspiration for reparations.  There was nothing new or unexpected about the presentation of a reparations bill to the losers of the First World War, and Germany had already made sure there was nothing unprecedented about its scale.

Before coming to power in Russia, the Bolsheviks had campaigned for immediate peace ‘without annexations or indemnities’, and that remained the position of Lenin’s government at the start of 1918. The phrase reflected contemporary geopolitical thinking about wars in general and the Great War in particular, in that they were fought for both territory and the extraction of resources.  Losers were expected to sacrifice anything perceived as an economic advantage, and frequent statements of war aims by both sides since 1914 had emphasised the War’s rising cost in money, goods, industrial plant, merchant shipping and anything else that could be claimed as expenses.  The new Bolshevik state got its peace in March 1918, when it finally signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty with the Central Powers, but was never going to get away without annexations and indemnities (3 March, 1918: Neither War Nor Peace).

Most of the annexations attached to Brest-Litovsk came disguised as regional independence movements (leaving aside the Ottoman Empire’s technical annexation of Russian territories in the Caucasus that were part of an ongoing civil war), but the indemnities were straight-up, open demands for reparations on a scale that set an example for the peacemakers at Versailles.

Negotiations about Russian reparations payments went on long after the signature of the treaty, but in August 1918 the Bolshevik government finally accepted an agreement to pay cash, gold and goods worth six billion German marks.  That converted to around £214 million in 1918, but to put the figure into some kind of context there were only 13 billion marks in circulation just before the War, and only about 60 billion in circulation when it ended.  We’re talking about an era when cash really counted, and at a particular moment in history when international banking transactions were only possible between established allies, so payment of the first Russian instalment on 7 September 1918, a century ago today, involved carting some 350 million marks’ worth of banknotes and gold to the frontier and handing them over.

And here it is… cash and gold from Russia arriving in Berlin.

Germany never received another payment from Bolshevik Russia, and the Bolsheviks never got their money back because they were neither invited to nor recognised the post-War peace agreement, but the fact remained that Germany had intended to bleed Russia of everything it could grab in the aftermath of victory on the Eastern Front.  The German regime had turned the threat of reparations, voiced since the beginning of the War, into a reality.  Motivated by greed, laced with desperation as the Hindenburg Programme sent the German economy hurtling to oblivion, rather than by revenge, the imposition of indemnities at Brest-Litovsk set the bar for everything that followed, and provided all the example the Allies needed to produce their own demands in 1919.

After last week’s epic ramble through the backwoods of espionage, a succinct opinion piece seemed appropriate, but much as I’d like to sneak away inside a thousand words, I feel compelled to add a brief note about the festival of triumphalism filling the pages of the British press in September 1918.  Having spent the last four years finding ways to get triumphant about military defeats, bloody stalemates and minor tactical victories on the Western Front, British newspapers were almost forced to exaggerate the extent to which the tide had turned during the previous few weeks.

German battlefront morale was ‘crumbling’, the German leadership was issuing cries of despair and the advances of Allied armies in France, admittedly much faster and more significant than anything they had managed before, were described as ‘pursuits’ of fleeing enemies.  Occasional mentions of stiff resistance by German units here and there, or of the fact that Allied forces had yet to reach, let alone overcome, the Hindenburg Line’s massed, carefully prepared defences, were rare scraps of journalism amid the festivities.

This didn’t exactly set British newspapers apart from their counterparts in other countries.  Their relentless propaganda for what amounted to maintenance of the political status quo was mirrored in Germany and the USA, the former thanks to censorship, the latter reflecting the survival of revolutionary idealism in US civic thinking.  French and Italian newspapers were far more inclined to promote radical political change, and more directly aggressive in their criticisms of home governments, but could match or exceed anything the British could print by way of sensationalism.  What did distinguish the British press at this late stage of its long, loud War was its unintended effect on long-term public perception.  By acting as if the German Army on the Western Front was all but beaten, press coverage encouraged expectations of an imminent end to the War, expectations that quickly morphed into familiar questions about why the end was taking so long to arrive.

OK, so I could only find a Canadian picture to steal, but it’s British imperial and it makes my point.

It would have been difficult for the British fourth estate to adopt a more measured approach to the excitement of 1918.  National interest had demanded press hyperbole for the preceding four years, and the country’s most powerful press barons, having just about reined in their political ambitions over the same period, were in no mood to stop shouting.  Had they been, the final battles on the Western Front might have been a time of popular redemption for a British military leadership that had shouldered much of the blame for the War’s length and cost.  Instead the great Allied victories of the autumn became yet another reason for damning British generals as donkeys.

An illustrative case study isn’t hard to find.  French c-in-c Ferdinand Foch was a genuine national hero in the post-War era, and AEF commander Pershing remained a hugely respected and popular figure for the rest of his days in the US.  They fought the same victorious battles as BEF c-in-c Haig, who received the military victor’s usual honours, money and gratitude from official sources, but was regarded with contempt by much of the British public during the immediate post-War years, and has been treated with (at best) disdain by popular history ever since.

You want a message?  Independent mass communication is a wonderful expression of human culture’s ambition to create a workable society on a grand scale but – like those other great expressions of same, democracy and nuclear power – constitutes a force we can deploy and target, but neither control nor predict. Message ends.

7 MAY, 1918: Gangster Diplomacy

A century ago today Romania signed the Treaty of Bucharest, a peace agreement with the Central Powers that represented the beginning of the end for something rather unpleasant and much overlooked by modern commentators.  I’m referring to the dishonesty, bribery and bullying employed by European diplomats – above all those of Britain, France and Germany ­– to persuade smaller nations to join their side during the first three years of the First World War.

Some smaller independent countries – Portugal springs to mind – were already little more than client states by 1914 and could to all intents and purposes be ordered into the War by their effective masters, but most needed bribing with promises of territorial acquisition, economic aid and diplomatic support.  These were particularly tempting carrots for ruling elites in small countries at a time when chauvinistic nationalism was a standard position, and they were generally as happy to accept and trust promises as their suitors were to make them.

Entering the War on the basis of promises by either side represented a gamble on two levels.  National leaders were betting on their chosen team winning the fight, and then on the promises being kept.  During the first two years of the War, possibly even the first three, the first bet was a reasonably straight fifty-fifty call, at least potentially worth the risk, but staking a nation’s fate on the promises made smacked of gambling addiction because, for all that great power diplomatic arrangements in wartime were secret, it took a lot of Nelsonian blindness to ignore the strong possibility that they were dishonest.

It really didn’t require hindsight to see, or at least to guess, that German promises could never satisfy both the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, each of which cherished ambitions against the other, or that the same problem made the Entente’s promises to Italy, Serbia and Greece impossible to keep.  Falling for the promises was a mug’s game, but if you didn’t join one side or the other you risked being left friendless after the War, out in the cold while the winners arranged what virtually every contemporary observer assumed would be a new world order.

So they fell for the promises, and on the whole paid a very high price in human and other resources – but from the lofty perspective of strategic statecraft these were acceptable, provided the pay-off came at the end.  The Treaty of Bucharest provided the first clear indication that the pay-off wasn’t going to satisfy any of the lesser powers, and that promises made by great powers at war were at best indications of what they would like to deliver, at worst not worth the paper they were written on.

Romania had gambled on a Russian victory in the east and trusted Anglo-French promises of support when it joined the War on the Allied side in 1916 (27 August, 1916: Going, Going, Gone…).  Bad move.  The Russian revival on the Eastern Front was a mirage, and quickly dissipated; the only realistic springboard for direct military support was the Allied force at Salonika, but it was hopeless; and the country’s economic resources, above all its oil, attracted a German-led invasion far more powerful than anything the Romanian Army could hope to stop.  By late 1917, with the war between the Central Powers and Russia effectively over, Romania had been reduced to an embattled rump, with three-quarters of the country occupied by German or Bulgarian forces and no hope of help from anywhere once the Russian Army had collapsed.

King Ferdinand of Romania: he gambled, lost, gambled again, won, and doomed his country to a strife-torn future.

The government of King Ferdinand signed an armistice on 9 December 1917, but was able to delay any serious progress towards a peace settlement as long as Russia carried on frustrating the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk.  Once those negotiations were complete, Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Czernin convinced Ferdinand that the German supreme command was ready to renew its invasion, and the King gave in.  A pro-German conservative, Alexandru Marghiloman, was installed as Romanian prime minister and a preliminary peace treaty was agreed only two days after the signing at Brest-Litovsk, on 5 March.  The preliminary treaty accepted Romania’s loss of the Dobrudja region and the immediate demobilisation of the Romanian Army’s small remnant… but at this point Germany’s wartime diplomacy came home to roost, because both Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire refused to accept the arrangement as a basis for formal peace.

Bulgaria demanded the full control over the Dobrudja it had been led to expect when it joined the Central Powers in 1915, and Ottoman Turkey wouldn’t settle unless it regained control over Central Thrace, which had been given to Bulgaria as an inducement to join.  It took another two months, but the Central Powers eventually cobbled together a somewhat shaky solution that kept them all happy enough to at least move on.

The formal treaty – as eventually signed at Buftea, a small town some 20km northwest of Bucharest, on 7 May – gave Bulgaria control over the southern part of the Dobrudja, but put the north under joint occupation by the Central Powers and left the Danube delta in Romanian hands (because it was too valuable a bargaining chip for anyone to win).  Austria-Hungary was meanwhile given control over the passes through the Carpathian Mountains as compensation for Germany’s wholesale appropriation of Romanian oil, grain, railways and financial systems.  The Treaty also recognised the union of Bessarabia, part of the Russian Empire in 1914, with Romania.

Blue to Bulgaria, purple to Austria-Hungary, green to the joint administration of the Central Powers and Bessarabia absorbed… Romania after Bucharest.

On the surface it appeared, and was intended to appear, that Romania had done pretty well out of the deal.  The country had, somewhat bizarrely, suffered catastrophic defeat but ended up bigger than it started, and it was spared the kind of client or protectorate status imposed on other nominally independent states within the reach of the German Army in Eastern Europe.  The true picture was a lot less benign, as German civil servants were appointed to every Romanian ministry, given the power to fire ministers or officials, and effectively took over national government. Although the King remained the nominal head of state, by way of keeping resistance to a minimum and making sure Romanians policed the arrangement, trade routes to the Black Sea and the country’s economic planning were fully geared to supply of the German war effort.

So the Treaty of Bucharest took Romania prisoner, broke promises made by Germany to Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, and forced Austria-Hungary to accept territory in place of the supplies it really needed.  It produced only one winner in Germany, which used its regional military superiority to ride roughshod over the promises of its diplomats, and it was a stark illustration of what other relatively minor belligerents could expect from the post-War pay-off, no matter which side they were on.  Oh, and it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

The Central Powers had won the war on the Eastern Front, but their long-term prospects on other fronts weren’t looking good, especially after the German Army’s spring offensive on the Western Front had run out of steam.  Well aware of this, King Ferdinand and his advisors, led by former prime minister Ion Bratianu, took the last gamble in town and stuck with Allies – but trod a lot more cautiously than they had done in 1916.  The King refused to ratify the Treaty of Bucharest in public, and Bratianu waited until 10 November, one day before the Armistice took effect, before denouncing the Treaty and again declaring war on the Central Powers.

Annulled by the terms of the Armistice, the Treaty of Bucharest would eventually be replaced by the Treaties of Neuilly and Trianon, which almost doubled the size of post-War ‘Greater Romania’ and more than tripled its 1914 population.  Products of the Paris Peace Conference (and worth more detailed attention on another day), the treaties were easy giveaways for the western Allies because Romania’s territorial claims were all against defeated enemies or the war-torn Soviet Union.

Romania in 1920 – and it’s huge!

Greater Romania temporarily fulfilled nationalist ambitions to unite all the ‘historic’ Romanian lands, so the country could count itself a winner when the swings and roundabouts of wartime diplomacy finally came to a halt. That didn’t make the diplomacy involved any less criminal or its results any less circumstantial, and from any perspective not warped by the poison of nationalism the price of territorial expansion was ridiculously high.

War and the hardships of occupation had killed an estimated 500,000 Romanian civilians, or more than 6% of the 1914 population, by late 1918, and although the economic effects of wartime occupation could be reversed, the regional tensions exacerbated by wartime and post-War diplomacy could not.  Those tensions would resurface when another war put an end to Greater Romania in 1940, and would be a blight on the country’s history for the rest of the century.  If this ramble has a point to make, it’s that small countries can never really be winners of wars run by bigger ones.

3 MARCH, 1918: Neither War Nor Peace

At the end of a cold, hard winter in Britain,  the weather was turning mild and dry.  The ice and snow of the previous April were still fresh in the memory so nobody was taking good conditions for granted, but rain or shine one thing was certain in early March 1918:  with spring on the way, the fighting season was coming.

A year earlier, the immediate preamble to fighting season had seen huge shifts in the world’s geopolitical landscape triggered by the February Revolution in Russia and, a few weeks later, the declaration of war by the United States.  Those seismic events had not been permitted to derail Allied military planning.  They contributed only tangentially to the collapse of French General Nivelle’s ill-conceived spring offensive on the Western Front, and bore little or no responsibility for the more prolonged, British-led failure around Ypres in the autumn – but, along with the autumn collapse of the Italian Army’s positions around the Isonzo, they did inform an atmosphere of strategic uncertainty among Allied commanders when it came to planning their campaigns for 1918.

Almost a year later, on 3 March 1918, the long, somewhat bizarre peace negotiations between the Russian Bolshevik regime and the Central Powers reached their conclusion with an agreement that gave the pre-War worldview one more kick into oblivion.  Again, the Allies didn’t let the swerve alter their major offensive plans – but that was because they didn’t really have any.

Allied offensive strategy on most land fronts didn’t require much in the way of deep thinking in early 1918.  The Eastern Front was lost, as was the Caucasian Front, while the Allied army in Salonika was too far from anywhere to help win the War and was anyway an operational shambles, pinned to the spot by diplomatic and regional priorities.  Strategic priorities around the British-led Palestine and Mesopotamian Fronts were simple enough, and attempts to divert strength from them to address crisis on the Russian frontiers were already in the process of melting down (17 February, 1918: Follow That Figment!), while the relatively minor colonial business in East Africa had long since become a purely tactical struggle.

On the Italian Front, now a genuinely international enterprise with the arrival of British and French reinforcements during the late autumn, holding a line and rebuilding an army were the names of the game.  The Western Front was, as ever, ripe for the bi-annual exercise of offensive ambition, especially given the arrival of US forces in the theatre, but the need to cooperate in Italy had forced Allied strategists into a joint command structure, and once it had settled the Italian crisis the Supreme War Council turned into a forum for unproductive inter-Allied bickering.

British c-in-c Haig was all in favour of another spring offensive, as was his government, but his French counterpart, Pétain, was determined to preserve fragile armies by adopting a defensive posture until overwhelming (i.e. American) force could be brought to bear.  That left a lot of riding on the attitude of the US Army’s commander in Europe, General John J Pershing, and Pershing definitely had attitude.

John J Pershing – definitely the kind of general you name a tank after.

Born in 1860 and the US Army’s most experienced combat commander, ‘Black Jack’ Pershing had fought in the Indian wars, Cuba, the Philippines and, most recently, Mexico.  His appointment to command the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in May 1917 was no surprise to anybody, and he arrived in Europe the following month, long before almost all of his troops.  By the time he was promoted full general in October, Pershing needed all the seniority he could claim as he fought off repeated and increasingly frustrated demands from British and French commanders for the use of US troops as they reached the theatre, to reinforce Allied units on the Western Front.

A strong and confident character, in no danger of being overawed by Old World grandees, Pershing refused to use his army – which was still shipping to Europe en masse and would pass 500,000 men in April 1918 – as anything but a single national force.  Apart from an understandable desire to remain in direct command of his troops, two basic tenets sustained his resistance.  For one thing, he believed that his well fed, energetic, enthusiastic troops could, used en masse, defeat the tired old German Army in the field – and that sending his ‘Doughboys’ piecemeal into ill-planned battles alongside exhausted allies was a waste of their war-winning potential.  Secondly, and in many ways more importantly, Pershing held to the principles under which the United States had entered the War.

It’s impossible to overstate the sense of perilous embarkation on an unprecedented journey that accompanied US commitment to the First World War.  We’re very familiar with the USA’s more recent readiness to appoint itself world policeman, but in 1918 that was something startlingly new and had to be handled with care.  It was symbolically important, both inside and outside the US, for the AEF to operate as a national army, emphasising both national unity and the USA’s continued separateness from the imperialists it existed to oppose.  The same symbolism lay behind the USA’s belligerent status, at war against Germany and Austria-Hungary (though not Bulgaria or the Ottoman Empire), but fighting alongside the British and French, not as an ally but as an ‘associated power’.  As far as Washington and Pershing were concerned, associated powers couldn’t and didn’t operate under joint command.

While the Allies waited for (and by and large equipped) the gathering AEF, the desperate gamblers of the German high command had been planning their own do-or-die offensive in France, but were waiting on an official end to the war against Russia. Thanks to Soviet commissar for foreign affairs Leon Trotsky’s pursuit of ‘neither war nor peace’, more simply described as stalling tactics, it had been a long wait, but German patience had run out in mid-February.

On 9 February the Central Powers had concluded a separate treaty with the Ukraine, recognising its independence under a pro-German puppet regime (21 April, 1917: Anarchy in the Ukraine), and Trotsky had responded by yet again suspending negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.  The German Third Supreme Command, driven by Ludendorff’s obsessive pursuit of territorial gains for economic exploitation, was all for retaliation with a full resumption of hostilities and the capture of Petrograd.  It was restrained by the politicking of German foreign minister Richard Kühlmann, who had always regarded Ludendorff’s ambitions as unrealistic, and who used his industrial and royal connections to force a compromise on the grounds that too much aggression might rekindle Russian military resistance in the theatre.  The result was Operation Faustschlag, a limited German attack that opened on 17 February and advanced some 250km in two days without meeting serious opposition.

Faustschlag was enough for Lenin.  He had been giving qualified support to Trotsky’s position, but with former Russian provinces moving towards independence and counter-revolutionary forces organising for civil war, survival of the Bolshevik regime was now his overriding priority.  After Trotsky had quit Brest-Litovsk to become commissar for war, the Bolshevik delegation finally agreed to German peace terms on 19 February.

Conquest by pen:  the signing ceremony at Brest-Litovsk.

The treaty duly signed on 3 March had nothing to do with the conciliatory approach favoured by Kühlmann and an increasingly panic-stricken Kaiser, but expressed the Third Supreme Command’s imperial ambitions in full.  Leaving aside the wealth of detail dedicated to German economic exploitation, it forced the Bolsheviks to recognise Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belorussia and the Ukraine as German spheres of influence, depriving the former Russian Empire of some 30 percent of its population, while the Ottoman Empire was granted full control of the Caucasus.  The Soviet regime also agreed to cease all interference in the internal affairs of lost territories.

Ambitious? Ludendorff? Germany’s new empire from March 1918.

Predictably denounced by the Allies (and associated powers), the treaty also provoked resentment in Sofia and Vienna with its overt concentration on purely German interests.  It was obviously unpopular in Russia, but in fact made little difference to the Soviet position, both because the annexed territories were in effect already lost and because the Bolsheviks proceeded to ignore non-interference agreements at every opportunity.  Needless to say it subjected East European and Caucasian peoples to varying degrees of military occupation and economic exploitation, but in many ways the states that suffered the most from the deal made at Brest-Litovsk were its supposed beneficiaries.

The Ottoman Empire was seduced into squandering resources it really couldn’t spare on a disastrous attempt to establish control over Transcaucasia, and Ludendorff’s ambitions for an eastern empire kept between one million and 1.5 million German troops (estimates vary) busy with its immediate administration.  Their efforts may or may not have gone on to provide the long-term economic salvation envisaged by the Third Supreme Command, but their absence would prove fatal to the German Army’s forthcoming spring offensive in France, and that failure that would render the question academic.

While the millions at war braced for the next instalment of military cataclysm, while the BEF chafed at the bit, the French waited for the Americans, the Americans waited for their army to get up to strength and the German Army planned a last, great offensive on the Western Front, a watershed moment was being signed into modern European history.  The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk brought the war on the Eastern Front to an official end, freed Ludendorff’s fatal ambition to leap a bridge to far, and plunged the whole of Eastern Europe, along with Russia, into a long, painful period of war and revolution.  As such it raised the curtain on a whole bunch of other stories, many of which the Anglophone world has been ignoring for decades, and seems worth remembering a hundred years on.

11 FEBRUARY, 1918: Daydream Believer

I’ve spent the last few years trying to shine a little light on those aspects of the First World War that get left out of most heritage history, but sometimes even those events it does commemorate get such superficial or inaccurate treatment that I feel compelled to give their windows a polish.  A couple of those are floating around our media ether at the moment.

I’m tempted to spend the day explaining why modern focus on Emmaline Pankhurst, the very definition of a self-serving opportunist, is a betrayal of the women who made real sacrifices in pursuit of female suffrage, but that will have to wait.  Right now I’m exercised about the superficial nod delivered by posterity to the Fourteen Points, US President Wilson’s quintessentially liberal recipe for a peaceful world.

Wilson’s recipe has since been almost universally dismissed as a naive failure, which would explain why it hasn’t garnered much in the way of centenary action.  It that has also been blamed – often by the same people – for much that went wrong with the peace process at the end of the First World War, and by extension for the League of Nations, the Second World War and almost everything we remember as bad about the rest of the twentieth century.  That view reflects its enormous contemporary impact on what you might call the global psyche, and makes virtually ignoring it a hundred years on look pretty ridiculous.  So here’s a briefing.

I’ll start with the anniversary, by way of clearing up a nomenclature issue.  Wilson originally announced his principles for creation of a lasting peace in Congress on 8 January 1918, and there were fourteen of them.  On 11 February he again addressed Congress, and added four more principles to the list, but by that time news of his original speech had spread as fast as wildfire could travel in 1918.  The Fourteen Points were famous – had in fact provoked so much popular excitement and political irritation all over the world that they are a small watershed moment in the emerging age of mass communication.  Nobody was about to start calling them the Eighteen Points just because it was accurate.

The Fourteen Points Are Ours… sentiments echoed by street protesters all over the world in 1918.

So what exactly were they?  Compiled by Wilson with help from his special advisor, Colonel House, and a team of political experts (Wilson was, of course, an academic), the original fourteen were a very sketchy peace programme delivered to Congress as a statement of US war aims.  The first of Wilson’s fourteen paragraphs renounced secret treaties, calling for ‘open covenants openly arrived at’, and the second demanded absolute freedom of the seas outside of territorial waters, rendering the kind of blockade tactics carried out by the British illegal.  The third point called for the removal of trade barriers wherever possible, the fourth for worldwide arms reduction and the fifth for impartial arbitration of all colonial disputes.

After that, Wilson got down to specifics.  Point six required an end to all occupation of Russian imperial territory by the Central Powers, a sop to the Bolsheviks locked into peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.  Point seven demanded the complete restoration of Belgium, point eight accepted French claims to Alsace and Lorraine, both absorbed by Germany since 1871, and the ninth point recognised some but not all of Italy’s territorial claims.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire received relatively lenient treatment from the tenth point, which only called for ‘autonomous development’ of its separatist elements, but point eleven was more firm on the future of the Balkans, insisting on an end to the occupations of Romania, Montenegro and Serbia, with the latter to have access to the Adriatic coast.  Point twelve guaranteed Ottoman sovereignty of the empire’s Turkish heartlands, but granted autonomy to its subject peoples and declared the Dardanelles an open sea, while point thirteen recognised the existence of an independent Poland, and that it should have access to the sea.

Having passed principled judgment on the world’s most pressing international disputes in the space of a few minutes, Wilson went on, in point fourteen, to recommend the establishment of ‘a general association of nations’ as a means of keeping the peace.

The four points added on 11 February were less easily said, even more vague and even less easily done.  The first accepted that no general formula for peace could be applied to every post-War claim, and that each must be judged on its individual merits, while the second stated that peoples and provinces could not be bartered as diplomatic currency between empires.  The third declared the benefit of local populations to be the basis upon which all future territorial agreements should be made, and the fourth gave the world a get-out, stating that ‘well-defined national aspirations’ could only be satisfied if they didn’t introduce or perpetuate causes for war.

The man who saved the world – when he still believed the hype.

Faced with social injustice, socialists and liberals have always agreed about some short-term aims, and in 1918 Wilson’s prescription for peace agreed in many ways with the version presented by the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk.   I think I’ve already mentioned that Bolshevik peace proposals had an enormous impact on populations all over the world, and contributed directly to permanent political and social change for some of them, but the Fourteen Points made an even bigger splash thanks to a propaganda machine that really knew its business.

The man in charge of US wartime propaganda was George Creel, a committed social reformer and ‘muckraker’ journalist, well known for his exposés of commercial and political corruption.  Creel had been a strong supporter of Wilson during the 1912 and 1916 election campaigns, and was appointed to head the Committee of Public Information (CPI) in 1917.  Energetic and confident, though inclined to impulsive verbal outbursts, he turned what had been no more than a government news agency into a sprawling propaganda service.

George Creel in 1917. Doesn’t look forty, does he?

The wartime CPI expanded rapidly to include a Pictorial Publicity Division, employing the nation’s most celebrated painters, sculptors and cartoonists, and a Motion Picture Division.  It also employed an estimated 75,000 ‘Four-Minute Men’, trained public speakers who roamed the country giving short speeches in schools, churches and movie theatres, promoting food conservation, War Bonds or any other federal policy.  Each Four-Minute Man gave an average of more than a thousand wartime speeches, reaching a total audience of almost 315 million and proving a highly effective propaganda tool in a nation still thoroughly hooked on declamatory speechifying.

Speaks for itself…

Partly to promote peace, and partly to make sure the world knew why the US was going to war, Creel’s department was charged with selling the Fourteen Points abroad, and did a fabulous job, albeit working with audiences desperate to believe in any plan that promised a workable peace.  Wilson found himself lionized across six continents, his programme hailed as visionary genius by foreign populations, even those who stood to lose by its propositions, wherever they were able to express their views.  Governments were generally less impressed.

Without making any formal protest, Allied governments rejected the reduction of Italy’s territorial claims (as they were bound to do by the 1915 treaty that bribed Italy into the War) and the proposed ban on naval blockade tactics.  They also objected to Wilson’s complete silence on the subject of reparations, an issue turned into a political hot potato in Britain, France and Italy by their own propaganda, which consistently accused Germany and Austria-Hungary of forcing war on Europe.  On the other side of the lines, the governments of the Central Powers viewed the Fourteen Points as inimical to the survival of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and greeted them with predictable derision.

Given popular opinion’s relative lack of worldwide clout in 1918, even in countries dependent upon public support for survival at war or in the midst of populist revolution, rejection by belligerent governments on both sides could easily have consigned the Fourteen Points to history’s dustbin then and there.  That they avoided the fate of all the previous attempts to broker peace did have something to do with the sheer breadth of their popular appeal, and with a growing sense in all the belligerent states (encouraged by the collapse of Russia and the imminent involvement of US forces) that the War’s long stalemate was finally nearing breaking point.  Above all though, their continued currency during the months that followed was a reflection of the USA’s particular place in the world of early 1918.

The United States was the success story of the age, a model nation built on strict democratic principles that was entering the world stage as powerful economic, diplomatic and (potentially) military force.  It was already showing signs of losing its halo, on the back of military adventures inspired by greedy and corrupt corporate interests, but was still essentially admired around the world, carrying none of the world policeman’s baggage that has soiled its reputation ever since.  If any nation on Earth stood a chance of being trusted as an international peacemaker, and of bullying those incapable of trust, the USA was it.

A self-conscious guardian of the American halo and a president elected on a pacifist ticket, Wilson not only believed in the righteousness and practicability of his peace formula, he couldn’t afford to let it fade from the global agenda.  He needed his home constituents and the world at large to recognise that the US was going to war for noble, selfless reasons, in tune with the liberal ideals he and his supporters espoused.  So US propaganda and diplomacy kept up pressure for the Fourteen Points through the spring and summer of 1918, and were rewarded in the autumn.

Facing military defeat, the Central Powers demanded that Wilson’s programme form the basis for peace negotiations, primarily because it was far more lenient to defeated states than the punitive war aims of the European Allies.   Wilson publicly insisted on the same thing while making a few amendments to the Points as sops to Allied objections, leaving Britain and France, let alone Italy and the smaller Allied nations were, in no position to argue.  That put everyone concerned on a path to attempt the reconstruction of a shattered global civilisation using a blueprint nobody believed in, except the liberal wing of the US political class.   There will be more to say about the Fourteen Points, but in the meantime that’s your briefing.

12 JANUARY, 1918: Port In A Storm (Part One)

Back in peacetime, when the Great War’s coming was a matter of dire prediction, orthodox geopolitical thinking had assumed that, if the massive effort required to sustain mechanised warfare went on for more than a few weeks, Europe’s empires would crumble under economic and associated social pressures. More than three years of total war in fact passed before the Russian Empire melted down to become something completely and aggressively new, but fear of collapse had never stopped haunting the continent’s governing elites.

Fed by evidence of socio-political fragility in every belligerent empire, even in the richest and most politically stable of them, elite fear translated into something approaching panic in the face of Bolshevism. The German regime was willing to let Russia have its revolution, at least until it had dealt with the existential threat from the west, while Austria-Hungary and Turkey were too far along the road to collapse to do anything but grasp at pickings from the Russian Empire’s carcase – but Allied governments fell over themselves to disrupt and (ideally) destroy what they saw as a harbinger of apocalypse.

There wasn’t all that much the Allies could do. They could cut off some maritime supply lines to Petrograd, and they could use existing supply lines (across Sweden or via the Arctic and Murmansk or Archangelsk) to provide counter-revolutionary forces with funds and equipment, even direct military support. The British could conceivably divert forces from the Middle East into southwestern Russia, though for the moment they were busy with another fight, but otherwise the Central Powers occupied Russia’s European frontiers. That left the back door.

The back door was Vladivostok, Russia’s major port in the Far East and it’s only warm-water port in the region since the loss of Port Arthur to the Japanese in 1905. Vladivostok wasn’t entirely ice-free, but could remain open for much of the winter and had become an important supply hub for the Russian war effort, increasingly so with the completion of the Trans-Siberian railway link to the west in 1916, and Russia’s alliance with a Pacific trading power, the United States, in 1917.

Get the picture?

The railway and the port were under Bolshevik control by late 1917, when the British, French and US governments began discussing joint action to support counter-revolutionary forces in Siberia. Japan, which had a longstanding strategic interest in its maritime frontier with Russia, was at first left out of the discussions, but in December 1917 obtained an invitation from its ally, Britain, to take part in any action. The only major Allied warship in Vladivostok during the chaotic weeks after the October Revolution, the US Navy light cruiser Brooklyn, had already left by late December. With diplomatic and commercial interests in the port in need of protection amid the street fighting and general anarchy, the British didn’t wait for discussions to reach a conclusion before doing what came naturally and sending a gunboat.

The British Admiralty ordered HMS Sussex, a cruiser stationed in Hong Kong, to Vladivostok. The Japanese government, ever alert to signs of European encroachment in eastern Asia (and to any diplomatic slight), reacted by ordering two old, pre-dreadnought battleships, the Iwami and the Asahi, to get there first. The Iwami won the race, arriving on 12 January, two days before the Suffolk and five days before the Asahi. Having made a show of force, and in Japan’s case made a statement about its right to a dominant role in the future of eastern Asia, the Allied warships then anchored offshore in the hope that their mere presence would encourage both anti-Bolshevik agitation and the restoration of order.

None too surprisingly with hindsight, these somewhat contradictory hopes failed to materialise, and as the situation in Vladivostok became ever more dangerous for foreign nationals, Allied intervention on the ground in Siberia appeared inevitable.  Tokyo wasted no time telling Britain and the US that any intervention should carried out by Japanese forces alone, but the proposition was officially turned down in mid-February, ostensibly because Japan’s unpopularity in Russia would drive the population into Bolshevik or even German hands. By that time the Japanese Army was drawing up plans for an invasion of eastern Siberia, with a view to setting up a nominally independent buffer state as protection against future interference in the Pacific by Russia.

The military dominated Japanese politics during the early 20th century, and prime minister Masatake was a former general.

A lengthy spell of inter-Allied dithering followed, while Japanese, British, French and US diplomats attempted to work out the details of a joint ground operation in Siberia. Although Tokyo was prepared to accept a joint intervention, and the European Allies considered the region’s future a matter for Japan and the US, progress was stymied because the Wilson administration refused to sanction the use of American ground troops. This was still the case in April, when a company of Japanese marines (hastily followed by a company of British marines) went ashore to police looting and rioting in Vladivostok. The Brooklyn had returned to the port in March, but no US Marines took part.

Russia’s southeastern tip – the port of Vladivostok in 1918.

This was the beginning of something weird and not altogether wonderful. Allied plans would eventually be forced into focus by the plight of some 40,000 Czech troops, trapped in Bolshevik Russia but still at war with Germany after the end of hostilities on the Eastern Front. Rescuing the Czechs became an Allied cause célèbre as they battled their way across Siberia towards evacuation from Vladivostok, and that provided Wilson with a way to change his mind in the name of liberal values.

International intervention would take the form of a multi-national invasion of eastern Siberia during the summer, featuring troops from Japan, the US, Britain, France, Italy, Canada and eventually even China. A long, strange campaign would follow, forming part of the Russian Civil War and extending into the early 1920s – but that’s another chapter of the story, as is the extraordinary tale of the aforementioned Czech Legion.

I’ll be getting back to both when the time feels right, but for now this has been a quick look at why Bolshevik commitment to immediate peace turned Siberia into a war zone, and at how the Allied empires lined up for the purpose. It’s also a quick reminder that Japanese aggression during the Second World War was not some sudden aberration, rather the catastrophic conclusion of a long, ultimately misguided attempt to imitate and match the great global empires of the nineteenth century – empires the First World War was in the process of consigning to history.