Category Archives: Diplomacy

18 DECEMBER, 1916: Peace? No chance.

A hundred years ago, as the horror story of 1916 ground towards its end, talk of peace was in the air – but it had nothing to do with Christmas.  It sprang instead from the fear felt by two individuals, powerful and experienced politicians facing the prospect of their best-laid plans coming to abject grief.   Though they were only a month apart in age, German Chancellor Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg and US President Woodrow Wilson didn’t have much else in common, but within the space of a week each felt moved to take a personal stab at halting the First World War.

Look at Woodrow, folks! One throw and he can save the world! Or not.
Just look at Woodrow, folks!  One pitch and he thinks he can save the world! He also thinks he’s living in the same world as…
Not a populist and never a soldier, but Bethmann-Hollweg got to wear a general's uniform anyway.
Bethmann-Hollweg, who’d never been a soldier but wore a general’s uniform anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bethmann-Hollweg, the epitome of Prussian political orthodoxy, born and married into its elite inner circle, had been Chancellor since 1909 and had survived in office by reacting to, rather than attempting to overly influence, the moves made by a dominant military.  Like any good political survivor he was a wind direction expert, and he had long supported the growing influence of Ludendorff and Hindenburg, backing their demands for concentration on the Eastern Front against the less cavalier, west-facing strategy pursued by Chief of General Staff Falkenhayn.

The Chancellor remained onside once Ludendorff and his figurehead took power as the Third Supreme Command in late August 1916, and he announced their recipe for a supercharged war effort, the Hindenburg Programme, as government policy in September – but he didn’t share the belief that the German economy, bullied out of slack complacency and boosted by resources from the Army’s conquests, could outpunch its enemies. Having helped unleash a military-industrial combine bent on turning Germany into a socioeconomic runaway train, and unable to impose any kind of restraint or to prevent its huge gamble on the war-winning potential of all-out submarine warfare, an outbreak of peace was Bethmann-Hollweg’s only hope of avoiding the disastrous flame-out he foresaw.

For reasons obvious to anyone with a reasonable sense of self-preservation, the Chancellor had spent much of the autumn hoping someone else would bring about peace. Woodrow Wilson was by far the most likely candidate, both because he was a liberal pacifist to the tips of his fingers and because only the USA had the power to stop the War by cutting supplies to the belligerents. After Wilson had secured a second term at the White House on a pacifist ticket, and the vast battles on the Western Front had subsided into stalemate, Bethmann-Hollweg waited in vain for such apparently ideal circumstances to generate a peace initiative from Washington.

Hope faded as the weeks passed, so on 12 December the Chancellor took the plunge and led with his only playable card.  On behalf of the Central Powers, he proposed peace talks on the basis of frontiers as they then stood, backing the proposal with claims that German force of arms had defined the War so far and could not be beaten. This was not a strong lead. It was never going to impress the Allies, committed as they were (strategically and publicly) to reversing German conquests and punishing the perpetrators, and they duly rejected it out of hand. Meanwhile any hope that the prospect of quitting while Germany was ahead might prompt the Third Supreme Command and its backers to pursue peace (rather than the do-or-die option of all-out submarine warfare) proved completely illusory. Bethmann-Hollweg’s slightly more plausible best bet – that evidence of German interest in peace might persuade the US administration to force the issue – did appear to generate a reaction from Wilson, but didn’t come close to flushing out an ace that could end the War.

Wilson wanted peace. He had campaigned as a peacemaker, he saw himself as a peacemaker and he too viewed the exhausted, deadlocked end of the Somme and Verdun battles as a good moment for a newly re-elected president to broker peace. What’s more, this seemed a good time for the President to act as a genuinely neutral mediator because US relations with the Allies were at a low and US-German relations were on something of a high.

Despite strong cultural links with Britain and France, despite widespread American sympathy for those nations under attack by the Central Powers, and despite the huge economic boom built on the USA’s position as the Allies’ chief supplier of finance and war materials, US politicians and public were unhappy with the British in 1916. They had been infuriated by the obvious distaste for a negotiated peace expressed by the British government, by British suppression of Irish civil rights after that year’s Easter Rising in Dublin, and by Britain’s blundering high-handedness around the enforcement of its naval blockade (28 July, 1916: Special Relationship?).

At the same time, US relations with Germany had been relatively positive since the spring, when the furore surrounding the sinking of the Sussex – an English Channel ferry packed with civilians, some of them American – had persuaded Berlin to issue the ‘Sussex Pledge’, by which the German Navy agreed to stop U-boats from attacking unarmed, non-military shipping without warning. As long as the Pledge held, so would the US electorate’s mandate for peace, but the President’s hopes of avoiding, let alone ending the War would be dead if the German High Command, fighting on three fronts and required to support all its allies, sought total victory through submarine warfare.

So Wilson was in a hurry to do something peaceable once he was safely back in the White House, and was planning to approach the belligerents in mid-December – but Bethmann-Hollweg’s initiative of 12 December gave him second thoughts, on the grounds that any US move at that point might be interpreted as pro-German. Having thought twice, Wilson went ahead and acted anyway, sending identical notes to all the belligerents on 18 December. By way of avoiding any direct association with Bethmann-Hollweg’s proposal, the notes were careful to neither demand peace nor offer US mediation, but merely invited all the belligerents to state their war aims as a means of facilitating future peace talks.

Even that modest idea proved far too radical for the empires at war. Without stating its war aims, the German government replied that, though it was of course anxious to end the conflict as soon as possible, it preferred direct negotiations between warring parties to any negotiation through a mediating power such as the USA. The British government, answering on behalf of the Allies, was more forthcoming on the subject of war aims, declaring that they required the Central Powers to evacuate occupied territory, pay indemnities for the trouble caused, and grant political freedom to those central European peoples subject to Austro-Hungarian or German control. These were not aims designed to bring Germany to the negotiating table.

Taken together, the German proposal and the general response to Wilson’s note made it clear that, despite Bethmann-Hollweg’s fears for the future, neither side was really interested in a negotiated peace. Wilson nevertheless kept chasing what we would these days call his legacy, and what he saw as a new world order based on liberal principles. Talks between his chief foreign policy advisor, ‘Colonel’ Edward House, and the German ambassador to Washington, Count Johann von Bernstorff, raised the possibility of secret negotiations with a view to setting up peace talks, but in mid-January the Third Supreme Command once again rejected the idea of US mediation, making clear that it would only negotiate with belligerent powers.

Still Wilson didn’t give up, and on 22 January 1917 he delivered an oration to the Senate – known to history as the Peace Without Victory speech – that laid down his vision for a peaceful future and challenged the world to match it. The huge global impact of his words, their significance for the post-War world and the many controversies that surrounded them are important elements of the story to come, but as a postscript to the minor flurry of mid-December peace overtures the speech was irrelevant.  By the time it was delivered, the Third Supreme Command had already secured Kaiser Wilhelm’s agreement to announce the resumption of unlimited submarine warfare on 1 February.

So the German ruling elite was going for victory because anything less would break its hold on power, while the Allies were going for victory because the stats said the Central Powers were almost exhausted, and because their two-year propaganda portrayal of evil German militarism demanded it.   However much Bethmann-Hollweg and Wilson wanted to stop the War (for their own sakes), and however much war-weary populations agreed with them, peace stood no chance in December 1916.

28 JULY, 1916: Special Relationship?

For months now, the First World War has been locked into a second full year of wholesale military carnage on the main European land fronts.  Major offensives have erupted at Verdun and the Somme in the west, in the Trentino Valley and on the Isonzo River in the south, across Galicia and Poland in the east – but none has yet brought decisive results or opened up any clear path to victory.

The same could be said of the various secondary fronts dotted around the planet.  Although some offered avenues for the post-War ambitions of the empires concerned, the strictly colonial struggle for East Africa, the regional dispute between the Russian and the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus, the multi-pronged British invasion of Middle East and the crazy chaos around Salonika were all marginal to the search for overall victory by the Allies or the Central Powers. In short the military struggle on land was, as the heritage industry loves to point out, locked in stalemate.

The heritage boys and girls are also quite happy to remind us that the First World War was a ‘total war’, by which they mean whole societies and their economies were committed to (and crucial to) its prosecution… but they generally avoid following that argument to a logical conclusion that messes with their simplistic, confectionary narrative.

With whole societies involved – and in technological conditions that made decisive military victory at best unlikely – it stood to reason that the richest, most developed, organised and cohesive societies would eventually exhaust the socioeconomic resources of their enemies and claim victory. In other words, the fact of total war made military stalemate and unbreakable trench lines less fundamentally important (and less open to ridicule) than heritage history wants us to believe, because there was another way to win the War.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that contemporary generals, politicians and propagandists were well aware of economic warfare’s importance as an alternate, apparently certain route to glory, and used it frame the miserable excuse for a strategy that was attrition (14 July, 1916: Virtual Realities).  Last week, I pointed up the long-term economic perspective taken by all the major belligerents. Today marks the centenary of a formal protest by the United States against the British Empire’s macro-economic policies, a low point in Anglo-American relations that brings together the two biggest questions surrounding economic warfare in 1916.

The first question, a live issue since 1914 and still being asked two years on, concerned the Allied blockade of sea trade to the Central Powers, led by the enormous Royal Navy.  Would blockade bring total victory, as promised by British strategists and contemporary economists, and if so when?  Or could German submarine warfare against Allied trade be expanded and refined to even up an economic balance of power that had, from the moment a quick military victory failed to materialise in 1914, been heavily weighted against the Central Powers?

The second question cut across the first and had the potential to render it all but irrelevant to the War’s final outcome.  Would the United States, by far the world’s biggest and most important neutral economy, enter the War to slew the economic balance irrevocably in the Allies’ favour, and if so when?

Economists have been analysing the impact of the First World War on their particular field of interest ever since it ended, and the best they’ve managed so far is the unsurprising conclusion that US entry on the Allied side condemned the Central Powers – which were anyway fighting at a massive economic disadvantage in terms of available human and material resources – to certain defeat.  This would hardly have shocked informed observers in 1916, but the modern tendency to assume that US alliance with Britain and France was inevitable, simply a matter of time, would have raised a few eyebrows.

There was no real danger of the USA joining the Central Powers. Germany’s motives for and conduct of the War were generally deplored in the US, a mood defined by the German Army’s deliberate terror tactics against civilians in Belgium, and lately reinforced by the Ottoman Empire’s treatment of Armenians (many of whom fled to the US and spread tales of genocidal atrocity).  But that didn’t mean the United States wanted to side with Britain.

The great republic’s sympathies tended to lie with countries directly under the hammer of war – Belgium, Italy and France, for instance. Britain was seen in Washington (as it was in Berlin) as the main protagonist on the Allied side, and as an arrogant, greedy bully, fighting to squash any challenge to its long-term dominance of the global economy.  The War as a whole was perceived by many in the US as a battle for supremacy between Europe’s two greatest economies, with the rest of the continent suffering in support roles, and nothing reinforced that view more powerfully than the ongoing Anglo-German struggle for control of the sea lanes.

Hatred of German submarine warfare and British blockade tactics informed the whole US political spectrum, from traditional isolationists who loathed and disdained European imperialism, to business interests determined to create their own sea-trading economic empire.  And while the threat to life and property posed by U-boats was always likely to overtrump the Royal Navy’s aggressive but relatively civilised policing when it came to popular outrage, political and business interests were if anything more appalled by the systemic denial of their long-term economic destiny built into Britain’s blockade strategy.  Viewed with anything like historical dispassion, this was a reasonable point of view.

Not that the British saw it that way.  Seen from London, blockade was doing a good job of grinding down the enemy war effort, but doing it too slowly to guarantee the long-term prosperity of a British Empire haemorrhaging men, materials and money.  Constant efforts were being made to tighten the blockade for greater efficiency, usually by assuming ever-greater powers to stop, search and seize neutral vessels suspected of trading with the enemy.  The fact that neutral powers were legally entitled to trade with anyone they liked was seen as irrelevant during a fight that claimed to be between good and evil.

The British press in 1916 had no doubt that trading with the enemy was a heinous crime against civilisation, and its shrill outrage helped elevate the practice into something seen by many in Britain as a major obstruction to victory through blockade.  It wasn’t, but every Brexit victim knows how attractive an easy fix for complex problems can be in times of crisis, so few British voices were raised in doubt when, on July 18 1916, the government issued a ‘Black List’ of 87 US-based companies accused or suspected of trading with the enemy, making it a criminal offence for any British company to trade or even correspond with them.

To the surprise of British interests without American experience (and nobody else), the list triggered a furious reaction in the US, bringing scathing rebukes from editors coast to coast, and helping cement continued pacifism (exactly the thing Britain didn’t want from the US) as the dominant theme of that year’s presidential election campaign.  It also provoked the formal note of protest from Wilson’s government, delivered by the US Ambassador to London, Walter Hines Page, on 28 July.

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You rule the waves, you make enemies…

The note marked a major crisis in Anglo-American relations.  Though aware that it had made a mistake and anxious to defuse the situation, an increasingly shaky Asquith government didn’t dare climb down in the face of a British press and parliament roaring their outraged indignation at American reactions, and didn’t want to encourage similar protests from other neutral governments. Foreign minister Edward Grey therefore issued a statement refusing to retract the list, and although repeated negotiations over the following months produced a series of quiet reductions in the list’s scope, along with reversal of an initial threat to expand it, the British would not renounce their claim to impose trade restrictions on neutral states as a matter of right.

This was inevitable, given Britain’s need to maintain control over other neutral traders, but it went to the crux of US emotional and economic antipathy towards the old colonial foe, so by late 1916 the Black List controversy had contrived to make Britain even more unpopular than Germany with many Americans, and in particular with Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson had reacted to initial publication of the Black List with undisguised anger.  He admitted to aides that he was ‘about at the end of my patience with Britain and the Allies’, and told his closest advisor, Colonel House, that he planned to consider restrictions on loans and exports to the Allies.  As the row rumbled on through the autumn, and once he had been returned to office for a second term, Wilson made good his threat, putting federal pressure on US bank JP Morgan – which functioned as the British government’s wartime financial agent in the US – to limit the loans promised to Britain at the end of 1916, a move that threatened major disruption to Allied plans for offensives in 1917.

The British had painted themselves into a bad corner, and if Germany hadn’t managed to repair relations between London and Washington by taking submarine warfare beyond the point of US tolerance, the Black List might now be remembered as one of the War’s most calamitous diplomatic screw-ups.   As it is, the controversy seems worth commemorating as a reminder that US friendship with Britain was a fragile and, in many eyes, unlikely state of affairs in 1916, and as proof that, although imperial Germany has quite rightly become a by-word for diplomatic incompetence (see for instance 3 December, 1915: Friendly Fires?), the insular, often unconscious arrogance of wartime British diplomacy could run it a good second.

27 JUNE, 1916: Sowing Seeds

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Like this Austrian cartoon, most people thought the Paris Conference was all about British economic dominance. Not this time, not quite…

A hundred years ago today, participating nations ratified agreements reached by the Allied Economic Conference of 14-17 June 1916.  This didn’t have much popular impact at the time, given the competition from cataclysmic military events in progress on various fronts, and has of course been left out of the heritage showreel.  On the other hand, it did mark a significant step on a road from nineteenth-century laissez-faire economics to the kind of multinational economic cooperation embodied by, for instance, the European Union – so now seems a good time to give it a mention.

Any economic historians happening to blunder into this page should probably look away now, because I’m about to generalise, big time, about an area that’s hardly my special subject.  I realise that makes this journalism rather than history, but here and now I don’t mind exposing my own relative ignorance if it reminds anyone of where we came from in matters of economic cooperation – so here goes.

Classic nineteenth-century global economics – and the trade networks of the imperial age were global, if not in the instant way we understand them now – were purely national (or imperial) in outlook and involved minimal government interference in the affairs of private businesses.  This was essentially the situation on the outbreak of war in 1914, though the German government had been acting in close cooperation with national businesses since the late nineteenth century, manipulating tariffs and slanting legislation in ways that were seen elsewhere (particularly in France) as key to the amazing, expanding success of the German economy.

War put a huge and unprecedented strain on economic resources for all belligerent states, while profoundly altering international patterns of trade, migration and capital flow.  Long before 1916, it had become clear to European businessmen and politicians that the prosperity and security of the economic world after the peace needed some serious attention.

Among the Central Powers, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman economies quickly slipped into dependence on German aid, and long-term economic planning was overwhelmingly concerned with maintenance of imperial integrity – in other words with restoring pre-War economic conditions – while the essentially pre-industrial Bulgarian economy was internationally irrelevant.  In Germany, the struggle to maintain a war effort in the face of Allied naval blockade called for absolute concentration of resources on immediate needs, and planning for a post-War economy never progressed beyond a plan, discussed in 1914, to absorb conquered economies into a greater German economy.  The same idea lay behind wartime German management of its allies’ economies, and after Russia’s collapse in 1917 it would be applied (with disastrous results for all concerned) to German-occupied Eastern Europe – but for obvious reasons it had no direct impact on European economic planning after the German empire’s defeat and collapse.

Among the Allies, wartime economic cooperation was less one-sided.  Britain remained by far the wealthiest of the partners, and Serbia was no more economically relevant than Bulgaria, but France was one of the world’s most important economies, Italy was in the throes of rapid economic growth and industrial expansion, Russia was a potentially enormous economic player and Belgium’s small economy was usefully modern.  Everyone was going broke by 1916, and piling up debts (above all to the USA) as the cost of total war mushroomed beyond all prior imagining, but although the western European allies practiced close wartime economic cooperation, debates about the War’s economic aftermath had so far been conducted within individual states.  Most politicians tended to see future economics solely in terms of restoring national prosperity, and it was left to business leaders, along with some political supporters, to take the lead in seeking ways to ensure a future of international economic security and balance.

The latter approach offered three main options for Allied economies.  The first and simplest was an attempt to rebuild the pre-War world of interdependent but competing individual economies. The second option, equally backward looking in its way, favoured a tightening of  ‘imperial preference’ trade areas, in other words attempting to make pre-War European empires more macro-economically self-sufficient.  A third, more radical strand of opinion foresaw a future world economy dominated and stabilised by giant blocs of cooperating states, broadly along the lines of current international alliances.  It should come as little surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of European economics during the last two hundred years that, by early 1916, the idea of cooperating as a bloc was particularly favoured by the French government.

A group of French political economists, led by commerce minister Étienne Clémentel, had taken on board German plans for European economic dominance in 1914, noted the widespread wartime destruction of northern French and Belgian industry, and were determined not to squander military victory through post-War economic defeat. They identified post-War economic cooperation as a means for France to secure the raw materials and markets needed for protection against any revival of German economic power, and in December 1915 – immediately after the first inter-Allied strategic summit at Chantilly – Clémentel presented these arguments to the premier, Briand.  Briand, already anxious to increase the depth of wartime economic cooperation, agreed to push for an allied economic conference and put post-War cooperation on the agenda.

A preliminary conference took place in late March, when delegates from France, Britain, Russia, Italy, Belgium, Japan, Serbia and Portugal agreed in Paris on a completely pointless Declaration of Unity in military, economic and diplomatic affairs.  The conference proper finally met – again in Paris and including delegates from the same states, as well as observers from the British dominions and the USA – over four days from 14 June 1916, when Clémentel presented his vision for mutual protection against any future revival German ‘economic slavery’ by formation of a post-War economic bloc that would exclude Germany.  This, he proclaimed, would found ‘a new order of things, which will mark one of the dominant stages in the economic history of the world’.  History would prove him right about multinational economic blocs, but 1916 wasn’t interested.

The French government’s ambitions for a prototype European economic union ran up against Italian and Russian unwillingness to abandon their pre-War links to German markets and technical expertise, and against the preference of some British and French industries for maintenance of their own pre-War trade with Germany.  It also outraged Britain’s increasingly influential ‘white’ dominions, which (understandably) saw inter-European trade agreements as a threat to imperial preference.  In the end, the conference resolutions ratified on 27 June (as the Paris Economic Pact) amounted to little more than an agreement to share wartime access to raw materials, along with a commitment to explore the possible benefits of long-term economic cooperation.

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Nobody outside the French government, least of all Punch magazine, took the Paris Economic Pact very seriously.

So big ambitions but no big deal, yet the Allied Economic Conference resonated around the world and into the future.

Across the Atlantic, Clémentel’s idea of a European economic bloc was regarded with deep suspicion as a restriction on future American trade, and became a political issue that informed both the 1916 presidential election and President Wilson’s approach to the peace in 1919.  The idea was also discussed among economists in Japan, where it was seen as a corollary to their own ambitions by those who envisaged a future Japanese zone of economic dominance in south-east Asia, and particularly in China.

Meanwhile, French governments would press for European cooperation against post-War German economic revival throughout the conflict – though with little more success than in 1916 – and the spectre would continue to dominate French economic thinking into the late 1940s.  After that, fear of a potentially even more dangerous Soviet Union forced a switch of priorities and drove the French to join Germany in seeking security through pan-European economic union.  The rest should be history, a tale of continental security through diplomatic and economic cooperation, but seems to have been polluted by the melodramatic myths of propaganda and national heritage – and that’s my only real excuse for quietly commemorating 1916’s fearful, stillborn contribution to the modern idea of the European Union.

9 MAY, 1916: Big Deal?

You’ve probably heard of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and if your life in any way involves the Middle East you’ll definitely have a handle on it.  Agreed a century ago today, and accepted in principle by the relevant Allied governments on 16 May 1916, it is notorious as documentary proof that Britain and France intended to carve up the Middle East between them after the First World War.

Actually called the Asia Minor Agreement, the document was the fruit of six months’ discussion and negotiation between Sir Mark Sykes, a British diplomat and politician, and François Georges-Picot, a French diplomat and lawyer.   These were relatively obscure civil servants, and it is a measure of what is generally seen these days as imperial arrogance on the part of Britain and France that they were given responsibility for drawing a new map of the Middle East, to be imposed if and when the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

The deal looks disgraceful now, but seemed logical enough, unexceptional even, to anyone operating by the imperial standards of the nineteenth century, and has an internal logic in the context of First World War realpolitik.  Victory was likely to see the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the Triple Entente powers – Britain, France and Russia – all harboured longstanding ambitions when it came to partitioning the cadaver, as did their relatively new ally, Italy.  If an arrangement could be made while they were all friends, why risk the danger and inconvenience of post-War squabbling?

The Russians weren’t involved in Anglo-French discussions because the French and British had promised Constantinople to the Tsar in March 1915, in return for a free hand further south, and Russia was the only candidate for control of the Kurdish and Armenian territories to the northeast of the Ottoman Empire.  Italy was left to its own devices in Libya (Ottoman North Africa wasn’t covered by the Agreement), but was otherwise expected to do as it was told and took no part in the discussion process.

As drafted in 1916, and mapped out below in its original pomp, the Agreement gave France effective control over Syria, the Lebanon and Turkish Cilicia (the coastal area north of Syria). Britain was to take control of Mesopotamia as far north as Baghdad, along with effective economic dominance over Palestine and what was then called Transjordan. Italy’s designated ‘sphere of influence’ was Turkish Anatolia, Jerusalem was to be governed by an unspecified international authority, and those parts of Arabia not already taken were to remain independent, though under British or French supervision.  The latter can be seen as a nod to arrangements already made with Arab leaders, as outlined a few months back (26 December, 1915: Boxing Clever), or as an indication that neither Britain nor France saw much plunder in Arabia’s barren tribal deserts.

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Even in 1916, imperial partition of territories to which the only credible claim was greed were not good for the popular or international reputations of empires.  That was one good reason for keeping the carve-ups secret; another was the opportunity for double-dealing provided by secrecy.  Just as the Treaty of London between the Entente and Italy had been kept secret, hiding Italy’s greed and her new allies’ tendency to give things away twice, so the Sykes-Picot Agreement was kept under wraps, enabling the British in particular to make promises they had no intention of keeping to the leaders of the Arab Revolt.

Like the Treaty of London and other secret international deals, Sykes-Picot was exposed to the world by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution in Russia, planting an entirely justified mistrust of Anglo-French motives in the minds of Arab leaders that affected the latter stages of the fighting in the Middle East, soured relations at the Paris Peace Conference, made a liar of TE Lawrence (of whom more next year) and has never really gone away.  Exposure of the agreement also managed to outrage Zionists, coming as it did only three weeks after the Balfour Declaration (of which, again, more another day).

In November 1918, a year after Sykes-Picot went public, the British government dumped it.  The French had little choice about signing an Anglo-French Declaration that officially superseded the Agreement, promising to encourage and supervise the development of stable sovereign states in the region.  Though partly designed to improve the British Empire’s international image as the War ended, and to ease negotiations with Arab leaders, the Declaration was also seen in London as an opportunity to wriggle out of its commitment to accepting French supervision of the Syrian region (marked ‘A’ on the map).

Whatever the motives behind them, the Declaration’s fine words made no difference to anything in practice.  Though Russian territorial ambitions had disappeared with the Revolution, and Italy’s claims were overruled at the Paris Peace Conference, something very close to the simple, Eurocentric convenience of the Sykes-Picot map was established in the post-War Middle East.  Arab attempts to achieve full independence were met by a combination of military intervention and diplomatic finesse by the British and French, who imposed spheres of influence in the guise of ‘mandates’. Mandates were, in theory, territories being nurtured for full independence by their European guardians on the authority of the new League of Nations, but the planned fate of one British mandate, Palestine, was left conveniently vague.

I’m leaping ahead into areas that deserve a closer look, and they’ll get one, because this story’s going to run and run.  As for Sykes-Picot, of course it was a bad idea, and of course the Middle East is still suffering from the imposition of artificial borders – but no agreement or declaration by European belligerents in 1916 was more than a minor tactic in a Great Power game that presumed territorial and economic acquisition as the just rewards for a victorious warfare gambit.

The European powers were always intent on carving up the Middle East if they defeated Turkey, but neither Britain nor France saw Sykes-Picot as more than a standard opening gambit, a blueprint to be modified according to circumstance or opportunity.  So for all its well-earned notoriety, the Agreement was nothing special or substantial – and nothing like the defining moment an angry posterity likes to portray.

7 JANUARY, 1916: The Food Chain

Out in Mesopotamia, at Sheikh Sa’ad, on the Tigris just southeast of Kut, the first British attempt to relieve General Townshend’s besieged force was in the process of failing, suffering some 4,000 casualties and gaining a single line of trenches before Turkish defenders withdrew. In Gallipoli, the Anglo-French evacuation was finally drawing to an end, and the Russian Army in Galicia was spending its Christmas Day in a hopeless struggle against Austro-Hungarian artillery. But that’s enough fighting and dying, let’s talk about Arthur Henderson’s trip to the Netherlands.

Henderson was a British politician. At the time he was President of the Board of Education, a member of the cabinet and leader of the Labour Party, one of only three Labour politicians to serve in the coalition government. A hundred years ago he was in The Hague, charged with talking Dutch workers, business leaders and politicians into shaping their national economy according to British war aims. The visit was a watershed moment in a long saga that reflected the changing geopolitics of the age, and that began in August 1914.

For the Netherlands, a small nation dependent on seagoing trade, next door to Germany and across the water from Britain, the outbreak of war was a diplomatic disaster. With no dog in the fight, nothing to gain and everything to lose by declaring war on bigger powers, the Dutch could only remain neutral, but that didn’t spare them pressure from both sides as the conflict got underway.

Assured by Germany on 2 August that its territorial integrity would be respected, the government in The Hague turned down a British offer of alliance and instead closed the Scheldt to all warships, a technically neutral move but one that favoured Germany by protecting the flank of its advancing armies from the Royal Navy. This was hardly a choice for the Dutch, given that any other response might trigger a German invasion, but of course it annoyed the British, who announced that they would respect Dutch neutrality – unless it became ‘one-sided’.

In fact the British, certain that naval blockade was the key to undermining Germany’s war effort, treated the Netherlands (and other neutral countries with strong trading links to Germany) as if they were economic enemies from the start. By the end of August 1914, the Royal Navy had stopped more than fifty Dutch ships and seized three loads of American grain bound for the Netherlands, while the UK government had stated its intention to prevent food, as well as war materials, from reaching Germany via neutral ports. As the year went on the British blockade tightened, wreaking havoc on the flow of trade from America that was fundamental to Dutch economic stability.

Compelled to appease the British, the Dutch government managed to reduce ‘stop and search’ delays to transatlantic trade by forming the country’s leading banks and businesses into a consortium, the Netherlands Oversea Trust (NOT). As a private company, and so able to liaise with the British without compromising Dutch neutrality, the NOT acted as a clearing-house for imported goods and guaranteed that contraband (as defined by the British) wouldn’t be sold on to Germany. The British, happy to be handed effective control over Dutch transatlantic imports, generously agreed a temporary relaxation of blockade against goods from the Dutch East Indies. For a year or so relations between the two countries were relatively smooth, as was Dutch passage across the Atlantic, and the British went on to use the NOT as a blueprint for addressing the contraband issue in other neutral states.

Generally speaking, having witnessed at close hand the effects of occupation on Belgium, Dutch politicians, businessmen and civilians were sympathetic to the Allies throughout the War – but the NOT agreement put the neutrality boot on the other foot, and now the Dutch could only appease Germany. Germany needed food and raw materials, and so 1915 saw a boom in the trade of home-produced Dutch goods across the frontier. Dutch exports to Germany in 1915 ran at almost four times pre-War levels, with agricultural produce dominating the market, and were still rising at the end of the year.

So of course the British spent 1915 lobbying the Dutch to stop ‘feeding the enemy’, but diplomatic efforts didn’t cut much ice against the threat of occupation, and by late summer the Royal Navy was again stopping, searching and seizing Dutch transatlantic merchant traffic. In September, recognising the impossibility of a complete ban on exports from the Netherlands to Germany, the British accepted an agreement ‘rationing’ Dutch import levels of staple foods and oil to pre-War levels, a measure that would at least reduce the surplus available for export. Unfortunately for the Dutch, this essentially reasonable compromise didn’t last the autumn.

I’ve already mentioned that the military disappointments of the year, and of the autumn in particular, had left British war leadership at a crossroads, short on ideas but bent on change and looking for scapegoats (19 December, 1915: The Empire’s New Clothes). By the end of the year political and military opinion in Britain had decided one key to shortening the War was a tighter naval blockade of Germany, and so Henderson was sent to The Hague to finalise the rationing agreement and bully the Dutch into further concessions.

Henderson got nowhere, but his failure did trigger political reform of the British blockade system. In February, the various departments in various ministries concerned with blockade were merged under a new Minister of Blockade, Sir Robert Cecil.  Cecil renewed pressure on The Hague during the spring, forcing an agreement that required Dutch farmers to sell half their exports to Britain. The farmers refused to cooperate, unsurprisingly when the British paid far less than the Germans, and the so-called Agricultural Agreement soon collapsed, so that by the summer of 1916 the Royal Navy was back at work making life miserable for Dutch merchantmen and, by way of sending a message, doing the same to the Dutch fishing fleet.

Once again caught between a rock and a hard navy, facing immediate shortages and unsustainable economic disruption, the Dutch could only accept an invitation to renegotiate the Agricultural Agreement. When a final version of the Agreement was signed on 1 November 1916, the British finally got what they wanted, genuine (or at least general) cooperation in the enforcement of quotas on Dutch exports to Germany.

The wartime battle for the Dutch economy was over. Food and other exports to Germany from the Netherlands were significantly reduced after 1916, and the British retained effective control over Dutch trading patterns for the rest of the War. But it had been a struggle and, apart from pointing out that Britain treated its good neighbours in the Netherlands as ciphers to be ruthlessly exploited in 1916, that’s the small point of today’s ramble.

In the century of relative peace before 1914, the British Empire had become accustomed to flexing its gigantic economic muscles and dictating policy to small European countries, comfortable in the knowledge that it was far and away the toughest bully in the playground. Britain still wielded the world’s biggest stick during the First World War, but with resources stretched and in the face of serious competition it had to be sharpened and used with greater precision. This was the lesson learned during the shadow war for Dutch cooperation, a clear signpost to an impoverished British Empire’s more modest position in the post-War world.

26 DECEMBER, 1915: Boxing Clever

One reason I bang on about the First World War, possibly the only good reason, is because it’s crammed full of world-changing stuff that gets buried by posterity. Some of the world-changing stuff – the torrential flow of money from Europe to the USA springs to mind – was treated with great seriousness by contemporaries but is largely ignored by a modern commemorative industry fixated on social history, at home and in the trenches. Other wartime developments with serious, long-term global implications were seen as small matters at the time, at least relative to the collision of Europe’s Great Powers, and have been left in the corner ever since. Today’s anniversary is a cracking example of the latter, because on Boxing Day 1915 the British Empire signed the Treaty of Darin with Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa’ud.

Ibn Sa’ud was the Arab head of the conservative, puritanical Wahabi sect, and tribal ruler of the isolated, central-Arabian Sultanate of Najd. Based in Riyadh and, like every Arab in the Middle East, loosely administered subjects of the Ottoman Empire, the Wahabi regarded most of the other Islamic tribes in Arabia as heretics, particularly the Sharifians of the Hejaz region, but their mortal enemies were the Shammar (or Rashidi) of southeastern Syria.

The Wahabi and the Rashidi had been fighting for control of central Arabia for almost 80 years by 1914. The advantage had swung back to the Sa’udi side since 1902, when the 21 year-old Ibn Sa’ud had led a small Bedouin force to recapture Riyadh from the Rashidi, ending more than a decade of exile. One of modern history’s more wily fundamentalists, Ibn Sa’ud had spent the next decade or so securing and expanding his restored emirate, so that by the time the British and Ottoman Empires faced each other at war across the Middle East in late 1914 he had become one of several important Arab leaders worth cultivating by both sides oxycontin high.

From the British point of view, the treaty was a small but locally important piece of a diplomatic jigsaw being put together in the Middle East.  The jigsaw’s twin aims were to foster a revolt of Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire and to protect vitally important oil supplies from the Persian Gulf.  Its principal architect was Sir Percy Cox, Britain’s chief political agent in the region and a man whose pivotal role in the creation of the modern Middle East deserves a blog of its own.

Cox had been wooing Ibn Sa’ud (and any other Arab leaders deemed likely to oppose Ottoman rule) since before the Ottoman Empire had entered the War in late 1914. The Wahabi were not expected to play a major military role in any future Arab revolt, but the Sultanate of Najd occupied a geographical position – between the Ottoman heartlands to the north and coastal sheikhdoms to the south and east that were already British protectorates – that could not be left unsecured.

Cox had already attached his agent, Captain William Shakespear, to Ibn Sa’ud’s retinue by January 1915, when a fresh outbreak of hostilities between the Wahabi and the (Ottoman-sponsored) Rashidi culminated in the Battle of Jarrab, a tribal skirmish that ended in a definite but inconclusive victory for Ibn Sa’ud. Shakespear’s death during the battle raised Britain’s stock with Ibn Sa’ud, and Cox was able to arrange a truce between the Wahabi and the Rashidi, essentially an acceptance of Sa’ud’s ascendancy and the basis for the Boxing Day treaty signed on the island of Darin (also known as Tarout).

The treaty reflected Arabia’s tribal culture and smacked of 19th-century colonial diplomacy. In making the house of Sa’ud a protectorate of the British Empire, to be defended if attacked, it was required to define the Emirate’s geographical boundaries for the first time, in effect planting the concept of European statehood in the region (a charge that can be levelled at British diplomacy across the Middle East during and after the First World War). Cox also agreed to pay Sa’ud a monthly stipend of £5,000 and, importantly as it turned out, to provide regular deliveries of surplus arms, ammunition and other supplies from Britain’s expanding Middle East Command.

In return, Sa’ud declared for the Allies – not too hard given that the Rashidi were sponsored by the Ottoman Empire – and agreed not to attack Kuwait, Qatar or other existing British Protectorates on what was known as the Pirate Coast. On the other hand, he made no guarantees of military involvement against the Turks, and refused to rule out an attack on the Sharif of Mecca, who was emerging as Britain’s most important ally in the region (and who will have his day in the sun when we get to Lawrence of Arabia).  Bottom line, though the treaty satisfied basic British strategic needs in a wartime context, and was as such an understandable undertaking, Ibn Sa’ud secured a fabulously good deal with implications extending far into the future.

A map seems like a good idea at this point, so here it is, shamelessly nicked from the Internet and removable at the drop of a complaint.

 

Arabia_1914

 

What became known as the Arab Revolt would get going in 1916 and would, for better or worse, have an enormous impact on both the War and the future Middle East – but the Wahabi kept their powder dry and restricted active participation to a few raids against Turkish forces to the north.  Meanwhile Ibn Sa’ud stockpiled his British money and supplies, concentrated on securing new frontiers the British had legitimised, attacked the Rashidi whenever possible and played a long game.

By the end of the War, the Wahabi were established as the major power in central Arabia, and Sa’ud, always careful to cultivate the continued support of his British allies, was ready to embark on a campaign of expansion.  He attacked the Rashidi in 1920, and had all but wiped them out by the time he  secured British agreement to the annexation of much of Kuwait in 1922.  In 1927 a new alliance with Britain,  the Treaty of Jennah, recognised Sa’ud’s claim to the Sharif of Mecca’s Hejaz region, and he had completed its conquest by 1931.  The following year his expanded kingdom, renamed Saudi Arabia, was recognised by the League of Nations, and the rest may one day be quite an important chunk of history…

Beyond apologising for any poor choices among the crazy mess of spelling and naming variations that plague any Anglophone writer dealing with Middle Eastern history, I don’t think this post needs much explanation.  Just mention it the next time someone tells you the First World War changed nothing.

8 DECEMBER, 1915: Chat Lines

A hundred years ago today, after three days of talks between Entente military leaders designed to coordinate their strategic approach in the year to come, the Second Chantilly Conference came to an end.  Attended by representatives of the six Allied powers – Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia and Italy – the conference boasted one significant achievement.  After complaining about Anglo-French inaction on the Western Front during the summer’s Triple Offensive in the east, Russian delegate General Zhilinski secured agreement from every power that it would launch an attack whenever an ally was threatened.

The other major business conducted at Chantilly was a U-turn by French c-in-c Joffre.  In advance of the conference, on 4 December, he and French prime minister Briande had met with BEF chief of staff Roberston and British war minister Kitchener at Calais.  Joffre had accepted, albeit reluctantly, British demands for a withdrawal from Salonika, where a Franco-British expedition had missed the chance to help Serbia.  When the French public, kept in the dark about the fate of Serbia, reacted to the decision with predictable and intense outrage, Joffre changed his mind.  At Chantilly, he persuaded the Russian, Italian and Serbian delegates to support continuation of the Salonika operation.  The new British delegates – BEF commander Sir John French and Imperial chief of staff Sir Archibald Murray (both destined to lose their jobs before the end of the month) – chose to preserve the appearance of unity rather than argue, and their acceptance of further commitment in Salonika sealed the decision to put an end to the Gallipoli campaign.

All worth knowing, by way of joining up various dots, but perhaps the most interesting thing about the Chantilly Conference is how long it had taken the Allies to get around to it.  There had been a first conference in early July, also held at Joffre’s headquarters in Chantilly and attended by representatives of all six powers, but it can best be described as a false start. Proceedings had amounted to a long peroration by Joffre about the need for inter-allied cooperation, and no decisions had been reached or joint declarations made. Otherwise, it had taken sixteen months of all-out, escalating warfare on a global scale before the allies came together for serious joint discussions.  A hundred years on, after decades of summit diplomacy as the norm, the delay calls for an explanation.

The explanation is fairly obvious, but it is a useful perspective check. Before the age of long-range powered flight it took a lot of time and effort to get important people from various countries together in one place.  In the past it had been attempted only in peacetime, for the first time after the Napoleonic Wars when the victorious allies convened at the Congress of Vienna, and subsequently to make territorial and political arrangements designed to preserve peace. In the middle of a war, strategic positions might undergo major changes in the time it took for delegates to travel to and from a summit, especially when an alliance included far-distant Russia.  This was why the first Allied summit attempt took place in July, when European armies traditionally took a summer break from major operations, only to be rendered obsolete when the Germans ignored tradition and launched their Triple Offensive against the Russians a few days later.

Winter offered a more reliable break in European operations, but the War’s first winter had passed without much perceived need for inter-Allied strategic discussion.  Britain, France and Russia had long been accustomed to pursuing imperial ambitions as rivals rather than partners, and mutual suspicion was still a restraining influence, but above all they saw no need for strategic debate at the end of 1914 because they all knew exactly what to do.  Serbia and Belgium had only one strategic option, to lobby their more powerful allies for help with national survival.  The big boys meanwhile devoted the winter to massing lots more men and weapons at the front lines, confident that the mistakes of the autumn would be corrected and the enemy overcome by sheer force of numbers in 1915.

By the end of 1915, force of numbers, various strategic sideshows and the development of new ‘breakthrough’ tactics had quite clearly failed to overwhelm an enemy fighting on two major and several minor fronts.  The Central Powers had held firm against superior numbers on the Western Front, swept aside Russian defences in the east, proved far more obdurate than expected on the Ottoman fronts and were now in the process of conquering Serbia.  Home fronts were becoming less stable and enthusiastic for war, costs had spiralled far beyond any pre-war planner’s wildest nightmares and there was no sign at all of victory on the horizon.  It had been a very bad autumn for the Allies, and it had become clear that pursuit of separate imperial agendas by the main partners was at least partly to blame.  With British and French authorities anxious to show impatient populations that constructive change was in progress, a lull in European fighting once Serbia could no longer be saved meant the Allies were finally ready to take the first step towards behaving like a modern military coalition.

My point here is a variation on one of my regular tropes.  As I will keep telling anyone who’ll listen, it’s impossible to understand the modern world without knowing about the First World War – but Allied attempts at strategic coordination are a reminder that you’ll never get the hang of the thing if you judge it by modern standards.

Lesson over, so I’ll sign off with a couple of sidelights on that first summit.  First of all the sensible, overdue agreement reached at Chantilly would prove counterproductive in 1916.  Triggered when German forces attacked the French at Verdun in February, it prompted a hasty and ill-fated Russian offensive on the Eastern Front at Lake Naroch, and a British offensive at the Somme that, though anything but hasty, was hardly a success.

Secondly, and in case you’re wondering, the Central Powers didn’t really need strategic summits in 1915.  This was partly a matter of geography.  As their collective name suggested, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria were all within relatively easy communication distance of each other, and the main German strategic justification for joining the invasion of Serbia was to open overland communications with the Ottoman Empire.  The other reason summits weren’t necessary was that Germany made all the decisions.  All Germany’s allies were dependent on military and/or economic support to keep them in the War, so inter-allied strategic debates were essentially cosmetic.

3 DECEMBER, 1915: Friendly Fires?

Today’s the day, a century ago, that relations between the United States and the German Empire hit a new low, as Washington announced the expulsion of German military attachés Franz von Papen and Karl Boy-Ed.  This wasn’t a decisive moment in the process that would eventually bring the US into the War, and it had no direct bearing on the issue generally credited with doing the trick, German submarine warfare against commercial traffic.  On the other hand, the announcement did make global headlines at the time, as did anything to do with Washington’s diplomatic position in 1915, and its centenary is a useful opportunity to mention the sabotage campaign carried out by German agents in the wartime US.  Why bother?  Because the campaign played an important and often ignored role in bringing the Unites States to war.

Even in the context of the First World War’s giant jamboree bag of world-defining events, US entry into the European conflict stands out as arguably the defining event of the twentieth century.  Others were more dramatic, and you can make a case for revolutions, nuclear weapons or the day Hitler got really angry (to name just a few), but it’s hard beat the moment the United States abandoned one of its most basic constitutional tenets, got involved in somebody else’s war for the first time, and committed to becoming the world’s dominant diplomatic, military and economic superpower.  So it seems a shame the heritage industry on this side of the Atlantic isn’t too bothered about why it happened.

If the question does crop up, the heritage answer is usually nice and simple:  U-boats sank the Lusitania, as well as other dubious targets occupied by American citizens, and the USA’s outrage eventually trumped its pacifism.  You won’t be surprised to hear that the real picture was more complex.

Let’s start with a few broad brushstrokes.  A refusal to take part in overseas wars that were considered imperialist was a fundamental founding principle of the independent United States, enshrined in its constitution and strong in the public mind as the Great War got underway in Europe.  Then again, like so many of the grandest principles, national pacifism had never really stopped the USA from going to war when it suited the right vested interests.  Regular invasions of Canada and Mexico peppered the republic’s early history, and by the late nineteenth century the impulse to overseas trade was breeding a parallel (and standard) impulse to interference in foreign affairs.

It was by no means a universal impulse.  Vast swathes of ‘middle America’, along with traditionalists everywhere, regarded all dealings overseas as dangerous and undesirable, but manufacturing and maritime interests in the northeastern states, increasingly supported by their emergent counterparts on the Pacific coast, recognised a huge opportunity for world-class wealth when they saw one, and led the way in demanding that the USA behave like a world power.  Driven on by their noisiest champion, President Theodore Roosevelt, they had crossed a significant line at the very end of the nineteenth century, when economic imperatives had prompted invasion and conquest of the far distant Philippines. Fifteen years later, with the much less bullish Woodrow Wilson in the White House, US Marines moved in to help establish long-term economic dominance in various Latin American capitals once the new war had sucked European investments from the continent.

So the USA was no virgin when it came to overseas military adventure by 1914 – it was merely in denial the way, for instance, our modern media deny the strategic irrelevance of British military adventure.  The USA was also neutral, generally referred to as ‘the great neutral’, but again an element of denial was involved, particularly when it came to trade.

When war came to Europe, opportunity knocked louder than ever for US overseas trade.  All the biggest European governments were suddenly desperate for everything the USA could grow or build. American farmers, manufacturers and merchants responded in spades, making vast fortunes in the process, but with very few exceptions they responded only to the Entente powers, because the Royal Navy’s blockade strategy made delivery of goods to Germany, Austria-Hungary or the Ottoman Empire almost impossible.

This huge imbalance played into wartime diplomatic rows between the US and Britain over blockade tactics (as discussed back in March), and into the mounting dispute over the submarine tactics used instead by Germany.  It also convinced many German observers that the US was neutral only in name, a belief that became the justification for German attempts to slow the flow of goods and arms to the Entente by sabotage.

During the War’s first year, US authorities had foiled attempts at sabotage in San Francisco, Hoboken and Seattle, and had uncovered a scheme to supply German agents with US passports bought from dock workers, but successful saboteurs were thought responsible for more than a dozen factory fires and fires aboard at least thirty ships. Reported with all due hysteria, these incidents left the American public in the grip of a spy craze that made every fire suspicious and every German-American a suspect.  For a time the Wilson administration chose to protect its neutrality by accepting German ambassador Bernstorff’s claims that misguided, independent associations or individuals were to blame, and that no official sabotage campaign existed – but by the middle of 1915 US authorities knew those claims to be false.

In February, a lone German agent had set off a suitcase full of dynamite on the railway bridge linking the US and Canada at Vanceboro, Maine. The bomb did only minor damage, the perpetrator was caught (not hard, given that he was wearing his old German Army uniform) and his orders were traced back to Bernstorff’s military attaché, Franz von Papen.  Further investigations linked von Papen to several other sabotage incidents, and also implicated Karl Boy-Ed, a Turkish-German with excellent connections among the New York social elite.  On 3 December, shortly after a fire at a munitions factory had raised popular spy mania to fever pitch, the US government finally expelled the two of them, and confiscated documents in Papen’s possession that detailed an ongoing nationwide campaign against railways, shipping and factories.

The German sabotage campaign in the USA didn’t end with the expulsions, but the minimal disruption it caused to Entente supply lines was far outweighed by the damage it did to German-American relations.  Coming at a time when keeping the United States out of the War was Germany’s overwhelming diplomatic priority, it was a classic example of the spectacular incompetence that characterised the Empire’s wartime diplomacy.

The decision to turn atrocities against Belgian civilians into an international publicity stunt, the clumsy attempts to interfere in Mexican affairs, the serial miscalculations of US opinion around submarine warfare…  all these helped underpin the American impulse towards war in the name of trade by cementing the German regime’s image in the States as a greedy, militarist danger to civilisation and something worth fighting.  None of them prepared the American people for overseas war more effectively than the outrage created by German saboteurs.

30 JULY, 1915: A Voice from the Past

A century ago today, the papacy made one of its periodic efforts to change the course of history, when Pope Benedict XV sent a letter to the heads of all belligerent states appealing for peace and outlining the principles upon which it should be based. In truth this was a token gesture because nobody, including the Vatican, expected it to have any effect at all. It was duly ignored, subsequent efforts would meet the same fate, and it’s fair to say the papacy has been a powerless footnote in the face of warfare ever since.

So why bother mentioning the letter of 30 July 1915? Well, unaccustomed as I am to being nice about organised religion, it seems to me the papacy has been given a bit of a bad press by heritage commentators – or rather no press at all, so that its reputation around modern warfare rests on the much-deplored performance of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War. Without for one moment suggesting that the Vatican was much use to a world engulfed by the ego-driven madness of secular states, its First World War incarnation does merit some sympathy and a pat on the back for trying.

The War had started badly for the papacy. The incumbent pontiff, Pius X, died on 20 August 1914, throwing the Vatican into the turmoil of a hasty selection process that saw Giacomo della Chiesa elected as Benedict XV on 3 September. A cardinal for only four months but regarded as an able diplomat, Benedict’s first attempt to act as a conduit for peace was a proposal for a general truce at Christmas 1914. Delivered at a moment when a direct appeal from God would probably have fallen on deaf ears, it met with predictable silence from all sides, and from early the following year the Vatican’s international influence was drastically undermined by its unavoidable attachment to Italy.

As pro-War factions took the ascendancy, papal peace mongering was viewed with increasing suspicion by the political class in Italy, and attitudes were hardened by Benedict’s role in promoting talks between Rome and Vienna aimed at avoiding war. When signing up to enter the War on the side of the Entente powers, the Italian government persuaded its new allies to agree, by a clause in the secret Treaty of London, to ignore any future peace proposals from the Vatican. Meanwhile in Germany, and above all in Protestant Prussia, the Pope was being denounced as a pawn of the Entente, his diplomatic approaches to Vienna dismissed as a cunning plan to weaken Germany’s alliance structure.

While repeatedly announcing its strict neutrality in the face of accusations from both sides, the Vatican could only perform minor charitable works for victims of the War, and make a show of fulfilling its global obligations to the faithful in the face of utter disdain from the Christian states at war. The letter of July 1915 functioned primarily as a reminder to neutral audiences that the Pope still wanted peace, and that the Vatican still refused to fall into either warring camp.

Two years down the line, with war-weariness on his side, Benedict would make a second, more concerted attempt to broker peace, but his proposals would again be brushed aside by European powers, and dismissed by US President Wilson as an endorsement of the pre-War status quo. Despite the Vatican’s claim to a major role in the post-War peace process the Pope would not receive an invitation to the Paris Conference of 1919, and Benedict would go on to issue several denunciations of the punitive Versailles Treaty in the years before his death in 1922.

So the big story about the Papacy during the First World War is that it never managed to become a big story, and the sub-plot tells us that, for once, failure to exert any significant influence over the dogs of war wasn’t the Vatican’s fault. Like so much else we dismiss as evidence of human and institutional culpability during the First World War, the papacy was trapped into impotence by the circumstances of the times.

26 APRIL, 1915: Secrets and Lies

I think we’re all aware that the Gallipoli land campaign kicked off a century ago, and it would be hard not to notice the human sacrifice involved. On the whole, the heritage story is also doing a pretty good job of pointing out the campaign’s international significance, giving great weight to ANZAC matters, managing to mention that much of the ground force committed came from various outposts of the British and French Empires, and even giving a nod to the impact of a hard-won Ottoman victory on the future of an independent Turkey. On the other hand, from a British perspective, you’d have to say the commemorative industry could be doing a whole lot better.

You can hunt down a documentary or dig deep in the broadsheet press, but if you stick to the mass-consumption side of the media you might not even notice that the entire campaign was a fiasco from start to finish. Perhaps national love for Winnie explains populist reluctance to roundly condemn Churchill’s bombastic role as the plan’s principal political promoter. Perhaps unwillingness to remind us of Churchill’s reckless streak has contributed to tabloid reticence when it comes to mentioning the strategic optimism, shoddy planning and command ineptitude that characterised Britain’s part in the campaign, or to laying much stress on the outrage provoked in contemporary Australia by those failings. Of course, this is the centenary of the first landings on the peninsular, and despite the abject failure of naval efforts against the Dardanelles defences the Gallipoli campaign wasn’t yet a disaster – but it was suffering from poor planning and execution from the first day, and that isn’t part of the news packages I’m seeing.

Ah well, let’s hope Gallipoli hasn’t dropped off the news map when the time comes to commemorate the really shambolic stuff.

One other problem with the pomp and ceremony surrounding Gallipoli is the way commemoration can warp history. The commitment of troops to a sideshow in the eastern Mediterranean wasn’t by any means the only, or even the most significant event of that weekend in 1915. Negotiations to bring Italy into the War on the side of the Triple Entente were reaching the end of a long road, and on Monday 26 April the Treaty of London was signed.

The Treaty guaranteed that Italy, by a distance the biggest European economy not yet committed to the War, would join the fight against Germany and Austria-Hungary. In early 1915, a time when strategic thinking on both sides assumed that one more push in the right place would bring this unsustainable conflict to an end, it was seen by many in authority as a potentially war-winning diplomatic triumph. It was not, however, a propaganda triumph, because it was kept secret, and it was kept secret because it was arguably one of the grubbiest agreements ever made between nations, a stark reflection of naked greed, high-handedness and desperation that left even some of its makers appalled and talking of international blackmail.

By the spring of 1915 Italian politicians, press and public were clamouring for war in the just causes of national expansion and national glory. Given that orthodox pre-war thinking all over Europe had assumed the approaching conflict, long overdue, would create a new world order dominated by the winners, this was not the outrageous chauvinism it appears today. The Ottoman Empire, Greece, Brazil, Bulgaria, Romania and almost every other country with foreign policy issues needed to be on the winning side and was open to bribery in return for joining it.

Italy had a young nation’s restless thirst for international status to go with foreign policy issues in spades, the most emotive of them centred on territorial disputes with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vienna’s refusal to make concessions in the region around Italy’s northeast frontier had scuppered any prospect of Rome going to war in 1914 alongside Austro-Hungary and Germany, its partners in the Triple Alliance, and gave the Entente powers a key advantage in what soon became an auction for Italian allegiance.

A charitable view would be that the auction got out of hand, though it might be more accurate to say it reflected the madness of a world at war. Either way, the winning Entente bid made promises it either couldn’t keep, could only keep by breaking promises made to other countries, or had no intention trying to keep. On the Italian side, Entente promises were accepted eyes wide shut for fear that the breakthrough everyone expected would end the War before Italy could claim its share of the jamboree. Check out those promises and lies.

Italy was promised substantial military and economic aid, starting with an immediate loan from Britain of £50 million (a vast sum in 1915), as well as substantial reparations after victory was achieved and the fulfilment of almost all its many territorial ambitions. Italy was to be given the Trentino (South Tyrol) and Trieste regions to the north of the country, both then ruled by Vienna, and despite promises already made to Serbia it would control both the Dalmatian and Adriatic coastlines with the sole exception of the port of Fiume (Rijeka), which was withheld as a sop to Russian support for Slav interests. Italy was also to be given formal possession of the Dodecanese archipelago (which it had annexed in 1912 but which the Entente was also promising to Greece) and the Adalia region on the Turkish coast nearest to the islands, along with an expanded area of influence in Libya.

                             The bribe, territorially speaking.

None too surprisingly with hindsight, the Treaty of London did nobody much good. Allied aid never began to match Italian expectations, and the new battlefront that opened up in the mountain passes around the frontiers with Austria-Hungary became another ghastly stalemate that was still in progress when the Bolsheviks took over Russia and released details of all the Entente’s secret treaties.

Details of the London treaty began appearing the Western press at the end of 1917, provoking understandable anger in Serbia and Greece, but also sparking pubic outrage in Italy over a particularly embarrassing clause that prohibited any Entente response to peace proposals by the Pope. At the end of the War an exhausted and turbulent Italy received precious little of its territorial bounty at the Paris Peace Conference, as the Treaty became a byword for the failings of ‘old world diplomacy’ and the claims of smaller Balkan states took precedence. Within another three years, Italian dissatisfaction would find expression in the noisy nationalism of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party.

When we say Pope, we’re talking Benedict XV. Just so you know.

I don’t know, all that seems worth a mention to me, or at least a commemorative tip of the hat – but I guess hard-nosed diplomacy and treaty clauses get low billing in a media circus that’s all about feelings.