It is easy to read history as a series of hindsight headlines, and the hindsight headlines for the early autumn of 1919 have a compelling ring about them. The Great War had been parleyed into a peace that, despite its propaganda claims to have recast the world anew, has been obsessing us ever since with its failure to do so. A massive influenza pandemic, more deadly than anything seen before or since, had cut a swathe through the world and remains headline news to modern commentators (20 February, 1919: Coughs and Sneezes). Wars, revolutions and mass movements were flaring and scaring all over the world, some of them still headlining today as crucial to our development through the century that followed.
All these things were important in 1919. They shouldn’t be forgotten, and on the whole haven’t been, but we don’t pay much attention to another headline of the time that was every bit as important to people from many lands and all walks of life in 1919. I’m talking about the personally involving, socially defining and endlessly controversial process of demobilisation, which began with the Armistice in November 1918, was still in progress as the autumn of 1919 set in, and was, for some people and institutions, destined to continue well into the 1920s.
Demobilisation wasn’t just a matter of turning soldiers into civilians and standing down vast amounts of military materiel, although these alone created enormous logistic problems. National economies and their workforce demographics had been radically reshaped to meet the demands of total war, and governments faced the relatively long-term challenge of either restoring old systems or fashioning new structures designed to satisfy popular expectations transformed by the experience of war. Political and cultural shifts – some immediately apparent, others more gradual – underpinned these processes. All these forms of socio-economic demobilisation were more or less managed by authorities with an accepted duty to provide millions of veterans with reward, re-integration, rescue or all three, and in many cases to reconstruct civilian lives shattered by the conflict.
There’s a big book in the full story of demobilisation after the First World War, and I’m not about to write it, so for now I’ll take a look at the strictly military side of the process.
In theory, the states that had called armies into being were responsible for their demobilisation, but defeated armies tended to demobilise themselves, melting away before their national administrations could catch up. The Austro-Hungarian Army, for instance, had no state left to manage its break-up, and had anyway all but fallen apart after its defeat at Vittorio Veneto in the autumn of 1918. By November, most of its 2 million or so troops were concentrated on or near the Italian Front (with another half million or so held prisoner by the Italians), and about 450,000 of those simply walked home as deserters. The rest were transported back to their garrisons by a chaotic train service and then became the responsibility of the new or rump nations emerging from the Empire’s wreckage. As such they melded into the cultural and social demobilisations of those nations. Many went on to fight as left-wing, right-wing or simply nationalist troops in the conflicts that marked post-War Hungary, Poland and the Ukraine, while others went on to defend Austria or Czechoslovakia against the fallout from those conflicts, and many more were left to fend for themselves amid the economic, social and political upheaval that wracked central Europe through the early 1920s.
The Ottoman Army, by contrast, remained a disciplined force under central control in late 1918, and it was able to demobilise accordingly. Under British supervision and according to a timetable dictated by the British, garrisons in Anatolia had discharged about 280,000 troops stationed in the Middle East in age order (beginning with the oldest) by the end of January 1919. Forces occupying the Caucasus began coming home in February, and almost 380,000 of them had been discharged by the end of March, leaving about 61,000 officers and men to form the basis of a new Ottoman Army. This relatively tiny force left a lot of trained men, along with a cache of some 800,000 rifles and almost 1,000 artillery pieces, available to the new nationalist army that would defend Anatolia against invasion by Greece.
The German Army had lost a million men to desertion in the weeks before the Armistice, but despite widespread political chaos the remaining six million troops were all back inside the country’s frontiers and ‘demobbed’ – often without much supervision – by the spring of 1919. Most German communities made a point of welcoming them home with parades designed to perpetuate the idea that they had returned ‘undefeated’, a fiction propagated by right-wing commentators concerned to blame the War’s outcome on Jews and Communists, but also adopted by the moderate Weimar government in the hope of raising national morale. Instead, this exercise in myth creation – along with the shock of harsh economic conditions and the national humiliation emerging from the peace process – encouraged national anger and the involvement of ex-soldiers, thousands of whom had taken weapons home with them, in the domestic battles to come.
On the other hand, the Weimar regime and regional German authorities did work with labour organisations to create jobs for veterans, and for the 3 million workers discarded by a redundant arms industry, conceding union demands over working conditions (including the key demand for an eight-hour working day) and investing heavily with money they didn’t have. This produced a steady fall in unemployment for a couple of years from mid-1919, and undoubtedly helped the Weimar Republic survive the threat of overthrow by left or right, but also contributed to the country’s economic collapse in the mid-1920s.
Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman service personnel all came home to turbulent domestic environments, and one way or another became a factor influencing those environments. Soldiers, sailors and airmen returning to their homes in France, the United States, Italy and Great Britain re-entered societies that were still in one piece but changed and scarred by war. For their respective regimes, still in charge but acutely aware that winds of political change were sweeping through the world, the enormous logistic challenge of demobilising armed forces, economies and societies was sharpened by fear that the process could trigger the kind of existential crisis faced by ruling elites in defeated states.
Demobilising troops was easiest in France and Italy, where the vast majority of service personnel were fighting on or near home soil. Some 2.1 million Italians were serving in the field at the Armistice, and half a million had been sent home by the end of the year, but the process was a bureaucratic mess, leaving many discharged troops without pension papers, creating anger by sending home officers with important jobs first, and becoming chaotically entangled with the simultaneous discharge of reserve troops. Suspended for reorganisation in January 1919, and eventually resumed in June, Italian demobilisation then proceeded in an ordered but painfully slow fashion, finally coming to an end in 1921. By that time, a combination of Italy’s miserable experience during wartime, and the varying degrees of outrage created by a ‘mutilated peace’ seen as a betrayal of Italy’s ambitions, had fuelled the country’s political polarisation to the point of revolution, and veterans played a prominent role in the paramilitary activities bolstering Mussolini’s bid for power.
French demobilisation was a sombre, steady business. Most troops were discharged according to length of service in two waves. Some 2.5 million men were sent home between November 1918 and the following April, with another 2 million discharged between July and September 1919, leaving about half a million still in uniform. These were gradually demobilised during the next eighteen months, as the possibility of further military action to enforce the peace treaty receded and French involvement in Salonika came to an end. Government attempts to turn a nation at war into a stable peacetime workforce were not entirely successful, despite a law guaranteeing service personnel their old jobs back and acceptance of union demands for an eight-hour day. As the cost of reconstruction forced up taxes and prices, industrial unrest became a serious problem in the early 1920s, but the veterans of an exhausted nation showed little enthusiasm for post-war expressions of militarism.
Something similar can be said of US forces. The United States had put some 4.4 million men in uniform by the time of the Armistice, and about 2 million of them were already in Europe. The main obstacle to their rapid return was lack of shipping capacity across the Atlantic, so although personnel stationed in Britain or Italy sailed home with relatively little delay, the majority of men serving on the Western Front spent months waiting for a ride in crowded debarkation camps near French Atlantic ports. The protests and outbursts of disobedience that marked their stay fed into domestic press and political criticism of the demobilisation process, which found a focus in the furore surrounding what became known as the ‘million-dollar fire’. According to eyewitnesses, the US Army Air Force had burned at least 100 aircraft (along with an unnamed quantity of trucks and other auxiliary equipment) at the French airfield of Colombes-les-Belles in May 1919, a claim denied by the Army but backed by a congressional investigation in July.
European scandals were never more than a side issue in a nation firmly focused on domestic affairs. While labour and race relations dominated the political agenda, along with the influenza pandemic, the last US combat troops left France on 1 September 1919, the last service personnel went home on 2 January 1920 and the US contingent in northern Russia followed three months later. Most returning troops came home to parades, their old jobs, a pension and a society superficially very similar to the one they had left. Apart from occasional campaigns to improve welfare provisions for veterans, they merged back into that society without expressing a collective political identity.
I’ve talked before about some of the problems surrounding demobilisation of British forces, which centred on the amount of time taken to discharge long-serving men under a system that sent recent recruits home by prioritising those from economically important ‘reserved occupations’ (4 January, 1919: The Revolution Will Not Be…). A change of government after the general election of December 1918 brought a change of system, and from early 1919 troops were demobilised, broadly speaking, according to length of service. That was enough to quieten protests, and by the end of the year almost 2 million British service personnel had returned to civilian life. Helped back into work by employment policies that favoured veterans (and removed most women from the workplace) – and given some protection against soaring unemployment by the introduction of benefits – they showed few signs of the addiction to militarism or commitment to socialism feared by their leaders.
Britain and France had used their overseas empires as an important source of wartime manpower – and demobilisation of colonial troops and labourers brought its own set of logistic, political and cultural challenges. French colonials, most from North or West Africa, had been recruited for the duration of the war plus six months, and so remained an important component of those French forces still in the field into 1920, while although most British imperial personnel serving outside Europe were discharged and processed quickly, shipping shortages meant those stationed in Europe faced the same frustrations as their US counterparts. The last of some 300,000 Canadians in Europe, for instance, finally got home in September 1919 – but at least they returned to a land of plenty and political stability, while troops from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa went home to countries rendered more cohesive and politically stable by the shared experience of war. Generally speaking, veterans from these ‘white dominions’ of the British Empire settled back into white cultures on a roll, their confidence high, their economies enlarged, and their energies focused on nation-building. Non-white cultures (and the Irish) didn’t have it so good.
There’s no way I can even begin to cover the spectrum of imperial/colonial fallout from the First World War in those places run as fiefdoms by the British and French Empires – and if I could every word would be shrouded in controversy. Volunteer or conscript, soldier or labourer, men who had gone to war for Britain or France came home to African and Caribbean countries that were still being economically and politically exploited along nineteenth-century lines. They came home to Ireland on the brink of republican revolution, or to an Indian subcontinent that was organising itself an independent political voice. Some of them came home to use their military experience as part of the colonial policing forces still needed by Britain and France, but how much their wartime experiences and altered attitudes fed into the futures of those countries is still a matter of extreme divisions between scholars. All I’m going to say is that, to some extent, in one way or another, they did – and I can match that piece of empty rhetoric with similar vagueness about all the other people being stood down or plunged into new wars in the splintered lands of the former Ottoman and Russian Empires, the Balkans and the Middle East.
That may seem a little unsatisfying, but this blog has only skimmed the surface at the best of times, and all I’m trying to do here is flag up a few points generally left out of our heritage histories. The point of this extended ramble, and the reason I’ve bothered to double my usual word count, is that the end of the First World War was merely the beginning of a mass human transfer that was enormously significant for contemporaries and for the futures of the nations involved. We are all quite familiar with the demobilisation and displacements that followed the Second World War, but our collective obsession with 1919’s diplomatic disasters, diseases and violent aftermaths has all but blotted out the mass migration that followed the First. No, I don’t know how much and in precisely what ways it informed a world in flux, but I do know the logistically challenging return of militarised multitudes after 1918 was fundamental to its fabric and should be remembered as such.