12 JULY, 1918: The Way We Were

A crucial battle was about to erupt on the Western Front in mid-July 1918.  Known as the Second Battle of the Marne, it was a case of two offensives clashing.  In Berlin, Ludendorff’s Third Supreme Command planned one last attempt to turn the German Army’s great Spring Offensive, begun in March, into tangible strategic success (21 March, 1918: Stalemate Ends… Posterity Shrugs).  Short of supplies and experienced troops, raddled with influenza and suffering an unprecedented crisis of morale, German forces on the Marne were almost ready to launch a two-pronged attack towards Reims, as a prelude to a bigger offensive further north, in Flanders.

Meanwhile, despite the manpower crisis that faced both Britain and France after the bloodletting of the spring – and ignoring French c-in-c Pétain’s insistence that his exhausted troops were incapable of major offensives until US forces were ready to join the fight – Allied supreme commander Foch planned an attack on the western flank of the German salient (that’s a bulge to you and me) at the Marne. Thanks to prisoners and deserters, each side was fully aware of the other’s plans.

Not the world’s most useful map, but it was the best I could do…

The German attack began first, on 15 July, but had turned into an orderly withdrawal from the Marne positions by 20 July, and by the time it ended on 3 August French attacks (with some British and US support) had driven the line back beyond the Rivers Aisne and Vesle. The fighting was heavy and horrible, costing more than 95,000 French, 13,000 British and 12,000 US casualties on the Allied side, and an estimated 168,000 German losses.  The battle finally put an end to the Third Supreme Command’s offensive ambitions on the Western Front, and ushered in a series of, ultimately decisive, Allied offensives during the autumn.

There’s a lot more to say about the Second Battle of the Marne, its turning points, tactical nuances and military-political fallout, but it’s a popular choice with the posterity industry and I’ve got something less stirring and triumphal to talk about.  On 12 June 1918, the ‘Denaturalisation Bill’ passed through its first and second readings in the British House of Commons, on the way to receiving royal assent in early August and becoming law the following January.

Denaturalisation in this context meant the revocation of citizenship granted to those born in foreign countries but qualified as British through long-term residence.  The bill itself (properly known as the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1918), its bumpy passage into law and the noisy public debate surrounding it shine some light on a social norm of the time that hit one of its wartime peaks in Britain during the summer of 1918.  I’m referring to xenophobia, which was uncontroversially indivisible from patriotism for most Britons a century ago and has been making something of a comeback in the last couple of years.

Until 1914, the law concerning British nationality had been based on the 1870 Naturalisation Act, which allowed aliens to become citizens after five years of residence, but successive governments had come under press and political pressure to make it more difficult for hostile foreigners to pose as loyal Britons.  Promoted by influential right-wing and ‘diehard’ imperialist elements, this xenophobic pressure mounted in an atmosphere of increasing mistrust towards other European powers and their subjects, especially Germans, in the years leading up the War.  It bore fruit just as the conflict was erupting.

The 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act received royal assent on 7 August and became law on 1 January 1915.  It came in three parts. The first defined ‘natural’ British nationality as belonging to anyone born in the British Empire, anyone born with a British father (even a naturalised father) and anyone born on a British ship.  The second section concerned naturalisation, which the Home Office (interior ministry) could grant to any applicant who had lived in Britain for five years and intended to stay there, was of ‘good character’ and spoke ‘adequate’ English.  Candidates were required to take an oath of allegiance, and their status could be revoked if obtained by fraud.

The third part of the 1914 Act dealt with particulars, including the treatment of married women, who were deemed to hold the nationality of their husbands, so that a British-born widow (or ex-wife) of a foreigner was considered an alien and required to apply for naturalisation.  The section also made clear that although naturalised foreigners could hold any property (except for a British ship) in the manner of natural citizens, they were barred from voting or holding any kind of local or national political office.

Confirmed as law just as national paranoia became government policy, the Act came under shrill attack even before it became active, with the popular press and the right wing of the Conservative Party demanding stronger powers to denaturalise aliens from hostile countries.  Hysteria inevitably focused on some 6,000 naturalised former Germans living in Britain, who were portrayed as potential hostile agents, and critics decried the Act’s failure to require naturalised aliens to renounce their former nationality, raising the spectre of British citizens bound by loyalty to the Kaiser.  In fact, under the German constitution, Germans choosing naturalisation elsewhere were automatically stripped of their original nationality, but a clause in the same constitution that allowed dual citizenship in certain, officially sanctioned circumstances was portrayed as a loophole through which Berlin intended to destabilise foreign societies.

This one from 1915 – they got more virulent as the War went on.

Amid a tsunami of government propaganda based on the idea that Germans and German culture were intrinsically violent, militaristic, devious and bad, what now seems like hysterical paranoia found ready acceptance among many people at all levels of British society. It crystallised into a campaign in the press and in parliament for a legal means to denaturalise ‘hyphenated’ Anglo-Germans at the whim of the Home Office, and the demand soon became impossible for even a Liberal government to ignore.

The Home Office was considering an extension of revocation powers by early 1916, but civil servants considered it difficult to apply and the idea was still bouncing around committees when the Imperial War Conference of April 1917 was asked to approve a draft bill of amendments to the 1914 Act.  This proposed giving the minister power to denaturalise anyone obviously disloyal, of obvious poor character, convicted of a serious crime or absent from the Empire for seven years.  It also suggested extending the wartime ban on naturalisation of aliens from Germany or Austria for five years after the end of hostilities.

The Conference – representing British state departments along with representatives of the ‘white’ dominions (which had hyphenation issues of their own) and India – gave the draft bill its overall approval without stipulating any timescale for change.  Spared the rod, the coalition government took its time before finally introducing such an intrinsically illiberal piece of legislation for its first parliamentary reading in May 1918.  Meanwhile the increasingly furious impatience of the political right, the jingoist press and a considerable section of military opinion (including the Admiralty) were coalescing to turn fear of naturalised Germans into a major national issue.

Rampant anti-German sentiment was reaching a wartime peak by the time the new Act went through its second reading on 12 July. The anti-German ultras were already denouncing the new legislation as soft on aliens, and a proposal to strip citizenship from all Germans naturalised within the last thirty years (and their children, including many men in senior military and civil service positions) was being widely touted to general acclaim from the political right.  In this atmosphere, it was hardly surprising that the 1918 Act – essentially a reprise of the 1917 draft proposal – became a little tougher as it passed through parliament, adding contact with enemy states to the list of reasons for denaturalisation, and banning the children of naturalised citizens from public service jobs unless they were given exemption by a special loyalty tribunal.

Some politicians get to be important but forgotten. This is wartime British home secretary George Cave, the (rather vexed) face of the 1918 Nationality Act.

The new Act still fell far short of the Draconian discrimination against anyone born outside the Empire demanded by the ‘radical’ right and a massively self-important Fleet Street barony, and as such it can be seen as a rescue success for the liberal values at the heart of the Lloyd George coalition.  And because the War against Germany and Austria-Hungary had ended by the time it came into force at the start of 1919, momentum drained from the tide of populist xenophobia that had threatened to make the Act the thin end of a very nationalist wedge.

British public xenophobia would be back.  An instinctive reaction to fear that feeds on ignorance to identify targetable threats, it is always likely to surface in times of popular panic, especially when encouraged by powerful voices with an eye for populist profit.  Over the decades since 1918 it has only tended to come all the way out of the closet during major wars, but these days it’s flouncing around naked in peacetime.  So the only point I’d make around the flood of race hatred that almost carried the day in post-Edwardian Britain is this:  today’s demagogues of modern economic insecurity are tapping into a form of escapism that runs deep and dangerous in our collective psyche, so maybe we should work harder at coping with reality.

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