If you thought 2016 was bad – and let’s face it most people did – cheer yourself up by imagining how ghastly the world looked at the end of 1916. Feeling better? Good, now get past the heritage notion that everyone running the world a century ago was stupid, and think about how a smart person like you, equipped with a hundred years of hindsight, might have changed things at the start of 1917.
It’s a tricky one. You could take an extreme pacifist position and walk away at all costs, forcing peace for its own sake, but only by betraying every clarion call and sacrifice since 1914, and only by leaving the enmities of 1914 unresolved, primed to start another war. This was morally and politically impossible for anyone in a position of power in any of the main belligerent nations.
Perhaps you could parley for peace, persuade the warring empires to swap compromises in the face of escalating slaughter and socio-economic mayhem – but both the German Chancellor and the President of the United States had just tried that, only to discover that neither side was ready or willing to give an inch. Given that the Allies had framed their entire case for war as an outraged mission to save civilisation, and that only total victory could save the regime directing the Central Powers, you might as well forget about the spirit of compromise.
So you’re going to have to keep fighting this war, and aiming for final victory, but surely an intelligent, open-minded leader can find a quicker and less costly route to goal than the hideous attrition of the Western Front, or for that matter the Eastern and Italian Fronts. Well, the British and French have tried this before, only to land in trouble at Gallipoli and strategic quicksand at Salonika. Meanwhile the British Empire, the only Allied state with any resources to spare elsewhere, is already busy fighting sideshow wars in the Middle East, in Africa and across the world’s oceans, and any day now the German Third Supreme Command is going to bet its collective shirt on the almighty short-cut of all-out submarine warfare. In other words, you’ll struggle to find any viable new route to victory, let alone one you can get past the combined scepticism of military and political forces still fixated on the main European fronts.
Generations of intelligently applied hindsight have failed come up with a convincing alternative to the ‘keep marching to the light’ approach adopted by leadership on both sides during the second half of the War, so it’s no wonder that even the most creative British statesperson of modern times couldn’t crack the problem. Newly installed as British Prime Minister, at the very peak of his political power and influence, David Lloyd George gave it a characteristically bold try, but by the time the Rome Conference of Allied leaders ended on 7 January 1917, he knew he had failed.
I’m a big fan of Lloyd George. I’m not planning to go into details here, but few people with his energy, pragmatism, vision, boldness and cunning get to achieve much in modern politics while keeping their ideals on the side of the angels. Despite a list of personal flaws to match his gifts, Lloyd George entered office on the back of a brilliant record as both a reformer of British society and its prime organiser for total war. Though the War years burned him out politically, and his career never fully recovered from association with the universally unloved post-War peace settlement, he was a fearless and confident figure throughout the conflict, and at the end of 1916 he was determined to force it to a swift, victorious conclusion.
Ruthlessly effective at streamlining government and bureaucracy to meet wartime needs, Lloyd George was equally adept at shaping press and popular opinion – but though his work on the home front established a platform upon which victory could be built, persuading the military to complete the task his way presented an altogether more formidable challenge. Broadly speaking the Army, led by Chief of Staff Robertson and BEF commander Haig, was absolutely committed to maintaining maximum focus on the Western Front, and sure the War would be won or lost in France, while Lloyd George was equally sure that victory could be achieved more quickly and less painfully by attacking the Central Powers through a back door.
The trouble was, as mentioned earlier, most of the back doors had been tried and found locked, or at least extremely difficult to open, and though the prospect of an attack on the underbelly of the Ottoman Empire still beckoned in the Middle East, nobody expected it to defeat Germany. Given the abject performance of Allied forces in Salonika, it was clear that nothing the British Army could do was likely to have much effect on the Eastern Front’s overall picture, and that left Lloyd George with few new options for lateral thinking except the unlikely scenario he came up with: an attack into the Austro-Hungarian Empire from Italy.
In military terms, it wasn’t a great idea. Lloyd George wasn’t far wrong in thinking that Vienna’s empire was ripe for collapse, but the Italian Army was going to need a lot of reinforcement and the Italian Alps were still a blood-soaked nightmare for offensive operations. That didn’t stop Lloyd George suggesting the transfer of British and French heavy artillery to Italy within a week of taking office, and he took the idea further at a meeting of Anglo-French leaders on Boxing Day, when delegates accepted his proposal for a summit between the British, French and Italian high commands to discuss overall strategic priorities. Robertson and Haig were unimpressed, and were placing obstacles and objections in the path of any serious military aid to Italy within a matter of days. This was to be expected, but might be overcome if the combined weight of French and Italian opinion could be convinced to swing behind Lloyd George.
The summit convened as the Rome Conference on 5 January. Lloyd George asked delegates to consider increasing military aid to Russia and increasing the strength of Allied forces in Salonika. He also urged the development of joint offensive strategies on the Italian Front, supported by the transfer of Anglo-French artillery and infantry to the theatre. The Italian high command had no problem with the latter idea, and Italian Army c-in-c Cadorna agreed to mount a major offensive provided the Allies added at least 300 heavy guns to his artillery. At first the British and French military commands, neither of which had any official advance warning of the proposal, made it clear they had no guns or troops to spare for the Italian Front, but under pressure they agreed to loan the Italian Army some heavy artillery – only for the French to qualify the offer by insisting on the return of the guns by April. Cadorna pointed out, quite rightly, that Italy couldn’t possibly mount an offensive in the Alps before April, and the conference broke up on 7 January without any firm arrangements on the table, let alone agreed.
Lloyd George had been thwarted by the military on both sides of the Channel, had received no substantial support from the French government and, with a characteristic disregard for military realities, declared himself let down by Cadorna’s refusal of a bad offer. His battle against Robertson and Haig was far from over, and the rest of the year would see him manoeuvring to curb their control over strategic direction, but the cross-Channel military solidarity displayed at the Rome Conference set a pattern that precluded any fundamental change in military priorities. From the other perspective, Italian delegates at the Conference came away confirmed in their view that Britain and France were serious about wanting a major offensive into southern Austria-Hungary, but weren’t prepared to pay for it.
The Rome Conference was a failure, but is worth remembering as a nod to the largely forgotten efforts of those trying to alter the character of the First World War at what seemed its hour of deepest gloom. It also merits commemoration as the start of something, because despite Italian scepticism the Conference forced Anglo-French military leaders to at least examine the position on the Italian Front. New French c-in-c Nivelle visited the front in February; Robertson followed in March. What they saw convinced them that the Italian Army, operating far less sophisticated defence systems than those in use on the Western Front, might well need reinforcement, if not for an offensive then for credible defence against any major attack by Austrian or German forces. British and French commanders began formulating plans for the rapid transfer of guns and troops to Italy in the event of a crisis, and these would prove extremely valuable when crisis came the following autumn.