20 FEBRUARY, 1917: Ask Don’t Get

A hundred years ago today, the Petrograd Conference broke up. Called for the purpose of assessing and improving Russia’s contribution to the Allied war effort, and Allied contributions to the Russian war effort, it had lasted 20 days and achieved very little.   All the same, the fact that it took place at all and the ways in which it failed do add up to an interesting glimpse at what an alliance between Britain, France and Russia really meant in 1917, as well as providing a snapshot of Russian imperial government immediately before it collapsed.

In any war you care to consider, at any time in history, coalitions mean conferences, whether called to coordinate the efforts of allies during a war or to share out the spoils at its end.  These days, international conferences at any level can take place without participants leaving their screens, and pre-industrial conferences among military allies ended to take place in the tent next to the battlefield.  In between, international conferences involved a lot of overseas travel.

The First World War took place just before technology took the sting out of overseas travel.  Conferences between widely separated allies remained arduous and potentially dangerous undertakings, usually conducted during the military quiet periods of mid-winter or high summer to reduce the risk of some major strategic change during the slow process of convening the delegates.

This basic logistic problem was one reason why it took the Allies until the end of 1915 to organise a major conference in France (8 December, 1915: Chat Lines), and the main reason why it was difficult to arrange any kind of conference between the Allies and Russia.  If getting a few Russian delegates to France represented an achievement, nobody wanted to ship boatloads of Allied delegates to Russia for a conference unless absolutely necessary.  By the middle of 1916, from both sides of the alliance, it was beginning to seem absolutely necessary.

 

Petrograd, as it was called between 1914 and 1924, was further from western Europe than this looks.

From a Russian perspective (as if perspective was a factor in imperial Russian government), the alliance wasn’t providing anything like enough military, supply or financial support.  Officials in Petrograd regarded the war on the Eastern Front as vital to the future of the Western Front, and believed that the Allies – and particularly Russia’s prime supplier, Britain – were holding back supplies because they failed to appreciate this fact.  Russian diplomats had meanwhile been unable to soften Britain’s hostility to unilateral trade between Russia and the USA, an attitude Petrograd put down to jealousy.

From an Allied point of view, the real problem with supplying the Russians was the Russian regime.  Shiploads of supplies were known to be rotting in dockyards that were simply not equipped to deal with the amount of traffic being sent from the West, let alone with the hundred percent increase the Russians were demanding.  The western Allies also doubted that military aid was being used properly when it did arrive, and the same applied to the financial credit being extended to Russia.  As for unilateral transatlantic trade, the British in fact feared that Russian business methods, considered cavalier and untrustworthy, could destabilise Allied relations with the USA.

Behind all these concerns lay a deep Allied mistrust of the Russian political and bureaucratic systems, and a mounting belief that the only way to sort them out was to go to Russia, find out what was really happening there and arrange support accordingly.  This was the main reason for Lord Kitchener’s trip to Russia in July 1916, which followed the failure of a London conference on Russian affairs, but his death en route postponed matters.  During the autumn, as Russian demands for loans beyond the scope of current agreements sparked another round of fruitless discussions with diplomats, plans were finalised for a major conference at Petrograd in early 1917.

Led by cabinet ministers and senior generals, British, French and Italian delegations finally reached Petrograd at the end of January, and after a few days of fractious preliminary meetings the conference opened officially on 1 February.  It quickly became clear that a full plenary session would be so crowded that any serious progress would be impossible, so the conference was split into committees to deal separately with military, political, financial and supply issues.  Even then, to the particular annoyance of British delegates, proceedings were slowed because a lot of senior Russian delegates were new to their jobs, such was the rate of ministerial turnover in the Tsar’s crumbling government, and by squabbling between rival Russian ministries.

The political committee had the easiest task, largely confined to confirming present arrangements and ensuring that all parties were aware of the others’ intentions.  The military committee was essentially in the same position, although the western Allies were obliged to repeat their rejection, confirmed at the Rome Conference a few weeks earlier (7 January, 1917: Back Door Man), of Russian demands that Greece be compelled to join the War on the Allied side, using military force if necessary.  Discussions about finance centred on Russia’s attempts to stop Britain demanding gold payments for loans made the previous year, and to secure unlimited credit for the duration of the War. They got nowhere, with Lord Milner, the head of the British delegation, eventually ending the debate by insisting on the need for further study.

Lord Milner’s worth a post of his own, and was a shadowy, influential figure among the British political elite. He was also a hard-core nationalist, imperialist kind of a guy…

The most important discussions and heated arguments were reserved for the knotty question of supplying Russia with military aid and trade. The Russians wanted more weapons from the western Allies, especially artillery, machine guns and rifles, but their negotiating technique reflected the regime they spoke for – inclined to fantasy, comfortable with fiction and naturally uncompromising – so they simply demanded huge numbers of everything.  The British and French (Italy was asking, not giving) wanted realistic assessments of Russia’s actual needs and of how much Russian docks could actually handle.  Supply would then depend on Allied estimates of what would constitute bang for buck on the field of battle.  These were not compatible positions, and they hadn’t got much more compatible by the time the conference broke up.

The Petrograd Conference failed to instigate any real changes in policy or process, failed to elicit any signs of reasonable compromise from the Russian administration, and was quickly rendered null and void by revolution in Russia – but it did provide one or two small benefits to the Allied war effort.  The Allies had learned to address all their issues with Russia as a coordinated whole, and their willingness to send important delegates such a long way had confirmed (to themselves and to Russians) the seriousness of their commitment to the alliance.   This helped smooth relations with the new Provisional Government in Petrograd, and some of the more useful organisational reforms discussed at the Conference did survive to improve the flow of supplies in the months that followed.

Petrograd also gave us a last, damning glimpse of imperial Russian bureaucracy and government at work before the February Revolution (which took place in March by the western calendar) consigned them to history.  The British, the French and the new Russian government were all quick to point the finger at the old regime when analysing the failings of the Conference, and I’m no apologist for the last Tsar’s catastrophic performance, but there is another side to that part of the story.

No matter how loudly they blamed Russian inefficiency, corruption and intransigence, the British had come to Petrograd with no intention of shifting their own position on supply and finance, or of admitting their own weakness in those matters.  By early 1917, all Allied loan and credit arrangements were dependent on US agreement, and a Wilson administration desperate to find grounds for peace was in no mood to make generous arrangements with belligerent autocracies.  Any major increase in supplies to Russia would also depend on US industry, which was already working to full capacity for its preferred Anglo-French clients, and anyway the rapid increase in losses to German submarines meant the British couldn’t spare any shipping to deliver more supplies.  Nothing about any of this was going to change in Petrograd, and the British knew it.

So although it wasn’t the first, the last or anything like the most significant example of the practice, the Petrograd Conference was a reminder of how easily and often the presence of a convincing scapegoat can be used to distract history’s attention from the full picture.

 

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