28/3/1919 Tense negotiations in Paris over Germany’s western frontiers

In an effort to streamline decision making at the Paris Conference, Allied leaders have replaced the Supreme Council with the Council of Four, containing just Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Orlando (and not their foreign ministers). The exclusion of the Japanese from the top table is justified on the basis that negotiations are now dealing primarily with European concerns, about which they have little to contribute.

Negotiations between the Allies have become increasingly tense, reflecting a fundamental divide in the approach of Clemenceau from that of Lloyd George and Wilson. Clemenceau wants punitive terms imposed on Germany, to prevent it ever threatening France again. The British and American leaders however fear so alienating Germany that it either refuses to sign the peace treaty or else reneges on it as soon afterwards as it can. Their further fear is that if Germany is treated too harshly it will follow Hungary into communism. And Lloyd George worries that if Germany is excessively weakened then France will become too powerful.

This divide affects Allied discussions on Poland’s frontiers, where Clemenceau is supporting proposals to give the country a wide corridor to the sea containing large numbers of Germans. But it is in the west that the difficulties are most acute. Clemenceau supports the separation of the Rhineland from the rest of Germany, something his French and British counterparts regard as a recipe for disaster. The French are also seeking the annexation of the Saar, a heavily industrialised border region rich in coal.

Clemenceau once more states France’s claim to the Saar today, leading to a major row between him and Wilson. Lloyd George and Orlando manage to smooth things over and a possible compromise is agreed: perhaps the Saar could remain autonomous and demilitarised. The French and American leaders ostensibly renew their friendship, but in private each comments on the other’s intransigence.

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David Lloyd George, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, Georges Clemenceau & Woodrow Wilson enjoy a moment of levity (Wikipedia: The Big Four (World War I))

26/3/1919 The first food shipment arrives in Germany

Germany has been on short rations since 1914, when Britain’s naval blockade cut the country off from overseas food sources. That blockade has continued since the armistice, leading to increasing food insecurity and creating a humanitarian crisis. The Allies, particularly the French, are wary of lifting the blockade, fearing that Germany will re-provision itself and then renew the war, but reports of civilian suffering are increasingly preying on the consciences of Allied leaders. Steps have been taken to allow a partial lifting of the blockade, but difficulties have arisen over how Germany is to pay for food imports and how they are to be transported. Nevertheless, the first shipment of food finally arrives in Hamburg today, but Germany is still only receiving a trickle of supplies, not nearly enough to chase hunger away from the country.

13/4/1919 The Amritsar Massacre

As you’ve probably noticed, this blog has fallen a bit behind and is a few weeks behind events from a hundred years ago. I project that I will catch up with by late April or early May and then will be on track until the conclusion in June.

I am breaking sequence now to mention a terrible event that happened a hundred years ago today, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, India. India at the time was experiencing an upsurge in nationalist agitation, with Indians hoping to secure the kind of self-governing status that the white dominions of the British Empire had already achieved. Some disturbances had occurred in Amritsar and Colonel Reginald Dyer decided on extreme measures to restore order.

On the morning of the 13th Dyer proclaimed a ban on all public meetings in the city. In the afternoon crowds were gathering in the Jallianwala Bagh square in central Amritsar, a mixture of religious pilgrims and people attending a political rally. Dyer brought a squad of troops to the square and without issuing a warning ordered his men to open fire. They fired continuously for around ten minutes, halting only when their supply of ammunition was almost exhausted.

A subsequent official inquiry counted 379 deaths, including a six week old baby, but the actual number may have been around a thousand, with many more injured.

Dyer was never prosecuted for his actions, partly because he was acting with the broad support of his superiors (in particular Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab). The revulsion generated by his action blighted his career but supporters in Britain raised a considerable sum of money for him that must have allowed him to retire in some comfort. Dyer died in 1927. O’Dwyer was assassinated in London by an Indian nationalist in 1940.

It does seem that lately a certain imperial nostalgia has gripped sections of the British population. If you encounter someone waxing lyrical about Britain’s civilising mission in India, remind them of the Amritsar massacre. It is not even the worst thing the British did in India.


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Jallianwala Bagh massacre (Wikipedia Commons)

22/3/1919 Revolution in Hungary: a Soviet Republic proclaimed

Mihály Károlyi became prime minister of Hungary in the nationalist revolution that saw the country break free of the Habsburg Empire late last year. The early promise of that revolution has however failed to materialise, with Károlyi struggling in the face of Hungary’s myriad problems. National minorities have succeeded in detaching large swathes of territory from the country, with the support of the Allies, who appear to see Hungary as a defeated enemy rather than a newly liberated friend. Further trouble is emerging on the frontier with the Romanians, who are keen to annex Transylvania. The Allies again appear to be taking the Romanians’ side, putting intolerable strain on Károlyi’s government.

Károlyi’s government is also threatened from within. Conservative elements in the country resent both its forced concessions to the Allies and its attempts at progressive reforms. Communists, led by Béla Kun, want to replace Károlyi’s government with one modelled on Soviet Russia.

Béla Kun and other leading Communists have been under arrest since disturbances in February. Now however they experience a spectacular reversal of fortune. Károlyi’s government collapses over its inability to deal with the Romanians. Béla Kun is released from jail and invited to head a government in coalition with the Social Democrats. Kun quickly moves to sideline his more moderate allies and today he proclaims Hungary to be a Soviet Republic and calls for revolutionaries in Bavaria and Austria to follow his example.

As news of Béla Kun’s revolution spreads it causes a sensation. Now there is a second communist-ruled country in the world. Bolshevism is no longer being contained in Russia and may be about to sweep across Europe and the world.

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Béla Kun (Wikipedia: Béla Kun)

Revolutionaries in Budapest (Wikipedia: Hungarian Soviet Republic)

18/3/1919 Red Army blues

Counter-revolutionary forces continue to pose a threat to Soviet Russia, but the Red Army has been enjoying considerable success against its enemies. Much of this is down to Trotsky‘s recruitment of former Tsarist officers, whose efforts have given the Red Army a much-needed professionalism. This policy has however led to considerable disquiet within the Communist Party. The opponents of Trotsky’s policy, a loose group known as the “military opposition”, fear that the Red Army is in danger of itself becoming a counter-revolutionary organ, led by reactionary officers and with a rank and file made up of conscripted peasants who are not true believers in socialism. Tensions boil over at the Communist Party congress now taking place, with the military opposition arguing that the Red Army needs to be brought under party control.

Lenin appeals for party unity and Trotsky is obliged to compromise. Officer training for party members is stepped up so that they will eventually be able to move into Red Army leadership positions. More crucially though is the appointment of political commissars to all units, to keep an eye on the officer corps and prevent them from deserting to the Whites or acting in a counter-revolutionary manner. This is not a role for the faint-hearted, with Trotsky stating that the commissars will be personally responsible for the performance of units they are attached to. But the commissars’ appointment makes clear that the Communist Party is asserting its control over the Red Army.

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Leon Trotsky and a Red Army officer (BBC: Reasons for the victory of the Reds in the Civil War)

Lenin and some of the 400 congress delegates (Wikipedia: 8th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks))

18/3/1919 Disputes over the Rhineland and Germany’s fleet

Allied leaders in Paris have now broadly agreed the military terms that will be imposed on Germany. To prevent its future aggression, Germany will be allowed to maintain only a small army. British preferences for this to be an army of long-serving volunteers rather than short-term conscripts have carried the day. The army will have no heavy equipment and should be able only to assist with the maintenance of internal order. The Germans will be obliged not to allow veterans’ clubs or other private associations turn into surrogate military organisations. They are also required to dismantle all fortifications on both banks of the Rhine.

The future of the German navy meanwhile has led to serious disagreements among the Allies. They are broadly agreed that Germany will no longer be allowed to maintain an ocean-going fleet, but there is still the vexed question of what to do with the German ships currently interned at Scapa Flow. The French and Italians have called for these ships to be divided out among the Allies, but the British fear that doing so will undermine their own naval dominance. Lloyd George has proposed the ceremonial sinking in the Atlantic of the German fleet, but Wilson sees this as wasteful. Mistrust on naval matters is building between the British and Americans, with the British afraid that the United States is about to embark on a naval building programme that will hand control of the world’s seas to it.

Another area of tension remains the Rhineland. France has sought the permanent occupation or separation from Germany of this region, but Britain and the United States have instead offered security guarantees to the French against aggression from a resurgent Germany. Now Clemenceau replies to the Anglo-American offer. He accepts that the Allies will not permanently occupy the Rhineland but demands a temporary occupation of at least five years. Furthermore, he requires that afterwards the Rhineland be permanently demilitarised.

Clemenceau’s response irks his allies. Balfour, the British foreign minister, fears that the French are making a terrible mistake, concentrating on weakening Germany instead of reforming the international order to make future wars less likely. But for now Clemenceau is insistent.

18/3/1919 Egypt spirals out of British control

1919 Revolution (22)
Egypt is in uproar over Britain’s heavy-handed response to a request by Saad Zaghloul and other nationalist leaders to attend the Paris Conference (the nationalists have been arrested and deported to Malta). Safia Zaghloul and other wives of the exiled nationalists have led women’s demonstrations calling for their husbands’ release while the country generally has been engulfed by strikes and increasingly raucous demonstrations. The British and their local allies have attempted to maintain order forcibly but discontent is becoming more heated, with violent attacks on the British and sabotage of railway tracks and telegraph lines. Today in an incident that particularly shocks the British, eight British soldiers are killed by a mob in Deirut. The country appears to be slipping out of control and no amount of repression by the authorities seems able to bring the Egyptians to heel. In London, British officials now begin to wonder if a change of tack is required: perhaps the Egyptian nationalists need to be conciliated rather than crushed.

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Demonstrators (Revolution 1919: The first and last public revolution in Egypt (Flickr))

Women demonstrators and troops standing by (Wikipedia: Egyptian Revolution of 1919)