28/6/1919 The German peace treaty signed in Versailles

Seven weeks ago the Allies presented their peace terms to the Germans. Five days ago the German government finally agreed to accept the terms rather than face an Allied invasion. Today their plenipotentiaries, Herman Müller of the Social Democrats and Johannes Bell of the Centre Party, arrive in Versailles to sign the treaty.

The Allies have decided that the peace treaty will be signed in the Hall of Mirrors in the former royal palace, where in 1871 the German Empire was proclaimed after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War. Proceedings are opened by Clemenceau, the French premier. He calls on the Germans to sign the treaty, thereby signifying that their country will abide by the peace terms. Müller and Bell do so, making no speech and offering no protest, to everyone’s relief. The various Allied delegations then sign: first Wilson and the Americans, then Lloyd George and the British Empire delegations, then the French, Italian and Japanese delegations, who are in turn followed by representatives of the smaller powers. The whole affair is a piece of diplomatic theatre, so much so that Paul Cambon, France’s ambassador to Britain, feels that the occasion lacked only music and dancing girls.

The treaty contains many provisions that the Germans find distasteful. They are obliged to shoulder the responsibility for starting the war and they must also pay substantial reparations to the Allies. Large swathes of Germany territory is being ceded to Poland, whose corridor to the sea separates East Prussia from the rest of Germany; Danzig meanwhile is to become a free city, effectively a port for Poland. Germany is also losing territory to France (the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, captured in 1871), Belgium and Denmark (which has managed to expand its frontiers despite being neutral in the war). Germany is also to lose all its colonies, which will be divided out among the Allies as mandates, to be run for the benefit of their inhabitants. Meanwhile Germany’s union with Austria is forbidden and it will have to accept a long occupation of the Rhineland.

The treaty also imposes irksome restriction on Germany’s internal organisation. The country’s armed forces are to be limited in size to just 100,000 troops, who are to be long-serving volunteers rather than conscripts. Tanks and aircraft are forbidden to the German armed forces, as are chemical weapons. The navy is to be severely restricted in size and prohibited from possessing U-boats.

The German delegates consider these terms harsh. Some on the Allied side agree with them, with Lloyd George and Wilson in particular worrying that the treaty’s terms are laying the grounds for future wars, as one day a resentful Germany will seek its vengeance. But others, notably Clemenceau and especially Marshal Foch fear that the terms are too lenient, leaving France vulnerable to future attack by a resurgent Germany.

Wilson’s fears regarding the treaty’s harshness are assuaged by the foundation of a new League of Nations. The covenant of this international body has been included in the treaty, whose signatories are to be founding members (apart from Germany, which will only be allowed to join when it has demonstrated its reformed character). Wilson hopes that the League will allow the nations of the world to settle their disputes peacefully, without recourse to war.

The signing of the treaty does not bring an end to the work of the Paris Conference. Peace treaties with Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey remain to be drafted. But Germany was the Allies’ main enemy and with the German peace treaty signed there is a general sense that the conference is moving on to less important matters. Lloyd George and Wilson prepare to leave Paris and return home, with Wilson in particular knowing that selling the treaty domestically will not be easy.
And so in a sense the First World War comes to an end, five years to the day after a Serbian nationalist shot and killed an Austrian archduke.

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The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, by William Orpen (Wikipedia)

Clemenceau, Wilson, and Lloyd George leaving the Versailles palace after signing the treaty (Century Ireland: Germany signs the Peace Treaty in Versailles)

23/6/1919 Germany caves and accepts the Allied peace terms

In Paris Allied leaders are waiting to see whether Germany will accept the peace terms. Today is the final deadline for Germany’s decision: by 7.00 pm today the war will have started once again or the world will be on the road to peace. Rejection is considered likely, so Foch, the Allied generalissimo, is ready for an immediate invasion of Germany.

In Germany itself however the hardliners who oppose the peace have developed cold feet. The army signals that it supports accepting the terms, with army commanders knowing that it would not be possible to resist an Allied invasion. This seems to be enough to get the peace terms through the National Assembly, with even the right-wingers there supporting a resolution accepting the patriotic credentials of those who support the terms.

The Germans’ note signalling their acceptance arrives in Paris at 5.40 pm. The news is greeted with jubilation. Clemenceau races off to order Foch to call off his advance. The guns of Paris are fired, to let the population now that the war is definitely over and has ended in victory.

Now all that remains is to arrange the ceremony at which the peace treaty will be formally signed.

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The New York Times (The New York Times OTD, Twitter)

22/6/1919 Germany struggles with the Allied peace terms

The Allies have issued an ultimatum to the Germans: accept the proposed peace terms by tomorrow or face the renewal of war. This has caused a convulsion in the German body politic, where the terms are seen as dishonourable (in particular the requirement that Germany accept responsibility for starting the war) and harsh (notably the reparations that will have to be paid to the Allies). Groener, the army’s quartermaster general, has warned that renewal of the war would be a disaster and that Germany’s total defeat would be inevitable, but Hindenburg, the chief of staff, states that he would prefer “honourable defeat to a disgraceful peace”. Right-wingers and elements within the army’s officer corps support Hindenburg, some even fantasising that it might be possible to prevail over an Allied invasion. Brockdorff-Rantzau, the German foreign minister, meanwhile believes that if Germany stands firm then the Allies’ unity will break and they will be forced to moderate the their terms.

Erzberger is the main advocate for accepting the Allies’ terms. He was the head of the delegation that signed the armistice in November and since then has been Germany’s representative on the commission overseeing the armistice’s operations. Erzberger accepts that the proposed terms are invidious, but he argues that if they are accepted then Germany will be able to put the war behind it and start rebuilding its economy. If the terms are rejected then Germany faces ruin and will end up either being partitioned or succumbing to Bolshevik revolution.

The government is split. President Ebert himself comes close to resigning but is persuaded that duty requires him to stay in place and accept responsibility for the grave decision that must be made. His government falls but today he manages to put a new cabinet together (without Brockdorff-Rantzau). The national assembly authorises him to accept the Allied terms, but with the proviso that Germany rejects responsibility for starting the war. But the Allies are firm. Germany must accept the peace terms by tomorrow, in full and without reservation. If they fail to do so then the war will begin again.

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Matthias Erzberger (Wikipedia)

17/6/1919 The Epsom riots: rampage of the Canadians

Following the armistice last November, the Allies were able to demobilise many of their soldiers, but they still have large numbers of men under arms. The armistice was only a pause in the fighting and large Allied armies need to be maintained in case the war needed to be renewed. This has however led to a certain sulkiness on the part of the men who have not been demobilised, as they mostly want to return to civilian life as soon as possible.

This sulkiness on the part of the servicemen can sometimes cross over into unruliness, leading to a breakdown in discipline. Canadian soldiers based at Epsom in Surrey, near to London, are among those who are fed up of still being in uniform and have taken to increasingly loutish behaviour. Two Canadian soldiers are arrested after a brawl, but their comrades decide to free them. Today several hundred soldiers attack the police station in which the two are held. They secure the release of the two soldiers, serving up a thrashing to the greatly outnumbered policemen. The Canadians then rampage through the town, smashing windows and destroying property.

One of the policemen, Sergeant Thomas Green, is beaten with an iron bar. He falls into unconsciousness and later dies of his wounds.

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Epsom police station after the riots (Wikipedia)

Thomas Green (Surrey Live – The Epsom Riot: The story of one of Britain’s forgotten police tragedies)

16/6/1919 An ultimatum to Germany: sign the peace treaty or face renewed war

It is now nearly six weeks since the Germans were presented with the Allied peace terms. Since then there has been grave disquiet in Germany, with many feeling that their country is being roughly treated. The draft treaty’s provision that Germany bears the responsibility for starting the war is particularly galling, as are the reparation payments being demanded. Some in Germany have talked of rejecting the Allied terms and resuming the armed struggle, but wiser voices (including Groener, the army’s chief of staff) have pointed out that this would be a recipe for disaster. Since the armistice the German army has fallen into a parlous state while the Allies now occupy bridgeheads across the Rhine; in the event of the war’s resumption then the Germans would be unable to stop an Allied advance into the heart of their country.

Nevertheless, the Germans still have not signalled that they are willing to sign the peace treaty. On the Allied side it is starting to look as though the Germans are playing for time. And Allied leaders fear that time is not on their side, that if the final peace is delayed much longer they will not be able to restart the war. Much of the victorious Allied armies of last year have now been demobilised, with only 39 divisions of the 198 from November remaining on the Western Front. The remaining soldiers are understandably keen to return home as soon as possible, and war-weariness is increasingly gripping the home fronts, where people want their menfolk returned and a reduction of the wartime tax burden.

The Allies therefore decide to push the issue while they still can. Brockdorff-Rantzau and the rest of the German delegation are summoned to be informed that Germany has three days to agree to the Allied terms. If the Germans do not accept then the Allies will renew the war.

It is thought likely that the Germans will follow Brockdorff-Rantzau’s urgings and reject the treaty. But the Allies are ready for this eventuality. The British are ready to renew their naval blockade in all its harshness. And Foch, the supreme Allied commander, has made plans for an invasion of the German heartland.

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Marshal Ferdinand Foch (Wikipedia)

14/5/1919 Germany mulls the Allies’ unsavoury peace terms

The Allies have presented their peace terms to the German delegation at Versailles. They have in turn communicated the terms back to their government in Berlin, where their perceived harshness causes consternation. The loss of territory, the crippling reparations and the identifying of Germany as being responsible for starting the war all being very upsetting. True, the peace terms are much less harsh than those the Germans imposed on Russia at Brest-Litovsk or Romania at the Treaty of Bucharest. However, those treaties were the diktats of authoritarian Germany; since then Germany has undergone a democratic transformation and its leaders had believed President Wilson‘s promises that the peace would be guided by his liberal principles, only now apparently to have their faith shattered.

Scheidemann, Germany’s Chancellor, denounces the peace terms. There is talk of rejecting them, but doing so would mean having to restart the war. The German army was on the brink of collapse when the armistice was signed in November 1918 and its situation is worse now, after its demobilisation and the transfer of heavy equipment required by the armistice. But some think nevertheless that honour requires that Germany reject the peace and launch a desperate battle for national survival.

Brockdorff-Rantzau, the foreign minister, is one of the leading proponents of rejection, even if it means that Germany will be invaded. The advocates of resistance believe that they will be able to hold out in eastern Germany even if the west of the country comes under foreign occupation. It falls to Groener, the army’s quartermaster-general, to dismiss such fantasies. He makes clear to Ebert and Scheidemann that the German army would be unable to mount effective resistance to the Allies. Any attempt to renew the war would lead to Germany’s occupation, dismemberment, and ultimately “the total capitulation of the German people”. The Germans may not like the peace terms, but they will have to go along with them.

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Wilhelm Groener (Wikipedia: Ebert–Groener pact)

7/5/1919 Enter the Germans: the Allies present the peace terms to the German delegation


A German delegation has arrived in Versailles to receive the peace terms the Allies have prepared for them. The Germans are headed by Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, formerly a career diplomat and now Germany’s foreign minister. For the last few days the Germans have been waiting in the Hôtel des Réservoirs in Versailles, their hotel surrounded by a stockade, allegedly for their own protection (leading to complaints from the Germans that they are being treated “like the inhabitants of a Negro village at an exposition”).

Today the Germans are summoned to Versailles’ Trianon Palace Hotel to formally receive the terms. Clemenceau outlines what defeated Germany will have to accept. Germany is to lose all its colonies. Alsace and Lorraine will be returned to France. The Allies will continue their occupation of the Rhineland for at least fifteen years, after which the region will be permanently demilitarised. Belgium will gain territory at Germany’s expense. Danzig will become a free city. Poland will also gain territory at German expense, including a corridor to the sea that cuts off East Prussia from the rest of the country.

The terms also oblige Germany to maintain only a small, volunteer army, intended only to assist with the maintenance of internal order and lacking heavy artillery, tanks, aircraft and other modern weapons. Germany will also lose its fleet and is prohibited from building new battleships or submarines. Moreover, the Germans will have to pay enormous sums in reparation to the Allies, to compensate them for the injuries they have suffered in the war. The peace terms specifically state that Germany was responsible for starting the war, with this guilt being the basis on which the Allies are demanding reparations.

In his reply, Brockdorff-Rantzau is defiant. He argues that the treaty effectively eliminates German sovereignty and warns that this kind of dictated peace can only sow the seeds of future conflict. His tone and his aristocratic bearing unfortunately create an extremely bad impression on the Allies.

The Germans then retire to their hotel to study the peace terms in detail. They have two weeks in which to furnish their reply.

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Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau (Wikipedia)