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)

25/6/1919 Bethmann Hollweg invites the Allies to put him on trial in place of the Kaiser

Now that Germany has accepted the Allied peace terms, all efforts in Paris are now focussed on preparations for the signing of the peace treaty, which is to take place in Versailles. But today a communication arrives that provides a curious diversion from this important work. It is from Bethmann Hollweg, the man who was Germany’s chancellor from the start of the war until he was obliged to resign in 1917. Bethmann Hollweg is concerned by reports that the Allies plan to try his master, the former Kaiser, for his role in starting the war. As a man of honour, Bethmann Hollweg writes to propose that he be put on trial in place of Wilhelm.

The Allies do not reply.

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Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, by Max Liebermann (Wikipedia)

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)

17/6/1919 Turkey’s prime minister fails to charm the Paris Conference

The Allies are waiting to see whether the Germans will finally accept the peace terms, with Foch ready to invade Germany if they fail to do so. In the meantime, the work of the Paris Conference continues. Today the Allied leaders hear Damad Ferid Pasha, the Turkish prime minister. He attempts to ingratiate himself with the Allies by laying all the blame for Turkey’s entry into the war and the terrible massacres of the Armenians onto the Ottoman Empire’s three leaders in 1914, Enver, Talaat and Djemal (all of whom have conveniently fled into exile). It would be wrong, he says, to punish the Turkish people as a whole for their crimes. Accordingly he rejects any talk of dismembering the Turkish Empire.

The Turkish prime minister’s presentation does not have a positive effect on the Allies. Lloyd George see Ferid Pasha’s speech as little more than a joke, while Wilson declares that he has “never seen anything more stupid”; he states that he is now in favour of Constantinople being taken from the Turks. The Allies moreover are determined that there will be a reckoning for the crimes committed against the Armenians; the Turkish people will have to accept responsibility for the actions of their leaders.

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Damad Ferid Pasha (Wikipedia)

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)

9/6/1919 De Valera courts American opinion, but Lloyd George blocks consideration of the Irish question in Paris

In Ireland Sinn Féin politicians elected in December’s general election have chosen not to attend the House of Commons in London; instead they have assembled in Dublin, declaring themselves to be Dáil Éireann, the sovereign parliament of the Irish nation. Making Irish independence a reality is proving however proving difficult. Members of the Irish Republican Army are attempting to wage a guerrilla war against British forces in Ireland, but IRA actions are showing no great sign of forcing the British to evacuate the country. Dáil Éireann meanwhile has so far failed to make itself the actual centre of political power in Ireland, with real authority still lying with the British administration centred in Dublin Castle.

Sinn Féin leaders are attempting to internationalise their struggle, hoping that other nations will pressurise the British to yield to Ireland’s claims. At its first meeting, the Dáil issued a Message to the Free Nations of the World, asking them to support Irish freedom. The Dáil has sent a delegation to Paris, but the conference has declined to hear it.

Irish nationalists have had more success in the United States, where Irish Americans are sympathetic to Ireland’s cause. De Valera, the leader of Sinn Féin, has crossed the Atlantic and is having some success drumming up interest in the Irish question. The Senate recently passed a resolution calling for the Paris Conference to hear the Irish delegation. Leading Irish Americans have travelled to Paris, to lobby Wilson to have the conference hear the Irish delegation. Political concerns oblige Wilson to meet the Irish Americans, but he is non-committal. Lloyd George is too important to risk antagonising over the Irish issue.

Nevertheless, Wilson today sounds Lloyd George on whether the Paris Conference might discuss the Irish question, but the British prime minister is clear that this is something that he could not countenance; any attempt by the conference to discuss Ireland would lead to a political crisis in London, with the likelihood that Lloyd George’s government would fall. This would cause great upset to the conference’s progress, which is now at an advanced stage. Wilson makes clear to Lloyd George that he has no intention of pressing the issue.

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Éamon De Valera after being made an honorary chief of the Chippewa nation (in October 1919) (History Hub: Eamon De Valera – The Chief) (The linked-to page includes an interesting newspaper report of De Valera’s visit to the Chippewa, including excerpts from De Valera’s speech, in which he draws parallels between the experiences of the Irish and the Native Americans)

3/6/1919 At Lloyd George’s behest, the Allies agree on a plebiscite to decide Upper Silesia’s future

The German peace terms in were a compromise between French desires to see Germany weakened and British and American fears of so antagonising Germany that it would seek revenge in a future war. Since then the British in particular have started worrying that they compromised too much. They are impressed by Germany’s counterproposals, which appeal to Wilson‘s Fourteen Points, and begin to wonder whether the peace terms might be ameliorated. In this Britain’s Lloyd George is supported by the wider British Empire delegation, with South Africa’s Smuts saying now that the reparations being sought from Germany are excessive.
Because the peace terms took so long to negotiate, the Wilson is extremely wary of attempting to revise them, while Clemenceau is naturally opposed to any change that would strengthen Germany. Nevertheless, Lloyd George scores a success today, when he persuades the others to accept a plebiscite in Upper Silesia on whether the territory should be part of Germany or Poland. The Poles see Upper Silesia as a natural part of their country, so no one is surprised when Paderewski protests on behalf of the Polish delegation, but Lloyd George is insistent that the Upper Silesians must themselves choose where their future lies. Organising a plebiscite will be a difficult matter, probably requiring the deployment of Allied troops to ensure it is conducted fairly, but Lloyd George sees this as a price worth paying.

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Upper Silesia (Bud’s Big Blue: Upper Silesia)