26/5/1919 Broad decisions in Paris on Italy’s territorial gains

Italian leaders flounced out of the Paris Conference in protest at the lack of respect being shown to their ambitions by the other Allies. Since then Prime Minster Orlando and Sonnino, his foreign minister, have slunk back, hoping to extract whatever they can from the conference.

Italy’s problem is that the world has changed since Britain and France made lavish promises to lure the country into the war against Austria-Hungary. In the secret Treaty of London, Italy was offered not just favourable adjustments of its land border, but also extensive Adriatic territories, both offshore islands and points along the Dalmatian coast. Unfortunately the rise of Wilson and his new-fangled ideas of national self-determination make the Allies less inclined to grant the Slav-inhabited Dalmatian territories to Italy, with the newly emergent state of Yugoslavia the more natural home for these peoples. Italian claims have also not been helped by the poor performance of Italian arms during the war, with the Italian war effort seeming to the other Allies to have been almost more of a hindrance than a help to their eventual victory.

Growing Italian ambitions have caused them to set their sights on the city of Fiume, not originally promised in 1915 but now a focus of nationalist attention in Italy. In Paris Orlando offers to rescind Italy’s claims to Fiume in return for full implementation of the Treaty of London, but the other Allies are not having it. Instead the shape of a solution begins to emerge. Fiume will be a free city, with a plebiscite to be held after 15 years to determine its final status. Italy’s borders will advance to bring the Trentino, the south Tyrol, Trieste and the Istrian peninsula under Rome’s control, but the Dalmatian coast and islands will remain with Yugoslavia. Italy’s population will increase by around 1,400,000 people, but less than half of these will be ethnic Italians (the rest are Slovenes, German-Austrians and Croats). Italy’s inflated appetites unfortunately mean that this imperial expansion will still be seen by many of its people as a betrayal by the Allies.

6/5/1919 The Paris Conference agrees the German peace terms

Negotiations between the leading Allies have been difficult but now at last they have agreed the German peace terms. Today a plenary session of the conference is summoned to hear and agree them. The terms are a compromise between the French desire to crush Germany and the British and American desire to avoid a harshness that will awaken in the Germans a desire for vengeance. Some of the French still fear that the terms are too generous, with President Poincaré and Marshal Foch both concerned that they leave France vulnerable to a resurgent Germany. But Clemenceau has convinced his cabinet that Germany has been sufficiently weakened that, with the security guarantees offered by the British and Americans, it will no longer pose a threat.

There is still some dissatisfaction with the peace terms. The Chinese delegation complains again about Shantung (awarded to Japan in return for its dropping the League of Nations racial equality proposal) and the Portuguese grumble about how they will not be receiving any reparations from Germany. After walking out of the conference, Orlando and the Italian delegation have now slunk back, taking the opportunity to complain about how much has been decided in their absence. Like Banquo at the feast, Foch pops up again to argue for French annexation of the Rhineland. But the conference agrees the terms. All that remains now is to summon the German delegates and tell them where to sign.

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The conference in session (C.T. Evans History Page: Eddie Jackson)

24/4/1919 Crisis in Paris at Italy walks out of the peace conference

Italy joined the Allies in 1915 after the secret Treaty of London promised it considerable territorial gains at the expense of Austria-Hungary: the South Tyrol and the Istrian peninsula, as well as territories along the Dalmatian coast and islands off it. Since then Italian appetites have grown, with Italian opinion now fixated on the need to add the port of Fiume to the spoils of victory.
Developments since the signing of the Treaty of London have not been kind to Italian ambitions. Although large numbers of Italians died in the war, the Italian contribution to the Allied war effort was largely ineffectual and is not seen as having played a major part in securing Allied victory. This makes the other Allies less keen on acceding to Rome’s lust for Adriatic expansion. The emergence of Yugoslavia and the rise of the United States as the leading Allied power have also created problems for Italy. President Wilson‘s ideas of national self-determination mean that it would now be problematic to transfer the Slavic peoples of Dalmatia from Yugoslavia to Italy. Fiume likewise is a bit of a conundrum, as the town centre has an Italian majority but the countryside around it is predominantly Slav.

Orlando, the Italian prime minister, is insistent that Italy must have everything it was promised, as well as Fiume. He rejects any compromise and refuses to accept a proposal whereby Fiume would become a free city. He intimates that Italy will decline to sign the peace treaty if its demands are not met.

Wilson and Lloyd George are increasingly exasperated with Orlando and what they see as Italy’s unrealistic demands. After a fraught meeting over Easter, Wilson decides to appeal directly to the Italian people. Lloyd George and Clemenceau express caution, but Wilson insists and takes out advertisements in the Italian press, warning the Italian public that their leaders are pursuing an unrealistic policy. Ties of kindred and geography require that Dalmatia and Fiume will have to be part of Yugoslavia.

The result in Italy is nationalist uproar. Opinion writers in the Italian press fall over themselves to denounce Wilson in terms that make him go white with anger. In the face of this maelstrom, a climbdown by Orlando is impossible. He instead announces to the other Allies that he is leaving the conference. Lloyd George laughs in his face when Orlando suggests that the conference will be unable to function without Italy. And then Orlando and Sonnino, his foreign minister, leave Paris and return to Rome.


Map of territories promised to Italy in 1915, as well as territories separately promised to Serbia (Wikipedia: Vittoria mutilata)

Vittorio Orlando (Wikipedia)

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))

25/2/1919 More trouble in the west Balkans

As Clemenceau recuperates after his recent shooting, the work of the Paris Conference continues. Albanian delegates have presented their nation’s case to the conference, affirming their desire to remain independent and free of Greek or Italian rule. They also claim the region of Kosovo for their country; this territory has a large majority of Albanians living in it but has been under Serbian control since 1913. Mediaeval historical events mean however that Kosovo is of sentimental value to the Serbs, now a constituent people of Yugoslavia. The Allies are not disposed to transfer territory from a nation that has fought on their side to a chaotic entity like Albania.

Italy is separately doing its best to assert its control over as much of the Western Balkans as it can. Italian forces are occupying the Dalmatian coast and islands off it. Disturbing reports are emerging of their harassment of the local Slav population. The Italians are also blocking the transport of food from the coast to the Yugoslav interior, which is not exactly endearing them to their Allies. In Paris, Orlando and his delegation are doing their best to prevent any arbitration of Italy’s dispute with Yugoslavia; the Italian premier hopes to create facts on the ground that the conference will simply have to rubber-stamp.

18/1/1919 The Paris Conference opens

The world’s attention is turning to Paris, where Allied leaders are meeting to draft the peace treaties that will bring the war to a final end. To those of a historical bent, the Paris Conference is reminiscent of the Congress of Vienna that marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars. However this conference is solely for the victors: whereas France’s Talleyrand played a key role in Vienna, the Germans have not been invited to send representatives to Paris. The intention is that the Allies will agree terms among themselves, which will then be presented to Germany as a fait accompli.

The first plenary session of the conference meets today, on the anniversary of the 1871 coronation in Versailles of the first German emperor. The date is no coincidence. In his opening address to delegates, President Poincaré of France states:

“This very day forty-eight years ago, on January 18, 1871, the German Empire was proclaimed by an army of invasion in the Chateau at Versailles. It was consecrated by the theft of two French provinces; it was thus vitiated from its origin and by the fault of the founders; born in injustice, it has ended in opprobrium. You are assembled in order to repair the evil that it has done and to prevent a recurrence of it. You hold in your hands the future of the world. I leave you, gentlemen, to your grave deliberations, and I declare the Conference of Paris open.”

In truth, the real work of the conference has already begun, as the leaders of the key Allied powers have already begun deliberating among themselves. This Supreme Council is made up of the leaders of the United States, Britain, France, Italy and Japan. The first four countries are represented by their heads of government and foreign ministers, while the Japanese delegation is headed by Prince Saionji Kinmochi and Baron Makino Nobuaki, former prime minister and former foreign minister respectively.

The Allied leaders are now pursuing different objectives. President Wilson wants to secure a just peace that will remove the causes of future wars; a key goal for him is to create a League of Nations, through which countries will be able to resolve their differences without recourse to war. France’s Clemenceau however wants to so weaken Germany that it will never be able to threaten his country again; he is also keen to assert French claims to territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire. Lloyd George is also keen to advance British colonial interests but is wary of treating Germany so harshly that the seeds are laid for future conflict. Italy’s Orlando meanwhile is keen to secure the gains promised in the secret Treaty of London, and to secure the port of Fiume and other territories at the expense of the newly emergent Yugoslavia (and also to grab its share of the Ottoman Empire). Japan’s goals are a strange mixture of the venal and idealistic. As the only country not led by whites, Japan’s delegates are keen to insert a clause into the League of Nations’ charter affirming the equality of all races; they are however also looking to secure the territories they seized from Germany at the start of the war (some Pacific islands and the naval base of Tsingtao and the surrounding Shantung peninsula, which China would like to see returned to it).

The Supreme Council has already faced internal disagreements over the language to be used in its discussions (Clemenceau favoured French but was forced to accept the use of both French and English). They have also been unable to reach an agreement on what to do about Russia: whether to intervene more forcefully on the side of the Whites or whether to try and engage constructively with the Bolsheviks. As the conference progresses, more areas of disagreement are likely to emerge; it may well prove impossible for the Allies to maintain a united front against Germany.

The full text of President Poincaré’s address

images source (Guardian: The Paris peace conference begins – archive, January 1919)

4/11/1918 The Italian Front armistice comes into effect #1918Live

The armistice between Italy and Austria-Hungary does not take effect until 3.00 pm today, but in an unfortunate mix-up the Austro-Hungarian high command ordered its men to stop fighting yesterday. As a result some 350,000 Austro-Hungarians find themselves captured in the war’s last hours as the Italians race to capture as much territory as they can. The Italians have not prepared for this number of prisoners; the conditions in which they are to be held will be harsh. Many of them are abused by Italian civilians as they are herded to the rear.

The armistice does not halt the Italian advance. Diaz, the army commander, and Orlando, the prime minister, are anxious that Italian troops occupy at least all the territories promised in the Treaty of London and so Italian troops are pressing onwards towards the Brenner pass and eastwards to establish an overland route to Trieste. Conquest of the Dalmatian coast will follow. The Italians are also casting their eyes towards Fiume, a Hungarian port specifically not allocated to them by the treaty.

In celebration of the victory, Diaz issues a pompous communique hailing his army’s great victory. Neither the assistance provided to Italy by its allies nor the fact that Austria-Hungary was already falling apart is mentioned.

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Map showing Italian progress and Austro-Hungarian prisoners captured