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

24/10/1918 Italy attacks Monte Grappa: more blood spilled for minimal gains

Italian troops are at last moving to attack the Austro-Hungarians, hoping to fight one last battle before the war comes to an end. The original plan was to combine an attack northwards against Monte Grappa with an amphibious assault across the Piave towards Vittorio Veneto. Unfortunately heavy rains in recent days have meant that the Piave is in flood, forcing a postponement of the river-crossing. Nevertheless, the assault on Monte Grappa goes ahead and subject positions across the Piave to a devastating artillery bombardment.

The Italians are attacking on the anniversary of the enemy attacks that began the Battle of Caporetto. Since that terrible defeat the balance has shifted significantly in the Italians favour, thanks to the reorganisation efforts led by Diaz and support from Italy’s allies. The Austro-Hungarians meanwhile have seen their army begin to disintegrate thanks to pressures tearing the Habsburg Empire apart. But the Italian attack on Monte Grappa is no Caporetto in reverse. Austro-Hungarian resistance is more dogged than expected, with the Italian assault resembling more the likes of the Isonzo battles one to eleven: heavy casualties for the attackers combined with minimal gains.

Orlando, Italy’s premier, is disappointed by the poor progress of the attack on Monte Grappa, but he is pleased that his army is finally attacking. By fighting a battle and taking casualties the Italians are staking their claim to the spoils of the coming victory.

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Italian machine-gunners on Monte Grappa (Wikipedia)

23/10/1918 With British help, the Italians prepare to cross the Piave #1918Live

The Italian front has been quiet since the failed Austro-Hungarian attempt to cross the Piave in June. Now that the war looks like it will soon be ending, Prime Minister Orlando of Italy is desperately prodding Diaz, the army commander, to attack. Orlando fears that if Italy sits out the war’s end then it will be robbed of its rightful share of the spoils of victory.

After some foot-dragging, Diaz is now ready to attack. Tomorrow is the big day, with his men to launch a two-pronged attack: northwards against Monte Grappa and eastwards across the Piave. And the Italians will not be fighting on their own. After the Caporetto disaster British troops were sent to bolster the Italian defence and now these will assist in the crossing of the Piave. Although tomorrow is the day of the main assault, British troops make their first moves today, occupying islands in the wide channel of the river that will be used as jumping off points for the attack on the east bank.

Boroevic, the Austro-Hungarian commander, knows an attack is coming but is pessimistic about his army’s ability to contain it. The unrest and disaffection the now grips the Empire is also felt in the army; some units are already refusing to obey orders or move up to the line. But Boroevic is still loyal to the Habsburg dynasty. His main hope now is that he will be able to extract enough loyal troops from the maelstrom to assist Emperor Karl in suppressing his enemies within the Empire.

18/10/1918 Italy prepares to attack Austria-Hungary #1918Live

Last year at Caporetto the Austro-Hungarian and Germans smashed the Italians with an offensive of such intensity that the country was almost forced out of the war. Since then Diaz, who succeeded Cadorna as the Italian commander, has striven to rebuild the Italian army. Knowing that the army’s morale is brittle he has resisted pressure put on him to attack the Austro-Hungarians: he fears the effect of another Isonzo style bloodbath on his men. Even at the most desperate stage of the German spring offensives this year Diaz denied Foch‘s request for him to launch a diversionary attack on the Austro-Hungarians.

Now though Diaz is coming under pressure to attack from his own government. Prime Minster Orlando sees that the Western Front is approaching its end game. An armistice there could bring the war to an end at any moment. It would be a disaster for Italy if her troops were seen to have sat out the war’s end, as it would weaken Italian claims to Austro-Hungarian territory on the Dalmatian coast and Istrian peninsula.

Orlando has been pushing Diaz to attack for some time now. Diaz agrees that an attack is necessary but his preparations for one are proving to be a bit drawn out. Now Orlando learns that the Austro-Hungarians are planning to withdraw unilaterally from the all territory they are occupying before suing for peace. Orlando needs to have Italian blood shed. He telegrams Diaz frantically: “Between inaction and defeat, I prefer defeat. Get moving!”.

Orlando’s message adds some urgency to Diaz’s preparations, who decides that that the attack will begin on the 24th of October. His plan is to combine a northwards assault on Monte Grappa with amphibious attacks across the Piave river towards Vittorio Veneto. The Italians hope that they will have better luck crossing the Piave than the Austro-Hungarians did in June.