Armistice Day dawns. Supposedly, it marks ‘the end of the First World War’. It was not. There was no peace. Wars and civil conflicts continued to rage across Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. Moreover, the victors cruelly maintained the economic blockade of Germany during the eight-month armistice period. Hundreds of thousands of malnourished Germans perished. And Australia’s Prime Minister Hughes was there in London for the big decisions – worst luck.
The armistice was the prelude to the botched peace of 1918-1919. Let us set the scene.
In the autumn of 1918, politics was polarised across the West. On the one hand, right- wing reactionaries opened their mouths wide. In Washington, London, Paris, and Rome they resisted armistice, and they planned for a victory of aggrandisement, empire-based protectionism, and a crushing indemnity to be extorted from the losers – to save the rich from wealth taxes and capital levies. They denigrated US President Woodrow Wilson’s liberal internationalist plans. They agitated for the harshest peace.
Australia’s Billy Hughes was prominent among them. He was in London from June 1918.
On the other hand, President Wilson was inspiring progressive forces everywhere. On his best days, he advocated a new diplomatic order, repudiating the old ‘balance of power’ and ‘secret diplomacy’, and urging ‘self-determination’ all round – encouraging many even in the colonial world to imagine de-colonisation. Wilson promised Germany ‘full and impartial justice.’ ‘The war shall not end in vindictive action.’ In his Fourteen Points speech of 8 January 1918 he offered Germany ‘a place of equality among the peoples of the world … instead of a place of mastery.’ ‘There shall be no annexations, no contributions, no punitive damages.’ In April 1918 he promised Germany ‘even-handed and dispassionate justice.’ Dramatically, on 27 September 1918, he vowed to resist any ‘selfish economic combinations’ and ‘any form of economic boycott or exclusion.’ He urged new permanent international institutions and laws to replace ‘international anarchy’.
On 1 October 1918, facing certain defeat, the militarist elite in Berlin handed power to a new moderate government. A new cabinet was formed, comprising socialist, liberal, and Catholic ministers only – not a single conservative nationalist.
On 4 October, the reformist Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, sent a request for an armistice – to Washington only – telling the world that Germany accepted Wilson’s entire program for peacemaking (specifying his speeches of 8 January and 27 September 1918), and urging an immediate armistice to save life.
None was saved. In Paris, Clemenceau and Lloyd George commissioned their generals to draw up tough draft armistice terms, to head off Wilson.
The Western war-at-any-price politicians and press immediately began a howling campaign against any armistice. Supposedly, Berlin’s ‘peace dodge’ was a wicked plot. Wilson should butt out.
Hughes howled with them, shouting for a post-war economic boycott of Germany, and a giant indemnity. In the Imperial War Cabinet on 11 October he urged keeping the food blockade upon Germany in any armistice, so that a profitable imperial peace could be imposed.
Wilson faced a right-wing Republican challenge in the looming mid-term elections. Cautiously, he chose to delay the armistice. Instead, in his publicized exchanges with Berlin he demanded ‘guarantees’, in effect ‘regime change’. Responding, Prince Max’s government achieved vital constitutional reforms on 23 October: cabinets became responsible to the Reichstag. Ludendorff was sacked.
Still the killing continued.
Wilson sent Colonel House to Paris to negotiate from 29 October on the American program. By this time, the British saw their own forces were tired, and that victory in 1918, rather than in 1919, might strengthen Britain’s hand against Wilson.
Australia’s troops were driven to exhaustion. The monthly total of AIF courts martial, trying cases of ‘AWOL’ and desertion, increased from 544 cases a month in May 1918 to 716 cases in October 1918 – from about 100,000 troops.
On 5 November House secured a promise from the British, French, and Italians to make peace on Wilson’s program. Wilson’s speeches of 1918 were specified. This promise was conveyed to Berlin in the famous ‘Lansing Note’, the ‘pre-armistice agreement’.
On the same day, the Republicans gained slim majorities in Congress over Wilson’s Democrats in the US elections. Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Hughes privately celebrated. A wounded Wilson could be defied.
Hughes raged against the Wilson program. He denounced Lloyd George’s apparent acceptance of it in the Lansing Note. He urged the victors to go beyond the promised ‘compensation for civilian damage’ and squeeze Germany for a huge indemnity.
In Berlin, Prince Max appointed a civilian-led delegation (under Matthias Erzberger) to negotiate an armistice. The Western powers appointed a military delegation (under Foch). Meetings began at Compiègne on 7 November.
Meanwhile, desperate to achieve peace, anti-war forces across Germany revolted. A six-man all-socialist government gained power in Berlin on 9 November. Germany was declared a republic – with defiantly democratic and anti-militarist leaders.
Meanwhile, Foch and other military leaders imposed terms rendering Germany powerless on 11 November: the armistice.
It effectively disarmed Germany: vast amounts of weaponry and transport were handed over, the German fleet was surrendered, and the allied armies advanced unmolested, not only into French and Belgian territory, but also occupying the Rhineland. Now the Germans had only allied good faith to rely upon – a frail thing.
Article 12 was very revealing. German forces were to withdraw from former Russian territories – but only ‘as soon as the Allies shall think the moment suitable.’ So much for the allies’ denunciation of the Germans’ Brest-Litovsk Treaty, which had stripped Russia of its borderlands. The allies had no intention of handing these back. In fact, the catastrophic military intervention in Russia to restore ‘the whites’ was already underway.
But Article 26 was especially callous. It retained all ‘existing blockade conditions’ upon Germany, including a ban on food imports (which the British had declared contraband in August 1914).
Because of the extension of the blockade during the armistice period, 250,000 more Germans perished. This came on top of the 750,000 German civilians, mostly children and the elderly, who died up to the armistice. Infant mortality had almost doubled, so that 365,000 children aged 1-5 died from 1915 to 1918.
Our Billy Hughes was untroubled. He told the War Cabinet just after the armistice ‘that 85% of the German people are as bad as the ex-Kaiser ever was, and are as deserving of death.’ Hughes resisted emergency food supplies to Germany, remarking that ‘starvation would do anything. That is how you will exact any terms from Germany.’
Lest we forget the realities of the armistice: especially our Western leaders, who had preached a war to end all wars, a war to make the world safe for democracy, and then tragically undermined Germany’s historic shift toward anti-militarism and democracy.
Assoc. Prof. Douglas Newton is a retired academic. The research for the above comes from his book British Policy and the Weimar Republic, 1918-1919 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).