Category: the great war

British Doubts on the German Terms

June 1 1919, Paris–The Germans had responded to the proposed peace terms on May 29, objecting to the harsh reparations, the loss of territory, and the general inconsistency of the terms with the Fourteen Points, on the basis of which they had agreed to the Armistice.  The French, not unjustly, thought the terms were largely in concordance with the expectations set by the initial Armistice, which had included the occupation of the Rhineland and the internment of the High Seas Fleet; one leading liberal politician thought the German response only expressed German “indecency and lack of conscience.”  Anticipating that the Germans might reject the deal altogether, there was a halfhearted French effort on June 1 to set up an independent buffer state in the Rhineland; having little local support however (and no support from France’s allies), it collapsed quickly without having gone past the most preliminary stage.

The Americans, and especially the British, however, found merit in the German reply.  Henry Wilson wrote that “the Boches have done exactly what I forecast—they have driven a coach and four through our Terms, and then have submitted a complete set of their own, based on the 14 points, which are much more coherent than ours.”  Lloyd George had already been having regrets regarding the harshness of the German terms, and called together the British Empire delegation on June 1 to discuss the matter.  The most ardent voices against the terms as written were the South Africans.  Smuts, despite having been a leading voice for increasing the reparations bill owed to Britain, said that it would be “practically impossible for Germany to carry out the provisions of the Treaty.”  Botha reminded the British of the peace that had ended the Boer War, where Botha had been on the losing side and the British the winning: “On that occasion it was moderation which had saved South Africa for the British Empire, and he hoped on this occasion that it would be moderation which would save the world.”

The other delegation members unanimously agreed that Lloyd George should return to the Council of Four and begin work on changing the German terms–adjusting her borders with Poland, reducing the reparations bill and the duration of the occupation of the Rhineland, and ensuring Germany’s swift entry into the League of Nations.

Clemenceau and Wilson, however, refused to budge.  Clemenceau had already made too many compromises, and Wilson was in no mood to renegotiate terms that the British had “insisted on at the time of the writing of the treaty.”  Ultimately, despite two weeks of effort by the British, all they were able to secure was a plebiscite in a region of Silesia that would otherwise have been awarded to Poland.

Sources include: Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919.

Wilson Supports Klagenfurt Plebiscite

May 31 1919, Paris–The problem of new Yugoslav-Austrian border continued to vex the Peace Conference.  The Italians, continuing their adamantly anti-Yugoslav stance, wanted all of the Klagenfurt area to remain in Austrian hands.  The Yugoslavs began to worry that the Big Three would side with the Italians on the issue to avoid having to make concessions elsewhere, in Turkey or on the Adriatic coast, and their negotiators began to soften their position.  On the ground, however, Slovene and Serbian forces launched another offensive on May 29.  The Allies demanded an immediate ceasefire, but this took well over a week to implement, by which time the Yugoslavs had secured most of the disputed area.

The American and British preferred solution was a plebiscite; the area’s inhabitants would vote on whether to join Austria or Yugoslavia.  Wilson outlined his proposal to the peace conference on May 31, for once able to apply his principle of self-determination quite literally.  The Yugoslavs strenuously objected–there was a clear Slovene majority, and a plebiscite was unnecessary.  Secretly, they were quite worried they would lose the plebiscite; the area had much stronger ties to Vienna than to Belgrade.  Eventually, a two-part plebiscite was decided upon. The southern, more Slovene part would vote first; if they voted to join Yugoslavia, then the northern, more German part would hold a similar vote.

Hungarian Offensive into Slovakia

Thicker lines: the borders of Hungary within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Thinner lines: borders after the peace process fully resolved in 1920.  Brown: areas taken by the Romanians in April.  Pink: areas taken by the Hungarians in May and June.

May 29 1919, PrešovAfter the Romanians reached and stopped at the river Tisza, the Hungarians turned their attention north to the Czechoslovaks.  They were able to make some gains during May, separating the Czechoslovak army from the Romanians.  On May 29, they launched a major offensive, taking large sections of southern Slovakia.  Hungarian morale was buoyed by this success–as hoped, Béla Kun’s government was pushing back into areas they thought of as rightfully Hungarian.

Sources include: The Romanian Battlefont in World War I. Image Credit: Kovács Ádám, CC BY-SA 2.5

British Imprison Young Turk Ministers on Malta

May 28 1919, Constantinople–The Ottoman Empire’s loss in the war opened the possibility that those responsible for the Armenian Genocide would be brought to justice.  The highest-placed culprits, including Enver, Talaat, and Djemal Pasha, had fled to Germany in early November, but many remained.   The new Ottoman government was eager to pin the blame on the Young Turks in an attempt to distance themselves from the regime that had brought them into the war and carried out the genocide.  However, the separation between the old and new governments was not as wide as they claimed; two members of a committee organized to investigate the genocide had been implicated themselves.

The Allies had never truly made up their mind about how to deal with the war crimes of their enemies.  The Peace Conference in Paris had recommended the creation of a High Court under the League of Nations that would try those involved, and the British largely proceeded on this basis.  The French, and many in the British Foreign Office, were cooler to this idea and preferred that the Turks try their own.  Nevertheless, the British were embarrassed by the fact that the Turkish government could clearly not be trusted to hold the trials themselves.  On May 20, after mass demonstrations, 41 prisoners had been released, and many others had conveniently escaped.  Further demonstrations threatened to storm the prison and release the remaining captives.  To keep them out of reach of the Turkish government and people, the British sent the remaining prisoners to Malta on May 28.

British Air Raid on Kabul

An aerial photo of Kabul taken during the air raid.

May 24 1919, Kabul–The British had repulsed the initial Afghan attacks across the border, but efforts to push across the Khyber Pass towards Jalalabad had been stymied by low supplies, poor morale, and Afghan attacks elsewhere.  One undisputed advantage the British did have, however, was airpower, allowing them to harass retreating Afghan forces.  On May 24, they extended their reach with a raid on Kabul by a Handley Page V/1500.  

The Handley Page V/1500 was the British response to the German Gothas, designed to reach Berlin from airfields in Britain.  A mission was planned for the last days of the war (including a refueling stop in newly-friendly Prague), but mechanical problems delayed it until the Armistice took effect.  One of the bombers was flown to India the next month (the first flight to India from Britain, albeit with several intermediate stops).

The Handley Page dropped twenty bombs on Kabul, four of which hit Amanullah’s palace.  The air raid apparently shook Amanullah’s resolve, and a week later he requested an armistice while strongly criticizing Britain’s actions:

It is a matter of great regret that the throwing of bombs by Zeppelins on London was denounced as a most savage act and the bombardment of places of worship and sacred spots was considered a most abominable operation, while now we see with our own eyes that such operations were a habit which is prevalent amongst all civilized people of the West. 

Allies Conditionally Recognize Kolchak’s Gover…

May 23 1919, Paris–The Allies had largely given up on reaching out to the Red government in Moscow; their last half-hearted attempted, an offer of food aid via Norwegian intermediaries, was sternly rebuffed in mid-May.  On May 23, they decided instead to provide provisional recognition to Kolchak’s government in Omsk.  The Allies did specify that this was conditional on Kolchak establishing some form of democratic government, despite his earlier dismissal of what remained of the Constituent Assembly; Kolchak would pay some lip service to these requests, but did little to act on them.

Churchill would write that “the moment chosen was almost exactly the moment when that declaration was almost certainly too late.”  Kolchak’s Ufa offensive had ground to a halt in muddy conditions in April, and Red forces under Mikhail Frunze had launched a counterattack on April 28.  By the time the Allies decided to recognize Kolchak’s government, his forces had almost been pushed back to Ufa.  The Allies could do little to aid him directly (the only link to the outside world being via Vladivostok), and in fact their recognition of Kolchak likely harmed the more successful White efforts on other fronts, by tying them explicitly to Kolchak’s reactionary, Russian nationalist policies.

Sources include: Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919; Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War; Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.

Baltic German Offensive Retakes Riga

Baltic German forces on a bridge over the Daugava in Riga.

May 22 1919, Riga–Rüdiger von der Goltz had set up his own puppet government in western Latvia in April, and it remained in power despite Allied objections.  In May, he decided he was ready to take the rest of Latvia from the Reds, who had held Riga since the start of the year.  He received some encouragement from the government in Berlin; Foreign Minister Brockdorff-Rantzau hoped that victories over the Reds would prove useful in convincing the Allies that a crippled Germany would not be in their best interests.  Officially, the offensive was to be a Latvian one; however, most of the troops involved were Baltic Germans or Freikorps units from Germany, and Latvian-speaking forces would only play a subsidiary role.

The Germans attacked at dawn on May 22, taking the Reds by surprise.  By noon, they had reached the Daugava, and in the afternoon they crossed the river with four machine guns and took Riga.  Five months of Red rule had not been kind to the city, and even the Germans were welcome amid food shortages and political terror.  Of course, the Germans then proceeded to carry out a white terror of their own, shooting many suspected Bolsheviks in the coming days.

Red forces put up stiffer resistance south of the city, backed by an armored train, but they too were forced to retreat beyond the Daugava by the end of the day.

Sources include: Prit Buttar, The Splintered Empires.

Lloyd George and Clemenceau Fall Out over Otto…

May 21 1919, Paris–The British and French had agreed to a division of Ottoman territories in the Middle East with the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.  However, many things had changed in the three years since.  Russia was out of the picture, the American cause of self-determination was now a factor, promises had been made to the Hashemites, and British troops had occupied many areas claimed by the French (most notably the oil-rich lands around Mosul, secured in the days after the Armistice of Mudros).  The French agreed to give up their claims on Mosul to the British in December, and on Cilicia in southeast Turkey to the Americans (as part of an Armenian mandate) in May.

However, this did not remove all of the obstacles to Franco-British cooperation.  France had eventually agreed to let Britain have a mandate over Palestine (on both sides of the Jordan), but the frontier with the French mandate in Syria was still to be decided; Lloyd George’s habit of using biblical place names did not help matters.  And in Syria proper, the British and Lawrence had been furthering Feisal’s cause for a Hashemite role there.

Further north, Lloyd George was annoyed at the Italian landings in Turkey, and wanted to avoid a further carving-up of Anatolia (though his invitation to the Greeks to land in Smyrna did not further that cause).  A meeting with the Aga Khan on May 17 had helped convince him that a continued Caliphate, in control of Turkey, would help keep order in the Islamic world and especially among India’s Muslim population.  On May 19 Lloyd George proposed that France take on the role of advisor for an undivided Turkish state (not a mandate).  His cabinet, however, objected, fearing French control over the Straits and (to a lesser extent) Italian objections to the plan.

On May 21, Lloyd George proposed instead that the Americans take on the advisory role in Turkey instead of the French.  Clemenceau was enraged; despite their wartime agreements, all the French would get out of the Ottomans was a limited role in Syria.  The British had done the majority of the fighting against Turkey, it was true, but this was at the expense of the Western Front.  Clemenceau and Lloyd George got into a shouting match, with Clemenceau eventually telling Lloyd George, “You are the very baddest boy,” and purportedly at one point challenging him to a duel.

Wilson attempted to play the role of conciliator, telling them that the United States would never agree to play the role Lloyd George wanted them to play in Turkey.  Eventually, it was agreed that no solution was in sight and that the Ottoman question should be put off until after the peace with Germany was resolved.

Sources include: Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919.

Estonian and White Offensive Towards Petrograd

May 18 1919, Narva–The arrival of British naval forces in December had turned the tide in Estonia, and by the end of January the Estonians had retaken Narva, securing their frontiers.  Efforts to secure peace with the Soviets (via mediation from the Hungarians) fell through after pressure from the British, and by May the Estonians had decided to launch an offensive into Russia along with the Royal Navy and White forces under the overall leadership of Yudenich (formerly of the Caucasus front). The offensive began in force on May 18, and soon made considerable progress.

Their cause was helped soon by a mutiny in the Krasnaya Gorka fortress on the Gulf of Finland, most of the way to Petrograd (only about twice as far from Petrograd as Kronstadt is).  The Estonian government, hopeful that their Ingrian allies would reach the mutineers, chose not to tell the Whites until it was too late; swift action by Stalin crushed the mutiny with naval forces from Kronstadt, and the immediate threat to Petrograd was removed.  Unsurprisingly, Stalin saw enemies everywhere, and soon after this success, executed 67 officers from Kronstadt on trumped-up charges.

Sources include: Prit Buttar, The Splintered Empires.

Soviets Respond to Food Relief Offer

Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930).  His Fram expedition had reached 86°13′ N in 1895.  Undeterred by the failure of the 1919 relief offer, he would try again, with some more success, in 1921.

May 15 1919, Moscow–After the idea of a conference on Prinkipo fell through, the Allies had little contact with the Soviets, apart from an American mission which was ignored, and Smuts’ very indirect approach via Béla Kun.  In large part, this was because they did not want to; the French hated the Soviets, as did much of Lloyd George’s coalition.  News from Russia was limited and of exceedingly poor quality (The New York Times printed headlines in May claiming that Petrograd had fallen to the Finns), but what little there was suggested a humanitarian crisis in a country now completely cut off from the outside world.  Hoover, head of food relief in Europe, suggested that food relief be extended to the Soviets as well–this would help the people of Russia and possibly help bring Russia back into the community of nations.

To avoid the perception that this would be yet another Allied intervention in Russia, Hoover proposed that Russian food aid be organized via a prominent neutral–Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian explorer.  Under Nansen’s leadership, Norway and other neutral countries would deliver food and medical aid to Russia, provided ceasefires were arranged in the civil war.  The offer went out from Berlin (as the Allies refused to send it), and on May 15 the Soviets responded.  Lenin had instructed Chicherin and Litvinov to be “extremely polite to Nansen, extremely insolent to Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau,” and they were, rejecting outright the idea of ceasefires without a formal peace conference.  The Allies would do nothing else that attempted to reach out to the Soviets during the remainder of the Paris Peace Conference.

Sources include: Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919