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p. 131. From war to armistice to peace conferencefree

  • Michael S. Neiberg


“From war to armistice to peace conference” outlines the events that took place from the summer of 1918, when it became clear that the Germans could not win the war, to the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918, and the Paris peace conference in early 1919. It describes the attempts of Allied supreme commander Ferdinand Foch to draw up an armistice to end the military phase of the war and the tension between the generals and the politicians. Both international and domestic politics played an important role in shaping the Paris conference, with the growing threat of Bolshevism and elections in the United States and the United Kingdom threatening to complicate matters.

Contrary to what German nationalists said both during the war and after, the combined Allied armies had decisively defeated the German army on the battlefield by the summer of 1918, and the German senior leadership knew it. The turning point came in July at the Second Battle of the Marne. After that point, the Germans won no more battles, and the generals started to watch their military power evaporate while the Americans landed tens of thousands of fresh soldiers every week. As early as August, German army commanders had concluded that the combination of the collapse of their Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman allies, American entry into the war, Allied material superiority in airplanes and tanks, and turmoil inside Germany itself made it highly unlikely that Germany could emerge from the war victorious. As the crisis grew and problems mounted, they warned Kaiser Wilhelm II that his soldiers would no longer fight for him or for the monarchical system he represented. Mutinies by soldiers and sailors alike sealed Germany’s fate. By October, the senior military leaders of Germany had begun to urge their government to make peace under almost any terms the Allies offered in order to salvage what they could from their wartime gains in the east and to prepare to confront the possibility of a Bolshevik-style revolution at home.

p. 14Allied leaders were, for the most part, just as surprised as the Germans by the sudden approach of the end of the war. Though they shared the goal of defeating the Germans, they agreed on little else. The Americans, new to the coalition and growing stronger by the day, wanted to keep fighting, driving the war into Germany itself even if that meant continuing combat operations into 1919 or even 1920. They had a plan to do just that, with armies of well-supplied and well-trained soldiers backed up by the latest mechanized vehicles, including enormous air armadas and fleets of tanks. The American commander, Gen. John Pershing, citing “the experience of history,” warned of being too eager for an early armistice and of overestimating the remaining strength of the German army. He advocated instead forcing the Germans to accept an unconditional surrender on German soil.

His views had few supporters in 1918, especially among the people who had been fighting for four long and bloody years. The British and French, exhausted from bloodshed and recognizing the risks of carrying the war onto German soil, sought an early end to the fighting that would establish clear conditions for diplomats and statesmen to sign a permanent peace that would end the war on terms favorable to the Allies. They hoped to do so before the winter of 1918–19 gave Germany a much-needed period of recuperation and an opportunity to transfer soldiers from Russia and Ukraine to France and Belgium. British and French generals also recognized that a peace signed in 1919 or 1920 would increasingly come on American terms, and they recognized as well that, unlike the United States, they would have to live alongside the Germans when the war ended. They therefore hoped to get an armistice that would make it impossible for Germany to resume combat operations on land or on sea. Once accomplished, and with Germany’s allies seeking armistices as well, the diplomats could get to work on the terms of a final treaty.

The man who had to make the final decision that autumn, Allied supreme commander and French marshal Ferdinand Foch, tried p. 15to draw a sharp distinction between an armistice and a final peace treaty. Hoping to keep the politicians out of his business, he insisted that an armistice was an agreement concluded between soldiers. It should end the military phase of the war and put in place the conditions to guarantee a durable victory on the battlefield. A favorable armistice would prevent Germany from restarting hostilities and would provide the foundation for a permanent postwar peace that would guarantee France’s future. Foch saw no benefit, but considerable risk, in American ideas for invading Germany itself. As he told Woodrow Wilson’s p. 16representative in Europe, Edward House, he was not fighting a war for the purpose of killing. Once he could obtain a sufficiently favorable armistice, Foch said, he had no right to shed any more blood. As a result, he concluded, largely symbolic gestures like an invasion of German soil did not justify any further loss of human life or the risk of the fortunes of war turning against the Allies.

1. Paris held a massive victory parade on Bastille Day, 1919, that passed, appropriately, through the Arc de Triomphe. By the time of the parade, however, many people in France and Europe more generally had begun to doubt whether the peace so recently achieved would hold.

Throughout September and October 1918, as a German defeat began to look ever more likely, Foch worked with his staff to draw up armistice terms. Although he consulted with French government officials, he largely kept them at arm’s length, neutralizing even Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. He also shut Pershing out of the process. On October 8, Foch submitted to the French government a memorandum arguing that the Allies could agree to an armistice only if the Germans agreed to evacuate all the territory they had taken since 1870 (to include Alsace and Lorraine); to permit three Allied bridgeheads over the Rhine River in order to facilitate an invasion of Germany, should it later become necessary; and to surrender all military and transportation equipment in place rather than transport it back to Germany.

Clemenceau and the senior representatives of the British and American governments did not openly disagree with most of Foch’s terms. They were, however, nervous about a military man making decisions with such enormous political implications. As British prime minister David Lloyd George said, “I admire and love Marshal Foch, but on political questions he is an infant.” Foch, however, was far from an infant. Clemenceau saw him more as an imp, playing a dangerous political game best played by the adults. Clemenceau determined to keep Foch away from the proceedings at the peace conference, using Foch’s own logic against him. If the armistice was an agreement between soldiers, then the peace treaty was an agreement between politicians. Like Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Wilson were determined to keep decision-making to themselves. Wilson spoke to his brilliant and p. 17insightful military advisor, Gen. Tasker H. Bliss, only five times during the entire conference. Lloyd George consulted his military advisors even less.

The American and British generals largely accepted, albeit bitterly, their reduced role once the armistice came into effect. The politicians occasionally called them in for technical advice but rarely consulted them on any matters not strictly military in nature. Bliss did receive an invitation to be one of the United States’ five plenipotentiaries at the peace conference, but the British did not accredit a military advisor among their five. Clemenceau intentionally snubbed Foch by submitting his name sixth on the French list of five. Foch grew frustrated, and even before the conference began, he started to meddle in political p. 18affairs in the Rhineland, encouraging Rhenish separatists and assigning to the Rhineland occupation bridgeheads senior French officers who shared that view. The resulting rift between Clemenceau and Foch never healed.

2. Clemenceau speaks to the German delegates at the anticlimactic signing ceremony for the Treaty of Versailles, which took place in the same room where the Germans had finalized their victory over France in 1871. The symbolism was supposed to underscore how the tables had turned, but instead it projected an image of vengeance.

The tension between the “brass hats” (the generals) and the “frocks” (the politicians) formed an important subtext in the period between the armistice and the peace conference. Foch knew that his armistice terms were harsher than British politicians wanted and not in the same spirit as the peace notes that Wilson had sent to the Germans in October through the Swiss chargé d’affaires in Washington. The president’s first note was a reply to overtures to the Americans from Prince Max of Baden, who tried to convince Wilson that Germany was willing to end the war based on the principles of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Max headed a group of German moderates who had seen the Fourteen Points as a way to protect Germany from the worst elements of French and p. 19British vengeance. A generous, pro-German interpretation of some of the points also implied that Germany might keep any parts of their conquests where large German minorities resided, including Poland, the Baltic states, and maybe even Alsace-Lorraine.

3. Gen. Tasker Howard Bliss (center) was among the military officers who tried to warn the diplomats of the errors they were making. Like most generals, he had a hard time making his voice heard at the peace conference.

On October 8, about the same time that Foch was finishing his armistice memorandum, Wilson replied to Max in a measured tone that seemed to open the door to a compromise peace, maybe even the “peace without victory” of which Wilson had recently spoken. The Germans were elated, seeing a chance to salvage something from their military defeat as well as a way to drive a wedge between the British and French on one side and the Americans on the other. Not surprisingly, the British and French governments reacted angrily, both at the lenience of Wilson’s reply and the decision of the president to communicate directly with the Germans without involving, or even informing, them. Both to mollify his allies and in anger at news of continued German sinking of merchant ships, Wilson wrote a much harsher note to Max on October 14, insisting on an end to Germany’s “illegal and inhumane” military operations as well as evidence of democratic reforms inside the German government. A third, equally harsh, note soon followed just in case the Germans were confused about which Wilson note better represented the president’s thinking.

Wilson’s harsher tone in the final two notes surprised the Germans and seemed to end the plan of playing Wilson against the British and French. It also led the Germans to accept an armistice as inevitable, although they continued to hold out hope that it might still be based on Wilson’s principles. The Germans soon moved to make political changes that could show Wilson that they were serious about democratizing their system as the president had demanded. The abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his exile into Holland in the first days of November helped them make that case. Whether it would make any difference in the final armistice terms remained an open question.

p. 20On November 7, 1918, the Germans formally requested negotiations for an armistice. They still hoped that such negotiations would be a genuine discussion and that the terms of an armistice would be based on the Fourteen Points and the spirit of Wilson’s first note. The new German politicians saw such an armistice as the best, possibly the only, way out of their strategic dilemma. The senior German military leaders, on the other hand, saw any capitulation to the Allies as unacceptable, notwithstanding their own acknowledgment of the inevitability of military defeat. Gen. Erich Ludendorff, recognizing the inevitability of defeat, fled in disguise to Sweden on October 26 and soon began to perpetuate what became known as the “stab in the back” myth that Germany had been betrayed at home rather than defeated in the field.

For his part, Foch had no interest in an armistice on Wilson’s terms, nor did he believe that an armistice was ultimately within the purview of politicians. He directed a German delegation of five representatives to a forest clearing near Compiègne and was furious to discover that the Germans had sent four unknown politicians; consistent with Foch’s understanding of the process, the Allied delegation contained only military officers. Just one German general came to Compiègne, and none of the Allied generals knew who he was, although they were angry to see that he wore a medal given to him by the French before the war for his service as an attaché. Foch ordered him to surrender the medal before he would open any discussions about an armistice. He wondered whether this delegation of unknowns really spoke for Germany and whether they would be able to hold Germany together at the end of the war.

In no mood for compromises and suspecting some sort of German ruse, Foch offered the German delegation no negotiations over the terms of the armistice; they could accept the terms he and his staff had devised or the war would continue. The final terms included German evacuation of Alsace-Lorraine, Belgium, and p. 21the Rhineland; surrender of almost all German ships, airplanes, and heavy guns; renunciation of the treaties Germany had imposed on Russia and Romania; and construction of Allied bridgeheads across the Rhine River. The German delegates were stunned by the severity of the terms but saw no choice. They signed the armistice on November 11, 1918, ending the shooting but leaving the terms of the final peace still to be determined. Foch believed that he had done his part of the job by destroying the German military and making it certain that the Germans could do no more physical harm to the Allies. As he told Clemenceau, “My work is over. Yours begins.”

Foch was well aware that the armistice could do little to address some of the many destabilizing forces inside Europe that the war had unleashed. Among the most threatening was Bolshevism, the revolutionary ideology that had overthrown the Russian provisional government in 1917 and appeared to be gaining adherents across the Continent, most threateningly in Germany itself. The rise of left-wing movements inspired the formation of right-wing movements to counter them, most importantly the violent paramilitary German units known as the Freikorps. The risk of civil war and revolution in Germany, Italy, Hungary, and elsewhere threatened to unbalance any agreement the victors tried to impose. For this reason, Foch permitted the Germans just one modification to the armistice terms: he allowed them to keep some of their machine guns in the event that they might be needed to stop a Bolshevik revolution inside Germany.

The growing threat of Bolshevism hung menacingly over the period between the armistice and the peace conference. Bolshevism, and the particular brand of it that the Soviet Union represented, posed a challenge to more than the capitalist economic and social order in the West. It also threatened the international colonial order. Shortly after taking power, the Bolsheviks had published secret treaties signed between the czarist government and its British and French allies. These treaties deeply embarrassed Western p. 22governments, revealing as they did the naked power grabs that had characterized great-power wartime diplomacy. They also undermined the noble principles for which the British and French governments claimed that they were fighting. Most importantly, in October 1917, the Bolsheviks published the text of what became known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 in which the British, French, and imperial Russian governments had divided much of the Middle East among themselves. Russia was to get Istanbul and the Turkish Straits, Britain modern-day Jordan and Iraq, and France modern-day Syria and Lebanon.

The revelation of Sykes-Picot did more than make a mockery of British and French principles. It also allowed the Bolsheviks to depict themselves as the true champions of oppressed peoples looking to free themselves from European imperialism. Sykes-Picot seemed to show the bankruptcy of British promises to Arab and Zionist leaders to help them create states or homelands in the same areas the British and French were claiming as their own. People across the globe saw the hypocrisy of British and French actions in the Middle East and took notice. Bolshevik leaders hoped to attract Asian and African allies with promises of support and denunciations of the European imperial model.

Woodrow Wilson worried that the Bolsheviks might present a viable alternative to his own anti-colonial ideals. Wilson spoke often of fixing national borders along ethnic lines (the popularization of the phrase “national self-determination” came a bit later), and his Fourteen Points called for righting the wrongs of the colonial system; however, he was himself too much of a racist to believe that most non-Europeans were ready for self-government. He did not even believe that the Irish were ready to rule themselves, let alone the Koreans, Egyptians, or Senegalese. Nevertheless, Wilson did not want to lose the global battle for the hearts and minds of people in Africa and Asia to the Soviet Union. He still hoped that people around the world would see the United States, not the Soviet Union, as their champion, even p. 23though he knew he needed the support of the British and French to make his plans for the postwar world come to fruition. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were quite ready to combine anti-colonialism with a class-based understanding of the global order that attacked the British and French for exploiting subject nations around the globe. They were also prepared to think about rapid, even violent, change where Wilson hoped for slow, evolutionary change.

No one in the West quite knew how to read the new political environment in Russia. The Romanov dynasty had disappeared forever as a political force in Russia, but conservative counterrevolutionary “White” forces still had the strength to defeat the Bolshevik “Reds.” Some in the West, led by Winston Churchill, wanted to support the Whites in the brewing Russian civil war, even if that meant accepting a Japanese intervention into eastern Russia and supporting right-wing groups in the Baltic states as allies. Churchill boldly called for strangling Bolshevism in its cradle. Advocates of a strong policy in Russia worried that the Bolsheviks posed as great a threat to the West as the Germans had before the war. They often called for offering lenient peace terms to Germany in the hope that Germany might provide a strong counterweight to Soviet Russia. Critics countered that the Whites were reactionaries unlikely to help move Russia forward and, if victorious in the civil war, would likely impose a harsh system based largely on the czarist model.

Arguments for intervention won the day even if no one could quite foresee what sending a relatively small Allied force to Russia might actually accomplish other than helping a beleaguered Czech legion trapped behind the lines. In the fall of 1918, Great Britain, the United States, Canada, and France sent almost fourteen thousand soldiers to the frozen White Sea port of Archangel (Arkhangelsk), ostensibly to secure lines of communications, but in reality to offer support to the Whites. The expedition was never popular or effective. It highlighted the ongoing problems the West p. 24had in formulating consistent policy toward Russia. Lacking reliable information on events there and unsure of how to respond, the leaders of the peace conference decided not to extend an invitation to Paris to the same Whites they were theoretically supporting, nor did they accredit any White diplomats as representatives of a Russian government in exile. The White leadership’s internecine struggles for power, antidemocratic political attitudes, and inability to defeat the Reds did not do much to make them seem like feasible partners in the postwar world.

Russia remained the giant red elephant in the room throughout the Paris Peace Conference. No peace in Europe could long endure without Russia at least acquiescing in its terms, but without any representatives at the conference, the Russians would not have an incentive to accept a treaty that they had had no part in negotiating. The Allies never considered inviting Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Leon Trotsky, or any other Bolshevik representative to Paris. They continued to see the Bolsheviks and their call for class warfare as a mortal threat to Europe. Nor did they see the logic in talking to the same Bolsheviks that they hoped would soon fall from power. As a result, neither the Germans nor the Russians were represented in Paris, even though small states such as Peru, Guatemala, and Haiti were. Many people recognized the problem even if they could not formulate a solution to it.

The ideas of Woodrow Wilson served as a different kind of challenge to the Europe Foch and other conservatives hoped to create. Millions of Europeans found Wilson’s support for national self-determination and a supranational body to arbitrate disputes appealing. Millions more around the world found his ideas about decolonization attractive. Wilson himself understood that the United States had to provide an alternative both to old Europe and to the new Bolshevik regime if it hoped to assume a leadership role in the postwar world. Wilson’s own allies, however, recoiled at many of his ideas, especially those that might weaken p. 25French or British power in the postwar world. For his part, Wilson recognized the conflict between his own idealism and the realpolitik of the French and British, but he expected that his ideas would prove so appealing to the people of Europe that their leaders would have little choice but to follow his guidance.

Domestic politics also played a role in shaping the coming conference, as two of the great democracies went to the polls before the opening of the peace conference. The United States held midterm congressional elections on November 5, 1918. They resulted in a gain of five seats in the Senate and twenty-five seats in the House of Representatives for the Republican Party. Wilson, a Democrat, therefore faced a hostile Congress, especially in the Senate, where the gain of five seats was sufficient to give the Republicans control of the all-important Foreign Relations Committee, which held the constitutional obligation of ratifying any treaty Wilson negotiated. The new chairman of that committee, Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, distrusted Wilson’s principles and despised him on a personal level. Lodge once told Theodore Roosevelt that he never expected to hate anyone as much as he came to hate Wilson. He pledged to make Wilson’s job at the peace conference extremely difficult by blocking any treaty that did not meet with his approval. Lodge and those who thought like him opposed any limits that the treaty or an international body like the League of Nations might impose on America’s right to act unilaterally. They especially worried that such a body might commit the United States to foreign conflicts not in the nation’s interests. Lodge eventually led a group of senators, known as the Irreconcilables, who pledged to prevent the Treaty of Versailles from even coming up for a vote in the United States Congress.

Wilson might have chosen to respond to his party’s electoral defeat by asking some prominent Republicans to accompany him to the peace conference. The mutual hatred between Wilson and Lodge made choosing the latter impossible, but there were other options. Former president William Howard Taft, for example, p. 26emerged as a possibility. Taft had shown great interest in foreign affairs, and he shared some of Wilson’s goals, including the formation of the League of Nations. He had also worked with Wilson during the war as the chairman of the National War Labor Board. But Wilson was not in the habit of listening to his own advisors, let alone those of another party. Nor was he in much of a mood to offer an olive branch to Lodge or the Republicans who had sworn to oppose his most cherished ideals. The poisonous relationship between the executive and legislative branches of the United States government left deep and lasting legacies.

Elections affected the peace treaty on the other side of the Atlantic as well. In the United Kingdom, a general election in December returned the wartime coalition government, with David Lloyd George continuing as its prime minister. The election produced a general consensus in Britain to force the Germans to pay for the costs of the war. One prominent politician campaigned with the slogan, “We shall squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak.” Conservative newspapers took up the theme as well. Lloyd George himself had promised to make Great Britain “a land fit for heroes.” Part of that pledge meant ensuring that Britain came out of the peace conference with tangible gains to redeem its enormous sacrifices and German money to pay its debts. Whether Lloyd George could deliver on those promises to the satisfaction of the British people was an open question as the conference commenced.

Planning and hosting a peace conference of the size and scope necessary to end the Great War took approximately two months. The delay had several important consequences. Most notably, the armies of the victorious nations had begun rapidly to demobilize. Having believed that the war had ended on November 11 with the signing of the armistice, the British, French, and American people not unreasonably demanded the return of their sons, brothers, and husbands. Politicians had little choice but to go along, both to satisfy voters and to reduce the crushing expenditure of p. 27maintaining large armies. But the quick melting away of Allied military strength created a problem for the diplomats about to work out the terms of the peace. Without large standing armies, how would the victorious powers respond if Germany refused to sign the final treaty or resumed hostilities? The armistice itself had to be renegotiated periodically, as the one signed in November was due to expire at almost the same time the conference began. What if negotiations to extend the armistice failed or the German state fell victim to a Bolshevik revolution? Would there be sufficient military power left to compel the Germans to behave as the Allies desired? Would the British and French people consent to a call from their governments to remobilize?

In order to maintain power over Germany in the absence of large armies, the Allied naval blockade of Germany remained in place until the Germans signed the final peace treaty. As a result, food and medicine could not flow freely into Germany. Most Allied officials saw the shortsightedness of this policy, especially as influenza took a huge toll on Germany, and by extension to France and other neighboring countries as well. American officials, including future president Herbert Hoover, worked hard to try to find ways to bring food into Germany, but they had only limited success. The continuation of the blockade, even after most people believed that the war had ended, increased the illegitimacy of the peace process in the eyes of most Germans, and many people outside Germany as well, even before the conference itself began. Allied policy looked more like vengeance than peacemaking.

The two-month delay also gave the diplomats time to think about what kind of conference they wanted to host. The most recent conference of its type was the Congress of Vienna, held at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. A British academic wrote a history of that conference at the request of the British and French governments, but even he doubted that any of the delegates in Paris bothered to read it. If they had, they might have learned much of value, p. 28including the ways that the differing goals of allies can create friction, the desires of small and large powers to use the conference to air long-standing grievances, and the danger of raising false hopes of the conference producing eternal peace. The men of 1919, however, saw their task as entirely different from that of 1815. To cite one example, the Congress of Vienna had included the defeated French in the hope of rehabilitating the Bourbon dynasty overthrown during the French Revolution. In 1919, by contrast, there was no desire to include the Germans in the peace conference or to restore the defeated Hohenzollern dynasty. To the contrary, people in France and Britain were talking about dragging Wilhelm from his exile in Holland and trying him for war crimes.

The Congress of Vienna dealt with territorial issues far from Europe. Similarly, the Paris Peace Conference also sought to remake the entire globe, although on different principles. Given the nature of the British and French empires and the universalist nature of Wilson’s ideas, the globalization of the peace conference was probably inevitable. Every country that had sent men and money to contribute to the defeat of Germany believed that it had a right to be a part of the conference. In the end, thirty nations sent official representatives. They included dominions of the British Empire, including New Zealand, Canada, and Australia, which were no longer willing to be represented in international affairs through the British Foreign Office, as they had been before 1914. They also included states as small as Siam, Cuba, and Liberia, all of which had declared war on Germany. Many of these states came with mutually contradictory demands, notably in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, where wars and armed conflict continued despite the armistice. Japan and China, too, both sent representatives to Paris, forcing Europeans to arbitrate between the two countries’ mutually exclusive demands.

This internationalism created enormous problems, especially given the shallow knowledge most diplomats had about events far p. 29from Europe. Statesmen therefore had to make decisions about places they had never visited and about which they often knew virtually nothing. Paul Cambon, a veteran French diplomat, watched in befuddlement as he saw “the shambles, the chaos, the incoherence, and the ignorance” about the world that marked discussions even before the conference’s opening. Because the great powers had refused to set a formal agenda for the conference (for fear of limiting their options too much), the proceedings threatened to ramble aimlessly around the world’s problem spots making mostly uninformed decisions that would affect the lives of millions of people. Much of the hard work of the conference thus fell to committees of lower-level officials, some of whom had real knowledge about the problems they were studying; others just had an axe or two to grind.

The world had already changed a great deal in the time between the armistice and the opening of the peace conference. The growth of Bolshevism provided a dark backdrop to an already dark postwar European picture that included an influenza pandemic, civil wars, and the possibility of wars between some of the potential successor states to the Austro-Hungarian Empire over future borders. The political contexts in the United States and Great Britain threatened to further complicate matters, and tensions between the civilians and their military officers simmered just below the surface. Nevertheless, hopes remained high that the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, France, and Italy could somehow work through these problems and give Europe the peace it so badly needed. It was an awesome responsibility to give to any group of leaders, not least to the four heads of government who assembled in Paris in January 1919 to do, as British diplomat Harold Nicolson wrote, “great, permanent, and noble things.”