Douglas Newton. What we fought for: from Bullecourt to the Armistice, 1917-1918

From 1916 to 1918 on the Western Front, the Australian divisions suffered 181,000 casualties, including 46,000 dead.[1] Some 10,892 of these dead have no known grave.[2] They died mostly from shrapnel and high explosive shells designed to tear people to pieces, or bury them alive. Pulverised, or ploughed under, their remains were unidentifiable.

So, more terrible centenaries loom from 1917-18. Bullecourt, Passchendaele, Villers-Bretonneux, the Hindenburg Line. For what did Australians die?

To repel the German invader? It is simplistic to see in the German enemy a singular evil, a complete explanation for the protracted war, or a vindication of all that was done to resist German aggression. In this imperial bloodbath, all sides clung to territory conquered, all planned more conquest, all became more authoritarian, and all had their wide-mouthed politicians and generals insisting on more war.[3] The plague was on all houses – and they reinfected each other.

For democracy’s sake? Enthusiasm for war and enthusiasm for democracy were at opposite ends of the political spectrum in every belligerent nation.

What then were the Entente’s war aims for which the war was prolonged?[4]

The Entente Reply to President Wilson’s Peace Note, 10 January 1917 (PUBLIC)

In January 1917, while Australian soldiers on the Western Front endured a severe winter, Britain and her Entente partners, after 29 months of warfare, at last published war aims. They issued a formal reply to the German and American Peace Notes of December 1916. It ruled out a negotiated peace. It promised the Entente was ‘not fighting for selfish interests.’ It proclaimed moderate aims: ‘reparation, restitution’ and ‘guarantees’ against aggression. The war was to liberate Belgium, France, and Serbia, and get ‘indemnities’ for them. Grand aims followed: ‘the reorganisation of Europe’ along lines of nationality, the liberation of the oppressed inside Austria-Hungary, and the ‘expulsion’ of the Turks from Europe. The insincerity was stunning. There was to be self-determination, but only for enemy empires. There was silence on the secret treaties of 1915-16, and silence on plans for economic war.

The Franco-Russian ‘Left Bank of the Rhine’ Agreement (or the ‘Doumergue Agreement’), 14 February and 8 March 1917 (SECRET) 

Oblivious to imminent revolution, Tsarist Russia and France still played grab. Russia agreed to support France’s claim to the restoration of Alsace-Lorraine, the Saar, and the seizure of the Rhineland. In return, France gave Russia ‘complete liberty’ to fix her borders with Germany and Austria. In short, France winked at Russian grab in the east, and Russia winked at French grab in the west.

Agreements on German colonies and other territories, 1914 to March 1917: (SECRET) 

The German colonial empire was carved up in a dozen agreements from 1914. Britain and France split German Togoland and the Cameroons (while Britain confirmed her annexations of Turkish territories, Egypt and Cyprus). In July 1916 Japan and Russia agreed upon their claims in China. By March 1917 the Balfour-Motono agreements were confirmed: Britain, France, and Russia granted Japan the German North Pacific Islands, and the German lease on the Shantung Peninsula, in China (Qingdao).

The Imperial War Cabinet Committees, April-May 1917. (SECRET)

While Australians endured hell at Bullecourt in April 1917, various Imperial War Cabinet sub-committees redrew maps of the colonial world. Louis Mallet’s ‘Committee on Territorial Changes’ recommended colonial seizures and swaps. Two imperial nabobs, both reactionaries, headed more powerful committees. Lord Curzon’s ‘Territorial Desiderata Committee’ insisted on Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq) for Britain, Germany’s elimination as a colonial power, and British territory running Cape to Cairo. Lord Milner’s ‘Committee on Economic Terms’ wanted more protection: ‘imperial preference’, ‘Control of Imperial Resources’, and indemnities to pay for the war. A League of Nations was ‘impracticable’.

St-Jean-de-Maurienne Agreements, 19 April 1917 (SECRET)

At the St Jean de Maurienne conference, France, Britain and Italy agreed to more annexations in Turkey, adding to Sykes-Picot. Italy was to gain a vast share, the ‘green’ area, that is the southern third of Anatolia (now Turkey) including Smyrna, and an area of indirect control to its north, on the Aegean coast and hinterland.

The Caxton Hall speech, 5 January 1918 (PUBLIC)

After the disaster of Passchendaele (38,000 Australian casualties), and facing pressure from both revolutionary Russia and President Wilson, Lloyd George shifted ground. At the Caxton Hall in London he espoused moderate aims. He disavowed annexations. Britain was fighting above all for Belgium and France. There was ‘no demand for war indemnity.’ Germany’s colonies were ‘held at the disposal of a conference’. Alsace-Lorraine deserved ‘a reconsideration’. Soaring ideals prevailed: the ‘sanctity of treaties’, ‘self-determination’ for all, and ‘some international organisation’. So, after 41 months of terrible war, Britain’s Empire at last had moderate war aims. But Lloyd George’s rhetorical slithers were everywhere.

True respect for Anzac 

Thus, from Bullecourt, through the quagmire of Passchendaele, and on to the armistice, Australians continued to die on the Western Front – for all these war aims, known and unknown, sincere and insincere.

Contemporary speakers on Anzac often indulge in sacrificial fantasies – young blood spilled to bring our nation to birth. They shower praise on the dead, imagining this is respect. It is not respectful of the dead to shun knowledge of the dubious causes smuggled into their heavy kits. It is not respectful of their generous instincts to gloss over what comes of empire. Catastrophes – such as the mechanised slaughter on the Western Front – demand the most searching inquiries.

To what war aims were the diggers sacrificed in 1917-18? Did the Australian government carefully weigh costs and objectives? Did it try to prevent the steady enlargement of war aims? Sadly, the truth is stark: our inexhaustible loyalty to our great and powerful friend saw our government marginalised and our soldiers left fighting largely in the dark.[5]

Therefore, was this horrific war truly a national awakening for Australia, or was it the high point of our imperial subservience?

Assoc. Prof. Douglas Newton is a retired academic. He has taught history at Macquarie University, Victoria University of Wellington, NZ, and Western Sydney University. He is the author of a number of studies of war and peace, including most recently, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (London, Verso: 2014) and Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014). He is currently writing a book tentatively entitled, Ending Armageddon: The Search for a Negotiated Peace during the Great War, to be published by Scribe in 2017.

[1] ‘WWI The Western Front’: http://www.army.gov.au/our-history/history-in-focus/wwi-the-western-front

[2] Peter Pedersen, The Anzacs: Gallipoli to the Western Front (Camberwell, 2007), 411.

[3] John Kramer, Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War (Oxford, 2007), see Ch. 4 and 158: ‘It would be quite incorrect to speak of a German singularity of destructiveness…’ Hans-Ulrich Wehler, The German Empire, 1871-1918 (Leamington Spa, 1985), 194: ‘Wilhelmine Germany was not the only country to possess this sort of lunatic fringe.’ David Welch, Germany and Propaganda in World War I: Pacifism, Mobilization and Total War (London, 2014) p. xii: ‘This work reaffirms that German Society was a highly complex hybrid of competing groups and interests and that to compare the Kaiser’s war aims in 1914 with those of Hitler in 1939 (as some British military historians have attempted to do) is far too simplistic.’ Shelley Baranowski, Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler (Cambridge, 2011), 50: ‘Yet Imperial Germany was not Nazi Germany. Despite the horror of the German wars in Africa, the Imperial German suppression of colonial revolts did not differ significantly from the violent campaigns of other colonizing powers during the nineteenth century….’

[4] In addition to sources listed in an earlier post, ‘What we fought for: from Gallipoli to Fromelles, 1914-1916’ (http://johnmenadue.com/blog/?p=6275), works with a special focus on Britain, the Entente, and US war aims include Paul Guinn, British Strategy and Politics 1914 to 1918 (Oxford, 1965), Lloyd C. Gardner, Safe for Democracy: The Anglo-American Response to Revolution, 1913-1923 (Oxford, 1987), John Turner, British Politics and the Great War: Coalition and Conflict (Yale, 1992), David French, The Strategy of the Lloyd George Coalition, 1916-1918 (Oxford, 1995), Thomas J. Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (Princeton, 1992), Brock Millman, Pessimism and British War Policy 1916-1918 (London, 2001), and Peter Jackson, Beyond the Balance of Power: France and the Politics of National Security in the Era of the First World War (Cambridge, 2013).

[5] Neville Meaney, one of the most prominent historians of Australia’s Great War, has written that regarding Gallipoli Australia was ‘neither consulted nor informed about the British plans’; that on Japanese entry into the war London ‘was not disposed to consult Australia’; that in the formulation of war aims during 1917-18, Prime Minister Hughes ‘had had no part in making British policy’; and that Lloyd George simply ‘took the Dominions’ assent for granted.’ See Neville Meaney, Australia and World Crisis, 1914-1923 (Sydney, 2009), 44, 59, and 247-8.

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