Armistice Day: Old Bones, Young Soldiers, Long Wars.

Nov 11, 2020

One hundred and two years after the first Armistice Day, as we survey the vast war cemeteries in our minds’ eyes, we may glimpse there a stark truth: then, as now, those who choose war go on to make old bones; too many of those who fight them go on to make neat little rows. That reality should haunt us all today.

Perhaps the issue rarely confronted on Remembrance Day is the length of the Great War. The mass industrialised killing, in spite of the obvious military stalemate on most fronts, lasted over 51 months. Why, then, was there no negotiated peace, no diplomatic settlement to end the war, before November 1918?

Before turning to that big question, let us remind ourselves of the horrendous cost across the world: over 16 million deaths. And our slice of the protracted catastrophe: at least 72,000 Australians died, according to the latest work by the historian David Noonan.

And let us survey the dispiriting world of 1920 supposedly made ‘safe for democracy’: the vast enlargements of the British, French, and Japanese empires at the expense of the German and Ottoman; the continuing civil wars and ethnic cleansing, across much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East; and the fragility of the youthful Weimar Republic in Germany, tormented by right-wing death squads and coup attempts. Even in 1920, across Europe, the barking from the attack dogs on the far right, the Nazi Party in Bavaria and the Fascist Party in Italy, could already be heard.

In the West, the reactionary politics unleashed by the war was still dominant, as shown by the continuing persecution of leading figures who had urged a negotiated peace, such as Eugene Debs in the USA, and ex-premier Joseph Caillaux in France. In Australia, the authoritarian Nationalist government of Billy Hughes still wielded the political knuckle-duster. Today is in fact the hundredth anniversary of the expulsion of the senior Labor MP Hugh Mahon from the federal parliament, on 11 November 1920, for the supposed crime of attacking British jack-boot policies in Ireland.

If the cost of the long war was so ruinous, the spoils of victory so grubby, and the triumph of ‘democracy’ so very flawed, again we might ask why a settlement of the war was not achieved earlier?

Imagine if the war had ended in 1915, 1916, or even 1917: perhaps no Bolshevik Revolution, no Communism, no Fascism, no Nazism, much less war debt, and no Great Depression.

This takes us to a history almost entirely ignored by historians of battle. On multiple occasions in 1915 and 1916 the leaders of the northern European neutral powers, especially the Netherlands, tried to initiate diplomatic negotiations behind the scenes between Britain and Germany, only to be rebuffed. Similarly, the Scandinavian governments tried to initiate a conference of neutral powers to confront the war-makers, collectively, but they waited in vain for the US government to signal its approval. Instead, President Wilson preferred his own lone-wolf mediation, through Colonel House’s missions to Europe in 1915 and 1916, but he also was rebuffed.

Then, in December 1916, the German government publicly offered to negotiate an end to the war, but the Tsarist, the French, the Italian, and finally the British governments, scorned the offer. The USA despatched a Peace Note soon after, which was also rejected. Pope Benedict provided another opportunity in August 1917, but the Entente Powers, as they had agreed to do in the secret Treaty of London of April 1915, squashed the chance. During 1917, POW negotiations at The Hague, the Reichstag Peace Resolution, the Stockholm Conference proposal, and the Kühlmann peace initiative, opened up more opportunities for negotiation. But every chance was derided and sabotaged, with London leading the chorus against any ‘patched-up peace’.

One promising opportunity after another was deliberately suffocated. Instead, callous men, on both sides, chose to enlarge the war aims of the two warring coalitions, through a string of secret diplomatic deals. The hard men preached endlessly the supposed indispensability of a military victory and a dictated peace. ‘Seeing it through’, ‘staying the course’, ‘fighting to the finish’, ‘to the knock-out blow’, ‘to the bitter end’, ‘lest the dead have died in vain’, became the white noise of the war, drummed out by stay-at-home politicians, press moguls, and perverse clergymen.

Why? It was a commonplace among the European neutrals as early as mid-1915 that all their efforts to mediate were being rejected chiefly by the Entente Powers, because they clearly favoured a long war. Robert Lansing, the US Secretary of State, told Wilson in August 1915 that the Entente Powers shunned peace because ‘their hope is to continue the war in much the same way that it is being carried on now on the theory that Germany and Austria cannot stand the waste of men and resources resulting.’ This was the true meaning of attrition – war at any price. This was the ultimate reason that more than 46,000 Australians perished on the Western Front.

It is not convincing to blame the Germans’ belligerence alone for the failure of peace diplomacy. The push for peace inside Germany had real heft. One contributor to a recent academic study of war aims and peace diplomacy writes that it ‘it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Central Powers … were far more willing to countenance something approaching a compromise peace than the Entente.’ Another expert laments the fact that the Germans’ peace efforts ‘were systematically ignored and ridiculed by Paris and London’ – which played into the hands of the wild men in Berlin. Tragically, by 1917 the ‘hardliners on both sides were now keeping each other in power.’ (See Holger Afflerbach, ed., The Purpose of the First World War, Oldenbourg: De Gruyter, 2015).

And Australia’s decision makers? Hardliners? Or did they limit war aims, weigh costs, husband Australian lives, and look only to Australia’s defence? Not a bit of it. In August 1914 it was the Cook Liberal government that offered – ahead of the formal British decision for war – an expeditionary force for battle anywhere, under British command. It was the Hughes-led Labor and Nationalist governments of 1916 and 1917 that twice attempted to bring in conscription, to feed the war machine, while throttling critics and prattling on endlessly about ‘German peace agents’, ‘German peace traps’ and the supposed peril of a ‘premature peace’. Thus, Australia exerted no pressure whatsoever for the moderation of the British Empire’s war aims or peace diplomacy.

Not so elsewhere. While the battles raged, in Europe and America, an influential liberal internationalist movement, spurred on by Wilson, warned that victory would not be enough. The best and brightest, on all sides, called for root and branch reform of the old elite statecraft, with its reliance upon secret diplomacy, the ‘balance of power’, and arms and alliance rivalries. The new post-war world, they pleaded, must confront the systemic causes of war, and not imagine that the wickedness of the enemy explained everything. They planned to bring diplomacy and war powers under democratic control, and to build new permanent multilateral international institutions – a ‘rules-based order’, as we say today.

How did Australia’s government react to this inspirational movement? With cynicism. Hughes repeatedly mocked Wilson and the whole ‘League of Nations’ project as weak-kneed, starry-eyed, pacifist internationalism. Shades of today’s ‘negative globalism’ jibe.

Was there another way? Was an earlier peace possible during the Great War? As the peace activist Emily Hobhouse argued in 1916, negotiations could easily have been opened, ‘if the moral courage of the governments equalled the immortal military courage of their soldiers.’ True then; true now.

So, on Armistice Day, the lessons of the Great War for Australia should loom large: the ever-present danger that unfaltering obedience to great allies abandons our fighting men and women to the whims and schemes of others.

‘They shall not grow old,’ indeed. Lest we forget – and lest we forgive.

Douglas Newton, historian, is the author of 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). His new book, Private Ryan and the Lost Peace: A Defiant Soldier and the Struggle Against the Great War, is to be published by Longueville Media in early 2021.

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