DOUGLAS NEWTON. First World War Centenaries that really matter are looming

Nov 30, 2017

Centenary moments of huge significance are upon us: the centenary of the so-called ‘Lansdowne Peace Letter’ of 29 November 1917, and the centenary of the publication of the texts of the so-called ‘Secret Treaties’ in Britain, beginning on 12 December 1917. The possibility of peace was suddenly on the front page. Sensational diplomatic deals underpinning the war on the Allied side were exposed to the world. Will these centenaries be noticed in Australia? Or will we go on treating the centenary of the Great War as a chance to run again and again a kind of national ‘show-reel’ of battle honours?  

The merry-go-round that is the Anzac Centenary has made some people very giddy. Former Prime Minister Abbott used his speeches at ceremonial moments in 2014 and 2015 to explain his vision. The Anzac Centenary was to be all about remembering a string of battles: Gallipoli, Lone Pine, Pozières, Passchendaele, Beersheba, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Villers Bretonneux. The war, Abbott declared, marked ‘Australia’s moment on the world stage.’ The centenary was a moment to ponder anew the military achievements of ‘our mighty forebears.’ The soldiers were ‘the founding heroes of modern Australia,’ he told the crowd at Anzac Cove in 2015. At Lone Pine, he quoted scripture approvingly: ‘Their glory shall not be blotted out.’

The lack of perspective in all of this is breathtaking. The Great War raged across the world, but was at its very worst in Europe, the Christian heartland of ‘Western Civilisation’. It was the most tragic time to be a European since the Black Death of the 1340s, and since the religious conflicts of the Thirty Years War, 1618-1648.

Yet, in the face of this catastrophe, Australians are encouraged to approach the centenary as if we are a nation of blatherskites assembling a national brag-book. No deep thinking is required: just assume we fought for noble goals; shower praise upon the dead; flatter the audience for being related to these fallen heroes; and wave the flag – frantically.

In the big wide world, some Great War centenaries that really do matter are looming.

One hundred years ago, on 29 November 1917, a hugely significant political moment was reached in London. The Daily Telegraph published a long letter from Lord Lansdowne. It was dynamite. The Tory grandee broke ranks with his war-at-any-price colleagues. He pleaded in the Daily Telegraph for the Entente Powers (principally Britain, France, and Italy) to moderate their frankly imperialist war aims. It was time to coordinate new moderate war aims with the United States. He urged that an effort be made to negotiate peace.

Lansdowne was a top-drawer Tory, a former foreign secretary, and leader of the party in the House of Lords. He had been in the war-making British Cabinet since May 1915. It was not the first time he had made waves. He had pleaded in Cabinet a year before, in November 1916, that it was time to end the war by a diplomatic settlement. The military stalemate was likely to persist; the cost of the long war was utterly ruinous for Europe; rational men should seek compromise. But he left the government in December 1916, excluded by Lloyd George and his ‘knock-out blow’ government.

Now, in November 1917, there was a huge kerfuffle over Lansdowne’s letter to the Daily Telegraph. In short, the ‘bitter-enders’ closed ranks, and hung Lansdowne out to dry. He was monstered in the pro-war press as a ‘white-flagger’, a ‘defeatist’, a ‘dotard’, and a pawn of the Germans. The opportunity passed – much to the disappointment of the men in the trenches.

The context is vital to understand the moment. In mid-November 1917, the new Bolshevik government in Russia had begun to publish the so-called ‘Secret Treaties’ from the archives of the Russian foreign ministry. These were the treaties made between the Tsarist government, and Britain, France and Italy, during the conflict. Among others, the complete texts of the Constantinople and Persia Agreement of March 1915, and of the Treaty of London of April 1915 – the two diplomatic agreements that underpinned the Australians’ campaign at Gallipoli – were revealed to the world for the first time.

The New York Times began to publish extracts from 25 November 1917. More importantly, the influential Manchester Guardian also published bits and pieces on 26 November 1917. Then, of huge significance, it published the complete text of the Constantinople and Persia Agreement on 12 December 1917, and the complete text of the Treaty of London on 18 January 1918. The ferociously hungry Entente cat was well and truly out of the bag.

Any reader of these articles could see that the Russian, British, French and Italian governments had allowed the war aims of the ‘Entente’ side to escalate wildly. The war to save France and Belgium had been transformed into a war to dismember the Ottoman Empire, to expand Russian territories in eastern Europe and the Caucasus, to deprive Germany of territory in the Rhineland, to strip Germany of all her colonies, and to stifle German commercial enterprise especially in the Middle East and Africa.

Here was a turning point. Would Australians be permitted to read about the actual war aims for which their sons, fathers, brothers, daughters, sisters, wives and mothers had laid down their lives as soldiers and nurses? Not a bit.

In Australia, the improvised Nationalist coalition led by William Morris Hughes had its eyes firmly fixed on the coming second referendum on conscription, due just before Christmas 1917. For Australians to learn the purposes for which they had volunteered, and soon might be conscripted, might imperil victory for conscription at the polls! So, in the immediate aftermath of the publication in England and America of the ‘Secret Treaties’, the Hughes government wheeled out its heaviest censorship machinery. So far as it could, by controlling cable news and by resorting to outright bans, the government proceeded to suppress all knowledge in Australia of any of these diplomatic deals.

On 12 December 1917, the Commonwealth Gazette announced that, under Regulation 28AB of the War Precautions Act, dozens and dozens of books, pamphlets, newspapers and journals had become ‘Prohibited Publications’. Leading British Labour newspapers, such as Labour Leader and Forward (where the ‘secret treaties’ would soon be reprinted) were banned. Over the months that followed, scores of other progressive books and journals were listed as ‘Prohibited Publications’. Dozens of US left-leaning journals were banned, and even journals such as Good Housekeeping, Motorboating, and Harper’s Bazaar, because their proprietor was suspected. For good measure, even social-democratic newspapers from neutral countries, such as Denmark and Sweden, were banned.

In April 1918, anything emanating from the ‘Union of Democratic Control’ (or UDC), Britain’s leading left-Liberal pressure group, which had been urging a negotiated peace, was criminalised in Australia. Thus, the UDC’s most popular pamphlet on the ‘secret treaties’ was suppressed. Anyone found in possession of such ‘Prohibited Publications’ risked very heavy fines and imprisonment.

In this way, Australians never learned that the Gallipoli campaign had been aimed at gaining for Russia the key spoils of the conflict. Australians never learned that their sacrifice at Anzac had been a key chip on the table in luring Italy into the war. Australians never learned that France and Russia had agreed upon mutual aggrandisement on Germany’s western and eastern frontiers, which underwrote the war on the Western Front. Australians never learned of the string of colonial deals with France and Japan. The sordid purposes all remained hidden.

Thus, never to be forgotten, the men of the five AIF divisions in France were left to fight on throughout the horrors of 1918 – in the dark. Centenaries with so much to teach us are, indeed, immediately ahead.

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 on the history of diplomatic efforts to end the Great War


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