Douglas Newton. Lost opportunities for a negotiated peace during the Great War: from 1914 to 1916. Part 1

May 3, 2016

A big centenary is approaching: the battle of Villers-Bretonneux, April 1918. Right now $93.2 million is being spent on the battle site to build the Sir John Monash Centre, ready for Anzac Day 2018.[1] Villers-Bretonneux is irresistible. It simplifies everything: German invaders, liberating Australians, grateful French. But it will provide a mere pinhole on the war, obscuring the big picture.

No one at the opening ceremony is likely to ask: Why were millions of men, including Australians, still struggling on the Western Front in April 1918?

The centre is likely to teach one lesson: the war was awful, but a dire necessity. Our political leaders frequently say so. On Anzac Day 2014 Prime Minister Abbott asked rhetorically, ‘But what was the alternative, in Britain’s time of need, and when Europe was at risk from Prussian militarism?’[2]

The governing assumption clearly is that there was never an alternative to the carnage. In fact, there were many lost opportunities for a negotiated peace.[3] 

  1. Woodrow Wilson’s deathbed cable (4 August 1914)

On 4 August 1914, US President Woodrow Wilson, from his wife’s deathbed, cabled all the major belligerents, offering to take the Balkan dispute to The Hague. All made excuses, protested their innocence, railed against the enemy, and pretended war was irrevocable.

  1. Danish initiatives 1914-15

The Danes began shuttle diplomacy in late 1914 between Berlin and St Petersburg, seeking a compromise peace. Loyal to the Pact of London (September 1914), Tsar Nicholas slammed the door.

  1. Ambassadorial mediation, Washington (September-December 1914)

In September 1914, prompted by German Ambassador von Bernstorff, William Jennings Bryan, US Secretary of State, launched British-French-German ambassadorial talks in Washington. The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who was negotiating to bring Italy, Greece, and Rumania into the war, and to give the Straits to Russia in order to keep her in the war, closed the talks down. 

  1. Christmas truce (December 1914)

Inspired by Pope Benedict XV’s suggestion (supported in the US Senate), soldiers on the Western Front began a spontaneous truce on Christmas Eve. Horrified, the Entente was careful to include ‘Article 15’ in the Treaty of London (April 1915), agreeing to shut down all Vatican peace diplomacy. 

  1. The first Colonel House Mission (January-May 1915)

House travelled to Europe as special US emissary. He found both sides coy on disclosing war aims. US proposals for a simultaneous end to both German submarine warfare and the British blockade of Germany were then derailed by the Lusitania crisis. 

  1. The International Congress of Women, The Hague (April-May 1915).

Female suffragists met to promote the liberal internationalist alternative to the bloodshed: neutral mediation, a diplomatic settlement, and a new rules-based order with stronger international institutions. This boosted new like-minded pressure groups, the League of Nations Society in Britain, the Dutch-sponsored Central Organisation for a Durable Peace, the League for a New Fatherland in Germany, and the League to Enforce Peace in the USA. 

  1. The Neutral Conference for Continuous Mediation (1915 to 1917)

The American peace movement urged America to lead neutral mediation. Wilson was reluctant, preferring private diplomacy. US peace activists then set-up the Neutral Conference for Continuous Mediation in Stockholm in February 1916 and later at The Hague. There were successes: a delegation to Berlin persuaded German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg to announce Germany’s acceptance of international arbitration and a League of Nations on 9 November 1916. 

  1. The second House Mission (January-February 1916)

House encouraged both sides to moderate war aims and compromise. But London and Berlin preferred to gamble on coming battles (Verdun and the Somme). House and Grey did sign a memorandum: Grey agreed to invite US arbitration at a favourable moment; House agreed that, if Germany refused a reasonable settlement, the USA would ‘probably’ enter the war. Grey refused to initiate US mediation. 

  1. Wilson’s speech to the US League to Enforce Peace (27 May 1916)

Wilson committed the USA to enter a League of Nations, based on collective security, thus offering the ‘guarantees of security’ all claimed to be fighting for. Responses were cool.

  1. Emily Hobhouse’s ‘peace mission’ (June 1916)

Emily Hobhouse journeyed to Berlin from Switzerland, and obtained an interview with von Jagow, German Foreign Minister. He declared a readiness to respond to a peace offer from Britain. Grey refused to see Hobhouse on her return to Britain. 

  1. Asquith Cabinet discussions and Lansdowne Memoranda (November 1916)

In September, British Prime Minister Asquith invited his Cabinet to reconsider war aims. Lloyd George told the US press there must be a fight to the finish, a ‘knock-out blow’. In November, Lord Lansdowne opted decisively for negotiations. With the support of the ‘super-patriotic’ press, Lloyd George then rolled Asquith. On 5 December, he headed a Tory-dominated government, shunning peace by negotiation. 

  1. German and American Peace Notes (December 1916)

Bethmann-Hollweg offered a Peace Note on 12 December. However, the new High Command hobbled it by insisting that no terms be specified. The new Lloyd George government condemned the offer as a ruse of war. An American Peace Note followed (December 18), urging peace terms. This evoked an incomplete response from the Entente (10 January 1917). The Germans offered to enter talks, but were silent on terms. Wilson then lifted the pressure. In his ‘Peace without Victory’ speech (22 January 1917) he argued that a negotiated settlement would be more durable. Peace hovered. He had stopped loans and supplies to the Entente. But Wilson’s efforts were wrecked by the German elite’s decision to reinstate unrestricted submarine warfare (1 February 1917) – much to the relief of ‘knock-out blowers’ everywhere. Here, typically, the wild men on one side came to the rescue of those on the other. And peace was snuffed out.

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] Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, Report 6/2015, Referrals made May and June 2015.

[2] Prime Minister Tony Abbott, ‘Address to the Anzac Day National Ceremony, Canberra’, 25 April 2014,

[3] For sources on the search for a negotiated peace, see Kent Forster, The Failures of Peace: The Search for a Negotiated Peace During the First World War (Washington, 1941), Laurence W. Martin, Peace Without Victory: Woodrow Wilson and the British Liberals (New Haven, 1958), Z. A. B. Zeman, A Diplomatic History of the First World War (London, 1971), David S. Patterson, The Search for a Negotiated Peace: Women’s Activism and Citizen Diplomacy in World War I (New York, 2008), Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (New York, 2011), Neil Hollander, Elusive Dove: The Search for Peace During World War I (Jefferson, 2014).

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