Douglas Newton. Lost opportunities for a negotiated peace during the Great War: from 1917 to 1918. Part 2.

May 4, 2016

During 1917-1918, the Australian divisions in France endured casualties far worse than at Gallipoli. There were huge losses.[1] New evidence shows that ‘four out of five’ of the AIF who survived were affected by disability of some kind.[2] Yet, for contemporary Australians, it is battle-honours that leap to mind, especially Villers-Bretonneux. This is scarcely surprising, considering the money being spent.

The lesson hammered home in the Anzac centenary is quite simple: war is a bad but necessary thing – so it is just as well that Australians are so good at it. This is to keep Australians locked in a kind of protracted adolescence with regard to war.

Missing almost completely from speeches and from many books on Australia’s Great War is the history of alternatives to the appalling loss of life. 

In fact, from 1917 to 1918, across Europe there were rising popular pressures to revise war aims, to democratise, and to resolve the war – by negotiation. The war was kept going only by authoritarianism, propaganda, and censorship. Promising opportunities to end the cataclysm were stifled.[3] 

  1. Emperor Karl’s peace initiatives (December 1916-June 1917)

Following the death of Franz Josef in November 1916, the new Austrian Emperor, Karl, pressed for peace. He used his French brother-in-law, Prince Sixte de Bourbon, in secret negotiations with France. In March 1917, Karl accepted the restoration of Serbia and Belgium, and the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France. Lloyd George and French premier Ribot were interested, but the Italians hostile, fearing that territory promised in the Treaty of London of 1915 might be sacrificed. The Italians stonewalled.

  1. Anglo-German negotiations on POWs (June-July 1917)

A British delegation, led by Lord Newton, negotiated with a German delegation, at The Hague. British diplomats and politicians opposed the extension of these talks from POWs to peace. 

  1. Stockholm Socialist Conference proposal (May-August 1917)

Planned by Scandinavian and Dutch socialists, a conference for European socialists was promoted by the new Russian government. They hoped to hammer out a compromise peace. The USA, France, and Britain sabotaged the plan by refusing passports to their socialist and labour representatives. 

  1. Russian proposal for an Inter-Allied Conference (May-June 1917)

Russian Foreign Minister Tereshchenko proposed a conference to revise war aims and prepare for negotiations. The Entente and the USA dragged their feet, then ignored the proposal, following the failure of the Russian offensive of July 1917.

  1. Morgenthau Mission (July 1917).

Henry Morgenthau, the ex-US Ambassador to Turkey, undertook a mission to test a negotiated peace with the Ottomans. In Gibraltar, he met with a British mission. It dissuaded Morgenthau from continuing, arguing that any peace was impossible without gains for the Armenians, the Arabs, and British control of Palestine (a prospective homeland for the Jews). 

  1. Reichstag Peace Resolution (July 1917)

The Reichstag’s Centre-Left majority pronounced in favour of a non-annexationist peace guaranteed by a League of Nations. This was scorned by the Entente nations. Attempts to mount matching resolutions were defeated in the parliaments. The western allies made no coherent response to this breakthrough by the future Weimar Coalition, favouring peace and democratisation. 

  1. Papal Peace Note (August 1917)

Benedict XV proposed a territorial settlement close to the status quo before the war, plus a League of Nations and disarmament. Wilson dismissed the note, bizarrely calling on the German people to revolt. The Entente powers hid behind his answer and made no reply. Chancellor Michaelis then spoiled the effort, refusing a public commitment to Belgian independence. Private assurances were not revealed.

  1. Armand-Revertera talks, Switzerland (7, 22 August 1917)

These French-Austrian talks showed Austria ready to moderate terms; this prompted the Kühlmann offer. 

  1. Kühlmann Peace Feeler (September-October 1917)

German foreign minister Kühlmann privately contacted both the British and French. The deal was for a territorial compromise: the restoration of Belgium in return for western concessions: territorial integrity for Germany and Austria-Hungary, colonies, and a disavowal of commercial war. The plan was weakened by French political infighting. Kühlmann then dodged and weaved, vowing to keep Alsace-Lorraine (9 Oct.), and Lloyd George announced unequivocal support for France (11 Oct.). 

  1. The Lansdowne ‘Peace Letter’ to the Daily Telegraph (29 November 1917)

Lord Lansdowne went public, pleading for war aims revision in the Daily Telegraph. The ‘knock-out blow’ press rubbished him. The government cut him adrift. The USA failed to support him.

  1. British-Austrian talks, Switzerland: Smuts-Mensdorff (18-19 December 1917) and Kerr-Skrzynski (March 1918)

British secret talks luring Austria-Hungary away from Germany, while avoiding general peace – failed. 

  1. Brest-Litovsk talks (December 1917-January 1918)

Lenin’s new Bolshevik-led Russian government issued a six-point program for a general peace in December 1917. The Germans, under Kühlmann, made an offer accepting a non-annexationist peace. The Allies censored all news of these approaches for a general peace. Fearing domestic repercussions, the Allies rejected peace brokered by socialists. 

  1. Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’ and ‘Four Principles’ speeches and the Central Powers replies (January-February 1918)

Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points Address’ (8 Jan.) marked a significant moderation. Promising public speeches followed from Austrian and German leaders, Czernin and Hertling. Lloyd George and Clemenceau sabotaged this with a belligerent statement, rejecting all negotiations, at Versailles on 4 February 1918.

  1. Archbishop Söderblom’s international Christian conference, Sweden, (December 1917 and February 1918).

Some British Christians pressed for acceptance of Swedish Archbishop Söderblom’s plan for church leaders to discuss peace in Uppsala in December 1917. But most Anglican bishops opposed the meeting. Söderblom called a second conference for February 1918. Balfour, British Foreign Secretary, warned that British delegates would not be given passports.

Reflections at Villers-Bretonneux

The Tasmanian-born Radical MP, Leonard Outhwaite, warned the House of Commons in February 1916 what a disaster it would be ‘to hoist the flag of victory over an international graveyard.’[4] And so it was. Visitors to Villers-Bretonneux will reflect upon the dead – German, British, and Australian. We should reflect also upon the many lost opportunities to make peace, before these men were ordered to turn the machines of industrialised slaughter upon each other.

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] The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records that 10,738 missing Australian servicemen are commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial.

[2] See David Noonan, Those We Forget: Recounting Australian Casualties of the First World War (Melbourne, 2014), 194. ‘Of the total of 255,800 men [of the AIF] who survived the war, some 206,500 were either discharged medically unfit (130,500) or applied for pension assistance (76,000) before they turned sixty.’

[3] For sources on the search for a negotiated peace in 1917-18, in addition to those cited in an earlier post, see Rex Wade, The Russian Search for Peace, February-October 1917 (Stanford, 1969), V. H. Rothwell, British War Aims and Peace Diplomacy, 1914-1918 (Oxford, 1971), Arno J. Mayer, The Political Origins of the New Diplomacy 1917-1918 (New York, 1979), F. L. Carsten, War Against War: British and German Radical Movements in the First World War (London, 1982), David Kirby, War, Peace and Revolution: International Socialism at the Crossroads (London, 1986,) David Stevenson, The First World War and International Politics (Oxford, 1991), Daryl Le Cornu, ‘Bright Hope: British Radical Publicists, American Intervention, and the Prospects of a Negotiated Peace, 1917’, unpublished PhD thesis (Western Sydney University, 2005):

For German sources see Wilhelm Ribhegge, Frieden für Europa: Die Politik der deutschen Reichstagstagsmehrheit, 1917-18 (Essen, 1998) and the major document collections assembled by Wolfgang Steglich.

[4] R. L. Outhwaite, HC Deb 23 February 1916 vol 80 c773 (23 Feb. 1916).

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