On 31 July 1917, one hundred years ago, Britain launched the Third Battle of Ypres on the Western Front. It would climax in the Battle of Passchendaele in November. During this centenary, will the Australian people be showered with stories of special valour? Or will there be more clear-eyed commentary? The catastrophe that unfolded in Flanders is an object lesson in what happens when an Australian government allows our Allies to dominate in the high diplomacy of war, exposing our own troops to horrific suffering – for dubious goals.
“Dear Me! I had no conception that the lower classes had such white skins.” This remark reputedly fell from the lips of Lord Curzon, a key member of Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, while observing soldiers bathing off the mud in a brewery converted into a giant bath behind the lines in Flanders. (Nicolson, Curzon, p. 48).
The same noble Lord Curzon had argued to the British Cabinet as far back as June 1915 that attrition was irresistible: “If then two million or whatever figure more of Germans have to be killed, at least a corresponding number of allied soldiers will have to be sacrificed to achieve that object.” (CAB 37/130/19).
See with what a steady eye the great imperialist contemplated the deaths of millions!
Did the Australian government of William Morris Hughes attempt to curb these appetites? Not a bit of it.
When given his first opportunity to contribute at the highest levels, an invitation to Lloyd George’s new Imperial War Cabinet in March 1917, Hughes decided Australia would be left voiceless. Both Andrew Fisher, the Australian High Commissioner, and George Reid, the former High Commissioner, were in London. But Hughes was so jealous of both men that he preferred no one should take Australia’s seat. So, when the Cabinet met for the first time on 20 March 1917, its very first item of business was an expression of “great regret” that no Australian was present. (CAB 23/40).
Eventually, London authorised Field Marshal Haig’s “duck march” through the mud of Flanders. Why? To drive the Germans from the Channel Ports?
Political motives abounded too. The Tory “knock-out blowers” who dominated Lloyd George’s improvised government were determined to stifle the rising demand for peace negotiations – in Russia, France, Italy, and in Britain itself. For example, General Sir Henry Wilson told the Cabinet the offensive must go ahead because it was vital to get something that looked like “a victory of some sort”, or it would be “impossible to keep the French in this war”. (Wilson, Life and Diaries, I, p. 361).
Moreover, if the war stopped, all those secret deals to enlarge the Empire and smother German commercial competition were at risk.
It was a commonplace in British and Australian ruling circles in 1917 to insist that victory was indispensable. Privately it was admitted that this was for domestic political reasons. As Lord Esher, a confidant of George V, warned Lord Derby, the War Secretary, on 31 May 1917: “We shall all go down before the new forces that are coming into the war. Thrones, … aristocrats, plutocrats and all. Peace – a thoroughly dangerous peace – is clearly in sight.” (Esher Papers, 2/19).
Thus, the Third Battle of Ypres was pressed forward in part to shut the mouths of all those urging peace. On the battle’s eve, and while it raged, the British war-makers shunned all opportunities for diplomatic settlement. The Provisional Government of Russia had pushed for months for a disavowal of imperialist war aims all round. Britain shunned the request. The German Reichstag passed its famous “Peace Resolution” in July 1917. Britain sneered at it. The Danish and Swedish socialists, led by Hjalmar Branting, tried to bring he labour movements of Europe together in Stockholm during the northern summer of 1917 to discuss a common basis for peace. The Entente powers and the USA denied passports to their delegates.
Then, ten days into the Third Battle of Ypres, Pope Benedict XV released his Papal Peace Note, urging a moderate compromise peace. Britain haughtily refused to offer any reply whatsoever.
Just how insincere were the British decision-makers is illustrated in the response to the German Foreign Minister’s moderate peace offer of September 1917. The War Cabinet papers of 24 September preserve the Germans’ opening gambit: “Cession of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany; Restoration of Serbia; Territorial Concessions to Italy; Colonial Concessions to Great Britain; Restoration of Belgium”. Secret unpublished minutes of the War Cabinet show some ministers wanted the offer buried. One warned that if Russia found it, she might “get out of the war.” Lloyd George argued against informing even the USA: “At present, we wanted the U. S. A. to fight and there was no need to discuss questions of peace with them.” (CAB 23/16, 24 Sept. 1917).
A few days later, after consulting Paris only, Lloyd George reported that the French government was frightened the offer was bona fide. Paris “doubted whether France would continue fighting.” Lloyd George expressed “doubts as to whether in the event of such an offer this country would continue the war.” (CAB 23/16, 27 Sept. 1917). So, the British dragged their feet, not revealing the offer to their allies for ten days – and the offer languished. Of course, the public was never told.
All the while, Australians were among the thousands who “struggled in the slime”.
Why were the men of the AIF still being sacrificed? As Greg Lockhart’s excellent recent series in this blog has argued so persuasively, racial nightmares lay behind it. The thinking was clear: Australia must give blood unstintingly for the Empire, on the frail hope that the Empire might one day save Australia – from Japan. Hughes and those around him never took their eye off Japan as the main enemy. They imputed the same race-based hatred to the men of the AIF. As Keith Murdoch told General Birdwood on 27 December 1917, many AIF troops had voted against conscription because they were “striving against an enemy who is not to them nearly as great an object of enmity and dread as the Japanese.” (Murdoch Papers, MS 2823/2/5).
Let us not fool ourselves that the British or Australians struggled on because their leaders lusted after democracy for Europe. “Few of us feel that the ‘democratising of Germany’ is worth the loss of a single Englishman!” wrote Haig in his diary on 2 January 1918. Democracy was entirely dispensable. As Keith Murdoch confessed to General “Pompey” Elliot in May 1918, “I admit that democracy must be cast aside by all patriotic men if the labouring classes become selfish and indolent under the authority it gives them.” (Murdoch Papers, MS 2823/34).
As the centenary of Passchendaele approaches, the speechwriters of the Turnbull government should speak big truths to the Australian people. Let’s hope they do not simply try to breathe life into the mummified remains of the old alibis for all this mechanised killing – “Prussian militarism”, “war for civilisation”, “no alternative”, “making the world safe for democracy” – alibis which the soldiers themselves repudiated.
We should listen to the voices of AIF men who were there. As Private Thomas Lawrence Talty, a veteran of 1917, told his interviewer in 1998: “Oh it was a shocking turnout. Should never have happened…. If they want to start a war let them go themselves. None of the big fellahs went. It was all these Privates went over … they were shot like bloody dogs.” (AWM S03426).
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.