By Humphrey McQueen*
The guns fell silent on the Western Front at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month while they continued to blaze on the Eastern Front, in the Far East and – above all – throughout the Middle East, as they still do.
Revolution in Berlin, and mutinous troops everywhere, cornered the Allies into offering terms less than unconditional surrender.
The German leadership played on the Allies’s fear that the Second Reich would go the way of Czarist Russia and turn Bolshevik. Having failed in July-August 1914 to block an inter-imperialist war with the promised general strike, Europe’s working people imposed a cease-fire.
The ‘Peace’ Treaty signed at Versailles in July 1919 did not usher in ‘peace’. The Reparations Clauses were war by other means, as von Clausewitz might have put it. The $US33 billion debt laid a basis for the inflation of 1923 and its long-term effects on German politics towards the triumph of Nazism in 1933.
When the Germans did not meet the payment schedule, the French Army occupied the Ruhr in 1924.
The White Armies
Armies of intervention in Russia included a clutch of Australian volunteers among British contingents into Arkhangelsk and Murmansk from the summer of 1918. A more important front opened to capture the oilfields around Baku where Shell financed the White Armies.
Our Japanese ally didn’t withdraw from Siberia until July 1922.
The US imperialists also sent in troops to support the White Army, using the Red Cross as its stalking horse, as it had in Cuba after 1898.
Proletarian Councils of Action, especially in Scotland, scared off plans to send supplies against the Reds.
The Middle East
The victors were set on imposing on the Middle East the 1916 Sykes-Picot-Sazanov agreement to divide the Ottoman Empire between the British, the French, the Italians and the Russians after the war.
The Bolsheviks exposed and repudiated its terms which survived as the blueprint for drawing more lines on maps to establish Syria/Greater Lebanon for the French, Iraq, TransJordan and Kuwait for the British, but no homeland for the Kurds.
On 2 November 1917, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour had assured the leader of the British Zionist Federation, Baron Rothschild, of the Empire’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Persia had been under British control since 1905 through Anglo-Persian Oil (now BP), initially upon a fortune extracted from the labour of miners at Queensland’s Mt Morgan gold fields.
Encouraged by Britain, the Greeks invaded Turkey and, by August 1921, were poised to enter Ankara. During their debacle of October 1922, British Prime Minister Lloyd George asked for Australian support to ‘protect the war graves’. Australia’s PM Billy Hughes replied that the returned Diggers would much rather fight for the Turks than the Greeks whom they thought to be more pro-Hun than their enemy at Gallipoli.
Negotiating peace treaties dragged out till 1923 because the rival imperialists could not agree of how to divvy up the spoils but also because the locals had ideas of their own about how they were to be governed.
- On 13 April 1919, British troops killed 379 unarmed protestors and wounded around 1000 more in the Indian State of Amritsar.
- Three weeks later, the Third Afghan War broke out, ending after the RAF bombed Afghan cities.
The US military pulled back from Europe, with the US Senate refusing to endorse the Versailles Treaty or to join the League of Nations. Isolationism left Washington free for the Marines to intervene across Central and South America, gaining exclusive and highly favourable rights over Mexican, Colombian and Venezuelan oil.
The US Navy prepared battle plans against the Royal Navy over access to Middle Eastern oil. By 1928, Britain had admitted Standard Oil to Iraq and Persia, whereupon the rivals set up a cartel.
As Field-Marshall Earl Wavell put it:
After “the war to end war” they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making “Peace to end Peace’.
* Humphrey McQueen is an Australian national treasure, labour and socialist historian and cultural commentator as well as being a political activist and public intellectual. His most iconic work, ‘A New Britannia’, in 1970 challenged the then old-school approach to Australian history. He has written books on history, the media, politics and the visual arts.
Postscript: And then there’s…HAIG
Of the several criticisms leveled against Ernest Newman’s four-volume biography of Richard Wagner, one was that it never mentioned that his patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, was mad. Newman admitted that he had no expertise in diseases of the mind and therefore had not felt qualified to make a diagnosis.
Moreover, he offered this contrast as indicative of the difficulties that even the most expert must face: Ludwig had been considered ‘mad’ because, instead of joining Bismarck’s war-making, he had almost bankrupted his kingdom by sponsoring opera and building three palaces.
Douglas Haig, on the other hand, having convinced the British cabinet that he was the greatest military genius since Napoleon, presided over a strategy that ended in the deaths of more than a million of his countrymen. After the war, the cabinet rewarded him with a peerage and £100,000.
Had Field-Marshall Haig claimed to be Napoleon, Newman mused, surely even Lloyd George would have had him committed to Dartmoor with the other criminally insane.
– Humphrey McQueen
PS: In 1921, a professor of philosophy, Norman Kemp-Smith, contemplated returning to belief in a Divine Providence because, as he put it, and not unreasonably, it was ‘intolerable, impossible’ to accept that the fate of Europe depended on Lloyd George.