World at War - M. B. Synge




The Peace Treaty

"Then to our children there shall be no handing

Of fates so vain—of passions so abhorr'd,

But Peace—the Peace which passeth understanding,

Not in our time—but in their time, O Lord."

—R. E. VERNEDE.

The Armistice was signed on 11th November 1918. It was not till 18th January 1919 that the formal opening of the Peace Conference took place. It has been said that the time between these two dates contains more stirring episodes than years of battle.

Europe lay in ruins. The first days of wild joy were over. Kings had ridden back to their lost capitals in triumph—then they had visited Paris. The King of England and the Prince of Wales, who had played his part fearlessly in the Great War, had been followed by the King of Italy and later by King Albert of Belgium by aeroplane—all to be received with thunders of applause from the radiant, victorious French, in whose capital the Peace Conference was now to be held.

For weeks past, statesmen had been arriving from the four corners of the world to represent their countries. There were some seventy delegates in all—France, Italy, the United States, and Japan had each five, while the British Empire was represented by fourteen delegates. Thus with all their secretaries, an elaborate machinery was set up—but ultimate decisions were in the hands of first ten and then four men, M. Clemenceau, the French Premier, Mr. Wilson, President of the American Republic, Mr. Lloyd George, Prime Minister of England, and Signor Orlando of Italy. When all were seated, on this fateful day, 18th January, President Poincare of the French Republic spoke.

"You will," he said to the great and varied array of delegates, "seek nothing but justice. If you are to remake the map of the world, it is in the name of the peoples and on condition that you shall faithfully interpret their thoughts and respect the right of nations. While thus introducing into the world as much harmony as possible, you will establish a general League of Nations, which will be a supreme guarantee against any fresh assaults upon the right of peoples."

M. Clemenceau was chosen President of the Conference. He—the "Tiger" of days gone by—was a born leader of men, and at the age of seventy-six was still full of his old vigour and activity. A patriot to the heart's core, he had fought for France in her last war with Germany, and signed the tragic protest against the taking of Alsace-Lorraine. He had watched Germany's preparation for this further invasion of his country. He knew that she was bent on crushing France, and that this struggle for world-dominion would be long and anxious. But even when things were at their worst, Clemenceau never lost confidence—his faith in France and her English ally never wavered. No other statesman had shown such courage in denouncing corruption and treachery in high places. When others despaired, this brave man hoped.

Three years of war had passed when a cry for M. Clemenceau rang through France. He was the one man who might save his country, in this her hour of danger. M. Poincare asked him to become Prime Minister. Only his duty to France resolved him to accept, and the old statesman shouldered the burden that younger men had declined. It had been a stirring scene when the Tiger of old days had delivered his first speech to the crowded house.

"Everything for France, everything for the triumph of right. Our simple duty is to stand by the soldiers, to live, suffer, and fight with them. The day will come when, from Paris to the smallest village of France, storms of cheers will welcome our victorious colours battered by shell-fire and drenched with blood and tears. It is for us to hasten the coming of that glorious day, which will fitly take its place beside so many others in our history."

His sincerity and patriotism raised the Assembly to the highest pitch of enthusiasm. The destinies of France were in the balance, and Clemenceau was the man at the helm. From the day he took office, his career was a series of triumphs. Through the dark days of 1918 he went almost daily to the Front, speaking with officers and men, cheering, encouraging, holding men firmly to their allotted tasks. When, in May, the German guns were thundering at the very gates of Amiens, and a strike of munition workers in and about Paris threatened the very existence of France, it was Clemenceau who persuaded the workers to go back to their tasks, himself maintaining an undaunted front. Had it not been due to Clemenceau too that the Allied command was united under Marshal Foch at the famous little conference of Doullens? Few had realised the gravity of the situation, but those who did, believed that Clemenceau—the Tiger—had saved the Allied cause.

This, then, was the man who was now placed in the supreme position of President of the Peace Conference.

Hardly second in importance was Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States. He had resolved to attend the Peace Conference in person, and fight for his Fourteen Points. On 4th December 1918 the George Washington, with the President on board, sailed from New York amid the wild shrieks of a thousand sirens, with aeroplanes flying overhead; and on 13th December steamed into Brest harbour through a double line of grey battleships and destroyers, to be greeted with a very thunder of applause. The following day President Wilson, driving through the streets of Paris, was wildly welcomed by a close-packed crowd—a public triumph indeed. Further triumphs awaited him in England and in Italy.

Men literally bowed down before him, and shed tears of joy in his presence. He stood for Peace and for Justice. He would lead them to the promised land, where wars were prohibited and blockades unknown. It has been said that the President had an opportunity vaster than had ever before been within the reach of man. It might have been a turning-point in the world's history. It failed for lack of moral courage.

Then came Lloyd George, the English Prime Minister, and M. Sonnino, Premier of Italy. The splendid services rendered to the British Empire by Lloyd George will never be forgotten. Through its darkest hours he steered the nation with confidence and with success. He had been a marked man before war broke out. His words in 1914 seemed to find an echo in men's hearts: "We have been living," he said, "in a sheltered valley; the stern hand of Fate has scourged us to an elevation whence we can see the great peaks of honour—Duty, Patriotism, Sacrifice. We shall descend again, but this generation will carry in their hearts the image of those great mountain peaks, whose foundations are not shaken, though Europe rock and sway in the convulsions of a great war."

The task before the Peace Conference was colossal. Nothing in the past could compare with it. For the first time in history whole nations had fought. 30,000,000 men had been wounded; nearly 10,000,000 had died. The great peace treaties of the past were child's play compared to this.

The map of Europe had to be remade. The forces of Right against Might had to be readjusted.

It was in a spirit of honest desire for a just and honourable peace that the delegates set to work.

The Treaty was studied, prepared, and discussed for six long months; 58 Commissions, holding over 1600 meetings, discussed by day and by night technical questions, and finally the Council of Four held 145 meetings. All men gave time, experience, and brains to the great work. No efforts were spared to obtain information, to get expert opinion from far-off lands, to extort the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

A League of Nations was one of Wilson's Fourteen Points, and from the first he was determined that it should form part of the Peace Treaty. The idea was not new. The Hague Peace Conferences were not forgotten. Lord Robert Cecil had worked at the subject in England; Germany had issued a treatise on the same subject in 1918, while yet America was publicly announcing it. Through the winter months the complicated machines of Treaty-making worked laboriously. A rough draft of the League of Nations was finished on the very eve of the President's return to America on necessary business. The new Covenant provided for a Council of Nine Powers to meet annually and advise on any matters threatening to destroy peace. Members of the League were to agree not to make war without first submitting to the arbitration of the Council.

The President's return to America with this document, the first-fruit of the Peace Conference, in his pocket was bitterly disappointing. The country understood little of the difficulties of making peace. It did not approve of the President's long absence; it had no wish to be involved in European wars or European peace. His failure to command approval at home did not improve his position on his return to Paris a month later. The League was no longer the central interest. Its place was taken by the great question of reparations. How much should Germany be made to pay? The discussions were long and agitating. The Council of Four met twice a day, and talked with a deep desire to agree. Their conversation was at times "tragic in its grave simplicity." All the financial experts in the world could hardly name a sum that would be just to all. France had suffered the most, and demanded payment for her devastated areas, while America had suffered least.

But at last the Treaty was finished. It had taken six months to frame, The "Conditions of Peace" were contained in a bulky white book of over 200 pages written in both English and French. It was presented to the German representatives on the morning of 7th May, the 4th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania.

It was a day of brilliant sunshine. Within the great Hall there was deep anxiety. Would the Germans accept? When all the delegates were seated, the three Germans entered. The entire assembly rose to their feet and stood in complete silence while they took their places. The central figure was M. Clemenceau, sitting between President Wilson and Mr. Lloyd George. M. Clemenceau rose: "The time has come," he said, looking across at the Germans, "when we must settle our accounts. You have asked for peace. We are ready to give you peace. We present to you a book which contains our conditions."

The bulky volume was then placed before the German leader. He glanced at it, but let it lie untouched on the table. Without rising from his seat, he spoke slowly: "We have no illusion as to the extent of our defeat and the measure of our impotence. We know that the power of the German army is broken. We are not here to deny the responsibility of the men who directed the War. We repeat that wrong was done to Belgium, and we are ready to make it good. In this Conference, where we stand alone, we are not without defence. You yourselves have given us an ally. The Allies have renounced a peace of force and inscribed a peace of justice on their banner. The principles of President Wilson are binding on you as well as on us. They require from us grave national and economic sacrifices, but the conscience of the world is behind them, and no nation will violate them without paying the penalty. I regard as the first task the reconstruction of the devastated districts. We have recognised the obligation and are resolved to fulfill it. The lofty conception of securing from the greatest tragedy of history the greatest advance, has been proclaimed and will be accomplished. Only when the doors of the League of Nations are open to all nations of goodwill can the goal be reached. Only then can it be said that the dead have not died in vain."

After a first rapid glance at the Treaty, the Germans wished to reject it at once, but they decided to take it home and make observations on it. This done, they returned on 29th May with a document denouncing the terms as impossibly harsh.

"We came to Versailles," they said, "expecting to receive a Treaty based on agreed foundations. We were indignant when we read the demands of the victors. Its demands are beyond the power of the German people."

The document was long and detailed. It "stiffened the back of Clemenceau and left President Wilson cold." A reply was presented to Germany on 16th June, the Allies had spoken their last word. The Germans must sign within four days or the Allies must "take the necessary steps to enforce the terms."

The Germans were distracted and angry. But the four days passed, and just two hours before the appointed time, a telegram of unconditional acceptance reached Versailles.

The closing scene took place on 28th June. The date was historic. It was the 5th anniversary of the assassination of Franz Josef at Serajevo. It took place in the same Hall of Mirrors at Versailles where, forty years before, Germany had dictated harsh peace terms to conquered France.

All the captured German guns which had filled the courtyard outside were removed. The streets were filled with French soldiers in sky-blue uniforms and steel helmets. Delegates of thirty nations were present.

As three o'clock sounded, a hush fell on the people and the two German delegates appeared. They were led to their seats opposite the table on which the book of the Treaty was placed. M. Clemenceau rose quickly and formally requested the Germans to sign. They rose, bowed, and signed their names. Then President Wilson, Mr. Lloyd George, M. Clemenceau and the other delegates signed. It was 4:30 before the ceremony ended, and guns outside began to boom. The delegates passed out into the open air, while crowds passed round the Four Men who had practically governed the world since the Armistice. At the place where the German Empire had been proclaimed after victory, it was now laid low after defeat.

Perhaps General Smuts expressed the mixed feelings produced by the Treaty when he said, "We have not yet achieved the real peace to which our peoples were looking. The work of making peace will only begin after a definite halt has been called to the destructive passions that have been devastating Europe for nearly five years. The promise of the new life, the victory for the great human ideals for which the peoples have shed their blood and their treasure without stint, are not written in this Treaty, and will not be written in Treaties. A new heart must be given, not only to our enemies, but to ourselves. A new spirit of generosity and humanity, born in the hearts of the peoples in this great hour of common suffering and sorrow, can alone heal the wounds inflicted on the body of Christendom."