Lloyd George and the Treaty of Versailles

Does Lloyd George bear the blame for the flawed Treaty of Versailles?


This is an A-level essay dated 2002


Although Lloyd George was reasonably satisfied with the terns of the Versailles Treaty, and was given a hero's welcome on his return from Paris, it gradually emerged that there were many faults with the settlement. The most common charges are that it was too hard on the Germans and that some of the terms - reparations payments and German disarmament - were impossible to carry out. There was much controversy about the size of the reparations bill. J.M.Keynes, a British economic adviser at the conference, argued that 2000 million was a realistic figure which the Germans could afford to pay without bankruptcy. On the other hand, some of the British and French extremists were demanding 24 000 million, so the final figure was kinder to the Germans than it might have been. The settlement had the unfortunate effect of dividing Europe into the states which wanted to revise it (Germany being the main one), and those which wanted to preserve it, and on the whole even they turned out to be lukewarm in their support. The USA failed to ratify the settlement, to the disgust of Woodrow Wilson, and never joined the League of Nations; this in turn left France completely disenchanted with the whole business because the Anglo-American guarantee of her frontiers could not now apply. Italy felt cheated because she had not received the full territory promised her in 1915, and Russia was ignored. All this tended to sabotage the settlement from the beginning, and it became increasingly difficult to apply the terms fully. Worst of all, it did embitter the Germans, yet did not weaken them sufficiently to prevent further aggression. Only 20 years were to pass before Hitler's armies invaded Poland, beginning the Second World War.

So, it is quite possible to make a case for the Versailles Treaty being flawed, but just how much is Lloyd George to blame for the failings of the settlement? To establish the answer to this question we must examine in detail the course of events and the contributions of the three main players.

Woodrow Wilson had attempted to determine the broad lines of the peace in advance of the conference by means of his famous Fourteen Points which included such principles as national self-determination, absolute freedom of the seas, the impartial adjustment of colonial claims, and establishment of a League of Nations. Neither Lloyd George nor Clemenceau understood what all this meant, and regarded themselves as entirely uncommitted to the President's grand scheme. A major disagreement arose over the terms on which occupied territory was to be restored. Wilson clearly distinguished between Belgium and France in this respect. The former should receive full compensation for physical damage resulting from the invasion and for the costs of resisting it. But since the invasion of France was not an illegal act, Germany was liable only for the physical damage. After his rash commitment to an indemnity at the recent election, Lloyd George was dismayed to find Wilson resolutely committed to his original idea. To represent Britain on the Reparations Commission he had chosen Lord Cunliffe, Mr Justice Sumner, and Billy Hughes, the Australian Premier. This was his first and worst error in the peacemaking. He doubtless calculated that their reputation for toughness would insure him against criticism at home. But when the three adopted a narrow, vindictive approach to German payments and stuck obstinately to it, Lloyd George could not risk provoking their resignations; for as early as February he began to be challenged by MPs who doubted his sincerity over reparations. He could only reply that the commission was at work and the Government would stand by its pledges. Back in Paris he found a complete deadlock over the indemnity by March. With typical ingenuousness he confessed to Colonel House, Wilson's special adviser, that the British claims were absurdly high as a result of an election stunt perpetrated by others. But he could not throw over the claims, and therefore must secure a large sum for Britain, even if its actual collection were to be pushed into the distant future.

Thus there were two objectives for Lloyd George: to settle on a respectably large sum total for German liability, and to ensure that Britain won a major share of it. The Big Three (Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Wilson) soon settled on a figure of 6 billion, but Cunliffe and his colleagues insisted on <21 billion. The Big Three went up to >8 billion, and Cunliffe, with great reluctance, came down to 12 billion and stuck. At home rumours of a Lloyd George climb-down, fanned by the Northcliffe press, led to a virtual vote of confidence in the House of Commons on 2 April. Bonar Law was badly rattled by this, and claimed afterwards that nine out of ten Conservatives were now disgusted with him. On 8 April an ominous telegram, signed by over 200 coalition MPs, arrived for Lloyd George reminding him of his election pledges - an extraordinary experience for a Prime Minister within four months of his great triumph. He now appeared to be trapped between the irresistible force of the Conservative rank and file, which could break his government, and the immovable obstinacy of Cunliffe. But Lloyd George found an escape route. First, he shrewdly prevailed upon General Smuts, whom Wilson liked and admired, to persuade the President to agree to include the cost of British disability pensions and allowances for dependants of the dead and disabled in the claim for reparations; this would double Britain's share. Second, he and Clemenceau sought to establish that their right to compensation was practically unlimited. Under the strain, the American President fell ill and matters were settled with the more flexible Colonel House. At Lloyd George's suggestion, they decided to incorporate into what became Article 231 of the treaty an acknowledgement of war guilt on the part of Germany. Given this acceptance of unlimited liability by the Germans, both Lloyd George and Clemenceau felt they could dispense with a precise figure; this could be left to a commission which would report in two years' time. Woodrow Wilson reluctantly acquiesced in this. He even agreed to the trial of the Kaiser. 'Now I understand why you are Prime Minister', an American delegate told Lloyd George afterwards.

Armed with the war-guilt clause, he boldly returned home to face the House of Commons on 16 April. Flourishing his triumph without going into details, he teasingly asked his critics whether they wanted him to return to Paris to complete the task or not, and made fun of Lord Northcliffe's pretensions at great length. As a result the opposition collapsed. Lloyd George had sprung from the trap that appeared to be closing on him.

His approach to the rest of the peace settlement reflected his proposals in the Fontainebleau Memorandum which he had drawn up in March when the conference had practically ground to a halt. By this time, as Clemenceau observed, the British had already won the points that were of vital concern to them such as the surrender of the German fleet, and the disposal of German colonies. Naturally Wilson resisted the dismemberment of colonial territory for the benefit of the old imperial powers. But, once again, Lloyd George enlisted Smuts to persuade him to adopt a system of 'mandates' to facilitate the transfer of Tanganyika, South West Africa, and the other German territories. Wilson was also placated by the ready acceptance of his proposals for a League of Nations. Lloyd George and Clemenceau thought this a concession of no great significance beside the immediate and tangible objects they desired.

By and large the Fontainebleau Memorandum aimed to force the French to compromise on their demands. Reappearing in liberal guise, Lloyd George now warned against punitive treatment of Germany; this would only invite a war of revenge in the long run, or, in the short run, might even push Germany into the hands of the Bolsheviks. In particular he opposed any permanent detachment of the Rhineland from Germany. The French none the less obtained a fifteen-year occupation of the Rhineland and accepted Lloyd George's offer of an Anglo-American guarantee to come to France's aid in any future unprovoked aggression by Germany. In eastern Europe Lloyd George deplored the French desire to exclude Upper Silesia from Germany. Since it contained more Germans than Poles, he successfully insisted on the holding of a plebiscite there, but in the meantime it was in fact included in the new Poland. Similarly, he thought that French ideas on a Polish corridor would place too many Germans under the Poles. He accepted the need for Polish access to the sea, but drew the line at Danzig with its 400,000 Germans. Eventually Danzig became a Free City.

In spite of such modifications, the treaty remained a severe, even humiliating one for the Germans, who, to the consternation of the Allied leaders, rejected the terms. This once again threatened Lloyd George's position, for it might become necessary to take up arms again. Yet by now the Northcliffe press was demanding that the troops be brought home. Therefore Lloyd George summoned his entire Cabinet to Paris where he entertained them to dinner on 31 May. Conservative and Liberal ministers alike found the terms vindictive and unjust towards Germany. Thus, with their encouragement, he tried to persuade Wilson and Clemenceau to make further concessions. But they were now disgusted by the opportunism and shiftiness of the British and refused to move. Consequently the settlement stood and the Germans reluctantly acquiesced.

In the settlement as a whole Lloyd George had clearly played the key role. He had worked with the French President over the central question of reparations, and then with Wilson in order to limit the punitive demands of Clemenceau. Meanwhile he had successfully defended British interests, narrowly defined in terms of the German navy, the colonies, and her share in compensation for the war. There is justice in the view that whereas Wilson and Clemenceau had both worked from principles, albeit very different ones, Lloyd George had been guided by expediency. Nor was his expediency justified by the results, for it left the French sulky and detached, and the Germans with a burning sense of injustice. His failure was a moral one; he had never attempted to use the immense prestige and authority he had won in the war to defy his critics at home and insist on a just and honest peace. No sooner was the treaty made than most British politicians agreed, as H.A.L. Fisher put it, that it 'should be modified . . . there will be an appeasement'. It is to his credit that Lloyd George entirely agreed.

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