Trick or Treat? the Anglo-French Alliance, 1919
Lentin, Antony, History Today
Signed by Lloyd George and Clemenceau on June 28th, 1919, the same day as the signature of the Treaty of Versailles, the shortlived Anglo-French Alliance seldom receives more than a glance from historians. And yet for the French, at the time, it was an integral part, indeed the pivot, of the Versailles settlement, 'the keystone of European peace', in Clemenceau's words. A leading scholar, L.A.R. Yates, stresses that it 'served as the key factor in making possible the Versailles treaty'. What was the significance of the alliance, stillborn as it proved, in the history of the Paris Peace Conference? What caused the 'keystone' of the Versailles settlement to collapse?
The proposal of alliance arose from inter-Allied differences over France's demand for a strategic frontier on the Rhine. This demand emerged soon after the Armistice. It had never been, like the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine, an agreed Allied war aim, but emanated from France alone. It originated with Marshal Foch, and was adopted by Clemenceau as official French policy early in the Conference. France's object was 'une garantie d'ordre physique'. Only the Rhine, it was argued, could protect France from a repetition of 1870 and 1914. Nothing less could compensate for her grave inferiority, demographic, strategic and geopolitical: her smaller population and lower and declining birthrate, the proven vulnerability of her existing frontier with Germany, and the irreparable loss of Imperial Russia as an ally and counterweight to Germany. Never again, in France's view, should the Rhineland be allowed to serve as a springboard for German aggression.
The French proposals, drafted by Clemenceau's chief confidant and adviser, Andre Tardieu, and officially presented on February 25th, were wholly unacceptable to Wilson and Lloyd George. To detach from Germany the left-bank territory of the Rhine, whether by outright annexation to France, or as some form of autonomous buffer-state, was to fly in the face of that principle of national self-determination which Wilson had often proclaimed should be 'an imperative principle of action' at the Peace Conference, and which the Allies too had agreed (not only among themselves, but also by the pre-Armistice agreement with Germany) would form a fundamental principle of the peace. To separate 5 million Rhinelanders from the Reich would provoke lasting resentment, requiring the long-term presence of American and British troops in Germany, and sowing fresh seeds of tension and conflict between France and Germany.
As Lloyd George graphically and repeatedly put it, it would create new Alsace-Lorraines in reverse, and thus imperil from the start the peace which the Allies were in Paris to reestablish. 'When confronted with the Rhineland question', Clemenceau recalled, 'Mr Wilson shook his head in an unpromising fashion, and Mr Lloyd George assumed a determined air of antagonism'.
The issue of the Rhine dogged the Conference during February and March, the arguments for and against being continually reformulated, without agreement. On March 7th, Clemenceau, demanding 'the permanent detachment of the Rhineland from Germany', roundly denied the primacy of self-determination. 'He said that he did not believe in the principle of self-determination which allowed a man to clutch at your throat the first time it was convenient to him'. An informal committee was set up to work at a solution. Andre Tardieu and Lloyd George's private secretary, Philip Kerr, argued the case for Clemenceau and Lloyd George, but only amplified the basic incompatibility of Anglo-French attitudes.
To the contention that detaching the Rhineland would provoke revanchisme in Germany, Tardieu riposted that Germany's defeat in 1918 made such a reaction inevitable in any event. France was entitled to take preventative measures against German resurgence. Self-determination, he went on, was not an absolute, overriding principle. Britain and America accepted that self-determination would necessarily be infringed in order to ensure the viability of the succession-states to the east and south of Germany. It was agreed that substantial parts of Germany would go to Poland, and that the Germans of Czechoslovakia and Austria would not be allowed to unite with Germany. Why, then, this perverse insistence on self-determination in the Rhineland, where the question was of safeguarding France 'not from a possible danger, but from a known danger', a danger from which France had just emerged at terrible cost? To expect France to give up the Rhine frontier was like asking Britain and America to sink their fleets, said Tardieu: 'We shall refuse'. The matter was referred back unresolved to the principals, Kerr advising Lloyd George 'I would resist the Tardieu proposition to the end'. A grave impasse developed, threatening the solidarity of the Entente and the future of the Conference.
On March 14th, Lloyd George produced his famous rabbit out of the hat, a proposed resolution of the crisis in the shape of an offer to France of immediate alliance with Britain against a future German aggression, provided that Clemenceau abandoned his demand for the Rhine. Wilson for his part agreed to put to the United States Senate a similar proposal of an American guarantee to France. This was a sensational intervention. What Lloyd George and Wilson were offering was a renewal of the alliance that had won the war, the avowed basis of Clemenceau's peace policy. Addressing the Chamber of Deputies in December 1918, he had proclaimed as the guiding principle of his policy at the Peace Conference the maintenance of the alliance with Britain and America. For this, he said, he was prepared to sacrifice much. At a meeting between Clemenceau, Tardieu and other close advisers on the evening of March 14th, it was therefore agreed that Lloyd George's 'astounding' offer could under no circumstances be rejected.
Equally, however, the British offer was unacceptable to France as it stood, without some additional, tangible guarantee against German use of the Rhineland for a pre-emptive attack. France would accept the offers of alliance, and the Rhineland would remain under German sovereignty, but it must be permanently demilitarised by Germany, placed out of bounds to German forces in perpetuity, and occupied for several decades by Allied troops. Clemenceau proposed a thirty-year occupation. These demands now replaced the Rhine frontier as the goals of French policy. Instead of resolving the Anglo-French crisis immediately, therefore, Lloyd George's offer of alliance produced Clemenceau's counter-proposals three days later, followed by six weeks of vigorous and sometimes acrimonious negotiation.
The French proposals were eventually accepted, with a compromise on the length of the military occupation, a term of fifteen years being agreed. On April 22nd, the deal was struck: the protocols of the American and British guarantees to France were signed by Wilson and Lloyd George. Any 'unprovoked movement' of German forces into the demilitarised Rhineland would constitute 'a hostile act ... calculated to disturb the peace of the world', bringing immediate British and American intervention on France's side. On May 5th, it was agreed that the British and American alliances would come into being simultaneously, as soon as the latter was ratified by the United States Senate.
In accepting Lloyd George's offer, Clemenceau pursued a fundamental goal of this policy at the price of abandoning what he had previously declared to be a non-negotiable condition of the peace. He acted in the face of consistent opposition, particularly from Marshal Foch and President Poincare. From first to last, Foch continued to insist on the indispensability of the Rhine frontier, with or without the alliance. On March 31st, he reminded the Allied leaders that 1ogistically the Anglo-French alliance was no substitute for the Rhine frontier. Channel tunnel or no, British troops could not reach France in sufficient force to stem a German invasion. America could not intervene for months. Meanwhile, France would be overwhelmed. Without the Rhine frontier, Foch predicted, the Versailles settlement would be no more than 'the armistice for twenty years'. These remonstrances, however prescient, were nevertheless academic and fruitless once Clemenceau had closed with Lloyd George and Wilson on April 22nd, securing Cabinet approval of his policy on the 25th. Thereafter, Foch's remonstrances became an embarrassment to Clemenceau and were ignored by Lloyd George and Wilson, who heard him out with ill-concealed impatience.
It is sometimes argued that for Clemenceau, the Rhine frontier was only a bargaining counter for the Anglo-American guarantee. The thesis is unconvincing. In the first place it goes against the grain of Clemenceau's character -'straight as a die', in the words of Colonel House, Wilson's personal representative. Clemenceau never pretended that the maintenance of solidarity with Britain and America was anything less than the foundation of his policy. He gave up the Rhine frontier for alliance with England as a conscious political choice between priorities. It is true, however, that he was more sensitive than Foch both to the shortcomings and the costs of a Rhine frontier. He questioned whether Foch's vaunted 'barriere du Rhin' was really more impenetrable than the Meuse, the Aisne, the Marne, or the other great rivers which the Germans had crossed in the course of the war. He doubted its ultimate strategic worth under the changing conditions of modern warfare. Could the Rhine protect France from long-range artillery or attack from the air? He was also concerned with the drain on France's manpower and resources involved in a French endeavour to hold the Rhine single-handed. Although he may have been willing to connive at attempts by French officers in the occupied Rhineland to foster separatism among the Rhinelanders, his own nationalist convictions persuaded him of the impossibility of holding the territory indefinitely against the wishes of its inhabitants. The Rhinelanders might perhaps be anti-Prussian; that did not make them pro-French. He did not want, he told the Chamber of Deputies, to see France physically or morally impaired.
Above all, there was the maintenance of the wartime alliance. With little faith in the League of Nations, Clemenceau did not conceal his belief in the balance of power and its deterrent value. In the Chamber of Deputies he asked whether Germany would have launched her aggression in 1914 had she known that Britain and America would be ranged against her. The avowed cornerstone of his peace policy - which was a profoundly defensive policy - was the preservation of the alliance. Without it, in his view, France could not have survived the war, and could not survive the peace. If France insisted on holding the Rhine frontier in the teeth of British and American opposition, she would be left to bear the consequences alone. Given his fears of the dangers to be anticipated from a resurgent Germany, Clemenceau was not prepared to contemplate that France should face those dangers in isolation.
Clemenceau believed that he had struck a good bargain with Lloyd George, and his biographer. D.R. Watson, agrees that Clemenceau's 'bargaining tactics can be said to have been extremely successful'. In fact, as the sequel was soon to prove, Clemenceau had bought a pig in a poke. The terms of the alliance, as Foch, Poincare and others pointed out, were vague and uncertain. What was its duration? What was the attitude of the Dominions? Why was no provision made for the defense of Belgium? Who would determine the casus foederis? Why was there no provision for a military convention to supplement the political agreement? Critics of the alliance also worried that it was subject to ratification by the British Parliament. They failed to notice the truly fatal flaw, that it was also subject to ratification by the American Senate, and that when the Senate failed to ratify Wilson's pledge, Lloyd George's promise was revealed as so many empty words.
In his search for security, Clemenceau staked all on the treaty with Britain, and he lost all - the American alliance, the British alliance and the Rhine frontier. All that was left was a fifteen-year occupation of the Rhineland, set to terminate at the very moment when Germany would be in a position to challenge the peace settlement and once more to threaten French security. It is true that under Article 429 of the Treaty of Versailles, Clemenceau secured provision for a possible delay of the evacuation of the Rhineland, 'if the guarantees against unprovoked aggression against Germany are not considered sufficient by the Allied and Associated Governments'; and Article 230 also gave the right to re-occupy the Rhineland after fifteen years if Germany fell short in the payment of reparations. But decision-making under these articles would require fresh agreement among the Allies. In reliance on Lloyd George, Clemenceau did what his critics feared most: he sacrificed the strategic frontier for a scrap of paper. To Foch and Poincare, he threw away France's strategic ace, or rather, he handed it back to Germany, leaving France once more open to attack, in 1940 as in 1914.
For Wilson and Lloyd George, their pledges to assist France were, at best, peripheral to the business of peacemaking. What were they at worst? Colonel House saw the American undertaking as a sop to distract Clemenceau from his demand for the Rhine. Doubting that the Senate would ratify it, he added: 'Meanwhile, it satisfies Clemenceau, and we can get on with the real business of the Conference.' Wilson himself admitted, somewhat shamefacedly, that the most he had promised was to submit his proposal to the Senate, an undertaking which in the event he did not keep.
What about Lloyd George? Lloyd George, while easily carrying the Anglo-French treaty through Parliament in July 1919, was within months released from any possible obligation under it by the collapse of the American guarantee, to which his own was linked. If the Senate failed to ratify Wilson's pledge, as he told the Commons in December, 'undoubtedly we are free to reconsider our decision'.
But how did the outcome of Lloyd George's promise come to depend on the attitude of the American Senate? It came about as the result of Lloyd George's own policy. He was well aware that there were doubts about whether the Senate would ratify the American guarantee, and that was why he linked the British one to it. If America ratified Wilson's pledge - then, in the event of future German aggression, American intervention was assured. In this sense, an American commitment was as much a guarantee to Britain as to France. If, on the other hand, America did not ratify Wilson's pledge, Britain would be automatically discharged from any obligation to France, free to reconsider her policy towards France as circumstances and British interests might dictate.
For Lloyd George, it was, to use one of his favourite expressions, 'heads I win, tails you lose', a master stroke of diplomatic ingenuity. Meanwhile, the problem of the Rhine frontier, a major obstacle to the work of peacemaking, was removed by the deal struck with Clemenceau on April 22nd, at no cost to Britain beyond a promise by Lloyd George, a form of words which might or might not be redeemed. Clemenceau's abandonment of the policy of the Rhine frontier was irrevocable, once the Allied peace terms were put to the Germans on May 7th. The terms were maximum demands which might be reduced, but could not be augmented.
How did Lloyd George contrive to induce Clemenceau to agree to such an arrangement? The suspicion of legerdemain cannot be avoided. He induced Clemenceau to give up the Rhine frontier by repeated pledges of alliance with Britain. He lent plausibility to this by promises of a Channel tunnel. But no causal link between the British and American alliances existed until after Clemenceau abandoned the Rhine frontier. Indeed, no link existed until June 27th, the very eve of signature. It was only then that Lloyd George, by surreptitiously introducing the world 'only' into the text of the Anglo-French treaty, ensured that 'only when' the American treaty was ratified would the British treaty come into force. This insertion at a last-minute meeting of the three Allied leaders, does not appear to have been noticed by Clemenceau, who signed the treaty the next morning.
Having signed, he was bound by his signature, whether or not he had read and appreciated what he had put his name to. Lloyd George knew him to be a man of his word. 'Clemenceau', he recalled, 'had already accepted our proposals, and he never went back on an arrangement to which he had assented, however reluctantly'. Having assented to Lloyd George's eleventh-hour draft, Clemenceau was impotent to complain publicly, by divulging what one of his critics called his 'inexplicable aberration'. He would not admit, as his critics did not scruple to proclaim, that he had been duped by the British prime minister, without losing all political credibility. He could not cross swords with Lloyd George, since he depended upon him for the furtherance of his declared policy of Anglo-French solidarity. Well might he privately lament that Lloyd George had deceived him and that Britain was his greatest disappointment. His fall from office in January 1920 came about as a result of disillusion and foreboding at the Versailles settlement and the lack of real security which it afforded France, and a sense of betrayal, vulnerability and isolation consequent on the evaporation of the Anglo-French Alliance.
FOR FURTHER READING:
A. Lentin, 'The Treaty that Never Was: Lloyd George and the Abortive Anglo-French Alliance, 1919' in Judith Loades (ed) The Life and Times of David Lloyd George (Headstart History, 1991) and The Versailles Peace Settlement: Peacemaking with Germany New Appreciation in History, No. 23 (The Historical Association, 1991); W.A. McDougall, France's Rhineland Diplomacy 1914-1924. The Last Bid for a Balance of Power in Europe (Princeton University Press, 1978); D.S. Newhall, Clemenceau. A Life at War (The Edwin Mellen Press, Lainpeter, 1991); A. Sharp, The Versailles Settlement: Peacemaking in Paris, 1919 (Macmillan, 1991).
Antony Lentin is Reader in History at the Open University. He is the author of Guilt at Versailles. Lloyd George and the Pre-History of Appeasement (Methuen, 1985).…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Trick or Treat? the Anglo-French Alliance, 1919. Contributors: Lentin, Antony - Author. Magazine title: History Today. Volume: 42. Publication date: December 1992. Page number: 28+. © 2009 History Today Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1992 Gale Group.
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