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. …