Modern history


Deadlock Over the German Terms

REPARATIONS HAD STILL not been settled when Wilson arrived back in Paris on March 14—and neither had the Rhineland. The president had a quick private meeting with Lloyd George, who suggested that some sort of military guarantee, plus of course his beloved Channel tunnel, might satisfy the French. The two decided to offer to come to France’s aid if Germany attacked. In return, France would have to drop its plans for a separate Rhine state. Clemenceau could be brought round, Wilson thought: “When you have hooked him, you first draw in a little, then give liberty to the line, then draw him back, finally wear him out, break him down, and land him.” 1

That afternoon Clemenceau joined the two men at the Crillon. He talked again of France’s sufferings, its fears for the future, its need for Germany to stop at the Rhine. Lloyd George and Wilson produced their proposal. Clemenceau was delighted but asked for time to think it over. For two days Clemenceau and his closest advisers, including his foreign minister, Pichon, and Tardieu, mulled over the new proposal. He did not bother to consult his cabinet or Poincaré. Tardieu conceded that they would be criminal to turn it down, but there was still a problem: “A French Government satisfied with only this and nothing more would be equally guilty.” France, said the official reply on March 18, needed other guarantees: an Allied occupation of the Rhineland and the bridgeheads for at least five years; no German troops there and none within fifty miles of the east bank of the river. Wilson was greatly irritated. Talking to the French was like handling a rubber ball: “You tried to make an impression but as soon as you moved your finger the ball was as round as ever.” Even Balfour was moved from his customary calm. France, he told Lloyd George, would be better off working for a strong international system, “the very possibility of which many of them regard with ill-concealed derision.” Without that, “no manipulation of the Rhine frontier is going to make France anything more than a second-rate Power, trembling at the nod of its great neighbours on the East, and depending from day to day on the changes and chances of a shifting diplomacy and uncertain alliances.” 2

The next month saw memoranda and notes hurtling back and forth as the French tried to surround the Anglo-American guarantee with additional provisions. Day after day Clemenceau and his colleagues buttonholed the British and the Americans with new proposals: to enlarge the demilitarized zone on the east bank, to set up a commission of inspection with sweeping powers, or to give France the right to occupy the Rhineland if Germany violated any of the other provisions of the peace treaty, from disarmament to reparations payments.3

And they renewed their demand for the Saar, where the southwestern edge of the Rhineland met Alsace-Lorraine. What had been a quiet farming country with beautiful river valleys had become a major coal mining and manufacturing area in the nineteenth century. In 1919, when coal supplied almost all of Europe’s fuel needs, that made the region very valuable. Inconveniently for France, almost all of the Saar’s 650,000 inhabitants were German. The French tried historical arguments: the town of Saarlouis had been built by Louis XIV, the region had briefly been owned by the French during the French Revolution and the borders of 1814 gave most of it to France. “You base your claim,” Wilson told Clemenceau, “on what took place a hundred and four years ago. We cannot readjust Europe on the basis of conditions that existed in such a remote period.” The French did better when they spoke of reparations. Wilson had talked in his Fourteen Points about restitution to France for the damage done by Germany, and everyone agreed that the Germans had deliberately destroyed France’s coalfields. The British and the American experts, who had been working privately together since February, advised that France should control the Saar’s coal. The French held out for outright annexation. 4

By the end of March, Lloyd George was seriously concerned about the way the German terms were shaping up. The French were insisting on elaborate controls of the Rhineland and annexation of the Saar. In the east, Poland was getting territory that included not only some three million Germans but also the huge coalfields in Silesia. His own public opinion appeared to be moving in favor of a rapid, reasonably moderate, peace. His military and financial experts were warning him about the costs of having large forces scattered about the globe. He was worried about labor unrest at home and about revolution in Europe. On March 21 word came in that communists had seized power in Hungary. The next day Lloyd George and several of his closest advisers, including Kerr, Hankey and Henry Wilson, took a break from negotiations over the German treaty to spend the weekend at the Hôtel de France et d’Angleterre in the charming Paris suburb of Fontainebleau. The party visited the palace with its lovely park, but its real purpose was to take a fresh look at the whole treaty and to come up with something Britain, France and the United States could accept.

That afternoon, Lloyd George called his team into his private sitting room and assigned each a role, as an ally or an enemy. As far as we know, no one played the United States. Hankey, who took Britain, argued that Germany deserved punishment and should certainly lose its colonies. The Allies, however, must not be vindictive, or they would deliver the center of Europe to the dreadful peril of Bolshevism. For the sake of Europe and its own people, Germany must be rehabilitated. It must become part of the League of Nations. This was in Britain’s interest, since it did not want to keep troops on the Continent permanently. Hankey also reminded his audience that yet again the British navy had saved the country; they must look out for any threats to their seapower.

Henry Wilson threw himself into his two roles with enthusiasm. First, he turned his military cap back to front to play a German officer. “I explained my present situation, and my wish to come to an agreement with England and France, but saw no hope, for I read into the crushing terms they were imposing on me a determination on their part to kill me outright. As I could not stand alone I would turn to Russia, and in course of time would help that distracted country to recover law and order, and then make an alliance with her.” Then he became a Frenchwoman, the significant factor, he said, in shaping French opinion. He painted a moving picture of “the losses of so many of their husbands, sons and men folk, the unbearable anxiety and long separations, the financial losses, and the desperate struggle and overwork to keep their homes going.” Of course they wanted revenge and restitution from Germany, and they wanted assurance that Germany could never hurt them again.5

Lloyd George listened carefully and then gave his own views. His main point was that the peace terms must not destroy Germany. As the discussions continued, Kerr was given the job of making sense out of all this. By Monday morning, he had typed out a final draft—the Fontainebleau Memorandum. Lloyd George arrived back in Paris full of energy. “He means business this week,” reported Frances Stevenson. “He will stand no more nonsense either from French or Americans. He is taking the long view about the Peace, & insists that it should be one that will not leave bitterness for years to come & probably lead to another war.” 6 (She loyally overlooked his contribution to both the bitterness and the delay in drawing up the German terms.)

Lloyd George presented the memorandum to his colleagues on the Council of Four. It urged the peacemakers to make a moderate peace that would last. “You may strip Germany of her colonies, reduce her armaments to a mere police force and her navy to that of a fifth-rate power,” he wrote; “all the same in the end if she feels that she has been unjustly treated in the peace of 1919 she will find means of exacting retribution from her conquerors.” They must not leave Europe another poisoned legacy by placing millions of Germans or Hungarians or other minorities under alien rule. They must not stimulate the revolutionary forces burning their way through Europe. Above all, they must not drive Germany into a corner. “The greatest danger that I see in the present situation is that Germany may throw in her lot with Bolshevism and place her resources, her brains, her vast organising power at the disposal of the revolutionary fanatics whose dream it is to conquer the world for Bolshevism by force of arms.” Lloyd George painted an alternative future, where Britain, the United States, France and Italy would agree to limit their naval building and their armies, and where the League of Nations, the guardian “of international right and international liberty throughout the world,” would admit a new, democratic Germany, as soon as it was sufficiently stable.

How was this to be achieved? Germany should still lose territory, but not as much as some people wanted. Poland should still have its corridor to the sea, but as few Germans as possible should end up under Polish rule. The Rhineland, suitably demilitarized, should stay with Germany. Lloyd George was less categorical on the Saar; perhaps France could have the 1814 frontiers, or merely ownership of the coal mines. Germany must, of course, give up all its colonies. And, yes, it should pay reparations. Wilson approved on almost every count—after all, he could have written much of the Fontainebleau Memorandum himself. The French, however, were furious. “If you find the peace too harsh,” Clemenceau wrote to Lloyd George, “let us give Germany back her colonies and her fleet, and let us not impose upon the continental nations alone—France, Belgium, Bohemia and Poland—the territorial concessions required to appease the beaten aggressor.” It was, he added, “a sheer illusion” to think that Germany could be appeased by moderate terms.7

Illusion or not, the British were determined to disengage themselves from the Continent and its problems. A balance of power there had always served Britain well; intervention was needed only when a single nation threatened to dominate the whole. Germany had been that threat, but it would be foolish now to destroy it and leave France supreme. As passions cooled, the British remembered both their old rivalry with France and the potential for friendship between Germany and Britain. British industries needed markets; there were 70 million Germans. Britain wanted stability on the Continent, not the sort of chaos that could so clearly be seen farther east; a solid Germany at Europe’s center could provide that.

In the short run, the Fontainebleau Memorandum accomplished little. The British and the French continued to squabble over their share of reparations. The French refused to produce an estimate of either their damages or what they wanted Germany to pay. “It was a crime,” Wilson exclaimed to Grayson, “to waste time when every hour meant so much to the settlement of world conditions along proper lines.” And yet he feared that, if he pushed his allies too hard, their governments might fall and the peace be delayed still further.8

Clemenceau now appeared to be hardening his position on Germany. Britain and the United States, he pointed out, were protected by the sea. “We must have an equivalent on land.” He demanded the Saar and held out for a military occupation of the Rhineland. “The Germans are a servile people who need force to support an argument,” he said. On March 31 he allowed Foch to present to the Council of Four an impassioned plea for a separate buffer state. “The peace,” said Foch, “can only be guaranteed by the possession of the left bank of the Rhine until further notice, that is to say, as long as Germany has not had a change of heart.” Lloyd George and Wilson listened politely but without paying close attention.9

Wilson felt the French were simply being obstructive. “I feel terribly disappointed,” he told Grayson. “After arguing with Clemenceau for two hours and pushing him along, he practically agreed to everything, and just as he was leaving he swung back to where we had begun.” 10 Wilson was showing the strain, but so were they all. The Council of Four was meeting virtually nonstop, the weather was frightful and the bad news kept coming in: from Hungary, where the communists were firmly in control; from Russia, where the Bolsheviks appeared to be winning the civil war; from Danzig, where the German authorities were refusing to allow Polish troops to land.

On March 28 Clemenceau yet again raised France’s claim to the Saar. Wilson said, unfairly, that the French had never mentioned it as one of their war aims and that, in any case, giving it to France was contrary to the Fourteen Points. Clemenceau accused the president of being pro-German and threatened to resign rather than sign the peace treaty. Wilson said this was a deliberate lie and that it was quite clear that Clemenceau wanted him to go back to the United States. Clemenceau, equally angry, marched out of the room. He had not expected, he told Mordacq, such immovable opposition to French demands.

Lloyd George and Orlando, who had watched with consternation, did their best to smooth things over in that afternoon’s meeting. Lloyd George chuckled appreciatively when Wilson replied to his apology for being late by saying, “I would hate to have to use the term the late Mr. Lloyd George.” When Tardieu tactlessly went on at length about the ancient links between the Saar and France, Orlando pointed out that Italy, under such reasoning, could claim the lands of the former Roman empire; it would be awkward, though, for his good friend Lloyd George. Everyone laughed heartily, except Clemenceau. Lloyd George suggested a compromise: an autonomous Saar, with the French owning the coal mines. It was agreed that the experts would look into it. Clemenceau made an apology of sorts and spoke of the chains of affection that bound France to the United States; later, to his circle of advisers, he spoke of Wilson’s extraordinary intransigence. Wilson made a graceful reference to the greatness of France. In private he complained bitterly that the French were holding up the whole Peace Conference. Clemenceau, he said, was like an old dog: “He turns slowly around & around, following his tail, before he gets down to it.”11

Two days later it snowed. April in Paris that year started badly and rapidly got worse. Although the Council of Four was meeting in strictest secrecy, details of its discussions filtered out. Foch was in despair, Henry Wilson confided to his diary: “He prophesied that within a week from now the Paris Conference would crash.” The rumors spread outward, “in a blue and sulphurous haze,” said one American delegate. Germany would have a revolution, a Canadian wrote home. “Drifting to destruction,” said the Paris edition of the Daily Mail. “The League of Nations is dead and the Peace Conference a failure,” its correspondent cabled The New York Times.12

Wilson, said Baker, his press aide, looked “grayer & grimmer all the time.” The president felt alone in his struggle to build a just peace. Lloyd George was too much the politician; Wilson longed to tell him that “he is to stay put when he agrees with me on a subject and that he is not going to be permitted to agree with me when he is with me and then to change his position after he leaves me and joins the opposition.” Clemenceau had willfully refused to make a peace on the basis of the Fourteen Points. “I have never seen [Wilson] so irritated, so thoroughly in a rage,” wrote Mrs. Wilson’s secretary. “He characterized the attitude of the French and the delays as ‘damnable.’ ” Wilson was maddened too by the attacks from the French press. “Just fancy,” one paper had him saying, “I have discovered that Spring always follows Winter.” With Lloyd George he had “a violent explosion” and said “he would never sign a French peace and would go home rather than do so.”13

On April 3 Wilson took to his bed with a bad cold and House took his place at the Council of Four. Clemenceau was delighted: “He is worse today,” he said to Lloyd George on April 5. “Do you know his doctor? Couldn’t you get round him & bribe him?” In his sickroom, the invalid brooded. “I have been doing a lot of thinking,” Wilson told Grayson, “thinking what would be the outcome on the world if these French politicians were given a free-hand and allowed to have their way and secure all that they claim France is entitled to. My opinion is that if they had their way the world would go to pieces in a very short while.” He had come, he said, looking relieved, to a decision. He asked Grayson to arrange for the George Washington to be ready at Brest, on the Brittany coast. “I don’t want to say that I am going as soon as I can get a boat; I want the boat to be here.” The next day the news had leaked out, as no doubt Wilson intended it should. His threat caused a sensation. “Peace Conference at Crisis,” said the New York Times headline.14

The French downplayed it. “Wilson acts like a cook,” joked Clemenceau to a friend, “who keeps her trunk ready in the hallway. Every day he threatens to leave.” A spokesman for the Quai d’Orsay talked rudely about “going home to mother.” In fact, the French were extremely worried. The censors kept comment in the French papers to a minimum and Le Temps, well known to have close links to official circles, hastily printed a story saying that France had no intention of annexing any territory inhabited by Germans. Tardieu’s assistant gave a statement to American correspondents saying that France had reduced its demands to a minimum and was perfectly content, as it had been all along, to accept the frontiers of 1871, which included Alsace-Lorraine but nothing more. (This caused a certain amount of amusement.15)

These concessions came at a considerable cost politically. Deputies and senators urged Clemenceau to stand firm on France’s legitimate demands. Foch inspired a press campaign demanding the occupation of the Rhineland. The generalissimo was coming perilously close to open defiance, refusing to transmit orders from the Council of Four and demanding to speak to the French cabinet. This, in a country with a lively tradition of attempted military coups, was alarming. It was also embarrassing. “I would not trust the American army,” said Wilson after one incident, “to a general who does not obey his own government.”16

Leading politicians, journalists and soldiers went to warn Poincaré that France was heading for disaster. Clemenceau was throwing away any chance of security against Germany. Perhaps Poincaré should resign in protest. Or was it his duty, as Foch and others urged, to use his powers under the constitution to take over the negotiations himself? Poincaré, as was typical of him, joined the criticism but hesitated to take action. Clemenceau, whose sources of information were always good, came to the Elysée Palace and made a tremendous scene, accusing the president of disloyalty. “All your friends are against me,” he shouted. “I have had enough. I am in discussions every day, from morning to night. I am killing myself.” He offered his resignation. Poincaré protested: “I have never stopped being loyal, that goes without saying; but, beyond that, I have been devoted, and, to say the word, filial.” Clemenceau accused him of lying. Poincaré responded with outrage. “Well, you see,” Clemenceau shot back, “you reply to me with insolence!” Somehow, at the end of the interview the two shook hands. Poincaré said in a statesmanlike manner, “Circumstances are serious, the future is dark, it is essential that the public officials are united.” He immediately poured out his feelings in his diary. “In brief, this conversation showed me a Clemenceau who is scatterbrained, violent, conceited, bullying, sneering, dreadfully superficial, deaf physically and intellectually, incapable of reasoning, reflecting, of following a discussion.”17

Only Lloyd George remained cheerful throughout the crisis. “We have made great progress,” he told the newspaper magnate George Riddell. “We have settled practically all outstanding questions with the exception of that relating to breaches of the Laws of War. We shall begin next week to draft the Peace Treaty.” He expected that the final peace terms would be drawn up in time for Easter Sunday, two weeks away. Lloyd George was particularly pleased that he had carried his point on reparations: the final figure would not be in the treaty.18

When Wilson was on his feet again on April 8, spring had finally arrived and the mood at the Peace Conference was markedly better. He was still rather “wabbly,” he told Grayson, but he felt “very much better in his mind.” Wilson found it useful, however, to keep the threat of the George Washington in reserve.19 In his absence, much of the groundwork had been laid for the subsequent agreements. The Saar was finally settled on April 13. The experts had come up with a compromise under which France got ownership only of the mines. The League of Nations took over the Saar’s administration with a commitment to hold a plebiscite after fifteen years, when the inhabitants could decide between independence, France and Germany. (In 1935 the attraction of Hitler’s new Reich proved overwhelming and 90 percent of them voted to rejoin Germany.)

The package with the Rhineland and the Anglo-American guarantee to France took only slightly longer to work out. Wilson, who felt that he had gone quite far enough in offering a guarantee, sent a stern message to Clemenceau on April 12 saying that he would have to settle for a demilitarized Rhineland and not a permanent Allied occupation. Clemenceau thought it over and two days later called on his old friend House. It was a pity, he said, that the conference was in crisis. The Italians (as we shall see) were threatening to leave without signing the German treaty. He himself was prepared, of course, to work with his colleagues. He accepted the American position, although it was not what he wanted, and he would fight Foch on it. In return, he asked only that Wilson accept a temporary French occupation of three zones around the main bridgeheads: the French would evacuate the first zone, in the north Rhineland (including the bridgehead around Cologne), after five years, the second zone, in the middle (including the bridgehead around Koblenz), after ten years, and the third, in the south (including the bridgehead around Mainz), after fifteen years.20

By April 15 the eczema on Clemenceau’s hands was noticeably worse and he complained of dizzy spells. That evening, after House brought the news that Wilson had agreed to the temporary occupation, he was a different man. “I am no longer worried,” he told Mordacq. “All the big questions concerning France are now almost settled. In another ten days, we will have, very probably, decided on the main lines of the treaty. Today, in particular, apart from the two treaties bringing military aid from America and England in case of a German attack, I obtained definitively the occupation of the Rhineland for fifteen years with a partial evacuation from five years to five years. Of course, in the case of Germany’s not observing the treaty, no partial evacuation, no final evacuation.” Cheerfully, he promised House a favor in return. Clemenceau told his private secretary that all attacks in the French press on Wilson must stop at once. The next day, even normally hostile papers were filled with praise of the president.21

When he arrived back from London, having triumphantly disposed of his parliamentary opposition, Lloyd George was annoyed. “Provocative incidents,” he wrote years later, “are the inevitable consequence of any occupation of territory by foreign troops. The irritating and occasionally odious accompaniments of such an occupation of German towns by troops, some of whom were coloured, had much to do with the fierce outbreak of patriotic sentiment in Germany which finds its expression in Nazism.” With some reluctance he agreed to the Rhineland clauses on April 22.22

On April 25 Clemenceau took the Rhineland clauses to his own cabinet, where he had to listen to heated criticism from Foch and others. Poincaré, to everyone’s surprise, merely asked for clarification of certain points. “He is the leading critic in the republic,” Clemenceau told Mordacq, “but all the times that I asked his advice on the innumerable delicate questions which we have been dealing with for three months and still are dealing with, I got only vague replies.” The cabinet approved the deal unanimously and on May 4 it approved the peace terms as a whole, also unanimously. Foch said bitterly that Clemenceau was a criminal. Poincaré contemplated resigning, but, as so often before, thought better of it. 23

Clemenceau always thought he had got the best possible deal for France, and he was right. He had won more from his allies than they had originally been prepared to give; he had kept the alliance with Britain and the United States alive; he had given France another measure of safety in the demilitarization and fifteen-year occupation of the Rhineland; and he had tied the ending of that occupation to Germany’s fulfilling the other parts of the treaty. As he told the Chamber of Deputies in September 1919, during the debate on ratification, “The treaty, with all its complex clauses, will only be worth what you are worth; it will be what you make it. . . . What you are going to vote today is not even a beginning, it is a beginning of a beginning. The ideas it contains will grow and bear fruit. You have won the power to impose them on a defeated Germany.” 24 The difficulty was always going to be enforcement. As Clemenceau’s successors, among them Poincaré, discovered, France could do little without British and American support. That support was not there in the 1920s, and in the 1930s there was no Clemenceau to rally a demoralized France against the Nazi menace in Germany.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!