The Treaty of Versailles: The Paris Peace Conference
The Paris Peace Conference
After the armistice was signed on 11th November 1918 it was necessary to build a lasting peace in the aftermath of a war that had completely changed the world and killed millions. Delegates and representatives from 32 nations attended the negotiations, usually at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris, to negotiate the terms of the peace.
The major powers who controlled the Paris Peace Conference were France, Britain, Italy, Japan and the United States. The top Allied powers, or the ‘Big Four’, were Georges Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France; David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA; and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, Prime Minister of Italy. These four made all the major decisions, which were then ratified by the other countries.
French President Raymond Poincare welcomed the delegates and reminded them, ‘You are assembled in order to repair the evil that [the war] has done and to prevent a recurrence of it. You hold in your hands the future of the world.’
‘Are we making a good peace?’
The Treaty became known as the Treaty of Versailles because it was signed at the Palace of Versailles, in the Hall of Mirrors, on 28th June 1919, which officially brought the war to an end.
However, the Treaty was controversial at the time and, even today, sparks debate amongst historians. Germany was forced to take responsibility for ‘all the loss and damage’ caused by the war and the ‘War Guilt clause,’ as Article 213 became known, created the legal basis for Germany to pay reparations for the war. The clause was cause of national humiliation for Germany, which was also required to disarm and concede territory.
The reparations in particular were devastating for Germany, with figures totally the equivalent to £284 billion today. British economist and delegate John Maynard Keynes predicted that they would prove far too harsh, while another British delegate Harold Nicholson questioned, ‘Are we making a good peace?’
However, Ferdinand Foch, who accepted the German request for an armistice on 11th November 1918, disapproved of the Treaty, considering it far too lenient. He had wanted to ensure that Germany could never pose such a threat to France ever again and, when the peace was signed on 18th June 1919, he said ‘This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.’ His words, as we now know, proved remarkably prescient – the Second World War started almost exactly 20 years later, in 1939.
At the end of 2018, we remembered the 18,355 British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died between 12th November – 31st December 1918. These deaths included disasters like the sinking of HMY Iolaire with troops trying to get home, as well as those who died of wounds sustained during the war and the influenza pandemic.
While the negotiations got underway, British and Commonwealth servicemen and women were still dying from wounds and influenza, as well as in continued fighting. 78,301 British and Commonwealth servicemen and women died between 12th November 1918 and 31st December 1921 (when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s responsibility ends).
In 1917, while the First World War raged across Europe, the Bolsheviks in Russia sparked a revolution that British and Commonwealth troops would be engaged in until 1920, while negotiations for a lasting peace were being hashed out in Paris.
As we have seen over the last few months, the First World War did not end neatly on 11th November 1918 and it is up to us to ensure they aren’t forgotten. Our Tommies commemorate not only those who fought in the war itself, but those who continued to be affected in the months and even years after the war. From those whose lives were cut short because of wounds such as mustard gas damage to their lungs or the influenza pandemic, to those who didn’t get to go home, but were instead sent to Russia to continue fighting.