When describing the state of American politics today, pundits have often turned to the phrase: “partisan trench warfare.” Why has this phrase stuck?
The centenary of World War I has drawn surprisingly little attention. And this is unfortunate because the Great War offers many opportunities for reflection on statesmanship, the losses of war, and the strategies and tactics of military leaders. One event in 1917 merits particular attention as an occasion to reflect upon the costs of war and national strategy.
On November 23, 1917, the Daily Telegraph published a provocative letter by the 5th Marques of Lansdowne urging efforts for a compromise peace to avoid prolonging a costly war. Now an elder statesman, he had led Conservatives in the House of Lords after serving as Foreign Secretary, Viceroy of India, and Governor General of Canada. When Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, refused to publish the letter, Lansdowne turned to the rival broadsheet newspaper.
Lansdowne opened by observing that “we are now in the fourth year of the most dreadful war the world has ever known” with the dead in the millions and total combatants “amounting to nearly twenty four millions.” British ministers “scan the horizon in vain for the prospect of a lasting prospect of a lasting peace” without which “we all feel that the test we have set ourselves will remain unaccomplished.” Acknowledging that Germany and its allies had not offered terms in response to allied war aims, despite repeated challenge, and “limited themselves to vague and apparently insincere professions to negotiate” Lansdowne nevertheless urged considering where common ground might be found.
Beating Germany, he insisted, served the larger end of preventing the calamity from recurring by inflicting a signal defeat upon the Central Powers. The former Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, had repeatedly described Britain as fighting for reparation and security. Lansdowne thought both essential, but security more so because reparation could never be complete. Security as close to being complete as humanly possible would go far to amend the inevitable shortfall in reparations. While ending the war honorably would be “a great achievement,” Lansdowne argued that preventing “the same curse falling upon our children would be a greater achievement still.” Statements he cited at length showed that officials on both sides of the struggle accepted the principle of referring future disputes for arbitration. Common ground on that commitment, he believed, went a long way toward a peace likely to avoid renewed war.
Territorial claims remained in dispute, but Lansdowne again cited Asquith saying a month ago that many things in settling a conflict must be left for discussion and negotiation. A few points, like reparations to Belgium, remained central, but some desiderata may be unattainable while others had fallen in importance, Lansdowne urged. The allies, he said, must agree on priorities before the inevitable bargaining. Lansdowne further emphasized a clear rejection of annihilating Germany as a great power, imposing any government other than one chosen by its people, or excluding it from global commerce. Such a declaration would aid the peace party within the Central Powers. Stating these propositions explicitly would prevent Germany from misrepresenting allied aims in ways that impeded any move toward peace talks.
Lansdowne’s fears of the consequences a long struggle of attrition would bring drove his insistence on reassessing territorial aims. “We are not going to lose this war,” he wrote, “but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilized world.” The blessings of peace would have less value for nations too exhausted to grasp them. Ending the war in time to avert catastrophe would only happen when “on both sides the peoples of the countries involved realize that it has already lasted too long.”
The hapless letter appeared at a particularly low point in allied fortunes. Pessimism reached a peak during the winter of 1917-18. Not surprisingly, then, Britain’s government and press rejected Lansdowne’s call for a compromise peace. Prime Minister David Lloyd George thought it ill-advised and inopportune. His public statement called ending a war fought to enforce a treaty without reparation as “a farce in the setting of a tragedy.” Andrew Bonar Law, who led Lansdowne’s fellow Conservatives in Lloyd George’s coalition government, considered it a national misfortune. When questioned in the House of Commons on the reaction by allied governments, Arthur James Balfour admitted having received negative responses. The Daily Telegraph distanced itself from Lansdowne when printing the letter, with a separate disclaimer. Other newspapers, including The Times, denounced it. Consensus deemed Lansdowne’s argument defeatist. H. G. Wells charged him with speaking for the interests of his class over those of the country.
Some of those responding knew that Lansdowne had made the same argument within the government earlier as part of deliberations following catastrophic setbacks Britain had faced in 1916. His memorandum on November 16, 1916, focused on economic strains already felt and the war’s cost in manpower and money. Noting that “generations will have to come and go before the country recovers from the loss,” Lansdowne had argued that unless the allies could be sure of imposing terms on Germany it would be pointless to prolong the struggle at such cost. While not urging peace overtures, he did suggest a thorough reassessment to determine whether the allies might not be prepared to accept terms short of their full expectations in return for prompt payment.
Lloyd George replaced Asquith as prime minister partly in consequence of frustration with setbacks, including the Somme campaign in 1916 that failed to produce results commensurate with its massive casualties. Leading politicians realized the war had to be managed differently. Over much of 1917, Lloyd George sought to open peace feelers with Austria-Hungary as a means of breaking the strategic deadlock. Secret exchanges involve a largely neglected story as figures in London and Vienna fumbled for a way out of the struggle. Austria’s dependence upon Germany precluded breaking with its ally, and Russia’s collapse in 1917 suggested a turn in favor of the Central Powers. British leaders who resisted Lansdowne’s case still recognized the cost prolonging the war carried. Some in the war cabinet privately believed the United States and Japan would be the true victors even if the allies won.
Was Lansdowne too optimistic in hoping for a compromise peace? Historians, along with many officials at the time, plausibly insist that Germany would not have accepted the terms the allies would likely have made. The German army command had marginalized William II as a figurehead and enforced their insistence on maximum aims over any doubts made by civilian politicians. Victory would justify the catastrophic losses incurred since 1914 along with suffering on the home front epitomized by the “turnip winter” of 1916-17 when the combination of the allied blockade and the potato crop’s failure brought near famine. Civilian misery and military stalemate made some German politicians open to negotiating, but the generals, as Charles de Gaulle wrote in The Enemy’s House Divided (1924), ruled out compromise until they panicked after offensives in 1918 ended with defeat.
Negotiation also held risks for the allies. Lansdowne’s suggestion of reassessing war aims risked dividing them. Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s foreign secretary early in the war, framed the problem in a syllogism. The allies required British help to win or even continue fighting while security for Britain demanded victory or at least substantially weakening Germany. Security for the allies, however, depended less on checking Germany and they could gain more tolerable terms by ending the war than Britain. Abandoned by its allies, Britain would fight at a severe disadvantage, and, so Grey concluded, the British depended more on their allies than the allies depended on them. Even hinting at compromise risked losing allies who might cut their own deal and leave Britain to face Germany alone.
Other important questions Lansdowne raised about balancing costs and benefits stand apart from historical speculation. When do costs—both human and economic—of a war start to outweigh prospective gains? Lansdowne’s reference to accepting something less than the full amount expected in consideration of prompt payment reflect an important calculation for policymakers and public alike to make. Unfairly criticized for looking to his own social class, he had in view the larger public interest.
The strains that war imposed on all belligerents led to the collapse of empires and a long-term shift in Britain’s global position. Even victorious states paid a price that shadowed international politics over the next two decades. Caution about intervention with a recognition that events rarely go as planned emerge as lessons to be drawn from the larger story.
Wars are much easier to start than to conclude on acceptable terms. Horrific losses during the opening months should have prompted belligerents to consider a compromise peace once the struggle became a stalemate in late 1914. Other major European wars had ended that way, but unwillingness to accept terms short of victory made World War I different. The consequences of that choice and Lansdowne’s argument for flexibility give students of international relations and foreign policy something to consider.