Western Front: 1919/20

poppy-2London Cenotaph11th Nov 1920: On the morning of 11th November 1920, the casket of the Unknown Warrior was placed onto a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery and drawn by six horses through immense and silent crowds. As the cortege set off, a further Field Marshal’s salute was fired in Hyde Park. The route followed was Hyde Park Corner, The Mall, and to Whitehall where the newly constructed Portland stone Cenotaph, a “symbolic empty tomb”, was unveiled by King George V. The King placed his wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the coffin. His card read “In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yet well-known; as dying, and behold they live. George R.I. November 11th 1920”. The cortège was then followed by The King, the Royal Family and ministers of state to Westminster Abbey.

Tomb of Unknown WarriorThe casket was borne into Westminster Abbey flanked by a guard of honour of one hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross. The guests of honour were a group of one hundred women. They had been chosen because they had each lost their husband and all their sons in the war. The coffin was then interred in the far western end of the Nave, only a few feet from the entrance, in soil brought in a 100 bags from each of the main Western Front battlefields. A temporary stone was placed on top before the unveiling of the present Belgian black marble stone from a quarry near Namur at the remembrance service year later.

Verdun10th Nov 1920: On the morning of the 10th November the Unknown Warrior began its departure from France, where Marshal Foch saluted the casket at the Boulogne quayside before it was carried up the gangway of the destroyer, HMS Verdun, chosen because it bore the name of France’s most famous battle (photograph right). The Verdun slipped anchor just before noon and was joined by an escort of six battleships. As the flotilla carrying the casket closed on Dover Castle it received a 19-gun Field Marshal’s salute. The body of the Unknown Warrior was carried to Victoria station in London in South Eastern and Chatham Railway General Utility Van No.132, which had previously carried home the bodies of the executed nurse Edith Cavell and mariner Charles Fryatt.

Unknown Warrior Arras7th Nov 1920: The idea of a Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was first conceived in 1916 by the Reverend David Railton, who, while serving as an army chaplain on the Western Front, had seen a grave marked by a rough cross, which bore the pencil-written legend ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. He wrote to the Dean of Westminster in 1920 proposing that an unidentified British soldier from the battlefields in France be buried with due ceremony in Westminster Abbey “amongst the kings” to represent the many hundreds of thousands of Empire dead. The idea was strongly supported by the Dean and the Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

The remains of four British soldiers were exhumed from various battlefields and brought to the chapel at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise near Arras on the night of 7th November 1920. Brigadier L.J. Wyatt and Lieutenant Colonel E.A.S. Gell of the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries went into the chapel alone. The remains were then placed in four plain coffins each covered by Union Flags. The two officers did not know from which battlefield any individual soldier had come, and Brigadier Wyatt with closed eyes rested his hand on one of the coffins. The other soldiers were then taken away for reburial by the Reverend Kendall.

Victory parade 19th July 191919th Jul 1919: To celebrate and mark the end of the Great War, a Bank Holiday was declared in Britain with the focal point a Victory or Peace Parade (click on link for film) by 15,000 victorious Allied troops from twelve nations through the streets of London. It was reported that as many as 5 million people turned out for the parade along a seven mile route from Knightsbridge through Westminster and onto Buckingham Palace. Though the prevailing mood was in the main triumphant, the day of celebration and victory parade attracted some criticism from those who felt that the money would be better spent supporting returning servicemen who faced physical and mental injuries, and who needed work and a place to live.

A Cenotaph (photograph above) monument to those killed and wounded was unveiled in Whitehall by King George V, to mark the end point of the victory parade. Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was commissioned by Lloyd George at the start of the month to design the monument, and had just 2 weeks to create a piece befitting of the memory of the fallen. Though it was a temporary wood and plaster construction, the Cenotaph was soon decorated with flower wreaths and the decision was soon made to create a more permanent structure made from Portland stone and in the same design. Unveiled by the King on 11th November 1920 with the arrival of the Unknown Warrior en-route to Westminster Abbey, the Cenotaph remains the main focal point of remembrance in the UK.

Treaty of Versailles 2.jpg28th Jun 1919: The Treaty of Versailles. Although the armistice, signed on 11th November 1918, ended the actual fighting of the First World War, it took six months of Allied negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude the Peace Treaty, and thus ending the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. The treaty was signed on 28th June 1919 in Versailles, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which had directly led to the war. Germany and Austria-Hungary were not invited to the negotiations, instead they were only allowed to present a response to the treaty, which they expected to be based on the ‘Fourteen Points’ put forward by US President Wilson prior to the Armistice. Terms of the Peace Treaty were drawn up mainly by the ‘Big Four’ of British Prime Minister Lloyd George, French Prime Minister Frances Clemenceau, President Wilson, and Italy’s Prime Minister Vittoria Orlando, with the first three deciding the key decisions. Australia also sent its own delegation under the leadership of Prime Minister William Hughes.

Treaty of VersaillesGermany was shocked at the severity of the terms and protested the contradictions between the assurances made when the armistice was negotiated and the actual treaty. One of the most important and controversial required “Germany to accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage” during the war. This article later became known as the War Guilt clause. The treaty required Germany to disarm, make ample territorial concessions and pay reparations to the countries that had formed the Allied ‘Entente’ powers.

The Allies, especially the French who had the most to fear from a resurgent Germany on its borders, wanted to make sure that Germany would never again pose a military threat to the rest of Europe, and the treaty contained a number of stipulations to guarantee this aim. The German army was restricted to 100,000 men and the general staff was eliminated; the manufacture of armoured cars, tanks, submarines, airplanes, and poison gas was forbidden; and only a small number of specified factories could make weapons or munitions. All of Germany west of the Rhine and up to 30 miles (50 km) east of it was to be a demilitarized zone. The forced disarmament of Germany, it was hoped, would be accompanied by voluntary disarmament in other nations.

Treaty of Versailles 3The population and territory of Germany was reduced by about 10 percent by the treaty. In the west, Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France having been in German hands since 1871 and the end of the Franco-Prussian War, and the Saarland was placed under the supervision of the League of Nations until 1935. In the north, three small areas were given to Belgium, and northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark. In the east, Poland was resurrected, given most of former German West Prussia and Poznan plus a corridor to the Baltic Sea between East Prussia and the rest of Germany, and part of Upper Silesia after a plebiscite. All Germany’s overseas colonies in China, in the Pacific, and in Africa were taken over by Britain, France, Japan, and other Allied nations. Included in their lost colonial possessions was German New Guinea. Other lands south of the equator became the Territory of New Guinea, a League of Nations Mandate Territory under Australian administration until 1949 (interrupted by Japanese occupation during the New Guinea campaign) when it was merged with the Australian territory of Papua to become the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, which eventually became modern Papua New Guinea. In 1923, the League of Nations gave Australia a trustee mandate over Nauru, with the United Kingdom and New Zealand as co-trustees.

The cost of the reparations was assessed in 1921 at being 132 billion marks, roughly equivalent to US$442 billion or UK£284 billion in 2019. At the time economists, notably John Maynard Keynes (a British delegate to the Paris Peace Conference), predicted that the treaty was too harsh – a “Carthaginian peace” – and said the reparations figure was excessive and counter-productive, views that since then have been the subject of ongoing debate by historians and economists.

In the years after it was ratified the Treaty of Versailles was revised and altered, mostly in Germany’s favour. Many historians claim that the combination of a harsh treaty and subsequent lax enforcement of its provisions paved the way for the upsurge of German militarism in the 1930s. The huge German reparations and the war guilt clause fostered deep resentment of the settlement in Germany, and when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936 (a violation of the treaty), the Allies did nothing to stop him, thus encouraging future German aggression. The Treaty of Versailles was supposed to ensure a lasting peace by punishing Germany and setting up a League of Nations to solve diplomatic problems. Instead it left a legacy of political and geographical difficulties which have often been blamed for starting the Second World War.

German fleet scuttling21st June 1919: Following the end of the First World War the German High Seas Fleet was interned at the British Royal Navy’s base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands under the terms of the Armistice whilst negotiations took place over the fate of the ships. Fearing that all of the ships would be seized and divided amongst the Allied powers, the German commander, Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, decided to scuttle the fleet. Intervening British guard ships were able to beach a number of the ships, but 52 of the 74 interned vessels sank. Nine German sailors were shot and killed plus sixteen wounded aboard their lifeboats rowing towards land. Many of the wrecks were salvaged over the next two decades and were towed away for scrapping, the rest left and are now dive sites.

14th February 1919: The initial draft of the Covenant of the League of Nations comprising of 26 articles was completed and published under the close supervision of US President Woodrow Wilson. However while the League was accepted by many nations the US Congress refused to accept American membership of the League.

18th January 1919: The start of the Paris peace negotiations. To the surprise of many in Germany, given that their armies were still on foreign land, the Germans were not given a fair place at the table. On the other hand the Allies were deeply divided on their aims, with the French wanting to cripple Germany for centuries, but President Woodrow Wilson’s American delegation wanting a League of Nations (although the American people were much less keen on the idea). Although there were 32 countries and nationalities represented, events were dominated by the small group of the major nations which became known as the ‘Big Four’, France, Britain, US, and Italy.

Events Archive 1918

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