What if the first world war had ended a year earlier?

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

One hundred years ago this month, my great-great grandfather sat down to compose a letter which would finish a long and distinguished career — and destroy his reputation. Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, had held some of the most prominent posts in the British Empire and government: governor–general of Canada, viceroy of India, secretary of state for war, foreign secretary and Conservative leader of the House of Lords.

But in the winter of 1917, as casualties mounted on the Western Front, he decided that enough was enough and that Britain should seek a negotiated peace with Germany to end the first world war.

Lord Lansdowne’s ‘Peace Letter’ remains one of the most controversial episodes of the war. Published in the Daily Telegraph on 29 November 1917, it sent shock waves through the British establishment, as much for its authorship as for its content. The Times, which had refused to publish it, turned on him; The Spectator described the letter as ‘inopportune’; political colleagues who had privately encouraged him disowned him in public. Ever since his death in 1927 he has been banished to the margins of history.

But Lansdowne was neither a pacifist nor a traitor, and his letter deserves more generous consideration today. Not only did it propose a way forward which would have saved thousands of lives, it also set out the terms of a settlement which could have prevented the economic collapse of Germany and the conditions that allowed Hitler’s rise to power. I believe he was right to seek peace rather than pursue military victory to the bitter end, and the biography I have written seeks to re-instate him as the statesman he undoubtedly was.

Lansdowne had not always been against the war — indeed, at the outset in August 1914 he played a vital part in convincing Herbert Asquith, the prime minister, to challenge Germany. A year later, he was in the coalition government and a member of the war committee. Outside politics, he also made a vast contribution to the war effort and after his youngest son was killed in battle in October 1914 his connection with the war became personal. By the autumn of 1916, however, he had begun to have his doubts in fighting to a knockout and the military’s ability to achieve it quickly.
Some experts were estimating it would not be over until 1920.

Lansdowne worried that Britain could not continue to sustain the massive human wastage and financial strain. In a cabinet memorandum that November he made a case for a negotiated settlement. The cabinet decided to consider the matter further, although David Lloyd George, the secretary of state for war, expected that if Lansdowne was outvoted he would have to resign. ‘You cannot have a man in a war cabinet who thinks we ought to make peace.’

The following month Asquith was forced to resign, Lloyd George became prime minister and Lansdowne was left out of the new government. Any peace move was off the agenda.

While the entry of the United States to the war in April 1917 boosted the allies’ confidence, political uncertainty surrounding their war aims deepened. During the summer, as the allies fought the Germans at Passchendaele and the politicians and generals fought among themselves, Lansdowne remained silent. But after Lenin and Trotsky seized power in Russia, the Italians suffered a major defeat at Caporetto and General Haig failed to maintain a stronghold at the Battle of Cambrai on 20 November, Lansdowne decided to act on his conviction in what became one of the most courageous moments of a long career built on independence and integrity in politics.

He informed his oldest colleague, Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary, of his intention to publish his views. Balfour did ‘not dissuade’ him and suggested he speak to Charles Hardinge, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office. Hardinge thought Lansdowne’s letter ‘statesmanlike’ and would ‘do good’. Lansdowne also explained his position to Colonel Edward House, President Woodrow Wilson’s chief adviser on European politics. House ‘scarcely disagreed’ at all with Lansdowne.

On 28 November, Lansdowne saw Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, who refused to publish the letter and warned Lansdowne to do nothing until the Versailles conference of inter-allied leaders was over. That evening, Lansdowne met Harry Burnham, proprietor of the Daily Telegraph, in the House of Lords, told him the history of the letter and asked him to publish it. He immediately agreed to do so, remarking that it was a good letter and he would give it prominence. With the title ‘Co-ordination of Allies’ war aims’, Lansdowne was fully aware of the impact his letter would have, both in Britain and abroad.

It started with the two powerful claims that without a lasting peace ‘the task we have set ourselves will remain unaccomplished’ and the war’s ‘prolongation would be a crime, differing only in degree from that of the criminals that provoked it’.

Emphasising that Britain was fighting for reparation and security, he stressed the indispensability of the latter ‘to prevent the same curse falling upon our children’.

Explaining why he attached such importance to these ideas, Lansdowne said: ‘We are not going to lose this war, but its prolongation will spell ruin to the civilised world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it.’ Appealing to moderates of all countries, he then outlined the problems for ‘peace talk’ and made some proposals.

The letter and the momentum it acquired alarmed Lloyd George. The British government immediately issued a significantly inaccurate statement about Lansdowne’s intervention: ‘Lord Lansdowne in his letter spoke only for himself. Before writing it he did not consult nor, indeed, has he been in communication with any member of the government’.

Balfour refused to admit his full part in the episode, further distancing Lansdowne. It says much for Lansdowne’s character that after the war not only did he and Balfour remain close colleagues, but to his dying day Lansdowne refused to contradict, publicly or privately, the claim that he had acted alone. It was typical of his complete loyalty and patriotism that he would not embarrass his colleagues or the war-time government.

The Spectator, under the general manage-ment of John St Loe Strachey, took an unfavourable view. Strachey, who personally liked Lansdowne, thought he had made ‘a huge blunder’ ‘at the wrong moment’. Similar views were expressed by the majority of the national and local newspapers.

In the months that followed November 1917, Lansdowne’s letter triggered many new departures in the search for a negotiated settlement. None were ultimately successful and Lansdowne’s reputation never recovered. However, two years after his death, Colonel House admitted that the letter had been the inspiration for President Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’, a speech which became the basis of a peace programme and post-war order.

We cannot know whether a negotiated peace during the winter of 1917 might have been possible, but would not a peace settlement at that point have been better than another year of misery and unnecessary tragedy inflicted upon millions of people, followed by the collapse of the German economy, the rise to power of Hitler and another horrifying war?

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