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25th November 1916

This is an episode back at the BCI (the Bureau Centrale Interallié) in Paris that tells the remarkable story of German Peace negotiation in November/December 1916.

 

Or put another way - We Won the Battle of the Somme.

 

And the war could have been over by Christmas. 1916.

 

It is now hard to see a deal that included Germany withdrawing to her pre-war borders with France and Belgium (and some finagling in her colonies) as being 'unacceptable', and we are right to ask what possible reasons the Allies could have had to reject it.  Understanding this is  the thrust of the episode.

 

The front runner peace feeler preceded the Somme. In June 1916 the German minister in Switzerland reported that the French might be happy to consider a separate peace to Britain. Now this is a wonderful opportunity. Divide the Allies, and you can effectively make peace with just the one on good terms and the other, unsupported, has to stop fighting. And possibly agree to poorer terms as a result.

 

It might have been a nightmare to attack on the Somme in 1916, but the Germans were losing similar numbers of men in defence. And they were losing their experienced men. One post-war memoirist says 'the Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army' by which he meant the Germans lost their core professionals in the same way we saw the British Army lose its old hands from the BEF.

 

Haig's diary on 15 August 1916 (just six weeks into the Somme) shows that he was sent a secret intelligence report stating that the Germans had put out peace feelers, and that German home front morale was such that 'a serious revolt' was feared. On the same day his chief Intel officer told him 'we keep getting indications that the enemy is beginning to wonder if he hasn't had about enough of it'.

 

In August Prime Minister Asquith asked his cabinet to consider what peace terms we might go with (the casualty lists were coming in) but could get no agreement. Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne tried to convince the cabinet to think in terms of negotiation, but they were all wedded to the idea of a 'knock-out blow'. About the only people Lansdowne could interest were the Board of Trade (!!), who were worried a decimated Germany would not be the market for post-war British exports needed for a healthy British economy.

 

German policy, however, was dominated by a need to reduce manpower losses on the Western Front. Even though the Somme battle was raging on 5th September 1916, plans were drawn up to withdraw in the spring of 1917 to a new heavily fortified front line forty miles back - this is the 'Hindenburg Line'. It would be on higher ground, be better built, and be straight - easily the easiest to defend: no pokey out bits. Construction began within days.

 

It was direction finding and subsequent traffic analysis that showed the first actual troop movements. And it was Miss Bosworth (on whom Miss Softley is based) who worked out the German army were using younger and younger recruits, by doing early data-crunching on captured German soldiers paybooks. This was done in an attic at the BCI using a primitive tabulating machine borrowed from the accounts department of the Prudential Assurance Company in London, and is effectively a story of machine data-processing that predates the Enigma/Turing story by 20 years.  

 

As winter approached, the Belgian king in exile prepared to secretly make his own deal, in which he sold out his countrymen (remember we went to war to save this bloke's behind) and rule his country as a German puppet state.

 

At about the same time a separate divisive Russian and Japanese (you recall that Japan was our ally in WW1) deal was proposed by Germany, and her ally Austria-Hungary began to feel out the Italians.

 

Internal politics in Germany began to play a role. The left were always in favour of a defensive, not aggressive war, and therefore were always waiting for what might seem a high point in the more militaristic faction's ambitions. For a short period, the two sides might be in agreement, and this was a window the German leftists hoped to use when Bucharest fell, surely the Imperial German Army's limit of territorial ambitions.

 

This would mean an agreed peace treaty could be phrased in all the right's belligerent, triumphal language – but would at least be on the table. It was also important to move fast because the left feared that once all land gains had been made, there would be no alternative for the right but to pursue the war through a return to unrestricted submarine warfare, in an attempt to sink so many ships they'd starve the British out. But in doing so they were likely to win a host of new enemies, cross a moral line, and bring the Americans into the War.

 

Then the prime voice of the left in the Reichstag, Foreign Minister von Jagow, was removed from his post in late November to be replaced by the hawkish Zimmerman.

 

Bucharest duly fell on 6th December.

 

But -

 

This was one day after the collapse of Asquith's government and the birth of a new, dynamic war committee. At last there was more artillery, shells, and conscripted men. Tanks and planes were beginning to roll off production lines. Now they had the tools to do the job. Morale in the country was high. Things were going well, not badly. Careers stood to be made, both politically and militarily. Germany was reported to be threatened by hunger, have a failed potato crop, was lacking in fats, and her rolling stock was wearing out.

 

The British war committee was even party to the big new military plan which was to advance along the Belgian coast and by taking Ostende and Zeebrugge, curtail U-boat operations (this plan would surface later, mangled in development as usual, as the slaughter of Third Ypres, better known as Passchendaele).

 

There were negative, warning voices in the UK. There was a shortage of shipping tonnage, forcing us to rely on neutral ships. The dread 1,000,000 casualty figure had just been reached. The war was now costing 5,000,000 pounds a day. And there was a fear our blockade of Germany would eventually alienate so many neutrals who were affected, and a lingering doubt that there could never be a breakthrough on the Western Front - that defence had mastered offence, forever.

 

All the same, it is hard to think of a worse time for a peace offer to be made - just when the key men in the UK are jockeying for roles in effectively a military state invested totally in the prosecution a war to be won.

 

Similarly, the French government had just relieved Joffre to deflect attention from their own failings at Verdun, and on 8th December, Briand's government fell. All were replaced by 'war-winning' alternatives.

 

The Germans sent forth their Peace Note into the world on the 12th December 1916. The Allied response was founded in the fact there was no agreement on our combined war aims, so how could there be a coherent peace? They rejected the German offer for its lack of reparations (front runner in other larger and smaller details) but particularly its use of victorious language.

 

In 1917 we see the rise of the Dead, the notion that when so many have been killed it is impossible for people to stop a war. The Dead must be revenged, otherwise, what has it all been for? This repeats itself throughout history.

 

So ultimately it was the butcher's bill and the unstoppable momentum of a military machine that meant the failure of the 1916 peace proposals and snatched a peaceful 1917 from the hands of the men in the trenches.

 

They now had nearly two more years to endure.

 

Can we fairly say that the Allies had won the Battle of the Somme? If the aims were to inflict heavy losses on the Germans, Yes. To gain ground? Yes, if later in 1917 with the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. To make the Germans sue for peace? Yes.

 

There's some great reading to be had on this subject. Cyril Falls's OFFICIAL HISTORY OF MILITARY OPERATIONS 1917 Volume 1 takes you through the whole story, and is surprisingly good on the politics while being a key military appreciation.

 

As you know I think HAIG'S INTELLIGENCE by Jim Beach is excellent. This book led me to Laurie Dennett's A SENSE OF SECURITY: 150 YEARS OF PRUDENTIAL where we discover them using a tabulating machine as a data crusher, twenty years before the data processors at Bletchley Park.

 

I also went to the Military Intelligence Museum at Chicksands where I had the invaluable help of Assistant Curator Joyce Hutton in locating Charlotte Bosworth's papers (Miss Softley's alter-ego) which also has career details of Charlotte's sister and Miss Brooking.

 

I worked on the Charteris/MacDonogh material, the 4 Army Intel Summaries and the examples of Secret Peace Proposals at the National Archives.

 

Jack Sheldon's THE GERMAN ARMY IN THE SPRING OFFENSIVES 1917 was as good as all his other books and we talked over this matter at the Suffolk WFA conference in Ipswich, so thanks again to them and particularly Viv Whelpton and Taff Gillingham.

 

TIRPITZ'S MEMOIRS which you can find at archive.org are always good for a bit of full-blooded rhetoric, but for more balanced material on the peace feelers try THE FWW AND INTERNATIONAL POLITICS by David Stevenson and GENTLEMEN NEGOTIATORS by Z. Zeman.

 

Other peace feelers were covered by TO END ALL WARS by the brilliant Adam Hochshild (just to go off-piste for a moment, his BREAKING THE CHAINS is possibly the best history book I have ever read).

 

Niall Ferguson's THE PITY OF WAR gives an early war checklist of Establishment peace-niks, and THE DELUGE by Arthur Marwick gives a punchily written picture of political life leading up to change of government in late 1917 in the UK.