This month marks the centenary of Pope Benedict XV’s attempt to stop the Great War in 1917. It was the Pope’s final great effort to halt the catastrophe that was destroying Christian Europe, as well as destabilising its Moslem hinterland. He failed against Britain’s determination to see the Great War it had launched through to fruition, no matter what the cost to humanity.
Remarkably there has been no attempt to mark this important centenary. We live within the British narrative and the world that the waging of the Great War to the bitter end created. And we are increasingly reminded of this by events today.
Over a decade ago I wrote a series of articles in the Irish Political Review about Pope Benedict’s attempt to stop the Great War in 1917. These were issued in pamphlet form by Athol Books with the title ‘Britain’s Great War, Pope Benedict’s Lost Peace’.
In the time since it has become apparent to me that there was another reason why Britain rejected Benedict’s Peace of 1917.
This was to do with the desire on England’s part to promote revolution in Germany and destroy its social fabric before the conclusion of the Great War. The fact that Germany’s social, political and economic structures were successfully unbalanced by Britain producing Hitler and the Nazis is perhaps a good reason why this feature of the Great War on Germany is seldom heard about today.
I was recently sent the editorial of The Daily Telegraph (15.8.1917) which discussed Benedict’s Peace proposals. It suggests that the Catholic Centre Party and its leader, Mathias Erzberger were attempting to stop the War in collaboration with the Pope:
“Germany, having failed to attain the peace she wants through her Socialists is now trying what can be done by means of her Catholics… Outside Italy… the largest compact and homogeneous Catholic community in the world is to be found in Germany… Catholicism has been a powerful buttress to German particularism. A thorough process of democratisation would probably sweep down the political barriers between the German States, and the Bavarian Catholics would then lose many of the autonomous powers they now possess… It was always one of the certainties of the war that a victory of the Allies would be followed by some kind of revolution in Germany.”
Britain was determined to conclude its Great War on Germany only when its objective of destroying the successful social, economic and political fabric of the country was attained. For that reason it turned down the chance of peace in 1917 while knowing the cost of this to Europe and its hinterlands – and it pressed on in grinding Germany down.
But what were the results of this British decision to continue the War?
Stephen McKenna, a disaffected English Liberal writing in 1921, honestly described the implications of the British decision to prolong the war in 1916:
“When the belligerents took stock before settling down to the trench-warfare winter campaign of 1916-17, all must have felt that the war had reached its climax. The general exhaustion was so great that, even if hostilities had ceased, every country would have been crippled; if hostilities continued, they would continue on a scale of unlimited effort in which no reserve of strength would any longer be husbanded. Set free on her eastern frontier, Germany must mass all her resources in one last effort to break through the western line; the Allies must hold out till the attempt had spent itself and then strike one last blow at a worn enemy; Germany must in turn prevent the allies from holding out by cutting their sea communications. If unrestricted submarine warfare ranged America on the side of the allies, it must have been felt that either the war would be over before any effective help could be given or else that, in the final, hopeless, death-grapple, a few million soldiers more or less would not substantially change the degree or character of Germany’s defeat.
“Many of those who meditated on the war from its climax in 1916 to its end in the Versailles conference may wonder whether they did wisely in execrating and howling down anyone who shewed the courage to advocate peace before the sphere of war underwent its last desperate expansion. The government stood by its policy of a ‘knock-out blow’; the knock-out blow has been dealt. Is anyone the better for it? The fire-eaters who proclaimed that anything less than the unconditional surrender of Germany would entail another German war within their generation now proclaim with no more doubt or qualification that Germany is preparing her revenge… The added two years of war, then, have not brought such security as Rome enjoyed at the destruction of Carthage; the added bitterness of those two years, on the other hand, has made more difficult any goodwill and any common effort to substitute a sane and better system of International relationship.
“Worst of all are the worldwide economic depression and political unrest for which the protraction of the war was responsible. Had negotiations been opened in 1916, the Russian revolution and its consequences might well have been averted; Germany, Austria and Turkey might have been left with stable governments and yet with enough experience of modern warfare to discourage any taste for further adventures; and Italy, France and Great Britain – in that order – might have been saved from insolvency. The war, if ended at that time, would have ended without American help; and peace would have been concluded without American intervention. This last result might by now be a matter for regret if thereby the world had been cheated of the equitable and permanent peace, such as President Wilson sought to impose on the militarist party of the Versailles Conference; but it would perhaps have been better for the terms to be drawn by M. Clemenceau and Mr. Lloyd George on Carthaginian lines than for the world to be tantalized by a glimpse of statesmanship that revealed the universal spirit and then to be fobbed off with a compromise which embraced even the good faith of England.” (While I Remember, pp. 171-3.)
This was written in 1921 before the effects of the Great War had become clear. Who can honestly disagree with this analysis – that if peace had been concluded in 1915, 1916 or 1917 the world would have been a much better place than it subsequently turned out to be?
Europe was prevented from heading towards a desirable negotiated peace by Britain’s persistence in its crusade to destroy Germany, primarily through the belief the Royal Navy could starve Germany into submission, given time and resilience amongst Britain’s allies.
Once the Allies stopped the German defensive manoeuvre at the battle of the Marne, four years of trench warfare ensued. Although the Germans launched the most effective offensives of the war, they were always strategically on the defensive and the possibility of a negotiated settlement lay entirely with the Allies. But the British Cabinet never for a moment contemplated a negotiated settlement, despite all the losses in men and materials they suffered and the fact that they did not seem to be making any territorial progress. They coldly calculated that the Allies could suffer heavier losses than the Germans and still win so long as they had a better rate of attrition proportionate to population than the Germans. England believed that, in the long run, the Royal Navy would do its work on Germany if the line could be held for long enough on land.
Britain’s wavering French and Russian allies were convinced to continue the war to the bitter end as the result of an intimation that the United States would be likely to join the allies if Wilson was re-elected and gained the necessary influence in Congress.
Although President Wilson was re-elected to a second term in late 1916 under the slogan, ‘He kept us out of war’ he was already intending to enter the War on the Allied side. This was because Lloyd George had let it be known to Wilson that the peace settlement was only open to the belligerents – and many of the belligerents wanted a ‘vengeful peace’. If Wilson wanted to be humanity’s servant he had to join the victors to affect the peace and help Lloyd George prevent a ‘vengeful peace’.
America’s initial view of the war had coincided with that of the Pope – there was nothing morally at issue between the belligerents, it could only be bad to get involved in it, and a settlement should be made without the destruction of any of the nations fighting it.
But the U.S at the same time set about making Britain financially dependent upon it – largely through J.P.Morgan’s banking empire – by giving it the necessary credit to keep waging its war. The U.S at the same time set about making Britain financially dependent upon it. Loans were in violation of American neutrality but Morgan’s got around this by issuing $2 Billion in credit to the Entente. American industry, in propping up London, became an adjunct of the British war effort. Of the five million pounds the British spent on weaponry and supplies each day two million pounds was being spent in the United States. By 1916 40% of Britain’s war material was being supplied by the U.S.
Whilst this factor helped America in the medium term to undermine the British Empire’s power and replace it on the world stage it also tended to place the U.S. in the position of having to make a necessary defence of its investments if there was danger of its client going under with its debts unpaid.
By 1916 France and Russia were broke and London was paying for its war on American credit. In March 1917 there was only 114 million pounds of gold left in the Bank of England’s vaults to cover further loans. If this had been exhausted British finance would have collapsed and brought down a large section of American industry with it – and a catastrophic effect on the U.S. economy.
British credit largely financed the Great War. John Maynard Keynes was the paymaster to Britain’s Allies. He gave a talk to the Admiralty in March 1916 in which he told them: “We bribe whole populations. It is our money that keeps the Allies sweet.”
In October 1916 Keynes issued an important memo from the Treasury entitled ‘The Financial Dependence of the United Kingdom on the United States of America’. It noted that up until that point Britain had been funding its Great War 3/5 by selling its gold and securities and 2/5 by obtaining loans on the international market.
The problem emerging was that the gold and securities accumulated by the British Empire over the previous 200 years were running out in paying for the War. During the following 6 months, if the War was to be waged as vigorously as it had, Keynes calculated that the gold and securities available to the Treasury would only fund 1/5 of the War, leaving 4/5 to be funded by loans. And then it would be nearly 5/5 through loans, by the end of 1917. This financial exhaustion was going to make Britain highly dependent on the goodwill of the U.S. in continuing its War. As Keynes noted:
“A statement from the United States Executive deprecating or disapproving of such loans would render their floatation in sufficient volume a practical impossibility, and thus lead to a situation of the utmost gravity… Any feeling of irritation or lack of sympathy with this country or with its policy in the minds of the American public… would render it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to carry through financial operations on a scale adequate to her needs. The sums which this country will require to borrow in the U.S.A. in the next six or nine months, are so enormous, amounting to several times the entire national debt of that country, that it will be necessary to appeal to every class and section of the investing public.
“It will be hardly an exaggeration to say that in a few months time the American executive and the American public will be in a position to dictate to this country on matters that affect us more nearly than them. It is, therefore, the view of the Treasury, having regard to their special responsibilities, that the policy of this country towards the U.S.A. should be so directed as not only to avoid any form of reprisal or active irritation, but also to conciliate and to please.” (10.10.16)
This raised the issue of War aims, since the possibility of having to conclude a peace was now raised for the first time. Lord Lansdowne, in a memo to the cabinet on 13 November, on the subject of what terms peace might be dictated to the enemy, emphasized the cost of the Great War and how it might affect the peace if the War continued into 1917 and beyond:
“Shall we even then be strong enough to ‘dictate’ terms?… We have obtained within the last few days from the different Departments of the Government a good deal of information as to the situation, naval, military, and economic. It is far from reassuring. What does the prolongation of the war mean?
“Our own casualties already amount to over 1,100,000. We have had 15,000 officers killed, not including those who are missing. There is no reason to suppose that, as the force at the front in the different theatres of war increases, the casualties will increase at a slower rate. We are slowly but surely killing off the best of the male population of these islands. The figures representing the casualties our Allies are not before me. The total must be appalling.
“The financial burden which we have already accumulated is almost incalculable. We are adding to it at a rate of over £5,000,000 per day. Generations will have to come and go before the country recovers from the loss which it has sustained in human beings, and from the financial ruin and the destruction of the means of production which are taking place.
“All this is, no doubt, our duty to bear, but only if it can be shown that the sacrifice will have its reward. If it is to be made in vain, if the additional year, or two years, or three years, finds us still unable to dictate terms, the war with its nameless horrors will have been needlessly prolonged, and the responsibility of those who needlessly prolong such a war is not less than that of those who needlessly provoked it.
“Many of us, however, must of late have asked ourselves how this war is ever to be brought to an end. If we are told that the deliberate conclusion of the Government is that it must be fought until Germany has been beaten to the ground and sues for peace on any terms on which we are pleased to accord to her, my only observation would be that we ought to know something of the data upon which this conclusion has been reached.” (Cab 37/159/32, 13.11.16)
This must have been a bombshell to those attending the Cabinet. Edward Grey in his reply said that it would be “premature” to look for peace and a “betrayal of the interests of this country” to advocate it as long as there was a belief Germany could be defeated; or the military situation was likely to improve in the Allies favour; or that Germany was injured internally more so than England, making recovery more difficult for her. It was only if the situation was predicted to deteriorate for the Allies over the following months that it would be ever justified to “wind up the war at once on the best terms achievable.” (Cab 37/160/20)
Shortly after this Asquith resigned as Prime Minister, giving way to Lloyd George.
This was the reason why the British continued to reject German peace offers and the Pope’s initiative of 1917 – because it was felt that peace would be a defeat if it left Germany stronger, which it would do if Britain had not the ability to dictate peace terms to her. But by the same count Britain had to change the character of its Great War in deference to the fact that it was in hock to the U.S. And that meant it would need to do things that would have great implications for the world it would inherit, but would be too weak to assert itself upon.
President Wilson was influenced by a message from the American ambassador to England, Thomas Nelson Page, a strong Anglophile, that Britain would be bankrupt within two weeks, if the U.S. did not enter the war and provide her with funds. Also in the picture were cables from the U.S. embassy in Paris, warning that French morale was cracking. These were communicated to Congress. Wilson’s support produced the “knockout victory” statement of Lloyd George in which he declared that the war must go on until Germany was crushed.
The Vatican knew the US was not truly neutral in the first two years of the war and it deplored Washington’s arms trade that facilitated the waging of the War longer and on a bigger scale than would have been otherwise possible. Benedict also regarded the Anglo-American tactic of carrying munitions on passenger vessels, like the Lusitania – using civilians as human shields – as reprehensible.
With America’s resources fully available to it and Wilson removed as a moral opponent – in that he couldn’t talk about ‘an honourable peace’ anymore – it is not so difficult to understand why the Pope’s Peace Note of 1917 came an unwelcome time for Britain.
The Irish Catholic of April 2005 told us that: “On August 1, 1917, Benedict issued a peace proposal in which he urged the warring parties to unilaterally reduce their armaments.”
The Pope’s Peace Note, in fact, went a lot further than that. Why did the Irish Catholic seek to minimise information on this important proposal? Is it sheer ignorance, shoddy journalism or the result of a paralysed mind unable to deal with the great political questions, symptomatic of Ireland today?
The Pope’s Peace Plan had its origins within the German side – since it was the Germans, rather than the Entente who desired a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The Times actually called it the “German Peace Move” in an editorial. There was nothing odd about Germany wanting peace at this of all moments – at the time of its greatest success in the war.
Germany had secured its defence by a military ability that the Entente had not bargained for. But it knew that from here on only a long and wasteful war of attrition could defeat it. It wanted to secure a peace at this point to prevent further loss of life and the inevitable political and economic destruction that a fight to the finish would end up in across Europe. So a number of elements in Germany supported the Vatican’s efforts in going for a negotiated settlement.
Benedict believed Germany was the key because its strong military position could make the concessions necessary to satisfy Allied demands.
In Germany, a group of Reichstag members, led by the Catholic politician, Matthias Erzberger, passed a peace resolution in the Reichstag in July 1917. This offer did not make any demand for retaining the occupied areas of Belgium or France. The German peace offer seemed to offer possibilities, and the Vatican envoy to Germany, Eugenio Pacelli, (later Pope Pius XII), who conducted most of the Vatican’s peace efforts during the War, was sent to explore with the Kaiser and his Chancellor, Bethman-Hollweg, what terms might be feasible. Apparently, the Germans agreed in principle to a limitation of armaments, withdrawal from Belgium and other occupied areas, disputed territories being decided by international agreement and the creation of international arbitration courts.
Having achieved an understanding with the Germans Benedict drew up his Peace Note to all the belligerent powers, setting out systematic proposals for bringing the war to an end and securing a just and enduring peace. He had it communicated to the Entente what Germany was willing to concede.
This is what Fear Faire said in the Catholic Bulletin, March 1939, about Benedict’s peace proposals of 1917, in a time when Ireland knew something of history:
“By the middle of the year 1917 the possibility of a sweeping victory for the Central Powers was gone. On the other hand, the Allies were facing such a strongly entrenched enemy and were themselves were so war-worn, that they, too, had little hope of triumph, unless at the cost of long-prolonged struggle and incalculable losses. The time had come when both sides were weary of suffering and neither had high hopes. On August 1st, Pope Benedict issued his appeal to the warring nations to end what he described as a fratricidal conflict and negotiate a just and durable peace. He laid down the conditions on which alone a peace could be established. The moral force of right must rile in international affairs in place of the material force of arms. Conquered territories must be restored. Claims to indemnity must be put aside; the freedom of the seas must be guaranteed; armaments must be decreased, and international affairs must be adjusted in the future by arbitration. Where there were conflicting claims to given territories, as in Alsace Lorraine, in Poland, and in the Trentino, the decision must rest with the population of the area concerned, and the will of the people must be found by means of a plebiscite. These peace proposals are manifestly those which would have saved the world not merely from a prolongation of the war, but from the disasters which have followed it. Almost everybody now, even in the most stubborn quarters, realises that the Allies made a disastrous decision when they rejected the Pope’s proposals. It was the Allies more than Germany who were to blame for the Peace Proposals being refused. It was President Wilson who replied to the Pope, on behalf of the Allied Powers, that peace could not be made with such a Government as Germany then possessed. The Allies would not deal with a Germany ruled by the Kaiser; and by refusing to do so they committed themselves to days to come to deal with a Germany ruled by a Hitler. Little they guessed what they had done when they flung the Pope’s appeal to the ground and went on with the war for a year that was filled with hitherto unparalleled suffering. Little they knew, when at last they had beaten their enemies to their knees at the end of 1918, and when they were able to dictate a peace to their own liking, how much better they would have done to accept the just and unrevengeful peace which Pope Benedict had recommended eighteen months before.
“So the peace that was no peace came. Benedict lived to see the Peace Treaty signed and the effort to crush Germany undertaken.”
The Germans and the Austro-Hungarians were favourable to the Pope’s proposal, although Berlin avoided specific commitments until the allies had responded. But despite this blame is spread evenly for the rejection of the Peace Note on America, Britain and Germany. It is realised that no one else had the means to continue fighting on a substantial scale without the participation of these three.
It is said that Chancellor Bethman-Hollweg was overthrown at this time by the German army leaders – who were still fixated on a German military victory – and this scuppered the Papal initiative.
German war aims had been relatively modest until this point – basically recognition of Germany as a legitimate power in Europe which could go about her business without being threatened with destruction.
There were two views in Germany as to what should be done in mid-1917. One view was to go all out for peace on the basis of Benedict’s plan because things could only get worse for Germany and its position. The other, held by some Prussian military leaders, like Ludendorff and Hindenburg, argued there was no way out of the situation but through a decisive military victory – as Britain would never make peace until it was decisively beaten. There was much to encourage this latter viewpoint in 1917 as the Russian enemy on the Eastern front was on the verge of collapse and if a blow could be struck in the West with transferred troops before American numbers arrived peace might be achievable on German terms.
The attitude taken by the Entente to Benedict’s Peace Note determined that this latter view won out in late 1917/1918. It was, unfortunately, correct.
The new Provisional Russian government welcomed the Papal mediation. But the leaders of France and Italy, with largely Catholic, extremely war weary populations, were concerned. They wanted a fight to the finish to achieve their territorial aims set out in the secret treaties with England. But they hesitated to take direct issue with the Pope in view of his moral influence on their peoples. So France ignored the initiative, Clemenceau describing it as “peace against France.”
The British merely acknowledged it and then decided to let President Wilson answer for all of them.
Wilson had a unique role – that of giving the proceedings of the Allies the character and tone of disinterested ideals of justice and liberty. By 1917 a lot of the gloss had gone off the Entente propaganda that had generated and sustained the crusade against “Prussianism” in its early days. But Wilson, with his liberal, neutralist and disinterested credentials, was a useful moral cipher to dress up Allied War aims. He gave the war a new aura of idealism just as the early idealism was fading. He projected the war as a struggle to make the world safe for democracy. Lloyd George referred to one of Wilson’s speeches as “one of the greatest sermons in the history of the world.”
Wilson was the alternate moral compass in the world to the Vatican and England was prepared to use him if that meant it won its War – by hook or by crook.
President Wilson saw the timing of the Pope’s message as mischievous. Socialists had just convened a peace conference in Stockholm to appeal over the heads of rulers to the workers of the world. In Petrograd, the Bolshevik wing of the Russian revolution had already called for peace on the basis of no annexations and self determination for all peoples, and pressurised the Provisional Government into going along with them.
The Pope was saying many of the same things Wilson had said before he opted for war (he had called for “peace without victory” in a statesmanlike pronouncement early in 1916). But these former pronouncements were things of no use to the War-like attitude that was now necessary to cultivate in Americans for the fight of good over evil.
Wilson’s reply to the Pope’s Peace Note that there could be no discussion with the German Government, only with the German people, and then the war would end in a couple of hours after regime change, suggested the Great War was all about establishing democracy in Germany and nothing else.
America’s entry into the War and Wilson’s moral rejuvenation of the Allied cause put paid to Benedict XV’s Peace Note – the last chance Europe had of averting catastrophe.
It was very unlikely that Germany would have won the war, even if the United States had not come in on the side of the Allies. Germany was eager to negotiate a fair peace arrangement at the time when Lloyd George’s “knock-out victory” declaration put an end to all prospect of successful negotiations.
Had sincere peace negotiations, along the lines proposed by Benedict XV, taken place the result would have been the “peace without victory,” which Wilson described in his statesmanlike pronouncement early in 1916 when the U.S. was officially neutral. There would have been a negotiated peace treaty made by relative equals – militarily demonstrated by the stalemate in the war. This would certainly have been far preferable to the Treaty of Versailles and its effects. A negotiated peace would have saved the world from the last catastrophic years of war. It would have rendered unnecessary and impossible the brutal blockade of Germany for months after the 1918 Armistice – a blockade that starved to death hundreds of thousands of German women and children. And it would also have made impossible the rise of Bolshevism, Fascism and National Socialism— all products of the disintegration of the social fabric, effected by the war and blockade —and the coming of a second world war.
But Britain did not want another “moral force of right” in international affairs. It wanted to maintain itself as the “moral force of right” by winning the War and determining the post-war outcome. It wanted to use the “material force of arms” unilaterally in future, just as it had done, when and where it sought fit, and not let any international body tell it otherwise – as it demonstrated in relation to the League of Nations in the 1930s.
It did not wish to restore the conquered territory it had grabbed from Germany in Africa, or that it had taken from the Ottomans in the Middle East. It wanted to impose indemnity on Germany to pay for the war (and escape from its own American loans as far as it could – Bull the Bilker, as the Catholic Bulletin called Britain in the 1930s.)
It did not want “freedom of the seas” restricting it severely during the war and rejected Wilson’s call for it in his Fourteen Points. When Britain talked of the “freedom of the seas” it meant its freedom to police the seas in its own interests determining how much freedom should be allowed to other nations and what size of navies they could have.
It did not want arms limitation, except if exceptions could be made for it to police its empire, by bombing Arab and African villages off the map, if they did not pay their Imperial taxes for the privilege of British authority.
And it mostly did not want plebiscites and democracy determining the fate of territories – as witnessed by its behaviour in Ireland in 1918 when the local population decided they did not want Britain any more. Elsewhere in its vast and expanded empire obstacles were put up against other reluctant subject peoples exercising this right.
Another reason Britain did not want plebiscites and democracy determining the fate of territories, except where it suited disrupting another power – was because it had already made secret arrangement for the sharing out of spoils which it did not want democracy interfering with.
We cannot predict how history would have turned out if Benedict’s Peace initiatives had been acted upon by Britain. But we know what did happen when they were rejected. So we can conclude one thing. The future of Europe, including the expansion of Bolshevism, the growth of Fascism and Nazism, the Second World War, the concentration camps, the Soviet occupation of Europe, the Israeli state built on the plantation of Palestine, the destabilisation of the Middle East etc. were the responsibility of those who rejected Benedict’s efforts in 1917.