Modern history




The Council of Four

SPRING CAME LATE to Paris in 1919, but by the middle of April the magnolias were in full bloom and the chestnut trees along the boulevards were starting to flower. The Ethiopian delegates straggled in, tall and handsome in their white robes. The great museums gradually reopened and the children played in the parks. On May Day, the city closed down as the left brought out thousands of demonstrators for the annual socialist rally and the government responded by calling out the troops. All over the center of Paris there were clashes; rumor had it that more than two thousand had been taken to hospital seriously injured.1

By May, the German terms were largely completed, many of the borders in Central and Southern Europe had been drawn, at least on paper, and a start had been made on the treaties with Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman empire. A sour joke ran around Paris that they were preparing a “just and lasting war.”2 At the heart of the conference was the new Council of Four—Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Orlando and Wilson—which had been formed in the last week of March. The idea was to meet without the customary entourage of experts and secretaries, to settle the big questions among themselves. Lloyd George was concerned about the repeated leaks from the Supreme Council and by the slowness of the peacemaking. Clemenceau agreed: the conference had achieved little in two months. So did Wilson, who had always preferred small, informal groups where he could speak freely and, if necessary, change his mind. Cynics said that the council was also a convenient excuse to get rid of the Italian foreign minister, Sonnino, whose dour intransigence had antagonized everyone by this point, not excepting his own prime minister. 3

The Four usually met twice a day, including on Sundays if there was a particular crisis. They occasionally sat in Clemenceau’s dank, uncomfortable office at the Ministry of War, but most of the time they were in Wilson’s study. There Wilson sat stiffly in an armchair, looking, said Tardieu, who was an occasional observer, “like a college professor criticizing a thesis.” While Wilson spoke slowly and deliberately, Lloyd George, his knee clasped in his hands, dashed at his subject, sometimes angry, sometimes full of good humor, “wrapped in the utmost indifference to technical arguments, irresistibly attracted to unlooked-for solutions, but dazzling with eloquence and wit.” Clemenceau lay back in his chair, his gloved hands lying by his side. He spoke less often than the other two, with more passion than Wilson and more logic than Lloyd George. Occasionally, to hear better, he perched on the padded fireguard. Orlando normally sat on one side of the fireplace, facing the other three. He was isolated in other ways; preoccupied with Italy’s claims, he took little part in other discussions and often got lost when the others spoke English quickly together. Once, when a friend asked him about a recent meeting, he replied morosely that he had finally begun to understand a joke involving blacks that Wilson had told for the sixth time.4

The Japanese, who were now excluded, protested mildly. They were pushed off to the Council of Five, where they met with the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Italy and the United States to discuss the issues left them by the Four. The professional diplomats were scandalized at the disappearance of the Supreme Council and its replacement by the two new bodies. “Worthless schemes and improvised ideas,” said Paul Cambon. The press, which was already chafing under restrictions on its reporting, were vociferous in complaint. The Figaro correspondent said the Peace Conference was like a canvas covered with black paint, entitled A Battle of Negroes at Night in a Tunnel. A cartoon in the New York Herald showed Wilson, “the new wrestling champion,” hurling the press down to the floor. 5

Hankey, the meticulous British secretary to the Peace Conference, worried about the Council of Four’s decision not to keep records, “frightfully inconvenient from a secretarial point of view.” After a couple of weeks the Four discovered that it was also inconvenient from the point of view of getting anything done. They could not remember what they had decided or who was supposed to do anything about it. By the middle of April, Hankey was back keeping notes. So, it later turned out, was the interpreter, the historian Paul Mantoux, who dictated his recollections of the previous day’s meetings every morning in a confidential memo for Clemenceau. (Mantoux kept a copy for himself, which he left behind when the Germans entered Paris in 1940; it somehow survived the war.) By the end of April, Orlando had brought in an Italian secretary. As a result, we have been left with an extraordinarily complete picture of four of the world’s leading statesmen talking to one another day in and day out for three months in more than two hundred meetings. Where Hankey’s version makes everyone sound like a discreet civil servant and smooths over the awkward exchanges, both Mantoux and Aldrovandi, the Italian, include the offhand remarks and the angry asides.6

The Four bickered, shouted and swore at each other, but they also, even Orlando, teased each other, told jokes, and commiserated. They pored over the maps and even crawled together over Wilson’s huge map of Europe, which had to be unrolled on the floor. Lloyd George and Wilson talked about going to church; Clemenceau said he had never been in a church in his life. They compared notes on what upset them. Clemenceau told the others that he was never kept awake by abuse but had trouble sleeping when he felt he had made a fool of himself. Wilson and Lloyd George both knew exactly what he meant. The others listened politely to Wilson’s homespun Southern jokes and ventured their own. “My dear friend,” Wilson started to Clemenceau one day, who shot back, “I am always a bit afraid when you begin by calling us ‘my dear friend.’ ” Wilson replied, “I can’t do otherwise. But if you like, I shall say ‘my illustrious colleague.’ ” Toward the end of their meetings, Clemenceau asked Lloyd George, “How do you like Wilson?” Lloyd George replied, “I like him and I like him very much better now than I did at the beginning.” “So do I,” said Clemenceau. They shared the loneliness of power, and they understood one another as no one else could.7

The volume of business kept growing. On the last day of March, for example, the Big Four discussed German reparations, the Saar coalfields, Allied occupation of the Rhineland, the possibility of a Channel tunnel, Belgium’s claims, the revolution in Hungary, the armed clashes between Hungary and Rumania and the dispatch of the Smuts mission. Wilson also managed to find time to talk to his secretary of the navy about the Naval race with Britain. Lloyd George had breakfast with two advisers to discuss the Polish situation. Clemenceau had a crisis with Foch, and had to deal with a wave of strikes.8

Of the Four, Lloyd George held up best. He used to say later that the six months he spent in Paris were the happiest time of his life. He had seen Britain successfully through the war, and he enjoyed negotiating the peace. The day he left Paris, he told his old friend Riddell, “I felt I was closing a book that would never be reopened—a book of intense interest. It was an anxious time, but a pleasant time. I enjoyed it. I doubt if I shall ever spend such another. It was all so vivid.”9

Wilson by contrast aged visibly, and the tic in his cheek grew more pronounced. He had been violently ill during the acrimonious discussions over the German terms; this may have been a minor stroke, a forerunner of the massive one he was to have four months later. “I have never seen the President look so worn & tired,” wrote Baker, his press secretary, at the beginning of May. “He could not remember without an effort what the council had done in the forenoon.” Wilson was emotionally exhausted. “I think if I could have a really good piece of news,” he exclaimed one day, “I should fall dead.” He was edgier, more unreasonable, more easily irritated. He fussed over the use of the official cars. He insisted, contrary to all evidence, that the French staff in his house spoke perfect English and that they must all be spies. He abruptly rearranged his study. “I don’t like the way the colors of this furniture fight each other,” he told his doctor. “The greens and the reds are all mixed up and there is no harmony.” The American corner for the Council of Four meetings would be red, the British green, and the French could have the odds and ends. 10

On April 14 the Council of Four precipitated fresh strains by inviting the German government to send its delegates to Paris. The German treaty, which still had to be approved by the whole Peace Conference, was a curious hybrid, in part traditional provision for a defeated enemy, in part a blueprint for a new world order. It talked of the trophies of war— Germany was to return all the flags taken from France in 1871 and the skull of an African ruler which had been taken to Berlin—but also of self-determination for nations such as Poland and Czechoslovakia. Clauses dealing with Germany’s territorial losses and the punishment of those responsible for the war sat alongside provisions for a new world order— including the International Labour Organization, for example—and the whole started, as Wilson had insisted, with the covenant of the League of Nations. Because the German treaty was the first and most important one, Wilson and his supporters felt it must contain the essential principles and institutions of the new diplomacy.

A central drafting committee had been set up to collate the clauses and to make sure that the wording was clear and consistent. Baker’s assistant dropped by to see it at the Quai d’Orsay. “The drafting commission was working itself to death,” he reported, but “as very little of the material had been assembled when they took charge, most of it was very badly drafted, and much of it was conflicting, as for instance when reparations, ports, finance, and economics kept running across each other’s tails.” Changes and additions continued to stream out from the peacemakers until the moment the whole document was sent off to the printers. The Council of Four discovered that it had forgotten to put in anything about opium traffic or Luxembourg. Lloyd George wanted something on poison gas; Borden, the Canadian prime minister, asked for a change in the International Labour Organization clauses. Foch and his aides suspected the drafting committee of weakening the disarmament clauses and so insisted in sitting in on its meetings.11

On the morning of April 29, like unwanted guests at a private party, Belgian delegates appeared in Wilson’s study to say that they could not sign the treaty as it stood. In their country, public opinion was unanimous that Belgium was being treated shabbily. Demonstrators in the streets carried banners asking “Has England forgotten August 1914?” “Why does Wilson not visit our ruins?” “Belgian heroes are buried in East Africa! Who will guard their tombs?” A newspaper headline in Brussels declared “Belgium Deserted and Humiliated by Its Allies.” It did not exaggerate; the country whose invasion had started the general European conflict had been largely overlooked at the Peace Conference. 12

Yet of all the Allies, Belgium had suffered the greatest material losses at Germany’s hands. Except for a tiny scrap extending inland from the coast toward Ypres, the country had been completely occupied during the war. While much of the Allied propaganda about German behavior in Belgium was false, not all of it was. Germany had brutally and efficiently stripped the country bare. Machinery, spare parts, whole factories including the roofs, had disappeared eastward. Belgium had been a prosperous country before 1914. In 1919, 80 percent of its workforce was unemployed. Steel production was less than a tenth of what it had been. Farmers had no fertilizer and no implements, and very little livestock, because millions of horses, cows, sheep and even chickens had also gone east. If it had not been for Allied relief efforts, Belgians would have starved during that first winter of peace. 13

Unfortunately, Belgium had few champions. Wilson, who had made the restoration of the country one of his Fourteen Points, was preoccupied with bigger issues. The French suspected the Belgians of trying to annex the little duchy of Luxembourg, and the British thought they were being greedy. Lloyd George had a furious scene with the Belgian prime minister over Belgium’s “preposterous” demands: “I had to tell him quite plainly that the Belgians lost comparatively few men in the war, and that, when all was said, Belgium had not made greater sacrifices than Great Britain.”14

Belgium’s cause was not helped by its foreign minister. A neat, clever little man, convinced of the justice of his cause, Paul Hymans lectured the Council of Four and complained loudly and at length when he felt that he or his country had been slighted. On one occasion, when he was in full spate, he exclaimed, “I wish there was something I could do for Belgium.” Clemenceau roused himself. “The best thing you can do for Belgium is die or resign.”15

The Belgians had hoped that the powers would put pressure on the Dutch to sort out unsatisfactory borders between their two countries, especially along the river Scheldt, which flowed out to the sea from the great Belgian port of Antwerp through Dutch territory. The Dutch, with their own port in Rotterdam, had done little before the war to improve navigation by, for example, dredging. The Netherlands, which as a neutral power was not taking part in the Peace Conference, firmly refused to give up an inch of its soil, even in return for gains elsewhere from Germany. The powers remained silent. 16

Belgium also wanted to improve its borders with Germany. The Commission on Belgian Affairs recommended that Belgium get a scrap of land between the little towns of Eupen and Malmédy. It was not much, after all, under four hundred square miles with a population of about sixty thousand, but it did contain valuable forests to make up for Belgium’s losses during the war. The experts also threw in an extra square mile known as neutral Moresnet, which had been floating in a legal limbo because the relevant clauses in a treaty of 1815 had been badly worded. The Council of Four agreed.17

The Four were not as sympathetic when it came to reparations. Belgium asked for special permission to include war costs in its demands. This was not as unreasonable as it sounded because, with most of its country occupied, the Belgian government had been obliged to finance itself entirely through borrowing. The Belgians also asked for priority when it came to handing out the payments received from Germany. The Americans were sympathetic. The British and the French, who had their own plans for reparations, were not. But on April 29, they backed down, and over the next few days a deal was hammered out. Belgium would get $500 million as soon as Germany paid up and a percentage, to be determined, of the total reparations. Britain and France did their best to whittle down Belgian claims in subsequent years, and Germany did its best not to pay at all. It took until 1925 for Belgium to get its priority payment in full; in the end, like its allies, it only received a fraction of what it had wanted.18

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