Finest Hour 147, Summer 2010
Coalition Foiled, 1918 / “A Plan of War Against the Bolsheviks” / Churchill’s Four Days of Torment
By Martin Gilbert
Sir Martin Gilbert is the official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill
Churchill is not normally associated with the Paris Peace Conference, which culminated in the Versailles Treaty of 1920. But for four days in February 1919, his was an important contribution to its deliberations. For him, these four days were a turning point, and a testing time, and intrinsic to the development of his thought and philosophy about working with allies in coalitions.
In Paris, the victorious allies were discussing the ongoing strife in Russia. British Prime Minister Lloyd George had asked Churchill (his new peacetime Secretary of State for War) to determine whether these nations wanted to destroy Bolshevism by force, to encourage the White Russian antiBolsheviks to do so, or to play no part at all in the future of Russia.
These crucial negotiations were in the hands of the Council of Ten, comprising the heads of government and the foreign ministers of the major victors: the United States, France, Great Britain, Italy and Japan.
At seven on the evening of Friday, 14 February, having travelled all day by boat and car from London, Churchill explained, to an emergency meeting of the Council, that because President Woodrow Wilson was about to return to the United States, the British Cabinet had sent him to Paris to obtain a decision on Allied policy towards the Bolsheviks.
Churchill told the Council: “Great Britain had soldiers in Russia who were being killed in action. Their families wished to know what purpose these men were serving. Were they just marking time until the Allies had decided on a policy, or were they fighting in a campaign representing some common aim?” The longer the delay continued, Churchill warned, “the worse would be the situation of the troops on all the Russian fronts. The Russian elements in these forces were deteriorating rapidly because of the uncertainty of the support they might expect from the victorious Allies. The Allied troops were intermingled with these Russian troops, which were weakening and quavering, and they were themselves becoming affected.”1
President Wilson told the Council that he was opposed to any further Allied intervention in Russia. The Allied troops “were doing no sort of good in Russia,” he said. “They did not know for whom or for what they were fighting. They were not assisting any promising common effort to establish order throughout Russia.” Wilson’s conclusion was that the Allies “ought to withdraw their troops from all parts of Russian territory.”
Churchill replied that the complete withdrawal of all Allied troops was “a logical and clear policy,” but he feared that its consequences “would be the destruction of all non-Bolshevik armies in Russia,” a total of half a million men, whose numbers were increasing. “Such a policy,” he continued, “would be equivalent to pulling out the linch-pin from the whole machine. There would be no further armed resistance to the Bolsheviks in Russia, and an interminable vista of violence and misery was all that remained for the whole of Russia.”
The President dismissed Churchill’s argument. “The existing Allied forces,” he said, “could not stop the Bolsheviks,” nor were any of the Allies “prepared to reinforce its troops.” Italian Foreign Minister Baron Sonnino asked whether the Allies might not at least continue to supply arms to the anti-Bolshevik forces. Wilson observed caustically that until then the anti-Bolshevik Russians “had made very little use of them when they had them.”
Despite Wilson’s scepticism, Churchill persevered in his attempt to rouse support for a more active Allied policy, accepting that “none of the Allies could send conscript troops to Russia,” but urging that the Allies send “volunteers, technical experts, arms, munitions, tanks, aeroplanes, etc.” Wilson opposed Churchill’s suggestion. Conscripts could not be sent, he agreed, but volunteers probably could not be obtained. Wilson then said, to Churchill’s surprise, that he “felt guilty in that the United States had in Russia insufficient forces, but it was not possible to increase them. It was certainly a cruel dilemma. At present our soldiers were being killed in Russia, if they were removed many Russians might lose their lives. But some day or other the Allied troops would be withdrawn; they could not be maintained there for ever and the consequences to the Russians would only be deferred.”
Churchill then explored another possibility of intervention, noting that at Prinkipo—an island in the Sea of Marmara off Constantinople—a meeting was about to take place between the Russian Bolsheviks, the Russian anti-Bolsheviks, and the Allies. If Prinkipo failed, Churchill asked, would the Council approve “of arming the anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia”? President Wilson, hitherto emphatic in opposing Churchill’s quest for action, replied, somewhat unhelpfully, that he “hesitated to express any definite opinion.” His one suggestion was that whatever the Council decided, he would “cast in his lot with the rest.”
The meeting adjourned. A few hours later, President Wilson left Paris by train for Cherbourg, and boarded ship for the United States. He was never to return to Paris.
That night, Churchill, Sir Henry Wilson (Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who had travelled with Churchill to Paris) and Lloyd George’s emissary Philip Kerr dined together to discuss the Russian impasse. Churchill proposed that the Council of Ten should be asked to reach two decisions: first, that an Allied mission would go to Prinkipo provided hostilities stopped throughout Russia “within, say, ten-days”; and second, that an Inter-Allied Commission should be set up to decide what military and economic action the Allies should take, in conjunction with Russia’s neighbours, “to bring the Bolshevik regime to an end.”2
It had been a long and, for Churchill, an unsatisfactory, Friday. On the morning of 15 February, Philip Kerr warned Lloyd George in a private letter: “I cannot conceal from you that in my opinion Mr. Churchill is bent on forcing a campaign against Bolshevik Russia by using Allied volunteers, Polish and Finnish and any other conscripts that can be got hold of, financed and equipped by the Allies. He is perfectly logical in his policy, because he declares that the Bolsheviks are the enemies of the human race and must be put down at any cost.” Kerr urged Lloyd George “to watch the situation very carefully, if you do not wish to be rushed into the policy of a volunteer war against the Bolsheviks in the near future.”3
That Saturday, Churchill lunched with a fellow delegate, former Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, seeking support for his proposal that, if the Bolsheviks refused to come to Prinkipo, the Allies should offer immediate, extra and substantial aid to all anti-Bolshevik forces. Sir Henry Wilson, who was present, noted in his diary that Balfour was “generally favourable” to Churchill’s plan.4
The Council of Ten reconvened in the afternoon, Georges Clemenceau, in the chair. Churchill proposed that the Allies inform the Bolsheviks that negotiations for a Russian settlement could only begin when the Bolsheviks agreed to a cease-fire and made at least a withdrawal on all fronts. He also asked for the immediate setting up of an “Allied Council for Russian Affairs” that would have powers of executive action within the limits of the policy laid down by the Allied Governments, and would begin its work at once.5 This Allied Council, Churchill explained to Lloyd George in a telegram that evening, would draw up “a complete military plan,” and also give its opinion as to whether “there is a reasonable prospect of success.”
Churchill told his Prime Minister that after he (WSC) had set out his proposals, Clemenceau, arguing that Prinkipo had already broken down, urged an immediate examination of the military aspects of intervention. He was supported “very effectively,” Churchill telegraphed to Lloyd George, by Baron Sonnino and the Japanese Foreign Minister, Count Makino, each of whom “expatiated” on the harm done to the military position by the continual delay.
Churchill and Balfour then joined forces, as Churchill informed Lloyd George, to stress the need to continue the Prinkipo offer of talks with the Bolsheviks, explaining to the Council “the advantages to British public opinion of having made it clear to the whole world that we were doing our utmost to seek a termination of the bloodshed in Russia and to promote a peaceful solution, and that we should not make a sharp turn which would appear to be breaking off negotiations abruptly.”
Sonnino brought these arguments to a close by pointing out that the original Allied invitation to the Bolsheviks had given that very day, 15 February, as the date by which all fighting should have stopped—which it had not—and that the Bolshevik representatives should have arrived at Prinkipo—which they had not.
As a result, “everyone felt very strongly,” Churchill told Lloyd George, “that a perfectly fair and reasonable breaking-off point had been reached, that the Bolsheviks had spent the month in attacking us and were advancing with success on all fronts, and that they had sent us a baffling and in some ways an insulting reply, that they had not made any attempt to come themselves and that none of the pro-Allied Russian Governments would meet them.”
Yet despite this clear breach by the Bolsheviks, the only decision reached that day was to adjourn until Monday the 17th. Churchill did not seek precipitate action; indeed, he proposed a message to the Bolsheviks, repeating the Prinkipo invitation on condition that “the fighting should stop, and stop forthwith,” and giving them a further ten days to call a cease-fire and withdraw at least five miles from the front line held by the anti-Bolshevik Russians.6
On Sunday the 16th, Lloyd George gave his approval to Churchill’s compromise, but asked that, in the event of the Bolsheviks refusing these conditions, Churchill would not commit Britain “to any costly operations which would involve any large contribution either of men or of money.” Lloyd George told Churchill: “There is only one justification for interfering in Russia, that Russia wants it.” If she did, then the anti-Bolshevik Russian leaders “ought to be able to raise a much larger force than the Bolsheviks. This force we could equip and a well equipped force of willing men would soon overthrow the Bolshevik army of unwilling conscripts especially if the whole population is against them.” If Russia was not behind the anti-Bolshevik Russian leaders, Lloyd George warned, “it is an outrage of every British principle of freedom that we should use foreign armies to force upon Russia a Government which is repugnant to its people.”7
On the morning of the 16th, before Lloyd George’s reply reached him, Churchill, in a new bellicose mood, outlined to Balfour a military scheme he had in mind, enlisting the help of Germany’s wartime ally, Bulgaria. “I have been asking myself,” Churchill wrote, “whether the Bulgarians might not be given a chance to relieve their past misdeeds, placing an army at our disposal to undo some of the harm they did to Russia by their ingratitude. Such an army of say, three Bulgarian double divisions could be brought into action across the Black Sea in conjunction with the Russian anti-Bolshevik troops….” Bulgaria could be rewarded by some Turkish territory in Europe.
It was essential, Churchill told Balfour, for the Allies to agree on the following day to set up “without delay” the special “Military Commission for Russian Affairs” for which he had argued on the previous day.8 That Sunday, Churchill telegraphed to Lloyd George, outlining the course he intended to take at the Monday meeting. He would seek Allied agreement to the immediate formation of a Military Commission “to prepare, out of the resources which are available, a plan of war against the Bolsheviks” and to submit the plan to the Allied Powers “together with an expression of authoritative military opinion, as to whether it has reasonable chances of succeeding or not.”
If the chances of defeating the Bolsheviks were found to be good, Churchill suggested, “then will be the moment to proclaim that Prinkipo has already lapsed as from February 15th and hearten up our Allies by every means we can employ.”9
That night Lloyd George dined with the newspaper proprietor Sir George Riddell, who wrote in his diary that Lloyd George told him: “Winston…wants to conduct a war against the Bolsheviks. That would cause a revolution. Our people would not permit it.”10
Lloyd George’s reply to Churchill’s telegram arrived in Paris on Monday the 17th. He was, he said, “very much alarmed” at Churchill’s telegram “about planning war against the Bolsheviks”; and insisted that the Cabinet had “never contemplated anything beyond supplying arms in anti-Bolshevik areas in Russia with necessary equipment to enable them to hold their own.” Even this policy was to be pursued “only in the event of every effort at peaceable solution failing.” There was also the danger, Lloyd George went on, of “driving the anti-Bolshevik parties in Russia into the ranks of the Bolsheviks.”
Lloyd George then repeated his reasons for opposing armed Allied intervention in Russia: “An expensive war of aggression against Russia is a way to strengthen Bolshevism in Russia and create it at home. We cannot afford the burden…if we are committed to a war against a continent like Russia, it is the road to bankruptcy and Bolshevism in these islands….Were it known that you had gone over to Paris to prepare a plan of war against the Bolsheviks it would do more to incense organised labour than anything I can think of; and what is still worse, it would throw into the ranks of the extremists a very large number of thinking people who now abhor their methods.”11
Lloyd George made sure that as many people as possible knew of his hostility to Churchill’s proposals. “Later in the day,” Sir Henry Wilson wrote in his diary, “Winston and I found that Lloyd George had wired to Philip Kerr to send copies of these telegrams to Colonel House, President Wilson’s emissary in Paris. This was a low down trick, as this general tenor showed that Lloyd George did not trust Winston. Winston very angry.”12
Kerr wrote to Lloyd George later that day: “Mr. Churchill was very indignant at this on the ground that it revealed to the Americans the internal disagreement of the British Government and made it seem as if you had not confidence that he would represent your views….I said that I was certain that you had no idea of showing the slightest want of confidence in him.”13
Lloyd George telegraphed Churchill again on February 17th. “Have consulted with my colleagues. They approve of my telegram. They urge you not to commit this country to anything beyond what is contained therein.”14
Churchill defended his position, telegraphing to Lloyd George that his proposals were not a drastic departure from existing policy, but still tended towards moderation and caution: “The limited character of our assistance will be clearly stated in accordance with your views, which I perfectly understand on this point. Other Powers will presumably say what they can do…. When all the available information has been sifted and weighed by the military authorities, we shall have their recommendation as to whether there is or is not a reasonable military hope. It is with this recommendation clearly before them that the Supreme War Council, probably a week hence, will have to make up its mind whether to go on or quit.”
Churchill ended this telegram with words of reassurance: “You need not be alarmed about the phrase ‘planning war against the Bolsheviks.’ As you pointed out at the Cabinet, we are actually making war on them at the present moment. All that is intended is to assemble in a comprehensive form possible means and resources for action….”15
Churchill had yet to put his proposals before the Council of Ten. But with Lloyd George’s telegram of protest having been sent to the American negotiators, it seemed to the Council that he had exceeded his instructions and been disowned by his Prime Minister. Angered at having his authority undermined, Churchill drafted a long letter to Lloyd George, which he finally decided to hold back. It was a letter of deep anguish and foreboding, containing his innermost fears and strongest defence. “Nothing which I am doing or going to do,” Churchill wrote, “will commit you to anything inconsistent with it or beyond it. But I do hope you realise that, as soon as the Military Commission has reported (which ought not be to more than a week) you will have to take a definite decision one way or the other.”
As Secretary of State for War, Churchill pointed out, “I am not responsible for anything beyond carrying out the policy you settle and providing you with the means for carrying out such a policy. If after receiving the military report you decide to clear out of Russia with or without your allies, orders will immediately be issued and action will follow as fast as is physically possible.”
Churchill went on to warn Lloyd George of “the odious character of the events which will follow” if Britain disinterested herself in Russian affairs: “The new States which it is hoped to call into being in the East of Europe will be crushed between Russian Bolshevism and Germany. Germany will regain by her influence over Russia far more than she has lost in colonies overseas or provinces in the West….In five years, or even less, it will be apparent that the whole fruits of our victories have been lost…that Germany is stronger than ever, and that British interests in India are perilously affected. After all our victories we shall have quitted the field in humiliation and defeat.”
Churchill accepted that “the strongest military opinion” might show “that the Russian armies are quite useless and that there are no means at our disposal of animating and sustaining them—that there is nothing for it but to let things rip and take the consequences.” It would then be clear that, “as the great nations will not fight with large national armies to restore Russia, it is not worth while keeping alive the embers of Russian resistance. To do that would only be to prolong the agony.”
Even if the military report showed that there was “a reasonable possibility of success” in military action against the Bolsheviks, Churchill wrote in his draft, “you may decide to quit. This would be, in my opinion, a decision more difficult to defend before history, but still it would be a decision quite open for you to take and which only you can take. What would be utterly indefensible would be to come to this truly awful decision without accurate, comprehensive and authoritative military advice. That I am sure you will not wish to do.”
Churchill intended to remind Lloyd George that there were British troops under arms with the anti-Bolshevik Russian forces in Siberia, at Omsk: “I could not take the responsibility of leaving these men unsupported to their fate after the policy which sent them there had been definitely abandoned. Therefore, there seems to me to be no escape from the dilemma—fight or quit; get on or get out.”
Churchill then explained why he was not averse to negotiating with the Bolsheviks, telling Lloyd George: “If we cannot fight, I suppose we ought to parley. Perhaps if we gave the Bolsheviks boots, clothing, food and money they might be willing to show mercy to Koltchak, Denikin and Co. [the Russian anti-Bolshevik forces]. I am not at all sure, however, whether the House of Commons would approve of this. It seems to me very probable that they will neither supply the means to fight nor the authority to negotiate.”
He had been doing his best, Churchill assured Lloyd George, ‘to maintain a consistent line on your Prinkipo policy’—of negotiating with the Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik Russians. That policy, Churchill stressed, ‘has no friends here now that President Wilson has gone, and Colonel House announced himself opposed to it. Sonnino and Clemenceau are infuriated with it. Makino deposed that it had prejudiced the military situation in Siberia. Balfour, in private, disowns it. All the military men without exception condemn it. But if we cannot fight or will not fight, it is no doubt logical that we should sue for peace on the best terms that we can get for ourselves and those we have brought into the field.’
Making peace with the Bolsheviks was not something Churchill relished, but he realized it might be inevitable given Allied lack of unanimity. His draft letter to Lloyd George ended: “You must forgive me putting these cruel facts before you when you have so many anxieties and burdens to bear. I am sure your courage will not shrink from facing them in their ugliest aspect.”16
Churchill decided to put his views to Lloyd George in person, and withheld his draft. But on his return to London, he told Lloyd George of the doubts and fears that he had expressed in this unsent letter. Lloyd George insisted that Churchill supervise the withdrawal of all British troops from Russia, which Churchill then did. Churchill also, at Lloyd George’s insistence, set a finite limit on the British military aid to the anti-Bolshevik Russian forces. What Churchill had called “the foul baboonery of Bolshevism” would not be stopped by British efforts.
At noon on Monday 17 February there was a meeting in Paris of the British Government’s Imperial Cabinet, with Balfour in the chair. “Much talk about Russia,” Sir Henry Wilson noted in his diary, “and of course nothing settled.” The Canadian Prime Minister “plainly said that he was going to withdraw his Canadians from Vladivostock leaving our 2 poor Battalions in the lurch at Omsk.”17
The Council of Ten convened at three that afternoon. The meeting was stormy. When Churchill put forward his proposal for a study of the military aspects of intervention by a special committee of allied military representatives, Colonel House, President Wilson’s representative, protested. To Churchill’s chagrin, Balfour supported House. But Clemenceau (“the Tiger”) and Sonnino supported Churchill.
Henry Wilson wrote in his diary: “House said neither American men nor material would be allowed to go to Russia. Tiger said, that being so, the other Powers would discuss Russia without America. He said it was a pitiful thing to see the victors of the Boches afraid to refer the Russian problem to Versailles Winston spoke a little and well.”18
It was decided on American insistence that no joint Allied note should be issued, but that each country should first seek the separate advice of its own military advisers. Colonel House wrote in his diary that Churchill “was persistent in pushing his plan for a military committee to examine the question as to how Russia could best be invaded in the event it was necessary to do so. I opposed this plan with some vehemence.”19
As soon as the meeting ended, Churchill telegraphed an account of it to Lloyd George. His telegram was bitter: “This afternoon I proposed the formation of a military commission to enquire into what measures were possible to sustain the Russian armies we had called into being during the war with Germany and to protect the independence of the border States. The Americans who had had the advantage of reading your telegrams to me made difficulties even in this, expressing fears that even setting up a commission to enquire into the military situation might leak out and cause alarm.”
As a compromise, Balfour had proposed “that no formal commission should be set up but that the military authorities might be allowed informally to talk together and, instead of presenting a report to the Conference as a whole, might individually hand to their respective representatives on the Conference a copy of the results of their informal and unofficial conversations.” After Clemenceau had commented “on the strange spectacle of the victorious nations in this great struggle being afraid even to remit to the study of their military advisers at Versailles a matter admittedly of vital importance to Europe, this project was agreed to.” As a result, Churchill explained to Lloyd George: “You are therefore committed at some date in the near future to receiving an informal document embodying certain military opinions bearing upon Russia. You are committed to nothing else.”20
Churchill’s desire to get a united Allied plan in the event of the Prinkipo negotiations with the Bolsheviks had been frustrated. Disappointed and angry, he returned to London. For four days he had worked hard to get a decision, either for action or inaction, and had been unsuccessful. The unity of the Allies was a myth; the dangers posed by Bolshevik Russia had failed to unite them. There would be no allied or British effort to send military forces to help the Russian anti-Bolsheviks in their fight against the Red Peril.
1. The full transcript of the discussions at the Council of Ten meetings on 14, 15, 16 and 17 February 1919 are in the Lloyd George papers.
2. Letter from Philip Kerr (later Lord Lothian) to Lloyd George. Lloyd George papers.
3. Letter from Philip Kerr (later Lord Lothian) to Lloyd George. Lloyd George papers.
4. Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, diary: Henry Wilson papers.
5. Council of Ten discussion, Lloyd George papers.
6. Churchill to Lloyd George, Lloyd George papers.
7. Lloyd George to Churchill, Churchill papers.
8. Churchill to Balfour: Balfour papers.
9. Churchill to Lloyd George, Lloyd George papers.
10. Sir George Riddell, diary: Lord Riddell, Intimate Diary of the Peace Conference and After 1918-1923. (London: Gollancz, 1933).
11. Lloyd George to Churchill, Churchill papers, 16/20.
12. Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, diary: Henry Wilson papers.
13. Philip Kerr to Lloyd George, Lloyd George papers.
14. Lloyd George to Churchill, Churchill papers, 16/20.
15. Churchill to Lloyd George, Lloyd George papers.
16. Draft letter, marked “unsent”: Churchill papers, 16/21.
17. Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, diary (Imperial Cabinet): Henry Wilson papers.
18. Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, diary (Council of Ten): Henry Wilson papers.
19. Colonel House, diary: Edward Mandell House and Charles Seymour, The Intimate Papers of Colonel House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1926.)
20. Churchill to Lloyd George, Lloyd George papers.