First World War visions: Remembering Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points

Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson

Centenary commemorations are forming a constant First World War reminder between now and 2018. Those who see the war as four years of senseless capitalistic carnage will be depressed by the litany of ceremonies but that won’t make them disappear any quicker. For better or worse, the First World War is an important marker of human history and one that cannot be ignored. A better question than “why are we marking this anniversary?” is “what is the legacy of the First World War and why is it relevant 100 years later?”

I was confronted by that question last month in Laidley, near Brisbane, where the local historical society had re-enacted a recruitment march through the town. There in 1914 like many other towns across the world, young men enthusiastically signed up for “the cause”. As they marched up the main street to the music of the Salvation Army band, they were cheered on by townspeople while the recruits held signs which asked “Will you Join Us?”.

The 2014 march had the band and a cheering audience and even the sign. But what were the 21st century crowd being asked to join if not a fetish of history? The most important legacy of the First World War is the mess of the Middle East, where Australian forces are still sent on a regular basis. That fact is not noticeable in commemorations in Australia where spending on First World War centennial celebrations outstrips every other country.

It will reach a crescendo when Gallipoli approaches its centenary in April 2015. The motifs will be about mateship, honour and sacrifice and there will be similar breast-beating when it comes to remembering the Somme, Villers-Bretonneux and other places where Aussies died in large numbers. I asked the Laidley organiser why he was arranging their commemoration. “Because,” he said, “they died to preserve our way of life.” I disagreed but didn’t think it polite to argue the point. How, I wondered, did Australians dying in European trenches preserve “our” way of life?

I thought his words were simplistic, but I couldn’t get them out of my head. What was worth preserving in 1914? The First World War has never had the emotional capacity to engage like the Second World War. It wasn’t a fight against totalitarian evil and all parties were culpable of warmongering. There were no figures of evil as stark as Hitler and Stalin and there were no scapegoats like the Jews. Yet millions died between 1914 and 1918 for a war that seemed to have no reason for beginning and no excuse to end. No nation bothered to tell the world what its aims were in fighting the war.

Well, none but one. That was America and it was done in president Woodrow Wilson’s extraordinary Fourteen Points. America was a latecomer to the war but by 1918 had proven it was the world’s superpower in economic capability. The words of its president were listened to as the prognostications of an all-conquering Caesar. In January 1918 Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress to publicly declare America’s war aims. Wilson was reacting to political pressure not moral obligation. The US had entered the war nine months earlier and there was resistance by many Americans wanting neutrality. Wilson formed a group of experts he called The Inquiry to produce a report of the aims of all countries in the war and determine what America’s goals should be. Their report formed the basis of the Fourteen Points.

The points are almost completely forgotten today but they were hugely influential as a wide-ranging and optimistic blueprint of how a 20th century democratic world might look. The first five points were about general conduct. The first point called for open diplomacy and no secret treaties, the second for freedom of the seas, the third for removal of economic barriers, the fourth was about reducing arms and the fifth about balance in resolving colonial disputes. The next seven points addressed the world’s trouble spots. Six called for an independent Russia, seven a free Belgium, eight a restored France, nine a genuine Italian nation, 10 the dismantling of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, 11 independence for the Slav countries and Serbian access to the sea, 12 the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire (the point that reverberates today) and 13 the re-establishment of Poland. The last point called for a new general association of nations to guarantee “political independence and territorial integrity”.

Wilson’s international order captured the imagination of people across the world desperate for new ideas after the cynicism and destruction of the war. Wilson, said his biographer John Thompson, had the authority of a pope and the might of an emperor. A former president of Princeton, the professorial Wilson was an unlikely president of America. Elected in 1912, he played a major part in keeping the US out of the war that followed. He was re-elected in 1916 on the promise to keep America neutral. German U-boats dragged him into the war in 1917. In December 1918 he became the first serving US president to travel abroad and was treated in London and Paris like the Second Coming.

The Fourteen Points were delivered when the impact of the American war involvement was beginning to be felt. The Germans fought the allies on two fronts for three years into a gigantic stalemate. American manpower finally breached the trenches. It was a Russian victory though that turned the war into defeat. Though the Russians lost much when they surrendered at Brest-Litovsk, they spread revolutionary ideas into Germany. To protect its own political flank, Germany agreed to end the war and the country itself was never invaded.

The idealism of Wilson’s points struck an immediate chord, even Lenin applauded its vision as he returned to a disintegrating Russia. Wilson was offering not just peace but a new beginning. The plan was popular in Allied countries and among the people of the Central Powers: everyone was war-weary after four years. But the plan had many enemies, particularly among Wilson’s supposed allies who thought he was entrenching American hegemony. French president Clemenceau supposedly said “The Good Lord only gave us Ten Commandments; the American president has given us fourteen.” Clemenceau had reason for his snark. The Points contradicted French and British secret plans for management of the world in the post-war period and they offered no clue how to deal with Germany.

In October 1918, Germany offered peace on the terms of the Fourteen Points and the Points formed the basis for discussion in the Paris Peace Conference. Though Britain and France outfoxed Wilson in Paris and a hostile Senate defeated him in Washington, the Fourteen Points stand alone as a justification for the war. The points were Eurocentric, flawed and opaque – the former Ottoman countries are still working through an achievable form of government and democracy – but Wilson articulated some vision from four years of carnage. I’m still not sure what “our” way of life is, but Wilson’s Points aren’t a bad start for discussion. They deserve better than to be forgotten in the rush of military commemoration.

The Australian Light Horse Part 4 – the end of the war

Harry Chauvel leads the Light Horse into Damascus in November 1918.

Victory at Beersheba in November 1917 was sweet for the Light Horse but it was one of the last charges of a light brigade. Harry Chauvel started 1918 with a KCB on Allenby’s recommendation. After months of fierce fighting the Light Horse were ordered to take a break on Gaza’s coast. Here they reenacted their charge for photographer Frank Hurley but refused to ride at full gallop much to Hurley’s annoyance. The men were owed their jokes, badly depleted by war and malaria.

By now they were topped up by Indigenous troops. Aboriginal people could not vote in 1917 (and would not for another 50 years) but were finally allowed to die for Australia. Queensland’s Protector of Aborigines JW Bleakley pompously proclaimed “half-castes” would be accepted into the AIF “provided they satisfied the medical authorities that one parent was of European origin”. Many, like Frank Fisher of Cherbourg (Cathy Freeman’s great-grandfather), were great horsemen and good shots and a much needed injection of new talent. Horsemen supported infantry as Jericho fell in March, 1918.

While the Australians were still crucial to set battles, Lawrence’s unorthodox Arabs Revolt shored up Jerusalem’s right flank by taking Tafilah despite being outnumbered and outgunned. Allenby pushed on to Amman along the Hejaz railway line. Chauvel’s men became sappers to build a gateway quickly over the Jordan River. Near where John baptised Jesus, they performed their own miracle putting up four bridges in one night. The Turks resisted strongly, and the victor of Gallipoli, German commander Liman von Sanders was back in Palestine to lead the defensive line.

Turkish morale was boosted by the news of a German advance on the Western Front. Allied generals were so panic-stricken they pinched 60,000 troops from the Arab campaign to throw into Monash’s defensive line in France. America was finally in the war but had not yet supplied troops in large numbers. Chicago reporter Lowell Thomas and a cameraman were dispatched to the war to find suitable propaganda images to bolster American spirits at home. The Western Front was too horrific so they went to the Arabian desert to follow Lawrence’s revolt as they laid waste to Turkish supply depots along the railway.

Allenby had his sights on Deraa 100km northeast of Jerusalem on the rail junction between the Damascus-Amman line and the coastal branch line to Haifa. Another cavalry charge took the approach town of Es Salt with Turkish and German forces blaming each other for the defeat. Conditions were tough with summer temperatures rising to 50 degrees and hazards like spiders, scorpions, snakes and mosquitoes. Lawrence and the Arabs blew up the railway lines around Deraa while air bombing left it demoralised and isolated but still untaken. It didn’t matter, because in France Monash comprehensively defeated the Germans at Amiens and it was only a matter of time before it would be all quiet on the western front. The Ottoman Empire was tottering and the British defeated the Turkish 8th Army on the Plain of Sharon leaving a large breach the mobile Light Horse took advantage of, storming into Nazareth. Chauvel was happy another holy city was taken but annoyed his men allowed pyjama-clad Von Sanders to escape in a hurriedly assigned staff car.

On the same day – September 25 – Amman and its defensive force of 2500 Turks, Germans and Austrians surrendered to the British. Damascus was in sight but Chauvel’s problem was administration. He wanted to support the Turkish civil governor as he did in Jerusalem but was aware of Arab political ambitions in the city. Faisal’s army hurried north for the symbolic right to be first into the city and Chauvel and other officers were wary of Arab irregulars who did not follow “the rules of war”. At Amman the British protected 6000 Turkish prisoners of war, who would have been slaughtered if the Arabs got there first.

Damascus was in chaos as Arabs revolted against Ottoman leaders. By the end of September Faisal’s flags flew on many buildings, an act of defiance that would have meant certain death barely months earlier. They could hear bombs from Chauvel’s Mounted Division on the outskirts of town. Around 4000 Turkish and German soldiers were ambushed as they escaped along the road to Beirut and were butchered in what one Australian soldier called ‘a wallaby hunt’. Damascus was encircled but Lawrence wanted ‘a Brown Dominion’ in the city, an Arab administration reliant on Britain. When the Australians finally entered the city they were feted as liberators and greeted by the Emir who hailed their ‘bravest manner of the Saxon race’ a phrase that uncomfortably reminded Australian officer ACN Olden of his German enemy. Olden and his men moved north to chase the Turks leaving the Arabs to brawl over Damascus.

Lawrence went to the Ummayad Mosque, the oldest place of worship in the Muslim world, to pay homage to the tomb of Saladin. Saladin took Damascus from the Crusaders and died there in 1193. Chauvel appointed a new city administrator who was a proxy for Sharif Hussein. The British War Cabinet encouraged the fiction the Arabs took Damascus as a ploy in their ongoing ‘great game’ with France. But it was bluff. The secret Sykes-Picot agreement gave Syria to the French. Lawrence returned to Egypt in outrage never to return to the Arab world.

Mustafa Kemal refused to give up. He holed up in Aleppo ready for a great battle at the end of October when news of the armistice filtered through. The British took Mosul 15 days after the armistice giving them the oil they had coveted for four years. It was a bone of contention four years later at the Lausanne Peace Conference, which re-defined Turkey’s borders.

With the war over, Chauvel’s problem was managing the flood of refugees and log jam of shipping as everyone headed home. The Light Horse were sent to Gallipoli for the first time in three years to find fallen comrades and then went on to Constantinople. Many had to face the most painful act of their lives: farewelling their beloved horses. The War Office in London decided there weren’t enough ships to take them home and Australian quarantine restrictions were strict. They had to sell them to the British and Indian armies or to local markets. The remainder would be shot. 20,000 horses were sold to the Egyptians but many soldiers detested the idea of “a Gypo on their horse’s back” and preferred to kill rather than trade them. The Australian Light Horse eventually went home in 1919 to face an uncertain future. Their whalers never saw New South Wales again.

See Part 1 (1915),  Part 2 (1916) and Part 3 (1917)

The Australian Light Horse Part 3 – 1917

The Australian Light Horse water the horses at Beersheba, November 1917
The Australian Light Horse water the horses at Beersheba, November 1917

The year 1916 was awful for all nations in the First World War. The feverish adventurism of 1914 was gone, replaced by the knowledge that “your country needs you” brought almost certain death to recruits. Large set-piece battles resulted in bloody attrition and stalemate. In Belgium and north-eastern France landscape became moonscape. Cemeteries sprung up like rubbish tips to hold vast numbers of bodies who died in murderous full frontal surges. The year was dominated by two major battles that lasted months, killed millions and changed nothing.

Verdun and the Somme became etched as sites of senseless slaughter. The fort of Verdun was strategically unimportant but was an important symbol of France. They fought the Germans for almost the entire year to save it. Neither side gained much and a million men died. An even higher number – 1,100,000 – died on the banks of the Somme River. It was the spot where the French and British armies met but like Verdun, was otherwise of no strategic value.

The Somme was planned as a battle of attrition. The British deliberately walked slowly across no man’s land as generals thought this would unnerve the Germans. It didn’t unnerve German machine gunners and 20,000 died in the first hour, 60,000 in the first day – Britain’s highest ever one-day casualty list. A bloodfest that started in high summer, the Battle of the Somme went for four months until the onset of winter. Only a handful of kilometres changed hands and the overall state of the war was the same in January 1917 as it was in January 1916.

The Ottoman war was also stalemated as 1917 arrived. The Mesopotamia campaign for Mosul’s oil ended when the British army at Kut surrendered after a siege despite TE Lawrence’s entreaties and bribes. In the north the Turks feared Christian Armenia more than any other enemy and butchered almost a million Armenians. In the south Arabs were paid off to keep quiet while in the west the British Army and their Australian Light Horse trooped were hemmed in at Sinai.

Lawrence’s plan was to set up an alternative caliphate. The man he anointed, Sharif Hussein, launched a symbolic but important blow in June 1916 taking Mecca. Hussein was a nominal Ottoman subject but held semi-independent sway as long as he didn’t attack strategic Turkish interests. That changed in a lightning attack on Mecca’s small Turkish garrison. Hussein also took Red Sea ports giving the British Navy an opening for weapons and supplies.

Hussein knew the Arabs could not take the Turks on full frontal. The Ottomans held Medina, Islam’s second city and the Arabs did not have the training or equipment for open battle. They launched a guerrilla campaign swiftly attacking towns and the railway before disappearing in the desert. Lawrence arrived in Arabia in October 1916 and struck a rapport with Hussein’s son Faisal. Together they planned the 1917 revolt.

The Light Horse started the slow assault across Sinai. Victory at El Arish ended Turkish momentum and at the start of 1917 Chauvel’s troops secured important victories at Magdhaba and Rafa taking them within sight of Palestine. The way was blocked by the city of Gaza which they laid siege to twice. The British blundered at the first attempt in January 1917 when they withdrew under the belief Turkish reinforcements had arrived. Chauvel’s exasperated response was “But we have Gaza,” yet he had to obey orders. The decision demoralised his men and gave the Turks hope they could hold the line between Gaza and Beersheba. A second attempt to take Gaza in April also failed. Chauvel looked at a new option: taking Beersheba in a swift attack. It had to be done in under a day otherwise they would run out of water.

While the British stalled, the Arab Revolt gained momentum. Lawrence’s most audacious act was to cross the Nefud Desert in the hottest time of year to attack Aqaba at the northern end of the Red Sea. The stretch of desert they had to go through was al-Houl (“the terror”), the most inhospitable region on earth. The British did not support the plan, worried about growing Arab influence. But taking Aqaba would divert Turkish defences from the Gaza line and provide a launchpad for the push on Damascus. Lawrence enlisted Howeitat leader Audu abu Tayi, with promises of Turkish gold. Lawrence and Audu made a long circuitous path across the desert and entered Aqaba on 6 July 1917. Lawrence rushed back to Cairo and was greeted by a new British leader replacing the ineffectual General Murray.

Though General Edmund Allenby was disappointed to be taken away from the Western Front to what he saw as an insignificant contest, he was inspired by the mission Prime Minister Lloyd George gave him: “take Jerusalem by Christmas”. Allenby saw Aqaba as critical to support the Gaza operation. He saw how manoeuvrable the campaign was compared to France and what role cavalry might play. He created the Desert Mounted Corps of 35,000 men with Chauvel at its head. He also moved headquarters from the corruption of Cairo to the front line near Rafa.

Allenby wanted to convince the Turks they would have a third try at taking Gaza when the real target was Beersheba. He returned to Cairo to pretend nothing was happening and gave Turks plans of a fake attack on Gaza, but vetoed a third plan to drop cigarettes packets laced with opium behind enemy lines. The Army prepared to attack Beersheba on October 31.

Beersheba was well defended by Turkish and German troops and an impressive trench system. With the Army bogged down on the edge of town, Chauvel’s cavalry made the decisive move. Beersheba lay in a shallow saucer at the foot of the Judean Hills. Chauvel could see the whole town from a nearby hill. As the day progressed the Turks offered stern resistance and Chauvel ordered his 4th Light Brigade to attack. At 4.30pm the sun was setting as they galloped towards the town. They had 3km of no man’s land to cross and halfway there the defenders opened fire with machine guns. Many horses and men died in the hail of bullets but it did not stop the advance. Terrified by the bloodcurdling cry of the Australians, the Germans ordered a withdrawal. The Light Horse butchered the remaining Turks and took the town before the Germans could blow up the well.

An elated Allenby ordered a third attack on Gaza and it fell within 24 hours. The road was open to Jerusalem. All armies had strict orders about “holy” places and the fight tiptoed around Bethlehem. The Turks fled Jerusalem on December 9 and the 60th Division’s General Shea marched into the Old City on a drizzly morning greeted wildly by people of many nationalities. Not since the 6th Crusade 674 years earlier had a Christian power had taken the city. Allenby had kept his promise to Lloyd George. The way was clear towards the even more important target of Damascus in 1918 and an end to the war.

See also part 1 and part 2.

Courier-Mail apology adds to its growing irrelevance

apologyThe Courier-Mail’s apology for an apology this morning highlights everything wrong with News Corp journalism in Australia.

The apology, printed over three small columns buried on page 7 comes a day after the Brisbane tabloid ran a racy page 1 image of murdered Indonesian woman Mayang Prasetyo. Prasetyo was posing provocatively in a bikini next to the screaming headline “Monster CHEF and the SHE MALE”. It was an appalling headline that should never have seen the light of day and passed through many gatekeepers before publication. It was a headline that said more about newspaper management than about the murder victim.

The headline and the picture had one purpose: to sell newspapers. Recent Audit Bureau of Circulation data have shown a modest recent increase in Courier-Mail sales, which the paper trumpeted. The longer-term picture is of consistent decline, shown up in the Year on Year figures from 2012 to 2013 which shows the paper down 10% from 185,000 papers a day to 162,000. These figures are similar to newspapers across the country. News suits in Brisbane and elsewhere are panicking and think they have to go downmarket to gain readership. Yesterday, the paper hit rock bottom managing simultaneously to offend women, Asians, gays, blacks, domestic violence victims, and possibly chefs, in its extraordinary heat seeking missile headline.

Tabloids have been offending minority groups forever, with the “other” always fair game for headline writers. People were always offended and some may have written to the paper to express their outrage. A handful of letters might even have been published in the name of faux-balance. But the papers felt they could get away with anything, because no one could stop them. These days the rules have changed. The digital disruption playing havoc with News Corp’s business model is also offering effective ways of expressing disapproval. The headline went viral for all the wrong reasons and social media and activist websites are fanning the flames calling for apologies. Realising finally they might have gone too far, the Courier-Mail thought they could douse things down with today’s apology and indeed there are some good things in it.

The apology’s first sentence should have been yesterday’s Page 1 lead’s first sentence. It read “Mayang Prasetyo was the innocent victim of a horrendous crime, killed by the man she should have been able to trust”. The sentence went to the core of the issue yesterday’s headline ignored: there is a domestic violence crisis in Australia of men attacking and often killing their partners. The apology said Mayang would be remembered for her cheerfulness and her love of family “as we reported yesterday” (hidden behind the hideous headline). It went on, “Many believe” (but presumably not Courier-Mail management) “we presented Mayang’s story in a way that was disrespectful to her memory. It concluded they “no intention of diminishing the value of Mayang’s life, or to add to the grief being felt by her family”.

Can they seriously believe “Monster chef and the she male” is a respectful headline? Didn’t anyone at the paper think their other headline “the butcher and the ladyboy” might diminish her life? Was anyone arguing these headlines would add to her family’s grief? The apology shows the Courier-Mail has learned nothing. The sooner it and its stablemate of toilet papers disappear, the better it will be for the health of our society.

The Australian Light Horse Part 2 – Lawrence of Arabia and the caliphate

Australian Light Horse and walers in the desert campaign.
Australian Light Horse and walers in the desert campaign.

What would the great Arabologist TE Lawrence have made of ISIS? Lawrence would surely have seen them as a brutal rejection of every 18th century European enlightenment value he believed in, though he would have admired their strength in Arab brotherhood. He was a fervent servant of Empire, but honest enough to wince at Britain’s long duplicity in the region. He would also have acknowledged his own part in creating the conditions to enable ISIS’s extraordinary claim to the caliphate. He would have recognised the new caliph’s call for a jihad against infidels because that is what confronted him in December 1915 after Gallipoli was evacuated.

Lawrence was an intelligence officer in Cairo when he heard the news from Constantinople. The emboldened Sultan, flush from victory in the Dardanelles, used his dual role as caliph to urge Islamic people to launch jihad against “the infidel”. Despite the hypocrisy of the Sultan’s own infidel German military advisers Lawrence recognised the power of the call, particularly to restive Arabs, to proclaim a Muslim brotherhood against the Allied invaders at their Egyptian and Iraqi borders.

Lawrence was a gifted analyst with his own ambitions for Arabia and Britain. He came up with a new plan to end the war in the east. His bold strategy insisted the Sultan be stripped of his powers as caliph, a central role in Islamic society. The first caliph was the prophet Mohammed and the dispute over his successor split Islam into Sunni and Shia sects. The Caliphate became a Sunni institution passed down to Arab and later Turkish leaders. The caliph was an ecclesiastic role which kept Constantinople at the centre of the Arab world for centuries, despite its crumbling power. Passing the caliphate to a non-Turkish Muslim leader with Britain’s support, Lawrence thought, would undermine Turkey from its religious heart.

He believed the caliphate should go to Hussein, Sharif of Mecca. Hussein was in the pay of the Turks but Lawrence thought he could be bought out. Lawrence also needed to cut the Hejaz railway line which linked Turkey with Arabia. He reasoned the Arabs would support this because the railway enabled Turkish administration which hampered Arab collection of tolls and taxes. Lawrence wanted the rule of many small Arab nations relying on Britain for support, though he also knew of the secret Sykes-Picot pact to split the region between Britain and France. A British double cross, he thought, was worth the risk to ensure victory in the war. He struck a productive partnership with Hussein.

Lawrence also knew he could not defeat Turkey without conventional military might. The most vital part of that strategy was the Light Horse. The fight took place over a vast area of Egypt, Sinai, Palestine and Arabia. The Light Horse were shock troops in a wide ranging war where trenches weren’t a problem. Harry Chauvel also saw the Light Horse would now be sent to Arabia, which was a dilemma. He wanted an assignment in France but he also saw the opportunities if he stayed with the horses. The likelihood was he would be made a leader of an Australian division under Birdwood. Chauvel became commander of the mounted divisions, committing him to the Middle East.

Once again he turned a blind eye to soldiers playing up in bars and brothels because he knew what they could do under fire. The pressure increased in March 1916 with the fall of the Iraqi city of Kut. Situated 160km south-east of Baghdad, the city was as far as the Mesopotamian campaign advanced up the Shatt Al-Arab and the Tigris river. At Kut the Turks surrounded a British force leading to a siege. The Turks also threatened Sinai and the Suez Canal, Britain’s lifeline to India and Australasia. While Lawrence was sent to Kut to bribe the Turks to free the British (he failed), Chauvel and the Light Horse were thrown into the battle to save the Suez.

Chauvel knew horses were vital and needed a strong remount depot. He turned to an old schoolfriend he trusted to do the job: renowned horse whisperer Banjo Paterson. The pair met at Sydney Grammar, both were from military stock and both joined up. Paterson resigned his commission after the Boer War but signed up again in 1914 hoping to become a war correspondent but ending up in a veterinary unit. He returned to Australia to recruit a remount unit breaking in horses.

The importance of the Paterson-trained horses was increased after German planes began bombing raids in Sinai in May 1916. Once the alert was sounded, riders and horses rushed into the desert and stayed as still as possible. Camouflaged by scrubs and palms they were difficult to spot from the planes. While Chauvel’s men were frustrated by endless patrols, Lawrence was making headway. He could not stop Kut from falling but he met Arab leaders in Basra where he made promises of Arab freedom to choose their own leaders. Lawrence set in motion an Arab desert campaign dovetailing with the British Army in Palestine. It would be 1917 before Chauvel or Lawrence would achieve success.