BEHIND THE IMAGE: Spectators at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 28 June 1919

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Perched on sofas and peering in from every angle, these Allied officers were obviously desperate to catch a glimpse of the momentous events unfolding next door. The Great War was finally coming to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the dazzling surroundings of the Palace of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors.

Black and white photograph showing a room of people, many stood on tables and chairs, peering through glass doors trying to catch a glimpse of the Treaty of Versailles being signed.

After the German surrender of November 1918, hostilities had ceased — but between January and June 1919, the representatives of 21 nations had met in Paris to negotiate the exact terms of the surrender, and what it meant for the future of Europe.

Representatives of Germany and its allies had not been allowed even to sit at the negotiating table but instead were witnesses to the deliberations of the ‘Big Four’ leaders of the Allied powers: French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, US President Woodrow Wilson, and the Prime Minister of Italy, Vittorio Orlando. 

Each of these powerful politicians had his own agenda — with Wilson pushing for a new international order, in the form of the League of Nations, and the others intent on carving out as much territory as possible for themselves from their vanquished foes. Deliberation and argument was intense, and it was even reported  at one point that Lloyd George and Clemenceau would have come to blows had Wilson not intervened.

With agreement reached at last, the treaty was presented to the German contingent, who viewed it as harsh – they were to lose 13% of their pre-war territory and all their overseas territory. In addition, the Ruhr, the country’s industrial heart – land, was to be occupied by Allied troops, while its military force would be significantly reduced.

It would also have to pay its European neighbours substantial reparations — intended to rebuild those devastated countries — and to agree to the infamous war-guilt clause, Article 231, which assigned all the blame for the war to Germany. 

Despite many in France and Britain believing that the Allies had been lenient, criticism was made of the treaty’s harshness in the US, with Congress refusing to ratify it, and Germany only agreed to sign under protest. In response, its delegation wrote: ‘The exactions of this treaty are more than the German people can bear.’

One eye-witness to the ceremony, among a thousand in the room, wrote describing the German signatories of the treaty walking through the hall with pale faces and eyes eager not to meet those of anyone else, as if they were condemned men. 

But Sir Harold Nicolson, a member of the British delegation, described the scene beyond the room: ‘Suddenly from outside comes the crash of guns thundering a salute. It announces to Paris that the second Treaty of Versailles has been signed by [the German representatives]. Through the few open windows comes the sound of distant crowds cheering hoarsely.’

The economist John Maynard Keynes, who was also present, wrote with prescience: ‘Moved by insane delusion and reckless self-regard, the German people overturned the foundations on which we all lived and built. But the spokesmen of the French and British peoples have run the risk of completing the ruin, by a peace which, if it is carried into effect, must impair yet further, when it might have restored, the delicate, complicated organisation through which alone the European peoples can employ themselves and live.’

Two decades later, the world would go to war for a second time.

This article appeared in the October issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about receiving the latest cutting-edge military history research and analysis delivered to your door, click here.

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