Review of events in 1918

Wartime leaders

In its first edition of 1919, a political correspondent of the Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph looked back over the past year.

1918 has not seen the formal establishment of peace, he wrote, but it will always be remembered as the year in which the Great War came to an end. For four years the chronicler has had to say, with as much fortitude as he could summon, 'the end is not in sight'.

The past year had run more than half its course when the same melancholy confession was demanded. In March and April, indeed, the prospect of an untoward end had more reality than at any time since the terrible days in 1914 when our armies were retreating from Mons.

But the German rally of 1918 was a last desperate stroke. Freed from commitments in the East, where Russia's anarchy had involved her in the so-called settlement of Brest-Litovsk, Germany was able to throw added resources into the Western struggle. Her accession of strength was actual; ours was potential.

The task of our enemies was to snatch victory on the even of their own exhaustion before America could come to our aid. A special appeal to the United States, a marvellous response, and the German effort failed. We have learned since more fully than we knew at the time how Germany was fighting while the ground crumbled under her feet.


The character of the fighting changed radically with the German offensive of March. The war of movement was restored, and it had certain implications. It made necessary a unity of command which a little while before Mr Lloyd George, with general assent, had declared to be impossible. When the need arose everybody saw it, and General Foch, the outstanding military genius of the war, became Generalissimo.

Precisely how much the unified command accounts for in a result to which many factors contributed we cannot say. It was an inevitable development. But the genius of Marshal Foch is beyond question.

Nor was the unity marred by any jealousies or misgivings. When in December the military hero of the war drove through London with the French Premier and Foreign Minister of Italy, enthusiastic cheers echoed all along their route. An even more boisterous demonstration was accorded Sir Douglas Haig and other British generals when they drove from Charing Cross station tio Buckingham Palace on the 19th of the month.


General Allenby's triumphant fighting in Palestine did not end with the entry into Jerusalem in the last month of 1917. On February 21st Jericho fell, and a few days later the British patrols reached the Dead Sea. In September the whole operations were brought to a triumphant conclusion, and on the 30th of the month Nazareth was occupied.

Balkan fighting broke out in that month, and it soon became apparent that it was no 'side show'. Its end was the dramatic unconditional surrender of Bulgaria, which was the beginning of the end of the world's greatest and, please God, last war.


By naval men 1918 will be remembered pre-eminently for the surrender of the German Fleet. At last they they 'came out' in an inglorious end to four years of inactivity varied by spasmodic raids. There was little enough chance for our seamen to show their mettle, but they made one unforgettable opportunity. The records of British naval daring contain nothing finer in it contempt of danger than the blocking of the harbours at Ostend and Zeebrugge on April 23rd. To the Dover Patrol, under Vice-Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, belongs the credit for this stupendous adventure.

The landing of the Marines from the old Vindictive under heavy fire, while obsolete cruisers laden with cement were sunk at the mouths of the harbours, needs only the exercise of a little imagination to show its true place among the marvels of maritime bravery. On the 9th of May the Vindictive, terribly battered from her experience, threw herself into the gap left at the entrance to Ostend Harbour. Not only was this whole adventure and act of superlative bravery. It had a solid value which the enemy would be the last to undervalue.


It is impossible to think of the closing stages of the war without thinking of out prisoners in the hands of the enemy. Many attempts have been made in the past year to better their condition, and the thoroughness and skill of the efforts of the Government department under Lord Newton, are the subject of controversy. A feeling of indignation swept over the country when it was announced in May that France had been able to make an agreement for exchange with Germany on favourable lines, and the result was the Hague Conference of June and July at which the Home Sec retary accompanied Lord Newton, General Belfield and Mrs Livingstone as a representative of this country. We have since learnt that the Franco-German agreement was less rosy than it looked, for it broke down in working.

The Hague deliberations looked promising, but the recall of the Home Secretary in the concluding stages was unfortunate. The German delegates were permitted to add a personal rider advocating the contingency of the scheme upon certain conditions relating to Germans in China. This was afterwards made the ground for refusal to comply at Berlin, and many hopes were dashed.

Reports during the year on the treatment of prisoners by the Germans and by the Turks have accentuated the horror already felt, but these documentary disclosures have been less eloquent thanh the spectacle of maimed and starved men who have returned from captivity. As a last act of inhumanity after the armistice the Germans turned our prisoners adrift to starve, and a sharp remonstration was sent by the Government threatening to cease supplies to the German people if these barbarities were not discontinued.


The future will doubtless disclose much that is still obscure about the Great War, but the historian will not be able to neglect some important documentary evidence bearing the date 1918.

Early in the year, some very frank statements by Prince Lichnowsky, former German Ambassador in London, showed clearly how Germany wanted war in 1914, and how Sir Edward (now Viscount) Grey worked for peace. The unintended publication of these frank documents disgraced the Prince in Germany, and his revelations had a powerful effect on public opinion all over the world.

It was increased by the publication of extracts from the diary of Dr Muhlon, an ex-director of Krupp's. Since the cessation of hostilities the quarrels of the German States had produced even more exciting material, in the form of entries in the Bavarian Foreign Minister's records for 1914. They confirm the general impression that the whole sequence of events after the Sarajevo murders was planned at Berlin, and add the interesting fact that the Kaiser was abroad and then military chiefs were on furlough in order that Germany might appear to be as much taken by surprise as anybody else by the outbreak of war.


Things have not gone well with royalties in 1918. The ill-starred ex-Czar of Russia was murdered by the Bolsheviks – an act of criminal folly by which the world was more disgusted than surprised. Wilhelm the Second and his dissolute son have fled to Holland, and the only difference of opinion that has ever existed has turned on the point whether they are too contemptible to be placed on trial for their crimes. The Emperor of Austria passes off the international stage with his patchwork Empire.

Amid it all, the throne of England stands more secure than ever. That was the striking fact which all the speakers dwelt when on November 18th two Houses of Parliament presented a loyal address to their Majesties. On the following day they assembled with representatives of the Dominions and of India in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords to hear the King's reply in person. “I have been sustained,” said King George simply, “by faith in God and the confidence of my people.”

On July 6th, when the skies were not so bright, the national had manifested its loyalty to their Majesties on the occasion of their silver wedding, and King George and Queen Mary characteristically devoted the generous sum that was subscribed, to the inauguration of a fund for supplementing the State grants to disabled soldiers and sailors.


What mark has the past year left on the social life of Great Britain? The transformation since 1914 has been gradual, but in some respects the changes of the last nine months of that war were the most striking of all.

It is hard now to realise that the food rationing system dates from February. The Food Ministry had long prepared us for this radical interference with our habits, but Lord Rhondda, like Lord Devonport who preceded him, had naturally shrunk from so forbidding a task.

On February the 25th meat and sugar were rationed in London, and a fortnight later the schemes came into operation in the provinces. Butter, margarine, fats and jam have successively come within the scope of the arrangement, which must outlast the war for a considerable time.

That so vast an undertaking has been carried on so successfully is due in very large measure to the organising ability of the late Lord Rhondda, whose death was a severe loss to the public life of the country. Mr Clynes, who succeed him, has shown the administrative skill which his previous work as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry had led careful observers to expect.

The Ministry has made some of the mistakes which are inseparable from bureaucracy. That it has made so few may well be the wonder of posterity.


The year ended with the turmoil of a General Election – necessary according to some accounts, vexatious according to others.

In February, the Representation of the People Act nearly doubled the electorate, and brought six million women on the rolls. It embodied a compromise on most of the outstanding franchise questions, and where the decisions of the Speaker's Inter-Party Conference were not accepted a decision was left to the unfettered vote of Parliament. The result was the enfranchisement of women after what has since been described as the cataclysmic conversion of opponents of the reform.

The alternative vote, demanded by a small majority of the Commons, and Proportional Representation, rejected by them and demanded by the Lords, produced a lively clash between the two Houses in the last hours of the discussion.

The alternative vote was lost, but Proportional Representation had another chance, for the Commissioners were instructed to prepare a scheme for the election of a hundred town and country Members. This, however, was rejected by the Commons on May 13th, and 'P.R.' applies only to the University seats.

An inevitable sequel to the enfranchisement of women was the short Act, passed in December, which made them eligible for seats in the House of Commons, though the somewhat paradoxical position now exists that a woman is eligible to stand for Parliament at the age of 21 though she may not vote until she is 30. A proposal in the Lords to permit Peeresses in their own right to sit was defeated.

Another great measure passed in 1918 is Mr Fisher's Education Act, extending the years of schooling, establish compulsory continuation teaching, and conferring wide powers on local authorities.

The Ireland has figured largely in the politics of the year goes without saying. The Convention, representative of all aspects of Irish life, reported in April with a scheme of self-government which had secured majority support. The Government did not consider it a practical basis, but announced a policy of Conscription and Home Rule which offended both sides and has not been carried out.

The one controversial feature of a Military Service Act, introduced on April 7th, was its proposal to apply Conscription to Ireland. The Irish were united in opposing the proposal, and many Englishmen considered it unwise.

Under Lord French as Lord Lieutenant and Mr Edward Shortt as Chief Secretary, stern measures were taken to deal with German plots in the country, and Colonel Lynch organised a voluntary recruiting campaign. The Government maintained its intention to proceed to conscription if necessary, but the armistice came before the intention was carried into effect.

A new chapter was opened in Indian history by the publication in July of the Report of Lord Chelmsford and Mr Montagu on Constitutional Reforms. The new proposals are debatable, and the attitude of the Government towards them not very clearly defined. They have been attacked and defended in both Houses of Parliament, the attacks coming more particularly from the Lords. Lord Morley gave them a guarded approval as continuing the tradition of the reform established by himself in the Viceroyalty of the late Lord Minto.


Already the great work of reconstruction has produced a number of short but important legislative measures. The Housing proposals of the Local Government Board fell short of the aspirations of the House of Commons, and there has been much discontent at the blocking of the Health Ministry by departmental difficulties.

Severe epidemics of a febrile complaint, declared by some to be influenza and by others to be malarial, together with the prospect of post-bellum diseases, have quickened the demand for this reform. The fact that Sir Auckland Geddes, a doctor, has succeeded Mr Hayes Fisher were regarded as brightening the chances of drastic health legislation, and a Ministries of Health Bill was introduced before the end of the session as an indication of good intentions.

Labour has consolidated its position during the year, and the breach with the Coalition on the even of the Election marked the determination of the Party to go its own way, with an appeal to 'all workers by brain and by hand'.

It is many years since so little public interest was displayed in a General Election as marked the appeal of the country of December 14th. The results provided a number of surprises, recalling the memorable contest of 1900. The Coalition Party won a sweeping victory, securing no fewer than 477 of the 706 seats.

Mr Aquith was defeated in the constituency he had held for 32 years. The Constitutional Irish Party disappeared and were superseded by Sinn Feiners.

The rout of the Pacifist section of the Labour Party indicated the loyalty of Labour in the eyes of the country.