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ON January 3 1918, Maxim Litvinov, a Russian communist living with his wife in a modest home in Hillfield Road, a turning off West End Lane, West Hampstead, read in a newspaper of a radio message from the Petrograd capital of the Bolshevik government, that he had been appointed ambassador to Britain.
“Citizen Litvinoff is appointed plenipotentiary in London,” he learned.
Less than two months earlier, Lenin’s Bolshevik government had withdrawn from its predecessor’s alliance with Britain and France in the war against Germany and Austria.
Soon after, it had released to the world the texts of the “secret treaties” held in tsarist archives. An armistice between Russia and the Central Powers had been followed by peace negotiations in which Russia could be the loser. History was being actioned at speed.
The “secret treaties” had revealed the sinister war motives of governments involved. Thus, to illustrate, Britain, which had purportedly gone to war to save Belgium, was to be allowed a share in Mesopotamia and Palestine, France was to be allowed a victim of its own in the shape of the seaboard of Syria, as well as a share of Palestine, and Italy was to benefit from bites from the Austro-Hungarian empire.
The Lloyd George government neither recognised the Lenin government nor its ambassador.
But Litvinov was quickly and quietly twinned with a British agent soon sent to Russia — a Mr Bruce Lockhart — for whom he wrote a letter of recommendation to foreign secretary Trotsky in a Lyons restaurant on the Strand.
There Litvinov was told by a waitress that the “diplomat pudding” that he asked for was not to be had.
“Not recognised even by Lyons,” he commented wryly. For the moment his presence as a Bolshevik emissary was reluctantly tolerated by the British government. Optimistically, he moved into an office at 82 Victoria Street.
In January 1918 appetite among the people of Britain for continuing a war which had now run for well over three years was much diminished.
Millions had lost a son or a brother or a father or had a son or brother or father wounded or still at war and at risk. And against this backcloth of human sacrifice, stalemate continued on the western front after the failure of the allied offensives the previous summer and autumn — first the long Passchendaele mud-swamp offensive and then the short-run Cambrai attack further south, a territorial gain which had been quickly cancelled by a German counter-attack.
Not even Sir Douglas Haig, friend of King George and commander-in-chief of British forces on the western front, could plan another offensive, aware that a major attack in the opposite direction could come soon, benefiting from the release of German soldiers from the eastern front.
Meanwhile, military correspondents far from the fighting produced buoyant dispatches using such expressions as “quite light” casualties and “a few of our men missing.”
In mid-month Sir George Riddell, proprietor of the News of the World and a Lloyd George crony, told his diary of the prime minister’s remarks over dinner. “He spoke strongly of the incompetence of the Higher Military Command … Their only proposal was more men and still more men.”
Daily life had become a struggle for millions. In the larger towns, four-hour food queues were common, amid severe shortages of butter, margarine, tea and meat.
Lord Northcliffe’s Times blamed those who queued in haughty terms. “Hundreds of women who wait for hours to buy meat or margarine have to turn, when they fail to get supplies, to shops where other kinds of food may be obtained as substitutes. Had they been content with the alternatives in the first place, they would have spared themselves the inconvenience of the queue.”
Well-off customers who relied on delivery boys for their purchases or could afford expensive foods denied to most people could leave the long waits to others.
A public relations offensive to support a Man-Power Bill to extend conscription to previously exempted men was led by Lloyd George.
On January 5 he appealed to trade union leaders in a “War Aims” speech at Westminster’s Central Hall to co-operate in the “comb-out.”
The speech was more generally intended to reawaken public support for the war and in doing so to respond to the peace that had broken out on what had been the Russian front as if this was a disaster for Russia’s people.
Lloyd George referred to Russia as if its return to fighting remained a serious option.
As for Middle Eastern countries, they would be, in a peace settlement, “entitled to recognition of their separate national conditions.” The pledge could hardly have been emptier.
Self-determination for the Middle East was clearly not proposed. After all, as war cabinet secretary Sir Maurice Hankey confided to his diary, if self-determination of nations was conceded, “where would the British empire be?”
A high level of labour unrest in munitions industries (when pay demands were quickly conceded), and the recent Russian developments, contributed to the government’s nervousness.
Russia’s revolutionary peace propaganda across the world was anathema.
In Britain an appeal by foreign secretary Trotsky to found a peace “upon the complete and unconditional recognition of the principle of self-determination for all peoples in all states,” beginning with “the oppressed peoples of their own states,” was suppressed in the mainstream press on war cabinet instructions.
But the largest circulation labour movement paper, the weekly Herald, expressed no doubts about the need to end the war in its leading article on January 5, “What the people want is peace, and peace now.”
Two days previously, a letter quoted in the tiny circulation Tribunal, the paper of the No Conscription Fellowship, had gone further. “If the war continues much longer, I believe the authorities will be faced with a serious revolt.”
The clamour for peace by British socialists now became loud. On January 10, the British Socialist Party’s The Call printed an address by Litvinov to the workers of Britain.
Two days later, the same appeal was printed in the Sylvia Pankhurst-edited Workers’ Dreadnought, in the Independent Labour Party’s Labour Leader and in Labour’s Herald, edited by George Lansbury.
The Herald’s front page contained only: “LABOUR SPEAK! Special by the RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR.”
His call opened: “Workers of Britain — Peace is in the balance! The Russian workers appeal to you to join them in their efforts to turn the scale. Labour — speak!”
The socialist papers also printed Trotsky’s call for world peace on an internationally democratic basis.
An aghast war cabinet had been told in advance of the content of the Herald issue and had given immediate consideration to suppressing it, but it had drawn back from this to avoid antagonising the labour movement excessively when about to “comb-out” for the army.
If the Herald was safe for the moment, on January 17, leaflets calling for peace (intended for distribution at the coming Labour Party conference) and prepared by the British Socialist Party, were confiscated by Scotland Yard officers descending on its Maiden Lane offices, while the Tribunal’s editor Joan Beauchamp and ex-editor, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, were prosecuted for breaching Defence of the Realm Regulations.
A suggestion by Russell that disaffection due to the war’s continuation could result in United States troops being employed to quell strikes was classed a crime.
The war cabinet expressed, however, a general preference for disabling printing machinery to prosecutions in which defendants might attract public sympathy.
During the Nottingham Labour Party conference held in late January, “ambassador” Litvinov was received with great enthusiasm.
He told the delegates: “I am the representative of no ordinary government. For the first time the working classes have attained supreme power in one of the largest states in the world … I appeal to British workers to disabuse their minds that the Bolsheviks have usurped power like a band of conspirators. They have carried through the revolution in the most approved style — (laughter and cheers) — with the help of the people.”
Litvinov, refused recognition by the British government and “by Lyons,” had been recognised by Britain’s labour movement. The old imperial order was in trouble.
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