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History The beginning of the end of World War One

JOHN ELLISON remembers the momentous February of 1918 and the dramatic issues on the political agenda of the day

As February 1918 opened its doors, the heart-warming effect of the case for peace and socialism advanced by the Bolshevik revolution and delivered in person by ambassador Maxim Litvinov — to rapturous applause at late January’s Nottingham Labour conference — was much felt in labour movement circles.

The Herald declared, moreover, that the conference had killed “jingoism” and that “no-one talked of crushing Germany,” but the war went on.

“Post rushing, trench raiding and patrol conflicts remain the limited items of infantry activity these times,” declared the Liberal Daily News on February 6, but deaths, wounds and other usual front-line sufferings were plentiful and there was a justified general expectation that a major German offensive was coming soon.   

At home, bombs from Gotha biplane raids had fallen on London in late January, killing almost 70 people and wounding many more, while on the nights of February 16 and 17 well over a score more such deaths occurred, some from a 2,000lb bomb crashing through Chelsea Barracks from one of five extra-large Gothas.   

Voices for peace were nevertheless loud in Germany as well as in Britain. In Berlin, several hundred thousand workers struck work from January 28, demanding peace without annexations or indemnities.  

If either of the two camps has ever fought this war in self-defence, this has long ceased to be true. This is a struggle for the partitioning of the world.


The Nation weekly observed grandly and metaphorically on February 2: “[Leon] Trotsky is calling out his men …” — two days later, martial law and conscription intimidation ended the strikes.

Soviet foreign secretary Trotsky’s actual demand for a just peace to Germany at Brest Litovsk on February 10, three months after Russia withdrew from the war, fell on deaf ears, but his words when refusing German peace terms were pertinent.

“If either of the two camps has ever fought this war in self-defence, this has long ceased to be true.

“When Great Britain seizes African colonies, Baghdad and Jerusalem, she is not waging a defensive war. When Germany occupies Serbia, Belgium, Poland, Lithuania and Rumania and seizes the Monsoon Islands, this is not a defensive war either.

“This is a struggle for the partitioning of the world.”

A week later came a major German push eastwards “by rail as well as by road,” and the Lenin government’s response on the 23rd was to accept stiffer peace terms. These included the demobilisation of the Bolshevik army and the withdrawal of forces from Finland and Ukraine.  

In Britain, rising prices of food, especially bread, and shortages had been addressed by a reluctant government during recent months with the help of a Food Controller and local food offices, while sugar rationing was now in place.

Prosecutions of wealthy hoarders of sugar, flour, hams and so on, with heavy fines, punished the breakers of food hoarding regulations  — but only when denounced and caught food-handed — and also advertised, embarrassingly, the enormous disparity between the respective purchasing abilities of rich and poor.

The authorities condescendingly talked up the advantages of “dining out” at the public kitchens, where stews constructed of ox cheek and tripe were on offer “with the strong seasoning that the poor appreciate.”   

The dining out experience of the wealthy was rather different. The Herald illustrated this towards the end of the month.

“At one noted establishment a very appetising ‘dinner’ is served at a cost of 5s 6d per head, exclusive of drinks. This dinner consists of ‘hors d’oeuvre,’ which means lots of little scraps of fish and vegetables, nicely prepared, as a kind of appetite tickler. There are also soup, poultry, vegetables,” it wrote.

Curiously, a hoarder of tea was convicted on the basis that tea was a “food.”

This gave rise to an indignant reader’s letter in the Times from someone who plainly felt natural entitlement to privilege. If tea was a food, why not wine, the letter went on.

“And if wine, are we all liable to have our cellars confiscated as well as a heavy fine imposed for possessing something which my Lord Working Man has never had and does not want?”

The conviction for hoarding tea was upset on appeal, when it was declared not to be a ‘food’ after all. Wine cellars were saved.  

On February 10, food protest processions marched to Trafalgar Square from four directions. Resolutions from each of three plinths were put and carried demanding the control of the food supply by the workers, the abolition of profit in food and its equal rationing and distribution.

Primary responsibility for this assembly was taken by the Workers Suffrage Federation, but the No Conscription Fellowship, branches of the British Socialist Party and trade union branches and trades councils were represented too. Over 1,200 copies of the Workers’ Dreadnought were reported sold.

Before the month’s end, a meat rationing scheme concentrating on butcher’s meat, with token inclusion of less affordable and more available game and poultry, was applied in London.

Conscientious objectors to conscription continued to endure persecution.  

On February 7 the No Conscription Fellowship’s weekly paper Tribunal aired the fact that over 4,000 men objecting to participation in war were either in prison or in penal settlements.

One prisoner, Henry Firth, had died the previous day at the Dartmoor settlement, having been refused medical treatment as “work-shy.”

On the 9th, philosopher Bertrand Russell and Joan Beauchamp faced Bow Street magistrate Sir John Dickinson.

Russell, who was prosecuted for suggesting in the Tribunal that, if the war went on, US troops could be used to quell disturbances in Britain, had committed, said Dickinson, “a very despicable” offence, which justified six months jail in “the second division.” Russell lodged an appeal.   

Beauchamp, as publisher, was heavily fined, but one charge against her faced difficulties. She had printed a reader’s letter stating that increased sympathy for conscientious objectors could now be found among serving soldiers.

When Beauchamp’s request was put via her counsel for an adjournment so that the letter’s author, now in prison, could attend and so that soldiers could be sent for as supporting witnesses, the charge was promptly abandoned.

Scotland Yard, however, had not finished its work. On the 15th, copies of the latest Tribunal and its printing machinery were confiscated. The paper could only survive with another printer’s help.

Russian ambassador Litvinov was not yet silenced. On the 18th, he made a speech about the revolution to a predominantly Independent Labour Party meeting. He made another on the 23rd, in the hall of the British Socialist Party in Maiden Lane, crowded “almost to suffocation.”

Earlier in the month, the government had felt obliged to concede Litvinov’s reasonable demand that the conscription of Russian residents in Britain should cease, but now he was given 48 hours notice to leave his rooms at 82 Victoria Street where he had been issuing visas and passports.   

The police then raided the Russian emigré Communist Club in Charlotte Street, Soho, and interrogated the Russians they found there, one of whom belonged to Litvinov’s secretariat.

In the Commons, Litvinov was said to be probably a German agent, was described as a man of many aliases — sensibly for a revolutionary in Tsarist Russia — while his real surname was said to be Finkelstein — it was actually Wallach.  

But the government had to tolerate Litvinov’s presence to ensure freedom of action for its own agent Bruce Lockhart, for whom Litvinov had written a letter of recommendation to Trotsky, in Petrograd.            

Surreptitious armed intervention against Bolshevik rule in Russia was on the way.  

The diary entry of leading Fabian Society member Beatrice Webb on March 1 referred to Lloyd George as her dinner guest, noting that “official deference and personal respect fade into an atmosphere of agreeable low company … What was clear from our talk is that the PM and [fellow War Cabinet member Lord] Milner are thinking of a peace at the expense of Russia … With Russia to cut up, the rest of the world is capable of all sorts of rearrangements.”

“Cutting up Russia” had not been one of Lloyd George’s professed war aims any more than the plans for empire enhancement in secret treaties recently exposed by the Bolshevik government.

But then, making war in those years on a false prospectus was far from the last occasion of Britain’s doing so.


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