186: Versailles Pt. 5 - Distributing the Spoils


In our first episode about how the Middle East was handled at the Conference we need to talk about what mandates are and how they were applied all over the world.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 186. Patreon Laszlo and Michael. Buymeacoffee Timothy. This is the first in our four part series on the Middle East, how those at the Conference viewed the region, the problems that they saw with it, and how they tried to, in their mind, fix it. It is a long story, which is part of why it will take 4 episodes to discuss it. We start today by discussing mandates, what they were, what people thought about them, and how they were implemented. Then we will look at the views of many of the countries on the Supreme Council, especially those of the British and French, around what they hoped the Middle East would look like after the war. Then we will end today by discussing Feisal Hussein’s arrival in Paris, what he hoped to achieve there, and some of the problems that he encountered almost the moment he arrived. The story of how the Conference dealt with the Middle East is a story of racism, imperialism, and unintended consequences that still leaves its marks on the modern world. Throughout all of the discussions at the conference the various leaders who would decide the fate of the Middle East never really understood, and also never really tried to understand, how challenging finding a lasting solution for the region would be. They looked at maps and considered geographical conditions, economic trends, and most importantly strategic positioning. However, they did not consider any of the more challenging pieces of the Middle Eastern puzzle, the largest of which was religion. None of the Western Powers at the conference really understood the Islamic religion, or its importance to the people in the Middle East and its foundational nature to the societies in the region. It was this voluntary ignorance that would doom the post-war Middle East even before its exact nature was even decided.

We begin today by discussing mandates. The concept of mandates were very important to the post-war Middle East, with their most famous manifestation being the Mandate of Palestine which would be the precursor to modern day Israel. However, the concept of mandates was not really born out of discussions just about the Middle East but instead through discussions about what to do with all of the German colonies that were scattered around the globe, none of which would be going back to German possession. When the British and French arrived at the Conference they had a lengthy list of Germahy’s former colonies that they hoped to bring into their own empires. The French wanted Togoland and Cameroon, the Italians Somalia, the British German East Africa, South Africa wanted German Southwest Africa, Australia New Guinea, New Zeland German Samoa. The British were concerned that such lavish territorial acquisitions might not look good on the world stage, especially to the Americans given Wilson’s professed views on imperialism. And so they hoped to create a different path forward. Thsi path was based on the belief that the people of these regions were incapable of forming their own governments on the European model and because of this they needed European countries to come in and rule them until they were able to rule themselves. From this belief came the idea of a mandate.

Mandates, at their core, was a form of trusteeship where a European power, or the League of Nations, would be granted power of an area. They were given this power with the understanding and expectation that they would help the people in the region develop both economically and politically until, at some point in the future, the people of the region were able to take control of their own country. There would be three types of mandates, the first of which were considered very close to being able to run their own governments, the second was thought to be not close at all and would require much more contorl, and the third were just territories that were adjacent to current European Colonies, mostly in Africa, hich would just be lumped into the European colonial infrastructure for the forseeable future. The overall length of time that a mdate would exist could either be specified at its creation or coult just be left to the the evaluations of the mandatory power to determine. The planw as to apply this concept not just to the Middle East but also most of Germany’s former colonies, which is right around the point in the discussion when the opposition to the British concept of mandates began, with the loudest concerns being voiced from within the British Empire’s own house, from the Dominions.

South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand all came into the conference believing that their participation in the war would result in territorial acquisitions, most of which I outlined earlier. However, when the concept of mandates was introduced they were suddenly very concerned about what it meant for their goals. Howard Borden, one of the leading Canadian representatives at the Conference would describe the meeting in which Lloyd George presented the concept as a “pretty warm scene.” The key problem that the dominions were concerened about was the fact that it seemed like the British were getting in bed with the Americans with the goal to limit the power of the Dominions. When their arguements did not seem to make much headway in private conversations they would go to the press. Throughout the course of hte conference the Daily Mail would publish a daily eidtion straight from Paris, and a story that would appear in that paper the very day after the introduction of the mandate concept was a story that claimed that the British were sacrificing the interests on the dominions, which had sacrificed thousands of their citizens to help Britian when the war, to satisfy Wilson. This got everyone going very quickly, Lloyd George was furious with Hughes, the Australian representative who had clearly worked with the author of the article, Wilson was very frustrated, if only because he deeply disliked criticism. After a very heated bit of discussion a compromise would start to coalesce around the cooperation of the British Diplomat David Cecil and, as was so often the case, the South African Jan Christian Smuts. Also, in very typical Conference fashion, the compromise mostly revolved around removing any new and noval ideas from the item being compromised around. In the original concept of mandates the entire goal of the plan was to get these areas ready for self-government, but the eventual text of the agreement made it clear that there would be no requirements for monitoring that progress, they would be no requirements to actually work with the populations, and there would be no firm date that independence should be granted. Essentially, while the official goal was to prepare the countries for independence, there was no actual accountability on the mandatory power to actually make progress in that direction. This almost completely removed any real delineation between mandates and colonies, but it was believed that itw as a necessary compromise.

While the dominions had one problem with the mandate concep, the French ahd some other conerns which they would voice during the Conference. In general they agreed with the idea of the mandates, and they beleived that it mostly agreed with their colonial policy both before and after the war. The French had long believed that their goal as a colonial power was to work with their colonies to help them evolve, in the belief that through this cooperation both France and the colony would see benefit. Their concern with the mandate concept was a bit more detailed, and it startdd with how the French viewed their colonies, and their goals that they hoped to achieve with them. There were certain facts that Paris did not believe they could ignore, firstly that there would be a future war with Germany that the French had to prepare for, and that after the idea of breaking up Germany was quickly cast aside by the other countries, there would always be more Germans than French. With these two fact in mind the French looked to their colonial possessions in Africa and Asia, colonial possessions which would no longer be matched by th Germans, as a way to try and make up for France’s demographic shortcomings. Essentially, the French saw their colonies, especially those in Africa, as vast manpower pools upon wheich they could draw on in times of emergency. They had already done this during the First World War with great success as thousands of troops being brought in from France’s African colonies and put on the Western Front. There was ust one problem with this plan and the concept of mandates, there was language in the mandate proposal that limited the ability of the mandatory power to raise large native armies within the mandate. The goal of this clause was to reduce the likelihood of colonial conflict, but it could also by construed to mean the removal of the ability of the mandatory power to use troops from the colony in a European war. The French tried to alter the language slightly to say that the colonial troops could be used in defense of the mother country but Wilson strongly opposed the inclusion of this language and so it was removed. Eventually the French would just count on the ambiguity of the wording to give them the required wiggle room if they ever needed to pull in colonial troops to defend France.

So how did the mandates work out? Well, they looked a lot like colonies. Over the course of the conference many of the mandates were eventually parcelled out to the various countries that wanted them. There actually was not too much argument about who got what, the Japanese got their northern pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand split those in the south. France and Britain got their African colonies, Portugal got a bit of extra territory as well. The Belgians were initially excluded, but the British were eventually convinced to carve off a bit of German East Africa in the modern day countries of Rwanda and Burundi. Throughout this process there were attempts by various groups to get the opinions of the people in these areas recognized and their opinions heard. The French deputy from Senegal, Blaise Diagne, and the American W.E.B Du Bois would organize a Pan-African congress to try and get these voice heard but the Supreme Council would almost entirely ignore them. After the Conference, and for the years that the League of nations was in force the mandatory powers would send in the required annuall reports but beyound that there was little accountability for their actions, and for the most part they treated the mandates just like any other colony.

While the discussion of the mandates was happening, there were also more specific discussions about the Middle East. I am going to start our discussion of the Middle East by discussing the views of the British, French, and Americans in Paris and about what they thought the Middle East should look like. For the next few minutes I am going to ignore the thoughts and desires of the people who were actually in the Middle East, just like the British, French, and Americnas would. In December 1918, before conference even started the French and British got together in London to discuss several topics, one of them was the Middle East. The basis for their discussions was the Sykes-Picot agreement that the two powers had signed in 1916 which had broken up the Middle East into an area of British influence which roughly equated to modern day Saudi Arabia and Iraq, an area of French influence around modern day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, and an area of international control around Jerusalem. Even though this was the starting point, and even though both sides would in principal agree to these divisions, there were always discussions happening about the details. On the Briitsh side there were strong groups within the government that wanted to curgail the power of the French in the region. Their argument usually involved the fact that the British had contributed far more to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire than the French had, who were barely involved, and so the British involved far more of the spoils. The arguments beteen the the British and French, which we will really dive into next episode, are interesting because this would be one of the few topics during the conference where British and french territorial goals would come into direct conflict. They would ovten disagree during the negotiations, but nowhere else would they be in such direct opposition to one anothing.

French goal would revolve around the territory of Syria, and not just the territory of modern day Sypia but instead a Greater Syria which included modern day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and parts of Iraq and Saudia Arbia. And because of this the French delegation wanted to stick to the exact delineations created by the Sykes-Picot agreement. One of the things that worked in their favor was that the French had actually been quite strong in the region before the war, they were seen as the strongest European power in the region due to their business and humanitarian work before the war. Even though they were pushing for the Sykes-Picot agreement, like in many other areas Clemencea was initially willing to work with the British and give into some of their demands, to some exteant. In December 1918, at that meeting in Mondon, he even agreed to give the British more ocntrol over Palestine and the area that the British wanted to make into a Jewist state. Clemenceau and the French had little interestnt in the creation of a Jewish state in the MIddle EAst, but he did see that it meant a lot to the British and so he hoped that in giving hin he could bank up some goodwill. Eventually Clemenceau would stop being so amicable with the British about the Middle East because it seemed like no matter how much he gave in, they always wanted more, this souring of the relationship would play in greatly with the diplomatic conflicts that would happen in the later stages of negoatiations. I mentioned that the French were anti-Zionist, but that did not meant that they were pro-Arab at all, instead the French claimed that French leadership, instead of local autonomy, would be good for the Middle EAst. The French foreign minister Pichol would sy that “These countries need [French] assistance more than ever because if they are left to their own devices without any preparation for self-government and because of their diversity of race and religion, they are liable to disorders which only the authority of an impartial and respected arbiter can allay.”

During the war and then before the conference began, and even to some extend during the conference, the British and French saw the Middle EAst as strictly a matter that the two powers needed to work out, nobody else needed to be involved. However, with the part played by the Americans at the conference, and then also some of the agreements that the two countries had made with Italy during the war, there were other intrested groups that had to be accounted for. The key to the American position was Wilson’s belif that the local populations had to be consulted. The best way to do this was, as Wilson believed, a mission to the Middle East that would discuss the situation with local leaders. The idea was presented to the British and French and they would eventually agree to it. The dispatch of the mission was advantageious to the Supreme Council because it kicked the can down the road a bit which allowed the Council to move past any conversations about the Middle East and instead move to other topics. It would also make Wilson and the Americans feel god, which was always good for the French and British. The commission was originally designed as a joint commission where the British, French, and Americans would all designate reprsentatives and then the commission would be sent. However Lloyd George and Clemenceau just ended up never naming their representatives. This meant that the commission could never go forward. Eventually Wilson just decided to make the comission himself. Once the commission, now just an American one, was created it was sent to the middle EAst and would spend several weeks travelling around the region, often escorted by British officials. They would prepare 127 reports during this time about various topics. While most of of these reports would be totally ignored by the British and French the contents of the reports are still intereting. Of the 127 reports not a single one mentioend oil, which was already a very important item on the Middle EAstern agenda, and a driving force behind British interess in Mesopotamia. Just 5 of the 127 dealt with any religious aspects, which again just showcases the huge blindspot that the European had around the importance of religion in the Middle East. Overall the commission was something of a failure, and it was designed to be a failure by the British and French. They knew that at the end of the day they could just ignore any of its conclusions, and they would.

While the people’s of the Middle East were mostly ignored at the conference, they did have a representative who would be listened to, at least for a little bit, in the halls of paris. This was Feisal Hussian, son of the Sherish of Mecca who the British had backed during the war and who had played a rol ein the Arab revolt during the conflict. He would come to Paris with the goal of representativing all of the people of the Middle East, which in itself was a daunting task, he was also there to try and make sure that the British kep good on their promises that had been made around Arab independence.

When Feisal arrived in Paris his welcome was a bit less awesome than he hoped. the French would inform him that he had no official standing at the conference, and he would not be included on the list of offical representatives. The British and Americans would eventually make sure that his decision was reversed, and Feisael would be granted a seat at the conference as the official representative of the Hejaz, but just the fact that this was not the original arrangement got Arab-French relations off to a bad start. He was initially, like most representatives that the French did not want to talk to, taken on a tour of the battlefields, mostly just to keep him busy for a bit. This could only go on so long and eventually he would come back to Paris and on February 6th he would meet with the Supreme Council. During this meeting Lawrence, as in Lawrence of Arabia, would act as Feisal’s translator, which was a very common occurrence. This gave rise to the rumor, which was almost certainly created to discredit Feisal, that Lawrence was actually the one speaking, and Feisal was just reciting pieces of the Koran while Lawrence said whatever he wanted. Again this rumor was almost certainly created to discredit Feisal, and make him seem like some stupid Arab that had no business in Paris. Regardless, at this meeting of the Supreme Council he came with a simple message, that the British and French should live up to the promises that they had given his people during the war. Here is a very lengthy quote “The aim of the Arab nationalist movement is to unite the Arabs eventually into one nation. We believe that our ideal of Arab unity in Asia is justified beyond the need of argument. If argument is required, we would point to the general principles accepted by the Allies when the U.S. joined them, to our splendid past, to the tenacity with which our race has for 600 years resisted Turkish attempts to absorb us and in a lesser degree to what we tried our best to do in this war as one of the Allies. My father has a privileged place among Arabs as the head of their greatest family and as Sherif of Mecca. He is convinced of the ultimate triumph of the ideal of unity, if no attempt is made now to thwart it or hinder it by dividing the area as spoils of war among the Great Powers. I came to Europe on behalf of my father and the Arabs of Asia to say that they are expecting the powers at the Conference not to attach undue importance to superficial differences of condition among us and not to consider them only from the low ground of existing European material interests and supposed spheres of influence. They expect the Powers to think of them as one potential people, jealous of their language and liberty, and they ask that no step be taken inconsistent with the prospect of an eventual union of these areas under one sovereign government.” Resistance to Feisal’s proposals would come mostly from the French, Clemenceau believed that what Feisal was suggesting was absurd. I guess I should more accurately say that the Clemenceau’s government believed that any requests from the Arabs were absurd, I’m not sure how strongly Clemenceau believed it. This antagonism between the French and Feisal would continue for Feisal’s entire time in Paris, which would come to an end near the end of April. Right before he left Feisal would meet with Clemenceau one last time, at which point he would say “We Arabs would rather die than accept the supremacy of the French—although it be sugar-coated as a mandate subject to the control of the League,”

While the Supreme Council and Feisal were discussing the future of the Middle East in Paris, back in the region forces beyond their control were already beginning to shape that future themselves. Feisal had eventually found a place at the conference, but back in Arabia another Arab Leader, Ibn Saud was left in Riyadh pondering the future. Ibn Saud had been supported by the British India Office during the war, and even after the war was over, but he now found himself and his people excluded from the peace discussions. He feared, quite reasonably, that all the conference would make his greatest rivals, the Hussein’s of Mecca, stronger. While at the time Ibn Suad would see this as a big problem, his exclusion from teh conference would actually turn into quite the gift from the European powers. He would not be tainted by the problems of the Conference, and he would use this to his advantage, in ways that we will discuss next episode. Programming note.