More than a century has now passed since the signing of the infamous Treaty of Versailles, at the former Palace of Louis XIV outside Paris, France on 28 June 1919 – formally concluding hostilities between Germany and the allied powers and marking the end of the First World War. It was here that the full cost of the war would become clear to the nations that had just fought it.
That Australia was still very much a dominion of the British Empire, coupled with the fact that she had only become a Federation in 1901 and that most Australians were of recent British heritage, created a situation in which the declaration of war was met with enthusiasm and was generally well supported.
Australians would go on to serve in the Occupation of German New Guinea, Gallipoli, Egypt and Palestine, the Western Front, Mesopotamia and the Caucasus.
From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of whom more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner. Along with New Zealand – whose soldiers joined forces with Australians as ANZACs – Australians suffered the highest per-capita rates of casualties of all the British Empire dominions.
With such a relatively small population compared to the other Allied nations, Australia was a bit-part player in the power battles at the Versailles conference. Her representatives at the Paris Peace Conference were Prime Minister Billy Hughes, the Deputy Prime Minister Sir Joseph Cook, and Lieutenant Commander J.G. Latham, Royal Australian Naval Reserve.
Yet the brash determination of Prime Minister W.M. “Billy” Hughes ensured that he made a mark on some of the debates and at the Paris peace conference of 1919. This was the first diplomatic conference on this scale (there were 32 governments represented) at which Australia had independent status. Previously, the Dominions of the British Empire had been represented internationally by London or had attended diplomatic meetings as part of a delegation of the Empire.
However, the “blood sacrifice” of the war just ended had changed the balance of imperial relationships; and after some difficult negotiations with the United States and France, Australia (like Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and India) was granted the right to attend the Paris conference.
The story of German reparations in the 1920s is a long and complex one. Suffice to say that by 1931, when reparations payments finally ended, Australia had received only £5.571 million against a total claim of £464 million – £364 million being for actual war expenditure, and £100 million for the capitalised value of pensions, repatriation and loss to civilian property. Moreover, what Australia had received was largely made up of ships seized in Australian ports and the value of expropriated property in New Guinea.
So Hughes returned to Australia deeply disappointed with the Treaty of Versailles. As he saw it, it was “not a good peace” for Australia but it was a good one for the United States. He said bitterly, “She who did not come into the war to make anything has made thousands of millions out of it. She gets the best ships. She has a good chance of beating us for world mercantile supremacy. She prevented us getting the cost of the war.”
In some ways Hughes’ disappointment was understandable. The quantifiable “spoils of war” for Australia were few and scarcely commensurate with the scale of the losses that Australia had suffered. No one would claim that a mandate to control German New Guinea was worth more than 60,000 dead. But Hughes’s expectations of the peace settlement were unrealistic. The rise of the United States, and the relative decline of the British Empire that Hughes so lamented, could not be reversed. The growth of American industrial might, which would make it a superpower in the twentieth century, was already in train before 1914. It was simply accelerated by the war.
For all his realist attitude to world politics, Hughes struggled to understand that this was not a matter of “injustice”. Long general wars tend to exhaust those who fight them, and they often leave the international balance of power fundamentally transformed. The First World War left Britain and its empire exhausted and in debt, while also shattering three of the dynastic monarchies that had dominated Europe for centuries. The world order which the Great Powers of Europe had gone to war to preserve was over by 1919, and the Treaty of Versailles, with all its flaws, was never going to restore it.