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British empire delegation to the Paris peace conference (act. 1919–1920) was the group of politicians, diplomats, civil servants, and officers from Great Britain, the dominions, and India who took part in the negotiations held in Paris between 12 January 1919 and 21 January 1920 to devise the treaties that ended the First World War. With twenty-six other countries present, the ever evolving conference comprised some sixty councils, commissions, subcommissions, committees, subcommittees, and special missions by April 1919. The structure of British representation was uniquely complex, moreover, due to innovations in inter-imperial relations. The dominions (excepting Newfoundland) and India attended the conference as individual minor powers, while their personnel also participated (at the discretion of the British government) in the collective great power delegation of the British empire.

The British empire had fourteen of the seventy seats in the plenary conference and appointed a panel of twenty plenipotentiary delegates. The five places assigned to Great Britain could be filled by David Lloyd George (prime minister), A. J. Balfour (foreign secretary), Andrew Bonar Law (lord privy seal), George Barnes (minister without portfolio), Alfred Milner, Viscount Milner (colonial secretary), Winston Churchill (war secretary), or any other British empire plenipotentiary, including Sir William Frederick Lloyd (1864–1937), prime minister of Newfoundland. Canada was represented by any two of Sir Robert Borden, Sir George Foster, Charles Joseph Doherty (1855–1931), and Arthur Lewis Sifton (1858–1921); India by any two of Edwin Montagu, Ganga Singh, maharaja of Bikaner, and Satyendra Sinha, first Baron Sinha. W. M. Hughes and Sir Joseph Cook spoke for Australia, Louis Botha and Jan Smuts for South Africa, and W. F. Massey or Sir Joseph Ward for New Zealand. The imperial war cabinet effectively decamped to Paris.

In practice the plenary conference was largely ceremonial. Power resided with the supreme council of the allies, initially in the form of the council of ten, usually attended by the heads of government and foreign ministers of Great Britain, France, the USA, Italy, and Japan. This gave way in late March 1919 to the council of four (the British, French, American, and Italian heads of government), leaving the foreign ministers to handle lesser problems as the council of five. Hence Lloyd George and Balfour conducted the vast majority of decisive negotiations. The prime minister spent twenty weeks in France (11 January – 8 February, 5 March – 14 April, 17 April – 29 June) and settled many contentious matters without overmuch direct recourse to the wider delegation. He relied on oral briefings from his private secretary, Philip Kerr. Balfour remained in post for eight months, yet left far less of an impression. Both men lodged at 23 rue Nitôt. Bonar Law, second man in the coalition government, was an almost nominal peacemaker; substituting for Lloyd George in London, he made only flying visits. Milner came seven times, primarily to deputize on the council of ten (10–14 February, 21 February – 5 March), but also to tackle specific problems, such as African colonies and Syria. The conference struck him as ‘indescribable chaos’ (O'Brien, 335). Churchill's plenipotentiary status arose from his brief attendance at the council (14–17 February) to press for allied intervention in Russia. Barnes, a coalition Labour MP, worked in Paris continuously, but his responsibilities were narrow. Dominion ministers, as such, carried little weight in international affairs.

Supporting the plenipotentiaries were 160–200 other representatives, divided into three ranks (non-plenipotentiary delegates, technical advisers, and technical experts) in nine functional sections. Charles Hardinge, first Baron Hardinge of Penshurst, permanent under-secretary for foreign affairs, headed the political section, chiefly drawn from his own ministry, especially its political intelligence department. In a snub to the Foreign Office, Lloyd George overlooked him and chose Maurice Hankey (of the war cabinet secretariat) to be secretary of the delegation and senior British member of the secretariat-general of the conference, responsible for agenda and minutes. The military, naval, and air sections were respectively led by Sir Henry Wilson, Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, and J. E. B. Seely. The Treasury supplied most of the financial section, while the Board of Trade and Ministry of Shipping dominated the economic section. There were numerous changes of personnel, and ministers and officials not part of the delegation often visited for consultations. Sir (Thomas) Henry Penson (1864–1955) ran the intelligence clearing house. Sir Basil Thomson supervised security. With a staff of translators, typists, stenographers, printers, telephonists, drivers, pilots, cooks, chambermaids, waiters, and Girl Guide messengers, the mission at its peak totalled 524 people. The upper echelons lived at the Hotel Majestic in the avenue Kléber and worked at the Hotel Astoria in the Champs Élysées.

On 25 January 1919 the conference established five specialized commissions, each requiring two or three British members. At the League of Nations commission Lord Robert Cecil and Smuts played very conspicuous parts, assisted by Philip Noel-Baker, Lionel Curtis, and Lord Eustace Percy. Barnes devoted his energies to the international labour legislation commission that founded the International Labour Organization. The commission on the responsibility of the authors of the war devised the ‘war guilt’ clause of the German treaty; Massey worked on this with Sir Ernest Pollock and Sir Gordon Hewart. Sifton and Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith attended the commission on the international regime for ports, waterways, and railways. Far more controversial was the reparations commission, where Hughes, Walter Cunliffe, first Baron Cunliffe, and John Andrew Hamilton, Viscount Sumner, proved so insistent that Germany pay the entire cost of the war that Lloyd George had serious difficulty in diluting this proposal after J. M. Keynes exposed it as damagingly unrealistic. Keynes himself sat on the financial commission, formed in March and chaired by Montagu, while Llewellyn Smith and Foster manned the economic commission. Many delegates with relevant expertise—such as Andrew Weir, first Baron Inverforth, and Sir William Goode—worked for the supreme economic council, the executive body maintaining supplies of food and raw materials during the armistices. Cecil frequently chaired it.

In February 1919 the supreme council created five advisory territorial committees to redraw European frontiers. Here the men of the political section came into their own, in some cases sharing the labour—very unevenly—with dominion plenipotentiaries (who needed to be found employment). G. W. Prothero furnished them with historical background information. On the Czechoslovak committee Harold Nicolson and Cook endorsed most of the new nation's claims. Sir Eyre Crowe served with A. W. Allen Leeper on the Romanian and Yugoslav committee, with James Headlam-Morley on the Belgian and Danish committee, and with Borden and Nicolson on the deadlocked Greek and Albanian committee. Crowe enjoyed the full confidence of Balfour; no one else from the Foreign Office attained so much influence. The Polish committee caused ructions, as Lloyd George felt that Sir William Tyrrell, Botha, and Frederick Hermann Kisch (1888–1943), as well as Sir Esme Howard and General Carton de Wiart of the inter-allied mission to Warsaw, had all been too favourable to greater Poland. He assigned Headlam-Morley to a further committee that revised the proposed German–Polish border and conceived the free city of Danzig. Crowe, aided by Nicolson and Harold Temperley, joined the central territorial committee that co-ordinated recommendations. The council of four then set up ad hoc committees to address outstanding disputes. Headlam-Morley, something of a favourite, handled Alsace-Lorraine and the Saar. E. H. Carr helped Howard with Baltic issues. Though the military, naval, and air committees had reported early on disarming Germany, General (Harry) Osborne Mance (1875–1966), the railways expert, remained much in demand. T. E. Lawrence wore Arab costume to advise about Arabia. On the drafting commission Cecil Hurst turned conference decisions into treaty clauses.

The climax came with the signing of the German treaty at Versailles on 28 June 1919. The prime ministers then left, the conference contracted, and British representation also. Balfour stayed to attend the council of heads of delegations. Herman Cameron Norman (1872–1955) succeeded Hankey in his secretarial duties. Fiume, Smyrna, eastern Galicia, and the Romanian occupation of Hungary repeatedly demanded attention, while the committee on new states and minorities kept Headlam-Morley busy. Work on the Turkish settlement was long postponed. After signature of the Austrian treaty at St Germain-en-Laye (10 September) Crowe replaced Balfour at the top table; he and Cecil Harmsworth signed the Bulgarian treaty at Neuilly (27 November). Ratification of the Versailles treaty provided the occasion for winding things up, and Lord Curzon attended the final session in Paris on 21 January 1920. The Hungarian treaty was signed at Trianon on 4 June 1920 and the Turkish treaty at Sèvres on 10 August 1920, with the supreme council technically reconvening in the interim when allied leaders gathered in London, San Remo, Boulogne, and Spa. A conference of ambassadors continued to meet in Paris (1920–31) to deal with the execution of the treaties.

Lloyd George understandably eclipsed other British politicians at the peace conference. In so far as Smuts and Cecil achieved independent profiles, it was because they distinctly espoused the liberal internationalism associated with President Woodrow Wilson of the United States. Several other delegates shared their belief that, in striking a compromise between American idealism and French power politics, Britain conceded too much to the latter. Keynes resigned in anger and published The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). Nicolson's Peacemaking 1919 (1933) painted a picture of haste and confusion, with the political section overworked and negotiations too compartmentalized. Lack of co-ordination between plenipotentiaries and the rest of the team was a common complaint; many in the Foreign Office blamed the prime minister. Even so, it is generally reckoned that the British were more effective in Paris than any other great power delegation.

Jason Tomes


Papers relating to the foreign relations of the United States: the Paris peace conference, 1919, 3 (1943) · M. Dockrill, ed., British documents on foreign affairs: the Paris peace conference of 1919, 15 vols. (1989–91) · H. Temperley, ed., A history of the peace conference of Paris, 6 vols. (1920–24) · J. Headlam-Morley, A memoir of the Paris peace conference, ed. A. Headlam-Morley and others (1972) · H. Nicolson, Peacemaking 1919 (1933) · M. Hankey, The supreme control at the Paris peace conference 1919 (1963) · E. Goldstein, Winning the peace: British diplomatic strategy, peace planning, and the Paris peace conference, 1916–1920 (1991) · F. Marston, The peace conference of 1919: organization and procedure (1944) · M. Dockrill and Z. Steiner, ‘The Foreign Office at the Paris peace conference in 1919’, International History Review, 2/1 (Jan 1980), 55–86 · S. Crowe and E. Corp, Our ablest public servant: Sir Eyre Crowe, 1864–1925 (1993) · R. J. A. Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes, 1 (1983) · The Times (1919) · T. H. O'Brien, Milner (1979) · R. Beadon, Some memories of the peace conference (1933) · Hansard 5C, 126