Category Archives: Germany

Japanese Slaughter of PNG Civilians, 1943

From Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943–August 1945, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2013) Kindle Loc. 925-960:

AMONG THE DOZENS of church-based missions in New Guinea, some of the oldest were German organizations established before World War I, when New Guinea was a territory of Imperial Germany. During World War II, Japanese forces in New Guinea did not regard German missionaries as allies, even though Nazi Germany and Japan shared a military allegiance. Instead, missionaries came under the jurisdiction of the minsei-bu as neutral civilians. Soon after the Japanese occupied Wewak, they rounded up the local missionaries and transported them to Saint John’s Catholic mission on Kairiru. At first the civilians were free to move about the island, but the situation soon changed.

Some missionaries and natives were willing to risk their lives for the Allied cause. At least two clergymen, Father Manion and Brother Victor Salois, members of the Society of the Divine Word, were American citizens. According to postwar testimonies, the Japanese discovered that several downed Allied airmen were not only hiding in the region, but had contacted the mission with the help of “local people who harbored anti-Japanese sentiment.” Mot’s visit to Kairiru fits this description precisely, and the timing of his trip is more than coincidental.

On the morning of March 17, a few days after the Japanese patrol failed to find the Americans on Wokeo, forty-two civilian men, women, and children were rounded up at Saint John’s and escorted to the destroyer Akikaze, anchored at Kairiru. Included among the mission staff were the two Americans; there were also Chinese nationals, at least one native girl, and two Chinese infants, thought to be orphans. All were treated as neutral civilians aboard Akikaze, which sailed from Kairiru at noon. Late that afternoon the warship stopped at Manus in the Admiralty Islands, where another twenty civilians boarded—again mostly European missionaries, including six women. The next day, Akikaze arrived in Kavieng Harbor, New Ireland, stopping only long enough to receive a message delivered by boat. Akikaze then steamed south, navigating a maze of small islands until it reached the Bismarck Sea. Once safely in open water, the warship headed toward its Eighth Fleet base at Rabaul.

Akikaze’s captain, Lt. Cmdr. Tsurukichi Sabe, evidently presumed he would deliver the civilians to New Britain. Several hundred missionaries and associates were already interned at Vunapope, the largest Catholic mission in the territory. But the message delivered at Kavieng rattled him. With a pale, somber expression, Sabe gathered his officers and informed them that Eighth Fleet Headquarters had issued orders “to dispose of all neutral civilians on board.”

No one would dare question the order. In the Japanese military, instructions from a superior were regarded as though issued by the Emperor himself.

Sabe directed his crew to carry out the orders. First, the civilians were moved to forward berthing spaces below the main deck. Then, within about an hour, a wooden rig was erected over the ship’s fantail. It consisted of a platform covered with mats and a simple hoisting structure. Canvas screens were spread amidships to keep the civilians from viewing the aft third of the ship.

When the preparations were complete, Akikaze throttled up to her maximum speed of twenty-four knots (approximately twenty-seven miles per hour). One at a time, beginning with the men, the civilians were escorted to the bridge. After an interpreter recorded each individual’s name and nationality, they were led aft. Suddenly, they were seized, blindfolded, and bound at the wrists. With no time to comprehend what was happening, they were led onto the platform, attached to the overhead rig, and then hoisted into the air.

At a signal from a junior officer on a nearby gun platform, each victim was shot by four crewmen: one armed with a light machine gun, the other three with rifles. The rig was designed so that the force of the wind from the destroyer’s high speed, together with the impact of the bullets, would swing the victims beyond the platform, where their bodies were released into the churning wake. In theory, at least, this would minimize the amount of gore that collected on the deck. It was also surmised that the sound of gunfire would not carry forward against the wind, thereby reducing psychological stress on the civilians.

The process dragged on for three hours as sixty individuals—priests, friars, nuns, staff, and family members—were systematically hauled into the air, riddled with gunfire, and dumped off the fantail. The two infants were simply thrown into the sea. Afterward, sailors unrigged the platform and hosed the bloodstains off Akikaze’s steel deck. Finally, the officers conducted a funeral ceremony for the souls of the dozens of Christians they had just murdered—almost certainly with a Shinto ritual. Perhaps that, too, was in response to orders.

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1918-11-11: End of the Shooting War

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 5198-5212:

Behind the lines, the news rarely provoked outright celebration. When the battery commander, Major F. J. Rice, got up that morning and was on his way to the regimental mess for breakfast, one of his men told him that ‘it was all over sir’. Orders had come in that hostilities would cease at 11 a.m. ‘All the officers took it very calmly,’ he recalled. After breakfast they managed to get their hands on a bottle of port and shared it with their NCOs. When they saw one of the sergeants walking across the gun park, they shouted out the news. The man merely halted, saluted, and said ‘very good, sir’, before continuing on, seemingly as unconcerned as ever.

The American First-Lieutenant Clair Groover of 313th Infantry Regiment – the junior officer who had survived the assault on Montfaucon – remembered how the quietness that followed the Armistice ‘got to you’. ‘It was so unreal, that it disturbed you emotionally,’ he admitted. ‘Some of the hardest officers wept. It was so unusual that you would walk around without being shot at.’ Within moments he noticed German soldiers getting up out of their positions and moving out into the open. One of them came over and told him, with tears in his eyes, that his brother had been killed the day before and that he would like permission to locate and bury the body. Groover agreed. That night ‘all the troops along the line were treated to the greatest display of fireworks ever set off. Both sides were setting off their entire pyrotechnic supply of rockets, Very candles, red, blue, green, were sparkling in the air. The first few scared you and you would flatten out on the ground, forgetting that it was all over. That night there were camp fires all along the lines.’ That was it; it was over. ‘It was the end of the shooting war.’

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1918: Quick Collapse on All Fronts

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4440-4447, 4754-4770:

For so long the various theatres of war in Europe, Italy and the Middle East had seemed frozen and immobile; stalemated and deadlocked. And then in late autumn, with surprising suddenness, the thaw finally set in. By 30 September, Bulgaria had signed an armistice, which opened up the southern flank of the Central Powers. Austro-Hungary was already on the verge of capitulation, and it took only a limited offensive by the Italian Army in the final week of October – the Battle of Vittorio Veneto – to push it over the edge. In the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire was now entering its final death throes. What remained of the Turkish Army in Palestine had been routed at the Battle of Megiddo in late September, and over the following month General Sir Edmund Allenby’s troops pushed north, mercilessly harassing the retreating Turkish columns. Aleppo fell on 26 October and within days an armistice was signed on the island of Mudros – thus bringing the war in the Middle East to a victorious conclusion.

By the first week of November the German Army was in full retreat across the Western Front. From the air ‘we saw all the roads crowded with columns of men marching back,’ wrote one German pilot. Endless lines of weary troops splashed and shuffled their way eastwards, bowed down with their equipment, looking over their shoulders in fear, half expecting to see Allied aircraft or cavalry squadrons ready to scatter them again. It was an awful sight: the faces of young boys overshadowed by the steel helmets that were too big for them, or hobbling along in boots that had been worn away long ago; old veterans who had seen too many battles marching along with glassy eyes and a grim acceptance of death or wounding. It was by now a motley army; the exact opposite of the legions of proud feldgrau that had marched across Europe in the summer of 1914 on their way to enact Count von Schlieffen’s great war plan. The German Army had reached its end; worn down by four years of merciless slaughter and pounded into dust by the brutal Allied artillery bombardments. Some still believed in victory, in some divine intervention – a catastrophic outbreak of flu in Paris or London; a devastating fallout between the English and Americans perhaps – but most realized there was little they could do. How could they defeat the endless power of the Allied guns or their swarms of tanks? How many Americans would they have to kill before they too gave in? And in any case, was it really worth fighting and dying for any more? Did anyone really care whether Alsace-Lorraine was French or German?

Casualties were nothing short of catastrophic. Fritz von Lossberg estimated that by the time the German Army reached the Antwerp–Meuse Line it had lost over 400,000 men and 6,000 guns. Other authorities put it higher, and it is possible that between 18 July and 11 November the Army suffered 420,000 dead and wounded with another 385,000 men being taken prisoner. Such a magnitude of loss was simply unsustainable, and when this was combined with the thousands of casualties from Germany’s spring offensives earlier in the year – perhaps as high as a million – it meant that her army was bleeding to death.

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1918: Respect for German Gunners

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2481-2488, 4523-4538:

Whatever the Americans thought about the British or the French, they soon acquired a healthy respect for the Germans: for their ability as soldiers; for their ruthlessness; for their professionalism wherever they fought. Within days of reaching the front with his division, Captain Grady saw a German plane fly low over the lines and drop a note addressed to their Commanding Officer. ‘Goodbye 42nd Division,’ it read, ‘hello 77th’. ‘Jerry sure is there with the humour,’ wrote Grady. For Frank Holden, his respect and admiration for the German soldier was summed up in his experience at Boucanville with 82nd Division. It was commonly said that the location of their battalion headquarters was well-known to the Germans, and that they could probably shell it any time they wanted. The divisional staff would joke about the time when three large shells – huge 210mm rounds – landed in a direct line near to the battalion headquarters; two shells behind, one in front. But no matter what the Germans did, they never moved their headquarters, simply because ‘we thought if we did then the Germans would drop a 210 on us just to show us that they knew that we had moved’.

For every group of cowed, shivering soldiers, there were others in the German Army who would not give in; those who were disputing their progress every day, inch by inch: the spine of the German defence, her machine-gunners. These men were both feared and respected. ‘The gunners were brave men,’ wrote T. H. Holmes, a Private with 56th (London) Division, ‘because firing the gun meant revealing the position of it, and up would come a tank and invariably shoot the post to pieces, and then trample it flat. I saw a ghastly mass of crushed heads and limbs tangled up with twisted iron. They said some of these machine-gunners were chained to their weapons.’ Another British soldier, a member of the Machine-Gun Corps, recorded in his memoirs how these men repeatedly occupied the best positions with the most deadly fields of fire, and consequently always proved extremely dangerous. Like many soldiers, he soon became used to the sight of machine-gunners crushed beneath tanks. Although it was not true that these men were chained to their weapons – the strap that the gunners wore was often mistaken for some kind of restraint – their courage was legendary. On one occasion, a Canadian, R. H. Camp, came across a gunner who had fired off all his ammunition. There was nothing particularly unusual about this, but Camp was amazed by what happened next. ‘He stood up in his hole and started taking his gun to pieces and he was throwing the pieces at us, anything he could get a hold of. We knew then of course that he was out of ammunition and we up and rushed him.’ Just as the Canadians were about to get to grips with him, their officer ran up shouting. ‘Don’t stick him boys! Don’t stick him.’ He got out a piece of paper, scribbled something on it, and then put it in the German’s pocket. ‘Don’t touch this man, he’s brave.’ He then told the German to make his way back to the rear. The note was a signed declaration of the machine-gunner’s courage and a guarantee that he would not be harmed.

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1918: The Americans

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2489-2509:

At first glance the doughboys looked little different from their British and French associates. They wore a version of the British tin helmet and used the small pattern box respirator. They ate bully beef. They fired French or British weapons, often Lee Enfields, Lewis guns or Chauchats, and threw Mills bombs. They went into action alongside French tanks – Renaults or Schneiders – flew French or British aircraft – Spads or Sopwith Camels – and grew to love the French 75mm field gun, the legendary soixante-quinze. But in other respects the Americans were remarkably different. While both British and French Armies recruited mainly from remarkably cohesive home societies (excepting, of course, their colonial contingents), Pershing’s men were drawn from the full spectrum of US society, and included many recent immigrants from Europe, Russia and Latin America, as well as Native Americans. A considerable number of black Americans also went to France, and although they were not permitted to serve alongside white soldiers and continued to suffer horrific racial prejudice, they did yeoman service on the lines of transport in France, helping to unload equipment and supplies, and doing the menial jobs without which Pershing’s army could not have survived.

The Americans were different in other ways too. They were much richer than their cousins in other armies. They could draw $30 a month, about ten times the pay of a French private, thus gaining the eternal jealousy of the poilus, who looked upon the arrival of the Americans with concern and insecurity. And in another odd, but still tangible way, the Americans differed from their British and French counterparts. They were big; physically big. Numerous commentators at the time noticed the physical presence of the first US soldiers, tall, well-built troops with high morale and an instinctive, almost cocky pride; the kind of soldiers that had not been seen on the Western Front since 1916, when Britain’s New Armies had entered the fray. For their commander, this was the key point. Pershing was confident that American valour – her aggressive frontier spirit – would be the answer to the stalemate in the west. When he had first travelled to France and met British and French commanders, Pershing had quickly come to the conclusion that their methods would never win the war. They were stuck in their ways, he would tell his subordinates, and obsessed with limited, artillery-heavy trench attacks. He wanted his troops to be trained, first and foremost, as individual soldiers and riflemen, able to think for themselves on the battlefield and engage the enemy on their own terms.

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1918: The Role of Gas

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2110-2134, 2146-2157:

Following up the German armies was never easy or without cost. As well as advancing in the face of shelling, booby-traps, and machine-gun and sniper fire, the Allied armies had to operate in a terrifying and dangerous chemical environment. Although shell and machine-gun fire accounted for the majority of casualties, gas evoked a fear that was unlike any other weapon and had a significant effect on how the war was fought. It had evolved much since the first chlorine gas had been released near Ypres in 1915, maturing into a weapon that was used with a remarkable degree of ingenuity and inventiveness. By 1918 all sides had incorporated gas into their battle tactics, with both front and rear sectors regularly being deluged with gas, which poisoned the ground and caused a constant trickle of casualties. Gas shells, containing either mustard or phosgene, would often be fired alongside high explosive, in the hope that during a bombardment – with its noise and chaos – the arrival of quieter gas shells would be missed. If any soldiers survived the bombardment, then a silent, deadly killer would still await them. Gas also offered a useful and effective method of counter-battery fire. Because it was very difficult to score a direct hit on enemy gun positions, gas shells were frequently employed to force gunners to don their respirators, which often impeded their accuracy and slowed their reactions.

For the Allies, the main problem was dealing with mustard gas – ‘the king of the war gases’ – which was used in increasing amounts by German artillery. As the retreat gathered momentum, German gunners fired thousands of these shells at their pursuers, using it as an area denial weapon, through which the Allies could not advance, or at least not without difficulty. As the historian Tim Cook has shown, ‘German gunners simply blocked out map grids and fired shells to saturate the whole sector, thereby eliminating that area from the front.’ Ever since its introduction in the summer of 1917, mustard gas had become notorious for its effectiveness at causing casualties because of its persistence and the lack of a foolproof countermeasure. The German chemical industry produced vast amounts of this effective and unpleasant chemical compound, while the Allies could only manufacture limited amounts by the summer of 1918. Mustard gas may not have been immediately fatal (particularly if there was only minor contact), but it caused a variety of painful wounds, including lung damage (if inhaled), blisters and burns on the skin, and conjunctivitis in the eyes. The shells would explode with a dull thud or pop, leading some inexperienced soldiers to mistake its arrival for that of a ‘dud’ shell. The liquid contents would then leak out, rapidly vaporize and form terrifying yellow clouds. Because it could go through wool and cotton, there was precious little protection from its symptoms, particularly if the liquid splashed you, and it lay there, settling in shell holes and trenches, often remaining active for weeks. It is little wonder that unless dealt with quickly the fear of mustard gas had a devastating effect on unit morale. All soldiers could do was put on their gas masks and try to get out of the affected area as soon as possible. Unfortunately, this was sometimes easier said than done because German gunners had an annoying habit of creeping their gas barrages forward at the same rate as a man could walk. If you were particularly unfortunate, you could be exposed for hours.

The Americans – who began their own offensive in September – would also encounter the horror of mustard gas. Indeed, Pershing’s forces were particularly susceptible to gas attacks as they lacked the sophisticated and well-worn anti-gas doctrine of the British and French. Whereas the Allies had been gradually improving their protective measures since 1915 (and were well aware of how deadly chemical weapons could be), there was a lack of appreciation in the US Army of how easily gas could cause casualties. Gas accounted for 27 per cent of American losses in the Great War, a frighteningly high figure that, in part, explained the speed with which large US divisions were worn out at the front.17 One American officer, Frank Holden, a Battalion Gas Officer, experienced a gas bombardment that September. It was a terrifying few hours that revealed not only how inventive gas tactics were becoming, but also how difficult they were to combat. Holden knew that the Germans often fired tear gas (or what was known as Blue Cross gas) into areas where troops had concentrated, causing intense choking, sneezing and coughing. After Blue Cross had been deployed, German gunners would then deluge the target area with more deadly agents, many men often finding it impossible to keep their respirators on if they needed to sneeze or vomit. Holden’s battalion had marched into the village of Norroy when they came under a barrage of ‘sneezing gas’ (most probably Blue Cross). He immediately ordered all gas masks to be worn.

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1918: Canadian and Australian Shock Troops

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle 872-892:

The spearhead of the attack was entrusted to two of the most powerful and experienced corps in the BEF: the Canadian and Australian Corps. Both were large, well-equipped and battle-hardened formations with a growing reputation for professionalism, ruthlessness and above all success. It had been the Canadian Corps that had taken Vimy Ridge in April 1917, successfully storming one of the most formidable positions on the Western Front in little over three hours. Although the Australians never enjoyed success on the scale of Vimy, they prided themselves on their effectiveness and aggression, specializing in large trench raids that they called – somewhat misleadingly – ‘peaceful penetration’. The Australians had also recently conducted the Battle of Hamel on 4 July, a beautifully crafted combined ‘all-arms’ operation that took just over ninety minutes to overrun the village of Le Hamel and surrounding woodland with minimal casualties. These formations, as was rapidly becoming clear, were the ‘shock armies’ of the BEF. They were also semi-independent formations with powerful political support back home. Haig could not boss the Canadians or Australians around in the way that he was used to doing with British divisions.

As well as containing large numbers of well-rested, highly motivated and well-equipped troops, the Dominion corps were led by two of the most promising commanders in the British Empire: Sir Arthur Currie and Sir John Monash. In many ways they were typical of their homelands, being men who could only have found success and fame in the freer air of the Dominions. There was no way Arthur Currie, a teacher and failed financier, would have risen to Lieutenant-General had he joined the regular British Army. Likewise, the Australian, Sir John Monash, came from a family of Polish Jews and he had originally been a civil engineer when he joined the North Melbourne Militia before the war. Both men possessed fierce, inquisitive minds, eagerly devouring military knowledge because they knew the lives of their men depended on it. They understood and valued firepower and logistics and also recognized the importance of patience and preparation. Currie’s motto was a characteristic ‘neglect nothing’, while Monash described his theory of war as how ‘to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources, in the form of guns, machine-guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes’. The theory of war that emerged from the Dominion corps may not have been subtle; it may not have been as innovative as the tactical changes ushered in by the German Army, but it worked. And it worked at a tolerable cost in lives.

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1918: Influenza on the Western Front

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 650-667:

As well as the thousands of broken and bloodied men that came from the front, there was a frightening surge in cases of influenza across Western Europe. This was the first wave of the great ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic that wreaked such havoc and caused such fear, with up to fifty million people dying worldwide before the end of 1919. Influenza had always been present, but the number of admissions suddenly surged up during the last summer of the war. In the UK there had been somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 cases each month during the spring, but over 30,000 were registered in June alone. This epidemic took the form of the so-called ‘three day fever’, which was extremely infectious, and, as the British Medical History noted, would strike suddenly ‘so that barrack rooms which the day before had been full of bustle and life would now be converted wholesale into one great sick room’. Patients would experience a high fever, often up to 103 degrees Fahrenheit, before gradually returning to health within a short time. This strain was particularly virulent in the German Army. In the two months of June and July 1918, over half a million soldiers would contract the disease, most of whom were treated in specialized ‘flu infirmaries’ behind the lines. The illness usually began with chills and general malaise, before a fever took hold for 48–72 hours. This ‘lighter’ type of flu was usually not fatal – patients would generally recover within eight or ten days – and had died down by the late summer, and should not be confused with the much more lethal and dangerous strain that emerged over the winter of 1918 and into the following year.

This second strain of influenza was the killer. As the year progressed, Allied and German doctors began to notice new, more terrifying symptoms in their influenza cases. They would soon become familiar with a list of complaints that included bodily weakness and a throbbing headache, chest pains and a hacking cough. Usually blood-stained froth would be brought up and the patient would then show the usually fatal signs of cyanosis – the blue discoloration of the face that meant death was only hours away.

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1918: How the Great War Ended

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 305-326:

The campaign of 1918 remains one of the most important, yet least understood, periods of the war. Writing in 2011, the historian David Stevenson claimed that ‘whereas modern comprehensive investigations now exist into the outcomes of other modern conflicts, the First World War still lacks one’. It had begun on 21 March, when the thunderous opening of the German Spring Offensive shattered the trench deadlock that had gripped the opposing armies for the best part of three years. Having been able to redeploy large numbers of troops to France after the collapse of Russia, Germany’s leaders vowed to strike before the Allies, buttressed by powerful American support, became invincible. The aim was to conduct a massive attack in France, separate the British and French Armies, and win the war before Germany’s perilous strategic situation worsened even further. But this great masterstroke failed. Although manoeuvre returned to the Western Front and the German armies advanced deep into northern France, the Allies evaded this knock-out blow and held on. And it was in July, when Germany’s strength began to fade, that the Allies hit back, thus beginning the final campaign of the Great War: the Hundred Days.

When I began researching this period, the lack of a really satisfactory account of these final battles, particularly one that analysed the situation from the point of view of all the main warring sides, became immediately apparent. Although there have been many good books on 1918 – a personal favourite being Gregor Dallas’s epic 1918: War and Peace (2000) – their coverage remains patchy, selective and frequently drawn from a few well-worn sources. Anglophone historians have understandably focused on the battles fought by the British Expeditionary Force and have relatively little to say about the important roles played by the French or the Americans. Other writers have claimed that the war was effectively over by the summer of 1918 – meaning that the Hundred Days was not especially important – but this remains a narrow and selective approach dependent upon hindsight. The Germans may have lost the war by July, but the Allies had certainly not won it and there was much still to do, as the staggering toll of losses reveals all too clearly. Between 18 July and 11 November the Allies sustained upwards of 700,000 casualties while the Germans lost at least another 760,000 men. Indeed, casualty rates among British units were some of the worst of the war, leading many commentators to assume that nothing had been learnt from previous offensives; that it was the same old story of fruitless slaughter and sacrifice in 1918 as it had been in earlier years. This may not have been the case, but the death toll of those final days – increased tragically by the so-called ‘Spanish flu’ – remains remarkable and deserves greater examination than it has hitherto received.

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The First Wilsonian Approach to Peace in the Middle East, 1919

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 9950-10001:

IN THE LAST sentence of his memoir, William Yale referred to the Paris Peace Conference as “the prologue of the 20th century tragedy.” Yale served as an expert on Middle Eastern affairs to the American delegation in Paris and, like Lawrence, put forth great efforts to achieve a sustainable peace in the region. As with his British counterpart, with whom he sometimes aligned himself, these efforts were thwarted at every turn. Yale placed much of the blame on his own government. To him, the grand enterprise in Paris seemed a rather perfect reflection of Woodrow Wilson’s peculiar blend of idealism and arrogance. In the American president’s almost comic fondness for tidy enumerated lists—his “Fourteen Points” had been followed by his “Four Principles,” his “Four Ends,” and finally his “Five Particulars”—was the hint of a simplistic mind-set, as if solving the world’s myriad messy problems was merely a matter of isolating them into their component parts and applying quasi-mathematical principles. Nowhere was this more problematic than when it came to Wilson’s cherished and oft-cited notion of “self-determination.” While the phrase certainly sounded good, in the mashed-together cultures of Europe and the Middle East of the early twentieth century, where faith and ethnicity and nationalism were all exerting tremendous and often opposing pulls, just whose claim to self-determination was to win out over others? London and Paris had repeatedly warned Wilson on the dangers of opening up this Pandora’s box, but there had never been any indication that the president was listening.

To William Yale’s mind, all of this was actually symptomatic of perhaps the greatest paradox underlying the American role at the Paris Peace Conference: Woodrow Wilson’s grand vision of a new world order rested on a bedrock of profound ignorance. That was made clear on the very day Yale arrived in Paris and met with his new supervisor, William Westermann, and the other members of the American delegation’s Middle Eastern research section. Granted, the Middle East was a lesser American concern at the peace conference since the United States hadn’t gone to war with Turkey, but it still struck Yale that Westermann, a classics professor from the University of Wisconsin, might have rounded up a panel with at least some familiarity with the region. Instead, they included a specialist in Latin American studies, an American Indian historian, a scholar on the Crusades, and two Persian linguistics professors.

The picture was completed when Yale was handed a briefing book on Syria, a 107-page compendium of historic, economic, and political data that was serving as the principal guide in formulating American policy in the region. The Report on the Desires of the Syrians didn’t require a lot of study on Yale’s part; almost all the citations in those sections dealing with events since 1914 were drawn from a single source, a State Department special agent in Cairo named William Yale.

Several times Yale saw opportunities for championing the cause of Arab self-determination, but they always slipped away on the tide of American inaction. At a meeting with Faisal in mid-February 1919, Yale was taken aback when the Arab leader bluntly proposed an American mandate in Syria, vastly preferring the supposedly disinterested Americans to the French. By then, however, Yale had already been with the American delegation in Paris long enough to realize that, virtuous principles aside, the Wilson administration was more interested in dictating solutions to the rest of the world than in assuming any responsibility of its own. And there was another problem, one that may not have been readily apparent to non-Americans. Its brief burst of international involvement notwithstanding, the United States was already showing signs of sliding back into an isolationist spirit, with Wilson and his Republican opponents who dominated in Congress increasingly at loggerheads. What it meant for all those in Paris looking to the United States for leadership was that time was not on their side, that the longer things dragged on, the less likely the Americans would have the ability or even the interest to do much at all. Very quickly, for Yale and others in the American Middle Eastern division, there came the deeply dispiriting sense that matters were slipping away. “We fought over boundary lines as if the destiny of the world depended upon it,” Yale recalled of that time. “We fumed and fussed because Wilson and [his chief advisor Edward] House seemed to pay no attention to what we were doing. It all seemed strangely academic and futile to me.”

As the peace conference extended, the folly of Yale’s mission would only grow increasingly absurd. In the late spring of 1919, he was appointed to an American fact-finding committee, the King-Crane Commission, which, in pursuit of Wilson’s self-determination principle, was dispatched to determine the desires of the former denizens of the Ottoman world, “to take a plebiscite,” in Yale’s skeptical view, “of a vast sprawling empire of 30,000,000 inhabitants.” Unsurprisingly, after a tour of two months, and scores of meetings in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, the message the commission had heard in each place was unequivocal: the vast majority of people wanted either independence or the Americans. In light of this, the commission came up with a sweeping set of recommendations that placed the United States at the forefront of administering a solution to the Middle Eastern puzzle. That solution, however, did not at all resemble what had already been secretly agreed to by the British and the French, nor what the Wilson administration was willing to take on. At least here, the administration was prepared to act with great dispatch; the King-Crane reports were swiftly locked away in a safe, not to be seen or read by the outside world for the next three years.

Returning to Europe from that mission in the fall of 1919, Yale would make one last attempt to salvage the situation in Syria, enlisting Lawrence’s support for what became known as the Yale Plan. With the plan drawing support from senior British statesmen, it briefly appeared the coming showdown between the Arabs and French in Syria might be averted. But Yale was essentially acting in a freelance capacity, and once senior American officials learned of it, his plan was quickly scuttled. On November 1, 1919, British troops who had occupied Syria until a final settlement was reached began to withdraw. On that same day, French troops began moving in. Days later, Yale resigned from the American peace delegation in disgust and sailed back to New York.

T. E. Lawrence lost hope at about the same time. As his mother would relate to a biographer, her son slipped into a state of “extreme depression and nervous exhaustion” that autumn, and during visits home he “would sometimes sit the entire morning between breakfast and lunch in the same position, without moving, and with the same expression on his face.”

It all sounds all too familiar, 95 years later.

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