Australia and the Paris Peace Conference

After the signing of the Armistice of 11 November 1918, the Allied powers convened a conference in Paris. They needed to determine the terms of the Peace Treaty with the Central Powers. The Paris Peace Conference began on 18 January 1919. One of its most significant outcomes was the Treaty of Versailles with Germany. It imposed harsh terms on the former enemy and formally ended World War I. Prime Minister Billy Hughes represented Australia and was a strong advocate for his country.

Dominion representation

Even before the meeting opened, issues emerged about the role of Britain's dominions. The British Government considered that its delegation would represent the whole of the British Empire.

Both Hughes and the Canadian Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, considered this unacceptable. Each leader wanted to be represented at the peace talks.

The issue at stake for Hughes and Borden was their respective countries' place in the British Empire and the broader international system.

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George finally accepted Borden and Hughes' position after robust discussions. Then a compromise was reached with the major powers. The dominions and India were given the same place at the meeting as smaller states, such as Belgium. Australia could make representation on specific issues that affected the country.

In 1929, Hughes reflected on the status of the dominions, noting that:

Although technically the status of the Dominions and India was no higher than the status of the score of smaller nations [who had little influence] […] in actual fact [the Dominions] were included in the deciding Powers, for, by virtue of their membership of the British delegation. [The Dominions] were kept in touch with all that went on […] On many of the important commissions […] the representative of the British Empire was a Dominion Minister, and no important step was taken except after discussion and agreement at the British Empire Delegation. Thus the right of the self-governing parts of the Empire to an effective voice in foreign affairs […] was fully exercised as the Paris Conference.

In achieving dominion representation, Hughes had highlighted his willingness to fight for Australia's place in the British Empire. The British Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, Leo Amery, said:

[w]ith a quarrelsome and vain person like our little friend [Hughes] […] mischief may be caused if the breach is allowed to continue

More specifically, on the broader issue of imperial relations, Amery recognised that:

The extent to which the Dominions are given a really effective voice in the Peace Settlement will determine their whole outlook on Imperial questions in future.

Hughes and the 14 points

Hughes didn't agree with the United States (US) President Woodrow Wilson on the 'Fourteen Points'. These points formed the basis of discussions at the Paris Peace Conference.

Hughes' made his position on the 14 points clear before the signing of the Armistice. He did not believe they should form the basis of the Armistice. At a meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet on 5 November 1918, Hughes had argued that:

[h]e declined to be bound to the chariot-wheel of the Fourteen Points, particularly that dealing with the League of Nations. He would not be party to a League of Nations until he knew exactly what was meant by it.

Indeed, Hughes was unhappy with how the Armistice negotiations had been undertaken. He had issues with critical aspects of the 14 points, such as:

  • freedom of the seas
  • the call for no annexations
  • reparations and indemnities
  • the League of Nations

He maintained his views throughout the peace talks.

Paris Peace Conference

Men in suits stand behind a table with intricate carved details
British Empire delegates at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919. Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes is standing in the front row, behind the table, fifth from the left. IWM 4700-72

Based at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris, the choice of this location and the opening date (18 January) was purposely symbolic. After victory in the Franco-Prussian war, on 18 January 1871, King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed the Emperor of a newly created German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. For this reason, the Treaty of Versailles was signed in the Hall of Mirrors on 28 June.

Negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference were complicated. Many groups and committees were created to deal with specific issues.

The Council of Ten included the leaders of Britain, France, Italy, the US and Japan, as well as their foreign ministers. It was meant to be the critical discussion forum. In practice, the main decision-making body was the Council of Four, which comprised the leaders of Britain, France, Italy and the US. Hughes was unhappy that Japan was included in the Council of Ten.

The Allies signed five peace treaties with the former Central Powers at the conference. The Treaty of Versailles with Germany was the most important one.

For many reasons, the conference and its subsequent treaties have become controversial. Even before the conference ended, noted British economist, John Maynard Keynes, described the terms handed down against Germany as a 'Carthaginian peace' (a brutal type of peace imposed by crushing the enemy).

In many respects, the Paris Peace Conference created a new world order. In doing so, it also created new challenges.

In 1938, Lloyd George compared the challenges of the Paris Peace Conference to another great conference, the Congress of Vienna. The Congress had met to settle questions arising out the Napoleonic Wars that ended in 1815. Lloyd George wrote:

You then had to settle the affairs of Europe alone. It took eleven months. But the problems at the Congress of Vienna, great as they were, sink into insignificance compared with those which we have had to attempt to settle at the Paris Conference. It is not one continent that is engaged – every continent is engaged.

Australia's position

During the conference, three key issues influenced Hughes' actions in Paris:

  • pushing for Australian control of former German colonies in New Guinea
  • opposing Japan's position on racial equality
  • supporting the need for reparations and indemnities

Hughes was successful in achieving his first two aims, but ultimately failed in the last.

Control of New Guinea

It was over the first issue related to German colonies where Hughes' most famous retort emerged. In response to a question from Wilson about whether 5 million Australians should hold to ransom the 1200 million people represented at the Paris Peace Conference, Hughes apparently retorted that he represented 'sixty thousand [war] dead'.

Using a map prepared by the Royal Geographical Society, Hughes outlined the necessity of New Guinea to Australia, stating that:

As Ireland is the United Kingdom, as Mexico is to the United States, as Alsace-Lorraine is to France, so is New Guinea to Australia.

Hughes tried to defend what he saw as Australia's interests. In doing so, he not only frustrated Wilson but also came close to alienating Lloyd George. Hughes relied on Lloyd George because the Council of Four made critical decisions, such as mandates. As a compromise, German New Guinea was granted to Australia as a Class 'C' mandate.

Racial equality clause

The appointment of Japan to the Council of Ten had angered Hughes. This was exacerbated when the Japanese delegation tried to enshrine in the Covenant of the League of the Nations a clause related to racial equality. The challenge for Hughes was that Australia maintained a White Australia policy to control immigration.

In response to one of the Japanese attempts at inserting the racial equality clause, Hughes noted that:

but sooner than agree to it I would rather walk into the [River] Seine […] with my clothes off.

Hughes' defence of the White Australia policy at the Paris Peace Conference merged with both the issue of Japan's racial equality clause and the status of German New Guinea. On 5 May, Hughes argued that:

[i]f peace were signed leaving Australia's position as regards [New Guinea] uncertain, there would be […] grave misgivings […] that both the territorial integrity of their country and the White Australia policy […] were in serious danger.

Ultimately, Japan's attempt to have the clause included was dropped. While Hughes opposed the clause, and took much of the blame for that position, he was not the only delegate with concerns over Japan's position.

Reparations and indemnities

On the final issue of reparations and indemnities, Hughes failed. In many respects, he succeeded in the first two issues because he could generate British support. On reparations, Hughes was out of step with Britain's views.

As early as 1916, Hughes made his position clear on reparations when he declared that Germany had to pay for the war. Hughes' views were that reparation was:

  • a legal position
  • linked to compensation
  • an essential element of punishing Germany for the war

Hughes felt that Germany should compensate Australia for both the cost of the war and the losses incurred.

Hughes' tried to gain control of the former German colony of Nauru. This was an economic issue over a strategic one, as was the case with German New Guinea. On both reparations and the status of Nauru, Hughes did not achieve his aims.

Nauru became a mandate shared between Britain, Australian and New Zealand. As such, the profits from its phosphate mines had to be shared.

On reparations, the amount decided upon did not meet Hughes' aim of having the German's pay for Australia's war effort.

Signing the Treaty of Versailles

Before the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Hughes wrote to the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, on 17 May where he argued that:

It is not a good Peace for Australia, nor indeed for Britain. It is a good Peace for America.

Hughes never liked the Treaty of Versailles because he felt that Australia lost out. But he did argue that the country's participation in the peace negotiations helped it to 'became a nation'. Australia also became a member of the League of Nations and 'entered into the family of nations on a footing of equality'.

Judging Hughes' success at the Paris Peace Conference remains challenging. As one historian, Carl Bridge, recently wrote:

Using his British world connections, and all his political skills, Hughes had scrambled his way to a qualified but mainly successful outcome.

It was a qualified success because Hughes required the support of Britain and others to achieve his aims.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Australia and the Paris Peace Conference, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 13 June 2024,
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