But the question was not settled on its merits.
II. The Conference and the Terms of the Treaty
I do not believe that, at the date of the Armistice, responsible authorities in the Allied countries expected any indemnity from Germany beyond the cost of reparation for the direct material damage which had resulted from the invasion of Allied territory and from the submarine campaign. At that time there were serious doubts as to whether Germany intended to accept our terms, which in other respects were inevitably very severe, and it would have been thought an unstatesmanlike act to risk a continuance of the war by demanding a money payment which Allied opinion was not then anticipating and which probably could not be secured in any case. The French, I think, never quite accepted this point of view; but it was certainly the British attitude; and in this atmosphere the pre-Armistice conditions were framed.
A month later the atmosphere had changed completely. We had discovered how hopeless the German position really was, a discovery which some, though not all, had anticipated, but which no one had dared reckon on as a certainty. It was evident that we could have secured unconditional surrender if we had determined to get it.
But there was another new factor in the situation which was of greater local importance. The British Prime Minister had perceived that the conclusion of hostilities might soon bring with it the break-up of the political bloc upon which he was depending for his personal ascendency, and that the domestic difficulties which would be attendant on demobilization, the turn-over of industry from war to peace conditions, the financial situation, and the general psychological reactions of men’s minds, would provide his enemies with powerful weapons, if he were to leave them time to mature. The best chance, therefore, of consolidating his power, which was personal and exercised, as such, independently of party or principle, to an extent unusual in British politics, evidently lay in active hostilities before the prestige of victory had abated, and in an attempt to found on the emotions of the moment a new basis of power which might outlast the inevitable reactions of the near future. Within a brief period, therefore, after the Armistice, the popular victor, at the height of his influence and his authority, decreed a General Election. It was widely recognized at the time as an act of political immorality. There were no grounds of public interest which did not call for a short delay until the issues of the new age had a little defined themselves and until the country had something more specific before it on which to declare its mind and to instruct its new representatives. But the claims of private ambition determined otherwise.