Primary Documents - U.S. Press Journalist on the Versailles Signing Ceremony, 28 June 1919
With Germany's decision to seek an armistice - or face domestic as well as military collapse - arrangements were set in place to convene a peace conference in Paris; the city was unanimously selected by the Allied powers.
The conference began somewhat belatedly in mid-January with opening addresses from many of the key Allies.
Click here to read French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau's opening address in which he accepted the presidency of the peace conference. Click here to read the welcoming address given to delegates by French President Raymond Poincare; click here to read the opening address by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson; click here to read British Prime Minister David Lloyd George's address; click here to read Italian Prime Minister Sidney Sonnino's address. Click here to read an account of the run up to the opening session by the official British observer Sisley Huddleston.
Reproduced below is the text of U.S. newspaper journalist Harry Hansen's account of the Versailles signing ceremony on 28 June 1919.
Click here to read the German delegation's protest against the final Allied peace terms. Click here to read the Allied response. Click here to read a Dutch newspaper editorial condemning the Allied terms.
Click here to read the text of the eventual peace treaty.
U.S. Press Journalist Harry Hansen on the Versailles Signing Ceremony, 28 June 1919
The greatest attention had been given to the staging of the culminating event in the Hall of Mirrors.
It is a long and narrow room, more like a corridor than a salon. The delegates ascended the marble staircase and passed through what at one time were the apartments of Marie Antoinette to the Salon de la Pail, the Hall of Peace, whence they entered the Hall of Mirrors.
At this end of the hall were the chairs for the invited guests. Then came tables for secretaries of certain delegations. Beyond that stood the long horseshoe table that ran along the mirrored side of the hall.
At the middle of the table, facing the high embrasured windows, was the place for M. Clemenceau, president of the conference. To his left, in the direction of the Hall of Peace, were reserved places for the delegates of Great Britain, the British dominions, and Japan.
Here the angle in the table was reached, and then carne the places reserved for Germany. There followed the seats of Uruguay, Peru, Panama, Nicaragua, Liberia, Honduras, Brazil, Haiti, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Equador.
At the right hand of the President sat the commissioners from the United States. Then came France, Italy and Belgium. Beyond the turn of the table came the places of Greece, Poland, China, Cuba, Rumania, Hedjaz, Siam, Serbia, and Czecho-Slovakia.
Behind this table were tables for secretaries, and behind them, extending toward the Hall of War, came seats for the representatives of the press of the world. Inside the horseshoe table were smaller tables for secretaries, and a small one before the chairman's place was reserved for the interpreter.
In the middle stood the table on which lay the treaty of peace and three other documents to be signed simultaneously with it; the protocol, to be signed also by all the delegates; the Rhine province agreement, to be signed by the five great powers and Germany; and the Polish treaty, to he signed by the five great powers, Poland, and Germany.
On the day before the ceremony Herr von Haniel sent word to the Peace Conference that the German delegates had received no formal assurance that the document they were to sign in the Hall of Mirrors was identical with the treaty handed them on June 19th. M. Clemenceau immediately drafted a letter assuring them formally that the document was identical in all its parts, and this was carried to the Germans by M. Dutasta, general secretary of the conference.
Singularly, the places reserved for the delegation from China were not to be occupied. This was the one rift in the lute, for the Chinese commissioners, in protest against the clauses of the treaty agreeing to the transfer of the German leaseholds to Japan, decided not to sign the treaty.
A month before the Chinese plenipotentiaries had made a formal request of the Peace Conference that the questions involved in the Shantung matter be not included in the treaty, but be postponed for future consideration. This request was denied.
On the morning of June 28th M. Lou Tseng Tsiang, president of the Chinese delegation, asked that China be permitted to sign with the explanatory note, "Under the reservation made at the plenary session of May 6, 1919, and relative to the question of Shantung (Articles 156, 157, and 158)." He pointed out that the Swedish plenipotentiary signed the act of the Congress of Vienna with a reservation.
The request was not acceded to by the conference, and when the time for signature came, the Chinese did not respond. The attitude of the Chinese delegation in this matter was consistent with its point of view that Japan should have been asked by the Peace Conference to vacate Shantung and turn all German property over to China.
There was to be only one official treaty of peace, printed on Japanese vellum, with a large margin and held together by red tape. This copy was to be placed in the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France, and a copy given to all the governments concerned in its signing.
In order to expedite the signing, which at the best speed possible would take nearly an hour, the seals of the commissioners, which were considered necessary, had been placed on the document before the signing. These were the personal seals of the signatories, for these men signed in person and not as officials of their governments.
For this reason it was not considered proper for President Wilson to use the seal that had been selected for him, one bearing the American eagle and the words, "The President of the United States of America." President Wilson thereupon substituted a seal from a ring given him at the time of his marriage by the State of California, which bore his name in stenographic characters. Some of the commissioners did not possess personal seals, but obtained them before they were needed.
When the time came for opening the historic session, the long hall was crowded with delegates, visitors, and newspaper representatives. The commissioners had put in almost an hour passing from table to table to seek autographs of men as notable as themselves. The guests bobbed up and down in their chairs, trying to observe the great men of the conference.
A score of Gardes Municipaux circulated among the crowd for a very good reason: they were instructed to keep a watch on the pens and ink-wells in the hall, and to prevent these articles being pilfered by souvenir-hunters.
At about 2.30 o'clock M. Clemenceau entered the room and looked about him to see that all arrangements were in perfect order. He observed a group of wounded, with their medals of valour on their breasts, in the embrasure of a window, and, walking up to them, engaged them in conversation.
At 2.45 o'clock he moved up to the middle table and took the seat of the presiding officer. It was a singular fact that he sat almost immediately under the ceiling decoration that bears the legend "Le roi gouverne par lui-meme," in other words, almost on the exact spot where William I of Prussia stood when he was proclaimed German Emperor in 1871.
President Wilson entered almost immediately after M. Clemenceau and was saluted with discreet applause. The German delegation entered by way of the Hall of Peace and slipped almost unnoticed into its seats at this end of the hall. It was led by Herr Mueller, a tall man with a scrubby little moustache, wearing black, with a short black tie over his white shirt front. The Germans bowed and seated themselves.
At 3.15 o'clock M. Clemenceau rose and announced briefly that the session was opened - "La seance est ouverte." He then spoke briefly in French as follows:
An agreement has been reached upon the conditions of the treaty of peace between the allied and associated powers and the German empire.
The text has been verified; the president of the conference has certified in writing that the text about to be signed conforms to the text of the 200 copies which have been sent to Messieurs the German delegates.
The signatures about to be given constitute an irrevocable engagement to carry out loyally and faithfully in their entirety all the conditions that have been decided upon.
I therefore have the honour of asking Messieurs the German plenipotentiaries to approach to affix their signatures to the treaty before me.
M. Clemenceau ceased and sat down, and Herr Mueller rose as if to proceed to the table. He was interrupted, however, by Lieutenant Mantoux, official interpreter of the conference, who began to translate M. Clemenceau's words into German.
In his first sentence, when Lieutenant Mantoux reached the words "the German empire," or, as M. Clemenceau had said in French: "l'empire allemand," he translated it "the German republic." M. Clemenceau promptly whispered, "Say German Reich," this being the term consistently used by the Germans.
M. Dutasta then led the way for five Germans - two plenipotentiaries and three secretaries - and they passed to the table, where two of them signed their names. Mueller came first, and then Bell, virtually unknown men, performing the final act of abasement and submission for the German people - an act to which they had been condemned by the arrogance and pride of Prussian Junkers, German militarists, imperialists, and industrial barons, not one of whom was present when this great scene was enacted.
The delegation from the United States was the first to be called up after the Germans. President Wilson rose, and as he began his walk to the historic table, followed in order by Secretary Lansing, Colonel House, General Bliss, and Mr. White, other delegates stretched out their hands to congratulate him.
He came forward with a broad smile, and signed his name at the spot indicated by M. William Martin, director of the protocol. Mr. Lloyd George followed the American delegation, together with Mr. Balfour, Lord Milner, Mr. Bonar Law, and Mr. Barnes; and when these five men had signed, the delegates from the British dominions followed, a notable array of men representing the greatest power the world has ever seen.
Then came the delegation of the French Republic, in order, Messieurs Clemenceau, Pichon, Klotz, Tardieu, and Cambon, the president of the council signing his name without seating himself.
Then came the delegations of Italy, Japan, and Belgium. At 3.50 o'clock all signatures had been completed, and the president of the conference announced:
Messieurs, all the signatures have been given. The signature of the conditions of peace between the Allied and Associated powers and the German Republic is an accomplished fact. The session is adjourned.
The official protocol verifies the fact that M. Clemenceau used the word "republic" in his final statement.
Immediately afterward the great guns began to boom from the battery near the orangerie. The delegates rose and congratulated one another. The notables streamed out of the palace to join the crowd, which had begun shouting in wild enthusiasm with the first sound of the guns.
The great fountains of the park were turned on, and the water marvels of Lenotre began to play in the mellow sunshine throughout one of the most impressive playgrounds of the world.
The Germans were the first to leave the Hall of Mirrors, passing out alone, and immediately taking their automobiles for the hotel. A short time later M. Clemenceau invited President Wilson and Mr. Lloyd George to view the fountains with him.
The moment that the three men appeared before the crowd a great wave of wildly cheering humanity rushed toward them. They locked arms, and preceded by a protecting guard of soldiers and attendants attempted to gain the terrace above the fountain of Latona, in order to look over the broad expanse of the tapis vert to the vista of canals and woods beyond.
Even here the crowd pushed forward; men slapped them on the back in their exuberance, strangers shouted hoarse greetings into their ears, and it was a most fortunate and remarkable fact that they returned to the palace in safety. They then went to the salon of the old senate, where they met Baron Sonnino and later Baron Makino, and indulged in the beverage of the conference - tea.
After signing the treaty of peace the German plenipotentiaries gave the following statement to the United Press:
We have signed the treaty without any mental reservation. What we have signed we will carry out. The German people will compel those in power to hold to and conform to the clauses. But we believe that the Entente in its own interest will consider it necessary to modify some articles when it becomes aware that the execution of these articles is impossible.
We believe that the Entente will not insist upon the delivery of the Kaiser and upon that of the high officers.
The central government has not aided any attack against Poland. Germany will make every effort to prove that she is worthy of entering the League of Nations.
For the rest of that day and night Versailles and Paris, throwing aside "le calme et la dignite," gave themselves up to a delirium of joy, a revel that came as the logical reaction to five years of pent-up grief and suffering.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VII, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
A 'Tracer' was a phosphorescent machine-gun bullet which glowed in flight, indicating course as an aid to artillery.
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