In December 1916 a new cabinet assumes power in Great Britain. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who has led the government since 1908, is replaced by David Lloyd George, and Arthur Balfour replaces Sir Edward Grey as Foreign Minister. Germany, in diplomatic notes and in a speech in the Reichstag by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, offers to open negotiations with the Entente in a neutral country. A few days later President Wilson sends notes to the belligerent nations asking for their views regarding terms on which the war might be ended. Germany responds by repeating its offer to negotiate, but refuses to state its terms. The Allies have not yet replied to the American notes, but reject the German offer as a “sham.” On the Western Front, French forces at Verdun attack the besieging Germans and push them back to positions near the lines from which they began the siege in February. In the Balkans, German troops occupy Bucharest. Grigori Rasputin, the influential mystic and religious adviser to the Tsar’s family, is murdered in Petrograd. In Greece a civil war rages between the king and his government.
A new coalition government has taken power in Great Britain. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had formed a War Committee that included Secretary of State for War David Lloyd George and First Lord of the Admiralty Arthur Balfour. When Lloyd George insisted, with Balfour’s support, on the chairmanship of the Committee, Asquith forced the issue by demanding the resignation of his cabinet with the objective of forming a new government. Instead, Asquith himself was forced to resign and a new government was formed with Lloyd George as Prime Minister. Balfour is the new Foreign Minister, replacing Sir Edward Grey, now raised to the peerage as Viscount Grey of Fallodon. Sir Edward Carson, previously Leader of the Opposition, has joined the government as First Lord of the Admiralty. The new Prime Minister has appointed a War Cabinet to make decisions on important matters relating to the conduct of the war. The members are Lord Curzon of Kedleston, Lord President of the Council; Andrew Bonar Law, Chancellor of the Exchequer; Arthur Henderson, the Leader of the Labour Party; and Alfred Milner, 1st Viscount Milner. Lord Milner, who was the Governor of Cape Colony and High Commissioner for South Africa during the Boer War, has been added to the War Cabinet to take advantage of his experience in leading a civil government during wartime.
German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg rose in a special session of the Reichstag on December 12 to announce that Germany was offering to negotiate an end to the war. Simultaneous notes were delivered to ambassadors representing neutral powers, including the United States, for transmission to Germany’s enemies. They make no specific proposals, but simply offer “to enter forthwith into peace negotiations.” Germany is willing to do so, the notes say, “[i]n spite of our consciousness of our military and economic strength and our readiness to continue the war (which has been forced upon us) to the bitter end, if necessary.” They say “Germany and her allies … gave proof of their unconquerable strength,” gaining “gigantic advantages over our adversaries superior in number and war material.” Germany and its allies “have been obliged to take up arms to defend justice and the liberty of national evolution.” If their peace proposal is rejected, they “are resolved to continue to a victorious end, but they disclaim responsibility for this before humanity and history.” Addressing German troops the next day, the Kaiser assured them that he was proposing negotiations only because “we are the absolute conquerors.”
On December 30 the Entente nations rejected the German proposal as a “sham.” Their joint note stated that, unless the German government is willing to furnish a statement of peace terms, its note must be regarded not as a serious proposal but as a “war manoeuvre.” They said they “are determined never to sheath the sword until the military domination of Prussia is wholly and finally destroyed.”
The week after the German peace proposal, President Wilson made his own attempt to start peace negotiations. In a note dated December 18 and delivered to the warring nations on December 20, he asked them to state their “respective views as to the terms on which the war might be concluded,” and stated that he was willing “to serve, or even to take the initiative in its accomplishment, in any way that might prove acceptable, but he has no desire to determine the method or the instrumentality … if only the great object he has in mind be attained.” The President “takes the liberty of calling attention to the fact that the objects, which the statesmen of the belligerents on both sides have in mind in this war, are virtually the same, as stated in general terms to their own people and to the world.” He says he “is not proposing peace; he is not even offering mediation. He is merely proposing that soundings be taken in order that we may learn, the neutral nations with the belligerent, how near the haven of peace may be for which all mankind longs with an intense and increasing longing.” Recognizing that the Central Powers had made their own proposal for a peace conference only a few days earlier, the American notes include a statement that the president’s suggestion is one he “has long had it in mind to offer” and that he is “somewhat embarrassed to offer it at this particular time because it may seem to have been prompted by a desire to play a part in connection with the recent overtures by the Central Powers.” Nevertheless, it was “in no way suggested by them in its origin.”
The morning after the American note was released to the press, Secretary of State Lansing issued a surprisingly clumsy statement to the press. He said the note had been sent because “more and more our own rights are becoming involved” and “we are drawing nearer the verge of war ourselves, and therefore we are entitled to know exactly what each belligerent seeks, in order that we may regulate our conduct in the future.” That afternoon, after hearing from the President, Lansing issued a clarification. He said “I have learned from several quarters that a wrong impression was made by a statement which I made this morning … I did not intend to intimate that the Government was considering any change in its policy of neutrality.” The second statement was released in time for both statements to appear in the same edition of American newspapers.
At year’s end, the Entente nations have not yet replied to President Wilson’s request. Germany issued a brief reply on December 26, in which it evaded the request for a statement of war aims, instead repeating its proposal for a conference “of the belligerent states at a neutral location,” pointedly excluding neutrals such as the United States. In case the point was missed, the note went on to say that Germany would “be ready with pleasure to collaborate entirely with the United States” in the “exalted” task of preventing future wars, but “only after the end of the present struggle of the nations.”
On December 12 General Robert Nivelle, commander of the French forces at Verdun, replaced General Joseph Joffre as Commander-in-Chief of all French armies on the Western Front. Three days later, the French mounted an attack on the German forces encircling Verdun and pushed them back almost to the lines they had occupied before beginning the siege ten months ago. The French captured over 11,000 German soldiers and 115 heavy guns. On December 26, General Joffre retired and was made a Marshal of France.
Although Germany suffered extensive losses during 1916, particularly at the Somme and Verdun, its boast of military success is not entirely without foundation. Despite massive attacks by the Entente, the Germans have lost little territory and their casualty counts have been largely matched by those of the Allies. In the Balkans, Romania’s entry into the war has been a failure, as German forces commanded by General August von Mackensen inflicted a series of defeats on the Romanian Army. On December 6 German troops marched into Bucharest, led by Mackensen on a white horse. The German Army now occupies five enemy capitals: Bucharest, Brussels, Warsaw, Belgrade and Cetinje.
The session of the Russian Duma that began last month ended on December 29, a day before its scheduled adjournment. The session began with a violent attack on the government by Professor Pavel Miliukov, leader of the Constitutional Democrat (Kadet) Party, followed by sensational disclosures in speeches by Vladimir Purishkevich and others, charging that Prime Minister Boris Sturmer and Grigori Rasputin, a monk with close ties to the Royal Family and a reputation for sexual and gastronomic excess, were responsible for “dark forces fighting for Germany and attempting to destroy popular unity.” Late that night, Rasputin was the victim of a murder plot conceived and carried out by Purishkevich and others at the highest levels of the Russian nobility. Prince Felix Yusupov lured Rasputin to his palace where he was joined by Purishkevich, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, and possibly others. The conspirators fed Rasputin cakes and wine laced with large quantities of potassium cyanide and, when those appeared to have no effect, shot him multiple times and threw his body from a bridge into the freezing Nevka River.
The dispute between the Greek King Constantine and Prime Minister Venizelos has flared into open warfare, On December 7, pro-Entente forces led by the Prime Minister set up a provisional government in Salonika and declared war on Germany and Bulgaria. Forces loyal to the the King, who wants Greece to remain neutral, defeated an attempt by Venizelos forces to take control of Athens.
December 1916 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
American Review of Reviews, January and February 1917
New York Times, December 1916 and January 1917
Books and Articles:
Scott Berg, Wilson
Britain at War Magazine, The Third Year of the Great War: 1916
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
Patrick Devlin, Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson’s Neutrality
John Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson’s War
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922
Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life
Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume One: 1900-1933
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume III: The Challenge of War, 1914-1916
Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, Decisions for War, 1914-1917
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson’s Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
Paul Jankowski, Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War
Keith Jeffery, 1916: A Global History
Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography
John Keegan, The First World War
David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War
Arthur S. Link, Wilson: Confusions and Crises, 1915-1916
Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, The Somme
Merlo J. Pusey, Charles Evans Hughes
Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
The West Point Atlas of War: World War I
The following is reprinted from the Centennial Countdown to the Great War blog published by Dennis Cross. Read the original post and access an archive of previous posts at: