The Founding of the Supreme War Council in World War I

Only a few nations fought World War I singly, outside of formal alliances. Mostly, empires and coalitions of countries fought on behalf of their partners against members of rival alliances. From Europe to remote corners of empires the global war created the need for coordination across governments, and across continents. By fall 1917 the year’s poor military results necessitated greater cooperation between the Allied coalition of more than 15 nations. Failed Allied offensives and waning Russian support left the Allies pessimistic. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, disappointed in his Western Front commanders, favored a higher unified Allied command structure to circumvent them and open operations elsewhere. At the same time, French Prime Minister Paul Painlevé favored a more centralized command and civilian influence. On the other end of the spectrum, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), relatively small and new to the conflict, wanted to avoid commitment and politics, while fostering its distinct identity.

To achieve a more unified coalition, Lloyd George proposed formation of an Allied council of direction for the war on October 30, 1917. He and Painlevé sought, and received Italian support for it at the Rapallo Conference on November 7th. The AEF commander Gen. John J. Pershing, invited at short notice, demurred attending. With Americans absent, the British, French, and Italians signed the Rapallo Agreement that established the Supreme War Council (SWC). The council, which consisted of three permanent military representatives and their staffs, would be installed at Versailles. Their major role would be to review, integrate, and advise on Allied plans and enemy intelligence. The council would sit at least monthly and admit advice from lower commanders, however, Russia and Belgium were excluded.

The United States had entered the war late. It developed its own war aims, strategy, and approach, and was reticent to become intimately entangled with the other Allied nations in ways that might limit American military control and decision-making. Pershing’s orders in spring 1917 were clear—to harmonize with the Allies while keeping the AEF distinct. President Woodrow Wilson, Secretary of War Newton Baker, and Secretary of State Robert Lansing also remained aligned on the role of the United States—maintain a level of independent authority while contributing to the greater Allied effort. While the SWC was being founded, a high level American delegation in Britain continued to stress close cooperation without participation in the new war council. Despite these efforts, this separation the Americans fought to preserve would be altered soon after the establishment of the SWC.

While the SWC did not establish Allied “warlords,” many opposition politicians viewed the SWC as a purely “political agreement”.  Together with bad war news, it toppled Painlevé, and threatened Lloyd George’s government. Clause four of the Rapallo agreement caused the problem. “The general war plans drawn up by the competent military authorities are submitted to the Supreme War Council, which, under the high authority of the Governments, ensures their concordance, and submits, if need be, any necessary changes.” To many this seemed to leave the door open for political influence on strategy.

Lloyd George urgently sought American support to underscore the SWC as a non-political military body. He requested that American Chief of Staff Gen. Tasker Bliss sit on the council. Believing that Bliss would protect American interest, Wilson approved, declaring “…we not only approve a continuance of the plan for a war council but insist on it.”

American support of the SWC and appointment of Bliss reduced opposition to the council. In effect American representation on the SWC minimized political aspects of deep involvement in coalition warfare. At first Bliss played more of an observer role, awaiting the arrival of more American forces. Later, he participated in discussions for keeping the AEF a distinct force, and intervention in Russia. The United States avoided non-military work on the council whenever possible. By resisting early discussions of postwar aims, Bliss left room for Wilson and his advisors to develop their own aims without upsetting the war effort.

While the SWC began in rocky circumstances the body eventually took on more of a role in planning campaigns. It served as a formal forum to work out inter-Allied differences. While the council became a sometimes tumultuous setting for discussing terms for an armistice, and eventually for peace, it paved the way for coalition warfare later in the 20th century.