During the old unit’s first Afghanistan tour, we kept capturing, or having surrendered to us, caches of the most remarkable armaments. It didn’t take too long to figure out that there was a pattern to these things. Everything surrendered to us was either monumentally obsolete, or something for which ammunition was in constrained supply.
In other words, the local warlords (and war vassals) were fobbing us off with impressive quantities of armaments that were of no practical use to them anyway, and that were nothing but a storage problem and an “attractive nuisance,” in legal terms, that brought in thieves. All while ingratiating themselves with the new invaders, while there was still money to be made off of them. Sure, we got the occasional MANPADS or AK, but mostly, we got stuff that was granddad’s age.
And he was already dead.
But still, we marveled at all the weird weapons, many of them from the period between the end of the Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919) and the Second World War (1939). Everything from Renault FT tanks to Italian artillery to Czech ZB-26s and the bolt action rifles made everywhere from Iberia to Izhevsk showed up in our cache hauls.
And one had to ask: who was running Afghanistan’s weapons procurement in the 1920s and 1930s, Mad King Ludwig? It turns out, though, that the answer was committed to paper long ago, and by a most unlikely source: the British Conservative diplomat, Sir Samuel Hoare, Viscount Templewood. Templewood, whose contemporaries saw him as a “cold fish” in person, wrote several delightful books, including a memoir of his time as a senior diplomat from 1931 to 1940, Nine Troubled Years. In it, on pp. 123-125, he reprints a letter he wrote (in his capacity as Secretary of State for India) to then-PM Ramsay McDonald, in 1932, from the League of Nations Disarmament Conference in Geneva.
I got back from Geneva last night, very glad to have escaped from its curiously artificial and neurotic atmosphere. ….
After a short interval we all … adjourned to the Bâtiment Electoral, the grim hall in which the Disarmament Conference was to take place. …there are few more dismal buildings in Europe.
He went on at some length about the dreariness of the surroundings, and the mind-numbing boredom of the proceedings, which led to the diplomats present tuning out the droning speakers. Or bailing out of the conference completely.
Finding the proceedings very tedious, I interested myself in looking at my fellow delegates. On my left…we were seated alphabetically and I, being “India,” was with the I’s, was the representative of the Hedjaz, dressed as an Arab sheik. He was the only delegate in fancy dress.
In the front row were the Afghans. We asked the Afghans why, Afghanistan not being a member of the League [of Nations], they had come to the Disarmament Conference.
They told that they were short of arms, and that they thought that at a Disarmament Conference there would be a chance of picking up second-hand munitions cheap.
Those short paragraphs not only explain the presence of the output of what seems like all the member-states of the short-lived League in the caves and storerooms of rural ‘Stan, but many more things besides.
- Isn’t it just like an Afghan to attend a Disarmament Conference looking not to disarm, but to arm? Unless there was a Swiss Confederation or USA representative, the nations of the 1932 League of Nations Disarmament conference are gone, but this trait of the Afghan race abides.
- The Afghans obviously succeeded in their objective, even though the Disarmament Conference was a microcosm of the League of Nations (and its UN successor) in that it was a failure at promoting peace. Our stacks of Enfields, Mausers, and DP-26s tell the tale.
- Templewood goes on to note that the Russian delegation includes Litvinov and Karl Radek, perhaps explaining those prewar Mosins, DPs, etc.
- Finally, note that the nations that put their trust in diplomacy in general and the League of Nations in particular did not come out well. Ethiopia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Baltic States would all go down the tubes as the diplomats in the talking-shop complained about the insufficiently palatial palaces in which they held their useless meetings.
The failure of the League is not only evident now, it was evident then, even to some of those immersed in it. The three contemporary cartoons (two by (David?) Low) that accompany this post demonstrate that somebody had a pretty good grasp on the utility and consequences of diplomacy and the League. But it’s not there for utility; it’s a salve to the egos of the players.
(Note: Apologies for a bit of post lag today. We’re running about two behind after some technical entanglements yesterday we’re still sorting out –Ed.)