CHAPTER XI: ROME, 1915-1916
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Latest revision as of 05:47, 25 October 2008
A British Military Mission under Brigadier-General Delmé Radcliffe, the former military attaché at Rome, was sent to the Italian headquarters with an intelligence section under Colonel Vivian Gabriel. The other Allies were represented by their actual military attachés in Italy. I received through the Foreign Office a memorandum drawn up by the War Office, defining the functions of the Military Mission and the correlative position of the military attaché. Its terms seemed quite satisfactory, and if properly observed they should have ensured general co-ordination with the Embassy at Rome. Unfortunately during the war there seems to have been a disposition in departments at home to shut themselves up like watertight compartments, and not always to remember that in a national cause all were members one of the other. This disposition was in certain cases reflected in their agents abroad. It is perhaps unnecessary to elaborate this point further, but I cannot do otherwise than insist that a tendency, which was, I gather, not peculiar to my experience, on the part of the Military Missions to act rather in rivalry and competition than in co-operation with the diplomatic establishment was much to be regretted, not only on the grounds of expediency but on account of the impression it produced in the country where they were stationed.
The Italian campaign opened successfully, and the first few weeks showed steady advances along a very extended line. Unfortunately, it seemed to be destined that advantages gained by the Allies in one sector should always be counterbalanced by unsuccess in another. The Italians had reckoned on a considerable proportion of the Austro-Hungarian Army being permanently engaged in stemming the Russian advance. But they had not long taken the field when that demoralizing deficiency of armament and ammunition became apparent, which rendered inevitable the Russian withdrawal from Galicia. Serbia also, after her magnificent resistance and counteroffensive, had become immobilized. The relaxation of effort on the South-eastern front put an unexpected strain on Italian resources, and gave direct encouragement to the anti-war party.
1 was asked about this time by an ex-deputy of my acquaintance whether I would receive a gentleman who had a communication to make to me on behalf of the dispossessed Khedive, Abbas Hilmi. The individual in question, who was also a former member of the Italian Parliament, had, as I afterwards learned, been the subject of criticism for his connection with certain unsuccessful business affairs before my arrival in Italy. But his name, Cavallini, did not then arouse my suspicions, and there appeared to be no reason for declining to see an individual who was described to me as the ex-Khedive's man of business. The story which was unfolded to me was that Abbas Hilmi, whose life had been attempted in Constantinople, was unnerved and thoroughly tired of his association with the Young Turks. He was anxious to escape from the meshes in which he was entangled, recognizing the mistakes which he had made, and desired to lead a retired life, his only interest being now the education of his son. He sought permission to live in the country in England, under such supervision as the authorities might impose, and to send his son to school there. As our personal relations in Egypt had always been friendly, he addressed himself thus vicariously to me in the hope that I would obtain the sanction of the Government. I could of course do no more than refer the proposal to the proper quarter. Kitchener, whose connection with Egypt was regarded as only temporarily severed while he held the post of War Minister, was of opinion that the presence of the ex-Khedive in England during the war would not be advisable, and might be misunderstood by the new régime which had been established at Cairo. So the matter went no further. I took occasion to mention the visit of Cavallini and its ostensible object to the Italian Foreign Department. Personally I then rather inclined to the opinion that it might have been wise to eliminate a possible focus of intrigue by acceding to the proposal. Some two years later, when Cavallini was placed under arrest on a charge of intriguing with the enemy, and his alleged relations with Caillaux were engaging public attention, I began to wonder whether he had had any object in view in making contact with me, ostensibly as an emissary of the ex-Khedive. He was certainly not acting from pure philanthropy. But probably his mission was simply a business affair. In the course of the trial which, like several others initiated about the same time, terminated inconclusively, I was invited to give evidence as to what I knew about Cavallini. I declined to appear in court, but furnished the Bench through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a statement regarding the occasion of his visit.
As soon as Italy became our ally, Sonnino returned with insistence to the urgency of dealing with the Balkan situation and of preventing the gravitation of Bulgaria to the enemy. The typical Macedonian partisan who had represented that country in Rome and who latterly had seemed to live in Bülow's pocket, had been appropriately transferred to Berlin, and a more frank exchange of views was facilitated by the arrival soon afterwards of the sympathetic M. Stancioff. Meanwhile the illusive Ghenadieff, who was playing an independent hand, had also been to see me, and had given me some idea of the terms which his followers would consider acceptable, or sufficiently tempting. The sympathies of the contriving Coburg Prince, whose astuteness had enabled him to weather many internal crises, were obviously not with the Allies. During the second phase of the Balkan War he seems to have entered into a secret understanding with Vienna, and though there was some suspicion that he had already made advances to Berlin and Vienna, I had no definite information on the subject. In any case, it did not follow that he would carry the country with him, and his previous record justified a presumption that he would not have committed himself irretrievably so long as any doubt remained with which side it would best serve his ambition to be identified. Bulgaria naturally saw in the actual situation her opportunity to redress the heavy adverse balance of the Balkan War. Co-operation with the Allies in an attack on the Turkish Empire offered a prospect of recovering her commanding position in the peninsula. On the other hand, the value of Bulgarian support to the Allies was so obvious that her demands were not likely to be modest. Her principal object was to secure the reversion of what was represented to be Bulgarian Macedonia. A more extended seaboard on the Aegean was also contemplated, and Kavalla with the rich tobacco-producing areas in the hinterland was a coveted aim. Such advantages could only be realized by ample concessions from the rival states which were in actual possession. A mere promise of sympathetic consideration for such claims in an eventual settlement had no value for the practical Balkan mind. A definite guarantee from the Allies regarding Macedonia might up to a certain date have had its effect in Bulgaria. But none of her neighbours were going to offer her any concessions spontaneously, and, even though it might present the only road of safety, it was difficult to urge upon Serbia when, after bearing the brunt of the attack, she was in an isolated and critical position, any surrender which appeared to her to involve the national honour.
Sonnino throughout adopted a practical and unsentimental line. He was convinced that we ought to concentrate all our efforts on attracting Bulgaria, even at the risk of alienating other Balkan states. The presumption that he anticipated an eventual conflict of claims between Italy and the southern Slavs does not impugn the logical force of his argument. It was clear that we could not satisfy every one. He held that a huckstering policy of offering a little here and a little there was a mistake. You would never get to the end of certain appetites. In seeking to preserve the goodwill of all you would succeed with none, while you would meanwhile have given a prescriptive recognition to titles which it would be more valuable to keep in hand for future negotiations. Ministers whose position made it impossible for them to make any advances to Bulgaria might, he argued, nevertheless not be unprepared to have their hands forced. In any case, he held that Italy had pledged herself to the maintenance of a Mussulman State in Albania, and could not go back on that engagement.
In all these negotiations the Allies laboured under a great disadvantage, because it was necessary to bring into line four great Powers, each of which had its own prejudices and predispositions, whereas the enemy, after the entry of Italy into the war, seemed to act under a single direction and initiative. Looking back on the discussions which continued throughout the summer and into the autumn, I cannot but think that had the Allies rejected all sentimental considerations, the chance was at one time open to them of securing the co-operation of Bulgaria. But we left her far too long without any definite decision, and in the meantime Roumania, who was not likely to move until the Russian offensive had been resumed, obtained the promise, conditionally on her joining the Allies, of practically all she demanded. Of course in the main it is success in arms which tells at such a moment, and we were not able, with the suspense of Russian activity and the deadlock in the Dardanelles, to show a credit balance. In the end the inevitable took place: while we were still striving to reconcile the irreconcilable, the Bulgarians, whose uncertain attitude had kept a considerable portion of the Serbian Army in observation, overran Macedonia, and the enemy then delivered a crushing blow to a country no longer able to resist.
Even after we had bombarded Dedeagach and punished the treachery of stabbing Serbia in the back, Sonnino expressed the opinion that it might still be possible to come to terms with the Bulgarians, who had achieved one of their principal objects, and thus to redress the balance so hopelessly against us in the Balkans. There were, he claimed, indications that they would even then have been ready to come to terms. Sentimental reasons were obviously opposed to such an idea. But Russia was inclined to make the King rather than the Bulgarian people responsible for what had taken place, and experience had shown that the latter found no difficulty in fighting against their friends of yesterday and allying themselves with their enemies of the day before. If Bulgaria could still at that late hour be drawn away from the enemy camp, it would liberate us from any future anxiety for Salonika, which the Allies had impulsively occupied in the hope of saving Serbia: it would relieve the position at the Dardanelles, and produce a considerable effect in Greece and Roumania. Sonnino's diplomacy was in any case logical and consistent. But in putting these views before me he said he should refrain from raising the question himself. He had received the impression that his motives, in insisting on the necessity for conciliating Bulgaria, were arousing suspicion elsewhere.
Such a brief retrospective glance at the Balkan imbroglio in 1915 conveys little idea of the immense correspondence for which it was responsible. Another matter which tended to complicate the inter-allied position was the fact that Italy had not declared war upon Germany or Turkey. She had indeed, on joining the Entente, acceded to the declaration of September 1914. But for reasons of internal policy her accession had at the time been kept secret. The explanation of much which seemed to our people difficult at the time to understand lay in the false Parliamentary situation prevailing in the country. Had it been possible immediately after May 1915 to have had a dissolution and an appeal to the country, the course of the Ministry would no doubt have been smoother. But in spite of the almost unanimous support they had received under the exceptional conditions accompanying Salandra's recall to office, they were conscious that they had not a really secure majority in a Chamber where a latent opposition might always raise its head again. There were, moreover, those influential social and financial elements to which I have already referred, who were more disposed to dwell upon the inducements which might be offered for abandoning the war, than to make sacrifices for maintaining it. After the ultimate triumph of the Allies many who made little secret of their sentiments at the time have been anxious to draw a veil over the part they then played. But those who remember the contrast which it offered to the fine spirit of the Italian people as a whole are not so likely to forget. Having in mind the gravity of the crisis which had been surmounted in May, I was less anxious than my French colleague to press for the declaration of war on Germany at this moment. Sonnino, who was I believe from the first in favour of it, had difficulty with some of his colleagues, who were perhaps unduly apprehensive of the attitude of Parliament, and who held that until they could break their way through the defences of the Isonzo, it was to their advantage not to incite the Germans to concentrate special attention on Italy. I had every confidence that Sonnino would carry his point in time, but for the moment he argued that they were actually fighting against Germans in the Trentino, that all relations between the countries had long ceased, and that there was more to be gained by consolidating the position of the Government, which a strong faction was trying to upset, than by a formal declaration of war which would not really alter the situation. He thought it much more urgent to break definitively with Turkey, and took his measures to prepare public opinion, so that he was enabled in September to declare war against the Ottoman Empire without arousing any particular comment. Though I did not seek to force Sonnino's hand so long as I understood that he had difficulties with his colleagues, I warmly supported the French Ambassador in urging more active co-operation in the Balkans when Serbia was very hard pressed. It would, I represented, help to dissipate misunderstandings which the undefined position with Germany made inevitable. Sonnino agreed, but said he would be perfectly candid with me. If Germany would take the initiative, no one would welcome more cordially than he this way of terminating the abnormal position. But there were too many people in Italy disposed to be---he used an English word though speaking in Italian---hysterical, and it was useless to scare them unnecessarily. When you were substantially at war it made little difference whether you were technically so.
The chief disadvantage arising from this condition of affairs was a certain withholding of confidence, due to a feeling among some of the Powers that Italy was as yet only half-involved in the European struggle and was fighting her own battle rather in association than in complete co-operation with the Allies. I could realize that this attitude was a consequence of the internal situation, and would be remedied as soon as Sonnino could convince his colleagues. In the meantime it seemed to me both politic and just to have due consideration for statesmen who, in spite of so many adverse conditions, had taken the great decision, and who had their own difficulties to overcome at home. On the other hand, discussions had been initiated between London, Paris and St. Petersburg with regard to the ultimate fate of the Turkish Empire, with which the rest of the Allies had been fighting for nearly a year before Italy entered into the war, and a general understanding was reached without the new ally having been consulted. Sight was not lost of the eventual claims which Italy would be entitled to advance under the Pact of London. But the disposition prevailed to reserve complete confidence until a somewhat anomalous position had been cleared up. This was unfortunate, as the conditions contemplated were bound to become known sooner or later. Sonnino had indeed assumed that these problems were engaging attention, and had addressed a question on the subject to Paris which received a negative answer. The situation thus created presented one of the most troublesome problems with which I had to deal, and it led to graver complications later on when the claims of Italy came to be discussed. Sonnino argued that he had allowed himself to be persuaded only to raise the matter generally at the time when Italy threw over the Triple Alliance and joined us, but that he did so in perfect confidence that there would be no settlement of these issues without due consultation.
As regards dispatching troops to other sectors, the difficulty for the Italians was that while they had plenty of men in training they had as yet no complete military formations available to send abroad, beyond the contingent in Albania. Owing to the geographical conditions on the Alpine frontier with its long diverging valleys separated by impassable ridges, each of which required its own service of communications and supplies, the line which had to be occupied was far longer than a cursory glance at the map would suggest. It extended over more than 600 kilometres (375 miles) or 800 if some vigilance were also to be maintained on the Swiss frontier. The King of Italy told me that owing to the length of this line, of which only about 100 kilometres were really impenetrable, it had been necessary in the summer of 1916 to keep men in the front line trenches for 114 days on end, because there were no others available to relieve them. Men were, however, found for Salonika, where the contingent was kept up to its full strength. The Italian force, moreover, which eventually fought on the Western front almost counterbalanced numerically the British and French divisions sent to Italy after the disaster of Caporetto.
Looking back on my constant discussions during some four years with Sonnino, to whom I was personally sincerely attached, I have often wondered how the old-fashioned diplomatist, full of amour propre and punctilious about the rules of the game, would have got on with him. We generally began to talk in English. But after a short time he would relapse into Italian, only occasionally using a particular English phrase which had no precise Italian equivalent: "It is not fair," was one which continually recurred. He had a congenital habit of saying no in the first instance to most propositions submitted to him, and that on occasions with considerable emphasis. But with time and patience he generally came round to any proposal which was really reasonable. By nature the most courteous of men, he suffered from a certain temperamental irritability which he did his best to suppress, but which would at times break out. Occasionally, when he had something much at heart he would talk himself into a state of excitement which betrayed itself physically. Such outbursts were not directed against me personally, nor appreciably against my Government. But any suspicion, even if aroused by a process of autosuggestion, that Italy was not being treated exactly as were the other Allies, that she was being pressed to do what he regarded as beyond her powers, or that her point of view was not receiving due consideration at once affected his susceptibilities. From experience I learned to know when a storm was brewing. His face became very red under its white hair, and he would nervously pick up documents from his table and throw them down again. Then at last he would rise from his seat and walk once or twice agitatedly up and down the room. After the first manifestation of these symptoms, I always remained perfectly silent, and in a minute or two Sonnino would come back to his chair, saying in English: "I beg your pardon." Then we would resume the matter in hand. I liked him all the better for these outbursts, unusual in a ministerial study, which showed that he felt he knew me well enough to let himself go. They might have startled anyone less familiar with his moods.
In July, George Trevelyan, the historian, was in Rome with proposals for the organization of a British Ambulance unit at the Italian front. Precluded himself by age and medical unsoundness from more active military functions, he had decided that he could undertake no more useful service than cooperation of this nature in the Allied country, where he was already well known as an eminent historical authority on the Garibaldian epoch. The requirements of the Allies on the Western front in respect of ambulance and Red Cross service were now amply provided for. It was understood that in Italy there was as yet a lack of motor ambulances, and indeed the Minister for War, to whom I was requested to submit the proposal, received it most cordially. Mr. (now Sir) Walter Becker of Turin also offered to provide some cars at his own charges. A British Committee in aid of the Italian wounded had been instituted in London under the chairmanship of Mr. E. H. Gilpin, who was ready to devote the funds actually at his disposal to the same purpose. It was therefore not difficult to co-ordinate these several volunteer activities which were eventually associated under the aegis of the British Red Cross in equipping and maintaining the First British Red Cross Unit in Italy, to which a field hospital was also attached. George Trevelyan was placed in command of the capable personnel which had been recruited. It included several members of the Society of Friends, whose scruples against themselves engaging actively in warfare did not diminish their readiness to expose their own persons to all the perils of war. They had already done noble service at Ypres. Mr. Becker continued generously to contribute to the support of this British initiative throughout the campaign, and Lord Monson, the British Red Cross Commissioner for Italy, before long organized two additional units.
The first British cars, twenty-six in number, arrived in Italy in September, and were received with the warmest welcome. My old friend, Ernesto Nathan, formerly Syndic of Rome, the kindest and most genial of patriots, had, notwithstanding his seventy years, joined the Alpine troops as a sub-lieutenant. His strength was really not equal to military duties, and he was, appropriately enough in view of his long residence in England, delegated to look after the British visitors. From the time they settled down to their work until the end of the campaign, they remained continually with the front fighting line, where they paid their due toll in casualties to the ruthlessness of war. They earned enthusiastic commendation from the military authorities, whose reports I was allowed to see, and did excellent service to their own country by establishing relations of cordial sympathy with our Allies.
The field hospital which found quarters in an old villa not far from the fighting line was directed by Dr. Brook, who in younger days in South Africa had looked after the health of the Kruger family. He had been some twenty years in Rome, and if we were now deprived of his advice there his absence was a contribution to the common cause. The surgical section was in the capable hands of Sir Alexander Ogston and Dr. W. E. Thompson, who represented Canadian science. The Director of the British School in Rome, Dr. Thomas Ashby, suspended his archaeological activities in the capital to serve with the unit in an administrative capacity.
In the succeeding years other volunteer services were organized by British friends of Italy. Countess Helena Gleichen and Mrs. Hollings brought out and drove a radiographic car which circulated among the field hospitals and proved most valuable to the surgeons. Mrs. Watkins, with a devoted following of younger ladies, organized canteens at the rail heads near the Front, and earned the undying gratitude of many warm-hearted simple fellows who have carried back to their scattered homes a pleasant memory of helpful hands and kind English faces.
Our younger children found their way out to us for the summer holidays, but they could not remain in Rome, and went on to Naples, so that I saw very little of them. Towards the end of their holidays we were profoundly saddened by the announcement of the death of Charles Lister after he had been for the third time wounded at Gallipoli. Rome had been his first diplomatic post, and in the intimate summer life of Posillipo he had become like a member of the family. He was moreover the son of some of my oldest friends. Charles Lister struck me as probably the most remarkable of the younger generation with whom I had been in contact, and of the many who served on my staff none established stronger claim to my affection and regard. At Balliol his humanitarian instincts and a "passion for reforming the world" had made him a convinced Socialist. But he became before long equally convinced that the Socialists with whom he had had to do were moving on wrong lines. He was a keen scholar with a natural disposition to research, but at the same time an original thinker, conscientious in the performance of all duties and generous in every fibre. With a clumsy seat on a horse he was a fearless rider, who confessed to a divided mind as to whether the life of a fox-hunting squire or that of a college don attracted him most. Putting neither to the test, he became a diplomatist. I never quite understood how he had succeeded on the outbreak of war in cutting himself free from the liens of the public service when the spirit of the crusader moved him, like Rupert Brook, Patrick Shaw Stewart, and other brilliant contemporaries, to devote, their lives to the great adventure which cut them off in the flower of their youth. His elder brother, Tommy, less gifted no doubt but equally attractive in a different way, had fallen some ten years earlier, intercepted when carrying dispatches by the Mad Mullah's tribesmen in the Somali bush.
This was an intimate grief. When a month or so later we learned of the execution of Edith Cavell at Brussels, its tragic circumstance seemed once more almost to convey a sense of personal loss. It had been impossible to believe in the twentieth century in Europe that a death sentence even if passed would be carried out on a woman so eminently gentle, good, and kind, whose life had been devoted to alleviating suffering. The impression on the world was profound. I was crossing the Palatine, during the brief walk which I still endeavoured to make a daily habit, when one of the old guardians known to me for years came up and expressed his abhorrence of the deed. He conveyed the prevailing feelings of his class when he said: "We will avenge her."
I had been rather perplexed by the arrival in Rome, provided in some cases with letters from well-known people, of certain fellow-countrymen who were anxious to make wholesale purchases of rifles said to be in the market in Italy. There were, if I remember rightly, also one or two Americans interested in this affair. Those who called at the Embassy were emphatic in maintaining that there was no danger of these rifles passing to the enemy or to States of doubtful gravitation, and that their destination was a perfectly legitimate one. But what the precise destination was to be, these individuals, who appeared to be agents, were unable or unprepared to say. Discreet enquiries elicited the information that when the Italian Army rifle had been changed, certain speculators had obtained an option for the disposal of the discarded stocks. The Italian Government, however, intervened, and quashed any such option, after which the would-be purchasers withdrew. The rifles in question were in excellent condition, and though requiring a different cartridge to that used in the newer service rifle, would be valuable for the training of second-line troops. Nevertheless, in view of the urgent demand for rifles in Russia, the Italian Government agreed to transfer a certain number to the Allied Government, and we made ourselves responsible for conveying them to their destination. The strictest secrecy had of course to be maintained, and every hour of time gained was of importance. Our military representative at the Front showed characteristic energy in accelerating the packing and consignment, and the rapidity with which the work was carried out merited and received commendation. When it was already well in hand and some consignments were actually ready, a British Rear-Admiral, accompanied by an interpreter, arrived on the scene with instructions to superintend the packing of these rifles. He had, I hope, a pleasant visit to the most interesting of all cities. But had I had any warning of his visit, I could have saved him an unnecessary journey.
Many other instances came under my experience of the curious lack of inter-departmental co-ordination thus revealed. One morning in the autumn a military commission of medical officers under a major-general, who happened to be an old friend of mine, appeared at the Embassy and informed me that they were leaving again by an afternoon train for Sicily, where they proposed to establish a military hospital on a large scale for the wounded evacuated from the Dardanelles, as the resources of Malta no longer sufficed to take the large number of cases. They wanted facilities and accommodation in the train. But, I enquired---this being the first I had heard of the project---had the Italian Government agreed to the establishment of a British Military Hospital in Sicily? and through whom had they been approached? It then appeared that the Italian authorities had not been consulted at all. I explained that we were not in military occupation of the country, as we were of certain sectors in France and Belgium, and could only act in such matters by agreement and sanction. I was able to persuade them somewhat reluctantly to postpone their departure till the following day, which gave me time to place the proposal before the many hierarchies concerned, civil, military, and sanitary. As always on such occasions, the Italian Government were most liberal and expeditious in meeting our views, and instructions were at once sent to Palermo, where every assistance was given both in finding a site and in obtaining labour and material. Not twenty-four hours were lost, and everything was then placed upon a normal and friendly basis. With cordial co-operation from the Sicilian authorities the construction of hospital buildings on a large scale was carried out with great promptitude. Hotels which had no tourists to fill them were hired as convalescent stations, and all was on the point of readiness when the decision to withdraw from Gallipoli rendered vain this great expenditure of money, energy, and goodwill. The only consolation to be derived from the abandoned enterprise was that it had offered welcome employment to labour in an island which was feeling severely the loss of some of its best markets.
In October, O'Beirne, who had but recently gone to Sofia as Minister, passed through Rome travelling homeward again. If any personal influence could have retrieved a hopeless situation, no better representative to exercise it could have been found than poor O'Beirne, who was to lose his life with Kitchener a few months later. But it was too late. Sir Roger Keyes also arrived from the Dardanelles, and from him and from Admiral Hayes-Sadler, who came from Mudros, I heard the latest news of our position there.
Towards the end of that month it became evident that unless large supporting forces could be made available the resisting power of Serbia would shortly be at an end, and France was urging the dispatch of more troops to Salonika as a base for active operations. I have always carefully refrained in my profession from advancing opinions on matters not strictly arising out of my own immediate duties. But at this time I felt so strongly that there was only one sound course open to us if we were to save a situation which was rapidly becoming dangerous in the Near East, that I ventured in a private letter to the Secretary of State to express my convictions.
At the end of October 1915 everything pointed to a deadlock, except in one quarter. On the Western front it was established. Russia might develop new resources and come again, but not for some time. Probability pointed to the Germans settling down on lines in Russia or Russian Poland beyond which they would not endeavour to push. Italy had made good progress, especially in the Trentino, but the rugged nature of the country defied rapid advances, and winter was now not far away. We controlled the seas. The central empires were almost enclosed in the iron circle. Only in the south-east there was a break in the ring. It was now too late to save Serbia, and in view of the geographical position and practical isolation of Salonika, the force there was bound to be immobilized for a very long period. The dispatch of additional troops meant courting risks not commensurate with any advantages we were likely to secure. The Balkans would always remain a quicksand in which our energies would be engulfed. There was at that time nothing to be hoped from Greece or Bulgaria. Germany would inevitably make contact with Constantinople. The ring would be indefinitely enlarged. Turkey would obtain all the arms of which she stood in need, and the road would be open to Egypt and Asia. At some point we had now to close the ring. To me there seemed no doubt that point should be in Syria, probably at Alexandretta; precisely where was a question for the naval and military experts to decide. We were bound to hold Egypt, and the security of Egypt could best be guaranteed in Syria. There we should operate in a friendly country where there were apparently only two Turkish divisions. Any actual movement at that time of Allied forces would have been assumed to have Egypt or the Dardanelles for their destination, so that a landing in Syria might be effected as a surprise. The ring would of course be considerably enlarged ; but it would be effectively closed, and our prestige in the Mussulman world would have revived.
About a month later I heard from Kitchener's own lips that he held and had advocated precisely the same view. He regarded it as an alternative, and the right one to our immobilizing forces at Salonika.
On the evening of my fifty-seventh birthday, the 9th November, I was called to London to discuss certain matters. I started on the 10th, being anxious to lose no time, as I knew that my son, whom I had not seen for nearly two years, was at home on a week's leave which would expire on the 14th. I reached the Lyons station at Paris on the morning of the 12th with three-quarters of an hour in hand to catch the Boulogne train at the Nord. Bertie had sent his car, and fifteen minutes sufficed to cross Paris, so prospects looked bright. But on reaching Boulogne I found two steamers had just been sunk by mines off the entrance to the harbour. A gale was blowing and the mine-sweepers could not go out. There would therefore be no boat. The Commandant considered Calais offered the only chance. The next morning a messenger from Abbeville picked me up in his car and we went on to Calais. But no boat had come in there, and the state of the sea made it improbable that one would arrive. I waited till 4.30 in the afternoon, and then telephoned to the Foreign Office that I was detained in Calais, where three messengers from the Front were also held up. By eight o'clock the destroyer Cossack arrived to fetch us. There were thirty-five officers waiting for a last chance of leave, and Lieutenant McGee, who was in command, was ready to give them a lift if I would agree, which of course I was delighted to do. In forty-five minutes we were at Dover, and I reached London at midnight. My son was still at Cavendish Square, but had to leave the following afternoon.
Four busy days in London were soon over. I lunched with the Prime Minister, discussed my business with Grey and Nicholson at the Foreign Office, and was received by the King, who was recovering from his accident at the French front. A good deal of my time was spent with Robin Benson and some of his friends in the city, whose interest he was enlisting in a banking scheme which I had much at heart for the facilitation of British enterprise and investment in Italy, where a sound and independent economic intermediary was much needed. After much energetic pioneer work, Benson and his friends succeeded in establishing a very strong combination between most of the leading banks of the United Kingdom. But the directors demanded a guarantee over a limited number of years, and this appeared for a time to present an insurmountable obstacle. Thanks, however, to the warm support given to the scheme by Mr. Runciman at the Board of Trade, the Treasury was, mirabile dictu, induced to guarantee for five years a return of 5 per cent on the capital. And thus the British-Italian Corporation was inaugurated. After the conclusion of peace it was found desirable to modify the character of the Corporation, which ceased to contemplate commercial enterprise, and has restricted its operations to pure banking business. Independent now of any guarantee, it has found a wide and ever-increasing field of activity. Sound methods of business and a very powerful financial backing have inspired general confidence in Italy in an institution which remains one of the permanent assets of the war.
This brief visit to London, where I had not been for nearly two years, was I think rather depressing than encouraging to me. That wonderful national solidarity in concerted effort and sacrifice which inspired the whole British nation when once they realized the real gravity of the crisis had not yet fully manifested itself, and people seemed to me not to have emancipated themselves from old habits of thought or to have risen above political animosities to the greatness of the times. In political quarters I heard much criticism of Kitchener, whose position seemed to be quite undermined. The thought of that solitary self-concentrated figure in his isolation depressed me. It may well have been that his work was done, and that the old habit of reserve and long reflection and reluctance to delegate authority were not compatible with the urgency of new conditions. But for me he still remained the man of vision, whose call to his countrymen on the outbreak of war found a response which no other voice could have evoked. I have heard it said since that had he not made the appeal some one else would no doubt have done so. That may be true. But at that time, so far as I am aware, no other public man had dared to think in millions and predict a war of years, and I always look to his bold pronouncement with a certain exaltation of spirit. He had started for the Near East, and would pass through Rome on his homeward way, so that I should hear the other side from himself.
My wife who had gone to England with our children started back with me on the 18th of November. The previous day the hospital ship Anglia and another vessel which went to her assistance had been sunk by mines in the Channel. We passed through some of the floating wreckage on our way to Boulogne, whence we travelled directly to Rome.
Thirty-six hours in the train, away from telegrams and visitors, seemed a real holiday. At least one had time to think. We had evidently a very bad period before us, and the retrospect over what might have been was disheartening. Had we had twenty thousand men to land at the time of the first naval attack on the Dardanelles, Constantinople would have been open to us. Could we have offered them something tangible we might have had the Bulgarians on our side. Roumania would ere then have been our ally if Russia had not run short of ammunition. The Greeks could in that case hardly have remained isolated, and something like the old Balkan League might have been reconstituted. As it was, the situation in the Near East had passed completely out of our control, and the fate of Serbia was sealed. The approach of winter in the mountains would arrest the Italian offensive, and unless they could carry the rest of the formidable positions which were still before them, their position with torrents swollen by rain and snow in their rear, might not be too secure. There was little to show on the credit side, and yet I felt perfect confidence in the future.
A remarkable document which came under my notice about this time illustrated the difficulties which Austria had to encounter in maintaining any corporate spirit among her heterogeneous forces. It was part of an officer's diary found on the battlefield, covering the period of a month in 1915. The diarist, who wrote in not impeccable German, was a Slovak.
He was evidently a man of a certain culture, a sceptic with acute sensibilities and a remarkable gift of expression. For sheer brutal crudity of realism in depicting life and death in the trenches on the grim plateau of the Carso, where the Italians were then pressing their attack, I have never read anything surpassing the graphic horror of those pages. The most striking phrases reek too coarsely to reproduce, and one personal experience which so affected him that his health gave way so that he was on the point of being invalided when the diary came to an end, is too horrible to quote. He was probably killed after the concluding lines had been written. It is curious that already in 1915 he should speak of the superiority of the Italian Deport gun over their own superannuated pieces, and should scoff at the Landsturm regiments armed with antiquated Werndl rifles and ridiculous bayonets. Their presence in the front lines during the first weeks of the war seems to corroborate the opinion which I have expressed, that the Austrians had remained until the last moment convinced that Italy would not enter into the war, and had in the initial stages relatively few good divisions available to oppose them.
On the anniversary of Lissa (20th of July), when every one was carousing and making speeches and his Major was abominably drunk, he wrote : "And they abuse me for not being a patriot. Pardon! I was born a Slovak. I passed my infancy in Vienna, my early youth in Bohemia, two years at Budapest, three years in Switzerland and then Paris---and after that a poor devil is expected to know what he really is and actually to be an Austrian patriot." Farther on the following entry occurred: "I have not yet been able to make up my mind whether Ensign ---- is Austrian or Italian in his sentiments. He does not talk politics. I have heard it said that he fights without enthusiasm. And I myself 'Moi aussi, je m'en fous!' " Of a comrade reported missing and believed to be killed he wrote with a real touch of regret: "He was a brave officer and a man of heart. One would never have taken him for a Hungarian and a professional soldier to boot." Such entries are suggestive of how hard it must have been to keep the old empire of the Habsburgs together. An able and not over-scrupulous bureaucracy and the most rigid military discipline had succeeded in maintaining its galvanized life, but "its heart was dead, and so it could not thrive."
Kitchener landed in Naples on the evening of the 25th of November, and came on to Rome by the night train. All movements had to be kept secret, and I only learned that he was due three hours before the ship came in. But thanks to the telephone and an efficient Consul-General, the necessary arrangements were made for his further journey. Fitzgerald was with him, and it was a pleasure to see Basil Buckley. After breakfast in a small ground-floor dining-room at the Embassy I saw Kitchener making for the next room, and told him he must not go there. "Why not? " said Kitchener. "Because," I replied, knowing his passion for such things, "I have a rare Rhodian plate on the end wall, and I know if you see it that I shall never have any peace till you have extracted it from me." He nevertheless brushed past me, and with the smile of the genial Kitchener said : "You need not be anxious. I have already got a specimen of that type." Then we had a long talk.
Kitchener took a big view of the situation in the East, and as was his way, looked ahead. He had formed a very gloomy estimate of the position at Gallipoli, where he had found things even worse than he had expected. His reflections on the problem of withdrawal and whether it would be possible left me in little doubt what his advice to the Government would be. The only sound policy now for us was to arrest German penetration, where it was still practicable to do so, namely in Syria, and so to cover Egypt. The Salonika expedition he regarded as a hopeless adventure. The French in a spirit of chivalry had rushed into it without studying the conditions, and they had forced us also to co-operate almost at the point of the-alliance. It was too late to save Serbia, and we were only wasting strength there. The single line north from Salonika could only carry material for a very limited number of men. There were no roads, and we had neither suitable transport nor mountain guns. An advance from Salonika was therefore in his opinion at that time a mathematical impossibility. The same arguments held good for the Italian force in Albania, where movements on a large scale were impracticable. It was in their power to hold the ports. But they should concentrate their main effort on the Isonzo. Salonika and Gallipoli had made the occupation of Syria impossible. But it was the right policy.
His own position at home was, he admitted, very difficult. He had sought to do his best for his country, and therefore he was ready to go a long way with the Government. But it was hard for him to associate himself with policies with which he did not agree. He spoke of the political leaders, as men of action are wont to do, with a sort of patient intolerance. I said to him that if he contemplated provoking a trial of strength, even though he enjoyed a large measure of popular confidence, he would be beaten. He foresaw this, and said he should again press his views on the Government, and if they were not adopted he would have to go. He struck me rather as perplexed and conscious of his isolation, but as regards the Eastern situation I found in him a man who knew definitely what he wanted, and his clear conception of what our policy should be, which happened to coincide exactly with my own opinion, seemed to belie the suggestions I had heard advanced in England that he had become like a man out of his depth who found difficulty in coming to any decision. He repeated to me the substance of a long conversation which he had had in Athens with King Constantine, with whom resentment against Venezelos seemed to outweigh all other considerations.
I took Kitchener to see the Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The War Minister and Ferdinando Martini came to meet him at lunch. In the afternoon he indulged his ruling passion in visiting some antiquarians with my wife. He selected an old bench and a chair, the latter I fear a fake. He asked me to keep them for him and, having in due course paid for them, I keep them still in memory of his visit. At six in the afternoon he started for the Italian front. This was the last time I saw my old friend of twenty years, and I like to think that in our long acquaintance and official association, I never felt more strongly drawn to him than on that day we spent together at Rome during one of the most critical moments of the war.
The meeting of the Italian Parliament on the 1st of December proved that certain members of the Government had been unnecessarily nervous regarding the spirit of the chamber. The announcement now publicly made that Italy had signed the inter-allied declaration of September 1914, was greeted with demonstrations of approval, and the Ministerial exposition was enthusiastically received by all except the irreconcilable Socialists.
Just after Christmas my son was wounded by a fragment of shell. He had fortunately thrown himself on the ground, and the wound was only a slight one. About a week later I learned that he was to join the Intelligence Mission under Colonel Gabriel at the Italian front, where his knowledge of the language would be useful. His familiarity with French had already stood him in good stead, and no doubt accounted for his having been selected as adjutant of his brigade.
Meanwhile disaster had overtaken Serbia, and the Allies had been unable to relieve her. But little opposition was offered to the Austrian Army, which continued to advance into Montenegro and occupied the Lovcen, thus commanding the Cattaro fiord. The King, who had so long figured as the last prince of romance in Europe, appears to have entered into a composition which enabled him to get away and leave his country to its fate. He landed in Italy, where no one was very anxious for him to remain, and went on to France, where he became a pensioner on a liberal scale of the Allies. The bulk of the Serbian Army with little transport or food was meantime streaming down the mountain paths into Albania. The Austrian prisoners in their hands were also marched down to the coast. The horrors of that Katabasis were grim to contemplate. The Serbians, however, succeeded in bringing away 50 per cent of their rifles, a certain number of small guns, and a good many horses.
Our Ministers in Serbia and Montenegro, Sir Charles des Graz and Count de Salis, with the Secretaries, had made their way with difficulty to Scutari. A company of British volunteer nurses who had been tending the Serbian sick and wounded with the utmost devotion were also marching through the rugged country, barren of any supplies, on their way to the sea. All our energies had now to be directed to getting food across the Adriatic which was swarming with mines and enemy submarines. The sorry little port of S. Giovanni di Medua was the nearest available point of contact with the retreating army. Larking, with such assistance as he could collect, threw his whole soul into the work of victualling and rescue, and started an office at Brindisi. It was immensely difficult to find transport. The Italian Admiralty collected all the small craft which could be made available. When the first three vessels which attempted the passage with supplies were sunk, and the entrance to the little harbour was reported half-blocked by a wreck, I confess I felt very near despair. And when I learned that those gallant British nurses had reached the sea, and were sheltered, shoeless and hungry, but still cheerfully making the best of it, in a shed at S. Giovanni, I passed sleepless nights wondering how to get them across. But Fate was kind. They made the perilous passage in safety, and were dispatched homeward overland. Prospects, moreover, began to improve. Our steam trawlers in the southern Adriatic which had been lent to the Italian Government worked incessantly to keep the fairway clear, and Italian and British and French destroyers established and held a sort of corridor along the Albanian shore, through which the broken Serbian Army was conveyed to Vallona and eventually on to Corfu. The Austrian prisoners were transported to Sardinia, where they remained till the end of the war. A few years afterwards, when many details have been crowded out of memory, how inadequately such few brief lines as these represent all the alternating hopes and disappointments, the momentary misunderstandings which arose, the effort and tenacity and patience which such an emergency called for! Happily the three provision ships, sunk in the first week, were the only naval losses incurred in the transport of 100,000 men from small ports or roadsteads offering no facilities for embarkation and continually exposed to attack by air and water.
The worst phase of the crisis was actually over, and the indispensable food supplies which the Italian Government had dispatched were already accumulating on the farther shore, when I learned that a British Adriatic expedition was on its way, and in due course a complete divisional staff, including a large medical contingent, arrived in Rome, and made their headquarters at the Grand Hotel. They had a great many motorcars at their disposal, and a special messenger service to London was inaugurated. Our regular messenger service had long been economized and the Embassy was dependent on the military messengers passing through to and from Mudros, Salonika, or Egypt. I gathered that this expeditionary force had been organized in order to make touch with the Serbian Army through Albania and if possible re-organize resistance. But for any such purpose it was far too late. All that could now be done was to co-operate in the transport and re-organization of the Serbian Army. The engineers attached to the Expedition certainly did very useful service in constructing a pier and a landing-stage at Vallona. Having heard incidentally that several hundred motor-lorries were being embarked for conveyance to the Adriatic, I ventured to remind the responsible authorities at home that Albania was a country without any roads, that there were no bridges over rivers and torrents, and that motor-lorries, even if they could be landed at all, would remain immobilized on that inhospitable shore. Their dispatch was countermanded. In due course also the Grand Hotel was evacuated and the staff moved on to Corfu.
Many instances have been quoted to me of energy and money wasted on projects not dissimilar to that of transporting motor-lorries to Albania which might have been avoided by consulting people with some knowledge of the country, if not by the simple process of asking a policeman. In the year following the close of the war I saw at Kantara, where the trains for Palestine crossed the Suez Canal, a miniature tower of Babel composed entirely of filled sandbags. These, I was seriously informed by the commandant, had been sent out from England for the defence of the Canal ready filled, and it appeared, he added, that the selection of the best sand for the purpose had received due attention from those responsible for their dispatch. To convey sand to the desert is a proverbial foreign equivalent for taking coals to Newcastle. That the feat should have been undertaken over many hundreds of miles and at a time when shipping was very scarce, seems almost unbelievable. But the commandant at Kantara deprecated any suggestion that he was indulging his sense of humour.
And yet one more instance. At the end of the war---it was I think actually after the Italian armistice---a young staff officer called at the Embassy in Rome and informed us that he had been sent by the Council at Versailles to report on all the locomotives and rolling-stock in Italy, how it was distributed and precisely how many pieces were in repairing shops. How, he enquired, could he obtain this information? He was told that though confidential it could no doubt be supplied by the Director-General of the Railway Department, to whom he could be given an introduction. Having been sent to Rome he presumably spoke Italian. No, he replied, he did not, but his wife knew a little French. Under the circumstances the only course appeared to be to tell him to see the monuments of Rome while we did our best for him. It was a good deal to ask an overworked department to prepare a report involving innumerable telegrams. But through the kindness of Commendatore de Corné a table with every detail was in three or four days prepared for him. When it was handed to him he appeared surprised that it should be in Italian. Could he not have it in English? So he was advised to go and look at some more monuments while we had it translated at the Embassy. In due course he carried it off in triumph, and was, I hope, commended for his zeal and industry. His journey and residence must, however, have entailed considerable expenditure, and, if anyone really wanted the information, which I greatly doubt, it could have been obtained as expeditiously and more economically by applying directly to the Embassy..
The last letter which I received from Kitchener, dated the 18th January, 1916, concerned the Serbian Army. He was anxious that as many men as possible should be transferred without unnecessary delay from Corfu to Salonika, where they might replace British or French troops. An advance from there he still regarded as impracticable. But Salonika would have to be held, and he hoped that the Serbians would play an important part in maintaining the lines. By the middle of February the rescue and removal of the Serbian Army was completed, and the French General Mondésir began his successful work of re-organization.
On the morning of the 13th of January, I heard a familiar voice asking for me, and I was surprised to see my old friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu with some recent sears on his head, dressed in a suit of clothes which had certainly not been made for him. He was one of the survivors from the Persia, torpedoed without warning between Egypt and Malta, which sank in four or five minutes. It was the luncheon hour when she was struck. Four boats got away, but he was left on board. He had on his life-saving waistcoat, and swam to a disabled boat with broken bows which was floating upside down but eventually righted itself. Some forty people reached the boat, but they dropped off one by one, and when night fell there were only twenty-three left. He sat on the gunwale with seas washing over him, while the night went slowly by. The next day some ships were sighted in the distance, but the boat, almost flush with the water, failed to attract their attention. When the sun went down again, only eleven were left alive, and inevitably he gave up hope. But at about 9 o'clock in the evening a steamer passed near enough for the crew to hear their shouting. They were hauled on board, and carried to Malta, where Montagu read in the papers the notice of his death. He was covered with cuts and bruises from collisions with floating wreckage, and by the time he reached Rome, some of these looked in a rather unhealthy condition. They were roughly dressed at the Embassy. But I could not induce him to stay and take care of himself, and he went on by the night train to Paris. There are not many men of fifty who could surmount the ordeal of thirty-three hours in the water without food in the month of January. But then he had, and has as no other that I know, the physique and temperament of eternal youth. Another friend of old days, Bean St. Aubyn, who was travelling with despatches, was lost in the Persia.
The King of Italy had come to Rome for a brief holiday. I found His Majesty in excellent spirits and enthusiastic about his soldiers, with whom he was in daily contact. As to the eventual result of the war, his faith was unshakable. The Central Empires might achieve successes here or there, but they now knew that the great issue could only have one end. We had been speaking of my son's fortunate escape from a bursting shell, and the King told me that a few days earlier his motorcar had had to stop on the road for a moment because the horse of a soldier in front was restive, and they might have run into him. While they were like Balaam cursing the horse for delaying them, a big shell landed just at the spot they would have reached if they had not been held up.
My audience took place at the Villa Savoia outside the city on the Via Salaria, for the Quirinal Palace, with the exception of the apartment occupied by the Duke of Genoa as Regent, was being converted into a hospital where difficult surgical cases were treated. During the next years, the Queen, who has exceptional competence in all such matters, devoted herself entirely to service in the wards. An old friend, Arthur Stanley, who directed the combined organization of the British Red Cross and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, was always most helpful in furthering any schemes for the relief of the wounded in Italy. A pretty little episode which was probably known to comparatively few people was the dispatch from England of a large consignment of hospital stores as a Christmas present to the Queen of Italy.
A little later the friendly co-operation of the British Red Cross was systematized by the appointment of a permanent mission under Lord Monson, which kept touch with the Italian Red Cross to which its royal patroness, the Duchess of Aosta, devoted all her energies. We were also directly concerned with the institution of a Blue Cross section for Italy which was placed in charge of Count Scheibler, the well-known owner and breeder of race-horses. The British Blue Cross, represented so far as I was concerned by Lady Smith-Dorrien, was most helpful in counsels and generous in kind. Scheibler and his colleagues had their obstacles to overcome in founding a new institution, but they were able to show a very good record of horses saved and returned to the army. I was amused by the plea which was occasionally raised by those who were indisposed to contribute, against the use of the emblem of the cross in a service instituted for the care of animals. They elected to ignore that the cross was a symbol for the protection of the good Christians who devoted themselves to this work.
In February M. Briand paid a visit to Rome, and his tactful attitude in discussing current issues eliminated any apprehensions of that tendency to friction which is so often apparent between the Latin neighbours. One of the immediate results was that Sonnino overcame his reluctance to attend in person a coming conference at Paris. Earnest efforts were also made to facilitate coal freights to Italy, which were a source of continual pre-occupation. I remember a grim moment when the central station at Rome had only sufficient in store to carry on the reduced train service for another twenty-four hours, and another when Naples was deprived of gas altogether until the arrival of the next transport.
The shortage in indispensable material was probably felt in Italy earlier than in any other of the Allied countries. The last coal I had an opportunity of purchasing was offered at about £12 a ton. Under the circumstances it became impossible to light the furnace for central heating, and we were reduced to wood fires. Even wood became very costly. The quality of the bread also soon began to degenerate, and as transport became progressively more restricted, we found it difficult to assimilate the unattractive compound of flour substitutes. Sugar was very scarce, and butter almost unobtainable. On the rare occasions, three in all, when I crossed the frontier into France during the war, a striking contrast was noticeable. Bread tickets were indeed introduced there after a certain date, but the quality of the bread did not seem to have deteriorated, and the butter and the lump sugar at the frontier station were welcome as unfamiliar luxuries. Time has not extinguished a grateful memory of little parcels of butter from France or delicacies from London which made doubly welcome the visits of my friend Sir John Ward who travelled as a messenger on the route to Taranto and beyond.
On the eve of the meeting of the Allied conference in Paris we were in danger of a ministerial crisis, not due this time to the activity of the anti-war party, but rather to the dissatisfaction of certain groups in Parliament which pressed for more drastic action and especially for a more clearly defined attitude towards Germany. In these movements the most conspicuous figure was the Reformed Socialist Bissolati, a man of transparent honesty with strong convictions and conspicuous courage in upholding them. Bissolati, like the poet of Tarentum, might indeed have claimed that his name of Leonidas had suffered no discredit by his having borne it. In his struggling youth, moved by strong resentment at the misery of the working population, he had acquired notoriety as an agitator. In the serener atmosphere of middle age, with greater experience of the difficulty of adjusting the human equation, he had become almost a Conservative among Socialists. Not long before the war the King had pressed him to enter the Ministry, but he did not at that time feel able to accept. He was an ardent Alpinist, a poet when the spirit moved him, and a very lovable man. Profoundly stirred by the origins of the war, he had consistently urged the intervention of Italy, and when her time came, he had himself, though past military age, rejoined the Alpine division, refusing promotion above the rank of sergeant. When invalided after a severe wound, he became once more active in the political world, and he was before long to be included in the Cabinet.
There had at the same time been a growing discontent with the handling of the munitions question. Italy had from the first been deficient in heavy artillery. After her disabling loss of guns in the later phases of the war, the situation was largely saved by the patriotic spirit which had animated the great firm of Ansaldo, under the direction of the Perroni brothers who, anticipating an insufficiency of war material for the eventuality of a long war, had continued to produce on a scale far beyond the demands of the military authorities.
The crisis was surmounted to my great satisfaction, because I had reason to know that if Salandra had resigned, Sonnino would not then have remained in office. Though he assured me that this would entail no change of policy and need cause no anxiety, the retirement of the man who was generally regarded as having made the war, and his substitution by an untried minister would have had a disconcerting effect on the Allies.
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