CHAPTER XII: ROME, 1916
I had been for some time urging a visit to Italy from one of the members of the Coalition Government, and was much gratified when the Prime Minister decided to come himself. Salandra and Sonnino had only returned the previous day from the conference at Paris when Mr. Asquith arrived on the 31st of March, accompanied by O'Beirne, Colonel Hankey. and Bonham Carter. An immense crowd trooped to the Embassy to salute him on his arrival. At the banquet that evening at the Foreign Office the Prime Minister spoke in French, and acquitted himself extremely well.
I could not of course accompany him on the following day to the Vatican. But I learned that Benedict XV showed some diplomatic skill in introducing a subject which he was believed to have at heart. "He thought of nothing," he said, "and prayed for nothing but peace, which he felt the British could do more than any other nation to restore. He sought it only for its own sake, though it was commonly reported that his advocacy of peace was in the first place due to a desire to assist at the peace congress." If the subject was thus introduced in the hope of eliciting some expression of opinion the manoeuvre was not successful. To my surprise the Cardinal Secretary of State volunteered to pay the return visit at the Embassy, which would have been a new departure. A reception at the Capitol by the Syndic of Rome was to take place at four, so six had been appointed for the visit. As the Cardinal did not arrive at that hour, I telephoned to Sir Henry Howard, our Minister to the Holy See, to ask whether there had been any misunderstanding. The reply was that the Secretary of State had already left his house. At seven, as he had not appeared, I telephoned again, and was then informed that he had left a card at five. Evidently the intention to pay a personal visit at an Embassy accredited to the Quirinal had been reconsidered.
A ceremony in the historic halls of the Capitol is always picturesque, and its suggestive interest did not lose by the fact that the chief magistrate, who looked the part of a Senator of Rome in the fourteenth century, bore the name of Prospero Colonna. Here the Prime Minister responded to the civic welcome in English, but his speech, converted by Capel-Cure into Italian, was ready for publication almost immediately after delivery. He was good enough to adopt the main lines which I had suggested as opportune for such an address, and an enthusiastic deputy observed to me at its conclusion that it had revealed a remarkable appreciation of the Latin spirit. In the evening there was a dinner-party at the Embassy with a reception afterwards. On the next day, which was a Sunday, Signor Salandra gave an official luncheon, to which he invited the representatives of the Allies and a large number of senators and deputies. In other respects the day was free, and my wife took our guests to Tivoli. At 7.30 in the evening we started for the Italian front. The drive to the station was marked by one of the most enthusiastic demonstrations I have witnessed in Rome. The Prime Minister in all his speeches had touched the right note, and the response of the citizens was cordial and spontaneous.
Early next morning, while we were breakfasting in the train, an Austrian aeroplane hovered unpleasantly near the line at the station of Casarvo, some five and twenty miles west of our destination at Udine. It was, however, driven off by the air batteries. On our arrival, Mr. Asquith at once went to see the King at his modest head-quarters, some ten miles or more away. We followed him a little later. There everything revealed the austerity of camp-life. The luncheon was served in great simplicity. The staff were all old friends, whom it was pleasant to meet in these new surroundings. After lunch we drove in cars to the foot-hills of the Carnic Alps, where stores and dépôts were inspected. The method and order in the Army Service administration impressed me favourably. Then we proceeded to climb one of those long ascending valleys thrust deep into the Alpine system, the Val Racolana, by a road recently constructed where no road had ever penetrated before, to carry guns to positions at the, extreme end of a gorge which does not issue in a pass. This road, with its hair-pin turns scaling slopes which from below looked almost unreachable, was one of the many engineering feats carried out in an incredibly brief time in regions hitherto inaccessible to traffic. We saw the aerial transport at work, and were struck with the efficiency with which the mountain campaign had been organized. The guns, which we eventually reached, had to fire with a high trajectory over at least one intervening ridge at objectives in enemy territory. The Italian Army has its specially trained and recruited Alpine battalions, which are justly regarded as a corps d'élite. But in a war on such a vast scale many other troops had to be employed in the high altitudes, and men from the south, who had never before encountered ice or snow, were to be found there, cheerfully enduring the rigours of winter in the Alps. It was a pleasure to see the King among his troops, encouraging them with a genial word and a friendly smile. One felt that when the war was over he would have friends in every village. We returned from this expedition just in time to dine at Cadorna's headquarters.
On the following morning the King called for us at 8 a.m. and drove us to the Isonzo front. We passed through Cividale and Cormons, which was bombarded a little later in the afternoon, and made our way to the observation post of St. Quirin, situated on a height whence a wonderful view over the eastern area of war was obtained. This post had been shelled on the previous day, when five men and a child were wounded. While we were studying the positions an enemy aeroplane approached sufficiently near for the local air guns to attack it, whereupon it sheered off again. Thence we drove on through Medina to the head-quarters of the Third Army, the Duke of Aosta's command, and so back to Udine, where the Prime Minister took leave of the King. He left with his party for Paris. I remained through the afternoon with my son, who took me to see the British Ambulance station and Field Hospital at S. Giovanni di Manzano. George Trevelyan was away with the cars, but I found a number of old friends happy in their work. The spring weather had been magnificent, and the Prime Minister's genial personality had made his visit a popular success. In the sleeping-car I enjoyed the unusual experience of eight hours in bed, and returned to Rome much encouraged.
Nevertheless in the middle of May the enemy, who had accumulated some 2,000 guns for what was described as a punitive expedition, succeeded in inflicting a severe reverse on the Italian forces in the Trentino, where a contemplated change in the command had been too long delayed. In the centre the Austrian line was advanced to a distance of only eighteen miles from Vicenza. But it was firmly held on both wings. The loss of guns entailed was a heavy blow. The fighting in the mountains had been very costly in human life, and the moment was an anxious one. But the initial advantage gained against the Italian centre was not pressed home. The punitive attack in the Trentino indeed came near to being a disaster for the Austrians, who had withdrawn a number of troops from their Eastern front. It had been assumed that the Russians would be unable to move until considerably later. But in response to Cadorna's appeal for co-operation Brusiloff attacked on the 14th of June, and won a big victory which was followed by the capture of Czernovitz. Cadorna, who had plenty of first line and reserve troops, was able to contain the advance, and to reconstitute his lines. Then he rapidly transferred men and guns to the Isonzo, crossed the river, and carried the important position of Gorizia.
Almost simultaneously there had been an increase of submarine activity along the west coast of Italy, a matter for grave preoccupation when the sinking of one or two colliers or grain ships might upset the whole economic machinery. Elba was bombarded, though without serious results. If this double pressure had been designed to make the Italians more disposed to consider peace negotiations, for which Germany, working through neutral countries, was now endeavouring to create a favourable atmosphere, it entirely failed in its object. The only result was to bring home to the authorities the fact that the enemy was well supplied with information regarding the internal situation, and that it was dangerous to allow so many German subjects to remain at large.
In May Sir George Grahame, the present Ambassador in Brussels, joined my staff as Counsellor, replacing Sir Herbert Dering, who had been appointed Minister to Siam. To my great regret he only remained less than a year, when he was transferred to Paris, where his long former service and experience made him very valuable.
The 1st of June is a famous date in naval annals, of good omen therefore for the British fleet to engage. But when on the 2nd the first telegrams from German sources describing the battle of Jutland were published in Italy, they made a grim impression. We were without any information until late that night, nor was the message then received very clear or comforting. Some days passed before we knew the real facts. Meanwhile, we had to do our best to reassure the hesitating in a spirit of confidence. All we could say was that our battle-cruisers had engaged the whole German high-seas fleet in an endeavour to hold it until the battle fleet could arrive on the scene. When the big ships approached the German Fleet had declined battle and withdrawn.
A day or two later a telegram announced the tragedy of the Hampshire, and the passing of Kitchener on a wild night of storm west of the Orkneys. With him were lost O'Beirne, one of the ablest of our younger diplomatists, Fitzgerald, Kitchener's devoted military secretary, and hundreds of officers and seamen who could ill be spared. It was an evil chance of war which thus closed the career of a remarkable man, as he was setting out on what would probably have proved a fruitless errand.
The day the news was received a number of visitors came to condole. Some of them seemed to regard his elimination as an almost irretrievable calamity. I told them that Kitchener had been indispensable at a given moment, that his prevision of the length of the struggle and his summons to the Flag had been of inestimable service to his country. But his work as an organizer of war had been done. We mourned him personally, but as a war minister he was by no means irreplaceable. So much I could say with perfect honesty. He had great qualities, vision, perseverance and driving power, though some essential elements seemed to be lacking in his reserved and rather intractable character, so that he only touched greatness at points. But my heart was heavy for the old friend, who was never to enjoy respite from uncongenial work, who had missed much of the human side of life, and to whom I fear the end came at a moment of discouragement and disillusion.
In the middle of this depressing month the attitude of the Chamber, which had for some time preoccupied the Government, assumed a critical phase. Salandra, who had been a severe critic of the military hierarchy, had committed a tactical error in not making certain additions to the ministry when a warning note was sounded earlier in the spring. He now demanded a vote of confidence, and, failing to obtain it, resigned. The situation presented a paradox in that the minister who had brought Italy into the war was really defeated by a section of the war party. They believed that there was danger that the Giolittian combination would succeed in upsetting the Government. To prevent it from claiming victory they asserted the necessity of creating a national Government and voted with the opposition. Giolitti himself, on the other hand, was reported to have advised his adherents not to oppose Salandra. If he did so there was evidently some lack of co-ordination, as some of them voted one way and some the other. The orthodox Socialists of course refused the vote of confidence. But it was the interventionists who really placed the Government in a minority.
It seemed doubtful whether Sonnino would consent to remain in office. A certain number of the younger politicians would willingly have seen him replaced by their nominee. His presence in the Cabinet was a stumbling-block to the office-seeker. The Left who had demanded a Committee of Parliamentary control, to which he would under no circumstances agree, were most anxious to get rid of him. The Chamber seemed to be divided into two fairly equal groups---those who desired a Sonnino Ministry, and those who urged the nomination of Orlando, a Sicilian of pronounced Liberal views, whose choice would be less repugnant to the Left.
The King, who returned from the Front, found the right solution for the time being and called upon the veteran patriot, Boselli, who, in spite of his seventy-eight years, was full of fire and energy, to form a Government. Boselli wisely did not take charge of any administrative department, and the Interior, which is usually the province of the President of the Council, was entrusted to Orlando, who was eventually to be his successor. Sonnino decided to remain at the Foreign Office because, as he told me, he thought his departure would be dangerous to the cause. He admitted that a number of politicians were doing their best to trip him up. I asked him whether such individuals carried any weight in the country. He said they did not greatly matter when there was a sufficiently strong current of public opinion to disarm opposition. But at the actual moment, though the spirit in the towns might be sound, there was little or no enthusiasm left in the country districts. Under the circumstances the men who watched for opportunities in the game of politics could be a disturbing factor. He added that he was making some progress towards the end which we had both at heart. Recent action in Germany had given him his opportunity. In July accordingly existing agreements with the enemy, and notably the commercial treaty, were denounced.
It was not however until the end of August, after a series of provocative measures had failed to make Germany take the initiative, that Sonnino, who was now master of the situation, obtained a formal declaration of war. The decision had, I gathered, been taken some time earlier, but its execution was postponed so as to synchronize with the declaration of war by Roumania.
The Coalition Cabinet formed by Boselli was far larger than any of those which had preceded it. Bissolati became a Minister, and the Left was further represented by Comandini and Bonomi who, like Bissolati, had fought in the Alpine division. I greatly regretted the retirement of my old friend Ferdinando Martini. He had, however, an efficient successor at the Ministry of the Colonies in Signor Colosimo, hitherto a consistent Giolittian, with whom negotiations connected with the Senoussia problem now brought me into constant relations. Signor Carcano, who had been invaluable at the Treasury, and had established very cordial relations with our financial authorities, consented at the request of the sovereign, in spite of failing health, to remain at his post.
It was I think about this time that the word Fascio, which has since become so familiar, first assumed prominence, being used to designate a movement of a national character. A number of patriotic deputies, realizing that the false Parliamentary situation, which made it difficult for the Ministry to know at a critical moment on whom they could count, constituted a permanent danger, and might even compromise the issue of the war, instituted the Parliamentary Fascio. They formed themselves into the solid group which the name suggests, and pledged themselves, independently of party sentiments or political loyalties, to hold together and, postponing an other considerations, to support the Government in the zealous prosecution of the war. The Fascio, embracing many elements, mutually incompatible in peace time, soon became a power, and insured the Ministry against further anxiety from Neutralists and Pacifists. It is curious that the name first adopted by an organization within the Chamber should later have been adopted by a movement which was to some extent a revolt against the abuses and insincerities of Parliamentary government.
The difficulty of finding freights with an increasing demand and a constantly diminishing tonnage had become a nightmare, and Italy, which produces hardly any of the raw material of industry, was exposed to continual anxiety as to whether her indispensable requirements in coal and grain could be satisfied before the narrow margin of stock was exhausted. One particular Roman journal indulged in almost passionate outbursts against the greed of commercial Britain and her ship-owners in a series of articles which showed that the writer did not understand the factors which governed the question. Mr. Runciman, who dealt most ably with these issues, had with infinite trouble and patience, after many conferences with shippers, coal-owners and exporters, succeeded in establishing certain schedules of maximum prices for coal exported from Great Britain to France. It might be claimed with apparent reason that it would be only equitable to do the same for Italy. But the situation was governed by wholly different conditions. French ports were near, relatively small vessels could be used, and some 75 per cent of the tonnage carrying coal to France, whose Mediterranean ports were deliberately excluded from the arrangement, was British or French, and could therefore be controlled. On the other hand 75 per cent of the tonnage serving the Mediterranean was neutral. Such tonnage was available only because rates were high. America was a very keen competitor for neutral shipping, and any attempt to establish a maximum freight would have had for its result the desertion by these vessels of their actual ports of call for more remunerative voyages. We had no further tonnage available with which to replace them. Nor would any advantage be gained by limiting rates for the small proportion of British tonnage carrying coal to the Mediterranean, as prices would be regulated by the 75 per cent majority engaged in the trade. The most that could be anticipated was some limitation by negotiation of the price of coal f.o.b. in England.
In August Mr. Runciman came to Italy for a conference on the coal question. At Capel-Cure's suggestion Pallanza on the Lago Maggiore was chosen as the meeting-place. There he not only placed his own house at my disposal, but induced the Marchese di Casanova, the brother of Donna Bettina, to offer hospitality in the beautiful villa of S. Remigio to Mr. and Mrs. Runciman and the Italian delegates, the Ministers Arlotta and di Nava. Casanova, a really remarkable musician, a scholar and an artist in every fibre, with a critical sense and tastes shared by the charming Irish cousin who became the Marchesa, was probably for the first time in his life drawn into the unfamiliar society of economists and politicians, with whom I apprehended he would feel little at ease. Our debt to him was all the greater for his splendid hospitality, which made a sternly business conference one of the pleasantest episodes of those grim years of war. The results were I think eminently satisfactory, as much was explained which had hitherto not been understood, and a basis was established for future supplies on the most favourable conditions which circumstances permitted. Runciman was a master of his subject, and his efforts to do justice to the other side of the question facilitated negotiations. I now understood why Kitchener, speaking of the political associations in which he never felt at ease, had told me that he felt more drawn to Runciman than to any other member of the Cabinet. We were fortunate in having sympathetic collaborators in Arlotta and di Nava, assisted by the irreplaceable Attolico who, with one foot in London and one in Rome, did such valuable and difficult work in wrestling with the problem of supplies. When the conference broke up we paid a hasty visit to Milan, where we were most warmly received by the Chamber of Commerce, and then went on to see the President of the Council at Turin.
1 have occasionally been asked somewhat ingenuously whether we had much to do at the Embassy in war-time. The question suggests a certain lack of imagination. What might not be so obvious to the uninitiated was the immense development of the commercial section, which in charge of Capel-Cure rapidly outgrew its initial phase. Further secretaries and typists had to be added, and the welcome assistance was enlisted of Mr. J. H. Henderson, an old Balliol man, whose family connection with business interests in Italy made him invaluable. He has since succeeded to the direction of the department which has become a permanent institution. The Board of Trade in the autumn of 1916 put forward a scheme for entrusting all commercial interests in foreign countries to special Trade Commissioners, similar to those appointed to deal with the interests of British commerce in the Dominions. It was proposed that they should work quite independently of the Foreign Office, and correspond directly with the Board of Trade. In view of the strong objections not unnaturally raised by the former, certain modifications were made in the proposal in the sense of requiring consultation with that department regarding the selection of persons appointed to such posts, and of making it obligatory for the latter to keep heads of missions informed of their proceedings. Commercial work had no doubt been very inadequately handled under the traditional diplomatic and consular régime. Representatives abroad, who were rather discouraged from undertaking responsibility by intervention, were not to blame for conditions which many of them were anxious to see modified. Obviously the old system had become an anachronism unsuited to new developments in international relations. While I agreed with Runciman, when he wrote to me that if we could discuss the matter together we could adjust the inter-departmental difficulties in a single day, there was a good deal in the Board of Trade proposals which, judging them from experience of the country in which I was posted, I was not prepared to endorse. There is no real analogy between the conditions in British Dominions and those prevailing in foreign countries and, while it was doubtful whether any absolutely uniform system would meet the particular exigencies of each and all, I felt sceptical as to the advantage of creating a Trade Commissioner independent of the diplomatic mission in those with which I was most familiar. It is no longer possible to make a complete separation of political and commercial considerations, and our rivals in the world's markets would certainly not attempt to do so. In certain posts it is hardly conceivable that official support would not prevail over independent action, and where prestige plays an important part the knowledge that an official in charge of commercial interests was also a member of the Embassy or Legation would assure him an authority which no unattached commissioner could enjoy. A large measure of independent initiative should be allowed to the commercial branch, but in the complicated adjustment of international relations to-day it would not be possible to accept responsibility for the political machine without control over the agents in charge of the commercial machine. In London a diplomatic representative may not be regarded as a possible factor in the commercial equation. But there are countries where to dissociate commercial from political representation would weaken the latter and place the former at a disadvantage. The system eventually adopted was that which I had supported. Special commercial sections were instituted at the Missions abroad, subject to the direction of the head of the Mission, but able to correspond directly with the Board of Trade. At home a new Department, that of Overseas Trade, was created to act as a liaison between the Board of Trade and the Foreign Office.
The Contraband Department at the Foreign Office exercised an exemplary vigilance over all matters affecting the commercial blockade, in the maintenance of which Great Britain acted as the executive arm of the Allies. Problems were constantly propounded to us for investigation, and considerable tact was necessary in pressing for information with which to reply to questionnaires, in order not to arouse susceptibilities. Many of our apparently importunate applications had really no other object but to ensure that the Allies should not compete against each other in the same market, and they were therefore advanced in the general interest, especially before Allied purchasing was largely co-ordinated in London. I have always felt a particular debt of gratitude to the admirable diplomatist who was in charge of commercial and contraband issues at the Italian Foreign Office, my friend Count Manzoni, whose patience, courtesy and goodwill were inexhaustible.
The following example may serve as well as any other to illustrate the curious devices which were employed as the dearth of raw material pressed more hardly on Germany. Italy is one of the world's principal manufacturers of soft hats. It was ascertained by one of our zealous agents that there was a very keen demand for roughly blocked hats in Switzerland. These were re-exported to Germany, where they were reduced back to the constituent wool, a commodity which had become practically unobtainable there. The Italian Government accordingly took steps to prohibit this trade.
The increasing shortage of shipping had compelled us to restrict the importation of luxuries into the United Kingdom, and unfortunately some of the most valuable products of normal Italian industry, such as silk and marble, were included in that category. The economic position of Italy, where industrial development had been very rapid during the decade preceding the war, became very difficult when most of her foreign markets were closed and the price of coal advanced to some £8 a ton. The exigences of the blockade now menaced her dwindling export trade in another vital point. The fruit of the southern provinces, especially oranges and lemons, had been absorbed by Central Europe, to which it was carried overland. After the entry of Italy into the war her European market was restricted to Switzerland. The restriction was, however, more apparent than real as the Swiss buyers re-exported the fruit to Germany and Austria. This indirect war trade was held at home not to be consistent with the principles of the commercial blockade. On the other hand the export of sulphur, the only other important product of Sicily, had already been seriously reduced, and to shut down the sale of fruit meant absolute ruin to the island. I strongly urged that it would be a mistake to do so. Oranges and lemons had no food value, and could not materially increase the enemy's offensive or defensive power, while the trade through Switzerland brought a great deal of gold and thus helped to supply the sinews of war. If the exportation were definitely prohibited, it would moreover be necessary for us to make ourselves responsible for the disposal of the crop, which was a matter of life or death to Sicily. The War Trade Department was inexorable, and so a reluctant Treasury had to guarantee the value of the fruit. The final decision was only taken towards the end of 1916, after the orange harvest, which is spread over a period of five to six months, had actually begun, and the first trains were already on their way to the north. Contracts had to be cancelled, consignments stopped half-way, and extremely difficult negotiations conducted against time for the transfer of the whole of the crop to the British Government. In carrying these out Capel-Cure once more did invaluable work. The disposal of the fruit was entrusted to a special commission, presided over by Mr. E. T. Dottridge, C.B.E., of the historic firm of Joseph Travers & Sons, whose staff contributed not a little to the success of the operations. He had to improvise an organization which remained in activity till the end of the war, and rendered important service in a field quite unknown to the outside world. Alternative markets were not easy to find, and a considerable proportion of the crop was ear-marked for our own forces at the various fronts. There was also the almost insoluble problem of finding shipping to carry this perishable commodity. Fruit-trains dispatched before the prohibition of export remained blocked on railway sidings. Cargoes loaded on deck for lack of other space rapidly deteriorated, and the losses during the transition period were considerable, so that the first balance sheet entailed a heavy demand on the Treasury guarantee. On the other hand, the season of 1917-18, when the organization was working smoothly, thanks largely to a failure in the Spanish crop, showed a profit which more than compensated for the losses of the previous year.
The arguments which I had advanced against the suspension of the fruit trade to Switzerland, which I still believe to have been sound, not only failed to convince the authorities at home, but they were responsible for a message which seemed to be so near to a reprimand for having questioned the expediency of the instruction, that I felt bound to submit that my post must be at the disposal of the Secretary of State if I was held to have exceeded or fallen short of my duties. I immediately received an entirely reassuring answer, followed by the most charming letter from Sir Edward Grey which it has ever been my good fortune to receive. The particular issue had of course not fallen under his direct cognizance.
And here I would take the opportunity of recording how deeply I, with the whole service, felt the misfortune which soon afterwards deprived us of a chief who not only commanded all our esteem and loyalty, but had established a sense of personal affection in all who served under him. It is not only in the Navy that things go well when men work as a "band of brothers," and I doubt whether the prestige abroad of our Foreign Office ever stood higher than during that period preceding the war, when the personal touch of Grey had established that relation.
The final phase of a curious experiment in State trading, which circumstances had forced us to undertake, was not without its humorous side. Special contracts had to be drawn up for each fruit season. During the summer and autumn of 1918 we once more drafted an agreement with the department representing the interests of the Sicilian growers and exporters, similar to those negotiated in 1916 and 1917. Much labour had been expended on it. We had to hold out for prices which would involve the least risk of loss to the Treasury. The signature had been unexpectedly delayed owing to difficulties in adjusting one or two quite subsidiary points on which a compromise was eventually agreed to. Then at the eleventh hour I was informed that as the war was evidently drawing to a close the Treasury would not be prepared to continue the guarantee. I represented that under the circumstances I would do my best, but that the agreement, though not actually signed, was regarded as definitely concluded, that it was now very late for the merchants in Sicily to make other arrangements, and that in view of our strong insistence the prohibition of unrestricted trade this change of attitude would not be easy to defend. In reply I was recommended to use the argument that oranges and lemons had no food value, and that, if the fruit did find its way to enemy markets, the better prices there obtainable would bring more gold into Italy to provide the sinews of war---my own contention of two years earlier which had been so badly received. It was little use pointing out the irony of the situation to an official department, the direction of which had changed since 1916, and departments, like Popes, claim to be infallible and resent the suggestion of inconsistency. Personally, however, I had the satisfaction of experiencing Time's revenges.
Italian hemp is greatly superior to that grown in other countries. The finest quality is produced in the neighbourhood of Ferrara, and that of the Neapolitan province commands the next best price. The Admiralty, having found our cooperation valuable in purchasing hemp for naval use, eventually placed the whole business in the hands of our commercial section, and gave us a large discretionary latitude to buy at opportune moments. The organization which Capel-Cure devised responded satisfactorily, and the Admiralty had no reason to regret the confidence placed in the Embassy, a confidence somewhat unusual in those days, when our silent service was the object of much irresponsible criticism. The ample latitude thus accorded enabled us on one occasion to save the country some ten thousand pounds on a single purchase. Our expenditure in this important and limited market ran into millions.
Not the least onerous of the many duties unexpectedly thrust upon the Ambassador was that of deciding, after the introduction of obligatory military service, how many of the British subjects actually residing in Italy should receive exemption on the grounds that they were performing indispensable work, directly or indirectly of greater importance to ourselves or to our ally. Local Committees, under the chairmanship of the consuls in the principal areas, prepared lists and collected the necessary evidence, while an army medical board examined and classified all who were of military age. The records were forwarded to Rome, where I had an advisory board to assist me. In many cases a decision could be taken without much hesitation: in others the pleas urged by employers required very careful consideration. The responsibility was too serious to be delegated, and I had to give earnest attention to every individual case which was open to doubt. It was gratifying to find that the inspector of recruiting, when he visited Rome, confirmed every one of our decisions.
Sooner or later almost all the protagonists in the great drama passed through Rome or came there for some special purpose. To some of these visits I have already referred, or shall refer, in connection with the circumstances which occasioned them. General Foch I had only the pleasure to meet there once. He had very definite and lucidly expressed views as to how the enemy should be fought on every front including the Far East, and was one of the few who seemed to have formed a synthetic appreciation of the whole situation. But he was a gracious listener as well as a brilliant talker, and an hour's conversation with him left me in no doubt that for once the right man had come to the top. Dr. Benes was more frequently called to Italy, where a Czecho-Slovak division was now being formed. The young university professor whom circumstances had rapidly fashioned as a statesman, readily receptive of fresh ideas and quick to adapt himself to new associations, was perhaps not the less sympathetically welcomed in Rome because after his escape from Prague his wife had been made a prisoner and menaced with all the rigours of the old régime familiar in the history of the Risorgimento. It was less easy to convince people in the north of Italy, where the Austrian occupation was still in living memory, that the Croats, who had passed into popular legend as the ready instruments of the sinister Haynau, and who fought with determination in the actual war, could readily be converted into friends. There were still many living who could have said like Clough
I see the Croat soldier stand
Upon the grass of your redoubts.
The traditions in which a young nation has grown to maturity are slow to die. It was perhaps not sufficiently appreciated at home how closely the Croat neighbour had been identified in Italy with the two-headed eagle. That the relations with the new Southern Slav state have, after an inevitable period of mutual hesitation, been regularized on terms which promise to ensure good neighbourship for the future, is to the credit of both parties. To accomplish this happy result it was necessary that time should attenuate the early impatient zeal of Chauvinism, and especially that those most directly concerned should have found the solution for themselves without the intervention of foreign partisanship and journalistic advice.
While these issues were still in embryo the Dalmatian patriot, Supilo, in whom my interest had first been aroused during the notorious Friedjung trial, paid me more than one visit. He was rough, in externals, but not lacking a natural peasant courtesy in the frank expression of his views. I was impressed with the indication which his conversation afforded of weak points in the enemy armour, and these I did not fail to commend to my chiefs. Trumbitch, the President of the Southern Slav Committee, I also saw after the premature death of Supilo. Neither of them appeared to be unreasonably intransigent, and both seemed convinced that their national aspirations could only be realized by negotiation and understanding with Italy. I had also several conversations with the evergreen but rather dour Pasitch, who expressed himself with considerable difficulty in French, which made it the less easy to fathom the working of his mind. It was in Rome also that I first made the acquaintance of Venizelos, benevolent, white-haired, but as yet without lines on the smooth cheek, using with sure effect the soft voice that never failed to convince you that his words were meant to give clarity to and not to disguise his thought. During my residence in Greece he had not yet emerged as the leader and future emancipator of Crete and I have always found it difficult to picture to myself the eminent statesman of later years at the head of an armed opposition camped in the inaccessible mountains of that beautiful island. The apparent moderation of Venizelos impressed the Italian statesmen with whom he came into contact. That she should be deprived of his exceptional capacity has been a misfortune for Greece. Perhaps, as in the case of his distinguished predecessor, my old friend, Charles Tricoupis, that stage was too small for so great a personality.
Little by little Rome became almost as full of our own countrymen as during a moderate tourist season. Not a few acquaintances and friends engaged in various duties arising out of the war took up their residence there. Mark Kerr, who, after the withdrawal of the British Naval Mission to Greece, was placed in command of the British vessels lent to the Italian Navy, came only rarely from Taranto to the Capital. The Duke of Sutherland, who was entrusted with a naval reserve command over a detachment of fast motor-launches in the heel of Italy, spent some days with us on his way south, as did the Duchess when she joined him later at the village of Trecasi, near Otranto. "Tab" Brassey, who arrived early in 1917 to organize the overland route to Taranto, was some time with us, and as an unfortunate accident was soon to end the life of one of the best of friends, it was a satisfaction to have seen so much of him. Brassey's good record as a philanthropic mine-owner in Sardinia had made him a persona grata, and it was a welcome change to have a collaborator who knew the country and spoke the language. Experience of emissaries who neither spoke nor understood a word of any foreign language had not always been encouraging. I remember my feelings when such an officer, at a conference in the room of the Minister of Marine, who was of course fairly familiar with English, surprised that any questions should be raised in regard to a proposal to make use of Italian resources, audibly enquired, "Look here, what are these damned Italians making difficulties about?" Aubrey Herbert, who with his genial disregard of risks and consequences seems to have been a not unwelcome guest in the Turkish trenches at Gallipoli, turned up again in Rome after the evacuation. The Red Cross Mission was composed of old friends. Lord Monson, who was at the head of it was supported by the late Hubert Beaumont and Leonard Shoobridge, an inseparable of the old Balliol days in the seventies. Another Balliol man, Mr. Godfrey Samuelson, worked there, and later as a volunteer in the Commercial Department. After the entry of Italy into the war a small office of Propaganda was organized in Rome by Mr. Algar Thorold, and the Embassy was thus relieved of much direct correspondence. Naval intelligence was in the hands of Lieut. W. Haslam of the Naval Reserve, who maintained constant contact with the Embassy. Later a Military Intelligence Office, quite independent of the Intelligence section at the Italian Army head-quarters, was established in Rome under Sir Samuel Hoare on a scale which I could not help regarding with some envy when I thought how grudgingly a couple of type-writers had been conceded to our permanent staff. This office, which worked cordially with the Embassy, took over the issue of passports and visas and the control of the Black List, a duty of no little responsibility in view of the number of enemy agents who were endeavouring to obtain access to Allied countries. The Shipping Board also sent experts to Italy to advise and assist in the more rapid clearing of congested ports; Scotchmen these for the most part, very capable, and right good men. In addition to those employed on more or less permanent establishments, there were always coming and going staff-officers and experts concerned with problems of finance, munitions, or blockade. As time went on we were rather overwhelmed with mutually independent missions, and some co-ordination seemed desirable to prevent overlapping. I was then appointed High Commissioner for Italy, which gave me a sort of general controlling authority.
Reference to the Roman office of Propaganda suggests that this may be an appropriate place in which to record certain experiences in that particular field. The word propaganda, in the sense of the organized dissemination in a specific interest of information, veracious, tendencious, or even false, has been borrowed from ecclesiastical nomenclature, in which it is used to indicate the missionary activities of the Catholic Church. It might seem superfluous to point this out. But I was credibly informed that our Military Intelligence office received an instruction to report on the activities of a College for Propaganda which it was understood had been founded in Rome. After due investigation a reply seems to have been returned to the effect that there was in that city a College for Propaganda, but that its aims appeared to be entirely religious. Some reference to the venerable Collegium de Propaganda Fide had evidently started a zealous secret agent at home on the quest of a mare's nest. Fortunately, we had an efficient organization which was able to locate it in the Spanish Square.
In a brilliant American volume, in which it is not always easy to distinguish the paradoxes of an epigrammatist from the real opinions of a cynic, I have read that the United States were brought into the war by the campaign of propaganda, ably and ruthlessly conducted by British agents and Missions. German writers of a certain authority, concerned to account for the final débâcle, have attributed it to the sinister influence of Lord Northcliffe's efforts, and of activities which may be studied in the Secrets of Crewe House. I had no means of estimating the practical result of these activities. There are, however, two principles which I believe to be sound in their application to what we shall, for lack of a better name, probably continue to call propaganda: firstly, that the effect which it is likely to produce will be diminished rather than intensified by the recognition of acknowledged and much-discussed organizations for its promotion; and secondly that no form of propaganda will have more than an ephemeral success which is not inspired by conviction and based on truth.
As regards the area under my direct cognizance, I have referred in an earlier chapter to the steps which were at once taken to place before as wide a public as possible the circumstances which had made war inevitable. This object was attained by the voluntary co-operation of friendly elements in the country, and no one was aware of any official intervention. The circulation through agencies in touch with the mass of the people of unhysterical documents convincing by their clear exposition had probably a far greater effect than the quantities of pamphlets and pictorial broadsheets distributed by the enemy in shipping offices and waiting-rooms, or the abusive articles which appeared in organs well-known to be amenable to hostile influences. Such unostentatious efforts were supplemented by the lecturing campaigns already mentioned. The British-Italian Institute at Milan, founded by Donna Bettina di Casanova, who had from the first worked with all her heart to bring into line the two countries with which she was associated, was invaluable in circulating information, providing lectures and offering opportunity for contact. Similar institutes on a more modest scale were started in other cities, including Rome. The Embassy at that time exercised a general superintendence of all centres, and acted as the intermediary with the continually changing authorities at home which dealt with propaganda.
I laboured not a little to find a remedy for a situation greatly to our disadvantage in Italy, where Germany had secured a sort of monopoly in the foreign book trade. This had indeed occupied my attention before the war. The learned and scientific literature available for professors and students, the foreign periodicals obtainable which recorded historical, geographical and medical research were almost exclusively German. The book-market at Leipzig satisfied requirements promptly, economically, and on easy terms for the retailer. English books, on the other hand, were costly, and being invariably bound or at any rate eased in boards, which for customs' purposes was regarded as equivalent, were subject to import duty. Orders took much longer to execute, and the system of sale or return outside the United Kingdom did not appeal to the publisher. The practical monopoly of Leipzig had become a potent cultural influence. And yet there was evidence of a demand for English books, subject to greater facilities for their acquisition, from the professorial world and a limited reading public. I suggested the institution of a central depôt at Milan or Florence to act as the distributing medium. A small addition to the sale price would cover cost of superintendence and insurance against damage in transit. Paper covers such as are used for all continental publications might be substituted for the dutiable boards. In view of the ample expenditure which was sanctioned for "information" it was justifiable to hope that the initial cost of such a central bureau might be met by public funds. These proposals were referred to a Committee in London on which some of the most important publishing houses were represented, and the Chairman, Sir Henry Newbolt, did all that was in his power to promote a solution. But nothing was accomplished. With rare exceptions British publishers, who seem tenaciously conservative in their practice, were not disposed to meet conditions which would have offered some hope of competing with the German monopoly, or they did not consider the Italian market sufficiently important to interest them. Their attitude towards the proposed use of paper covers seemed to be not that we should accommodate the supply to the demand, but that foreign customs regulations should be modified to suit the character of our production. After the war, with an adverse British and a very favourable German exchange, the position became still more unpromising.
A form of anti-war propaganda, employed with some success in Italy, according to my informants, when the length of the struggle was beginning to weigh heavily on the peasantry, was certainly ingenious. A large percentage of the population, especially in the south, is illiterate and dependent on professional or friendly assistance when occasion arises to send a letter. There used to be in Rome two benevolent-looking old gentlemen who pursued the vocation of letter-writers to the Quarter, sitting at their tables under awnings beside the Arco Pinto, near the theatre of Pompey. I have often watched them with interest composing epistles for the puzzled artisan or the anxious mother, seated on a second chair at their table. During the war it seems that individuals, ostensibly moved by benevolent impulses, visited the country villages offering to write letters gratuitously from parents to their soldier sons, with the additional inducement of free postage. Such communications did not fail to paint in the darkest colours the unhappy state to which war had reduced the home, and were ingeniously devised to depress the men at the Front.
The Italian Government in due course created a department of propaganda, under my friend the deputy for Perugia, Sig. Romeo Gallenga-Stuart. Co-operation with this department was maintained by Mr. Thorold, who took over the superintendence and financing of British activities in that field, only reporting to me when necessary. Under his auspices the conception of a permanent British Institute in Florence matured. A French Institute, supported by the State, had long existed there as well as a German Institute, then temporarily at any rate closed. The British Institute was designed to offer facilities for higher education in English literature and culture. I was pressed to go to Florence for the opening ceremony and, in view of the assurances received, did not fail to enlarge upon our confidence in the future of the foundation.
Under the direction of Mr. A. F. Spender, who indeed created the Institute, it proved a great success, and pupils from many provinces came to Florence to study there. When at the end of the war various propaganda enterprises were terminated, the official liquidator indicated in a speech at Florence that the Institute would be an exception. Indeed, to have closed it while a number of the students were only half-way through their two years' course would have been almost a breach of faith. Although I had not been responsible for its inception, the burden of fighting for its maintenance fell upon me. With difficulty the Foreign Office induced the Treasury to continue its grant for another year, after which it was definitely to cease. In this crisis, when to us in Italy it seemed that our good name was at stake, the Institute was saved by the munificence of Sir Walter Becker, who had so liberally supported ambulances and hospitals during the war. A fund created by the late Mr. Arthur Serena to promote education in English in the country of his family's origin enabled the trustees to assign an assured revenue to the Institute, and the generosity of Miss S. R. Courtauld and Sir Daniel Stevenson has endowed it with £15,000. With these resources to supplement fees and subscriptions, the permanence of its activities seems guaranteed, though additional income is still required to make the future secure. It is gratifying to feel that, thanks to private benevolence the British Institute at Florence, whose constitution has now been defined in a Royal Charter, will continue its work of cementing cordial relations between the two nations.
The last phase of the British propaganda campaign produced some curious developments during the period, rather an anarchical one as it seemed to us abroad, when improvised administrations able to dispose of ample resources worked independently of the regular civil service. The results anticipated from a more intense and co-ordinated effort had been held to justify the creation of a Ministry of Information presided over by Lord Beaverbrook, but another distinct service of "Propaganda in enemy countries" was entrusted to the restlessly active Lord Northcliffe. For reasons which seemed convincing at home Italy was eventually also assigned to his province, and was thus for propaganda purposes assimilated to an enemy country. This I only learned indirectly, and I was provided with no explanation to offer in answer to the questions which were inevitably addressed to me by a somewhat perplexed ally. But I will not here anticipate developments which belong more properly to the concluding phase of the war.
As this chapter has been largely concerned with matters which lie outside the normal province of diplomacy, it may be appropriate here to speak of the particular work undertaken by my wife, who devoted her energy and great powers of organization to the provision of relief for the wounded and disabled. In raising funds for this purpose she endeavoured also to assist members of a class who were hit severely by the suspension of the tourist movement---artists and workers in artistic handicrafts. A shop which she opened, constantly provided with new stocks of useful and pretty things sold exclusively for the benefit of the wounded, soon proved too small for its object, and larger premises in the Via Veneto, combined with a tea-room and known as La Belle Alliance, soon became a much-frequented resort. Lampshades and screens executed by artists under her guidance from Japanese, Byzantine and classical designs, painted dress materials, artistic toys, small pieces of furniture copied from good designs and painted or lacquered in the Venetian manner secured a ready market, while their production gave employment to many who at that time found little demand for their craftsmanship. Old Japanese embroideries, of which she had a considerable stock, were eagerly bought. Venetian glass had become difficult to obtain, owing to the closing of the furnaces, but she had fortunately laid in an ample supply. Judicious purchases were made of old furniture and discarded church candlesticks, which were restored or copied by clever workmen. Well-known artists offered pictures and sketches. A number of friends were busy producing handbags and bead-necklaces. Gifts were continually received for sale. I shall always remember how the wives of two of my secretaries, Lady Gerald Wellesley and Mrs. Parr, ransacked their jewel boxes and brought all they could spare to be sold for the cause. Before long the business of La Belle Alliance outgrew the new premises, and the exhibition with the tea-room was transferred to some out-buildings in the Embassy gardens, approached by a separate entrance. The tea-rooms organized on a much larger scale were thronged till the end of the war. A number of willing helpers undertook the duties of service by rotation, among the most constant being Marchesa Guiccioli, Countess Lovatelli, Donna Diana Piercey, Madame Allatini, and Miss Verschoyle. But there was never such a successful saleswoman as our dear friend Mrs. Barton, who came from Geneva and stayed with us many months, devoting herself to the cause of the Italian wounded. Our Swedish housekeeper took charge of the commissariat, and managed it on sound business lines so as to secure the maximum benefit to the fund. In Malta, where the fuel difficulty had been even more urgent than with us, an economic stove had been invented. Lord Methuen kindly sent me particulars of its construction, which we followed. It consisted of a sheet-iron cylinder, or rather drum, with a removable lid having a hole some three inches in diameter in the centre. The drum was packed tightly with sawdust, or even dry leaves or paper, round an iron or wooden core, which when removed left a draught funnel up the centre. It was ignited with a rag steeped in petroleum through a tube inserted in the base of the cylinder. The compressed fuel burned slowly, giving out a great heat. On these stoves which could be made for a few francs all the water was boiled.
From the receipts which were well maintained grants in aid were made from time to time to various organizations managed by local committees. But after a certain period my wife decided to suspend these grants, and accumulate a large fund with a view to starting industries in which the partially disabled could be trained to engage, such as carpet making. The total amassed by her own efforts was eventually swollen by a munificent donation from the American Red Cross.
But the shop and the tea-room represented only a part of her activity. There were concerts and bazaars with lotteries which, happily for benevolent enterprise, find no conscientious objectors in Italy. Musical plays and other theatrical performances, some of which were not only produced but written by herself, were in continual stages of preparation and performance. The Ball-room at the Embassy, temporarily converted into a theatre, was hardly large enough to satisfy the demand for places. She also organized a very successful lottery on behalf of the Blue Cross, and a Fair in the Embassy Garden in support of Red Cross work among the smaller Allied nations. There each member of the alliance had its own pavilion. It was after the United States had entered the war, and the section presided over by Mrs. Page, whose liberality in all war charities was unbounded, was one of the principal features. The British pavilion was in charge of a group of charming ladies in Gainsborough dresses, and their appeals to purchasers were irresistible. As the fair took place in the summer season the largest profits were probably derived from the American bar conducted by Captain Larking as a specialist with the assistance of an attractive group of barmaids.
Perhaps the most daring and certainly not the least successful of her enterprises was a British-Italian Exhibition of Arts and Crafts, which the difficulties of transport only rendered practicable after the armistice. Extensive temporary premises for the purpose in the Via Nazionale were lent by the Banca di Credito. The scheme of decoration and the design adopted for the stalls made it one of the prettiest exhibitions I have ever seen. British and Italian arts and crafts were represented in fairly equal proportion. Of the British goods shown the most interesting categories were the glass and china. Many sales were effected, and there would have been many more had it been possible for our producers to promise earlier delivery. Visitors also found a tea-room with a stage, on which costumes were displayed by living mannequins and films were shown. In contemplating such an undertaking at such a time she incurred a considerable financial risk. But her courage was justified by results. Not only were all expenses covered, but a handsome balance remained to be added to the relief funds.
For reasons which they were best able to appreciate the Italian Military Authorities did not permit the wounded or mutilated when convalescent to be seen in the streets. The figures so familiar at home in the blue hospital clothes were therefore not seen in Rome. A big school in Via Montebello, which bounds the southern end of the Embassy garden, had been converted into a military hospital, and we were concerned for the unfortunate invalids who were confined in the hot weather to the close and rather unattractive wards. The Embassy garden was placed at the disposal of the commandant for a certain number of hours every day, and a doorway opened m the southern wall enabled the men, by crossing only one unfrequented street, to come and lie on the grass under the shade of pines and ilexes.
My wife's unflagging zeal on behalf of the wounded was spontaneously recognized by the Italian State, and she was awarded what I believe to have been a very rare distinction---the gold medal for auxiliary service. This, the one recognition she received after the war, was certainly well earned by three years of unremitting work. Many other duties and obligations fell upon her which could not be neglected, and she was the presiding and energizing spirit of the British-Italian Institute in Rome.
A good many British soldiers passed through the capital on their way to various destinations. Their number increased later when we had established depôts at Taranto which became the chief link with Salonika, and a permanent body of transport units and military police were then quartered in Rome. In the early stages, when there were relatively few men arriving singly, they were apt to get lost. They had to remain several hours, often a whole day, waiting for a train, and did not know where to find a meal, to wash or to change their money. One or two kind souls, English ladies who were working for their livelihood in Rome, made their sacrifice to the cause by going every morning, before daylight in winter, to the station to meet the trains from France and offer their services to these men. The military attaché, Sir Charles Lamb, then turned his attention to providing a hostel for travelling soldiers where they could find a refuge and a simple meal. After we had struggled for some time with the problem in inadequate rooms, the director of an American Evangelical Mission, the activities of which were suspended during the war, the Rev. J. Tipple, offered us the use of his ample premises for a soldiers' hostel and club. It proved an immense boon, and was most efficiently managed by a body of volunteer workers, amongst whom were a few that were always ready to act as guides to the principal sights of the city. The Christmas dinner, the greater part of which was prepared at the Embassy, was a great event at the hostel.
A good many men from the Dominions who could afford to travel spent a few days of their short leave in Rome, and on the Christmas of 1917 there was an unusually large number assembled there. After dinner they all came on to the Embassy, where the famous Canadian tenor, di Giovanni (Edward Johnson) and Donna Hortensia Piercey sang to them. It was pleasant to hear more than one of them say that that evening at Porta Pia had made them feel the touch of home for the first time since they had left their native lands. Personally, I seldom remember having spent a happier evening than with these friends of a day.
Go To Next Chapter