CHAPTER XIII: ROME, 1916-1917
Towards the end of 1916 I paid a second visit to the Italian front to convey to the King of Italy the Grand Cross of the Bath as our highest military distinction. His Majesty was as always very modest about his own merits, and protested that he had done nothing to deserve it. After spending a night at his head-quarters I returned to Udine, and from there drove with my son through several villages bearing the marks of bombardment to Aquileia, one of the few historic sites in Italy which I had never visited. I found Cadorna cheerful, but as reluctant as ever to believe that anything was to be gained by increasing the forces at Salonika.
The situation at the close of the autumn was not really much more encouraging than it had been a year earlier. A bright spot in the military record had been the capture of Monastir, in which the reconstituted Serbian army had played a conspicuous part. This was the more satisfactory as the Allied commanders at Salonika had been rather sceptical as to whether troops once so hopelessly demoralized could ever again be made into a fighting force. Our unremitting pressure on the Somme had also given satisfactory results, but after the successful battle on the Ancre incessant rains had brought operations to a standstill, so that we seemed no nearer to a conclusion. On the Italian front Cadorna had had a disappointment. he had moved all his heavy artillery to the Trentino for an attack on the Asiago plateau, when a metre and a half of snow fell prematurely and rendered all movement impossible. And so the guns were sent back again to resume the offensive on the Carso which had already cost such heavy sacrifices of life. The Italians had always been short of heavy artillery. The situation in Roumania was depressing, and there we were now chiefly concerned to secure the destruction of the accumulated stocks of corn and oil before they could fall into enemy hands. Sonnino's intuitions regarding Near Eastern questions had almost always been sound. When we made large purchases of wheat in Roumania he urged us to have the grain transported with as little delay as possible into Russian territory, even at the risk of deterioration through inadequate storage, for no one, he maintained, could ever foresee what might happen in a Balkan country. The recommendation was indeed considered, but the arguments urged against it at the time were held to be more valid. Finally, we were much preoccupied with the situation in Greece, where, after the secession of Venizelos and Admiral Condouriotis to Salonika, relations with the Allies were gravely strained.
The story of the Greek imbroglio would fill a volume by itself. But the most patient historian would find it a baffling task to disentangle the perplexity of issues and to estimate the force and effects of the number of cross-currents prevailing. I have always believed that the feeling of a majority of the Greek people was favourable to the Allies, and have never forgotten the volunteers both in Athens and Crete who offered their services during the South African War. A certain number were ready to risk all that their country had recently acquired in a great adventure, and actively to co-operate with us in a field where their assistance at a certain moment would have been of value. The dynasty, on the other hand, apart from any question of personal sympathies or kinship, seems to have entertained no doubt as to the eventual success of the Central Empires, and therefore insisted on a neutrality which was not displeasing to a considerable part of the nation. [Signor Giolitti in his memoirs (pp. 358 and 368 of the English edition) states that the Italian Government had information already in 1913 that Germany was working to detach Greece from the Entente, and that Constantine favoured such a policy.] A dispassionate review of the position in the earlier phases of the war may warrant the conclusion that it was legitimate for the ruler to regard neutrality as in the best interests of a weak country. But neutrality involved the disregard of pledges to Serbia which were morally binding, even though they had been given in anticipation of quite different circumstances. What was not legitimate was the rendering of unneutral service to the enemy and the assumption of extraconstitutional powers. On the other hand, the adoption of Corfu as a naval base by the Allies and the occupation of Salonika and the surrounding country was only welcome to a section of the nation, and was really imposed on the dynasty. When the anti-dynastic elements among the Greek people rallied round the international contingents at Salonika they really entered the war as belligerents. The rest of the nation, loyal to a king who had been anything but constitutional, still professed a neutrality so far from benevolent as to require constant vigilance and occasional coercion. A more anomalous position could hardly be conceived.
I thought at the time, and looking back feel more than ever convinced, that the Greek situation was mismanaged. This was not due to any lack of perception on the part of our representative at Athens, then Sir Francis Elliot, who, so far as I could judge, saw clearly and gave sound advice. But initiative had for some time passed out of our hands.
It was inevitable that, with a French Commander-in-Chief at Salonika, who was moreover notoriously a politician, and with the naval command in the Mediterranean in the hands of a French Admiral, Balkan policy should have been largely directed by France. She not only undertook the reconstruction of the Serbian Army, but made a special point of having all the Serbian refugees transferred to French territory. The fugitive King of Montenegro was also established in France with a liberal Civil list. Even so comparatively unimportant a person as Essad Pasha, the Bey of Tirana, who began his exile in Italy, where I saw him occasionally, was drawn into the French orbit and, after a visit to Paris, reappeared to the annoyance of the Italians with a small band of Albanians at Salonika under the wing of General Sarrail. The latter was now pressing for authority to deal drastically with the Greek question, and to occupy Thessaly.
Sonnino, whose information was generally good, took a line which appeared to me sound. He urged that it was inopportune to provoke the dynasty and the dynastic party too far. When the King showed a disposition to yield, that moment should not be selected to deliver another blow and put forward a new demand to which in his actual position he could not consent. He did not, however, press his views in international discussions when he found there was little disposition to accept them. On the other hand, the Italian representative in Athens adopted a somewhat independent attitude which gave the impression of divided counsels. Unfortunately the policy of the Allies was precisely the opposite of that advocated by Sonnino. A great deal had already been conceded: the control, for instance, of posts and railways, the removal of a number of troops to the Morea, and a measure, which though necessary was certainly arbitrary, the withdrawal of enemy Legations. But there followed a demand for the surrender of the artillery, which their opponents assumed would be handed over to the Venizelists. The French Admiral endeavoured to enforce this demand by a demonstration in Athens which, in view of the inflammatory conditions prevailing, was undertaken with inadequate means, and had most unfortunate consequences, for which reparations had to be exacted.
It was certainly very difficult for the Allies to appreciate correctly the real feeling existing in the country and the relative strength of the two main currents. We had of course a military intelligence service on the spot which, from an that I learned from private sources, was regarded by the Greeks as crazily amateur. In such matters the Greek himself is a master of craft, by whom the most cautious and experienced of secret agents might readily be misled. Obviously our intelligent authors and archaeologists converted into temporary officers were mere playthings in his hands. Briand, when in Rome, quoted several instances of circumstantial information received in Greece and accepted as accurate by the naval and military authorities, for which on further examination there was found to be not the slightest foundation.
At the close of the year it looked almost as though, while a section of the Greek people were actually co-operating with the Allies, we were drifting towards a state of war with dynastic Greece. Public feeling at home seemed strongly roused. The correspondent in Greece of one of our leading daily papers said to the Greek Minister in Rome, "We took all our instructions from Sarrail and not from Elliot," and he added that he had been working up opinion in England since February for a coup d'état. It was a moment when politicians at home were likely to be particularly susceptible to public pressure, for a new Government had only just taken office. Changes of Government are not matters for comment in the reminiscences of an Ambassador who was the loyal servant of all Ministries. The only reflection which I find recorded in my diary was that as the Press had taken so prominent a part in calling the new administration into being it might be anticipated that those who controlled that Press would claim a more determining influence in the future direction of affairs.
At the end of 1916 peace proposals were in the air. Germany we knew endeavoured to influence the King of Spain, the Pope, and the President of the United States to take some initiative. The Pontiff was prudently hesitant about putting forward any direct suggestion of mediation, which would not have been well received. Believing, however, that some agreement to disarm offered the only chance of peace, he directed his efforts towards making the idea of disarmament acceptable to Germany. Then in December Germany formulated certain proposals. As the United States and Switzerland divided the representation of Allied interests in enemy countries, these proposals had to be communicated through their respective Missions. The communication of the German Note seems to have been made by the Swiss Missions concerned some days before the American Missions took action. On the 19th of December the American Ambassador in Rome informed the Italian Government that President Wilson had intended to approach the belligerent Powers with an important note, but that he had refrained from doing so lest such a step should be interpreted as being taken in collusion with the German initiative. Nevertheless, four days later the President's surprising message was published to the world. Postponement of publication for only a few days hardly justified the announcement made by the American Ambassador, and the delay in transmitting the German proposals suggested rather the desire to make sure that the President's message might appear before any answer could have been returned to Germany.
It was perhaps only a coincidence that precisely at this time M. Caillaux should have been paying the visit to Italy which gave occasion for a judicial enquiry into his proceedings there, and a condemnation which was of public notoriety. His presence in Italy, travelling with a passport issued in another name, was a source of much preoccupation to my French colleague. The individuals with whom he associated, among whom was the ex-deputy Cavallini, [See page 261.] himself afterwards to be placed on trial for treasonable communications, were mostly undesirables from our point of view as belligerents. He did not, as was generally believed, have an interview with the Cardinal Secretary of State. But the substance of a long conversation with a Monsignor connected with the Vatican was communicated to me. It was certainly, if correctly reported, anything but friendly to Great Britain. My friend Ferdinando Martini was unfortunately for himself inveigled into seeing Caillaux, and he never heard the end of it. I was later invited to make a statement as to what I knew regarding the visit, but my information was all at second-hand, and I could not have furnished any evidence which British judicial practice would have admitted.
On Christmas Eve, which fell on a Sunday, our children had just arrived for the holidays when I received a telegram instructing me to return home at once for consultation on various matters. I started a few hours later, and reached Paris early on the morning of the 26th. There I learned that Boulogne harbour was blocked by a grain ship which had grounded at right angles to the entrance and had broken its back. Bertie had provided a French military motor-car to take me to Calais, whence the last boat was due to start at 2 p.m. It would, however, if necessary be detained till three. So I started immediately without waiting even for a cup of coffee. The motor was unfortunately very infirm and refused the hills. More than once we lost much time in stopping to tinker up the machine. The weather was grim and the road bad. Two o'clock passed, and then three, and we were still a long way from Calais. Finally, after a collision with a Belgian ambulance, I reached the base-commandant's office at 4.30. The boat had of course left, and he could only refer me to the naval officer in charge who communicated with Dover. At last at the buffet I obtained a cup of tea, the first refreshment for nearly twenty-four hours. All the movement had been transferred from Boulogne to Calais, and people were camping in the hall and on the staircase of the station hotel. After much insistence I learned that a patrol boat would call for me at 11 p.m. I dined at the station with some genial young officers, and prolonged the meal as late as possible. But the restaurant closed at ten, and I had to sit on my luggage in the waiting-room till midnight, when the very junior lieutenant in charge of the patrol boat appeared. There was a fog in the Channel, and he had had to go cautiously. I remember suggesting that he no doubt knew the way blindfold. Not at all, he replied, he had only just arrived from Plymouth, when he was dispatched to fetch me. However, he and his sub-lieutenant, both looking like schoolboys, appeared to regard this extra journey as all in the day's work. They made me very comfortable in their tiny wardroom, where there was a good fire, and we started at once. Dover was reached about 2 a.m., and I had four hours in bed before catching the seven o'clock train. The fog was very heavy as we approached London, which I did not reach till near midday on the 27th. At the Foreign Office I learned that I was expected to lunch with the Prime Minister at 1.30. Our own house was let, so I raced to Claridge's and had just time to make a rapid change and return to Downing Street. And that was how I spent my Christmas in 1916.
At luncheon I found Ribot, whom I had not seen since I was at the Embassy at Paris twenty years before, and Albert Thomas, with Balfour, Derby, Curzon, Milner, and Bonar Law. After lunch there was a meeting of the war Cabinet at which I was invited to be present. The French Ministers, who had left after lunch, came back in the course of the afternoon, and discussions with them continued till after seven. They were resumed the following morning, after which I lunched with Balfour, who was now my chief. Circumstances pointed to a Conference in Italy, and this involved the dispatch of a number of telegrams to Rome. After a busy afternoon at the Foreign Office I went to dine with the Malcolms. On the 29th I was again summoned to the war Cabinet. But on the 30th I had a fairly free day, and saw a good many friends and relations. The next day, Sunday, I went down to the Prime Minister's house at Walton Heath to dine and sleep, and in the evening he discussed with me certain ideas which he had formed regarding the general military situation which very much commended themselves to me.
It had been decided, after examining various proposals as to where a meeting with the Allied commanding officers at Salonika could best take place, to hold the conference in Rome. But the agreement of the French Government was not obtained in time to enable a start to be made on the first day of the New Year. On the morning of the 2nd I went to the Foreign Office and learned rather late that we were to leave Charing Cross at 2.15. There was just time to pack and lunch. We crossed in the regular boat to Calais, with an ample escort of destroyers watching over our safety, and reached Paris at 11 p.m. With the Prime Minister and Milner were Sir William Robertson and Sir Henry Wilson, George Clerk on behalf of the Foreign Office, Layton and Royden as munitions and shipping authorities, Davies, the Prime Minister's secretary, and Lord Duncannon. A day had to be spent in Paris, and there we lunched with M. Briand. He, with Albert Thomas and General Lyautey, then Minister for War, were the French delegates. They were accompanied by M. Berthelot and a number of military experts, and of course M. Mantoux, the prince of interpreters. The Granvilles travelled in the same train. He had just been appointed Agent at Salonika. The long railway journey offered an excellent opportunity for preliminary discussion of the problems which had to be solved at the conference. We reached Rome early on the morning of the 7th, and the Prime Minister with his private secretary came to stay at the Embassy. The army had absorbed most of my male household, leaving me only with a butler, a chauffeur, an African footman, a cook too diminutive and delicate for military service, and an odd man of uncertain years. It was therefore not possible to accommodate any other guests, especially as all my family were at home, including even my eldest son, who had not been well and had come down from Udine for a week or two before accompanying Colonel Talbot on a very interesting mission to Cyrenaica.
We met in Rome General Sarrail and General Milne from Salonika, Sir Francis Elliot and General Fairholme from Athens. No special plenipotentiary could come from Russia, which was represented by the Ambassador, M. de Giers. General Cadorna arrived from the Front to advise the Italian Delegates Sonnino and Scialoia, the international jurist, whose presence is indispensable at all conferences. Scialoia, who always speaks to the point, is not as a rule a man of many words. Once however at Geneva he told me a curious experience of his early life.
Few of my countrymen have probably ever been to Camerino, which lies remote in the mountains between Umbria and the Adriatic. I once made my way there, hoping to find pictures by its delightful painter Boccati. In that respect there was little to justify the pilgrimage, but the magnificent position of the town makes it well worth a visit. It has a small university, a survival from the Middle Ages when Camerino was an independent principality alternately in feud or friendship with Rimini. Scialoia told me that he began his career as a professor, or rather the professor, at that university, where he represented all the faculties and had charge of about a dozen students. In those happy days he felt "passing rich on £60 a year." The little university has, however, in recent years experienced a considerable revival, and flourishes once more.
The matter with which the Conference had been assembled to deal was the position at Salonika and the situation in Greece. But the Prime Minister had in his mind another very important proposal which he had discussed with me in England, and which he took this opportunity of submitting to the Allied representatives and their military advisers. While experts were considering lines of communication with Salonika he placed his views before the smaller meeting of Ministers, Ambassadors and Chiefs of Staff. He pointed out that there appeared to be a deadlock on the fighting fronts both in the west and the east which there was little immediate prospect of breaking. The line of least resistance on which to push home a vigorous offensive appeared at that moment to be on the Italian front. A shortage of artillery had always handicapped Cadorna. If the Allies could make that shortage good, and also furnish a limited number of efficient divisions to support the spring offensive, there seemed to be a fair prospect of breaking through in the direction of Laybach, and so of cutting the road to the Balkans and of driving a wedge into the flank of the dual monarchy. Indirectly this would also react on the problem at Salonika.
The French, who were naturally reluctant to contemplate any transfer of men or material from their own front, where a renewal of offensive activity might be anticipated in the spring or early summer, did not meet this proposal with a refusal to co-operate. But they attached to their consent a condition that any loan of artillery should be limited to a specific period, and stipulated that the guns must be returned to France by April.
Cadorna expressed the opinion that the plan was not only feasible but that it could be undertaken with good prospect of success. His estimate of the Allied assistance required was eight divisions and 300 guns. But he insisted that it would be quite impossible, once such an advance had been successfully initiated, to give any definite guarantee that the artillery could be returned at a fixed date. When that date arrived operations might still be incomplete, and he could not accept the condition of a time limit which might involve hurried movements and compromise success. The impression which he conveyed in addressing the meeting was certainly one of coldness which, as I suspected and afterwards learned, did not at all represent his real feelings. Sonnino, also, after his manner, instead of dwelling on the positive advantages of the proposal, rather emphasized the difficulties which Cadorna had indicated. The Prime Minister, disappointed to find that neither evinced, as he thought, great enthusiasm for his plan and understanding that the French adhered to their condition that the loan of artillery could only be temporary, decided not to press the matter further.
Having always been anxious to see some British co-operation on the Italian front, and believing, as in fact the coming summer proved, that the Austrian defence was weakening, I had been a warm supporter of the Prime Minister's ideas, and I greatly regretted that he should have closed the door to a resumption of the discussion. Had he known the men with whom he was dealing as well as I did, he would perhaps not have been disturbed by their apparent want of enthusiasm. It was never a characteristic of Sonnino, whose habit of mind led him to examine minutely all the weak points in a proposition which, after having balanced all the pros and cons, he might finally accept and then tenaciously defend. Cadorna explained to me later that the proposal was of course most welcome to him, but that, as it implied giving special prominence to the sphere of action in which he was commanding, a feeling which I should readily understand restrained him in the presence of other distinguished soldiers from directly urging them to place him in a position which would redound to his personal prestige. At the same time he obviously could not give an undertaking to return artillery at a definite date without regard to the conditions prevailing when the moment arrived. He added that he thought Sir William Robertson's views coincided with his own up to a certain point. I must confess I had not divined what was behind the somewhat sphinx-like expression which the latter assumed during the discussion. In so far as a layman was entitled to have an opinion I felt that Cadorna need not have considered the obligation to return the guns as an insuperable obstacle, inasmuch as, if the Austrian defences had been successfully broken, the operations would obviously not have been arrested and the enemy man-power on the Western front would probably have been proportionately diminished. The moment was auspicious for preparing such an offensive with all the elements of a surprise, as movements of men and material through Italy to Salonika were already in process and trains, whose destination the enemy would have assumed to be Taranto, could have been diverted in Piedmont or Liguria and dispatched to the Alpine frontier. The King of Italy, who was enthusiastic in favour of the project, and thought that penetration into Austria might well result in undermining the whole edifice, confirmed what Cadorna had said regarding the delicacy of his position and his natural reluctance to appear too urgent. Indeed, such an attitude was in conformity with his character. It is often interesting in looking back to reflect what part the personal and human element may have played in the shaping of issues. But it is unprofitable to speculate how far events might have been modified by action which never took place. I shall however always believe that the Prime Minister's conception was strategically sound.
At the plenary meeting General Sarrail displayed dialectical ability in submitting his case for the coercion of Greece and the occupation of Thessaly, without which he intimated that his position at Salonika might become precarious. If his premises were correct his conclusions followed logically enough. But the delegates generally remained unconvinced. General Milne could of course not oppose his Commander-in-Chief at the assembly. We had, however, other experts who contested the premises which the Italians were also indisposed to accept. The evidence which we heard pointed to our having in some measure ourselves created the position which was said to be menacing. It was improbable that there would have been a single Greek soldier to oppose an occupation of Thessaly. But irregulars in the mountains might have given a great deal of trouble. The decision taken was really a defeat for Sarrail , and the ultimatum which it was resolved to dispatch to Athens was very much what Sonnino had proposed to send two or three weeks earlier when he had no doubt it would have been accepted without hesitation. Meanwhile, Sarrail's hands were tied, and a definite rupture was avoided. Besides these questions of policy a number of practical matters were disposed of in Rome. Lines of communication were systematized. The British were to use the Adriatic railway with a rest camp at Faenza, and the French the Mediterranean line with a halting station at Leghorn.
Conversations with those who had been at Salonika threw much new light on the position, and illustrated the difficulties of maintaining a force composed of five different nationalities on active service. To myself the conference was particularly interesting from the individualities with whom it brought me into contact. Sarrail, a tall, fair, handsome soldier, had an imperturbable manner when speaking which was rather in contrast with the expression behind the eyes. It was interesting to be confronted with the subject of so much discussion, but we only met officially during the two days he remained in Rome. I have therefore confined my comments to his policy, to which I was strongly opposed. General Lyautey, whose admirable combination of firmness and tact had enabled him to achieve such great results in Morocco, proved on acquaintance to have yet another virtue, the rare quality of charm. Though we had never met before we had been twenty years earlier unconsciously almost in contact in the character of antagonists, for Lyautey was one of the gallant officers of the army of Africa who accompanied Marchand on the adventurous expedition to Fashoda. I did not of course refer to that occasion. Both Briand and Albert Thomas delighted me with that spontaneous eloquence of the Latin which is rarely found in our countrymen. Briand's lucidity and logical sequence of exposition in speeches, which under the circumstances could not but be improvised, carried the hearer on to his conclusion without a break or flaw in the grammatical construction. Albert Thomas's vehement gift of expression assumes at times an emotional quality which can be almost irresistible until you learn to discount it, as I know well from listening to his appeals at the Fourth Commission of the League of Nations against reductions in the budget of the Labour Bureau.
Lord Milner was an old friend of many years' standing. But I had never met Mr. Lloyd George until he summoned me home, when I immediately fell under his charm, which is enhanced by the magic of a perfectly modulated voice. It is not necessary to enlarge upon the quickness of apprehension, the dexterity in exposition, or the courtesy as a listener which are well known to all who have been in personal contact with him. But these days of intimacy gave me the opportunity of seeing another side of his nature, and of realizing how readily he would divest himself of the official and discuss the humanities not as a scholar but with a spirit revealing great sensibility. I had often heard that he had no great opinion of diplomatists, but can only say that he put me at my ease at once, and encouraged me to talk without reserve. It has always interested me to observe the impression which the first glimpse of the Imperial monuments produces on those who have never seen them before, and such an opportunity occurred after a morning sitting when there was still a brief interval before lunch, and I took him and Albert Thomas for a drive past the Forum and the Colosseum. As we settled down in the motor I remember how the Prime Minister remarked as a commentary on the morning's proceedings, "It is extraordinary how the soldiers hate the politicians and how the politicians hate the soldiers," and then turning to me with his genial smile he added, "and how the diplomatists hate them both !" "Not at all," I replied; "there are a great many soldiers I admire very much." "I deserved it," said the Prime Minister.
The conference broke up on the 7th of January. Milner joined us at the Embassy, and remained a day or two longer in Rome. He was shortly to start for Russia on a mission which I did not envy him.
I used to receive about this time, from a source of which I can only say that it was not British nor American, a good deal of interesting information regarding the views and action of the Vatican. After leaving Rome the Prussian Minister to the Holy See had established himself at Lugano close to the frontier. His office no doubt became a useful clearing house for communications, and a Bavarian Monsignor who had to leave Italy in a great hurry was apparently one of the transmitting agents. In January the Minister informed the Holy See that Germany was quite ready to restore Belgian independence "mit militärischen Sicherheiten," the exact connotation of which did not seem very clear. After the rupture of diplomatic relations with Germany by the United States at the beginning of February 1917, two at least of the foreign representatives accredited to the Holy See were assured by the Vatican chancery that the President's action had been taken in understanding with Germany. It was explained to them that the President had not seen his way to cutting off supplies of metal and ammunition to the Allies without raising grave opposition in America. Breaking off relations would justify the presumption of the imminence of war so that he could thereafter insist on the detention in the country of all warlike material.
The President's action had no doubt been an unwelcome surprise to the ecclesiastical authorities for, as I learned later on, an emissary or emissaries, as to the source of whose inspiration Page entertained no doubt, had several times visited the American Ambassador and explained to him the interpretation of the obligations of neutrality which the Vatican hoped the President would adopt. They insisted that as Germany and Austria could receive no supplies from the United States these should also be cut off from the Allies. On one occasion it was even suggested that if the President were reluctant to take a step which would appear to be directed against the Entente a supposed menace from Japan might be adduced as a pretext for refusing supplies. Otherwise there was a curious uniformity in these communications. The Holy See, it was explained, had no means of approaching the President except through the Ambassador; Germany's peace conditions were remarkable for their moderation; Great Britain was the real obstacle to peace. A final message sent just before America entered the war was almost in the nature of an indictment of the President for having missed a great opportunity of stopping the war by the refusal of supplies. Page found it impossible to reject the evidence available that these communications were inspired by the office of the Cardinal Secretary of State. The first interest of the Holy See was no doubt peace. But these and other indications which reached me from sources whose good faith I could not doubt, and which would of course have been studiously concealed from my colleague at the Vatican, led me to conclude that the feeling prevailing there was at the moment not favourably disposed towards us. It was, however, liable to fluctuate with circumstances, and a month or so later there was evidence of much more friendly sentiments.
Early in March a letter reached me announcing the death of my lifelong friend, Harry Cust. It would not be easy to convey to another generation any just impression of what he was to his contemporaries. He sat for a few years in Parliament. He vigorously edited the Pall Mall Gazette for a limited period. He was the author of a very slim little volume of verse which is hardly known outside his own immediate circle. Judged by results, a nature so gifted might hardly be accounted to have fulfilled its early promise. And yet he left a greater blank in the hearts of his associates than any other man that I have known. It is curious that so little remains in the memory of all that fell from the lips of one so brilliant. But his brilliancy was inspired by the atmosphere of the moment, and the merely apposite is inevitably ephemeral. Impulsive, disinterested, and affectionate, he could always claim indulgence and find forgiveness. To be with him was a privilege, and his gift to life was the constant pleasure which radiated from his presence.
In March also we had a visit from the Maharajah of Bikanir, and so made the acquaintance of an Indian prince who in quite a different way had for me the same quality of giving pleasure by his society. A beneficent ruler who is developing his state with modern resources for the benefit of his people, a perfectly natural and very virile man, he would have been the ideal host with whom to go tiger-shooting, which he was good enough to offer me the opportunity of doing.
Towards the end of the month the King of Italy, who had been to Taranto to inspect the fleet, remained in Rome for the close of the Parliamentary session. Reports received that the enemy was accumulating large quantities of warlike material in the Trentino and behind the Isonzo indicated the probability of an attack on both fronts, and Ministers appeared to be preoccupied. But I could not detect any trace of nervousness in the King, though he admitted the possibility of numbers and material drawn from other areas proving overwhelming. He rapidly went over the forces of which Italy could dispose to repel such an attack, adding that I should of course have all those details from our military representative. I could not tell His Majesty that that was the last source from which I ever received any information. Reverting to the Prime Minister's plan the King expressed the opinion that it was the right strategic policy to have adopted, and said that any help we could offer would be welcome. It was much to be regretted that Sir William Robertson's visit to the Italian head-quarters took place during the King's stay in Rome. Fortunately he and General Cadorna seem to have understood one another, and though the larger scheme was never resumed some British and French batteries, nearly 100 guns in all, were sent to Italy. The British gunners made themselves very popular, and the King spoke to me more than once in high praise of their conduct and smartness.
I had the best of reasons at this time for suspecting a new intrigue to supplant Sonnino, and it was really I believe the existence of some friction in the Cabinet which detained the sovereign in Rome. In any case his presence there was successful in clearing the air. No one knew better than myself how difficult Sonnino could be to deal with, and his temperament may well at times have led to irritation among his colleagues. Difficulties were almost sure to arise when the biggest man in the Government only occupied the second place. But he had been throughout the rock on which to lean in the conduct of the war, able to some extent to suppress his own strong convictions in the interest of unity. It was depressing to feel that lesser men should be intriguing to undermine his influence.
Robertson came on to Rome and paid us a brief visit. It was interesting to find that the conclusions he had formed during his visit to Udine were very similar to those expressed to me by the Russian officers on the spot, from whom, as also occasionally from the French military representative, all my first-hand knowledge of the military situation was derived.
Meanwhile, the myth of Tsardom, of which grave and enlightened Russians used to speak with an apparent sense of solemn reverence, had passed away almost without a struggle, and there was nothing to take the place of the fetish which had ceased to impose. The pricking of the bubble was largely the unconscious work of a priapic monk. The loyal, well-meaning but weak and fatalistic Emperor and a good but narrow and irredeemably superstitious Empress with their innocent family, touchingly united in domestic devotion, disappeared from the scene, to end at last as the most tragic victims in history of a vast system of unreality. The political landslide and the importation through Germany of all the elements of disruption into a social order already undermined by revolution rendered hopeless any renewal of a Russian offensive, and enabled enemy divisions to be transferred from the east to the west. It entailed the prolongation of the war for at least another year.
Nevertheless, after a long winter of disillusion, with April and the spring the horizon began to clear. A succession of happy events put heart into us all. First and foremost, on the 6th we learned that Congress had assented to the President's message, and that the United States were at war with Germany. In the first moment of relief and exultation no doubt imagination carried us away, and new horizons of infinite promise seemed to open with the union in a great cause of the two peoples speaking a common language and moved by the same instincts and sentiments. It was a day which one felt glad to have lived to see. I rushed off to find Page, and almost fell into his arms. I had always known where his heart lay. But it was good to feel that the last barrier of reserve was gone, and that thenceforth we should be working together with unrestricted confidence in the common cause. Then Cuba declared a state of war, and Brazil broke off diplomatic relations with Germany.
On the Western front the British and the French forward movements were crowned with success, while the Italian offensive made steady progress in spite of the transfer of a number of divisions from Galicia to reinforce the Austrian line. In the middle of the month a telegram from Colonel Talbot announced that an agreement had been signed with Sayed Idris in Cyrenaica.
The object of his mission had been to co-operate with our Italian allies in establishing a modus vivendi with the grandson of the founder of the Senoussi movement. During the minority of the latter a cousin, Sayed Ahmed, had directed the brotherhood, and sought to make its influence temporal as well as spiritual. When war broke out Turkish and German emissaries had persuaded him to make a hostile diversion on the western frontier of Egypt, which ended disastrously for him. He escaped in a German submarine to Constantinople, and then Sayed Idris, the eldest son of Sayed el Mahdi, being of full age, became the natural ruler of the Senoussi. The defeat of Sayed Ahmed had enhanced British prestige, and we were better able to be of assistance to Italy in negotiating an arrangement with the chief of the fraternity whose followers are scattered from Tripoli to the Red Sea.
The conclusion of a provisional agreement with Idris was not the less satisfactory to me because my son, together with his friend Ahmed Hassanein Bey, now known to fame as the discoverer of the Lost Oases, were with Talbot, and only a few days earlier the reports from Cyrenaica had almost made us despair of reaching any conclusion. But Agnesa, the permanent Under Secretary for the Colonies, and I had put our heads together, and had suggested a new formula which seems to have facilitated an understanding. Sir Mark Sykes happened to be in Rome on his way to Egypt and, knowing that a liaison officer was required for the Italian contingent which was to take part in the Palestine expedition, suggested my son for a post for which his command of the language indicated him as the right man. He was thus to see fighting on three different fronts. Mark Sykes, whose premature death deprived his friends of a very original and interesting personality, was attached to the Secretariat of the Defence Committee, and had been entrusted with the task of preparing agreements for a post-war settlement of the Near East in conjunction with M. Picot on behalf of France, who, I cannot but think, made the best of his opportunities. Sykes had studied the Zionist movement, and had, I believe, been instrumental in convincing the Jewish idealists that their aims would best be served by associating themselves with the Allies in opposition to the international financiers whose interests were for the most part pro-German, and in this he rendered good service. During his stay in Rome he was received by the Pope, which, as he was a devout Catholic, was perfectly regular, but I always felt rather apprehensive of the interviews of amateur diplomatists, and Mark Sykes was something of a freelance. In his case, as in that of other Members of Parliament who visited Rome disguised as Staff officers, it was always rather difficult to grasp what they were doing or rather what they were authorized to do and say.
With the Conference at St. Jean de Maurienne, which took place at the end of April, I had nothing to do. My French colleague went there. But the conversations were confined to the three plenipotentiaries---Lloyd George, Ribot, and Sonnino. The latter returned very satisfied with the result, as well he might be. It did not occur to him that the absence of the consent of Russia would invalidate the settlement so far as the other Powers were concerned, especially after Russia had ceased to have a Government which any of the three recognized, a condition which was shortly to ensue. I imagine, however, that it was present to the minds of many, who conducted these and other similar negotiations, that the extreme claims advanced would never be realized. It was of great importance for Sonnino to be able to assert that he had the assurance that claims commensurate with those advanced by the other Allies would be recognized. In the end all these arrangements which aroused so much misgiving at the time were destined to be in many respects overridden by circumstance and the introduction of new factors unanticipated when they were being discussed.
Preparations for the campaign in Palestine made us anxious to withdraw some of our troops from Salonika, where Sarrail now once more raised the question of the Greek menace to his position and the necessity of occupying Thessaly. Danger from Greece under actual conditions could not seriously be advanced, and the use of the Allied forces for such a purpose would only have meant giving the Bulgarians a favourable chance, and extinguishing all the hopes of the Serbians for a victorious re-entry into their own country. Already enemy agents were making Serbia tempting offers of autonomy in a large Jugo-Slav state. There was no inter-Allied general staff at Salonika, but if there had been, from all the accounts received, the policy of the Commander-in-Chief, which seemed to be dictated by political rather than by military considerations, would not have received any support.
Just when a reduction of our forces at Salonika was under consideration reports reached me from two different sources of a project for a big military hospital at Taranto. Having in mind our experience in Sicily just before the evacuation of Gallipoli, I felt bound to point out that it would be inadvisable to commit ourselves to costly schemes for which, after all, there might be little necessity. Taranto, which is hot and slightly malarial, was not in any case an ideal site for a hospital, and Arthur Stanley, who at this time paid a visit to Italy, had told me that the Red Cross would be prepared to provide small hospital stations on the line of communications at Faenza and Alessandria.
A hastily summoned Conference at Paris once more deliberated on the Greek situation. The telegram inviting Sonnino to attend only reached him on the day on which he must have started in order to arrive in time. His engagements made it impossible for him to leave at a few hours' notice. There was only one train a day, and the journey took thirty-six hours. This was certainly unfortunate since, though Italy was not one of the guaranteeing Powers, no step in regard to Greece had been taken without consulting her, and as the Ambassadors in Paris were not present at the meeting her voice was not heard at all. When in June the coup d'état took place which brought about the withdrawal of King Constantine and the substitution of his second son as King, it passed without much comment in Italy as a step which the guaranteeing Powers were justified in taking in view of their special position. But a proclamation of Albanian independence, announced almost simultaneously, which could not have been promulgated without the encouragement of an Italy in partial occupation of that country, seemed to have been intentionally made to synchronize with developments in Greece. The situation had to be handled discreetly in order to give no opening to those whose interest it was to spread reports of a lack of mutual confidence among the Allies.
While the general spirit in Italy was satisfactory in spite of the many sacrifices entailed on the people there were some very regrettable incidents in manufacturing areas in the north, where the extreme Socialists were encouraged by the shortage of grain and other supplies to press their anti-war campaign more ruthlessly. Violent riots at Turin had to be put down with a strong hand. A number of the demonstrators who had till then been exempted from active service in the interests of mechanical industries were at once dispatched to the Front. The infiltration into the fighting ranks of a number of agitators had obvious disadvantages. During the summer, in spite of a series of successes which carried the Italian line continually forward, the enemy claimed to have made a considerable number of prisoners. This might of course well be the result of counter-attacks. But there seem also to have been, on one occasion at least, instances of collective desertion by men who had been tampered with by an insidious propaganda, and who laid down their arms, acclaiming the Russian revolution. Information to that effect reached me from a source on which I had always been able to depend. I also received a number of anonymous letters drawing attention to the dissemination of subversionary pamphlets among the soldiers. As I remained without any information from our Military Mission I suggested to the military attaché when he paid a visit to the Front that he should make some discreet enquiries, and his investigations confirmed the existence of this dangerous activity and of its effects, which I had already reported home, privately, as it was outside my province to deal officially with military matters. The correctness of the information which I had received has been fully confirmed by the publication, some seven years later, of a series of letters addressed in June and August 1917 by Marshal Cadorna to the Italian Prime Minister, in which he drew attention to the progressive aggravation of the evil in spite of the very severe measures taken to prevent desertion. He prophesied sinister consequences if the cause of the evil were not removed and, while complaining that his earlier communications had remained without reply, he protested energetically against the toleration in the country of a subversive propaganda which was ruinous to the discipline and morale of the army. I had, moreover, in conversations with Sonnino detected the anxiety which he felt himself regarding the increase of revolutionary agitation.
The persistence of reports of this anti-military propaganda seemed to me to be so disquieting that just before the big Italian thrust in the later summer I asked the military attaché to pay another visit to head-quarters. That he should do so was entirely in conformity with the only instructions which I had received regarding his proper function in war-time. On his arrival at Udine, however, a message was conveyed to him, ostensibly from the assistant Chief of the Staff, but through a junior member of our Military Mission, that it would not be possible at that moment to provide him with any accommodation. Under the circumstances he could only return to Rome. As Colonel Lamb was extremely popular with Italian officers and had been treated with exceptional cordiality on his former very occasional visits, I could only form my own conclusions as to the real source of this message. It was an incident which should never have occurred, and I had now to insist strongly on a new and clear definition of functions and powers. My anxiety as to these undermining influences, which the Russian débâcle stimulated, were not diminished when Benedict XV published in August his pronouncement regarding the obligation to make peace. It was an accidental but most unfortunate coincidence that the only two agencies which really exercised influence on the masses should thus be working on parallel lines.
On the other hand, military operations on the Italian front during the spring and summer of 1917 had been consistently fortunate. The crossing of the Isonzo and the penetration on to the Bainsizza plateau was a remarkable military feat. It brought Italian troops to within forty miles of Laybach, and revealed what might have been accomplished had it been possible to give Cadorna the support which the Prime Minister had urged at the beginning of the year. A war of manoeuvres would have recommenced in that area, and the Allies might have pushed far into the heart of Austria. It seemed worthy of consideration whether with the advent of autumn in the north the plan might not be resumed. But careful calculations of time and means of transport made it evident that for the current year the occasion had gone by, and that no more could be attempted till the following spring. The fates do not often concede a second opportunity when the first has been rejected, and now a disastrous autumn was to undo all that the summer had achieved.
Cadorna's decision, for reasons which were strategically sound, to suspend in September the offensive which had cost Italy upwards of 160,000 men out of action, was reported to the respective Allied chiefs of staff. But his letter explaining those reasons did not reach our military authorities. The return of the guns, which had only been sent for offensive purposes, was accordingly requested with a view to the transmission of a certain number to Egypt. Cadorna felt that he could only acquiesce. But fortunately the misunderstanding was cleared up, and it was decided to leave some of the British batteries. The thirty-five French guns were, however, withdrawn.
In the course of a life not without adventures, I have had several narrow escapes which were generally only of interest to myself. But one which occurred during the war at the Embassy seems worthy of mention on account of its exceptional nature. Owing to the summons to the flag of most of our men-servants we had welcomed the opportunity of engaging as a footman a tall and good-looking negro with experience of house service and excellent testimonials. He had been baptized under the name of Vittorio, and brought up as a Christian. After he had been with us for some time another negro equally tall, called Ali, presented himself and was engaged provisionally on trial. This man had not been very long m the house before a sum of money disappeared from my study which it was his duty to clean. There was no evidence against him, and he was not charged with the theft. But it seemed more prudent not to retain him. Shortly after his discharge, my wife having left with the children, I was alone at the Embassy and went every evening to dine at the Club, returning immediately afterwards. Having one night a great deal of work on hand, I went straight to my table and sat down to write without looking round. I only moved once from the writing-table to find something to drink and went to bed at a very late hour. The butler, when he called me the following morning, informed me that a number of small articles, such as cigarette cases, had disappeared from my table, and that a cabinet in which I used to keep a little ready money had been prized open. On going down I also found that some 500 cigarettes had disappeared from one of the drawers of the writing-table, and that a metal dispatch box which stood in my room had been found in the hall near the front door. Now my cigarettes were supplied by a maker in Alexandria with whom no one else in Rome was likely to deal. Suspicion fell upon Ali, who was an inveterate smoker. But no one could suggest how he could have obtained access to the Embassy, which was watched on both sides. There was no evidence of a forced entry.
I informed the police that if a negro were found with cigarettes on him bearing the name of the Alexandrian tobacconist the case against him could be established. Ali was duly arrested a day or two later, dressed in my clothes, and most of the stolen articles were also found. He confessed to the robbery as an act of vengeance for his dismissal. While serving as a footman he had discovered how to open a grating in the garden through which access could be obtained to a cellar where firewood was stored. The cellar opened into a corridor under the house, and the door had either been left open or he had found means of opening it. He had climbed over the garden wall by night and, eluding the night watchman, had made his way into the wood-cellar. Removing his clothes he was able to move freely about the house at night, being invisible owing to his black skin.
On the night of the robbery he had deposited some of my clothes in the cellar, and was in my study engaged on the cabinet and the drawers when he heard my footsteps coming down the long passage from the chancery entrance by which I let myself in. He turned off the light and got behind the curtains in the window recess, where he must have remained motionless many hours. When I went to the table with the tray and glasses I must have passed within a few feet of this powerful negro standing stark naked behind the curtain holding his knife in his teeth ready for use if he was detected. Fortunately, I was unaware of his presence. After I had gone to bed he collected all the portable loot, returned to the cellar to dress himself in my clothes, and left the house by the front door very early in the morning. He had the dispatch box, which contained many valuables, under his arm, but seeing the detective on duty on the pavement opposite, he thought it more prudent not to be seen issuing at such an hour with a heavy case and so he left it in the hall.
The story does not end with the arrest of Ali. A week or two later Vittorio told me he wished to leave. The robbery had become known to the public, and as he was also black the boys in the street took him for the thief, and made his life impossible. So far as we were aware there was nothing against him, and he had been an excellent servant. He found a place eventually with the Marchesa Casati, and succeeded in gaining her confidence. But some months afterwards he robbed her in a very serious manner, and so came to a bad end. It was probably he and not Ali who had committed the original theft at the Embassy ; and it was the devout product of missionary enterprise who was really the bigger villain. But I have always been thankful that I did not go to the window that night to see what the weather was doing.
The Duke of Sermoneta, an old friend of many years, who had been for some time in failing health, died at the beginning of September. The loss at the Front of his second son, Don Livio Caetani, an able and singularly modest diplomatist who had already proved his mettle during the siege of the Peking Legations, had affected him not a little, and there were constant preoccupations for other stalwart sons who as Caetani were foremost in doing their duty. He had lived the allotted term of years, but had retained so much of youth and such freshness of interest in life that one never thought of his age. Handsome, cultured, witty, with a commanding figure and an unfailing charm of gracious manner, he had been pleasantly familiar almost ever since I had known the world of Rome, of which he was one of the last representative patrician types. It is true he left many charming and capable sons to carry on the name. But the old life of the city, in which he was identified with all that was best and worthiest, has passed away, and following in the procession which left the Villa Torlonia where he died I seemed to be attending the funeral of the ancient order.
At the end of August Sonnino paid a visit to London, where he was very cordially received. I was gratified at his making what I know was an effort to him, because direct contact among statesmen of different countries serves to clear away many misconceptions, and personality cannot be gauged vicariously from official communications. When he came back I felt it possible for the first time after four years to take a brief holiday in England where we arrived in the second half of September, just before London and the suburbs were subjected during a whole week to a daily bombardment from the air. It was an unpleasant experience from which we had hitherto been immune in a city enjoying apostolic protection. We were dining with the Scarbroughs on the first evening, and hearing explosions went out into Park Lane, whence one could see the flashes of the bombs falling in the direction of Paddington. A few weeks of relative liberty at home soon passed. Our return journey was the longest in my experience. Mines were reported to have been loosened by a gale, and we were first detained at Southampton. There were further delays at Havre and at Paris. It took us six days to reach Rome. Meanwhile the disaster of Caporetto had taken place.
Go To Next Chapter