SOCIAL AND DIPLOMATIC MEMORIES, 1902-1919
BY THE RIGHT HON. SIR JAMES RENNELL RODD, G.C.B.
Orlando Prime Minister. Caporetto. Moral influences largely responsible. The retreat and recovery on the Piave. Conference at Rapallo. Arrival of Allied contingents. Generals Cadorna and Diaz. Spirit of the country. Enemy subjects interned. Sir Erie Geddes. Sir Cecil Spring-Rice. Mr. Wickham Steed in Italy. Conference of races subject to Habsburg Dynasty. Steed and Sonnino. The "Italian Committee." Anomalies of war-time. The Prince of Wales in Rome. The Guards' Band. Salaries. Austrian offensive on Piave repelled. Leave. Conditions at home.
During my absence differences within the Ministry had become so pronounced that the veteran Boselli, who had so gallantly stepped into the breach at a difficult moment, resigned on the eve of Caporetto. A new Ministry was rapidly formed by Orlando, the Minister of the Interior. It remained a Coalition Ministry, including many of the old members, with a more pronouncedly Liberal character. Carcano, whose health had broken down, was replaced by the enterprising Signor Nitti. In 1915, the latter had not been an ardent advocate of intervention. But time and the enemy's methods of warfare had made many conversions, and his son, who had been severely wounded, was then a prisoner in the enemy's hands. My friend Chiesa of the robust lungs, long one of the stormy petrels of the Chamber, but a sterling patriot with a heart of gold, greatly concerned for the welfare of the workingman, became Minister of Munitions. Sonnino, whose political attitude had always been opposed to that of Orlando, told me that he had meant to withdraw if Boselli's resignation became inevitable. But the anticipated enemy offensive, followed by the disaster of the retreat, compelled him to change his mind. At such a critical stage he could not abandon his post, and he would do his best to work with the President of the Council.
Information gathered from the best sources available left little doubt that Caporetto was very largely the result of psychological causes, though no doubt also due to errors of military appreciation. While the presence of only two weak corps without any adequate support to hold a vulnerable section of the line, and a very questionable disposition of the artillery, seemed to the layman to justify much of the criticism they encountered, grave responsibility for what took place must rest on those who deliberately created the moral atmosphere which made defeat possible and probably inevitable. The area occupied by these divisions of the Second Army had for long remained a quiet portion of the Front where the monotonous isolation of life in the trenches was unbroken by stirring events. It was none the less a position of great importance open to attack from both Tolmino and Plezzo. Here for many months a persistent anti-military propaganda had undermined the morale of peasant soldiers, with little or no knowledge of international conditions, whose restricted outlook had never conceived those ideals of the war, which, in our country, had brought millions of volunteers to the flag. In Italy the corporate spirit is never strong, and it depends largely on the quality of the officers to inspire it in a regiment. The old professional officers had been to a great extent killed or disabled in the earlier phases of the campaign. The new officers were not in touch with their men, and had little hold upon them. Into this army had been drafted the men, strongly impregnated with the doctrines disseminated by the extreme Socialists, who had been compromised in the serious riots at Turin and elsewhere, and who were sent as a punitive measure to the colours. Coming from industrial cities, where they had learned the catechism of their instructors, they became centres of infection preaching pacifism and even sabotage. I have already referred to the four letters addressed by Marshal Cadorna to the Government in the summer of 1917, drawing earnest attention to the effects of the anti-patriotic propaganda which, being allowed free play in the country, was manifestly also contaminating the army. He was to my knowledge not the only prominent general officer who pressed for more energetic measures. There was no counter influence at work in the ranks, and little to distract the tedium of life among young soldiers passionately attached to the homes from which they had been for so long separated. The letters they received from their families were depressing to their spirits, and on the rare occasions when they went on leave they would encounter echoes of the same teaching in the villages. The constant effort to discredit the Allies and to attribute, especially to ourselves, selfish motives for prolonging the struggle, of which we had ample evidence in Central Italy, had no doubt its effect also at the Front. Then, when on the 16th of August the head of the Church, to many of them the only moral influence to which they were susceptible, issued his appeal for peace, affirming that the time had come when the war should cease, the agitator did not allow them to remain in ignorance of this pronouncement. Without seeking to attach direct responsibility to that Pontifical utterance, which was of course not addressed to individuals in the fighting line, I cannot doubt that, adroitly interpreted by the propagandist, it affected the mentality of the troops.
I was informed later that the enemy had had exact facsimiles produced of Italian newspapers which were dropped from aeroplanes over the lines. These announced the outbreak of revolution in Italy. It was also reported that, for some time previously, surreptitious communications had been established between the opposing ranks, and that an agreement had been mutually reached between certain units on either side to lay down their arms when ordered to attack. But the German divisions under the command of General von Below had been distributed along the front of the Austro-Hungarian lines, and if any such compact had been concluded it was only kept on the Italian side. The simple peasant soldier who had seen little fighting during two weary years was readily deluded by these manoeuvres, and when in mist and rain before daybreak on the 24th of October the offensive began and the word went round to abandon arms, a considerable number did not hesitate to do so. It was only a limited number of regiments belonging to the Second Army that were thus affected. But their defection and the consequent penetration of the enemy at a critical point compromised the safety of the whole line.
On the Bainsizza plateau, which had been so hardly won, and at Gorizia, secured after one of the brilliant actions of the war, a successful resistance was opposed. But the disheartening order to retreat was inevitable. The withdrawal across the Isonzo was carried out in good order. But the breach so easily effected in the northern sector, through which the enemy debouched in strength, exposed the encumbered divisions descending into the plain to a deadly flank attack. There, broken and completely demoralized, the Second Army melted away, and those who escaped envelopment were scattered as fugitives over the country, seeking the shortest road to return to their native villages.
Many conspicuous acts of heroism were displayed by isolated bodies cut off by the invading stream. The Alpini on Monte Nero were said to have perished almost to a man, defending the post which had been won at the cost of great sacrifice.
The remaining Armies, the First, the Third, the Fourth, and the Fifth behaved without reproach. A general withdrawal in hot haste was unavoidable. But they retired in such order as could be maintained over roads cut up by the autumn rains and blocked by the fugitive population, standing their ground when pressed and then retiring once more. The cavalry, among which the dragoons of Genoa and the lancers of Novara especially distinguished themselves, again and again flung desperate charges on the pursuing enemy to secure a brief respite for the retreating infantry. The difficulties entailed by such a general withdrawal were enormous. It seemed at one moment doubtful whether the Third Army in the southern section, loaded with transport, or the advancing enemy would win the race to the half-way obstacle presented by the River Tagliamento. But the enemy had probably not been prepared for such a rapid or decisive success, and proved unequal to following it up methodically, so that the retreating forces were enabled to take up a strong position behind the shorter line of the Piave. Extending themselves on the new ground the Italian armies turned at bay and arrested the enemy advance. Had they not stood their ground, the Austrian and German divisions might have swept on into the plain of Lombardy with disastrous consequences to all the Allied fronts. But they held firm, and reinforced by the very young levies that had just joined the colours, they emerged with honour from an ordeal which demanded the endurance of veterans. Historically the disastrous defection at Caporetto must never be separated from the gallant recovery on the Piave, which was one of the most important achievements of the Great War. I have since more than once heard it suggested that the Italian Army was saved by the arrival of Allied divisions. This is of course a misapprehension. The knowledge that Allied assistance was assured no doubt gave great encouragement in the hour of dejection, and these divisions eventually took their part in repelling the intermittent attacks which continued till Christmas. But the British troops did not take up the position assigned to them on the Montello until the 4th of December, while the French arrived only a few days earlier.
The British guns were all safely withdrawn to new stations. The Ambulance units accompanied the retreating armies, and the field hospital was evacuated without loss. It was remarkable that although the whole strength of the Austro-Hungarian fleet was concentrated at Pola, the Italians were able to bring away the coastal batteries which they had landed at Monfalcone. But the losses of material were of course overwhelming. The highest authority in Rome informed me that he calculated on having to replace 1,700 guns, but his estimate fell short of the real number. At such a moment Italy had reason to be grateful to the firm of Ansaldo, which had been actively manufacturing artillery greatly in excess of the official demand.
Eleven Allied divisions were to be sent to Italy with the briefest possible delay. General Foch had arrived immediately to investigate and advise on the situation, and Sir William Robertson joined Cadorna at Treviso on the 30th of October. The latter came on to Rome while waiting for a conference of the Allied Governments to assemble on the 5th of November at Rapallo. We thus had time for some preliminary discussions together, and the information which he brought was the more welcome as I had received no word from our Military Mission and, during the first few days, the authorities at Rome pursued a policy of silence which was I think regrettable, as it only allowed uncontrollable rumours to gain currency.
Even the meeting of Allied ministers at Rapallo, which was attended by Mr. Lloyd George and General Smuts, by M.M. Painlevé and Franklin Bouillon for France, and by Orlando and Sonnino on behalf of Italy, with their military advisers, was only known to the public after its conclusion. Its results did much to restore general confidence. Thereafter a stronger sense of unity and a pooling of resources seemed assured. A Supreme War Council to sit at Versailles would co-ordinate military action. On this council Cadorna was, with some difficulty, persuaded to represent Italy. He would have preferred to offer his services in any subordinate capacity in the fighting line.
Under the circumstances no alternative was possible to the supersession of Cadorna, the more so as his Order of the Day of the 28th of October, which was only published with certain modifications, was known to have attributed the defeat to treachery, a reflection which a majority of opinion resented. He was replaced by General Diaz, with General Badoglio as assistant chief of the staff. I regretted not a little a step which I recognized as inevitable, because I had regarded Cadorna, who was not always well served by his subordinates, as one of the big soldiers in a war in which few of the Allied commanders had found opportunity for exceptional distinction. He had had from the first to contend with great difficulties, in consequence of a too rigid system of promotion by seniority. Though he had, in the face of much opposition, eliminated a large number of superannuated general officers, too many still remained. The dissatisfied made contact with the politician, and rumours had constantly reached us of friction between the authorities in Rome and the chief of the staff, which must have been harassing to him at a time when he needed to concentrate all his attention on military problems. His protests against the toleration allowed to a propaganda subversive of discipline and efficiency show that he was generally well-informed as to its sinister effects, and he had been severely criticized for very drastic measures taken to suppress its manifestations. On the other hand, he can evidently not have been fully cognizant of the demoralization prevailing in the particular sector which was made the object of the enemy attack, since no measures were taken to replace or reinforce the troops which held it. There were, it seems, lines actually prepared in the rear of the position which might have been held by supporting troops. The General commanding the Second Army had been ill, and had only returned to duty on the eve of Caporetto.
To Cadorna, in any case, belonged the credit of the preparation for war in an area where every physical advantage was on the side of the enemy, and under his direction the opening phases of the campaign were marked by a continuous series of successes. If the faulty dispositions of a general whom he had unfortunately replaced too late were responsible for a reverse in the Trentino in 1916, the balance was quickly re-established by the rapid measures taken by the chief of the staff, who followed them up with the brilliant action on the Isonzo which led to the capture of Gorizia. It is possible, if the proposals made by Mr. Lloyd George in the beginning of 1917 had been adopted, that Cadorna might have gone down to history as one of the most successful captains of the war. Not the least of his merits was the cool-headed conduct of the retreat, which enabled the Italian armies to establish themselves on the Piave, a strategic line which he had always had in view since the summer of 1916. It is gratifying to know that, after a period of dignified retirement, his services to his country have been recognized by the bestowal of the rank of Marshal.
Having been in immediate contact with those who had to guide the destinies of the country and to make good the losses of men and material, I wish in justice to place on record that I could never detect in them any sign of faltering. Orlando and his Government displayed fervour and courage, sustaining the national sentiment and, both in the first tragic days and through the long period of reconstruction, they deserved well of their country. The impression which Caporetto made on the mass of the people, who had had no reason to anticipate a disaster of such magnitude, was of course profound. A sense of humiliation was perceptible in their faces and in their words. But no voice was heard to put forward any plea for peace, and none showed greater pluck than the refugees from the invaded regions and those who had lost their all. The spirit of the Italian people was indeed worthy of all admiration in their misfortune, which seemed to have strengthened the feeling of national unity and to have quickened their resolution. They would withdraw, if need be, to the Apennines, but they would not accept defeat. Deserters trying to make their way back to their homes were badly received, and the women of Calabria drove them with reproaches out of the villages.
The retreating armies had remained continually in action, and many positions were contested throughout November and December, until the new front on the Piave was consolidated. Their recovery and resistance to the series of Austrian attacks against the Grappa Sector in the north was one of the notable achievements of the war. There were rumours in Rome of divided opinions as to whether the Piave position should be definitively held or whether there should be a further retrogade movement to a still shorter defensive line. At the Front there was no such hesitation, though no doubt plans were prepared for every eventuality. Neither General Diaz nor General Cadorna ever decided on a further withdrawal. The influence of General Plumer, whose experience was a valuable asset, was also decisively exercised in favour of the Piave line, which was maintained, with few modifications as then constituted, until the final victorious advance at the end of October 1918. Meanwhile, it not only served as the defensive frontier of Italy, but it held up fifty-three Austro-Hungarian divisions, none of which could be utilized to reinforce the waning enemy man-power on the Western front. It was a matter for great regret when General Plumer, whose unfailing tact had enabled him to put forward recommendations which were not only not resented but actually welcomed, was recalled to France where his services were urgently needed in the spring. But the choice of Lord Cavan to replace him was a very happy one, and the confidence which he inspired was revealed when the time for action came, and he was entrusted with the command of the Tenth Army.
On the reassembly of the Chamber after Caporetto, the public and the Press were excluded from its sessions which were held in camera. The secrecy of discussion was on the whole well maintained, and I could only accept as probably correct certain information which reached me such as, for instance, an admission made by Sonnino, in speaking of Italian interests on the eastern side of the Adriatic, that the numerical proportion of Italians to Slavs in certain areas was too small to enable any case for annexation to be advanced on the nationality basis, and that it would be necessary to recede from certain claims.
Meanwhile, the advance in Palestine had begun. We had news of Gaza and of the advance to Jaffa. But I received no communication from my son for six weeks until, on the 10th of December, a telegram arrived with the two words "all well." The same evening we learned that Jerusalem had capitulated. Private affairs were satisfactory, as my second son had just gained an honorary scholarship at Wellington and my eldest daughter had obtained her A certificate at Oxford. Public affairs, on the other hand, were depressing. The situation in Roumania seemed desperate, and the demobilization of the army in Russia was anticipated.
After my return from leave I had immediately once more urged in the strongest terms which I could command, the necessity for grappling with the anti-ally propaganda, which was manifestly encouraged by the large number of enemy subjects who still remained at large in the big cities. The new President of the Council now took action, and the Germans, who had retained their liberty in virtue of the Bülow arrangement, were deported to remoter centres, where they were kept under strict supervision. But within the country certain subtle influences constantly worked to predispose the public mind in favour of early peace negotiations. Although Giolitti himself had somewhat platonically supported the Government in the Chamber, I read at this time in an important journal wholly devoted to his interest a specious article on the freedom of the seas, which insinuated that Great Britain alone blocked the way to a removal of the chief obstacle to an early conclusion of peace and that, as we were not likely to yield on this issue even to American pressure, the war was bound to continue.
Early in February 1918 General Smuts passed through Rome on his way to Palestine and Sir Eric Geddes arrived with a Naval Mission to discuss a number of important questions. The results were satisfactory in so far as the direction of the anti-submarine campaign and the maintenance of the Adriatic barrage were placed under our control. Local conditions presented many difficulties which were not encountered in home waters, but the measures now adopted began to bear fruit in a few months' time. Arrangements which promised well were also concluded for the salvage and repair of merchant vessels, not only off the Italian, but also off the Grecian and North African coasts. The Admiralty, in spite of my constant representations, did not seem to have realized the precarious conditions prevailing in Italy owing to the shortage of coal for the navy and the railways, but there was now good prospect that this grave matter would receive early attention. Somewhat later I was once more in communication with the First Lord over the question of the unity of the naval command in the Mediterranean, which, owing to French and Italian rivalry, had presented an almost insuperable problem. It appeared to be on the eve of settlement by the appointment of Lord Jellicoe as the supreme co-ordinating authority when, once again, new difficulties arose in defining the limits of independent action. These divergences might have been adjusted, but the First Lord, who was obliged to go to the United States, did not receive the letter in which I submitted a plan for doing so, and the opportunity went by.
The death at Ottawa in the same month of Cecil Spring Rice distressed me greatly, not only because in him I lost an intimate friend of forty years, but because I resented that so gifted and lovable a colleague should have been infelix opportunitate mortis. For he had just been recalled from his duties as Ambassador at Washington where, so far as I could form an appreciation, he had acted with great judgment in very critical years. His health had been far from good for some time, and I have no doubt that the responsible authorities had excellent reasons for their action. But he was acutely sensitive. The notice given to one who had served his country with distinction for some five and thirty years was very brief, and il modo ancor mi offende. Cecil Spring Rice, in spite of the very strong feelings which underlay his well-reasoned and clearly defined opinions, was of so modest a demeanour and so instinctively alien to any self-advertisement, that his remarkable personality, with its subtly humorous irony and its essential kindness, was little known to the world in general, but it was warmly appreciated by his own generation. The fervour of patriotism in its highest sense which stirred him during the war inspired him after many years of silence to self-expression in a noble poem which should hold its place in literature.
At the end of March 1918 Mr. Wickham, Steed came to Italy with an inter-Allied propaganda delegation to promote measures for communicating with soldiers of Slav or Roumanian race in the enemy ranks. In his book, Through Thirty Years, he has given an interesting account of his energetic action. With the full co-operation of the Italian civil and military authorities a rain of projectiles enclosing documents was directed towards the enemy lines. It had its effect in procuring a certain number of desertions. It is even possible that, as he surmises, the efficacy of this method of information may have contributed to the postponement of an Austro-Hungarian offensive on the Piave, expected in April, until the following June. But there were other factors to account for the delay. A complete reorganization of the Austrian Army had been initiated in the winter, and the process, entailing many movements and continual revision, appears to have been much more lengthy than was anticipated. Replies to questions put to prisoners after the final victory suggest that the results attributed to this propaganda have been exaggerated. [Dr. Masaryk, in his Memories of the War, writing of an earlier period says: "In practice the two sides soon recognized one another and generally agreed that those of our people fighting in the Austrian ranks should come over to our army; but there were cases of very stubborn fratricidal strife."] The men who were interrogated seemed to have known very little of what was going on in their own country, and when asked why they had continued fighting, simply said they had taken the military oath of loyalty and felt bound by it. Whether Mr. Steed is justified in making the reluctance of Sonnino to be more explicit in regard to the national aspirations of the Southern Slavs responsible for the failure to bring about desertion in masses is certainly conjectural, as is also his presumption that a more definite declaration on the subject than that made by the Allied Conference in Paris on the 3rd of June would have converted the repulse of the Austrian attack on the Piave in the same month into a disaster.
In the beginning of April there was a Conference at Rome between Allied propaganda delegates and representatives of the various races subject to the Habsburg dynasty. Dr. Trumbitch was the spokesman of the Southern Slavs, Benes of the Czecho-Slovaks, and M. Skirmunt, now so well-known as the Minister of Poland in London, was delegate for his country. At this Conference certain proposals which had been outlined by Trumbitch, and the Italian deputy, Dr. Torre, were adopted as the basis of the future policy of the subject nationalities. It was never made clear to me how far the convening of the Conference, with regard to which I had received no instructions of any kind, was regarded as having the official countenance of H.M.'s Government. The Italian Government do not seem to have recognized it as having any official character. The Minister for Foreign Affairs indeed told Mr. Steed that he had not altogether approved of the "Congress" before it met, and had not believed in its success. In any case Sonnino could not be persuaded to take a part in it either personally or by delegation. Nor would he publicly pronounce himself on an issue which he was too wise not to know by that time would be a foregone conclusion after the termination of a successful war. Mr. Steed, who had been zealous in promoting the Conference, has expressed the opinion that had he been "a little firmer with him," he would have taken Sonnino there in triumph. ['Through Thirty Years, H. Wickham Steed, Vol. II, p. 210.] Although the latter acquiesced in the resolutions adopted it would, I think, have needed greater firmness than could be exercised on a Cabinet Minister even by the authoritative foreign editor of The Times to induce him to intervene personally and proclaim that acquiescence. Great progress had indeed been made towards convincing public opinion in Italy of the necessity for co-operating with the elements which were now combining to promote the formation of a new southern Slav state. But Sonnino, as I have more than once pointed out, was temperamentally inclined to concentrate his thoughts rather on the potential dangers than on the advantages of new ventures, and a powerful Slav state might in the future, he no doubt believed, not necessarily become a more comfortable neighbour than the old empire of the Habsburgs. Some apprehension had, moreover, been created early in the year by public utterances of Allied ministers regarding the aims of the war, and by an apparent disposition to restrict those of Italy to reunion with peoples of the same race. This postulate had been narrowed in its connotation rather than widened by a declaration of the President of the United States. The essential consideration for Italy was a sound strategic frontier, and this could not be secured without inclusion in the Kingdom of a considerable number of Slovenes. In conversations which I had with Supilo, whose premature death in the previous year I learned with genuine regret, as well as with other leaders of the movement, I had found them generally reasonable. Nor was Sonnino himself intractable in principle, but his retentive bargaining instinct could not easily be brought to anticipate the surrender of points which he held it prudent to reserve. Orlando perhaps perceived more closely the advantages of not delaying an opportune settlement. The Cabinet was not altogether a happy family, and there was at this time reason to believe that if Sonnino could not be induced to revise his attitude in certain respects he might be forced by influences within the Ministry to resign. For this very reason there was danger in an agitation against him, promoted by foreign elements, in a country where such intervention in internal affairs is often presumed and always vehemently resented. The attitude of an influential editor who was also a recognized agent of propaganda might easily be supposed to have official endorsement. If, moreover, certain articles in the New Europe, of which Mr. Steed was known to be one of the founders, were designed to undermine the influence of Sonnino, they had in reality rather the contrary effect of fortifying it, since they assured him of the support of the Chauvinists.
The author of Through Thirty Years can hardly have seriously expected Sonnino to tear up the London Treaty of 1915 which, having been contracted before the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire was contemplated, would obviously have to be modified in some respects. He certainly does not spare the statesman who was so unwise as not immediately to adopt his advice.
Barrère and I were also taken to task in the columns of The Times for a presumed bias in favour of Sonnino's views. It may be that we both of us hesitated to say all that was in our minds to a visitor whose actual status had not been definitely explained to us, and who represented an organ which was then sometimes a supporter and sometimes a critic of the Government which I was serving. But personally I had realized that Sonnino's great work had by that time been accomplished and, knowing the difficulties which his temperament would present in international negotiations, I should certainly not have been sorry if circumstances had enabled the representation of Italy at a Peace Conference to fall into other hands. On the other hand, few outside that country could appreciate as Barrère and I had been able to do, how, through a long period, when the uncertainties of the internal situation seemed chronic and when the advocates of thorough were repeatedly in danger of finding themselves in a minority, the character and determination of Sonnino had been the great asset in keeping the direction of affairs on the right road. The combination of official or semi-official with journalistic functions in the same persons at this particular time was one of the manifestations of the new diplomacy, the advantage of which seems very open to question. Lord Northcliffe's enterprising lieutenant, if he sometimes worked for propaganda purposes on quite independent lines, was apparently an authorized agent, while as a journalist he retained full liberty to criticize the Government. Such anomalies were perhaps inevitable in times of war and crisis. But they were certainly perplexing and sometimes harassing to responsible officials.
The direction of propaganda in Italy fell thereafter into the hands of an "Italian Committee" established at Crewe House. I had some difficulty in ascertaining its constitution, which perhaps was meant to be, so far as I was concerned, one of the "Secrets of Crewe House." It was from an Italian newspaper that I first learned that Mr. Steed was the chairman of a committee for propaganda in Italy. Since I was primarily responsible for the relations between the two countries the discovery was a little disconcerting, because Mr. Steed was, however unjustifiably, regarded by the majority of opinion in that country as so ardent a partisan of the Southern Slavs that it would be difficult for him to take a wholly impartial view of certain issues, over which conflicts of interest were sure to arise. Nor was the impression thereby produced diminished when an emissary from the Committee, who had been a Catholic priest but had renounced his vocation and married, arrived on the spot with his wife. Italians, even when not profoundly religious, are prejudicially affected by traditional habits of thought, and it was obviously unfortunate to select for official or semi-official duties in Rome an individual, however capable, zealous and agreeable, who happened to have these particular antecedents. It seemed to connote a certain cynicism on our part in regard to Italian opinion. I had received instructions to forward in code any telegrams which the representative of the Committee might have occasion to send home, and was therefore bound to do so. But when he brought me many pages of manuscript embodying what no doubt appeared to a novice to be important discoveries, which had, in so far as they were worth reporting, all been reported long ago, I suggested that a letter sent by messenger would be more economical and almost as expeditious. As he pressed me to telegraph his observations I then proposed some condensation, which was agreed to. This and subsequent communications of the same nature gave my already fully-occupied staff additional and, I could not but think, rather unnecessary work. The messages occasionally, moreover, contained statements with which I felt obliged to record my dissent.
This reference to the vicarious transmission of messages recalls one of the most disagreeable episodes in my experience through these abnormal years. During a sojourn in Rome Dr. Weizmann, the leader of the Zionist movement, entrusted me with certain confidential telegrams for dispatch. A first draft of one of these, the purport of which would have been incomprehensible to anyone not aware of its antecedents, fell into the hands, by what surreptitious means I do not know, of a young officer staying in the same hotel who, though then wearing a British uniform, had several years before obtained an introduction to me from a former American Ambassador as a fellow-countryman of his own. Obsessed with the detective spirit he apparently assumed this document to be a message from a German spy, brought it to the Embassy, and showed it to the military attaché. As I was already fully aware of the contents of Dr. Weizmann's messages the rough copy had no interest for me, and in view of reports received from our military authorities I had thought it prudent to decline any further relations with the officer in question. The result was that in a certain notorious trial, in which he afterwards played a conspicuous part, he publicly accused me of having been blackmailed by the German Government, alleging in proof of this assertion that I had refused to receive his evidence of the activities of a German spy in Rome. It was very intolerable that such a charge should be recklessly advanced in a court of law against an official who had served his country honourably for five and thirty years, but I was advised, and no doubt rightly, that no notice should be taken of such a preposterous accusation.
Meanwhile the last big German offensive on the Western front had begun, and the brunt of the attack was directed against certain weak and tired British divisions which had been placed in what had been regarded as a quiet sector, where they would have a chance of recuperating. We had now in our turn to experience days of intense anxiety. Six of the Allied divisions sent to Italy at the end of 1917 were then withdrawn to make good the losses entailed by the German success. During this critical phase my personal servant and good friend, Quartermaster-Sergeant Smith, who had joined the Field Artillery on the outbreak of war, was made a prisoner. On his return after the Armistice, he told me he had no reason to complain of the treatment he had received. He would indeed have come off very badly, but for the boxes of food we had sent to him, but if the Germans gave them very little, they had no more themselves. Smith did not long survive the end of the war, which had broken his health, and he died of heart strain in Rome, where he had been with us so long.
With the spring we had a series of distinguished visitors. That splendid veteran, Sir Pertab Singh, passed through on his way to join the forces in Palestine. In English he had remained a man of few words. I told him that my son was there, and his remark was characteristic : "Ah! What does he say ? Good fighting country?" The Duke of Connaught stayed with us for a couple of days, returning from Egypt, where he had spent the winter with great benefit to his health. It was a happy coincidence that his arrival synchronized with the anniversary celebration of the entry of the United States into the war, and that he was able to be present at an interesting ceremony.
For some time past Rome had become familiar with officers in khaki hardly distinguishable from the British, save for the leather band and peak of their caps, as well as with numerous officials of the American Red Cross which had extended its benevolent activity to all the associated countries. On the 6th of April they assembled in the Colosseum, where a great concourse of citizens had gathered to do honour to their country. That venerable pile has passed through many vicissitudes since its erection by the Flavian emperors as an amphitheatre in which to distract a populace which had to be propitiated by public displays. The vast ellipse has echoed with the tramp of parading gladiators and their shout of morituri te salutant. It has seen the clash of galleys in mimic naval war. It has heard the fierce battle cry of Frangipani or Orsini, when as a fortress of the Middle Ages it dominated the city of the Popes. It has been consecrated as a church dedicated to the blood of martyrs, and such it remained with its twelve altars and its central crucifix up to my own younger days. But never can it have served so unanticipated a purpose as when from the gallery whence the Emperors had watched the games, beneath the flags of the Allies waving in unison with the Stars and Stripes, the Ambassador of an undreamed republic and the President of the American Red Cross, the latter speaking in the barbarous tongue of Britain, addressed the people of Rome swarming over the arena and the broken arches.
The arrival of the Prince of Wales on the Piave front immediately after Caporetto had given immense satisfaction in Italy. Mr. Lloyd George, in promising everything that was essential to our ally was reported to have said: "You have a pledge already in the presence of the Heir to the Throne." There was to be a celebration at Rome of the anniversary of Italy's declaration of war, the 24th of May, in the vast concert hall which has been built on the circular core of the Mausoleum of Augustus. The Prince came to the Embassy to spend a week's brief holiday and arrived on the previous day. He had a great popular ovation in the capital. The ceremony in the Augusteum, at which we sat in the box of the Regent, the Duke of Genoa, was a very moving one. A glance round the crowded arena revealed how representative a gathering had met there. Senators, deputies, generals, officials and simple men and women of the people, fathers and mothers of soldiers who had given their lives for their country, or were holding the bulwark of the Piave, were commingled in the stalls. One box was filled with officers who had lost their sight in action. In another might be seen the staff of the Czecho-Slovak division, formed chiefly from prisoners of war, which was being trained and equipped in Italy. In the gallery were the red shirts of Garibaldi's veterans.
After the orchestra had played the national anthems of the Allies, and there were now a goodly number of these, the Syndic of Rome, Don Prospero Colonna, addressed warm words of welcome from the city to the Prince of Wales. He reminded those who were present of the vow taken on the Capitol that same day in the year 1915 to maintain concord and sacrifice everything for the country. The Prince then rose, and in a clear voice which carried well, with just a little touch of boyish shyness that went straight to the hearts of his audience, said that he had come to bring a message of encouraging sympathy from the King his father and his subjects in Great Britain and in the Dominions overseas. When he concluded with these words:
"In the city of Rome, the ancient capital of the world, the source of social order and justice, I proudly proclaim my conviction that the great object for which our two nations are fighting against the forces of reaction is inevitably destined to triumph, thanks to the union of which our meeting to-night is symbolic---"
there was an outburst of enthusiasm such as I have rarely witnessed. The whole assembly had risen to their feet with the Prince. Many of them had their own boys at the Front. Every face directed towards the youthful figure in khaki wore a smiling look of affectionate regard, and handkerchiefs were pressed to many eyes. Then over the applause rang out once more the strain of "God save the King." There is nothing more moving than the tense emotion of a crowded assembly.
M. Lorand, the Belgian deputy, whose lectures, like those of Destrée, on the tragedy of his country had stirred the imagination of the people, spoke next with deep feeling in excellent Italian. The speech of M. Simon, the French Minister of the Colonies, was not less warmly received, and then Orlando, the President of the Council, distinguished for his eloquence even in a nation of orators, pronounced a stirring patriotic address. Towards the close he described how on a recent visit to the Front he had found himself exchanging a few words with a young British officer whose simple and modest demeanour and whose friendly smile had gone to his heart. And this young officer, he said, was the heir to the greatest empire in the world. At these words the whole assembly once more turned round to salute the Prince of Wales.
We had a party at the Embassy after a not too official dinner. There was a visit to the Pontiff at the Vatican, a reception by the Syndic at the Capitol, and a family dinner with the Queen and the Royal Family at the Villa Savoia outside the city, where, if it were becoming to lift the curtain of reserve that screens the family life of the sovereign, an ideally happy home would be revealed. For the rest of the week the Prince was free to spend his holiday as he wished, walking about the city on foot. The Romans showed admirable tact. If he was recognized they only lifted their hats and passed on.
Another memorable episode was the visit of the United Guards' bands, who were the guests of the State and were entertained in the new barracks of the Carabinieri in the castle meadows. The Italian people love pageantry, and a lament is often heard that a perhaps mistaken interpretation of democratic sentiment has tended to suppress the traditional pomp and circumstance of ceremonial in their own country. The bands had a magnificent reception at the concert which they gave in the Augusteum, but from a spectacular point of view the most striking feature of the visit was the march through the city down the Corso to the National Monument beside the Capitol. There the massed scarlet tunics and bear-skins, with the gold embroidered uniforms of the drum-majors in the front line, relieving against the white marble of the lofty stairway and colonnade under an Italian evening sky presented a picture which could not readily be forgotten. The stately march, the perfect alignment and the fine physique of that splendid body of guardsmen seemed to the spectators typical of the discipline and stability of their powerful ally. The visit was returned in due course in London by the famous band of the Carabinieri Reali, the Corps of Gendarmerie which is recruited among the best elements in the country.
Lord Cavan also came to the Embassy for a short holiday. Among many interesting experiences of which he told me, one seems particularly worthy of record. In speaking of the distractions which were organized for the British troops at the Italian front, he said that far the most popular were Mr. Ainley's readings or recitations from Shakespeare. Men, whom the ordinary concert or music-hall programme did not tempt from their own quarters when free from duty, would walk many miles to hear him interpret the master passages of literature.
About this time I received the welcome news that the Treasury had been induced to consider relieving from income- and super-tax the portion of diplomatic salaries which might fairly be regarded not as personal remuneration, but rather as covering the inevitable expenses of representation and the maintenance of Embassy and Legation houses. The existing conditions had weighed very hardly on officials abroad. My own salary had been fixed in the year 1871, when there was practically no income-tax, and when the cost of living in Rome was relatively low. Seven thousand pounds a year was then an ample figure on which to maintain the dignity and obligations of an Ambassador. But, while those obligations had increased rather than diminished and the cost of maintenance had enormously advanced, the salary had been reduced by income- and super-tax, in addition to a deduction of £4 for every day spent on leave, to barely £4,000 a year. When invited to state my opinion on the subject I was reminded that the exchange was already then considerably in our favour. The contention seemed plausible, but the rate of wages and the scale of prices rose consistently as the exchange depreciated. So far as I was personally concerned I had not pressed this matter as long as our private means enabled us to supplement the salary. But I had more than once made representations on behalf of my staff. The public had probably little idea of the conditions under which our service, often in trying climates and always in exile from home, was then carried on. During the earlier phase of the war, I had at one time five gentlemen working in the chancery, among whom I do not include the Counsellor. Of these, one who had some fourteen years' service was drawing about £400 a year. Two others with eight or more years' service received £150 each, while the other two, being honorary attachés, had no pay at all. The cost to the country of all five was therefore approximately £700 a year. Since my retirement the whole scale of diplomatic salaries has been revised, and they now compare not unfavourably with those of other branches of the public service.
The severe stress on the Western front had hardly been relaxed when the offensive was resumed against the lines behind the Piave. The enemy, fifty divisions strong, advanced across the river bed in several places and achieved some initial success. But he was well held by the reserves of the defence, and I received generally reassuring information regarding the progress of the action. On the afternoon of the 23rd of June, my wife had organized a concert in the Embassy garden in aid of the wounded and of a sanatorium for tuberculous children. It had been a cloudy day with occasional rain, but all Rome was assembled on the lawn. I had just gone on to the stage to tell the conductor of the Augusteum orchestra that he might begin, when to my surprise I saw Signor Orlando, the President of the Council, rapidly making his way up the gangway between the seats. Mounting the stage he clasped my hand and jubilantly announced that the Austrians had been thrown back along the whole front from Montello to the sea, and that there was not an enemy left on the western bank of the river. While he was speaking the clouds broke and the sun shone over the stage. In an access of enthusiasm Orlando threw his arms round my neck and the audience went wild with excitement while the orchestra struck up the Royal March.
The battle of the Piave, the first big general action since Caporetto, was really the decisive point of the war in Italy. It came at a moment when the Allies badly needed a victory, and was the first of the long series of successes which were to end the war. The Italian armies had had time to recover from the demoralizing effects of the retreat. The enemy had thrown his last stake and lost the cast. The week's fighting cost the Austrians 135,000 in killed and wounded, to which must be added 24,000 prisoners. They might still hold on for some time to the invaded territory, but it was clear that they could not break the Piave line. Knowing that a great gathering would be assembled in the Embassy garden, Orlando, who had just received the telegram from head-quarters, came straight up in his car to make the announcement there. It was one of the most dramatic moments I have ever experienced.
Circumstances now enabled me to look forward to a longer leave than I had been able to contemplate for many years. It was fortunately possible to make it coincide with the summer holidays which my family were to spend at our Surrey cottage, with the exception of my eldest daughter, who was devoting the Oxford long vacation to war work at the Admiralty, and my eldest son, who was in Palestine. Passing through Paris we found every one wreathed in smiles. The German retreat from Château-Thierry had begun, and the porters at the station met us with the news of the number of prisoners taken and guns abandoned. I spent a week in London, where Nitti arrived about the same time.
Life in the country proved less difficult than we had anticipated, though the rations of meat, butter and sugar allowed by our food cards were very short. Tradesmen were unable to send to any distance, and as there was an embargo on motorspirit, I had to take to the bicycle once more and make foraging expeditions with the children in search of the unrationed commodities, such as oxtails, for which, in spite of their unpleasant classification as "offal," there was a great demand. In Rome my official position, the dignity of which had to be maintained, entitled me to the use of a car. In England I could claim no privileges, unusual as it might seem for a Privy Councillor to be detected riding with a fish basket loaded with liver or other unpleasant raw material on the front of his bicycle, and a large block of ice which left a wet trail along the road at the back. Our gardener was doing military duty at an anti-aircraft station, and the abandoned flower beds provided me with an occupation which contrasted pleasantly with the routine of the last four years. We paid visits to Sutton, Highcliffe and Buckhurst, where Hardinge came to spend a Sunday afternoon. I gathered from him that the Foreign Office had, like the rest of us, its difficulties with the amateur diplomatists. At 10 p.m. on the evening of my return I received a telegraphic summons to attend the Imperial Cabinet on the following morning. There were no vehicles available, and the only way in which to arrive in time was to bicycle to Guildford and catch an early train. Fortunately in war-time a frock-coat and silk hat were not indispensable. At 10 Downing Street I met the Dominion Ministers, Hughes, Borden and Massey, as well as Lord Reading, who was also in England. I lunched with Curzon, and then returned to come up again the following day for an afternoon meeting. The Prime Minister was most cordial, and expressed the hope that I should long remain at my post. But I was already looking forward to the period of liberty at home, which some thirty-six years of foreign service made desirable as soon as the world's crisis could permit me conscientiously to ask for release. The weeks passed rapidly with alternations of business interviews and peaceful days in Surrey, the happier because the information from the many fronts was encouraging, and at last one could foresee the end. After a hasty visit with my two younger boys to our relatives in Cornwall and my sister in Devonshire, I started for Rome on the 16th of September, leaving my wife to follow me a week later. Mr. Baker, the American Secretary of State for War, was good enough to offer me a seat in his special train from Boulogne to Paris. But this did not avail to accelerate the journey, as there had been an accident in the neighbourhood of Dijon, and I was forced to wait until the line had been cleared.
Table of Contents