A Haunted Career: war and peace in the life of Gerald Agar-Robartes


A century before World War1, the Napoleonic Wars were moving to a climax. Vast numbers of men moved eastwards towards the Russian frontiers where the Russians, too, had been massing since 1811.War began on 12th June, 1812, Tolstoy recorded – ‘an event counter to all the laws of human reason and human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, deceptions, treacheries, robberies, forgeries, issues of false monies, depredations, incendiarisms and murders as the annals of all the courts of justice in the world could not muster in the course of whole centuries, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as crimes’.

Could there possibly be a repeat on such a scale in a more advanced technological era? Gerald Agar-Robartes worked as a ‘peacemaker’ in this period, serving at the British Foreign Office from 1906 until his retirement in 1930. He was steadily promoted from Attaché to Third Secretary, 1908, to Second in 1914, and then First Secretary in 1919 and a Counsellor of Embassy in 1926. He was in Paris from 1907-10, Vienna from 1910-14, and then The Hague in 1914, for the International Opium Conference. He served at the Foreign Office during the war, assisting Lord Cecil from 1915, then the Earl of Balfour from 1917, and Lord Curzon from 1919-1925, when he spent time in Berne and Madrid

Many books in the Lanhydrock collection tell us about this period, as well as private letters, press cuttings, documents and certificates. Richard Seymour served a few years earlier than Gerald and in his book, ‘The Last Quarter’, listed diplomatic salaries at £8000 a year, for the Ambassador, £800, plus £150 House Allowance for the Secretary of Embassy, £300 for Second Secretaries, with an annual increase of £15, and Third Secretaries £150. Attachés received nothing. Seymour thought salaries and expenses were on the low side, especially as there were ‘no typists, archivists, or second division clerks at the Embassy in those days, so all the copying, ciphering, keeping of accounts and other routine work was done by the members of the diplomatic staff’. This provided ‘good training in all the practical details of office work and many first-rate ambassadors went through this drudgery in their early days in Diplomacy’. Overall, said Curtis, ‘the system was one which had its advantages as well as its disadvantages’.

Gerald received praise for his loyalty and hard work in this area, ‘I was very grateful to you for the good work you did in the strenuous time in Paris and I wish you all possible luck and success in your new post. It was good of you to contribute to the 50 years service medal,’ wrote Francis Bertie from the British Embassy in Paris, February, 1914. Bertie continues, ‘it shows that you had a happy time here which gives me the greatest pleasure. All good luck to you. If in the short time that remains to me here you should come to Paris, make this your hotel. We should be delighted to receive you’. In similar vein, Lord Curzon wrote from the Foreign Office, December 9th ,1920 ‘As you are leaving the Private Secretaries Room, where I owe that I have sometimes imposed upon you hard tasks and many long hours, do let me thank you for your kind and loyal service during the past two years and let me wish you success in your career’.
Curzon was not an ‘easy chief’ to work for, said Odo Russell, another colleague and friend of Gerald. He had been Viceroy of India while still under forty and then Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs. He distrusted Russia and resigned after arguing with Kitchener in 1905. Curzon was Foreign Secretary, 1919-24 and bitter at being passed over as Prime Minister, in 1923, because he was a member of the House of Lords.

Odo Russell wrote a book in later life about Curzon and other public personalities that he had encountered in his career. It is part of the Lanhydrock family library today, with an enclosed letter – ‘To Gerald – from Theo, (Odo) Chelsea, 1947’. It covers the reminiscences from contacts with famous political figures in his career, starting with his meeting with Queen Victoria in his childhood. ‘I hope that Eva and Violet will also read the book and that I may have your opinions afterwards. Happy New Year to you all. Yours ever, Theo’.
Gerald could well have written his own book of encounters with politicians, statesmen and diplomats. He was at the heart of many important events as the Great and Lesser Powers all jockeyed for position in the last desperate struggle for Empire, territory, trade and power, at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the same time, smaller nations were beginning to undermine the old Empires and seek independence and power for themselves. The Ottoman Empire was under threat and the Hapsburg Empire, led by Austria and Hungary, faced unrest from Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.

The Robartes had always been staunch Liberals, Peter Bessell, Liberal M.P. for Bodmin, was very close to Gerald –– ‘He was in Vienna during the last years of the Hapsburg Monarchy’, said Bessell, ‘and saw for himself the intrigues, jealousies and grumbling discord at the Court of the Emperor Francis Joseph,’ who lost a brother executed in Mexico,1867- his son Rudolph committed suicide,1889-his wife Elisabeth was murdered by an anarchist,1898 and the shooting of his nephew, Francis Ferdinand and his wife, by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo led to the outbreak of war in 1914.

Gerald had left Vienna before these final crises and was also on leave from the British Legation, at the Hague Conference, when the tragedy unfolded. A month later, July 30th, Harry Chilton wrote to Gerald from The Hague, ‘Can you give me a rough idea as to about when you think of coming back. I don’t want to hurry you unless things take a turn for the worst in which case I shall telegraph to you. They are fussing rather here and have all their men under arms, railway bridges on German lines guarded, armed men all along the coast, even on the pier at Sonereningen, day and night!! All preparations are being made to defend their neutrality if threatened’.
Harry Chilton had tried to squeeze in a game of golf – Lanhydrock had its own small course at that time – but he had to rush back for an urgent telegram. ‘This is not a hint that I want you back’, he told Gerald, ‘as Chambers and I can perfectly well do it all, unless Russia, Germany & Co. get to work. Then you had better come. If all is quiet Chambers will go on leave when you return but he is in no hurry’.

The letter coolly understated the serious situation. All was not quiet on the Western Front. A few days later, on August 4th, the Germans invaded Belgium and Britain declared war. From the British Embassy in Paris, on August 21st, Gerald’s close friend and colleague, Reggie, wrote to him in despair, ‘about this awful calamity about which we have some times vaguely speculated, but which I never believed could really happen’. He had found it hard to write ‘to anyone for a month’, and it was ‘quite impossible to think, everything as you say will change entirely and whatever we have known and enjoyed hitherto will be no more’.

There was ‘a tremendous quantity of work which practically never ceases, masses of telegrams to decipher to which I rise at 7.30 and the pressure goes on pretty steadily until midnight. I have very much wished that we could be together during this crisis for there would have been so many small points to discuss which interest us both so enormously’. He told Gerald of the ‘ominous melancholy of the first three days or so of the mobilisation here, (in France), which was enhanced by the uncertainty as to whether we, (British), should support the French or not. I felt I could not have stood it if we had not.’ He spoke of the strange atmosphere in Paris – the remarkable ‘orderliness and quiet. Troops of gigantic policemen occupy the streets, there are no omnibuses and scarcely any cabs, hardly any men, most of the shops in this quarter shut’. He was turned out of the restaurants at 9.30 by order of the Prefect of Police. ‘The quiet and deserted character of the streets at night is amazing – The mobilisation was astonishingly well carried out here – The British troops ‘carried out their landing in excellent order – The airmen flew over to the number of 50 which was very ‘chic’. Field-Marshal French and several Generals spent one night in the Embassy on their way to the British H.Q.

Not only did Gerald miss all this while on leave but also the ‘Vienna Embassy which passed through Paris on their way home to England from Switzerland. I thought it was really such a chance that you were not there. Gerald would have been pleased to hear that ‘there was practically no anti-English feeling in Wien (Vienna) up to the very last.’ All of Reggie’s news was of great interest to Gerald, who had served in Paris and Vienna. He might not agree with the melancholy forecast of his friend who wrote, ‘I consider the war to be an end to us at any rate. For it will be difficult to wrestle with a whole new set of conditions, when one could only just grapple with the old. Nous serons les gens d’avant la guerre.’
However, the golden era for the family at Lanhydrock had now passed. Four of the brothers eventually went off to serve in the Great War. Gerald too, felt that he should offer his services to fight after diplomacy had failed. It was sad that his mother, Mary, should feel embarrassed by this, despite having four sons at the front. She wrote to the Lanhydrock steward, Gilbert, from Great Stanhope Street in 1916, that ‘If anything comes about it, I would like people to know Mr (Our) Gerald volunteered for the front but was not allowed by the Secretary of State to leave his work at the F.O. (Foreign Office); Of course we had not put it in the papers exactly.’

Gerald never felt at ease with this situation and as social pressure increased, he applied once more, in May1918, to the Ambassador in Paris, for ‘favourable consideration to his request for permission to be released from the Staff of the Embassy in order to enter the Army. The reply came back the same day; ‘I cannot recommend to G.C. as I consider that the efficiency of the work here would be impaired by the departure of any member of the regular Staff.’ The Ambassador indicated on the note that he would ‘speak to Mr. Agar Robartes.’

War service was a difficult situation. The Lanhydrock ladies, led by Everilda and her mother, Mary Clifden, organised a very successful War Hospital Supply Depot. Tommy, heir to the family estate and local M.P. had lost his life at the Battle of Loos,in 1915. Victor had been wounded, not badly, three times. Alex had suffered a bad facial wound and nervous reaction from his war experiences, leading to his suicide in 1930. Cecil did not enjoy good health exacerbated by the war and a car accident in 1936. He died in 1939.

World War1 had ended the happy era of the Lanhydrock family. Books from that period still rest on attic room shelves. One entitled ‘The Hapsburg Monarchy,’ printed in 1913, would have been well received that year, if not the next. The inscription, in Mary Clifden’s neat writing reads – ‘Francis Gerald Agar-Robartes. With his Mothers love. Christmas Day 1913’ – a time when Gerald was still based in Vienna and the famous old Empire was still in some sort of stable existence, sharing power with Hungary but not with their Slav subjects. Another book is entitled ‘Mother and Sons in War Time,’ printed in 1917, and given to ‘Mother from E.(Everilda) Jan 30th 1917.’ On the first page an extract reads – ‘Their graves will be renowned and their names will be had in remembrance. But in hundreds of English homes their mothers sit today, remembering the sons who fed at their breasts and slept in their arms; happy if, in the watches of the night, some flow of tears may slacken the tense strings of the heart and lull the busy iteration of memory in the aching brain.’

In another attic book at Lanhydrock – ‘Victory and After.’ printed in 1919, the inscription reads, ‘To T.C. (Thos. Charles) – ‘With best love from M.C. (Mary Clifden) Christmas, 1919. It quotes ‘recent memorandum from the man who was German ambassador in London at the time war was declared. Again and again he says, ‘With goodwill on both sides, matters might have been settled in two interviews, but my Government was ‘intent on war and meant war’.’ In the attic book, ‘Ordeal by Battle,’ a slur on the British government was made, saying, ‘Those who were responsible for British policy appear to have given more credit to the assurances of German diplomacy’ than to the threats and anger from ‘hundreds of German patriots and professors.’

The failure of diplomacy in this crisis was doubly felt by the diplomats – (such as Gerald) – themselves. The family bound copy of the Liberal government book for 1914 compared 1914 to the Franco-Prussian war situation when France was more likely to march through Belgium than Prussia. ‘Our most peaceful Prime Minister, William Gladstone, even more than Mr. Pitt, made agreements with France and Prussia to co-operate with either of the belligerents if the other violated Belgian territory…. ‘If we had gone to war,’ said Gladstone then, (he had visited Lanhydrock in 1889), which he was prepared to do, we should have gone to war for freedom – for public right –to save human happiness from being invaded by tyrannous and lawless power’.

That message of the past was as clear as the 1914 situation but Germany, led by modern Prussian militarism, thought we were too influenced by the treaty with Belgium – ‘a scrap of paper.’ It was expected that modern technology, such as infantry rifles sighted up to 1000 yards and field guns ranged up to five miles, firing up to twenty rounds a minute, and siege guns ranging over twenty five miles, would make a long war impossible and too expensive, according to Ivan Bloch in his book, ‘La guerre future,’1899. The German Chief of Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen, spoke of ‘armies of millions of men costing milliards of marks’, hence the need for speed and tactics which cut down on time for negotiations and conciliation. German militarism gained the upper hand over German culture. Gerald had experienced the latter socially at home and abroad, as seen in the Gallery Visitors Book signed by Baronesses Else von Hammerstein, Hildesheim, Hanover, and he had enjoyed many Embassy functions shown, for example, in the table layout for thirty three guests, among Lanhydrock documents. Gerald was seated at the far end of the table facing his colleague Theo Russell, top at the near end. The mainly titled guests included the Prince and Princess Liechtenstein, Comte and Comtesse Herberstein, the German Ambassador and the Roumanian Minister. Another such function shows more German presence. Bethman Hollweg, the German Chancellor was positioned close to Theo Russell, while Gerald titled as Sekretar Hon.Agar Robartes was next to the top at the near end of the table. The Liberal bound year books, of pamphlets and brochures in the House at Lanhydrock also stress the dividing line in German society between Germanic culture and militarism, with the latter gaining the upper hand in modern times from 1870-1 to 1945. Gerald was an acute witness to this process, painfully so in 1914, but sharply conscious of the appeasement problem after he had left the diplomatic service in the 1930’s.

For a while Gerald carried the disappointment of the failing of the nations to prevent a disastrous war, a diplomatic horror to his stunned profession. Then, the death of Tommy, eldest son and heir, and incredibly popular, shattered for ever the happy family. Memorial Services were held at Westminster and Lanhydrock. A depleted family was without Miss Mary, who was too ill to attend and Constance, a nurse herself, who stayed at home to look after her. Gerald obtained leave from the Foreign Office as did Cecil from the Rifle Brigade. Alexander was wounded and in hospital and Victor was to take seven days leave the following day. Everilda and Violet were the only others of the younger family to attend.

Gerald assumed extra family responsibilities after Tommy’s death. He tried to keep in touch with his three younger brothers at the front with interest, good cheer and personal gifts etc. at birthdays and Christmas. Time and the intensity of the war at the front and at the foreign office helped only a little.

‘Thank you so very much for the handsome gift which arrived today,’ Alec wrote to Gerald in December, 1916. I had an amazing amount of parcels, in fact I had an entire mail bag to myself. My leave is definite now and I go from here on the 3rd or 4th. The trenches that we have been in have been monstrously bad and the whole thing is very desolating – I imagine that there is no possibility of peace, or at any rate an imminent one’ – a question which Gerald would have found heartbreaking.

Victor’s gramophone was sent out to the front in April 1917 and aided the cheerful party lifestyle which relieved the gloom of the war. ‘Victor appears to be going on well, I am glad to say,’ Alec wrote to Gerald in April 1918. Cecil wrote to Gerald that he had ‘tried to see Victor and Alec the other day – I’m about 30 miles south as the crow flies – but they were both in the line. I’m afraid leave is entirely beyond the horizon at present, at any rate, until we’ve had a show, which of course we can’t tell when may happen,’ In quite a long letter to Gerald, Cecil chatted on about Saturday night out being ‘generally more trouble than it is worth’ – on society gossip about the lady who ‘had rather decided views about her brother’s marriage with an actress’ and the personal habits of his brother officers – ‘I shall hope to see you in Paris in a couple of months.’

Gerald did his best to help his brothers from his more comfortable position in London. He wrote to cheer Alec in January 1918. ‘My dear Gerald,’ the letter came back. ‘Thank you so much for the provisions which have arrived safely at a very opportune moment. We have been moving about a great deal as usual and are now in a very noisy place which is rather trying. There has been snow all the time since I have been back until today when we had some rain. I was very amused to hear about the skating at Wimpole. This was Gerald’s own personal property from 1906 when he had started his diplomatic career. ‘You must have a place of your own, my boy,’ said his father at that time. You will find that they all do’. Gerald told him the story with an entirely straight face, said Michael Trinick in later life. However, a London press gossip-writer quoted in the Cornish Guardian gave a different picture of Gerald as ‘a clever diplomatist – small, dark-haired and pink-faced, one who talks brilliantly on any subject in an amusing staccato fashion and who is a particularly good host and gourmet of experience.’
Gerald did well at the Foreign Office during the war, despite the intense diplomatic pressure. This is shown in a private letter he received in March 1915 from Theo Russell; ‘Many thanks for your interesting letter of 5 March,’ it began – ‘extracts of which I read to Sir E, Grey’. (Foreign Secretary). ‘Everything,’ wrote Russell, ‘depends on the Dardanelles. If it comes off, as the Admiralty expect it to, all should be well and it will be the first really big nail in Germany’s coffin – We are pretty busy but occasionally there are lulls in our work,’ he informed Gerald, who was to work with him at the Foreign Office. The Dardanelles campaign, however, was not successful.

Gerald used the family home, No. I Great Stanhope Street, as his base during the war. Agnes Bray was a housemaid then. She had received the news of Tommy’s death there and had ‘to go to that evening to deliver a letter to Miss Constance where she was nursing.’ Agnes told of the comings and goings of the family during that hectic period in London. She and Mabel Roskelly prepared meals for Gerald ‘who went to the Foreign Office most days, sometimes going to Wimpole for a week-end. Victor would travel home on leave or for convalescence. When returning to France he had to leave early and I so well remember him walking away one sunny morning and wondering if he would return safely.’ Gerald and the family back at home would share the same feelings. His mother suffered most and died in 1921. Gerald continued his career through the era of controversial peacemaking and the breaking up of Empires. The large certificate of his appointment as Counsellor of Embassy in 1926, signed by ‘George R.I.’ (George VI), is still proudly intact among the many mementoes of his past at Lanhydrock. The most recent discovery of his substantial and sad career is the poignant family letter which he wrote to his sister, Everilda, Tommy’s twin, April 1924:-

My dearest Eva,
Thank you very much for your letter. We arrived all right yesterday evening after a very good journey& smooth crossing but the train and boat were very crowded & we were an hour late – Cora also arrived from Lincoln. I think she looks rather fatter in the face. I went to Lapugnoy (Tommy’s cemetery) on Saturday as I wanted to see the Headstone and it was the first time I had been to France for any length of time since I left in 1919. I went by train to Arras & motored from there about 25 miles. I found everything in beautiful order and saw the head gardener who seemed a very nice man. They have done a great deal of planting but it was of course too early for anything to be out though the daffodils were beginning to show. I can’t say that I really much like the Headstones, but I suppose it was essential to have something of the sort as the wooden crosses would not have been permanent. It was nice to find it so beautifully kept – I took some Parma violets (Tommy’s normal posh button-hole decoration) & asked the gardener to move them as soon as they withered.I expect to go to Wimpole on Saturday for about ten days& hope to reach Cornwall on April 17th. I hope Cecil is getting on all right & that Violet is beginning to pick up. I believe injections are always very exhausting – It is very cold here& I miss the central heating.
Yr loving Gerald.

Gerald’s time with the Foreign Office in the 1920’s was interesting and also a lull before another storm of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s and the steady rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany. There were trips and visits with friends and Embassy colleagues. Charles Prescott was a keen Liberal who visited Gerald at most of his diplomatic posts – Paris and Vienna before the war and Madrid after, Summer evenings in Paris saw trips to Versailles and Compiegne and from Madrid they visited, with Edward Phelips, the owner of Montacute, the Escorial, Aranjuez. They particularly enjoyed entertainment at the leading Madrid music-hall, the Circo de Price, where we saw,’ said Gerald, ‘a ridiculous skit on a bull-fight (the bull and the horse being men in disguise.) Charles Prescott became almost paralysed with laughter by their absurd antics, which reduced him to a state verging on collapse.’

The laughter and good life did not last long. From the British Embassy in San Sebastian, Gerald wrote to Everilda, Sept.1926, of trips to Dax, Pau and Lourdes and complained that the ‘mosquitoes in the Dax Hotel were rather trying and they do not provide any nets.’ Family news and weather conditions were mentioned, ‘I was much amused by the account of Rachel’s mock grouse drive,’ he added. His niece (Victor’s daughter) was then only four years old.
Sporadic fighting broke out in Spain, including San Sebastian, after he had left. His colleagues in Hindaye later suffered ‘machine gun bullets whizzing all around the Chancery and having to escape by the back door.’

As Head of the family (with the death of his father) after 1930, he built on family traditions with a cultured and creative mind. Tommy’s death always took the edge off family recovery, if in an heroic manner. Gerald received a letter from the Selby family in 1933, reporting the death of Frederick Selby, who had been ‘instrumental in aiding the Hon. T. Agar-Robartes when he lay mortally wounded in France. Soon afterwards he was seriously wounded himself,’ was in hospital for twelve months, was visited by Lady Clifden while convalescing ‘and was able to tell her about her son,’

Gerald remained unhappy about the drift of international events. By a strange coincidence he had been in Vienna before the war at the same time as Adolf Hitler, who failed to get into the Academy of Fine Arts, sold pictures on the street with a friend, spent a small family legacy and lived awhile in a hostel. He attended an opera of Wagner’s, as Gerald and his colleagues did and became entranced by Wagner’s early opera ‘Rienzi’,

A.L.Rowse, Cornish historian, was a good friend of the Lanhydrock family. Later in life he wrote – ‘They have always been so good to me from early days – the 1930’s when we were together against Chamberlain. The Robartes have always been Liberals bur Gerald had been a Foreign Office man and was opposed to appeasement’. In contrast Quiller-Couch, a great friend of Tommy Robartes and the family, ‘ceased to be a Party man,’ said Rowse, ‘and accounts for his silence as to the unforgivable course of British policy in the Thirties. He described Gerald ‘as an intelligent man who well understood that the course (of appeasement) was fatal.’
At the third Weapons Week in 1941, in St.Austell, Gerald led the appeal for extra funds, ‘One thing Hitler’s war had proved up to the hilt – the need for supremely efficient mechanical equipment. War was never so costly, but whatever it costs, we have to win this war. To do it we must concentrate on the creation of the greatest force ever seen in the world. For the Germans are bullies by nature and the only thing they understand and respect is force. It is no use trying to appease or be kind to the Germans, because if you do they merely think you are afraid of them. Therefore let us have ‘annihilating force – ships, tanks, aeroplanes.’‘President Roosevelt was saying something of the same sort a few hours later,’ reported the local press.
Gerald continued to serve the country in many important capacities but declined a request to return to the Foreign Office during the war.

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1 Comment

  1. Richard Hoskin

     /  July 15, 2013

    Paul — What an interesting and deeply personal account! A nit pick — wouldn’t R.I in 1926 be George V?


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