Under a plum tree on the quad at Balliol a solemn Scots undergraduate was entertaining his parents to tea when another undergraduate who had been hiding in the branches ‘fell’ with a clatter among the tea-cups, explaining that he had dropped because he was ripe. As Belloc said: ‘God be with you, Balliol men!’ Was Aubrey Herbert, this human plum, ever ripe enough to be king of Albania, a country which twice offered him the throne? After finishing Margaret FitzHerbert’s excellent book the reader may be in two minds; at least King Aubrey would have wielded the sceptre with more panache than Lord Rothermere on the throne of Hungary. Herbert was the son of the fourth Earl of Carnarvon. His half-brother, the fifth Earl, was the co-finder of Tutankhamen’s tomb. His nephew, the sixth Earl, once kept him under observation of a sort, in Constantinople, for British Intelligence. Of Herbert’s generation Margaret FitzHerbert says that their inheritance from the Empire-builders was ‘an ease around the world, and an infinite self-confidence. Following their knightly imaginations, wandering across the face of the earth, they had no axe to grind. Theirs was, briefly, an age of chivalry, soon to be laid at rest in the trenches ...’
We are talking here about toffs, as they keep their end up in an age of spectacular rogues and earth-shakers. There used to be a saying ‘Toffs is careless’ and Aubrey Herbert exemplified it. According to the sixth Earl in No Regrets (the story does not appear in the present volume), he was threatened with arrest in 1914 by Lord Athlumney, Provost-Marshal of London, for going about in sloppy uniform, with shaving soap on his face, a disgrace to the Irish Guards. Throughout his restless life he seems to have arrived at places without bothering to secure his cash flow. However, it is not hard to be at ease around the world when one knows everybody, and we still have roving paladins like that.
In many respects Herbert’s life was wonderfully arranged. As an undergraduate in need of coaching he took Hilaire Belloc with him to the family estate at Portofino, and on a later visit was tutored by the indefatigable ‘Sligger’ Urquhart. He had a house with a servants’ hall in which he could install his favourite Albanian bodyguard. He had a mother eager to wangle him into a sinecure at an embassy or help to find him a decent constituency. He had friends who could smuggle him into a Guards regiment without authority (Lord Athlumney missed a trick there). In the Mons campaign he was able to buy a racehorse and ride hither and thither during the retreat. At Gallipoli he had Fortnum hampers of foie gras and caviare sent to him weekly (alas, only one in three got through). And he had a wife who dined at the Prime Minister’s table and mailed him all the gossip.
This does not mean that Herbert was monstrously coddled: indeed, he was monstrously handicapped, being half-blind from birth, which makes his adventurous career the more staggering (not to mention his picking up French, Italian, German, Arabic, Greek and Albanian). His physical bravery, on and off the battlefield, was matched by his moral courage. At a time when the world always spoke of Turkish misrule, never of Turkish rule, he was not afraid to proclaim himself a Turcophile. In 1917, to the dismay of his friends, he supported the elderly statesman, Lord Lansdowne, who argued in a notorious – and savagely criticised – letter to the Daily Telegraph that it was time to call off the war.
Herbert’s ‘Greenmantle’-style adventures, his consorting with Albanian brigands, began when, from his Constantinople base, he wandered about the Balkans and Near East, as it was then called. He visited war-wrecked San’aa in the Yemen, very much out of bounds, pretending to be a rich stupid sportsman on his way to India and claiming descent from Charlemagne (‘One becomes quite shameless’). The Turks gave him an escort of 150 mounted troops. It was gruelling and dangerous but more fun than sitting at an embassy desk keeping up the Butcher’s Book of Macedonia. In the end these travels helped him to become a sort of one-man intelligence service. They also helped to make him a useful speaker on the Near East when in 1911 he became Conservative Member for Yeovil (a surprise victory over the Liberals which halted business on the Stock Exchange while the brokers cheered).
The first offer of the Albanian throne came that year and there can be no doubt Herbert wanted to accept it. Asquith and Grey were consulted. According to the sixth Earl (another tale not mentioned in this book), Herbert sent his half-brother a telegram saying HAVE BEEN OFFERED THRONE OF ALBANIA STOP MAY I ACCEPT LOVE AUBREY and received the reply NO CARNARVON. Possibly that was just a joke. What he needed to support the role of monarch was not his half-brother’s consent but a steady income of £50,000 a year and he did not have it. The throne went, as thrones often did, to a German princeling, William of Wied, in whose cabinet noir at one time was supposedly kept the register of 47,000 British perverts mentioned in the ludicrous Pemberton Billing trial.
In 1914, having been smuggled into France, Herbert was taken on by the Irish Guards as interpreter. He was wounded, captured and freed. As an interpreter he had a sticky time at Gallipoli where he stumbled short-sightedly about the battlefield with a megaphone trying to coax the Turks into surrender, which stirred them into loosing everything they had in his direction, to the high fury of British soldiers. He did, however, secure a truce for burying the dead. In 1916 he had another embarrassing assignment when, with T.E. Lawrence and a British colonel, he helped to negotiate the surrender of General Townshend’s garrison at Kut. Turkish assurances of ‘no hanging’ were not honoured and this ‘Mespot’ campaign ended shamefully. To be able to speak the enemy’s language in war can be a dubious asset.
It was Aubrey Herbert’s fate to be involved, if not in disasters, then in side-shows, which were often the same thing. He has been called a brilliant amateur, but an amateur what? Whatever he was, there always seemed to be a job for him. In 1917 the War Cabinet sent him on a secret mission to meet Turkish leaders in Switzerland, apparently to test the possibilities of a separate peace. The following year found him heading the British Adriatic Mission, bound for his beloved Albania, but he was frozen out by the Italians, our allies. After the war there was a chance he might go to Albania, not necessarily as King but as League of Nations Commissioner. On the home front, the Member for Yeovil now sided with a rebel group of Tories, which included Mosley, all united in a loathing for Lloyd George. Suddenly he became almost totally blind. Advised that it would help to have all his teeth out, he did so and contracted a fatal infection. He was 43.
Meanwhile Lawrence (seen by Herbert as ‘an odd gnome, half-cad with a touch of genius’) had been acclaimed the romantic hero of the war. D’Annunzio, the poet-clown of Fiume, became the new petty potentate on the Adriatic. Herbert’s reward was to live on as Buchan’s ‘Greenmantle’ – and only a few knew he was the original of Sandy Arbuthnot. Had he lived he might well have written his own Buchanesque tales, for he had a vivid pen and an elegant wit.
Wisely, perhaps, Margaret FitzHerbert does not attempt to strike a profit-and-loss account of the life of this universal gentleman adventurer. His career cannot have been easy to disentangle, working as he did at various times for the Foreign Office, the War Office, the Admiralty, the Arab Bureau, the Irish Office, and even – in one peculiar post-war operation – for Sir Basil Thomas’s Scotland Yard. One is never quite sure at any time what rank he holds or who is paying his salary. In Mesopotamia, where he ‘belonged to no particular chain of command’, he might receive four different orders at once. This is Margaret FitzHerbert’s first book. A granddaughter of her subject, the second daughter of Evelyn Waugh, she has written a most discriminating, sure-footed and non-partisan biography, with a good sense of period. She is not out to distribute praise or blame. She mentions, dead-pan, such oddities as Herbert’s interest in the financial possibilities of a perpetual motion machine, working independently of electricity, oil, water or coal, made of wood by an Albanian shepherd. Describing Herbert’s marriage to Mary Vesey, at which the bride had the support of 14 adult bridesmaids, all daughters of peers, she resists any temptation to say that it must have been funny as well as vulgar.
It seems we could have had a life of Aubrey Herbert long ago if his widow, who died in 1970, had not sat on the family papers, believing that biography was an invasion of privacy. Lord Kinross began work on a life just before he died; Christopher Sykes took over, but later withdrew for reasons unexplained. At this point Mrs FitzHerbert, finding time heavy on her hands in ‘Aubrey’s old stamping-ground, the Middle East’, volunteered to tackle the papers; and we must all be very glad that she did.
Michael Seth-Smith’s A Classic Connection also features the career of an earl’s son, George Lambton, whose father was the second Earl of Durham. Lying fifth in a field of nine sons, he had to seek his own living. An Army crammer offered to have the indolent youth as a guest in his establishment, but not as a pupil. Horse-mad, Lambton decided to make his career as a racing trainer, or glorified training groom, the sort of person not normally entitled to ‘Mister’. His oldest brother at one time wanted him to go to Canada, but a moneylender very decently frustrated this unalluring idea by having him imprisoned for 24 hours for an unpaid debt; he was released on promising not to leave the country. The book, which describes Lambton’s long partnership with the Earl of Derby, is primarily for Turf enthusiasts, but the cache of letters on which it is based sheds curious incidental light on the ways of the aristocracy. Derby, the ‘Uncrowned King of Lancashire’, dubbed by Lloyd George ‘my best recruiting sergeant’, was the soul of affability and condescension, yet caused acute pain in the Lambton household by remarks which were taken to mean that a master-servant relationship ought to exist between owner and trainer. Much greater pain was caused when, after forty years’ association, Derby dismissed the Hon. George suddenly, blaming his ill-health, and suspecting that his wife was running the stable. He offered a consolatory pension of £1200 a year, which he thought generous. There are pages upon pages of outraged sensibility, fit for inclusion in any book on ‘Great Sackings’. It is strange to find Lord Derby, while serving as British Ambassador in France in the Spring of 1918, with the Germans apparently winning the war and Paris under bombardment, writing anxiously to his trainer about the performance of his horses and jockeys in the English classics. Racing was kept going in both world wars and George Lambton was the man who wrote to the Times on each occasion to justify this course.