The lamplighters of London


Foreign Office files shortly after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
hint at mounting mistrust between the European powers

This month missions all over the capital turned their lights out to commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War. Elizabeth Stewart remembers the small band of ambassadors who tried to keep lamps of peace burning.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set in chain a series of events that led to a global conflagration that left nine million dead, ended four European empires and started the slow decline of the British and French empires.

It need not have been so – there were ambassadors industriously working behind the scenes in European capitals to avoid a war.

London was pivotal – Germany hoped Britain would remain neutral and would persuade France to do the same; Russia thought Britain could reason with Germany, who would in turn reason with Austro-Hungary.

It was in London that the ambassadors of the Central and Entente powers made their last-ditch efforts to solve the crisis diplomatically.


German Ambassador Prince Lichnowsy’s warnings of the
approaching calamity went unheeded

The King’s cousin
At the centre of the inner circle of ambassadors was the popular Count Albert von Mensdorff-Pouilly-Dietrichstein, the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to the Court of St James’s. A portrait of him still hangs on the walls of today’s Austrian Embassy, the only remaining embassy from the vanished empire.

He had served in London since 1904 and his family connections with the British court were the envy of the diplomatic corps. His grandfather had married Queen Victoria’s aunt and his father was the godson of Prince Albert, the Prince Consort. In fact, the Count’s appointment had come at the personal request of King Edward VII and he maintained a close friendship with his successor King George V (his second cousin). The King made a personal visit to 18 Belgrave Square to pay his condolences after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

The Ambassador’s diaries (copies of which are at the Embassy) reveal the Ambassador made every attempt to avert a war, but his Anglophilia aroused suspicion in Vienna and he was kept out of the loop on critical negotiations.

When Britain declared war on Austro-Hungary on 12 August, the Ambassador left London but continued to negotiate in secret for the restoration of peace.

The Entente wanted a separate peace with Austria in exchange for maintaining most of the Empire in tact; but the Ambassador’s orders from Vienna were to sue for a general peace that included its loyal ally, Germany, which was unacceptable to Britain. The talks proved fruitless and Austro-Hungary faced dissolution after the war.

The Ambassador represented Austria on its reception into the doomed League of Nations which failed to stop a second world war. The Ambassador died of starvation in Vienna in 1945, aged 84.


Austrian Ambassador Count Albert von Mensdorff-Pouilly
-Dietrichstein was considered too much of an anglophile in Vien

Prince of Peace
The German Ambassador to London was the outspoken Prince Lichnowsky, who was brought out of retirement in 1912 to be Germany’s Ambassador to Britain (he had been forced into retirement because of his conflicts with his superiors).

During the July Crisis of 1914, Lichnowsky was a rarity: a Germany diplomat who raised repeated objections to Germany’s efforts to provoke an Austro-Serbian war, warning that Britain, if pushed, would intervene in a continental war.

He urged the German government to accept an offer of British mediation in the Austro-Serbian dispute. When that entreaty was ignored, he sent another cable, on 27 July, arguing that Germany could not win a continental war. Another cable followed on 28 July relaying an offer from King George V to hold a conference of European ambassadors to avoid general war.

A final cable on 29 July was sent to the German Foreign Office, repeating Sir Edward Grey’s warning: “If war breaks out it will be the greatest catastrophe the world has ever seen.”

When Germany invaded neutral Belgium, the Foreign Office sent an ultimatum to Germany – but managed to get the wording wrong. At 11pm on 4 August, a junior Foreign Office official, Harold Nicolson, knocked on the door of the German Embassy with a revised declaration of war. (The earlier version referred to Germany having declared war on Great Britain, whereas the new document made it clear that a state of war existed because of the expiry of the ultimatum).

The Ambassador was in his pyjamas but Nicholson insisted on handing the revised version personally. Reluctantly, the Ambassador signed a receipt and pointed to his desk, where the envelope with original declaration lay, with passports of the embassy staff enclosed.

Lichnowsky was held in high esteem and his departure was by no means in disgrace as he recalled in his diary: “A special train took us to Harwich, where a guard of honour was drawn up for me. I was treated like a departing Sovereign. Such was the end of my London mission. It was wrecked, not by the wiles of the British, but by the wiles of our policy.”

In 1916 he privately printed a pamphlet, My Mission to London 1912-1914, in which he accused his government of failing to support him in efforts to avert World War I; its 1917 publication in the United States led to his expulsion from the Prussian House of Lords.

In 1955, Prince Lichnowsky’s widow sold his writing desk to Hans von Herwarth, the first German Ambassador to London after Germany regained its independence in 1955. The Ambassador had a brand-new embassy in Belgrave Square to furnish and the desk was a prized possession. It has been used by successive German ambassadors ever since.

Vizier’s vision
The Residence of the Turkish Ambassador to London in Portland Place is also a relic of history, being site of the last Ottoman Embassy, which still contains a dinner service bearing the emblems of the Ottoman star.

The Ottoman Ambassador to London in the critical pre-war years was Ahmed Tevfik Pa?a, a former Grand Vizier. He was sent to London in 1909 in search of allies for the ailing empire.

His overtures were rejected in London – and his colleagues had little success in France, while Russia asked for a bit too much in return – so the Sublime Porte turned to Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm was prepared to overlook the weakness of the Ottoman army, knowing it could still stretch the Entente by attacking British possessions in the Middle East and the Russian possessions in the Caucasus.

Tevfik Pasa’s primary aim was to do what he could to save the Ottoman Empire. He headed the Ottoman delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, but refused to sign the Treaty of Sèvres, which aimed at total dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. He was also sympathetic to the nationalist movement of Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk), which resisted the Allied occupation of Anatolia after World War I.

Returning home, Tevfik Pasa became the last Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, resigning his post on the eve of Turkey becoming a republic.


Ottoman Ambassador Ahmed Tevfik Pasa failed to secure an alliance with Britain

French connection
The rise of Germany prompted other European powers to seek alliances to counterbalance the military might of the Kaiser. One diplomat takes the credit for forging Franco-British ties at the turn of the 20th century – Paul Cambon, the French Ambassador who served in London for an epic 22 years, from 1898 until 1920.

Cambon arrived in London when tensions were high after the two rival powers had nearly come to blows over the Fashoda Crisis in Sudan. But Cambon saw Germany as a bigger problem and was instrumental in the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France in 1904.

In the run-up to the First World War Cambon worked hard to persuade senior Foreign Office staff to pledge support to France against a German attack – in the face of initial prevarication from the British Government. (Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey pointed out the powerful commercial and financial pressures against Britain entering a war.)

During the war Cambon continued to play a vital role in cooperation between the two allies. He was a signatory of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved up the Middle East and ended his career as a representative on the Turkish commission of the Versailles Conference in February 1920.


French Ambassador Paul Cambon was an architect of the Entente Cordiale

Russia with love
The other great rival to Britain at the turn of the 20th century was Russia, with whom it was engaged in the ‘Great Game’ in Asia. It took exceptional diplomacy on the part of Russia’s Ambassador to London Count Alexander Konstantinovich Benckendorff to build an alliance between the two empires.

It could have gone the other way. In 1905, the Russian and German sovereigns, Nicholas and Wilhelm, met in secret on their yachts and signed a defensive pact.

It took some persuasion to get the Tsar to back out of the deal because it would nullify Russia’s alliance with France.

With that alliance secure it opened the way for Beckendorff to work on the Anglo-Russian Entente which was signed in 1907, thereby sealing the Triple Entente.

He hoped it would balance power in Europe and avoid a war but was mistaken.

In the run-up to war, Russia saw its new ally as the best chance to pull Berlin back from the brink. The Russian Foreign Minister Sazanov wrote to Benckendorff saying that “England, more than the other powers” could put pressure on Berlin but British attempts at mediation were rebuffed.
The Ambassador lost a son in the war and fell victim to influenza, dying in London in 1917. He was buried in Westminster Cathedral (a rare honour), and his requiem was attended by the Tsar’s brother and members of both the Russian and British Royal families.


Russian Ambassador Count Alexander Benckendorff helped pull
off the Anglo-Russian Entente

More light, less heat
No single event, individual or nation is to blame for the outbreak of war, rather it was a combination of factors – the fear of dominance was matched by paranoia over encirclement. Rivals and new allies alike viewed each other with suspicion, while the hubris of bad leaders with territorial ambitions, emboldened by alliances, went unchecked by weak officials.

So despite the best intentions of some of the best diplomats of the time, the lamps went out all over Europe. Perhaps one lesson stands out, as important today as it was a century ago – pay attention to the diplomats, who shed light when things get heated.