Aubrey Herbert

Aubrey Herbert

Aubrey Nigel Henry Molyneux Herbert, MP, (1880 – September 26, 1923) was a British diplomat, traveller and intelligence officer, associated with Albanian independence.


Aubrey Herbert was the second son of Henry Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon, a wealthy landowner, British cabinet minister and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and his second wife, Elizabeth Howard of Greystoke Castle, Cumberland, sister of Esme Howard, 1st Baron Howard of Penrith.

Herbert was afflicted with eye problems which left him nearly blind from early childhood, losing all his sight towards the end of his life.

Aubrey Herbert was educated at Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford University, where he obtained a first class degree in modern history. He was famous for climbing the roofs of the university buildings, despite his near blindness. He numbered among his friends Adrian Carton De Wiart, Raymond Asquith, John Buchan and Hilaire Belloc. Reginald Farrer remained close throughout his life.

His friendship with Middle Eastern traveller and advisor, Sir Mark Sykes dates from his entry into parliament in 1911 when, with George Lloyd, they were the three youngest Conservative MP's. They shared an interest in foreign policy and worked closely together in the Arab Bureau (1916).

Although not included in the collections of his letters (David Garnett, Malcolm Brown) T. E. Lawrence's correspondence with Aubrey Herbert quoted by Margaret Fitzherbert in the biography of her grandfather " The Man Who Was Greenmantle " bears witness to their close friendship.

He was a half brother to the famous Egyptologist, George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon who discovered King Tutankhamen's tomb.

Languages and travels

Herbert was in his own right a considerable Orientalist, and a linguist who spoke French, Italian, German, Turkish, Arabic, Greek and Albanian as well as English.

A renowned traveller, especially in the Middle East, his trips include voyages through Japan, Yemen, Anatolia and Albania. During the period 1902-04 he was an honorary attache in Tokyo, then in Constantinople during 1904-05. He was much more interested in the Middle East than in the Far East.

Herbert often dressed as a tramp on his travels.


He became a passionate advocate of Albanian independence, having visited the country in 1907, 1911 and 1913. During a stay in Tirana (1913) he had befriended Essad Pasha. When the Albanian delegates to the 1912 London Balkan Peace Conference arrived, they secured the assistance of Herbert as an advisor. He was very active in their cause and is regarded as having a considerable influence on Albania's obtaining independence. One of his constant correspondents on Albania was Edith Durham.

He was twice offered the throne of Albania. On the first occasion, just before World War I, he was interested, but was dissuaded by the then prime minister, Herbert Asquith, a family friend. The offer remained unofficial and rejected by the Foreign Office. The Albanian crown went to William of Wied.

A second time the crown was offered after the defeat of the Italian Army by the Abanians in September 1920. Again the offer was unofficial though on behalf of the Albanian government. Aubrey Herbert discussed the offer with Philip Kerr and Maurice Hankey pursuing the idea of perhaps acting under the banner of the League of Nations; Eric Drummond a friend of Aubrey had become its first Secretary General. Aubrey's subsequent lobbying led to the acceptance of Albania as a member in the League of Nations in December 1920. [Margaret FitzHerbert 1985, " The man who was Greenmantle " chapter 14, 'The dear yourney's end'] With a change of Foreign Minister in the Albanian government Aubrey's chance of a crown greatly diminished. The crown was then (April 1921), still more unofficially, offered to the Duke of Atholl by Jim Barnes of the British Friends of Albania residing in Italy. [S. J. Hetherington " Katharine Atholl (1874-1960) Against the Tide " pg 88-90, Aberdeen University Press 1989 ISBN 0080365922]

The National Library of Albania in Tirana was once named after Herbert as was a village in the country.


He was a very independent Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for the Southern division of Somerset from 1911 to 1918, and for Yeovil from 1918 to his death. Always an advocate of the rights of smaller nations, Herbert opposed the British Government's Irish policy. Herbert was, however, always seen as something of a lightweight in the House of Commons.

World War One

Despite very poor eyesight, Herbert was able, at the outbreak of World War I in 1914, to join the Irish Guards, in which he served in a supernumerary position. He did this by purchasing a uniform and boarding a troopship bound for France.

During the Battle of Mons he was wounded, taken prisoner, and escaped.

After a convalescence in England and unable to rejoin due to his occular disability, Aubrey was proposed for service in military intelligence [see also: Baghdad Railway] in Caïro by Kitchener's military secretary Oswald FitzGerald via Mark Sykes. He was attached to the Intelligence Bureau in Caïro under Colonel Clayton in January 1915. In mid-February he was sent on an intelligence gathering mission in the Eastern Mediterranean aboard the cruiser " Bachante ". When the Gallipoli Campaign started General Alexander Godley, formerly of the Irish Guards and second in command to General Birdwood of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, now commanding the New Zealanders, offered him an appointment as Liaison Officer and Interpreter on the General's staff. His pre-war contacts (a.o.Rıza Tevfik Bölükbaşı) and Turkish speaking ability were to prove useful. He became famous for arranging a truce [see also: Lord Kinross " Atatürk - The Rebirth of a Nation " K. Rustem & Brother, Nicosia 1984] of eight hours, on Whit Monday, 24 May, with the Turkish commander Mustafa Kemal to bury the dead. He appears, as the 'Honourable Herbert' in Louis de Bernieres's novel Birds Without Wings, where he is seen by a narrating character during the truce. [Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres, pp 366-368] In Eastern Mediterranean Intelligence he worked together with Compton Mackenzie. [Margaret FitzHerbert " The man who was Greenmantle - a biography of Aubrey Herbert " Oxford University Press 1985 ISBN 0192818562 chapter 9, Anzac 1915]

In October 1915, on sick leave in England, Herbert carried with him a memorandum [A letter on the memorandum from November 3rd, 1915 from Herbert to Clayton containing:" They (FO) trust Egypt with the running of the Arabian Question..." is extensively quoted (pg 171) in H. V. F. Winstone's " Gertrude Bell " Jonathan Cape, 1978 ISBN 0224014323] from the Arab Bureau from Colonel Clayton to the Foreign Office explaining the situation in the Middle East. In November, the memorandum, at first favourably received, became obsolete after the visit of François Georges-Picot and his subsequent negotiations with Mark Sykes. It would appear that the Arab Bureau however continued working along the lines of the memorandum [Compare: Lord Hardinge's letter on the memorandum to Wingate of November 28th, 1915 in : Winstone 1978, " Gertrude Bell " pg 171-172] which led to contrary promises resulting in accusations of bad faith. [Margaret FitzHerbert, 1985 " The man who was Greenmantle " chapter 10, Kut 1916]

In November 1915 Aubrey was in Paris and Rome on a secret mission related to Albania. Following the plan to evacuate Anzac beginning in December he volunteered to return to Anzac to stay with the rear guard convinced that his knowledge of language and his network of acquaintances would greatly benefit that body if captured. The successful evacuation of Anzac and Suvla Bay on the 20th December and the good prospects for Cape Helles countered his proposal.

Impatient with the indecision of the Foreign Office over Albania, Herbert at the start of 1916 went prospecting for new opportunities. Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss proposed for him a job as Captain in Intelligence. When in February the War Office cleared him from involvement in Albania, he took up the offer and found himself in charge of Naval intelligence in Mesopotamia and the Gulf.

Following the critical situation of British troops at Kut-al-Amara the War Office instructed to offer General Townshend the use of Aubrey Herbert to negotiate terms with the Turks. T. E. Lawrence was sent on behalf of the Arab Bureau while Colonel Beach acted for Intelligence of the Indian Expeditionary Force. Together they were to oversee the exchange of prisoners and wounded, and eventually to offer the commander Khalil Pasha up to ₤ 2 million for the relief of Kut. The offer was rejected by Enver Pasha, and the evacuation of the wounded severely hampered through lack of transport.

The situation at Kut led Aubrey to send a telegram to Austen Chamberlain, Secretary of State for India, with support of General Lake but still in breach of army regulations, condemning the incompetence in handling the Mesopotamian campaign. The Government of India ordered a court martial. The War Office refused. Admiral Wemyss, who travelled to Simla for the purpose, supported him throughout. [Margaret FitzHerbert, 1985 " The man who was Greenmantle " chapter 10, Kut 1916]

Back in England in July 1916 Aubrey Herbert started asking (12 July) in the House of Commons for a Royal Commission to inquire into the conduct of the Mesopotamian campaign. He opposed the routine evasiveness of the Prime Minister, Mr Asquith (a close friend), by speaking in the House four times on Mesopotamia. A Special Commission Mesopotamia was subsequently appointed. Aubrey's critics saw in his obstinacy a personal vendetta [A letter from George Lloyd to Wingate of May 27, 1915 reads :"...the Government of India seem to be doubly cursed with a Commander in Chief with too little grip and a Finance Member called Mayer with too much..." in: Winstone 1978, " Gertrude Bell " pg 177. Aubrey Herbert's interventions in the House of Commons date 12th, 17th, 18th, 20th, 26th Juli ref: FitzHerbert 1985] against Sir Beauchamp Duff, the Commander-in-Chief in India, and Sir William Meyer, the Financial Secretary. [Margaret FitzHerbert, 1985 " The man who was Greenmantle " chapter 10, Kut 1916]

In October 1916 Aubrey Herbert was to serve as a liaison officer with the Italian army whose frontline lay in Albania. It seems that he was unaware of the clause partitioning Albania signed with Italy in the secret Treaty of London on 26th April 1915. When the Bolsheviks published the secret provisions in 1917 he rejected the idea of Albania as merely a small Moslim state, the fiefdom he believed of Essad Pasha. In December he was back in England. [Margaret FitzHerbert 1985 " The man who was Greenmantle ", chapter 11 Balkan soldiering and Swiss Peacemaking]

In December 1916 also he learned about the death of his cousin Bron, the son of his (pacifist) uncle Auberon Herbert, to whom he had felt closest. From that date Aubrey was to consistently support the idea of negotiated peace.

1917 saw him working, under General MacDonogh, the Director of Military Intelligence, on plans of a separate peace with Turkey. On 16 July he was conducting a series of meetings with Turks in Geneva, Interlaken and Bern, among them a (secret) representative of an influential anti-Enver group. [FitzHerbert 1985, Chapter 11] Let us note that Mustafa Kemal, who Aubrey knew from Gallipoli, had fallen out with Enver Pasha over the way -by personal order of the Sultan- his command over the Seventh Army opposite Allenby in Syria had been bestowed on him on the 5th of July (he had been a Staff Captain with the Fifth Army in Damascus in 1905) [Lord Kinross " Atatürk - The Rebirth of a Nation " Rustem & Brother Nicosia 1984, Chapter Fourteen] . Aubrey took his notes to the Inter-Allied Conference in Paris. In a memorandum for the Foreign Office he said "If we get the luggage it does not matter very much if the Turks get the labels. When Lord Kitchener was all powerful in Egypt his secretary was wearing a fez. Mesopotamia and Palestine are worth a fez." [Mem. 26 July 1917. F.O. 371/3057 No. 148986 see: Notes " Page " 193 in: Margaret Fitzherbert, 1985 " The man who was Greenmantle "]

In November 1917 Aubrey Herbert was again sent to Italy under orders of General Macdonogh. Now he was in charge of the British Adriatic Mission [Margaret FitzHerbert 1985," The man who was Greenmantle " chapter 12 Rebellious MP] , with Samuel Hoare coordinating the Mission's special intelligence in Rome. [J.A.Cross " Sir Samuel Hoare - A Political Biography " Jonathan Cape 1977 ISBN 0224013505] An earlier proposal by expatriate Albanians in America, "Vatra", of raising an Albanian regiment under Aubrey's command had been renewed. The matter lay somewhat delicate with the Italians as "Vatra" became increasingly anti-Italian. On 17th July 1918 the proposal was formally approved in Boston, and the Italian Consulate accepted provided it became a unit in the Italian Army. The end of the war prevented the issue of growing into a tangle. [FitzHerbert, 1985 chapter 12]

Herbert ended the war as head of the British mission to the Italian army in Albania with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.


Unclear policy led to nationalist criticism from Imperial bases such as Egypt [Keith Jeffery " The British army and the crisis of empire 1918-22 " Manchester University Press - Studies in Military History, 1984 ISBN 0719017173] (see Saad Zaghlul, 1919) at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, nor was the resulting political handling cause for much optimism to privileged witnesses such as Aubrey, T. E. Lawrence or Gertrude Bell.

At the Conference there was a glimpse of further prospect for Aubrey Herbert when the Italian delegates proposed to assume shared responsibility [Keith Jeffery, 1984, Chapter 8, Persia and Mesopotamia, pg 136] over the Caucasus, an area of vital strategic importance [Peter Hopkirk " On Secret Service East of Constantinople " Oxford University Press 1995 ISBN 0192853031] - Baku oilfields, acces from the Nord to Mosul and Kirkuk. By May 1919, the proposal appeared to be quite empty.

By May 1919 also, the Directorate of Intelligence had changed hands, on the authority of Lord Curzon (acting Foreign Secretary while Arthur Balfour was negotiating in Paris) from Aubrey's chief General MacDonogh to Sir Basil Thomson of Scotland Yard Special Branch i.e from military to civilian in view of the Bolshevik threat on the home front. [Christopher Andrew " Secret Service - The Making of the British Intelligence Community " Sceptre, 1986 ISBN 0340404302 pg 336] Thus it was possible for Aubrey in Februari 1921 to amaze a friend he could confide to, Lord Robert Cecil, that he was going abroad as an inspector of Scotland Yard: he went to Berlin to interview Talaat Pasha for intelligence. [Margaret Fitzherbert, 1985 chapter 14, 'The dear yourney's end']

Family life and premature death

Aubrey Herbert married Mary, daughter of the 4th Viscount de Vesci, a member of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Lord de Vesci converted, along with his wife, to Roman Catholicism and raised their children accordingly.

Aubrey and Mary Herbert had four children, one of whom, Laura, married the novelist Evelyn Waugh.

Herbert's mother gave him both a country estate at Pixton Park in Somerset, England with 5,000 acres (20 km²) of land and a substantial villa on the Gulf of Genoa at Portofino. His son, Auberon Herbert, inherited both properties.

Herbert's mother-in-law gave the family a fine house in London.

Herbert was a slim man of more than average height and contemporaries described him as having perfect manners.

Towards the end of his life, Herbert became totally blind. He was given very bad advice to the effect that having all his teeth extracted would restore his sight. The dental operation resulted in blood poisoning from which he died in London on 26 September, 1923.

Herbert's estate was probated in 1924 at 49,970 pounds sterling.

Model for literature

It is widely believed that Herbert is the inspiration for the character, Sandy Arbuthnot, a hero in several of John Buchan novels including Greenmantle. His Italian family villa is the model for that in his son-in-law's "Sword of Honour" trilogy.

The cameo character of the 'Honourable Herbert' in Louis de Bernieres's novel "Birds Without Wings" is clearly based on Herbert. He appears as a British liaison officer with the ANZAC troops serving in the Galipoli campaign. A polyglot officer able to communicate with both sides, he arranges the burial of the dead of both sides, achieving great popularity with both sides - a description that mirrors his role in the 1915 truce. ["Birds Without Wings", approx pp 366-68]



* [ Mons, Anzac & Kut] by Aubrey Herbert
* "The man who was Greenmantle: A biography of Aubrey Herbert" by Margaret Fitzherbert (John Murray, London, 1983)
* "Moments of Memory - Recollections and Impressions" by Herbert Asquith, Hutchinson & Co, London 1937
* "The Decline and Fall Of the British Aristocracy" by David Cannadine, Picador, London, 1992
* "The Asquiths" by Colin Clifford, John Murray, London, 2003
* "Hilaire Belloc" by A. N. Wilson, Penguin, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1986
* "Desert Queen" by Janet Wallach, Anchor Books, New York, 1999
* "John Buchan, A Biography" by Janet Adam Smith, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985
* "Evelyn Waugh, Vol. 1, The Early Years 1903-1939" by Martin Stannard, Flamingo, Hammersmith, London, 1993
* "Evelyn Waugh, A Biography" by Christopher Sykes, Penguin, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1977
* "John Buchan, The Presbyterian Cavalier" by Andrew Lownie, McArthur and Company, Toronto, 2004
*Dictionary of National Biography.

ee also

Historical people portrayed as heroes

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