The Englishman Who Foresaw the War

As Hitler’s shadow loomed over Europe from 1934 to 1938, there was a man in the British Foreign Office, Ralph Wigram, who was deeply versed in the German character and downright in his distrust of everything the Nazis stood for. This is how Wigram appeared to his perceptive junior, VALENTINE LAWFORD, whose memoirs,BOUND FOR DIPLOMACY,appear this month.

RALPH WIGRAM seemed a very gentle, almost shy person on my first morning in the Foreign Office, with his youthful looks and quiet voice and few words. An are of hair falling forward from the part and cutting across the line of the cheek seemed to make his face even slighter and younger. His nose had character all right; it was highbridged and not small. And though his face narrowed abruptly from the cheekbones down and came to a point at the chin, the chin itself was fine and firm, like the thin end of an almond. Still, it was the upper half of the head, from the crown to the eyes, that caught one’s attention. The hair was the color of bronze, thick and unruly, but not concealing the fine shape of the head. The eyes were set wide apart, intensely blue and watchful, with a shadow along the eye sockets beneath them. Wary rather than suspicious, knowing but surely not unkind. Perhaps the mouth under the fair mustache was a little thin. But, far from innate fanaticism, the taut lips suggested an acquired habit of concentration and perhaps even of putting aside pain.

Heaven defend me for saying anything so antediluvian, but he had an English face, the sort of face that a medieval sculptor might have had as his model as he carved the likeness of an English knight. The face of a young country gentleman up from the West to be drawn by Holbein. The face in an Elizabethan miniature, or under the hat or helmet of a captain at Naseby — one of the best England could offer. I thought I could trace it in a dozen incarnations, through the Peninsular and Crimean and South African wars, all the way to this product of Edwardian Eton.

In telling me that I had been chosen to work in the Central Department, Nigel Ronald, the potentially sympathetic, potentially professorial diplomatic private secretary, had hinted, between impressive sniffs, that it was something of an honor, for the department (in Foreign Office parlance) “dealt with” France and Germany — and Poland and Belgium and much else besides — and if any department could claim to be in a perpetual state of crisis, it was this one.

As the humblest member of the local hierarchy I had been placed exactly opposite the door communicating with the room of the head of the department; in the best position, that is, to be seen by Wigram whenever he came through in search of someone to run an errand. But being naturally exempt the first day from departmental duty, I didn’t even have to play a part — beyond gratuitously feeling still more sick and solemn — in the coming and going that followed on the receipt of the news that King Alexander of Yugoslavia and Monsieur Barthou had been assassinated that very afternoon in Marseilles. The King’s murder, I gathered, was the concern of the Southern Department, who, from rooms adjacent to ours along the ground-floor passage, tried sportingly (but by Central Department standards not quite seriously) to cope with a picturesque but politically secondary province, ranging from Italy through Austria and the Hapsburg Succession states to the southernmost tip of the Balkans. But only half the crisis was Ruritanian; and naturally the assassination of the French Foreign Minister set the Central Department’s incomparably more efficient machinery working at full speed. In and out of Wigram’s door went one after another of my colleagues, and from where I sat I couldn’t fail to observe that each time one of them emerged again he moved briskly, as though impelled by a force in the room beyond.

It wasn’t until I had been told that I might go home and had slipped through the door of the Third Room into the passage that I came face to face with Wigram again. Leaning slightly backward, with a bunch of papers in one hand and a stick in the other, he stood at his own main door as I passed and asked me how I was getting on. I murmured something about having found everything very interesting, and seeing that he appeared to be headed in the same direction, paused, presuming I ought to walk beside him or, respectfully, a few paces behind. But he signaled to me with the papers to go ahead and said a curt good night. I said “Good night, sir,” and did as I was bid. But not before I had seen with what an infinite, unfair handicap he moved: head down and to one side, forelock hanging perpendicularly, white knuckles pressing heavily on a stick for support.

NEXT morning I had hardly settled into my chair when I heard an unmistakable step on the tessellated floor of the passage, and a few minutes later my telephone rang and Wigram was asking me to come into his room. He needed something from the Registry at once, some telegram, a copy of which he had already seen in the morning’s distribution; the sort of thing that, however urgently the registrar might enter it and the central division jacket it and docket it and submit it with its references and a file of previous papers on the same subject, they could never produce promptly enough for him. And from that moment on, I was rarely to sit at my desk for more than five minutes on end in the space of over two years.

That morning’s summons marked for me the beginning of an unforgettable adventure, ranging all the way from nightly horror at having been caught up in an institution from which there was no prospect of respectable escape, to ineffable physical, as well as mental, relief on the rare, red-letter days when I had miraculously performed some task, however menial, to the institution’s implicit rather than explicit satisfaction. And since there is no doubt in my mind today that, whether I enjoyed the adventure at the time or not, it was pre-eminently from working for Ralph Wigram that I learned whatever it was granted to me to learn in my first two years in diplomacy, I cannot more fittingly recall the splendors and miseries of my apprenticeship than in terms of the exceptional man who was my head of department.

He used his pen as unsparingly as he used his juniors’ shoe leather, jabbing it into the ink so hard that one could hear the nib strike against the bottom of the bottle, and forcing it to the last, inkless scratch. His letters weren’t very well formed. In fact, there would have been something slightly immature about the hand had not each word stood so sturdily upright and on its own that the cumulative impression, above all when one watched him writing, was of some highly strung young general, nervously but expertly placing his outposts as he advanced across a plain.

When he dictated he did so rapidly, in a clear, staccato voice, hardly ever at great length and seldom correcting himself, let alone losing the thread or gazing speechless into space or starting all over again from the beginning. I never saw him use notes, or even consult the back papers in a file, unless it was to verify a passage to be quoted verbatim or to check the reference number or date of a dispatch or telegram. It was as though the facts had etched themselves into the grooves of his mind, and their mere recital, as crisp and sure as a record, was for him both argument and style. “Last week Herr Hitler said — This week Baron von Neurath says — Next week, no doubt —”

Bit by bit, ever since those early days, I have done my best to piece together a knowledge ot Wigram’s past. As his appearance suggested, he sprang from the remains of the officer class. But he himself, I believe, didn’t regard his or anyone else’s genealogies with much interest. Through his maternal grandmother, he was descended from George III’s egregious Prime Minister, the Duke of Grafton. But the only aspect of his ancestry from which he derived any noticeable satisfaction was his descent, through his paternal grandmother, from Richard Arkwright, the inventor of the spinning jenny, If he had any intelligence above the average, he was reported to have said, it was to Richard Arkwright that he owed it. Bristol merchants in the eighteenth century, the Wigram family throughout the nineteenth had sent its sons into the army and navy and East India Company (with its offshoots, the Bengal and Madras civil services) and, rather less frequently, the Church. But though, broadly speaking, that sort of Thackerayan tradition was shared by the family of more than one of my contemporaries, as well as by my own, there must have been an austerely evangelical quality about Wigram’s earlytwentieth-century youth that had been notably absent from ours. On coming down from Oxford in 1912 he had gone to work in the East End of London, running a boys’ club under the auspices of Toynbee Hall, being a scoutmaster, and teaching at the Working Men’s College.

THE outbreak of the First World War had put an end to his activities as a social worker, and also to his more recently adopted career as a lecturer at Leeds on economics. He wanted passionately to go to the front, and applied to the Coldstream Guards for a commission, hoping that his father’s previous connection with the regiment, as its adjutant, would give him a chance of being accepted. But the stringent physical requirements still in force in those days as regards height and chest measurement caused him to be rejected. Whereupon, disappointed but not daunted, he tried to enlist in the ranks. For two years he was employed in the office of the director of military operations, and in 1916 paid two visits to Russia as a member of a military mission, during one of which he was invited, with his general, to dine en petit comité with the Czar. Then he had spent another two years, still in a military capacity, at the embassy in Washington, and in 1919 entered the diplomatic service, serving first in Washington again and afterward in the Central Department of the Foreign Office, where he was also for a time resident clerk.

It was while he was a member of the Central Department in 1920 that, returning on the Orient Express from a trip to Vienna and Budapest, he chanced to meet Lord D’Abernon, and in the course of a brief conversation impressed that ambassador sufficiently to be invited to stay with him and advise him on the reorganization of his chancery in Berlin. History does not relate how Lord D’Abernon’s staff felt about that; but as to Wigram, one would hazard a guess that he didn’t let it deter him, and in the end they were probably grateful.

Though he was still only a minor official, his exceptional reliability made him a valued member of the British delegation to the Spa Conference of 1920 and the Paris Conference of 1921. From the first, too, he had attracted the favorable attention of Sir Eyre Crowe — as I have always liked to think, through what can only be described as his gift of supernatural common sense. Transferred to the embassy in Paris in 1923, he became a head of chancery of exemplary efficiency.

His experience with delegation work caused him to be temporarily recalled to London for the London Conference of 1924, in the course of which one Sunday, when the principal delegates were resting in the country and the less exalted were thrashing things out in committee, he had the nerve to summon Herr Stresemann and the Foreign Secretary back to London in the Prime Minister’s name so that they might deal at once with a number of knotty points on which work in committee was held up. It is an incident that has always pleased me, for not only did the bold stroke, as in the most heartwarming Victorian fiction, perfectly succeed and actually receive retrospective sanction from on high, but nothing was more characteristic of the man, as I came to know him, than the ultimate in bureaucratic keenness, combined with uninhibited ideas about what great men are for and an absolutely unbureaucratic lack of scruple.

Ten years were to elapse between his transfer to Paris and his final return to the Foreign Office as head of the Central Department; years of great promise, great happiness, and great disaster. Making a brief tour in French North Africa in 1924, he met the daughter of John Edward Courtenay Bodley, the great late-nineteenthcentury British authority on France and the French, and decided then and there that she must not only accompany him on the rest of his tour but, with the least possible delay, become his wife. To Ava Bodley — young and clever, free as air, fresh as a rose on a June morning, armed less with thorns than with a formidable sense of the ridiculous that had been anything but blunted by a short period of work in the Foreign Office as one of the “library ladies” — the strange little itinerant first secretary’s insistence seemed impertinent and absurd. Yet twenty-four hours later there she was, with a chaperon, going on his tour with him; and early in 1925 Wigram and the great authority’s daughter were married in Paris.

From his place of retirement just across the Channel, Wigram’s remarkable old father-in-law — the one-time friend of Ruskin, Wilde, and Whistler, Princess Mathilde and Pierre Loti, Clemenceau and Charles Maurras — watched expertly over the young couple’s progress in France. Ava already enjoyed a position in Paris which, to put it mildly, was unusual for a lesser British embassy wife. Talleyrand’s great-niece, the imposing Countess Jean de Castellane, in a dashing pale-mauve velvet cartwheel hat with ostrich feathers, had functioned unforgettably as matron of honor at this first secretary’s wedding; and from the beginning politicians and journalists of the right, left, and center, labor leaders, financiers, intellectuals, artists, and men of letters frequented the newly married couple’s apartment. In course of time, no doubt, Wigram would have come to know many of the leading characters in contemporary Paris life, even if he had not been married to Bodley’s daughter. But the fact of his marriage hastened the process of acquaintance and added immeasurably to the charm of the experience.

PRIVATE life, embassy life, diplomatic life, Paris life in its matchless depth and diversity all were exploited and enjoyed to the full. On the wider international scene, too, the tensions which had come near to breaking point in the year of his arrival in Paris with the Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr had been succeeded late in 1925 by the relative relaxation of the Locarno period. What was known as the spirit of Locarno may have owed its origin to the fortuitous coincidence in office of three individual statesmen united for once in the will to agree, rather than to any real solution of a basic problem. But at least momentarily the yawning gaps between the nations looked as though they had been boldly bridged. And Frenchmen, Englishmen, and Germans were encouraged to approach one another, even if in the light of the years to come it might appear that they had actually been offered nothing more solid to tread upon than three layers of polite misunderstanding.

But from such satisfactions, illusory or otherwise, as the next few years had to offer, Wigram himself was to be largely excluded. In 1926, the year after his marriage, he was suddenly struck down by infantile paralysis. For months it seemed unlikely that he would survive, or that it by some chance he did, he would ever again be fit for service. And even when at long last, to the bewilderment of the doctors, his strength of will and his wife’s nursing achieved the impossible and he was once more installed at his desk in the chancery, he was a semi-invalid to whom further illness would be fatal; for a while little more than a ghost of himself, often in great pain, and permanently deprived of the normal use of his feet.

It was a loss all the more cruel to one who had hitherto been a young man who never walked but ran; to a good athlete, too, with an unerring eye in games as in work, who on the very day before he was stricken had roundly defeated one of his juniors in singles at tennis. But far from repining, he now taxed his brain and body harder than ever. And to his juniors, he seemed more a perfectionist than ever. Leaner now and cumbrously limping, but robust and rapid as ever in mind, with eyes and ears missing nothing, he was again to be seen wherever he thought there might be something for him to learn in Paris, even in the salons, for he knew France far too well to scorn the French mundane.

“Monsieur Wigram turns up everywhere,” a French acquaintance said of him at this time, taking care to add — for, in the international world, such things do not necessarily go together — “and everywhere he is welcome.”

His French was serviceable rather than scintillating; fluent enough, all the same, for him to be chosen as interpreter and record taker, as well as technical adviser, at many of the AngloFrench meetings and international conferences. As I was fated to learn in due course, the mental and nervous and muscular strain of simultaneously interpreting and recording an international conversation made the assignment one of the most wearing that could fall to the lot of a member of the career. But Wigram’s performance of the dual role, and his reliability and resourcefulness as an adviser on reparations during the Lausanne Conference of 1932, earned him a special encomium from Neville Chamberlain, then undergoing his first experience of international negotiation. And two years later the promptness with which he submitted his records won praise from Sir Maurice Hankey, the secretary of the Cabinet, himself a recognized prodigy of bureaucratic efficiency.

By then Wigram had left Paris behind him. For when the position of head of the Central Department of the Foreign Office fell vacant in 1933, he had been chosen to fill it. After such an unusually long period of service abroad, he must have tried hard, on returning to London, to continue leading a useful double life. As always, it was a losing battle. Yet he and his wife did contrive to make of their little house in North Street, Smith Square, a sort of London equivalent of their Paris apartment.

Perhaps it was not really all that remarkable that as head of the Central Department during Hitler’s first few years in power he should have come to believe that there could be no genuine peace in Europe so long as National Socialism ruled in Germany; that whatever Hitler might promise, and even sometimes like to think he meant, he was bound in the long run to attempt to encompass the destruction of France and Britain; and that, accordingly, any idea of a valid compact with him was a delusion. Perhaps it was not so very remarkable either that, given such beliefs, Wigram should have thought that Britain and France would risk less by showing firmness, while their future adversary had still not attained his full strength, than by doing what in practice amounted to nothing each time he put out his hand to grasp this or that tactical advantage, in order to be progressively more sure of destroying them. Nor, again, was it remarkable that Wigram should have been convinced that, if it was to be able to pursue a policy of firmness in peace and to win an eventual war, Britain had no choice but to look urgently to its defenses; rearm, not disarm, strengthen, not weaken its ties with nations whose interests coincided with its own, and encourage them to prepare themselves likewise.

INASMUCH as Wigram had Mein Kampf to read and the courage to read it — not just in the only half-complete English translation of those days, but in its painful German entirety — any views other than these would have been far more remarkable. Furthermore, these were the views held by the two senior Foreign Office experts together with whom he was responsible for advising the government on the conduct of relations with the new Germany, the permanent undersecretary, Sir Robert Vansittart, and Sir Orme Sargent. These were the views, too, that underlay the increasingly gloomy predictions that from the spring of 1933 until his retirement in August filled the dispatches of Sir Horace Rumbold from Berlin. And they were the views — whatever may since have been alleged about his dispatches’ containing too much wit and too little warning, and however dubious he may have been about French enthusiasm for the war when it came — of Rumbold’s successor, Sir Eric Phipps. “This is a most illuminating document — and terrifying,” wrote the then Foreign Secretary, Sir John Simon, in a minute on Phipps’s dispatch of January 30, 1934, in which the ambassador had pointed out, among other things, that the German government didn’t “believe in” negotiation and that nothing had so enhanced Hitler’s prestige in Germany as the behavior of the Western nations since he had taken office.

Far more remarkable than his views themselves was the consistency with which he held them; and scarcely less so, the methods, some of them unheard of for a British civil servant, that he was prepared to adopt in order to ensure, if he possibly could, that they should prevail.

In a sense the ground was stony indeed. Yet surely not quite in the sense that has generally been suggested since. For the pre-war population of Britain was not in fact divided into the very few “who knew” and the very many who were abysmally ignorant; into those who believed in the existence of a German danger and those who didn’t. If it had been, Wigram’s (and Sargent’s and Vansittart’s — and Churchill’s) task might have been easier. For those who do not know can sometimes be cajoled into learning, and unbelievers have been known to be converted; whereas there is virtually no persuading those who know but who for some compelling reason prefer to go on behaving as though they do not. And in 1933 and 1934, and for some time thereafter, among even the sanest members of the British public there were few who could permanently resist the lure of yielding to the natural human desire to be left in peace; either choosing to ignore the danger that threatened them, or insisting that it was a danger that could somehow miraculously be avoided and superseded by a general settlement designed to include National Socialist Germany and, equally miraculously, leave Britain’s prestige and prosperity undiminished.

Of course, there were allegedly some odd people in England who were both aware of the imminent threat and actually happy about it, looking forward as they did to the coming Anglo-German conflict as an essential step toward their particular millennium, the destruction of capitalism. But one would hazard a guess that they were as far from numerous as the British admirers of Hitler and National Socialism. Incomparably more familiar were those who had matters of greater concern to think about, or who disliked thinking of anything so unpleasant, or who were by nature averse to drawing conclusions from knowledge; those who would never renounce their native right to say, “Britain will muddle through, hope against hope, keep your hair on, that sort of thing doesn’t happen to us"; those who thought it unwise, or unfair, or a mixture of both (that is to say, unEnglish), to seem to suspect a potential enemy, or who hoped it might one day turn him into a friend if they seemed not to do so; those who believed that to say that war was inevitable was the way to make it inevitable; and those who said you could hardly blame Hitler for being suspicious of the British Foreign Office. Then there were those who felt that, since the League of Nations was there, it was immoral as well as unreasonable not to put their faith in it; the bird watchers, running off after every successive wild goose as it popped over the horizon and collecting signatures to certify that here at long last was the authentic dove of peace; and the word watchers, patiently tuning in again and again to hear from Hitler at firsthand that from this day forward he had positively no more demands to make.

Add to the above — and, naturally, the list has no remote claim to completeness — the ironic fact that in Parliament the Conservative majority, who by nature might have been expected to be favorable to the idea of a well-armed Britain, were the very people most tempted to let sleeping dogs lie, while those to whom Hitler should have been the archenemy, the Socialist opposition, were the very people by tradition and doctrine most hostile to the idea of effective military preparation as a way of dealing with him.

FROM the first I had sensed that my head of department had a special position in the Foreign Office. The limp and the legend in themselves were enough to set him apart. As is usual with people who are institutions, though, it was not easy to say that he was liked. He was accepted as a phenomenon by all, respected by the majority, admired by several, feared by quite a few. He seemed most attached to Sargent and Vansittart; typically so, for they were the two people with whom he worked most closely, who pre-eminently shared his anxieties, and through whom, if through anybody, something might one day at last be achieved. As for the rest, if someone stopped to talk to him in the passage, his eyes would look straight into theirs. But most people must have shared my suspicion that he looked less at you than through you at something in his own mind.

“Little Ralph Wigram,” Vansittart has written of him, twice; and “Wigs” he was to his contemporaries, not just posthumously but during his lifetime and to his face. But rather than condescension, or even camaraderie, the use of the nickname by his colleagues always seemed to me to denote a desire on their part to catch up with one of their number who had unaccountably gone deeper and got further ahead and to remind themselves that he was human also. For even inside the Foreign Office there were those whose smiles tightened a little when his name was mentioned, and who would have admitted, if pressed, that they were not entirely happy about his uncompromising views. Not that his colleagues were jealous; for whatever may be said about the prewar British diplomatic service, it was certainly, of all the services, the one where the weed of jealousy had least hold. But however sincerely they respected the man and his courage, there was no denying that his conception of the role of the diplomatist no longer quite corresponded to theirs. Diplomacy that consisted in repeating that negotiation was worthless and conciliation a fraud came dangerously close to being no diplomacy at all. I doubt if anyone wished him out of his job exactly, but there may have been one or two who felt that if by some mischance they had had to take it over, they would have tried by hook or by crook to do something a little more positive.

Nothing he did could escape notice; if only because, however highly other heads of department might personally rate the importance of their own problems, in the back of everyone’s minds lay the thought that Wigram’s department was the one whose daily work concerned the survival of us all. On a more parochial level, too, his keenness to keep every paper with a bearing on Germany in his own hands or under his control was liable on occasion to complicate his relations with colleagues whose sphere of interest — usually as a result of some administrative arrangement which had once been perfectly reasonable but which time, aided by Hitler, had begun to turn into an anomaly — included a region or a subject that formed an integral part of the German problem from 1933 on.

There was one subject, I remember, which, however strongly he might resent the fact, he was quite unable to highjack. For historical reasons naval matters were included in the province of the American Department of the Foreign Office, and so it came about that a subject that he regarded as an inseparable part of the German problem, the whole question of the negotiation of an AngloGerman naval agreement in the summer of 1935, came only indirectly within his purview and effectively escaped his influence.

Believing that if it suited him, Hitler would violate one and all of the provisions of any agreement at the drop of a hat, Wigram dismissed the technical merits or demerits of the various proposals under discussion as completely beside the point. And while the head of the American Department and the Admiralty experts entered meticulously, as was their duty, into questions of tonnage and guns and submarines, he was far more exercised by the plain fact that by actively conniving at this further breach of the limiting clauses of the Treaty of Versailles so soon after publicly condemning Hitler’s unilateral repudiation of the military restrictions of the treaty in the spring, Britain was not only encouraging German rearmament but gratuitously providing the German government with just the kind of opportunity it so much relished to drive a wedge between Britain and its closest friends. Others might, and did, argue that since Germany was bent on rearming in any case, there was conceivably an advantage in “getting something on paper” for a while. The phrase had — has it not still? — a kind of classic respectability; and it was in fact what Vansittart was himself to write about the agreement in due course, though not, one feels, with quite his usual conviction. But Wigram was always more wary of the “breathing space” argument than most, and his private comments on the whole interlude were scathing. In those days he was more on edge than ever, and in his frustration he may sometimes have been a little unfair to those with whom he disagreed.

Looking back now I can see that it was only natural that there should have been a widespread notion that, like everyone else in the Foreign Office who dealt with Germany, Wigram was antiGerman. But in fact he subscribed far less than many people even now to the dogma of German original sin. If he could possibly help it, he would not miss an opportunity to nail a Nazi lie. And he took an almost savage pleasure in nipping in the bud the various German attempts of those days at infiltration and subversion, under the guise of social or cultural activity, in the countries of the British Commonwealth, hustling and harrying other government departments mercilessly in the process. More consistently, too, than anyone else I can remember, he opposed the recurrent suggestion that Germany’s former colonies should be returned to it, in the hope of satisfying its appetite at not too great expense. But he never confused the need for vigilance in protecting British interests or belief in the inanity of trying to appease Hitler with acceptance of any twentieth-century superstition about the inherent wickedness of the Germans as a race.

He was even capable of the exceptional historical impartiality required to write, in 1935, that from the German point of view Hitler’s record in foreign affairs was a glorious one. Here spoke the professional diplomatist, if you like, not without a side glance at the particular political systems that, for all their virtues, seemed in practice to place diplomatic successes of the Hitlerian kind out of reach of Germany’s competitors in the West, where, unless a policy could be publicly proved beforehand to the majority of the electorate to be totally devoid of risk, the chances were that it would never be pursued. There was never the slightest doubt, nonetheless, about Wigram’s personal attachment to what was then coming to be known as the British way of life. Loyalty to it was bred in him; and his duty was to play his part in preserving it. Not only was it a way of life without which human products such as he was himself would have been unthinkable, but he had been born early enough to enjoy the advantage of sincerely believing that if the British way of life were to be wiped out, not only his own race but the world would be the loser.

Yet even so, he did not regard truth as the prerogative of any nation or system of government or grouping of forces. If, exceptionally, he used the word at all, he was more likely than not to be referring to the lamentable state of our defenses. “One sees more and more clearly,” he was one day to write, “that in foreign affairs nothing is important but one’s armed strength. If that is adequate — and for us that means the Fleet and the Air Force — we have nothing to fear. If it is inadequate, what we have and is worth having will be taken from us.” What we have and is worth having: the elementary style is typical, and so is the elementary thought.

IT IS tempting to speculate whether Wigram, who certainly did not suffer from too subtle a style or from a chronic allergy to Deutschtum in all its branches, would have been more fortunate than Vansittart, had he been older and more physically fit, in the pre-war permanent undersecretary’s place. But I must confess that I am still capable of being intimidated by the thought of how crossly Wigram himself would have rejected the idea of any such comparison. It is true that he never let considerations of hierarchy inhibit him from seeing whomever he wished — the popular or the unpopular, present members of the government or public figures notoriously beyond the pale. But he was still enough of his period to have an unquestioning respect for the authority of the head of the service, and his loyalty to Vansittart personally was complete and touching. When he was summoned to Vansittart’s room along the passage, he would first open the top left-hand drawer of his desk, take out a hairbrush that he kept there, and smooth his unruly lock down across his forehead — a little preparatory ceremonial that was otherwise reserved for his interviews with the Secretary of State.

Signs are not lacking, in any case, that he was already on the way to earning a reputation as a sort of minor Vansittart. More than once I myself heard his name coupled with Vansittart’s in gusts of low but irritable conversation that reached me across the reading room of one of the better London clubs.

To my chagrin, by the beginning of my second winter in the Foreign Office I had as good as given up keeping a diary. But occasionally something that happened to me outside office hours would be thought worthy of mention on its otherwise blank pages. “December 14th, 1935: Danced as a Bird’s-Nester in a Christmas Spectacle at Fordingbridge, organised by the Augustus Johns — Diana Cooper, Juliet Duff, Cecil Beaton in the audience”; and “January 28th, 1936: Marched in the Funeral Procession of King George V from Westminster Hall to Paddington Station. Numerous Territorials fainted.” After which there is more or less of a gap again, until the words “Re-occupation of Rhineland” bring the memory sharply back to where, for my present purposes, it rightly belongs.

It is so universally accepted as an axiom today that Germany could with impunity have been forced to withdraw its troops immediately from the remilitarized territory that one is sometimes tempted frivolously to wonder why, with such an example of a missed opportunity to guide them, none of the wise men of the West ever had the foresight to advocate risking a preventive war against the current Russian menace while there was conceivably still time. But the fact that Hitler’s denunciation of Locarno and the British failure to react to it effectively formed the climax to the life of the man I am trying to describe — and, to a lesser degree, the fact that an expert of the caliber of William Shirer, in his modern classic on Nazism, has pardonably but somewhat misleadingly written that Churchill alone in England seemed to realize the vast implications of the Rhineland’s remilitarization — must be my excuse for returning to scratch very briefly at this particular corner of the chicken run.

TO PEOPLE who thought like Wigram and Sargent and Vansittart — and virtually every young man in the Foreign Office — Hitler’s annual surprise for 1936 looked, for one wonderful, wishful moment, like a godsend. Yet scarcely more than twenty-four hours was needed to prove once again that it was the dictators, not the democracies, on whom the divine power to work miracles had descended.

That there were protests goes without saying; and for a period of weeks the French government “insisted” on a German withdrawal. There was also a considerable consensus of opinion that it was high time for Britain to rearm. Here, of course, there was always a saving clause. The real justification for amassing arms, as even Wigram would have conceded, was that in so doing lay the one faint chance of never having to use them. But even in the more and more frequently expressed opinion that British foreign policy must have a backing of far greater armed strength to enforce it, it was possible to discern not only an implication that this was a sign of contemporary Foreign Office incompetence, but also a feeling of profound relief that for the moment there could be no question of enforcing any foreign policy at all, since arms were so palpably lacking.

Idealists scented a chance to bring good out of evil. And the worldly-wise were comforted by thoughts like that of the late Tom Jones (who, whatever his live limitations, has at least the posthumous virtue of being a mine of “period” quotations) that “it need not be ‘either’ or ‘or’ in an absolute sense if we are skilful.” Small wonder, then, that ordinary citizens were relieved when, instead of the German coup of March 7 being interpreted, as Wigram had vainly hoped, as a chance to call Hitler’s bluff, it was translated for them overnight into an idiom so much more familiar to the inhabitants of an average British home. The Germans were only walking — or, since they were Germans, only marching — into their own back garden, and Hitler’s peace proposals were the last bus that we might still catch if We ran for it, but that we were bound to miss if we stopped to ask ourselves whether it was going in the right direction.

In the diplomatic tragicomedy that followed, Wigram had perforce a doubly wearing role. Not only was the whole play one he would have given all he possessed to prevent from being performed; it was as though his own part in it had been expressly designed to give him gooseflesh.

In Paris on March 9 for the preliminary consultations between British and French leaders, it was Wigram who must ask the French Prime Minister to agree to the forthcoming meeting of the League Council being held not there, as had at first been proposed, but in London, where, so he must allege, France would be more likely to receive effective support from Britain. Though he might be used to hinting privately to the French how they might get the best out of their odd ally, this macabre version of the exercise could afford him no conceivable satisfaction — not least because the implicit admission that the British government had cold feet provided those of their French colleagues who were similarly afflicted with the perfect pretext for blaming le climat anglais for their affliction.

At the council meetings in St. James’s Palace he was constantly at the Foreign Secretary’s side, inwardly increasingly disillusioned and depressed, but outwardly as tireless and dedicated as ever.

He was not afraid to follow a course of his own behind the scenes. One day in the Wigrams’ drawing room a representative audience of British politicians, journalists, and businessmen was invited to hear the French minister Flandin’s views on the inevitability of war if France and Britain failed to act to stop Hitler now. But that could not alter the course of history, nor, as is well known, could the eleventh-hour visit which Flandin paid to Baldwin on March 19 at Churchill’s, but also at Wigram’s, instigation, to ask at least for British moral support for a French police operation. Baldwin reportedly replied that if there were one chance in a hundred that war would follow such an operation, he had not the right to commit England, for England was not in a state to go to war. And since in the nature of things no one, however convinced he might be that the balance of strength (at least on paper) was still overwhelmingly against Germany, could possibly prove in advance that there was no such risk, and since to argue that by this time England ought to have been in a state to go to war served no practical purpose, there remained nothing for Wigram to do but bid farewell to the French delegation at Victoria Station.

After this he went home to North Street and, sitting down in a corner where he had never sat before — as though to emphasize the exceptional solemnity of the hour and his sense that something was irretrievably lost and over — let himself go to his wife in the words that she later recalled for Churchill and that he has quoted in The Gathering Storm. Churchill had long since taken the true measure of this particular associate and has carved for him a small but noticeable niche in English history as no one else could. This is as it should be; for of all the comments and judgments, then and since, on the events of March, 1936, including even those of Churchill himself, few can have been so trenchant and succinct and accurate and unassuming as Wigram’s warning to his wife that afternoon: “Wait now for bombs on this little house.”

That moment of utter despair at his own lack of strength and influence, as well as the presentiment that he might not himself live to see the war that he now regarded as absolutely certain, has caused it to be suggested, with the best and most sympathetic intentions, that failure and frustration broke his heart. But I think he would have been surprised, even a little piqued, to hear it. For, sensitive as he undoubtedly was, he was of all men surely one of the least inclined to allow discouragement, however deep, to distract him for long, much less pull his spirit permanently down. The purely physical demands of those twelve days had been almost intolerable, and they had still further enfeebled the frail organs of a body that, thanks to his constant habit of overwork, had never even halfway recovered from its brush with death in Paris ten years before. But in the only letter I ever received from him, dated March 26, 1936, which was the day after I myself had gone on leave at his insistence, there are signs enough of the Wigram one knew, with his capacity to accompany deadly seriousness with a kind of mischievous music that prevented him in real life from ever seeming grim or priggish, but no evidence at all, unless he was a far better actor than I guessed, of anything resembling a defeated heart. “We shall be glad to see you back,” he wrote in a postscript, “but take your ten days leave — then you will be all the stronger to work yet harder.”

Churchill has also recorded of him in an earlier passage that again and again his thoughts turned to resignation, which there is no reason to doubt. But the habits of half an official lifetime are not easily cast off. And now, if only from habit, he went on with his daily work; helping to draft a questionnaire to the German government about their peace proposals, scrutinizing their reply to it, drafting yet more questions in reply to their reply — though personally he believed the whole exchange was bunkum — and worrying the French like a dutiful sheepdog whenever they seemed to be weakening in their enthusiasm for the new Locarno that was supposedly to replace the old.

But, as always, it was his own private and slightly unorthodox preparations for the day of reckoning that really occupied his mind. Though it may have been harder than ever for him to believe that there was anything effective that a mere diplomatist could do, the thought that there might be only a little time left to him must have spurred him on and given him courage. As in 1934, when he had asked and obtained Vansittart’s permission to “leak” certain German Air Force figures from secret sources to a few chosen publicists, and more recently had distributed our departmental translations of a number of passages from Mein Kampf, not included in the English version of the time, to the Duchess of Atholl and other members of Parliament for use in speeches and pamphlets, so now he planned on the principle that the best hope of moving the government lay in moving the public. If they could not bring themselves to lead, perhaps they could be brought to follow. More and more of his time, accordingly, was spent sharing information with journalists of like mind, in particular with F. A. Voigt of the Manchester Guardian, from whose fund of knowledge of Germany and Germans he profited greatly in return.

And now, too, began his association with E. L. Woodward of All Souls, the author of Britain and the German Navy, about whose visits to him in the Foreign Office there was always an intriguing air of mystery, or so it seemed to me, unable as I was, each time I went into his room when Woodward was there, to avoid the sensation of having interrupted some sort of conspiracy; though in fact, as I knew perfectly well, they were up to nothing more secret or subversive between them than a last, desperate attempt to salvage the remains of British supremacy. In reality all they planned at the moment was a memorandum summarizing the main ideas of Mein Kampf and the general principles on which the National Socialist leaders were working, and showing how these ideas and principles were directly connected with, and the product of, certain earlier German and Austrian thought; in short, a historical and philosophical basis for a realistic, passionless view of the Nazi challenge. And this, it was hoped, would one day be published in the Times, where it would not only receive a wide circulation but, as Wigram ruefully suggested, might be taken more seriously by members of the government than if they were to come across it in the form of a “mere Cabinet Paper” prepared in the Foreign Office.

I do not know how much of such a memorandum was ever written. But I do know that Wigram took a new delight in the association and was rather endearingly proud of his part in what was to be a scholarly approach to the problem of Anglo-German relations, as a change from the comparatively superficial approach of day-to-day diplomacy. My own share in the operation consisted in making some translations from German texts. But I did them with feelings that I had never experienced as a schoolboy or undergraduate or crammer’s client, knowing the use to which, as we hoped, they were to be put.

FROM those months, too, date a few modest but enduring mental acquisitions on my part, all of which I owe to Wigram. That I had learned innumerable lessons from him already goes without saying. But they had been predominantly for office use: as, for instance, the lesson that for every secret report in one sense there would invariably be a secret report in the contrary sense; that foreigners must not be expected to attach a supranational importance to the demands of British parliamentary procedure or other British native customs; that permanent officials could save themselves infinite trouble later on by taking a little initial trouble over their draft answers to questions in the House. By this time, however, I had advanced to lessons of more universal significance, such as that it is the sign of a potential aggressor to speak most loudly of peace (which is pure Clausewitz); that no one is fit to deal with totalitarians who has not received a thorough grounding in the theory and practice of the science of spurious concessions; and that in foreign affairs every accusation must be immediately answered, and no calumny, however patently absurd, left to go by default; for there are few things of less practical assistance to a country today than the judgment of history tomorrow, or more mythical than contemporary cosmic common sense. But even so I cannot pretend that I was ever intimate with my head of department or ceased to go in dread of incurring his displeasure.

One weekend in the war — by which time I was an assistant private secretary — remembering a story of how Monsieur Briand on becoming Minister of the Interior had sent for his own police dossier, read it from end to end, and burned it in the ministerial fireplace, I took advantage of the fact that I was alone on duty to rifle the diplomatic private secretary’s cupboard and extract from it the reports that Wigram had written on me when I was serving in the Central Department. Punctuality figured and one or two other virtues so minor that even I have forgotten them, except that he mentioned with equal approval that I seemed to have avoided getting on the wrong side of the Registry staff and that I sometimes rode in point-to-points. But what there could be no question of my ever forgetting was the utterly unexpected concern that he, of all people, had expressed about my health. And far from following Monsieur Briand’s example from then on, I put my personal file back carefully in its place, overcome by quite a new sense of wonder at this man, so often in cruel pain himself, who could worry about the occasional evidence, in the face or manner of one of his subordinates, of nothing more painful or deadly than what had once been an “artistic inside” and was by then turning into a common acid stomach. And my wonder was only the more sincere for the recollection of how completely I myself had been taken by surprise — though I knew, of course, that his hold on life was always tenuous — when someone came into the Third Room on the very last day of 1936 and told us in a scarcely audible voice that he was dead.

My first reaction was a sense of inadmissible relief. A massive burden of expectation and responsibility had been lifted from my shoulders and dumped forever behind me in the past.

So far as my career was concerned, it was as though Fate had arbitrarily decided to start unpicking a piece of weaving that she had only just begun. And though I am aware that it ought to have been otherwise, it is a fact that Wigram’s death, quite as much as the deceptive air of calm on the German front or the music-hall quality of contemporary French politics, was responsible for giving to my life in the months that followed — including my introduction to diplomatic life abroad, at my first post, the embassy in Paris — such a markedly, almost wantonly inconsequential, unprofessional flavor.

But it is equally a fact that in my experience disillusion was never to be more than a momentary port of call. The real end of my maiden voyage in diplomacy was pity; pity for one who had so obstinately believed that there was something he could do, because he must; and pity too, if the truth may be told, for the ship of state itself, that I had once pictured as Leviathan but that I now knew to be as human and fallible and essentially unimpressive as the self-induced strength that in dreams we rely upon to convey us on foot across the Atlantic or wing us effortlessly over the Alps.

If only one had been able to believe that by dying Wigram had at last focused the attention of his contemporaries on his urgent but uncomfortable message. Perhaps among those in authority in England there were some few to whom so radical and costly an offering gave pause. (Fairness, if nothing more, impels me to record that one of the most warmly appreciative of all the letters received by his widow was from Neville Chamberlain, who wrote of Wigram’s capacity to inspire him with confidence; for he had never forgotten his help at Lausanne.) But how pretend that, to the newspaper-reading public, the people whom he had so much wanted to enlighten but who for the most part had never heard of him before and who were hardly in the habit of associating the Foreign Office with heroism in any form, the exceptional tributes to this government servant in the press meant more than a strange thought or two at breakfast or in the tube or the train?

The obituary notices, I thought, would not have displeased him. They showed at least that his friends had loved him and would miss him grievously; that his colleagues would never again know anyone remotely like him; and perhaps even that, thanks to him, here and there someone who had been in darkness had seen a glimmer of light. But he himself was not one for giving or taking praise or for dwelling on testimonials or oraisons funèbres. Like a child, he was at once too impatient and too wise. He, of all people, who had spent such a large part of his time for ten years combatting the inertia of others and his own infuriating infirmities, knew the unrecordable drudgery that goes into humanity’s most shining exploits and the almost ludicrously prosaic background that in the twentieth century, par excellence, is inseparable from the pursuit of high public aims.

So it is that I am not ashamed to write now that, in the course of trying to recall Ralph Wigram as he was when I knew him, what brings me closest to the genuine image of the man is not the memory of his devoted service to the state or his incomparable personal example — both so sadly squandered in the event — but purely and simply a way he had of slowly hauling his invalid body unaided into a London taxi that, each time I witnessed it, made me want to lift him in my arms.