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Spying in Greece during World War One

Gallipoli Memories
Compton Mackenzie
Cassell, London, 1929

First Athenian Memories
Compton Mackenzie
Cassell, London, 1931

Greek Memories
Compton Mackenzie
Chatto & Windus, 1932

Aegean Memories
Compton Mackenzie
Chatto & Windus, 1940

(All out of print)

Compton Mackenzie, A Life
Andro Linklater
Chatto & Windus, London, 1987

Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972) has left little in the way of reputation behind him. Both his early “serious” and his later “lighter” novels are now unread. Like all “personalities” dependent on attention from and appearances in the media, memory of them and him soon faded and disappeared when these ceased. In Scotland, to which he retired, physically and metaphorically from a wider scene, he is little more remembered, even as a founder member of the Scottish National Party, with which he became disillusioned. Yet when young, before the First World War, he was widely regarded as a near-genius of great literary promise and when it was learned that he was bound for Gallipoli there were plaints in cultured circles that the country, after the death of Rupert Brooke in the same theatre of war, could not afford to lose another of the same calibre. Yet it was as a result of his decision to participate (for this was still a voluntary act) that he produced his masterpiece, in four volumes of “Memories”, which I hope will at some time be republished to ensure him a deserved immortality. His ninety-three other books do not include a credible competitor and it would be a pity if the film Whisky Galore, from the book of the same name, was his only and inadequate memorial.

Gallipoli Memories, published in 1929, was the first in what Mackenzie seems to have projected as a four-volume account of his First World War experiences. He was as eager as anyone of his age to do his bit (we must put aside any sort of back-projection of a pacifist atmosphere generated amongst intellectuals by four years of trench-warfare) and could pull strings to do so. A military doctor told him he would only be fit for service in a warm climate such as Egypt. It was Orlo Williams, to whom the book is appropriately dedicated, who, having noticed that Sir Ian Hamilton, the Commander-in-Chief of the Gallipoli Campaign, was reading Mackenzie’s novel Sinister Street, found him the job on Hamilton’s staff, ensuring Mackenzie his share in the campaign. Though he wholeheartedly approved of it, after a while he had the gut feeling that it would not succeed, justified later by his realisation that it was insufficiently supported by the military back home.

He was not trying to make an historical contribution in this book. He did not keep a diary and such letters as survived were mainly useful for fixing dates. Perhaps the most prominent feature of all the books are his studies of his associates, largely favourable and observed without malice, those otherwise regarded being left anonymous. It is a loss that he never met Churchill (anyway not at this time), but Maurice (later Lord) Hankey who came out instead, “did make a most definite impression” on Mackenzie. He was only 38, not that much older than Mackenzie, but was “always . . . alluded to as if he were trembling on the verge of eighty” and was “the only man throughout the war for whom I never heard anybody suggest a better substitute”. Another phenomenon was Aubrey Herbert, the eccentric, near-blind Turcophil (for more about whom, see Margaret Fitzherbert’s The Man Who Was Greenmantle.) For other friends &al, see Index: Aspinal-Oglander (surely Keyes’ biographer?), Wyndham Deedes (1883-1956: father of Bill?), Hadkinson, the gone-native fisherman, Heathcote-Smith, Lt.-Gen. Hunter-Weston, whose invaliding-out may have lost the whole venture, Eddie Keeling, Kenny, George (later Lord) Lloyd and Harold Thompson.

The early pages are full of comical attempts to get the right – or any kind of – uniform, and then how to get from Alexandria to the Aegean and when there to find where GHQ actually was, and then how to get there. The fact that the Allies occupied neutral Greek territory at will passes without an allusion, let alone an explanation. The constantly mentioned ubiquitousness of flies is a reminder how much is owed to DDT by later combatants.

Mackenzie richly illustrates the maze of espionage, to which he was assigned, with the tragi-comic circumstances of the Vassilaki family (two brothers, three sisters), under suspicion after having back-migrated from the US in an attempt to do well out of the war. His amusing (and successful) machinations convinced everyone, including the Germanophil Nomarch of Lesbos, and the hapless British Consul there, that he was looking for suitable sites for a camp for three divisions on the island as a jumping off place for an invasion of the Anatolian mainland. Even though this may have diverted Turkish troops from the Gallipoli peninsula at a time of a vital attack, this was the tragically mismanaged one on Suvla Bay when the troops loitered on undefended beaches, even going swimming, instead of pressing on inland, while an absurd concatenation of accidents kept the Commander in Chief, Sir Ian Hamilton, uninformed. The volume ends when, too ill to be of further use, Mackenzie leaves for Athens to be cured and to find another job.

In First Athenian Memories the story continues: Mackenzie has been invalided to Athens and, though it is not made quite clear why, he must also, and apparently first, find a job there in Security, though he is obviously pretty ill with a combination of dysentery and cystitis. After a sort of farewell debauch (which includes a road accident most perilous in its bureaucratic aftermath) he is booked into an extremely boring clinic, with a dragon-nurse who does not speak the Italian he was promised and forbids him to whistle. On the other hand, the doctor, an authority on Asclepius, is charm itself. The cry in the street outside, “Seeka freska” ( Fresh figs!”) – it is August; they must be in season then – is the chapter heading of this episode.

Between seeing the doctor and entering his clinic, Mackenzie encounters a variety of personalities at the British Legation, including the Minister, Sir Francis Elliot, “spare and taut as a wire rope”, and his own superior for this book, the “mysterious V”, never otherwise designated by Mackenzie (but revealed as a Major Samson in Andro Linklater’s biography, where his letter is R) “whose courtly grace and charm of manner” he writes, “sometimes reminded me of a French marquis and sometimes of a high grade mandarin.” V’s actions seem to border on the futile and absurd, like so many persons in the book, including, by his own admission, Mackenzie himself, without any of them being in any way to blame. An example of the ridiculous behaviour to which V could sink was his idea of meeting a colleague/subordinate in a cemetery instead of his office. Mackenzie himself claims the letter Z, and there is an absent C, whose identity is never divulged (though we find out more about him in Greek Memories). It must be said at once that the circumstances in which espionage was conducted did not seem to be regarded as likely to be lethal, either by Mackenzie and his associates and agents, or by the persons whose designs he was attempting to frustrate. Future events suggests that this attitude was over-complacent.

Writing in 1931, Mackenzie did not have to explain the state of the war in 1915, or the complexities of Balkan politics; King Constantine’s German connexions he could take as known, together with who Venizelos was and why Greek politics were polarised between him and the King. The British Foreign Office, under the gentle dilettanti Sir Edward Grey, had no discernible Balkan policy: “Had the British Government been illuminated by even the glimmering notion of what it wanted in the Balkans, that notion could have been carried out,” claims Mackenzie in exasperation, “as it was, the British Foreign Office led the hand to mouth existence of a street conjurer, producing Thrace, Cyprus, Macedonia and badly cut chunks of Asia Minor [to gain allies]“. Fortunately, Mackenzie’s relations with his French opposite number were excellent. For those who can appreciate it there is a fine parody of the Athanasian Creed with reference to the various jurisdictions in the Levant on the pages following 346.

With this complete chaos as a background, the reason why Mackenzie had to leave Athens in a hurry in November after of the dissolution of the Greek Chamber of Deputies is obscure to us now, and was so even to him at the time. He went no further than Naples and Capri (where he had been staying at the outbreak of war). And why can he then return within a month? But that is to reach the end of the book omitting all the intervening action.

As before, a prime feature of interest is the cast of characters, most of whom he found congenial even though some of them were distinctly bizarre, and even more so some of their agents or informers, or those who aspired to be. Many of the names of these, and of some colleagues, are made up, either by themselves or by the author, though it seems odd to give to a Maltese as a pseudonym the distinctly German name Liebig (Linklater reveals his name as Monreal) who had been in British (secret) service for nineteen years and who V became convinced was a fantasist and, to Mackenzie’s relief, managed to get rid of.

Not the least fantastic of the clandestine episodes is the account of how a (male) stenographer had to be hidden in a cupboard to record the interview with a suspicious (in both senses) agent, in the chapter fittingly entitled “Absurdities of Secret Service”. He produced an excellent transcript, but alarmed V by his threat to leave Athens if employed in such a way again – to absolve the cupboard from suspicion, Mackenzie had been tossing empty bottles into it during the interview. In a world which takes cars for granted, it is almost comic to read how difficult it was for Mackenzie’s unit to secure one; but it was a good one – a Sunbeam – with an excellent chauffeur.

It is nearly impossible to wend one’s way through this complex maze and it does seem strange that the Greek king should have been able to muster a pro-German party which would entail Greece being drawn onto the side of both Turkey and Bulgaria, traditionally long-standing enemies. Most touching story: the obviously emotional encounter after forty years between Mackenzie’s cook/housekeeper Lisa and the magnificent Archbishop of Syra, a very tall man with flashing eyes and flowing hair, a superb profile, and a beard of Zeus-like majesty”.

The publication in 1932 of Greek Memories, Mackenzie’s continuation from First Athenian Memories, got the author into trouble under the the Official Secrets Act, purportedly for quoting from a document or documents that came to his knowledge during the war. Considering that the book was republished effectively uncensored in 1939 and is full of quotations from official documents it was for long a mystery why he was prosecuted at all, fined £100 with £100 costs, incurring more than £2,500 expenses plus, he claims, a like sum in wasted time – all this in pre-war money, some twenty to thirty times its value today. The responsibility for this persecution, as revealed by Ando Linklater, goes as high up as King George V; Mackenzie, after all, spent a lot of his time as described in this book, in conflict with the Germanophil King Constantine, a relative of King George, as well as, of course, the Kaiser.

Linklater’s also reveals that Mackenzie’s mysterious boss C was the legendary Mansfield Cumming, subject of a recent biography by Alan Judd, The Quest for C: Mansfield Cumming and the Founding of the Secret Service. Relations at a distance between them had not been too good, but when Mackenzie finally went to London in October 1916, they became, as two fellow-romantics, blood-brothers. Mackenzie reports C as telling him: “I intended to make myself extremely unpleasant to you; but I said that when I saw you I should probably find you a man after my own heart, and fall on your neck,” which of course is exactly what happened; he then introduced Mackenzie to his wife as the man who had given him more trouble than anybody else in the service.”

To the story itself: as mentioned, the most important component is the vendetta between King Constantine and Venizelos which in the end brought about the departure of both Mackenzie and his unit for the island of Syra, selected since it was the telegraph cable centre, in the middle of the Cyclades, and ideal for organising the consolidation of Venizelist power in the Aegean islands. Unfortunately the Greek Army (in the upper ranks at least) was Royalist and dominated Athens sufficiently to make this move necessary, aided by the incompetence of the French Admiral whose ships were anchored in the Piraeus, doing little to counter German submarines, and who trusted King Constantine’s assurances longer than sanity should have permitted. This ensured that rioters sacked Venizelist houses in Athens (and would have killed Mackenzie when they sacked his, if he had not hoodwinked them) and killed some eighty British and French marines. Despite this, Mackenzie retained good relations with most of the French diplomatic corps.

Mackenzie goes through the year 1916 in 12 chapters, month by month and most of the narration is light relief compared with the nearly lethal ending. There are, for example, the three attempts to intercept the German mail, the last of which succeeds, and the surrender to Mackenzie personally of the most able German agent who prudently refused to break his parole, given to Mackenzie, when Royalist militiamen offered to liberate him; he survived to enjoy a comfortable internment on Malta. There are motor car journeys, sometimes through idyllic countryside to inspect coastal caves suspected of containing stores of petrol (always called benzine) for German submarines, never found, other journeys leave everyone caked in dust. Once only the alert ear of the chauffeur detects the noise that indicates that a wheel has been malevolently loosened, and is about to come off; another time, a large boulder bounds down from Lykabettos a few yards in front of the car, “normally an unusual event.”

Mackenzie was frequently incapacitated by severe attacks of sciatica, probably the reason why photographs in which he appears show his face tense and strained. Again, his colleagues and agents are part-grotesques; he never seems quite to take the competent but rotund Tucker (for whom he successfully struggled to gain the rank of lieutenant) seriously, the women clerks he finally secured are paragons of efficiency, the Minister, Sir Francis Elliot, is ever the imperturbable Minister, even when waving with his umbrella for the shooting (by the other side) to stop. Some, of course, are carry-overs from First Athenian Memories. The most blatant imposter in the book is a Mr. Watney Hyde who, when unmasked and sent back to England by Mackenzie, managed, on the strength of a piece of office stationery with the Royal Arms stamped on it, and the scribble MI6, to return all the way back to the Aegean, expenses paid, where he had the misfortune to encounter Mackenzie again on Syra. Mackenzie’s cruellest tease is to terrify a young Lothario who has been impressing and seducing governesses and nurses by indicating that he knows military secrets. Instead of being shot, or, as a commutation, merely beheaded, he is sentenced to scrub the floors of the Annexe three days in the week and to leave his hair uncut.

Mackenzie as man of action is actually quite impressive, witness such acts as his kidnapping the Royalist Colonel/Commandant of Naxos, with the Mayor added in as a bonus and his bluffing the Royalist police force of Syra itself into capture before the arrival of a sea-sick Venizelist contingent from Crete. The oration by the unlikely-named Poseidon (in translation by the speaker, which Mackenzie assures us does not do justice to the original version in Greek made for him) closes the book, with the crowd applauding “Hail, thou golden-mouthed one!”.

Aegean Memories, the fourth and last of Mackenzie’s War Memoirs (never so called by the author), written in 1939/40, 22 years after the events they describe, takes up the tale when he had to leave an Athens dominated by Royalists since December 1st, 1916 and to set up his establishment on the island of Syra. As already stated, this was chosen because it was the junction of the East Mediterranean cable/telegraph network. With this advantage he was instrumental (as recounted in Greek Memories) within the month of garnering in for the Venizelist cause almost all of the Cyclades. These were acquisitions from “Old (i.e, pre-1913) Greece”, which were supposed to be Royalist in tendency, as opposed to Venizelist “New Greece” – Crete, Macedonia, Thrace and the East Aegean islands.

The vendetta between the King and Venizelos was irreconcilable and the French, who seemed for some time to favour the King, resolved it clumsily, coming down off the fence, forcing him to abdicate on Greece’s most unlucky day, Tuesday, May 29th, anniversary of the Fall of Constantinople. Venizelos returned to Athens as their protege, rather than with either obvious popular or Allied backing. This led to the Minister Sir Francis Elliot asking to be recalled, an unfortunate event for Mackenzie whose position, with an unsympathetic replacement, was undermined, as more and more British personnel of varying incompetence and obstructiveness arrived in Athens, from which he was excluded. He was reprimanded for making a quick visit to see Venizelos – because he saw no one else.

In fact, Mackenzie had made too many enemies within his own ranks, to say nothing of his allies. However cordial personal relations were with their representatives, both France and Italy were well aware that he was willing and able to thwart their interests. “Every suggestion I have made since I started here has been finally adopted and has worked well. Not a single suggestion made by anybody else but has failed to work well”, he protested at the time. Unfortunately, the Foreign Office right at the top, and all his superiors seemed to have no clear idea what British policy ought to be. “It is absurd to talk about winning the war without saying what winning the war means,” he comments on an appreciation of the Balkan-East Mediterranean situation by Lord Loch. It is illuminating to realise that even Lloyd George had a short attention span – “He can’t listen too long at a time to anything nowadays,” confided Lord Milner to Sir Francis.

Much of the book is given over to intrigue, which may have seemed tedious reading in 1940, and I fear does so now, but has a kind of documentary interest in describing how it actually is carried out. Again, the author’s interest in people and personal relations, so important in his role as spy-diplomat, comes out in the narrative and his affection for his colleagues. The invaluable Tucker, he records with grief in 1940, had died two or three years before, back in Istanbul from where he had come to fight the war. Francis Storrs (brother of Sir Ronald) died on Armistice Day from the virulent Spanish flu, again to Mackenzie’s great grief. A flamboyant character, later to have a distinguished academic career is (Professor) J.L. Myers, whose great black beard, reminiscent of an Assyrian king and the pirate Teach, whom he resembled in other ways, is always mentioned, though it was occasionally nibbled by cockroaches. There is the taciturn Larkins, who warned him that heat was not good for sciatica and was killed when transferred to Tanks, the cheerful Molesworth, mad teenager Macartney (unfortunately with a criminal destiny), loyal and generous Knoblock and boon companion Hope Johnstone. It was in his incarnation as a French naval officer that he met an unobtrusive Pierre Loti.

There were heart-rending partings when he finally left Syra, in his little ship Avlis, especially from his tiny, sweet housekeeper Lisa, expressing herself in broken French to the last: “Jamais plus. Vous jamais plus. Lisa jamais plus vous voir.” A friend told him that in August 1939 he was sure he had seen her, boarding a tram in Athens.

An Australian naval surgeon, who visited him in Capri, invalided him out: “You won’t do any more active service in this war” after wondering how he was ever passed fit: he never had been, having gone from Capri, via Alexandria, to Gallipoli. A constant of Mackenzie’s life is how often he was laid up by illness, not only the frequent, if irregular attacks of sciatica, but also by bouts of dysentery, while any travel by ship meant sea-sickness.

Back in London, C, who had had his own difficulties, revealed to him that a War Office list had noted against Mackenzie’s name “This officer has too much initiative, but should make an ideal Number Two.” He suggested a fortnight later that Mackenzie might become his Number Two, but later still had to say that all his staff had unanimously protested – not that Mackenzie himself seems to have been much tempted. C died in 1922, long before any of the Memories were written, and Sir Francis Elliot in 1940, just before he could read the proofs of this book. And Compton Mackenzie himself as man of action: wasn’t the rest of his long life – he died at 89 – something of an anticlimax?

3 comments to Spying in Greece during World War One

  • Very enjoyable. I always like your reviews, although I usually conclude the books are beyond me. My father liked Compton Mackenzie, but it was mostly his later comedies.

    If you ever felt inclined to write more about Constantine versus Venizelos, you’d have at least one reader. To my shame I had scarcely heard of Constantine’s invasion of Asia Minor before a few weeks ago. (I knew that Attaturk had made his name fighting the Greeks but I had never quite turned my mind to wondering what exactly happened) It’s odd to think that the Treaty of Sevres more or less divided Turkey out of existence.

    And before anyone jumps on me, nothing I have said excuses the massacre of the Armenians.

  • John K

    Agreed, thanks for that.

  • GCooper

    I’d like to add my name to the list. Mr. Dunachie’s reviews may rarely attract comment, but they are always educational and, as such, very welcome, in my opinion.