The Curious Venture of J. R. Pilling

ONE SQUARE ON THE CHESSBOARD where advocates of the separate peace landed with growing frequency was located in Switzerland. That country enjoyed “the distinction of being1 a sort of happy hunting ground for all the political malcontents and intriguers of Europe,” wrote Ronald Campbell of the Foreign Office, rather enviously, to his friend Horace Rumbold, who had just replaced Grant Duff as Britain’s envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the Swiss Republic. Rumbold agreed. “This is the most2 interesting post in the service at the present moment,” he reported gleefully. “I sit in my room like a spider and attract every day news and information which would keep a diplomatist in prewar days going for months.” To Ronald Graham at the Foreign Office, he wrote: “This country is crammed3 full of spies and rascals of every description and it is incredible that such a small country should be able to hold so many of these gentry.” Increasingly the gentry with whom he had to deal were dissident Turks and British agents engaging in the pourparlers that could precede the negotiation of a separate peace between their two nations.

The son of a diplomat (also named Sir Horace) and the husband of a diplomat’s daughter (Ethelred Constantia Veitch Fane), Rumbold had gone into the family business. When he took the competitive entrance exam for the diplomatic corps in February 1891, he earned the top score. A series of international postings followed. With the commencement of hostilites, he returned to London, where for two years he oversaw affairs having to do with prisoners of war. Then came the assignment in Berne. In old photographs he looks like an English diplomat of the ancien régime, with receding brown-blond hair and mustache, an impeccable three-piece suit and tie, a half-open mouth, and heavy-lidded, sleepy eyes. “He had trained4 himself,” wrote one who served under him in later years, “to appear more English than any Englishman had ever seemed before.”

He was a shrewd observer, an able organizer, and a capable representative of his country, but in some respects Rumbold not only looked like a caricature of an old Etonian but thought like one too. He commiserated with his mother about the lower orders back home: “Our5 … servants did not for a moment admit that the War should make any difference to their diet and they always claimed large joints and the best butter.” He wrote about foreigners with equal disdain. Of the Italians, he once observed, “What can you expect6 from a nation the majority of which would be better employed selling ice-cream?” Of Britain’s eastern ally: “I always had doubts7 about the Russians.” Of Britain’s eastern enemy: “Talk about the clean-fighting Turk is moonshine. He is a brute and that is the end of it.” Of the German minister at The Hague, he recalled: “He is as clever8 as they make them … a Jew-dog.”

But he ran a network of informants capably enough, including impecunious Turkish refugees and disaffected Ottoman officials whom he had bribed. Such figures supplied him with a steady stream of more or less trustworthy information about conditions and attitudes in Turkey. He relied far more, however, upon a volunteer agent, Dr. Humbert Denis Parodi, a strikingly handsome, dark-skinned Swiss citizen of French and Italian descent, who had worked before the war for the Egyptian government as inspector general of public instruction in Cairo and who now served as overseer of the Egyptian student community in Switzerland. With the outbreak of war, Parodi offered his services to the British envoy at the time, Grant Duff. “My sole aim,”9 he later wrote, “has been to aid as best I can the triumph of right and justice over brutal force.” Equally at home in the café society of Egyptian students, some of whom nourished anti-imperialist and even anti-British sentiments, and in the Ottoman expatriate community, he proved an inspired agent and not only about Turkish matters. To give one example, in April 1916 Parodi learned that Swiss socialists were negotiating10 with German authorities to arrange passage through Germany of Russian revolutionaries who wished to return home. In this manner the British Foreign Office learned that Lenin was headed for the Finland Station in St. Petersburg possibly even before the tsar’s ministers did.

When Rumbold arrived in Berne, he inherited this remarkable agent from Grant Duff. Parodi would prove indispensable to him in bringing together Britons and Turks who wished to discuss the separate peace. His services proved so valuable that Rumbold wished to reward him. Lord Hardinge at the Foreign Office agreed that Parodi deserved generous recompense. The agent seemed “to be really a good11 man, and much better than one could possibly conceive of a person of Syrian origins.” Rumbold responded indignantly at once: “He is not of Syrian12 origin: In fact he has not a drop of Oriental blood in him … I admit that he looks like an Oriental and that if you put a tarboosh on his head you would think that he was an Egyptian or a Turk. But there is nothing Oriental about him save his appearance, although he knows Orientals down to the ground.” Parodi got the money.

In the following instance of British and Turkish maneuverings in Switzerland, however, Dr. Parodi appears to have played no role.

One day during the summer of 1916 “a very old friend” of Lloyd George, a Mrs. Evans, asked an English businessman of her acquaintance, one J. R. Pilling, if he “could get Turkey out of the War.” Of Mrs. Evans, the historian can learn little except that she was “practically a member13 of the Lloyd George household.” Of Mr. Pilling, we may glean a bit more. At age sixty-seven, he was a Manchester solicitor, banker, and undischarged bankrupt, who during the 1890s had attempted, unsuccessfully, to build railroads in the Middle East, where he had formed the Syria-Ottoman Railway Company. He lived for a time in Constantinople at the Pera Palace Hotel with a German lady, Therese de Koelle, whom the British Foreign Office suspected of being a German agent. His business dealings brought him into contact with important Ottoman officials, including some among the Young Turk leadership. He may have been a member of the Anglo-Ottoman Society.14 At any rate he knew members; his employee Sir Douglas Pitt Fox, chief engineer of the Syria-Ottoman Railway Company, belonged to it. When the Foreign Office belatedly investigated Mr. Pilling some six months after Mrs. Evans first asked him about making peace with Turkey, it judged him to be “a ‘sharper’ and of very shady15 character.”

Mrs. Evans believed that all land and water frontiers should be internationalized and guaranteed by the Allies and the United States; that way Russia could gain access to the Mediterranean Sea without having to capture Constantinople. That accomplished, Russia would have no reason to wage war against the Ottomans—and the Ottomans would have no reason to continue fighting Russia and her allies. “This plan appeared to me to constitute the perfect solution of the difficult Turkish question,” wrote Pilling. He realized that he could call upon his “long intimate acquaintance16 with Turkish Ministers and Turkish affairs” in order to propose Mrs. Evans’s plan to responsible parties in the Ottoman government. He may have thought that if he did so, and if his overture really did help launch discussions about a separate peace, these figures would help him to recoup some of his losses in the Syria-Ottoman Railway Company.

But first he must put the plan to responsible parties in London. Together he and Mrs. Evans polished the scheme. By October 1916 they felt sufficiently confident to take advantage of Mrs. Evans’s connection with the then—minister of war, David Lloyd George. When he met Mr. Pilling, Lloyd George “formed rather a low17 opinion of him,” according to Ronald Campbell of the Foreign Office. But the businessman must have struck a chord. “The day following”18 the interview, as Pilling remembered, “I was called to the War Office to give a full explanation of the reasons and mode of operation for securing this detachment of Turkey.” Here too, according to Campbell, Pilling made no very positive impression. Nevertheless he received the passport to travel abroad that had been denied to Marmaduke Pickthall only a few months earlier. On February 6, 1917, “I left London en route to Constantinople,” Pilling recalled, “with instructions to take such measures as I deemed desirable in order to lead the Turkish Government to apply to England for a separate treaty of peace.”

One may wonder why the failed businessman gained a passport to travel abroad when the transparently well-intentioned Pickthall did not. The answer must be that the latter never had an audience with Lloyd George. Sir Mark Sykes and others in the Foreign Office cut him off. But Lloyd George, the easterner, could not get the possibility of a separate peace with Turkey out of his head. That such a peace might jeopardize the possibility of a British protectorate in Palestine, which he was simultaneously encouraging Zionists to anticipate, apparently did not matter to him. Certainly it did not matter to him that Pilling might be a seedy character. In pursuit of a separate peace, Lloyd George would employ agents far seedier than Mr. Pilling.

Actually on February 6, Pilling embarked not for Constantinople but for Switzerland. Once arrived, he met Sir Horace Rumbold, who judged him “rather a muddle-headed19 person and I do not think he should be playing about … interviewing Turks.” But Pilling could refer, and often did, to the mission entrusted to him by the government. “I … told Mr. Pilling,” Rumbold complained, “that I knew nothing whatever about him and that I had never received any message from the Foreign Office about his so-called mission.” The Foreign Office sympathized: “Altogether it would seem20 that Mr. Pilling might be summed up as something of a lunatic.” Only now was it scrambling to figure out who he was and what he was doing.

As to that, Pilling was holding meetings with the former khedive of Egypt, presently resident in Switzerland; with Rifaat Bey, former president of the Ottoman senate; with the ubiquitous Fuad Selim al-Hijari; and with many others. He wrote two letters to Talaat Pasha, which apparently were conveyed to Constantinople in the Ottoman diplomatic pouch. Later Eric Drummond, private secretary to Prime Minister Asquith and then to Foreign Ministers Grey and Balfour, worried that Pilling had “made proposals to the21Turkish Government and … took the Prime Minister’s name in vain,” but that was not how Pilling described his activities. To the contrary, he reported that he made clear to the Turks that he had “no official status but22 … they need have no hesitation in approaching His Majesty’s Government with any reasonable proposal for peace”; also that “it is they who must make the first move.”

By now Rumbold and the Foreign Office realized that Pilling really did have some connection with Military Intelligence and with Lloyd George; nevertheless they wanted to be rid of him. “These free lances are23 rather a nuisance,” Rumbold fretted. Lord Hardinge instructed him to tell the meddlesome businessman that “after careful reflexion the authorities at home … consider it undesirable that he should remain any longer in Switzerland.” Rumbold would have looked down his nose at the undischarged bankrupt in his best old Etonian manner. Pilling would have protested, wanting to wait in Berne for a reply from Talaat to his letters. Rumbold would have shown a bit of the iron that underlay his pompous manner. Pilling returned to London. He reported, however, not to Hardinge at the Foreign Office but to the War Office, where the director of Military Intelligence, Sir George MacDonagh, and others “thought him fairly reasonable and were not at all sure there was not something in what he said.” Pilling volunteered to go to Turkey to interview Djemal Pasha, if the British could smuggle him into the country. That was a nonstarter, but “I am afraid you have24 not seen the last of Pilling,” Campbell warned Rumbold: The War Office had given permission for him to return to Switzerland to pick up the letter from Talaat that he assured them would be waiting for him there.

By May 11 Pilling was back in Berne, and the next day saw him closeted once again with Fuad Selim al-Hijari at the Turkish legation. Immediately afterward he wrote a letter to the prime minister, put it in an envelope addressed to Mrs. Evans, and put that one in a larger envelope addressed to a common acquaintance, one Mr. Sutherland. By this roundabout route the letter did eventually reach Lloyd George. It can be read today at the House of Lords Record Office, among the Lloyd George papers, and at the National Archive, which has the original.

Pilling reported that no letter from Talaat Pasha had yet arrived for him, but that Fuad Selim al-Hijari “told me he had a message for me from [him].” According to Pilling, Talaat had instructed Fuad to say that Turkey would cede to Britain both Mesopotamia and Egypt, “so securing British interests25 in the Persian Gulf, Egypt and Cypress.” She desired creation of an independent Armenian buffer state between herself and Russia. She would allow free passage through the straits to all nations, including Russia. Significantly, “the Minister in no wise made reference to Syria, Palestine or Arabia, save as to Mesopotamia. Nor did I, as I was a listener only.” From this we may deduce that if Fuad and perhaps Talaat Pasha and other Young Turks were really hoping to communicate with England through Fuad and Pilling, they were signaling that they expected to retain some Middle Eastern foothold after the war.

Then Fuad Selim al-Hijari broached subjects far beyond Pilling’s remit. “We went to war on account of the Russian danger,” he explained. “So did Austria.” But, referring to the revolution that had taken place recently in Russia, the ascension of Kerensky, and the new policy of “no annexations”: “This danger for both of us is passed. Neither ourselves nor Austria has any reason for going on with the war.” Therefore Austria would give up its claim to Serbia in return for an early peace. As Vienna held that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by the Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip had provoked the war in the first place, this was rather a large concession to make. But note that it was a Turk, not an Austrian, who made it.

Apparently, additional concessions were in order on the part of the Central Powers. Fuad claimed that to gain peace with England, Germany would give up the Baghdad Railway and even her fleet. Pilling, according to his report, pointed out that he was “the friend of Turkey, and would not do anything save for Turkey.” The minister replied: “If England wishes to be friends with Turkey again she will not object to Turkey being the intermediary for settlement of this terrible war on England’s own terms.” It having been put this way, Pilling reported breathlessly: “I cannot bear the responsibility of not communicating the whole of this statement to you for the immediate information of the Prime Minister.”

What are we to make of this fantastic message—that Talaat Pasha thought he could become the man who ended World War I? More probably, Fuad was interpreting vague intimations reaching him from interested parties in Constantinople to suit his own desire for an all-embracing peace; perhaps he was even inventing them whole cloth, or Pilling was. What is certain is that at this stage of the war Britain had no desire to engage in negotiations with Germany or Austria. When he assumed the premiership, Lloyd George stated categorically that Britain would continue the war until she had delivered a “knock-out blow” to Germany.

Pilling reported to London what, perhaps, Fuad had told him. Then he cooled his heels in Berne, waiting for the letter from Talaat Pasha. Later he would claim to have received it on June 9; he referred in later correspondence to messages to the War Office that he himself wrote that day and the day after, which does suggest that he may have received and been reporting on something. He refers as well to “my other many reports26 to our Prime Minister.” These reports too may have mentioned, or quoted, Talaat’s letter, if there was one, but unfortunately no reports have been found. What we do know is that on June 16, when Rumbold called Pilling into his office to tell him he must return permanently to London, Pilling cited no letter from Talaat. Pilling was “very crestfallen,” Rumbold reported.

Why would he have been crestfallen if he had received the letter from Talaat a week before? That would have meant that he had successfully completed his mission and that he no longer had any reason to stay in Switzerland. In fact, he should have headed for home already. It seems a fair inference, therefore, that no such letter had arrived.

This inference is strengthened by Pilling’s behavior back in London. On June 30, when MacDonagh of the War Office debriefed him, he did not produce the letter or apparently even mention it. On July 10 he wrote ambiguously to Fuad in Berne: “I hope to be in a position very soon to send to your Excellency the desired reply to the request of His Highness, the Grand Vizier [Talaat Pasha] as to the appointment of Peace Delegates.” Talaat’s request could have been contained in the letter of June 9, if it existed; or it could have been delivered verbally by Fuad at the May 12 meeting. Or Pilling could have made it up.

His failure to hand over the letter lowered his stock. The Foreign Office had already ignored him, but now the War Office turned a cold shoulder too. When Pilling requested that it repay his Swiss expenses, £830, it refused, on the grounds that his mission had emanated not from it but from 10 Downing Street. When he approached27 the prime minister, Lloyd George likewise declined to help him. Did Pilling fear not merely that he was considerably out-of-pocket but that his chance of recouping his greater financial losses in Turkey might likewise be slipping away? Perhaps so, for apparently he now asked the Americans to sponsor him on another trip to Switzerland.28 Or was he genuinely determined to help his country? Possibly the greater good and the personal good combined in his mind, for he wrote to Balfour, “The interests of our Empire, equally with the charge against me on the part of Turkey of broken pledges rendering me liable to corresponding consequences, permit of no further delay in the completion of this agreed treaty of peace.”

What treaty of peace was that? Pilling30 maintained that one had been “agreed in June last,”29 presumably in the letter from Talaat. Now (on November 7, 1917), in a rambling message to the foreign secretary, and still without having shown Talaat’s letter to anyone, he enumerated the “treaty’s” provisions. “1. The cession by Turkey to England of the sovereignty of Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Yemen.” But on May 12, Pilling had written to Mrs. Evans that the Ottomans were willing to cede only Egypt and Mesopotamia. Nothing had happened between May 12 and “June last,” when the letter from Talaat allegedly had arrived, to make the Ottomans more generous with their Middle Eastern possessions. Pilling seems to have been listing new Ottoman concessions in order to take into account changed circumstances. “I have arranged for Syria (which includes Palestine) to be entirely ceded to England, leaving England an absolutely free hand as to the establishment of [a] Jewish State,” he wrote, two days before publication of the Balfour Declaration! So far as we can tell, he had never mentioned a Jewish state before. Certainly Talaat had not.

Most likely Pilling was simply spinning his own fantasies based on the terms outlined by Fuad Selim al-Hijari on May 12, terms that may or may not have originated with Talaat Pasha. “3,” wrote Pilling to Balfour: “Turkish Arabia outside Mesopotamia, Syria and Yemen, to be ceded to the King of the Hejaz by Turkey, or otherwise, as may be directed by England.” Nothing suggests that in June 1917 the Turks were willing to surrender the bulk of Arabia to King Hussein. But nearly six months later, with Hussein secure in Mecca and with Allenby’s and Feisal’s armies preparing to march north toward Damascus, they might have been willing to do so. Again, the only way to know for sure would be to refer to the letter supposedly written by Talaat, but “Pilling … has been unable to produce any letter or even a copy of any letter from Talaat,” reported the disillusioned MacDonagh. Furthermore, he added, “I have not seen a copy of any ‘Treaty’ and do not believe in the existence of any such document.”

On November 15 Pilling played what he may have considered his trump card; in fact it was a desperate gesture. He wrote to the king of England: “It is impossible for me to remain silent, and to bear alone the grave responsibility which will arise by the neglect or refusal on England’s part, to receive and to meet this request of Turkey for peace.” Buckingham Palace forwarded his letter to the Foreign Office, which by now had had more than enough of this troublesome figure. “If Mr. Pilling is, as the letter rather foreshadows, about to make ‘sensational disclosures’ or play at blackmail,” warned one official, “the matter should I submit be considered by the Prime Minister.”

The mandarins of the Foreign Office were not the only ones needing to rid themselves of this disreputable Quixote. The Armenians and the Zionists, who had probably never heard of Marmaduke Pickthall’s attempt to bring Ottomans and Britons together, did hear about Pilling and moved purposefully to defeat him. Conceivably they learned about Pilling from Sir Mark Sykes, who had access to all the relevant Foreign Office files, opposed a separate peace with Turkey, cared not a fig for Foreign Office protocol except when it suited him, and so would not have hesitated to inform them of Pilling’s activities.

Early on the evening of November 19, in what was surely a coordinated approach, first James Malcolm and then Chaim Weizmann called upon Ronald Graham at the Foreign Office. They knew about Lloyd George’s unlikely emissary to the Turks and did not like what they knew. Graham recorded:

A Mr. Pilling, known to them as a shady adventurer, was stating broadcast that he had been to Switzerland as agent for the Prime Minister [and] had negotiated a separate peace with Turkey. They knew Mr. Pilling to be a friend of a Mrs. Evans who was a friend of Mr. Lloyd George, and feared that he, Mr. Pilling, might in fact have some mission from the Prime Minister. They drew attention to Mr. Pilling’s discreditable antecedents and said that his language and pretensions were causing serious concern not to say alarm in Armenian, Arab and Jewish circles.

This was two weeks after publication of the Balfour Declaration and after various government statements had been made supporting an independent Armenia. Weizmann and Malcolm both realized that a separate peace with the Ottomans might render the government’s pledges null and void. So on the historical chessboard they made this move to remove Mr. J. R. Pilling, the pawn advanced by Lloyd George. He was slightly more important than Marmaduke Pickthall, the pawn advanced by Fuad Selim al-Hijari and Dr. Valyi, whom Sir Mark Sykes had removed a year before. When Lord Hardinge read Graham’s report, he suggested immediately that Lloyd George “should, if possible, take steps to get Mr. Pilling to hold his tongue.” The prime minister evidently did so, for we do not hear from the Manchester businessman again.

Hammering the last nail in the coffin of Mr. Pilling proved relatively easy for Chaim Weizmann. But he was, by November 1917, quite accustomed to visiting the Foreign Office to argue against the advocates of a separate peace with Turkey. Only a few months previously in fact, he had apparently taken the lead in stymieing a much more important initiative in that direction. That exercise, a better-known episode in the history of Zionism, had required all his diplomatic skill.

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