Thursday, April 15, 2021

Repington’s wander-year

One hundred years ago, an ex-soldier and ex-war correspondent Charles à Court Repington, found himself in Budapest, admiring the Danube and the view from the British High Commission, enjoying the opera (The Evening Star by Meyerbeer) and dining with the Italian military commissioner. The details come from a diary he kept on a ‘wander-year’ round Europe determined to acquaint himself with the new personalities and new ideas which ‘the great war-storm’ had thrown up. Repington is credited with coining the term ‘First World War’.

Charles à Court was born at Heytesbury, Wiltshire in 1858, but did not take on the name Repington until 1903, following the requirement in a will that led to his inheriting the Amington Hall Estate. He was schooled at Eton College and then attended the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. In 1878, he joined the British Army’s Rifle Brigade as commissioned infantry officer. He married Melloney Catherine Scobel in 1882. They had two daughters who survived infancy, but the marriage foundered on Repington’s frequent infidelities. Later, he had a long-term affair with Mary North, until her divorce; thereafter, they lived together for the latter part of Repington’s life, having one daughter together.

After serving in Afghanistan, Burma and Sudan, he entered the Staff College at Camberley, and subsequently was appointed military attaché in Brussels and The Hague, leading to a promotion as Lieutenant-Colonel. He served as a staff officer during the Second Boer War in South Africa 1899-1901, and was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George during the conflict. On returning to London, he took a position as a military correspondent with the Morning Post (1902-1904), and The Times (1904-1918). His reports as a war correspondent from the scene of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905 were later published as a book entitled The War in the Far East. During the war, he relied on his personal contacts in the British Army and the War Office for his information and for permission to visit the Western Front during the early stages of the conflict in late 1914, at a time when most journalists were prohibited.

One of Repington’s most important early scoops led to the so-called ‘shell scandal’ in May 1915. The British Expeditionary Force Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French, suggested to Repington that a shortage of artillery ammunition was the reason for the failure of the British attack at Neuve Chapelle in March that year. The furore arising from Repington’s report in The Times led to the ultimate removal of French (replaced by Sir Douglas Haig) and the downfall of the last Liberal government. Repington resigned from the newspaper in early 1918 on a point of principle, and rejoined the Morning Post. Shortly afterwards he was charged and found guilty of offences (disclosing secret information in his articles) under the Defence of the Realm Act. He was found guilty, and fined for his actions. He is thought to have been the first person to use the term ‘First World War’ - on 10 September 1918 in a conversation noted in his diary. After the end of the war, Repington joined the staff of The Daily Telegraph. He died in 1925. See Wikipedia,, Spartacus Educational or the Rippington Family website for further information.

In his last years, Repington published two volumes of his war diaries: The First World War 1914-1918 (available to read at Internet Archive). In 1921, he took a year long journey around Europe, and subsequently published his diary of the trip. His short preface explains: ‘When the Peace Treaties, with one exception, were ratified and in full operation, I felt the need of a wander-year in order to acquaint myself with the new personalities and new ideas which the great war-storm had thrown up to the surface of affairs in continental Europe. It was useless to content oneself with archaic notions when all was changed, if one wished to keep abreast with the times, and there was no better way to discover what was happening than to go and see for oneself. [. . .] I offer this diary as a small contribution to the knowledge of people and events in the world of to-day in the hope that it may aid my readers to judge for themselves the proper direction of foreign policy in the future.’

And exactly a century ago, Repington was in Budapest. Here is his diary entry of that day as found in After the War; London-Paris-Rome-Athens-Prague-Vienna-Budapest-Bucharest-Berlin-Sofia-Coblenz-New York-Washington; a Diary (Constable & Co., 1922 - also freely available online at Internet Archive).

15 April 1921
‘The Danube is a nobler river than the Moldau, but Budapest has a strong resemblance to Prague, with its heights and palaces on one bank and the lower part of the town on the other. Went up to our Legation. Hohler has been and still is seriously ill with ’flu and bronchitis. Saw Athelstan-Johnson, the First Secretary, and looked over the Legation - I beg its pardon, the Headquarters of the British High Commission - which has a beautiful view over the river from the heights close to the old cathedral. Very comparable with Sir G. Clerics view from his terrace over Prague, but the Legation here is much smaller. A charming place of an old-world type with arched and vaulted roofs and an inner court. Left a card and note on Count Albert Apponyi who is away. Lunched with A.-J. in his house and we discussed European politics. He thinks that the old nobles party here is losing ground, and that the various countries round hate each other too much to combine. He would approve of the final break-up of Austria, part going to Czechs and Serbs and part to Germany and Hungary. I said that I did not see the continued existence of Czecho-Slovakia on these terms and that Italy would not like Germany on her borders.

He told me that Lord Bertie’s correspondence was lodged at Welbeck in two strong boxes and that it would not be published for fifty years. I asked if it included the private letters written to the F.O. and were they not very Rabelaisian? Yes, he said they were. Bertie had copies of them all, for he was a bureaucrat and had kept everything. I grumbled because we should never see these gems. A.-J. said that they were a most faithful and accurate representation of Bertie’s time in Paris during the war.

Went on to see Brigadier-General Gorton, my old friend of past Intelligence days, now at the head of our Military Mission here. The French press seems to be quite off the rails in belittling the Little Entente and in boosting a Karl Kingdom here and in Austria. I am amazed that they seem quite off the Czechs. The Frenchmen ought to travel a bit and they would see how the land lay. I saw Mr. Barber of our Commercial Branch, Mr. Humphreys being away, and am to come in and gain a little trade wisdom from him tomorrow. Went to the opera with the Gortons at б p.m. A good house and a competent orchestra. “The Evening Star,” by Meyerbeer. I have never heard it before. Very well done. Went on afterwards to dine at about 9.15 with the Gortons and General Bellini, the Italian Military Commissioner, and his wife. I asked the Italian General whether Italy’s natural frontier on the Alps appeared to him worth the passing over of the Tyrol to Germany, as seemed to me likely to happen eventually. He thought it was worth even having Germany on the border for Italy to gain the natural frontier. Doubt whether Sforza will agree with this opinion. Am afraid that our own people at home are too much immersed in their Martha-like worries to understand where all this affair is leading. The abandonment of Austria is the beginning of a great future disturbance which will entail the ruin of the Benès scheme and of Czecho-Slovakia, and the eventual spread of German dominion over not only Austria, but Hungary, which is too hard beset by Roumanians and Jugo-Slavs not to seek refuge in a German, or in fact in any combination which is against the Roumanians.’

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