John Buchan had known many of the prominent generals who held key commands during the First World War since his days in South Africa; Kitchener in particular. The Secretary of State for War had been ushered into post in August 1914, but was neither a team player nor a man to bow to the will of politicians. Many influential powerbrokers including Lord Northcliffe at The Times wanted him removed from office. Kitchener died onboard HMS Hampshire, an outdated pre-war battleship which had been selected to carry him on a mission to Russia in June 1916. Buchan noted that by 1916, how uncomfortable the minister for war was around politicians, and added ‘his friends were beginning to dread that a great career might close to an anti-climax, until in that June night when the Orkney seas put an end to such forebodings.’[1]

The last picture of Lord Kitchener taken before he embarked for Russia on HMS Hampshire.

What an odd choice of words. Why the need for a metaphor? It wasn’t the Orkney seas that killed Kitchener; it was either a submarine or a mine or sabotage. But the Secretary of State for War was no more, to the relief of a great many men of power. Kitchener had served his purpose. Buchan wrote that ‘in a sense his work was finished, for more than any other man he had the credit of building up that vast British force which was destined to be the determining factor in the war.’ [2] That sentiment ended with what sounded like an epitaph: ‘His death was a fitting conclusion to the drama of his life’. [3] Such ready acceptance, such calm unemotional, carefully crafted words ring hollow. Kitchener had become more than an irritation to the same men who had, in 1914, urged him into power at the War Office.

They feared that he was losing his commitment. Kitchener, however, remained untouchably popular. He retained the complete confidence of the British public and the soldier in the trenches. The propaganda machine managed Kitchener’s death with sublime professionalism, framing his loss like the passing of an elderly sage whose days simply ran out. No beating of breasts or wailing and lamenting. When propaganda makes so great an effort to bury the dead quickly and quietly, the suspicion must remain that something more sinister lurks in the shadows. We will examine this further in future blogs.

Although Buchan’s autobiography is empty of meaningful reference to his intelligence or foreign office work, other sources help fill in some of the blanks. Clearly the official censor cleansed his memoirs as rigorously as he did Lloyd George’s and Sir Edward Grey’s. What we know for certain is that John Buchan moved in and out of all the centres of power; his own department, Downing Street, The Admiralty, the War Office, and even on occasion, Buckingham Palace. [4] He knew exactly what was happening. He had access to all of the first hand reports and evidence of spectacular failures. He was literally the insider’s insider. And herein lies the problem. He knew the truth and covered it up. John Buchan was the author, the historian, the propagandist, the intelligence officer, the Milner acolyte and the Secret Elite go-to man. It would be ridiculous to believe that he did not know what he was doing; that he confused his writing of history with his writing of novels about the war. He earned his money by peddling lies.

Mandel House (left) with President Woodrow Wilson (right)

Buchan met every foreigner of note who visited London during the crucial 1916-18 period. He knew that the Secret Elite’s inner-circle was operating and influencing events behind the scenes. He hinted of his privileged access to the real decision-makers, stating: ‘ I saw something of the veiled prophets who are behind the scenes in a crisis – Colonel House [5] and Lord Esher, [6] and especially Northcliffe’. [7] His conclusions were startling:

‘I saw at close quarters the intricate mechanisms which directed the War at home, one of the strangest mixtures of amateur and professional, talent and charlatanry, the patriot and the arriviste, which history has known, and behind it the dynamic figure of the Prime Minister, generating heat and somehow turning it into power.’ [8]

Tantalisingly he left it there. Or the censor did.

Furthermore there is an additional problem. John Buchan wrote his memoirs as if he was the observer of people and events, and not personally involved. The director of information did not meet and greet international visitors from America, the Dominions and indeed Russia, without judging their usefulness and their susceptibility to British influence or forwarding reports and making value judgements on how best they could be manipulated. In his reminiscences, Buchan is able to vaguely remember a dinner in the Spring of 1916 with guests such as the Secret Elite’s Arthur Balfour and representatives from the Russian Duma including Professor Pavel Milyukov, the Russian Foreign Minister in the provisional government of 1917. It was he who promised that ‘Russia would continue the crusade for annihilation of German militarism…. to prevent all possibility of war in the future.’ He failed. [9] His other Russian dinner guest was Alexander Protopopov, [10] the Minister of the Interior from 1916-17, whose friendship with Rasputin earned him imprisonment and a Bolshevik bullet. Not a word about their discussions, or indeed their subsequent fate. He had plenty of time to reflect on these events because his autobiography was not published until 1940. [11] Like many within the Secret Elite, Buchan had tales to tell that were buried with him.

Lloyd George (right) both as minister for war and prime minister, became much more 'hands on' and interventionist that his political predecessors.

One politician who was not impressed by John Buchan was David Lloyd George, who as prime minister, found himself hemmed in by Secret Elite personnel. Lloyd George took great exception to an account in Buchan’s  A History of the Great War which depicted a meeting between the prime minister and the French Commander-in-chief, General Nivelle in 1916. Buchan claimed that the prime minister ‘heard of Nivelle’s plan – limitless objectives, the end of trench fighting, victory within two days – and naturally fell in love with it.’ [12] Even in describing Buchan’s account, Lloyd George felt he had to rewrite it, accusing him of ‘lapsing into his fictional mood, giving a fanciful picture of my meeting with General Nivelle at the Gare Du Nord’ where, having heard of the Frenchman’s plans for the forthcoming offensive in 1917, ‘I instantly caught fire.’ [13] In fact John Buchan neither identified the Paris station nor used such florid language, but facts did not stop the Welshman putting Buchan in his place:

‘when a brilliant novelist assumes the unaccustomed role of a historian it is inevitable that he should now and again forget that he is no longer writing fiction, but that he is engaged on a literary enterprise where the narration is limited in its scope by the rigid bounds of fact. Had he taken the trouble to read the documents which were in the possession of the War Office, and therefore available to him, he would have known … that the Nivelle plan had been revealed to me by 25 December … that at the Rome Conference I had expressed my doubt about an offensive in France … and at the Paris station I had refused to discuss the plan … in the absence of Sir Douglas Haig. Three fundamental inaccuracies in a single sentence are not a bad achievement even for a writer who has won fame by inventing his facts. The real explanation is that Mr Buchan found it so much less troublesome to repeat War Office gossip than to read War Office documents.’ [14]

Neville Offensive 1917 also called the Battle of Arras, failed to achieve its aims.

Fact or fiction? Lloyd George’s own Memoirs fall into the same confusion at times. Truth to tell, Lloyd George had backed the wrong plan. The Nivelle Offensive failed miserably and the shattered French army was consequently riven by mutiny later that summer. [15] Clearly he had his own  personal axe to grind for he considered Buchan to be little more than Haig’s mouthpiece. [16] His unqualified attack on John Buchan’s professionalism and integrity was exceptional by any standards. The difference between the two as writers of ‘history’ was that Buchan was not attempting to glorify himself. He was attempting to protect his friends and acquaintances. If it was as Lloyd George claimed, ‘War Office gossip’, it  suited John Buchan and the Secret Elite to paint the prime minister  as the villain.

Simply put, Lloyd George didn’t much care for John Buchan and snubbed him at the end of the war by omitting his name from the honour’s list. Not that that in itself caused Buchan any disquiet. He had friends in high places who would deal with such matters in due course.

Propaganda was the work for which John Buchan should be remembered, not his novels and histories. A week after the Armistice in 1918, one of his departing colleagues summed up the importance of their labours: ‘Public opinion was undoubtedly influenced, we have proof upon proof of that. And public opinion just meant everything to the Allied cause. [17] A euphemism of course, for lying about those  who were sacrificed and to those who, having survived these terrible years, had to pay the cost of war.

After the war, Buchan was swiftly ensconced at Elsfield Manor some four miles from Oxford, and appointed to a minor post as Curator of the University Chest by Lord Curzon, Chancellor of Oxford University. From this vantage point, he was in a position to recognise and groom future Oxford luminaries who would be welcomed into the society of the elite. In 1927, Buchan accepted the Conservative nomination for a seat in Parliament representing the Scottish Universities, and the Church of Scotland appointed him to the the position of  High Commissioner in 1933 and 1934. Pleasant though this was, the post had no political importance, though as the King’s representative, Buchan was treated in royal style, living at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, holding garden parties and being addressed as ‘Your Grace’. [18] He clearly enjoyed this role, and took pride in being the first son of a Free Church minister to become High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland.

What made John Buchan’s next elevation to great office so remarkable was its unprecedented nature. No-one in the history of the British Empire had been raised from ordinary member of parliament and former High Commissioner to the Church of Scotland to Governor-General of the Dominion of Canada. Yet, astoundingly, this commoner, the first of his kind, was appointed by King George V to one of the truly significant imperial  positions in the British Empire. This was not the usual order of promotion. It was stellar and owed nothing to Buchan’s prowess as a writer.

The prime minister of Canada, W L Mackenzie-King, a man who greatly admired Alfred Milner, [19] advised the King on this pinnacle of Crown appointments, and John Buchan one of the Secret Elite’s most valued members joined the nobility as Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief of the Militia and Naval and Air Forces of Canada. Honours dripped on his head in honied reward. In quick succession Buchan was made a Knight Grand Cross of St Michael and St George, Privy Counsellor, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, Honorary Fellow of Oxford University and awarded nine honorary degrees from Oxford, Canada, America and his native Scotland. Eat your heart out, David Lloyd George.

These honours had nothing to do with writing novels. John Buchan had proved his worth to the Secret Elite with his loyalty to their aims, had won their trust and gratitude, and was placed at the heart of the Empire because of this. The propagandist was well paid. He still is.

[1] John Buchan, Memory Hold the Door, p. 173.
[2] John Buchan, Episodes of the Great War, pp. 246-7.
[3] Ibid., p. 247.
[4] Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan and his world, p. 65.
[5] Colonel Edward Mandell House was one of the most important powers behind the scenes in President Woodrow Wilson’s government. Mandel House was his appointed advisor on just about everything. Linked to the J. P. Morgan organisation in New York, House was an Anglophile American. He regularly visited London and was close to Sir Edward Grey, Arthur Balfour and the senior ranks of the Secret Elite.
[6] Lord Esher was a founder member of the secret cabal organised by Cecil Rhodes in 1891. He remained at the heart of the Secret Elite all of his life. As close advisor to the monarchy, including Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V, he held a unique status. His permanent appointments included membership of the Committee of Imperial Defence.
[7] Buchan, Memory Hold the Door, p. 169.
[8] Ibid., p. 170.
[9] New York Times, 20 April, 1917.
[10] Buchan, Memory Hold the Door, p. 171.
[11] Memory Hold The Door was first published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1940. It might better have been entitled: selective-memory, hold the door.
[12] John Buchan, A History of the Great War, vol III, p. 436.
[13] David Lloyd George, War Memoirs, vol.1 pp. 886-7.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Kate MacDonald, Reassessing John Buchan chapter by Hew Strachan, John Buchan and The First World War: Fact Into Fiction, p. 77.
[16] Ibid. p. 83.
[17] Smith, John Buchan and his world, p. 68.
[18] Ibid., p.87.
[19] A M Gollin, Proconsul in Politics, p. 145.