Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents

28. Spying in Spain

At the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916 Beatty led the battle cruisers in action for the last time, losing three of them (none of those present at the Dogger Bank the year before, as it happened). Lion herself, however, had again been severely damaged and come within an ace of destruction. It was on this occasion that Beatty famously exclaimed, ‘There’s something wrong with our bloody ships today.’ After the battle Filson wrote to him. Beatty, in reply, sounds like Henry V after Agincourt trussed up in red tape:

We had a glorious day and gave them hell. My heart aches at the loss of so many fine fellows all pals in the best sense of the word. I could write pages of what was done that day but I haven’t the power or the time. Inarticulate isn’t it!! Well I am wrestling with the aftermath and am up to my neck in paper ten hours a day … Thank you I’ve still a sense of humour or I might have gone off my rocker … (137)

By late 1916 the submarine menace to British merchant shipping had become so bad that Jellicoe was promoted from Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet to First Sea Lord (Fisher’s old job) to deal with it, while Beatty took Jellicoe’s place as C.-in-C., thus being forced to move his flag from his dearly loved Lion to the new battleship Queen Elizabeth. A year later, in August 1917, Filson, despite the fact that he apparently knew no Spanish, went to Madrid as special correspondent for the Daily Mail in Spain and Portugal, but he was also to work as an undercover intelligence agent for the Admiralty. He had not asked Beatty’s help in getting this job, suspecting Beatty would be against it. Filson wrote telling him so, but Beatty denied this vehemently:

I have no objection neither have I ever been asked or the subject mentioned to me at all to your doing the work you refer to. Indeed I do not know anybody who could do it better. So somebody lies like a tooth-drawer if they say that I have objected to your doing that or any other kind of work – So that is that – (138)

Filson’s job, as part of Jellicoe’s anti-submarine network, was to keep a sharp eye on the ports of neutral Spain – a country with a strong pro-German party – and to report back to the Admiralty if he saw any signs of collaboration with the enemy.

Until the middle of October 1917 he was based near the French border between Bilbao and Biarritz in the northern town of San Sebastian, ‘the most fashionable summer resort in Spain’, where the foreign embassies spent the summer months. His daily routine was comfortable:

I am awakened at 8 and spell out the Spanish paper, then I have my bath and coffee, and go out about 10.30. At 11 someone comes to read the papers with me. At 12 I generally go to the Embassy – then back to lunch, and then to sleep. At 4 or 5 I get up and go out until about 8, come back, dress, dine at 9.30, and go out to the club afterwards – and home about 1.30 … I see a lot of the embassy fellows. They are a poor lot. The best of them, Sir Percy Loraine, and I see a good deal of one another. (139)

He had plenty of time to familiarize himself with the Spanish political scene. Since the 1880s, Liberal and Conservative governments had alternated without reference to the wishes of the people. The King, Alfonso XIII, had come to the throne at birth in 1886 seven months after the death from tuberculosis of his father, Alfonso XII, and in recent years he had been increasingly active in making and breaking governments. This caused political instability, with most governments lasting less than a year. During the war Alfonso XIII had so far been scrupulously neutral, while moving towards a position of more personal rule, as far as possible without reference to parliament. Not long before Filson arrived in August 1917, the army had recently crushed a strike of Madrid workers aimed at establishing a democratic socialist republic, and martial law was in force. The price of food was rising, wages were static, and as winter approached fuel was scarce. As Filson saw it, the moderate Conservative government of Eduardo Dato was honestly trying to deal with abuses and grievances, unaware that Germany was trying to distract and confuse it, like a bullfighter flicking his red cloak before a bull. On September 24 he interviewed Dato, who claimed to have the confidence of the king and a large part of the people. In October, at San Sebastian, Filson heard that an interned German U-boat had escaped from Cadiz, but he presently got wind of even more sinister events in Barcelona. He dashed there, and hastily sent the Daily Mail a long letter claiming that the Cadiz U-boat incident was a German attempt to discredit Dato’s government and split Spain from the allies, then next day rushed to Madrid to bring Alfonso news that, he hoped, would avert a coup. A group of officers led by a certain Colonel Marques had planned to seize power:

It was at that moment that I began to take a personal, though very temporary, hand in the destinies of Spain. Well do I remember a long and furious drive across half the country by night and day – five hours at the wheel of a Rolls Royce one dark night, going over the mountains between San Sebastian and Barcelona, past sleeping villages, round precipitous corners, through storms and morning mists that brought one at last to the edge of the world near the peaks of Montserrat and a morning sun that transformed them veritably into the Montsalvat of [Wagner's] Parsifal; consultations, excursions and alarms in Barcelona itself; and another cross-country flight to Madrid with the news. King Alfonso will remember my breathless arrival at the Palace on October 17, 1917, with news which, as I suspect now, was not quite so startling to him as I thought it was, and which he received with the calm philosophy which characterizes him in anything approaching a crisis. At any rate, prompt action was taken with regard to that particular threat, and the bombastic Colonel Marques soon after departed for Morocco in pathetic eclipse. (140)

A few days later the Dato government ended martial law and censorship, but resigned less than ten days later, apparently at the request of the king. It was replaced by a stopgap coalition, supported by the army and led by Garcia Prieto, Marquis of Alhucemas. Filson blamed these troubles on the disruptive influence of Germany and defended Alfonso’s actions. But the cost of living continued to rise and the new government was unwilling to reopen parliament for fear of being defeated. At about this time Filson, having now met Alfonso, took the liberty of sending him a copy of his Christopher Columbus with a dedication, and in due course received a personal letter of thanks fom the king. The king’s secretary later confided that Alfonso had started to write the letter in English – the native language of his wife. Victoria Eugenie, born to one of Queen Victoria’s daughters at Balmoral, was English, but he suddenly thought that since the book was about Spain, Filson would prefer the letter in Spanish. From now on Filson met Alfonso frequently and even went sailing with him; it was an interest they had in common – before the war Alfonso had looked up to Edward VII as a mentor and often visited Cowes. With time, however, Filson came to realize he had less power to influence the tough and wily king than he had at first thought:

When I had known him three months, and had many long and intimate conversations with him, I thought I knew him very well. When I had known him for three years, and worked and played with him, and been, occasionally to a considerable extent, in his confidence about public affairs, I decided that I knew very little about him at all, but liked him better than ever. And that, I think, is a common experience of those who have the privilege of coming into contact with him in his own country. (141)

Following the Cadiz U-boat scandal of October – and German submarines sank not only allied shipping during the war, but 65 Spanish ships as well – the Admiralty required Filson to spend the whole of December keeping watch at the southern port of Malaga. His only problem there was boredom; he would walk about the harbour every morning, lunch with the British consul, Montague Villiers, then rest or work in his hotel room before another walk followed by a ‘solitary and disagreeable’ dinner at his hotel, and finish the day by going round to spend the evening sitting with Villiers. The only diversions were a chance to assist in some life-saving operations on the coast with ‘very inadequate material, human and otherwise’, and an interview with the captain of a dingy English tramp that put into port. This last event he described for the Daily Mail with the vividness of his early South African War pieces for the Manchester Guardian, if allowances are made for a rather strident patriotic tone. The English captain bashfully brings his disgraceful old tramp safe into port again and again, amid the derisive congratulations of his friends and the bitter compliments of the German spy who meets him on the  quay in the guise of a ship’s chandler.

The ship hasn’t had a lick of paint for a year, and the captain looked wistfully across the basin to where two German ships, which had hastily interned themselves at the beginning of the war, were lying in a sumptuous ease devoted to paint, polish and a little quiet signalling at such times as our battered and glorious old tank showed signs of going to sea.142

There was plenty of time on his walks to observe the Spanish people, though prejudice against the Latin races distorted his vision. He told his brother Tom:

The people here are pro-Bosch to a man – or rather to a priest, for the place swarms with them; and it is altogether a very foreign, not to say unfriendly atmosphere. I wish our gov[ernmen]t would give up trying to please the Spaniards, and simply tell them to stand from under, as they are not in on this show, and they have to do as we tell them anyhow. It is the only attitude they will understand or respect; and it is the only way with Dagoes. (143)

One wonders what Filson’s friend the king would have thought of this; perhaps he knew perfectly well that this was what Filson really felt about his people, and took it into account in his dealings with him. This letter presumably went to England in the diplomatic bag, since it escaped the fate of two news telegrams hinting at links between the movements of the German military attaché and areas of U-boat activity off the coast, sent by Filson to the Daily Mail at about the same time; these were censored.

Nonetheless, Filson’s racist and jingoist attitude did not prevent him noticing, while at Malaga, a characteristic of the Spanish people to which a more sensitive and sympathetic writer has since drawn attention. Gerald Brenan, in The Spanish Labyrinth, claims that Spanish people believe leisure to be essential for developing the human side of life and thus human dignity. Filson, in his last and most attractive letter to the Daily Mail from Malaga, watched idling raised to the status of an art:

… in Malaga it is work that is negative and idleness that is positive … One mendicant … to whom … I offered a coin, implored me in the name of Jesus Mary to put it in his pocket for him. And another, lolling on a bench in the park fifty yards away, called out to me in a loud voice for God’s sake to come and give him alms. (144)

It was an art the restless Filson could never master. Meanwhile, in the harbour, nothing happened. He was sick of Spain and Spaniards and sick of doing nothing, and even longed to be recalled to England in disgrace. Besides, the Daily Mail had reduced his salary from £1500 a year (not a bad sum in those days; about £xxxx) to £1000 as part of a general economy drive. By the middle of January 1918 he was back in Madrid, reporting how women demonstrating against the high cost of living were attacking shops and restaurants in various parts of the country. Towards the end of the month the Spanish steamer Giralda was sunk by a U-boat. Filson interviewed members of the crew, who revealed that the U-boat commander had apparently asked the German Embassy in Madrid by wireless whether to sink the ship or not, and had received the answer ‘yes’ – was this Germany trying to force Spain into the war as an irritated enemy or as a terrorised ally? February brought a general election: ‘the candidates are scattered over the country frankly engaged in buying votes, and money is dribbling into the pockets of the constituents to be spent on the Easter bull-fights.’ (145) The result was the fall of the stopgap Alhucemas coalition after a ‘brief and inglorious career’, whereupon the king asked the same Alhucemas to form a new and entirely monarchist government. The election, in Filson’s view, had been a personal triumph for the king, and he gave his personal impressions of Alfonso in a special article for the Daily Mail (146). The new government collapsed after a week, the opposition refused to take over, and Alhucemas formed yet another government. In the midst of all this Filson went to Portugal, which of course was not neutral but fighting with the allies against the Germans. He interviewed the new President, Sidonio Paes, head of the moderate provisional government which had seized power the previous December and hoped to give Portugal a constitution on the lines of that of the United States. Filson admired his courage, his enlightened policies, his calm and restraint, and not least his apparent ability to get the women of Portugal on his side:

‘Ah, si vous tenez les femmes,’ cried I, in my dog-French, ‘vous tenez tous!’

‘C’est quelque chose ça,’ he murmured meditatively with his slow smile.‘ (147)

Women or no women, his regime ended abruptly when he was assassinated some ten months later.

At the end of March Filson paid a visit to England, but before he left Spain there was one small matter to deal with. A letter had reached him from the king’s private secretary, Emilio de Torres:

Mon cher ami, Sa Majesté la Reine desire faire parvenir à une Personne de la Famille

Royale anglaise une boite contenant deux douzaines d’oranges.

Would Filson be good enough to take this ‘little box’ to London with his luggage? Filson answered immediately that he would, whereupon Torres wrote again next day (in English this time) to say that he had the pleasure to inform Filson that Her Majesty the Queen had graciously accepted his kind offer. Not only had she accepted it, but she ventured to suppose it might be doubled. ‘I have here two boxes with two dozen oranges each,’ Torres continued, ‘will you be able to take them both or only one?’ (148)

April found him back in Spain, recuperating from a chill at Seville, where he played the organ in the cathedral and sat among roses in the gardens chatting to a new friend, the painter Gerald Kelly. Then after a few days in Madrid he set off for London again, where two matters of the utmost importance needed his attention.

[NB: There is a good deal of interesting material in the Foreign Office files in the Public Record Office at Kew about how Filson's articles in the Times enraged the Spanish goverment which protested to the British government that these articles were anti-Spanish [why?] and asked to have Filson silenced. The Foreign Office – perhaps for other reasons [what reasons?] – was not unfavourable to the idea of recalling Filson and placating the Spanish government, but it also pointed out that Filson had not been criticizing Spain as a whole but the Spanish

government of the day, which was quite a different thing.

There is also material on another series of events after the war, in c1920-21, when Filson acted as an agent for the Duke of Westminster (godfather to Filson’s second son in 1921) who was one of a group of British businessmen financing a railway being built (or to be built) in the Granada area of Spain. An apparently shady Spanish businessman was involved in these negotiations; there was nothing definite against him but the Foreign Office did not want to allow him into Britain; Filson protested against this.]


137  David Beatty to FY, 10 June 1916.

138  David Beatty to FY, [date]

139  FY to Vera North, 4 Sept 1917, from Hotel Maria Cristina, San Sebastian. [Add a note on Percy Loraine]

140  Saturday Review,  2 2 Sept 1923.

141  Saturday Review, 22 Sept 1923.

142  Daily Mail, 4 Jan 1918.

143  FY to Tom Young, 13 Dec 1917.

144  Daily Mail, 16 Jan 1918.

145  Daily Mail, 2 and 19 Feb 1918.

146  Daily Mail, 6 March 1918.

147  Daily Mail, 26 Feb 1918.

148  Emilio de Torres to FY, 27 and 28 March 1918.

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