Filson Young

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

Table of contents

30. The end of the war

After a fortnight catching up with political events in Madrid, Filson went north to Santander, where he saw a good deal of Percy Loraine and was able to do a bit of sailing every day for a month. On August 3 he took part in a four-yacht race against the King, the Queen and the Duke of Santoña and, assisted by a handicap, ungallantly beat them all. But he had not been entirely idle, and on July 26 made a scoop for the Times with a report about a German submarine – the U 56 – which had been interned at Santander since May but in such a manner that her commander and four skilled mechanics still had access to her. This meant that she had continued to send signals to other German ships out at sea with the result that at least one merchant ship had been sunk in the vicinity with great loss of life. It was clear that the U 56 had been sent to Santander expressly for this purpose. Filson put the blame entirely on the British government for not taking a stronger line with Spain about such incidents:

… the millions of money, to say nothing of the lives, involved in our shipping trade with Santander alone are allowed to remain in jeopardy, while the German Ambassador takes his family for an afternoon excursion to see the submarine and congratulate her commander on the work he is doing for the Fatherland!

The Times backed him with a Leader (‘Our Special Correspondent sends us some startling facts this morning …’), the Foreign Secretary, Balfour, raised the matter in the House of Commons on 5 August, and the British government asked the Spanish government for an explanation. Filson interviewed the King and the new Spanish Prime Minister, Maura, and was pleased to report that he himself and the Times had both been repeatedly attacked in a pro-German Spanish paper. Next he claimed he had intercepted a telegram from the German consul in a Spanish port to the German Embassy about blowing up interned German ships but both this, and an attempt to ‘expose’ the workings of the Spanish censorship, fell flat. He became bored with waiting and inaction and homesick for Vera. At the end of September he was able to return to England for three weeks’ leave.

Back in Spain again, he wrote a long article on the position of the monarchy. Spain, groping its way towards democracy and constitutional government, was torn between revolutionaries who aimed to destroy the existing order and proclaim a republic and reactionaries who wanted to preserve the status quo by ‘screwing down the safety valve’. Filson believed that the best hope of avoiding anarchy lay with the intelligent and courageous King, who was respected by all the leading moderates, republican as well as monarchist:

Everyone – especially every Englishman – who has had the privilege of ten minutes’ conversation with King Alfonso feels that the Spanish problem has been solved, and that the whole thing is simple. Don Alfonso has a disarming air of frankness, a soft sympathetic voice, a quite definite charm of manner which lull you into this illusion. It is only after many such conversations that you begin to realize that Don Alfonso is not only a King, but that he is of Spain, and that his modernity has to contend with the mediævalism of his environment. (157)

In fact, Alfonso’s methods led in 1923 to the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, and when Rivera fell in 1931 the monarchy fell with him. In more recent times Alfonso’s grandson, Juan Carlos, has presided over Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Everyone moved to Madrid for the winter, and Filson sent the Times frequent telegrams detailing the ups and downs of day-to-day Spanish politics. He also found time to play golf, bridge and patience, go to the races, and compose two songs for Vera, settings of Shakespeare’s ‘O mistress mine’ and ‘It was a lover and his lass’, both of which he sent to her – as it turned out, on Armistice Day.

One is an old one, rewritten, (158) and the other I wrote last week for you; it is years since I wrote anything, and it is lovely to be doing it again, and I feel that I can do it rather better than I ever did. I want you to show Edie these songs, and I have always wanted Hugh to sing ‘O mistress mine’ as it would suit his voice. There is a lot of singing – much more than it appears, in your song; every verse wants to be sung a little differently, and the last phrase should be sung in a dreamy, rather rapturous way, as though you were saying it to yourself.

By the way, when you want to go to theatres or music, why don’t you get Edie sometimes to go with you? She is so human and intelligent that she adds to one’s understanding of things. And she had so much to do with forming me that I would like her to help you too. I can never be too grateful to her for all she did and was for me in the days when I was groping about to find myself; without her I should most likely have missed the way. (159)

On the day Filson sent his songs to Vera the war ended. He noticed that while British flags had to be hastily manufactured for the occasion, there was a large stock of German flags ready everywhere. He went with other British subjects to the Embassy to listen to a speech in which the Ambassador, in a dubious metaphor, praised the British monarchy as the ‘wedge which united the Empire’. With the end of the war travel became easier. The young writer A.P.Herbert arrived in Madrid and had the temerity to argue with Filson at a lunch party – to Filson’s ‘surprise and disgust’; what they argued about was not recorded. (160) Vera had been due to join Filson in the spring, but now news came that she was pregnant and would come at once. Another welcome arrival, at the end of December, was a car from the Crossley company for Filson, who was now able to drive off with Vera on a belated honeymoon. At an inn where they stayed she caught him ‘having the donkey-boy’, a lad of about fifteen. She never recovered from the shock, she later told her grandson. (161) One wonders whether there had been many other ‘donkey-boys’ over the years. There seems no reason to assume that Vera invented the story.

Anyway, life had to go on. Early in the new year, 1919, Filson sent the Times an interesting report on German espionage in Spain during the war:

Prince Max von Ratibor, ex-Ambassador of Germany in Madrid, crossed the French frontier today en route to Germany. He was accompanied by his family and the principal members of his Embassy, including Majot von Kalle, who, holding the nominal position of Military Attaché, was the master-mind which laid out and directed what has probably been the most formidable of the German campaigns in neutral countries.

Backed by apparently unlmited funds, and using the organized services of the majority of the hundred thousand German subjects established in the country, Kalle succeeded in establishing a web of espionage which practically converted parts of the coast into German submarine bases. Inevitably he succeeded in corrupting and utilizing numbers of Spanish minor officials, but the fact that his formidable campaign was not even more successful than it undoubtedly was is due to the loyal cooperation of hundreds of honourable Spaniards to whom his methods were detestable, and who, for no reward and often at the risk of their livelihood, helped the sparsely-manned and under-equipped British, French and Italian counter-espionage services. The work of the Admiralty Intelligence Service in Spain, whose record will presumably never be written or known, was always the most active and efficient, and sometimes well-nigh the only protection against a set of dangers which were never perfectly realized at home, and the consequences of which are far from being finished with yet. Von Kalle leaves behind him a complete system of underground working against the Allies, which, especially in the form of Bolshevist organisations, is today causing even the Spanish government the greatest anxiety. (162)

Of course Filson’s readers did not know that he himself was a member of the Admiralty Intelligence Service he was telling them about. He seems to have overestimated the anxiety von Kalle’s ‘Bolshevist organisations’ were causing the Spanish authorities, since Prince Ratibor and his staff were soon allowed to return to Spain and their former posts at the German Embassy, to Filson’s disgust.

After this, for a time Filson was reduced to sending in descriptions of life in Madrid in winter, and the Escorial Palace ‘strict with frost’ – a telling phrase often considered his own, but apparently borrowed, perhaps unconsciously, from R. L. Stevenson. Then suddenly there was plenty of news again: the Catalans demanded autonomy, the central government collapsed, and Barcelona came to the brink of civil war as the civil authorities clashed with the military who were trying to keep essential service going in the face of strikes. Riots broke out all over Spain. Filson’s views on the situation were repeatedly quoted in a long Times Leader on March 5. Two weeks later he was able to report that Barcelona was quiet because the employers had given in to the demands of the workers, but ‘it is absurd to suppose that this settlement is anything like a solution to the labour problem in Spain’. (163) With that, his work as special correspondent for the Times in Spain came to an abrupt end.

It was exactly as they had feared: Filson was giving trouble. He was too expensive. As early as September 1918 Wickham Steed condemned a statement of expenses from him as ‘scandalous’ but told Corbett, ‘as I had no hand in his appointment I must really leave you to deal with him.’ Filson was duly warned, especially about giving dinner parties at the Times’s expense. He protested that this had been essential for smoothing strained relations with the Spanish government after his exposure of the U 56, and as the only way to get certain information. Then he moved into the attack: he had already told the Times he needed a car in this one-train-a-day country, and now he could report: ‘I have achieved a motor car – a new one, delivered in Spain, for the sum of £0:0:0; I trust you will put that to my credit!’ (164) Later he suggested the Times should open a proper office in Madrid, and pay for chauffeur and garage for his car, plus any costs incurred when using it on special missions for the Times. The office could be financed from Spanish advertising revenue, and he offered to organise it himself. Whatever his reservations about Filson in other respects, Dawson thought this a good idea and discussions about it continued for several months until Filson left the Times. (165) But by January 1919, Dawson was instructing Corbett to tell Filson that he was costing too much and to ask his intentions, since he understood Filson was ‘not anxious to prolong’ his appointment. Corbett sent Filson a statement indicating that, in the seven and a half months since June 1918, he had been paid a salary of £1028 17s., and run up expenses of £887. At this point Northcliffe decided Filson must go anyway, because jobs were needed for men returning to the staff after demobilization. John Walter broke the news to Filson on February 24, assuring him that if he stayed in Spain, articles would still be welcome from him from time to time ‘for I need not tell you that the quality of your work has always been highly appreciated here’. Filson’s service to the Times ended with an unseemly squabble with his old adversary of 1916, Associate Manager Lints Smith. Lints Smith told Filson his job would end on March 31. Filson objected that strictly speaking he ought to be paid till April 2. Lints Smith accepted this, but added that Filson’s successor de Caux would start work on April 1. Then on March 24 Walter wrote to Lints Smith that Filson was already on his way back to England and that de Caux was ready to start on the 25th. On reaching London, Filson immediately tried to extract even more money from Lints Smith, who appealed to Walter. Walter’s reply sums up the whole situation:

I do not understand Mr Filson Young’s application for special expenses owing to the sudden termination of his agreement. He had arranged to bring his wife back to England in March long before there was any question of his leaving The Times. As to the suddenness of the termination of his agreement, my only comment is that the agreement ought to have been terminated long ago, and in fact ought never to have been made. I have a great personal regard for Mr Filson Young, but there is no denying that he has been extravagantly overpaid for the work he has done for The Times in Spain. One of our own staff would have supplied as good a service at less than half the expense, and would have welcomed the opportunity of doing so. (166)

A few days before leaving Spain he managed, in almost his last message as Times correspondent, to achieve the sort of ‘first’ that always gave him pleasure: in this case the first press message to be sent from Spain to England by wireless (a commercial service by the Marconi company had been planned for 1914 but temporarily abandoned because of the war).

At the beginning of May he was back again in Spain, apparently rather against his will, presumably on Admiralty duty. He stayed two months, leaving the now heavily pregnant Vera with his sister Janie and her doctor husband in St Ives. On the way to Spain he stopped in Paris for a drive with Percy Loraine, for a talk with Eric Maclagan and also for ‘smiling thoughts’ of Vera’s ‘wonderful goodness and dearness and all the smugness she wraps me in … I can never tell you how much I love my precious wifie – nor how much more than love her.’ (167) – they seem to have come to terms with the donkey-boy episode. Back in Madrid he started painting – evidence of Vera’s influence; she was an artist of some talent. Yet he was possessive and easily jealous; no doubt not entirely joking when he wrote: ‘but he doesn’t like her having meals with strange people. If Janie won’t feed you, please arrange to have them served separately to you.’ On an earlier occasion when Percy Loraine had offered to take her out to lunch or dinner he had told her to make sure it was lunch. He was jealous of Paul, her little son by her first husband, jealous even of his own unborn child: referring to himself as usual in the third person, he wrote: ‘I so often think of the little traveller journeying towards us from so far away, and speculate on his nature! But he must always come first!’168

He hoped to be back in time for the baby’s birth, expected in July. Meanwhile, whatever he was up to for the Admiralty, there was time left over for enjoying himself. He went a long drive in ‘Carrie’ – Filson’s cars always had names – with his friend Archie Russell, who was temporarily attached to the British Embassy in Madrid, and flew over Madrid in a Handley-Page bomber recently sent from England to publicise, perhaps inappropriately, civil aviation in this period when international air routes were first being developed. And there were reminders of another age when Grant Richards wrote not only to ask for the return of a roulette set Filson had long ago borrowed, but to inform him that the hardback edition of The Sands of Pleasure had at last sold out and to suggest a reissue in paperback. This duly appeared later in 1919 but only after a good deal of discussion about the cover design. Richards knew that sex and Paris were what sold the book, but Filson now wanted to play these elements down and suggested a picture of sea with a lighthouse. Eventually Richards hit on a compromise: ‘ … the sun rise breaking through closed shutters on to a table with flowers, wine, a woman’s white gloves, a man’s opera hat and cane’ (169). It was the style of a period the war had swept away for ever. Filson offered Vera’s services as cover designer; Richards preferred someone else, but in fact Vera did design book covers, including one at least for Somerset Maugham. Meanwhile Filson returned to London to start life as a family man in the new England that was emerging from the war.


157 The Times, 26 Oct 1918.

158 ‘O mistress mine’ was orginally composed – perhaps for Elisina Grant Richards – at Ruan Monor, Cornwall, in 1908. References to Filson’s cousins Edie Bell and Hugh Chisholm.

159 FY to Vera, 11 Nov 1918.

160 Pound A.P.Herbert, 60-1.

161 Information from Vera’s grandson Richard North, in conversation with SM.

162 The Times, 13 Jan 1919.

163 The Times, 19 March 1919.

164 Wickham Steed to Howard Corbett, 13 Sept; Corbett to Steed, 16 Sept; Corbett to FY, 16 Sept; FY to Corbett, 16 Oct (all 1918). According to John R.H.Chisholm (in conversation with SM, 11 March 1976), the car had been promised to Filson at his own request for publicity purposes by the Crossley firm, which also paid its running costs. But on 28 Jan 1919 Corbett wrote to FY: As to your motor car, I suppose the arrangement you made with the Admiralty as to getting the car still holds. Perhaps the Admiralty had also had a hand in providing the car, unless this was merely what Filson wanted the Times to think.

165 FY to Howard Corbett, 11 Nov; Geoffrey Dawson to Corbett, 22 Nov; Corbett to FY, 27 Nov; FY to Corbett 15 Dec; FY to Corbett 20 Dec; Corbett to FY, 31 Dec (all 1918). FY to Corbett, 20 Jan 1919.

166 Geoffrey Dawson to Howard Corbett, 28 Jan; Corbett to FY, 28 Jan; John Walter to FY, 24 Feb; William Lints Smith to FY, 24 Feb; FY to Lints Smith, 2 March; Lints Smith to FY, 7 March; Walter to Lints Smith, 11 March (all 1919).

167 FY to Vera, 3 May 1919.

168 FY to Vera, 21 May [1919].

169 Grant Richards to FY, possibly 13 May 1919.

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