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  Robert Gilbert Vansittart (1881–1957), by Howard Coster, 1938 Robert Gilbert Vansittart (1881–1957), by Howard Coster, 1938
Vansittart, Robert Gilbert, Baron Vansittart (1881–1957), diplomatist, was born at Wilton House, Farnham, on 25 June 1881, the eldest of three sons among the six children of Captain Robert Arnold Vansittart (1851–1938), army officer, and his wife, Alice (1854–1919), third daughter of Gilbert James Blane, landowner, of Foliejon Park, near Windsor. The Vansittart family's origins can be traced to the small town of Sittard on the Dutch–German border, opposite Cologne, and later to the Hanse city of Danzig. It was from here that Peter Van Sittard, the founder of the English branch of the family, arrived in London in 1674. A merchant adventurer in the classic mould, he amassed a great fortune by trading with the East India Company. Many of his progeny led distinguished public careers in law, the armed forces, and politics. Five years after Vansittart's birth, his father unexpectedly inherited an estate of some 2000 acres at Foots Cray, Kent. Vansittart—or Van, as he was familiarly known to both his closest friends and his bitterest enemies—remembered his childhood, whiled away in well-to-do if not overly affluent circumstances, as ‘jolly and humdrum’ (Mist Procession, 16).

At the age of seven Vansittart was dispatched to St Neot's, a preparatory school near Winchfield. In 1893 he arrived at Eton College, where he spent a full seven years. He did not shine on the playing fields. His finest sporting deeds were reserved for tennis and boxing; in team games he was less successful, barely scraping into the cricket team as twelfth man. His special talent lay in foreign languages. In 1899 he excelled himself by carrying off both the French and German prince consort prizes, a rare, if not unique, accomplishment. A member of the Eton Society (Pop), Vansittart finished his time at Eton as captain of the oppidans. He displayed a noticeable liking for amateur theatricals and speechifying. Caught up by the nationalist fervour at the outbreak of the South African War, he inspired the Fourth of June celebrations with his stirring renditions of patriotic perorations such as ‘White Man's Burden’ or ‘To the race’. The young orator, according to the Eton College Chronicle, ‘held the audience spellbound by the vibrating earnestness of his voice’.

Bent on a diplomatic career, Vansittart travelled the continent for over two years improving his proficiency in French and German. In Germany he encountered an intense anti-British hysteria, engendered by the ramifications of the South African War. On one occasion he was challenged to a duel, a predicament from which he escaped by revealing an admirable diplomatic technique. His early experiences in Germany perhaps laid the foundation for his subsequent attitude towards the Germans, and that led him, eventually, with growing experience, to promulgate the doctrine of ‘original German sin’ in international relations; conversely, the warmth of his reception in Paris won him over as an inveterate Francophile. These were to be the twin leitmotifs of his future European policy.

In March 1903 Vansittart sat for the diplomatic examination and passed out top of the list. In October 1903 he was appointed to the Paris embassy, where he was promoted third secretary in March 1905, passed on examination in public law in December 1905, and was appointed MVO in April 1906. In April 1907 he was transferred to Tehran. He was promoted second secretary in December 1908, and transferred to Cairo in January 1909. In August 1911 ill health brought him back to the Foreign Office, where he was to spend the remainder of his career. Incisive of thought, diligent, and energetic, possessed of a forceful character and the necessary social graces, Vansittart was soon earmarked as a high-flyer. But not only his routine work brought Vansittart to the attention of his peers and masters. Since his days at Eton, Vansittart had harboured literary ambitions. Occasionally, he contemplated abandoning diplomacy for the profession of a full-time writer. While in Paris he wrote a play in French, Les parias, that ran for six weeks at the Théâtre Molière, a singular feat for a young unpaid attaché, and one that augmented his reputation for brilliance. It marked the beginning of a parallel calling as a dramatist, poet, and novelist. Vansittart's most celebrated piece, The Singing Caravan (1933), which read as a kind of Canterbury Tales set in Persia, ran into several editions and was much admired by his distant kinsman T. E. Lawrence.

By 1914 Vansittart had attained the rank of assistant clerk. On the outbreak of war he was appointed head of the Swedish section of the newly created contraband department. He came to form a deep attachment towards his immediate chief, Eyre Crowe, a legendary Foreign Office figure: both shared a common view regarding the German menace. In 1916 he was assigned to direct the prisoners of war department under Lord Newton, a post he regarded with little enthusiasm. However, dealing with the treatment of prisoners on a day-to-day basis provided him with conclusive proof of German barbarism. He harboured no doubt that the Germans were committing atrocities on a massive scale. The war also brought personal tragedy. Arnold, his younger brother, was killed in action at Ypres. As Vansittart confessed, his private loss polarized his anti-German convictions. ‘The personal element should not affect policy’, he admitted, ‘but one cannot prevent experience from confirming conclusions already reached. Why ask for strength to reverse them?’ (Mist Procession, 22).

From ‘Backwater Bob’ under Lord Newton, Vansittart suddenly became ‘brilliant’ again (Mist Procession, 198–9) when he was included, with the rank of first secretary, in the British delegation to the Paris peace conference. At the conference Vansittart dealt mainly with the Turkish settlement, a topic that also absorbed the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon. Impressed with Vansittart's competence and diplomatic skills, Curzon appointed him as his private secretary in December 1920. Now holding the rank of assistant secretary, Vansittart worked under Curzon until January 1924. Meanwhile, he had been made a CMG in June 1920, and had, on 7 September 1921, married Gladys (1892–1928), the only daughter of General William Christian Heppenheimer, financier and army officer, of New Jersey, USA. They had one daughter, Cynthia, born in 1922.

Following the change of government in January 1924, Vansittart returned to regular Foreign Office work as head of the American department. Furthering Anglo-American relations was not an easy task, though he succeeded in resolving the thorny question of wartime blockade claims. At the same time, his dealings with the United States reinforced his ambivalence towards Americans, a state of mind typical of so many of his class and generation. Later, he would be heard referring to them as ‘this untrustworthy race’ (minutes of 5 Feb 1934, FO 371/17593). In February 1928 he was promoted to assistant under-secretary and joined the staff at 10 Downing Street, where he acted as private secretary to prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald. Once again, he performed well. Two years later, though not to everyone's satisfaction, Vansittart was appointed permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, in January 1930. Aged only forty-eight, he had attained the top post of his profession. He had been advanced to KCB in June 1929 and, as befitted his new status, he was appointed GCMG in January 1931. On 29 July 1931 he married for the second time, following the tragic death of his first wife in July 1928. His bride, Sarita Enriqueta, was the widow of Vansittart's late colleague, Sir Colville Adrian de Rune Barclay, and the daughter of Herbert Ward, artist and explorer, of 105, avenue Malakoff, Paris. Vansittart himself had little private income: his father's intemperate forays on the stock exchange had squandered most of the family's assets. But Sarita was a considerable heiress (her income at the time was estimated at £40,000 per annum) and her money enabled them to live in princely splendour. They acquired Denham Place, a magnificent William and Mary manor house in Buckinghamshire, standing in almost 100 acres of gardens, and modelled on Hampton Court, where they employed a staff of twelve servants and five gardeners. When in London, they lived in almost equal splendour at 44 Park Street, Grosvenor Square. Vansittart's immediate family also expanded, to include not only his daughter but also Sarita's three sons from her previous marriage. Sarita introduced into his life a stability and balance that had been lacking since 1928. Their marriage lasted until Vansittart's death in 1957. To observers, the overwhelming impression of their union was one of ‘conjugal bliss’ (private information).

In May 1930 Vansittart detected the discredited figure of ‘Old Adam’, the symbol of pre-1914 diplomatic practice, at large again in Europe (Vansittart, ‘An aspect of international relations in 1930’, FO 371/14350, C3358/3358/62). By 1933, with Hitler's accession to power, he identified with absolute certainty Old Adam's current address, and expanded on the ramifications of allowing him to rampage at will throughout Europe. Unless checked, he wrote:
The present regime in Germany will, on past and present form, loose off another European war just so soon as it feels strong enough … we are considering very crude people, who have very few ideas in their noddles but brute force and militarism. (Minutes of 6 May 1933, Vnst 2/3, Vansittart MSS)
Vansittart never deviated from this view. But how would he combat the German menace? First, by redefining the aims of British strategy, by isolating Germany as Britain's most immediate danger, and then by boosting the British defence programme to meet this changed order of priorities. Well out of the public eye as a member of high-powered government committees, Vansittart laboured ceaselessly to realize these aims.

At the same time, Vansittart did not rule out a diplomatic option, either by an overall European arrangement with Germany, or, should that prove impossible, by constructing a diplomatic front to rein in Germany. One such attempt collapsed in the wake of the public outcry over the Hoare–Laval pact, a plan to shore up an Anglo-French-Italian combination by resolving the Italo-Ethiopian war to Italy's distinct advantage. Although the cabinet had backed the plan, much of the blame for the débâcle was levelled at Vansittart, who had tenaciously promoted it. Vansittart lost influence, never to regain it. Eden, the new foreign secretary, had already determined to get rid of him, and this was confirmed when Neville Chamberlain became prime minister in May 1937. Vansittart's techniques also worked against him. His memoranda, drafted in a convoluted, epigrammatic style, faintly condescending in tone, warning of terrible dangers if his advice went unheeded, all too often irritated his political masters. In January 1938 Vansittart was ‘kicked upstairs’, assuming the high-sounding, but politically meaningless, title of chief diplomatic adviser to the government; he was at the same time advanced to GCB.

For the next three years Vansittart functioned in a state of limbo. His advice was rarely sought, and if given, it fell on deaf ears. When the war he had long prophesied broke out, he, at least, held no doubt as to its cause. ‘The Nazi regime’ had been set on war from the outset. But no less, ‘the Prussian military caste and system are always there on The Day … we are fighting the German Army and the German people on whom the Army is based. We are fighting the real, and not the “accidental” Germany’ (memorandum, 28 Nov 1939, FO 371/22986, C19495/15/18). In a series of broadcasts, later published as Black Record (1941), Vansittart expanded upon these themes. In some quarters, his anti-Germanism was viewed as excessive, even paranoid. Hostile questions were raised in parliament. Numerous critics suggested that a civil servant should not be allowed to air such controversial issues in public. In July 1941 Vansittart decided to resign from the service. In recognition of his long public service, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Vansittart of Denham; he had been appointed a privy councillor the previous year.

However, Vansittart did not retire from public life. He spoke frequently in the House of Lords, continuing his campaign against Germany. After the war, he gained a reputation as a cold war warrior, as he regularly castigated the Soviet Union's record. What emerged was his utter loathing for all forms of totalitarianism: ‘Commu-Nazis’, as he termed them. Concurrently, he wrote a series of polemical works explaining and justifying his own record, the most influential of which were Lessons of my Life (1943) and Bones of Contention (n.d.). Vansittart's autobiography, The Mist Procession, a perceptive account of his times, included some discerning and amusing pen portraits of the main characters, even if marred, occasionally, by an over-elaborate style. It was published posthumously in 1958. Vansittart's final sentence—‘Mine is a story of failure, but it throws light on my time which failed too’—was a disarmingly generous, even-handed verdict on his life's work. No doubt the times had frustrated him. But in one crucial respect he had prevailed. Few men of his generation perceived with greater clarity the predominant menace of the times through which they lived.

In the autumn of 1956 Vansittart spoke out strongly against Nasser's seizure of the Suez Canal, denouncing the Egyptian president as a squalid imitation of the European dictators he had challenged in the 1930s. Opposed to any policy of scuttle, he was deeply depressed by Eden's inept handling of the crisis. These were to be his last public statements on matters of foreign policy. For some time Vansittart had been suffering from a heart condition. His ailment gradually worsened. Confined to his bed, he contracted a severe chill from which he never recovered. On 14 February 1957 Vansittart died, peacefully and without pain, at Denham Place, aged seventy-five years. He was cremated, according to his wishes. No national memorial was raised in his honour, but in the shadow of Denham church there lies a stone, now somewhat faded, to his memory.

Norman Rose

Sources  

CAC Cam., Vansittart MSS · TNA: PRO, FO 371, 800 · cabinet papers and minutes · Hansard 5L · Hansard 5C · Lord Vansittart [R. G. Vansittart], The mist procession: the autobiography of Lord Vansittart (1958) · N. Rose, Vansittart: study of a diplomat (1978) · private information (2004) · DNB · The Times (15 Feb 1957) · I. G. Colvin, Vansittart in office: an historic survey of the origins of the Second World War based on the papers of Sir Robert Vansittart (1965) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1957) · Burke, Peerage · WWW · d. cert. · b. cert.

Archives  

CAC Cam., corresp. and papers · CAC Cam., corresp. and papers relating to Malta |  BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 63339 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Horace Rumbold · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Simon · Bodl. Oxf., letters to E. J. Thompson, MS Eng. Hist. c. 5321 · CAC Cam., Christie MSS · CAC Cam., Hankey MSS · CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir Eric Phipps · CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir E. L. Spears · CUL, letters to Stanley Baldwin and others · CUL, letters to Sir Samuel Hoare · CUL, Templewood MSS · JRL, letters to Manchester Guardian · Parl. Arch., letters to Herbert Samuel, A 155/9 · PRONI, corresp. with Lord Londonderry, D 3099/4/20 · Queen's University, Belfast, letters to Otto Kyllmann, MS 18/19 · U. Warwick Mod. RC, letters to A. P. Young, MSS 242/X/VA  

FILM

 

BFINA, documentary footage · BFINA, news footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, sound recording · IWM SA, recorded talk


Likenesses  

W. Stoneman, photographs, 1930–52, NPG · H. Coster, photograph, 1938, NPG [see illus.] · C. Ware, photograph, 22 April 1938, Hult. Arch. · photographs, 11 Nov 1938, Hult. Arch. · A. R. Thomson, oils, exh. 1942, NPG · C. Beaton, photograph, NPG · H. Coster, photographs, NPG · photograph, repro. in J. Connell, The Office (1958), facing p. 160 · photographs, repro. in Rose, Vansittart

Wealth at death  

£59,262 4s.: probate, 27 June 1957, CGPLA Eng. & Wales