My great-grandfather, Francis Meynell

My father has been going through the diaries of his grandfather, Fra (for Francis) Meynell. For reasons that I won’t bore you with now, the family name was originally Wood, and Fra’s 1st cousin was the Holy Fox, Edward Wood, otherwise known as Earl Halifax.

Solving a Problem like the Holy Fox

Halifax had, of course, been one of the key minds behind appeasement with Hitler in the late 30s, under Chamberlain. But he did come round eventually to the view that war with Germany was unavoidable. By the time Chamberlain resigned, practically everybody in the establishment expected and hoped for Halifax to become Prime Minister (from the King down), despite the constitutional conundrum of leading the government from the House of Lords. But as everyone knows, Churchill became PM after a few very tense days (brilliantly depicted in John Lukacs’ excellent Five Days In London: May 1940). So what was the new PM to do with his Tory grandee of a Foreign Secretary (and former Viceroy of India)? Very little for the first six months…

22/12/1940: I see my last entry was on Dec 14th when the news recorded then was the capture of Sid-Barani, the death of Ld Lothian (Ambassador in Washington) & the arrival of 10 evacuated children from B’ham…

Speculation is, of course, rife as to who is to succeed Ld Lothian as ambassador to the USA. Several names have been mentioned, the latest being Edward Halifax. He has, of course, all the knowledge, vast experience of affairs from every angle & yet I somehow cannot see him being happy there or them quite understanding his outlook or point of view. However I don’t know enough about USA politics, but I should, I confess, hate to have to do with American statesmen at this time. Nous verrons. [We shall see] Eden has been mentioned, Archibald Sinclair & others whose names I forget. Again, nous verrons.

10th May 1940: Churchill leaving cabinet after becoming PM. Plus Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood (l) and War Secretary Anthony Eden (r). (Photo by H. F. Davis/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

… Winston’s speech last night brought forward the Invasion question again to the fore & clearly he said it to warn the country that it must be vigilant. Certainly, it had rather fallen into the background of late. The air forces are hammering each other’s towns whenever it is not too bad at night, as I write they have been bombing some town within hearing distance. I thought it might be Derby or it may be B’ham; it is difficult to tell purely by sound.

… Our ten little evacuees progress. One was put in quarantine with a sore throat but I think he is better. All the parents come out on Sunday, which will be disturbing for the children I fear & probably they will all want to go home.

One night they were playing the game ‘earth, air, water’ when a handkerchief is thrown at one of the children & you say earth, air or water, he having to reply with the name of an animal, bird or fish. The handkerchief was thrown at a small boy “water” was yelled. “Salmon” shouted the boy. “Ga-ah!” said another, “Salmon don’t come out of water, they come out of tins” – and so we live & learn.

Later that same evening, Fra returns to his desk.

It has been one of the noisiest nights I have heard for a long time – I write this at 11pm. Planes have been going over quite incessantly since 7pm. Their line seems more to the W. of the House than usual – I don’t know what their destination is – probably Liverpool or Merseyside, as it was last night.

The Sunday papers all going for Edward as the next Ambassador to Washington. The Press pack was in full cry. Eden, some back for the FO. There does not seem to be any other obvious choice. A bundle of letters today, Sunday, very unusual but I suppose to get the letters delivered by Christmas. We struggle to think Christmas will be as usual & try to make it so but it is hard work. The 10 evacuees will I hope enjoy it.

23/12/1940: This morning, announced that Edward to Washington; Eden to FO; Margesson at War Office, on the principle when asked to send a good man, send your best, then, I believe E is the right man. I did not think so at first when I heard the rumour but on reading reasons & the Times I have come round but still feel doubtful whether E will like it but he does love new people & new contacts so it may work out all right.

A Christmas Houseparty at Hoar Cross

Halifax (taken by Mark Meynell, my grandfather)

Quite a family gathering was assembling for Christmas: he mentions that he was joined by Edward & Dorothy Wood & their son Richard (who would be my father’s godfather), as well as Ted Talbot (I’m not sure but it would make perfect sense if it was this priest since the whole family was steeped in Anglo-Catholicism). Fra’s daughter Doffe was staying with her brother Mark and his wife Diana (my own grandparents) in St Albans – their first Christmas together (having married in July 1940).

24/12/1940: The burning topic was, of course, Edward’s appointment as Ambassador to Washington, on the death of Ld Lothian. He & the Prime Minister discussed who should go on 18th Dec, without specific mention of names. Next morning, 19th, Edward received a letter asking him whether he would like himself to go & another discussion followed that afternoon, Edward leaving under the impression that the post so far as he was concerned would be filled by someone else & he wrote a note to the PM more or less confirming that conclusion. That particular letter was not sent for another letter was received meanwhile from the PM definitely offering the post.

Then he recounts what must have been an extraordinary scene: Dorothy Wood’s attempt to dissuade Churchill from packing them off to Washington. Not sure this comes up in many official histories (though Andrew Roberts does mention it as originating from ‘private information’)!

The exact course of events in chronological order I can’t remember, nor does it much matter but at all events E & D went together to see the PM for the latter felt most strongly that it was not in the PM’s own interest that Edward should go; that at that moment the PM was on the crest of the wave & could do what he liked, he could spare Edward but if, as was always possible things went wrong, he would be losing a loyal colleague who would be most likely to see him through a crisis & who would moreover be very influential in many circles. Winston listened to this with the greatest attention but his mind was working on quite a different channel. To him it appeared as a golden opportunity for Edward as advancement, that he was conscious of a certain opposition in government & the country to Edward’s continuing as Foreign Secretary, and he regarded it as possibly the turning point of the War if America could be brought in. Edward then left himself in the PM’s hands & so the die was cast.

Handbags in the Cabinet Room at dawn?

So why was Halifax sent?

Churchill was presumably on a bit of a charm offensive here, since does the Washington embassy really constitute an advancement for a former India Viceroy and Foreign Secretary. As Andrew Roberts writes in his Halifax biography, The Holy Fox, “Churchill had a tendency to use foreign vacancies as a means of removing troublesome politicians.” (p272)

The impression left in one’s mind is a mixed one. From other sidelights one would gather that on no account must America be hurried nor must we seem importunate in pressing her in any way. She would come into the War by virtue of conviction that it was the only possible course for her.. Our representative would therefore require at this stage tact, helpfulness but above all things, no “urge” which might defeat its own ends, If this interpretation is correct & it sounds plausible why send a 16” gun when a 12” or 14” might suffice, especially if in sending a 16” you weakened the main ship’s armament. Foreign Policy at the moment seems at a high level & throughout Europe our diplomacy seems to have been singularly successful. Why therefore change the Foreign Minister? That is the query that poses itself and one is rather led to the conclusion that Winston has yielded to some pressure from within the government to make a change. The only quarter that might be suspected is the Beaverbrook element, which however brilliant is not one I should imagine that could be depended on for a moment. It has been said of course that Ld B wants the post of PM for himself when Winston retires. Nor would it be above his ambition. It would suit the B. book admirably to have Edward quietly & unostentatiously out of the way in Washington prior to such an opportunity arising.

The Halifaxes sail to USA on HMS GeorgeV (Jan 1941) – Imperial War Museum

Fra doesn’t seem to countenance the fact that it might be Winston who wanted Halifax out of the way!

It will be noted that Edward is not retiring from the War Cabinet & retains his position in it so that on return at any time he of righty comes back, presumably as Minister without Portfolio,

Events will show how it will all work out but it would look as if, while Edward will certainly be a success in Washington if tact, gentle humaneness & allowing USA its own course is the thing required, at home Winston may one day find himself without that staff which Edward has undoubtedly been. The two have been an admirable combination, the impulsiveness of the one being curbed by the cautious long sight of the other. Those two have stood as equally balanced heads. Who now will balance Winston when Edward is gone?

Edward stands to lose nothing in going, but I don’t feel absolutely sure that Dorothy isn’t right & that Winston isn’t going to be the loser in the long run & the country too in that the successful partnership will be broken.

Superficially the appointment will go off with clatter & éclat but I confess to misgivings & the confirmation of first impressions when I heard of the appointment in the first instance.

26/12/1940: Edward told us on Christmas Eve that there was not going to be any bombing of German Towns that night or on Christmas night & that he didn’t expect the Germans to do it if we didn’t. Edward was right – we never heard the sound of a plane. The relief was perceptible. In consequence, Christmas will have been more than usually bright & cheerful; at all events here it was delightful.

1938 – Churchill & Halifax in Whitehall (H. F. Davis / Topical PA / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
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