In January 1916, two resolute British ladies, Muriel Paget and Sybil Grey, opened an Anglo-Russian Hospital at the Dmitri Palace in St Petersburg and followed this up with field hospitals and food kitchens in Ukraine, where British nurses treated severely wounded Russian casualties from the front line. Muriel remained there after the Russian revolution, but when the security situation worsened in 1918, she had to evacuate her medics to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway. This tale and other stories of British support to the White Russians fighting in Ukraine are included in Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners, a reminder of one of Britain’s military forays into the Russian Empire.
Leaping forward to March 2001, my team attended a Ukrainian seminar at Chatham House and was invited to Kiev to explain how Britain conducted its Peace Support Operations. The success of this visit led to their first UN peacekeeping operation, which has expanded to six deployments in Cyprus, DRC, Kosovo, Mali, Sudan and South Sudan. One of the key findings in our early meetings was that the Ukrainians preferred to work through the Organisation For Security and Co-operation in Europe, which comprises 57 participating states and now runs the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. Their daily report, which can be found here https://www.osce.org/ukraine-smm/reports makes for sombre reading.
Later on, I worked alongside three Ukrainian special forces officers in Baghdad, who helped me to understand the historic tensions between Kiev and Moscow that have created the current security crisis between Russia and Ukraine. The fiery political rhetoric is all very well, but deterrence has to be based on military equivalence to be credible because economic sanctions alone have proved ineffective in the past. As ever, the answers lie in the lessons of history.
I am looking forward to discussing Britain’s role in liberating Libya and the challenges facing the country after the 2011 revolution with Tim Eaton from Chatham House and members of the audience on Wednesday 26 January.
This is the first event the Front Line Club is holding in London since the pandemic and they have an excellent restaurant for those who wish to stay on after the talk. Anyone who is not able to attend in person can join the debate online and ask questions through the internet.
On Wednesday 26 January, I will be speaking about the Media’s role in Libyan wars at the bastion of press freedoms, The Frontline Club, next to Paddington Station.
Many people will have read some of the captivating books by independent journalists, who covered the Arab Spring and embedded correspondents in the World War Desert Campaigns. Fewer will be aware of the influence of British and Irish journalists in the Libyan war of 1911-12 and know that the great newspaper editor and champion of the oppressed, WT Stead, wrote before he died on the Titanic: “Francis McCullagh, whose ready pen, whose fearless spirit and whose presence in the firing line has made it possible to make the great public realize the criminality of the plunder-raid on Tripoli”.
McCullagh’s voice was not solitary as he was joined in Libya by other distinguished British correspondents, including: George Abbott (Daily Chronicle and The Holy War In Tripoli), Ernest Bennett (Manchester Guardian and With the Turks in Tripoli), Alan Ostler (Daily Express and The Arabs In Tripoli), Henry Wright (Illustrated London News and Two Years Under The Crescent), Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett (Reuters and Daily Telegraph) and Tom Grant (Daily Mirror).
These journalists set a high bar for subsequent war correspondents embedded in the Allied armies that fought in the Libyan desert, such as William Massey, Alexander Clifford and Alan Moorehead, and those who covered the Gadhafi era and its aftermath. Discussing the difference between independent and embedded journalists, I will illustrate how press interpretations have influenced the way we think about Libya since the murder of PC Yvonne Fletcher and the Lockerbie bombing with unfortunate ramifications for the future of this fascinating country.
After Her Majesty The Queen took the courageous decision to revoke the Duke of York’s honourary military titles, such as Colonel of the Grenadier Guards, the Media invited me to provide expert comment on television and radio.
Sky News cameras arrived after dark for their early evening news, BBC Radio 4 and LBC Radio recorded me during the night and BBC Breakfast TV sent a Zoom link so that I could join the immaculate Jenny Bond at 8 o’clock for a studio discussion about what this means for Prince Andrew. By the time the Jeremy Vine show called me on Face Time, this story was being overtaken by Downing Street party apologies and Djokovic detention, but it was still important to explain what the role of Colonel-in-Chief entails and the importance of the Royal Family as the enduring embodiment of the civil-military relationship in Britain today.
Early in January 2012, we hosted the three Permanent Under Secretaries of the UK’s Ministry of Defence, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development in Tripoli. This was a wide ranging visit to scope the future relationship between Britain and Libya and should have paved the way for close diplomatic, economic and security ties and facilitated the reconstruction of airports, harbours, schools and hospitals.
Their report, which was passed to all the members of the National Security Council, identified a number of dilemmas such as the demand for British advice, but “coolness towards any suggestion of the visible presence of Western government personnel on the ground”. The two key priorities were Security Sector Reform (reintegration of the militias) and Border Security (managing migration). They concluded: “There is an urgent need for HMG to get its planning in place.”
A week after they departed, I travelled to Bani Walid to assess the security situation in this gateway to the Sahara. There had been an uneasy peace following the death of Qadhafi and the local council imposed by the NTC had not been able to pacify the tribal elders. Soon after I arrived with a group of British special forces, the fighting began in earnest as a hundred fighters attacked the NTC’s military compound. A short time-out was called to allow US agency staff to leave the town, before the battle continued with dozens of casualties caused by the mortar bombs and machine gun fire.
This was the day, I knew that the honeymoon for the new government was over and that Libya was heading for a second civil-war, but the uprising was barely mentioned by the world’s press at the time and soon forgotten by the international community.
1922 was a dramatic and pivotal year for Libya. After Mussolini grasped power in Rome at the head of 30,000 Blackshirts, Emir Idris al-Sanussi withdrew to Egypt in self-imposed exile and the Tripolitanian Republic disintegrated as the brutal Italian conquest of the country began in earnest.
Meanwhile, the exploration of the Sahara continued apace. Following Rosita Forbes’ intrepid expedition to Kufra in 1921, Francis Rodd travelled into the heart of the Sahara and wrote about his time with the Tuareg in his book People of the Veil. At the end of the year, Ahmed Hassanein set out from Sollum and discovered two lost oases that opened new Saharan routes that were later used by British special forces.
Rodd and Hassanein were connected in two other ways. They both matriculated at Baliol College, Oxford and both were companions to the British diplomat, Milo Talbot, when he patiently negotiated the crucial peace treaty that ended the Sanussi Jihad in 1917 and allowed Edmund Allenby to focus solely on the Ottoman threat in the east.
Read more about Talbot’s forgotten mission and this period of the long Anglo-Libyan friendship in Part 2 of Liberating Libya.