Maurice Hankey: ‘Man of Secrets’

The papers of Maurice, 1st Baron Hankey, particularly his famous diaries, do not really need an introduction; unlike some of the collections which we have featured here, they are already well-known, and have a steady stream of researchers coming to make use of them. However, to coincide with the launch of The Official History of the Cabinet Secretaries on 5th December, it is worth remembering what a key figure in the history of government Hankey was.

Maurice Pascal Alers Hankey (1877–1963) began his career in the Navy, but his remarkable intelligence, and especially his memory for technical detail (his biographer Stephen Roskill described him as a “walking encyclopaedia of defence matters”) meant that a few years after his graduation from the Royal Naval College he was moved from his post on the Mediterranean station to a desk job in the naval intelligence department; he was to remain in Whitehall for much of his career, and left it a very different place from the one he found when he arrived in 1902.

In 1908 Hankey had become one of the secretaries to the Committee of Imperial Defence, and the secretariat which he helped to establish served first the war council set up by the Asquith government in November 1914, then its two unwieldy successors, the Dardanelles committee, and the war committee, as the ‘supreme command’ of the war effort. Unfortunately by the end of 1916, especially given the disaster of the Somme, that command was increasingly ineffective. Asquith resigned in December, to be succeeded by Lloyd George, who set up a new streamlined War Cabinet, consisting of only five men, armed with executive authority, and established what he described as ‘virtually a new system of government in this country’.

Hankey was the man chosen to run this new system and created a new co-ordinating and record-keeping organization, which developed into the cabinet secretariat and (from 1920 to the present day), the Cabinet Office. On 9th December 1916 he sat at the Cabinet table to take the first official record of Cabinet decisions (astonishingly, prior to this there had been no formal Cabinet agenda and no record of Cabinet decisions.) Hankey himself drew up the rules for his new position, including:

  1. to record the proceedings of the War Cabinet;
  2. to transmit relevant extracts from the minutes to departments concerned with implementing them or otherwise interested;
  3. to prepare the agenda paper, and to arrange the attendance of ministers not in the War Cabinet and others required to be present for discussion of particular items on the agenda;
  4. to receive papers from departments and circulate them to the War Cabinet or others as necessary.
    (John F Naylor).

According to Lord Vansittart, another famous civil servant and diplomat whose papers we also hold, Hankey “progressively became secretary of everything that mattered … He grew into a repository of secrets, a Chief Inspector of Mines of information. He had an incredible memory … [of] an official brand which could reproduce on call the date, file, substance of every paper that ever flew into a pigeon-hole. If St Peter is as well served there will be no errors on Judgement Day”.  And fortunately for historians, Hankey also left his invaluable series of diaries, which in contrast to his famous tact and diplomacy when dealing with politicians (and his determination to protect the secrecy of the Cabinet proceedings), are not tactful at all.

Here are two entries from April 1915, at the time of the Dardanelles operation, which had originally been conceived by Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty (whom Hankey later described as “the most difficult man I ever had to work with”) as a purely naval attack on the straits of the Dardanelles, in Turkey, which if successful would allow the allies to get supplies to Russia’s Black Sea ports. This plan had been foiled by Turkish mines, and against Churchill’s wishes, the decision was taken to abandon the naval campaign and launch a land assault on the Gallipoli peninsula. By the time of these diary entries, when the attack was launched, the Turks were well dug in, and the attack was pinned down on the rocky coast, and after suffering heavy losses the allies finally abandoned the operation in December 1915.

Hankey diary 1915

Hankey diary entries for April 1915, HNKY 1/1.

April 18: . . . News of loss of submarine in Dardanelles. This reminds me that Lord Fisher told me he had protested against sending our new submarines to Dardanelles. Feel very anxious about the attack on Dardanelles. The plan in my opinion is a most hazardous one.

April 19 1915: Dined with the Churchills; small family party only. Found Winston Churchill extraordinarily optimistic about Dardanelles operation. I think he counts too much on covering fire of ships. He is also very optimistic about general result of war, in which I agree.”

Catalogue to the Hankey papers

— Katharine Thomson, Archivist, December 2016