Read an Excerpt
'The Blue Beast'
Power & Passion in the Great War
By Jonathan Walker
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Jonathan Walker
All rights reserved.
A Romanian Cradle
Winifred Bennett always had the air of an exotic English beauty. She was tall, slim and elegant, but her demeanour and her heart belonged to another, more untamed and Latin culture. Although she was of British extraction, Romania owned her soul.
Her family, the Youells, originated in East Anglia, where they had been established for generations around the town of Southdown on the Norfolk/Suffolk borders. Winifred's grandfather was a Great Yarmouth banker and her father Edward became a shipping agent. But Edward Youell had his eyes set on wider horizons. He married Mary Watson, whose family had business interests in Romania – a country largely unknown in Victorian Britain. Nevertheless, the couple emigrated in 1874 and Edward joined the family shipping agency, Watson's, based in the Romanian port of Galatz. He swiftly prospered, becoming a partner in the new business of Watson & Youell. With a successful enterprise behind them, Edward and Mary produced three girls. Winifred, the eldest, was born in 1875, Sybil in 1879 and Gladys followed in 1882.
Winifred's granddaughter, Joan Wyndham, recalled her grandmother's exotic upbringing in Romania 'in a family that still greeted incoming guests with bread, salt and a five-gun salute'. According to Joan, Winifred 'had been cared for by a gypsy wet-nurse and had a tame bear that walked up and down on her back if she was ill'. Such superstitious practices were widely followed in Romania amongst all social classes and the 'bear treatment' was a staple cure for all sorts of maladies. In the event of an illness, a gipsy would be summoned, arriving with a small bear on a leash with a ring through its nose. The patients lay on their front and the bear climbed on their back and danced up and down while the gypsy thumped a tambourine. At least Winifred never resorted to calling in the local baba, or woman witch-doctor, relied upon by so many rural Romanians.
Romania also had its sophisticated side. The Youell's home town of Galatz was the largest port on the Danube and a gateway to the vast Black Sea, some 80 miles to the east. It had its own vibrant expatriate community and had connections to Britain – General Gordon, the hero of Khartoum was a past inhabitant. The town's social life was dictated by its climate. Winters in Galatz were harsh and when the snow arrived, it was driven in across the plains by the bitter easterly wind, or viscol. Still, urban life was more hospitable than the freezing countryside where entertaining ceased between November and February. As winter gave way to spring, so social activities picked up in the town, and by summer, the hectic round of balls, receptions and parties got under way. In Galatz, one of the social rituals during the summer was the evening promenading that took place around the Strada Domneascâ and Public Gardens. With the heady scent of acacias and lime trees in bloom, pedestrians enjoyed the balmy evening air and would be joined by a succession of 'victoria' carriages, pulled by sleek, beautifully groomed horses, driven by grooms in full livery. Like most of the town's wealthy elite, Edward Youell hired both his carriage and the Russian coachmen by the month, enabling Winifred and her sisters to take full advantage of this piece of theatre. They draped themselves across the carriage seats, parasols in hand, to be admired by a procession of young men. Always clothed in the latest Paris fashions, the girls would smile and nod at the passing young army officers, strutting about in tight scarlet tunics.
One hundred and fifty miles away lay the capital, Bucharest, which offered more interesting social opportunities for the girls, and there was a lively young court surrounding the Romanian royal family. Romania was a comparatively new country, formed in 1861 from the Principalities of Walachia and Moldavia, and from the beginning the new state was always subject to the whims of the neighbouring empires of Russia, Austria and Turkey. Choosing a monarch for the new state was not easy. There was too much in-fighting for a Romanian to be selected for the throne, and the first local candidate was ousted within a few years. He was replaced by the unimaginative but dutiful Prince Carol, a scion of the Prussian royal family. While he successfully managed the basics of the state apparatus, Carol walked a tightrope in the handling of foreign affairs. Because of his family connections he was pro-Prussian, while his people were decidedly pro-French – a position that was sorely tested during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. At last, in 1881, Romania was elevated to the rank of a Kingdom and Prince Carol was proclaimed King Carol I.
Carol's marriage to his wife Elizabeth was not a happy one, and their hopes for the future lay in their son, Prince Ferdinand. In 1893 the timid Prince married eighteen-year-old Princess Marie of Edinburgh, granddaughter of Queen Victoria and a niece of the Russian Tsar. Princess Marie's mother was very concerned, not so much about the marital match, but more about the state of the country her daughter had adopted. 'Very insecure,' she warned, 'and the immorality of the society in Bucharest quite awful.' And that sharp observer of court life, Lady Geraldine Somerset, was similarly unimpressed. 'Disgusted to see the announcement' she groaned, 'of the marriage of poor pretty nice P. Marie of Edinburgh to the P. of Roumania! It does seem too cruel a shame to cart that nice pretty girl off to semi-barbaric Roumania. 'The early days of their marriage were not promising. Ferdinand was attentive enough but his awkward physical advances failed to register with his home-sick bride, who yearned for more passion and a mature romance. Furthermore, her new home was hardly welcoming. The Palatul Victorei was a solid, sombre place with heavy furniture, no flowers and few comforts. However, the Princess soon found support and friendship from amongst the English members of Romanian society – particularly Winifred and her gregarious sisters.
Barely four years into her marriage, Princess Marie, or 'Missy' as she was known, began an affair with her ADC, Lieutenant Zizi Cantacuzèe. While her husband was ill, Marie spent long hours in the saddle with her riding partner Zizi, and even an enforced separation in Nice and Villefranche failed to cool the Princess's obsession. She returned to find that Zizi had been 'moved sideways' but to her delight, was now leaping about the royal court as a 'gymnastics instructor' to the King. Marie was producing babies at an alarming rate, which pleased her in-laws, but her public displays of affection with her athletic lover were dynamite to the Romanian Royal Family. However, while her family disapproved, Romanian society indulged her extra-marital activities and even applauded her affairs, which included a later friendship with the hugely wealthy Waldorf Astor, as well as a passionate affair with the Romanian aristocrat, Prince Barbo Stirby. Hearing of her tangled and arguably neurotic love life, the British Royal Family were relieved that her earlier possible match with Prince George (later George V) never materialised. Meanwhile, not to be left out, Crown Prince Ferdinand embarked on a number of extra-marital relationships, but was careful to be more discreet.
Princess Marie's affairs were closely dissected by the Romanian court and the expatriate community. Indeed, the three Youell sisters were avid admirers of the errant Princess, who had evolved into a style icon – her newly decorated boudoir and Byzantine tastes were quickly adopted by those in her social circle. Winifred and her sisters were soon sporting this exotic fashion; with their dark eyes and their command of French and Greek, they were soon assimilated into smart society. Another close friend of the girls was Héléne Chrissoveloni, the beautiful daughter of an extremely wealthy Greek banker. Parties at the Chrissoveloni villa in Galatz were glamorous and boisterous affairs, hosted by Héléne's brothers Zanni and Dimitriu with the Youell sisters as regular guests. During these evenings, mellow music and dances soon gave way to fast, traditional Romanian dances such as the Galaonul De La Birca, fuelled by copious quantities of tzwica plum brandy. Dancing was, after all, something akin to a national pastime in Romania and it was not surprising that romantic liaisons flourished in this atmosphere. Sybil Youell became close to Zanni Chrissoveloni, while the statuesque Winifred dallied with Prince Ghika and other young blades. Winifred found these young army officers very seductive. With their Romanian swagger and flashes of wit and anger, these men could drink heavily and display violence towards their women, yet maintain an extraordinary hold over them. Winifred's friend, Ethel Pantazzi observed the species in its natural habitat:
The men stand in the middle of the ballroom deciding on their future partners. The masculine attire deserves as much notice as that of the fair sex. For one blackcoated civilian there are ten officers. Most of the military contingent glitter with gold braid and medals. Some uniforms are red, some brown, some black, the collars and sleeves slashed with yellow, pale blue or pink; all are fashioned to show a slender waist to the best advantage. Patent-leather boots, moulded to fit foot and ankle without a wrinkle; perfectly cut white gloves, every shining perfumed hair in place, an occasional monocle fixed immovably to the eye – this is the ensemble presented before the music strikes up. Then each rapidly approaches the lady of his choice, smartly clicks the heels together and bows.
In this testosterone-fuelled atmosphere, Winifred's suitors were romantic but totally faithless and in the end she settled for less exotic fare in the shape of a British diplomat. Percy Bennett was an ambitious mandarin who had recently arrived at the British Consulate in Galatz, one of sixteen international consulates that had sprung up around the city's thriving grain and timber trade. He was also attached to the European Commission of the Danube, an international body briefed to control and develop trade along the great river. This organisation had a large entertaining budget, which provided lavish parties at its headquarters in a palace in Galatz, or on board its boat, the Carolus Primus. And it was on board this pretty steam yacht that Winifred first encountered Percy. In 1896, after a short romance, Percy proposed to her, and in the Romanian tradition, offered her diamond earrings rather than a conventional engagement ring. Some months later, the couple married, but it was hardly a grande affaire and friends thought the match was surprising. Winfred was taller than her spouse, more vivacious and outgoing and at 21, was ten years younger than her rather solid and humourless husband. That was a problem, but one that Winfred was prepared to overlook, since Percy had ambition and looked set for a successful career that could take the couple all over the world. It was evident from an early stage that Percy was single minded.
Born in 1866, Andrew Percy Bennett was raised in the quiet town of St Leonard's, in Sussex. His father, the Reverend Augustus Bennett had hoped that a career in the church might suit the young Percy but instead the boy finished Cambridge and chose to head straight into the diplomatic service. In 1890 he was posted to Government House in Hong Kong, a territory only ceded to Britain less than 50 years before, but one that had nonetheless become a flourishing commercial centre, bursting with energetic traders and entrepreneurs. The island was already overcrowded, having risen from a population of 4000 in 1841 to a quarter of a million souls when Percy arrived. In addition there was a boat population of 32,000 immigrants, who helped drive the thriving economy. Hong Kong enjoyed a free port status and there were no customs duties on its imports of rice, flour, opium and tea. But there remained an ever-present threat to its trade – piracy. Instances of this capital crime had fallen with the rise of the faster steamships, but a notorious band still operated in the region, who attacked and looted a passenger ship, Namoa, in December 1890. This sort of incident was disastrous for Hong Kong trade and Percy was determined to see justice carried out. The pirates were captured by the Chinese, swiftly tried and then executed the following year by traditional but brutal Chinese means. As a trade official, Percy was on hand to witness this ghastly spectacle on Kowloon beach when 34 prisoners in two batches were beheaded in front of a crowd of Chinese and European spectators, some of whom posed afterwards for photographers besides the decapitated pirates. Such grim displays did not put Percy off his job and he continued to impress his superiors with his crisp and business-like demeanour, which resulted in his promotion to Vice-Consul in 1893. He was briefly posted to Manila, before returning to Galatz the following year.
The Bennetts did not have long to wait before yet another new posting was offered to Percy – this time in New York. As HM Consul, he and his new glamorous wife arrived there on board SS Campania at the end of 1896 and he remained there for three years, while Winifred travelled backwards and forwards to visit her family in Romania. Winifred became pregnant and in 1900, the couple returned to Europe, with Percy's new appointment as commercial attaché to the British Embassy in Rome. On 26 April 1900, Winifred gave birth to their only daughter, Iris. She was not confined for long and soon entered into Rome's hectic social life.
The Edwardians and post-Edwardians loved to dress up and they lived in an age when there was an abundance of rich, well-made fabrics and talented seamstresses who could create glorious costumes for all occasions. They also adored the stage and one way of combining both passions was to perform in Tableaux Vivants (living pictures). Winifred was an enthusiastic player and lost no time in appearing before the King and Queen of Italy in a series of these tableaux. The theatrical performances had originated in Italy and the craze spread to the rest of Europe. They involved the cast dressing up in period costume and arranging themselves in a rigid pose to recreate a classical tale or painting. The curtain would be pulled back and the audience would gasp and then applaud as they surveyed the exotic and colourful scene. No-one in the cast moved, which was quite an achievement, given that the scene might be 'Diana the Huntress' involving diaphanous costumes in a draughty theatre or country house drawing room.
Winifred's statuesque beauty was not just confined to the stage; she stood out on the diplomatic circuit and her presence at social or embassy events was often noted in the European newspaper columns. Percy's subsequent appointment as Commercial Secretary and Principal Attaché at the British Embassy in Vienna provided further opportunities for Winifred to shine on the society circuit. She took great delight in helping to arrange the marriage of her younger sister, Gladys, to Captain Alexander Hood, in a splendid Viennese ceremony. Winifred was still a much photographed beauty and in a pre-celebrity age, professional or amateur photographers would relish the chance to capture her image. She also had her portrait painted by the celebrated artist Philip de László, who was working out of his studio in Vienna. According to his friend, Otto von Schleinitz, de László's portrait of Winifred 'created a happy combination of classical and modern elements'. Whatever the merits of its execution, the portrait found favour with the sitter and when de László moved to London after 1907, she lent it to him for his exhibitions in the capital.
The striking 'Mrs Bennett' could be glimpsed at all the right parties or balls and whenever the British Monarch, Edward VII, visited his favourite spa resort of Marienbad in Bohemia, Winifred would leave Vienna and join the throng following the royal visitor. In fact the King visited the spa town's Hotel Weimer virtually every year, to take the waters and vainly attempt to diet. After nine years of this treatment he was still universally known as 'Tum Tum'. However, he did try some gentle exercise and could play a respectable round at the Marienbad Golf Club, where Percy happened to be secretary. Introductions to the royal personage abounded and Percy and Winifred found they were often in illustrious company.
In 1905, just as Percy was growing accustomed to the grand life, he was moved off the central European stage and back to Romania. Winifred was delighted because she could catch up with family and friends, but Percy's new brief was very pedestrian. He was to promote Britain's trade interests at the impending Bucharest International Exhibition. It was to be held in a newly designed park in the centre of the capital. With its own lake and landscaped gardens, the event was supposed to showcase Romania's emerging commercial interests. But as planning got under way, Percy was distracted by another, more dramatic international event.
Excerpted from 'The Blue Beast' by Jonathan Walker. Copyright © 2012 Jonathan Walker. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.