Hankey was born on 1 April 1877 in Biarritz, France, where his family was on holiday from their home in Brighton. He was the fifth child of Robert Alers Hankey, who had earlier in life emigrated to be a sheep farmer in Australia, and his Australian wife, Helen Bakewell. Maurice attended a day school in Brighton before moving on to Rugby School (1890-1895). Against his family’s wishes, he joined the Royal Marine Artillery, and, in 1897, passed out first with the sword of honour from the Royal Naval College. Later the following year, he secured an appointment on the Ramillies, the flagship of the Mediterranean station, to which he added unofficial and unpaid intelligence work
Having been noticed by Admiral Sir John Fisher, soon to be first sea lord, Hankey took up his first Whitehall appointment in 1902, joining the staff of the naval intelligence department. The following year, he married Adeline Hermine Gertrude Ernestine de Smidt, the daughter of a former surveyor-general of Cape Colony. They would have four children. In 1908, he was appointed naval assistant secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, becoming secretary in 1912, a position he would hold for a quarter of a century. In late 1914, soon after the start of WWI, he was made secretary of the war council, and then, when David Lloyd George became prime minister, he became secretary to the the PM’s small wartime cabinet. After the war, in 1923, he was appointed Clerk of the Privy Council; often, also, he served as secretary for many international conferences.
Following his retirement from government in 1938, Hankey was, for a short time, a director of the Suez Canal Company. In 1939, he was ennobled as 1st Baron Hankey; and, the same year, the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain appointed him to his war cabinet as a minister without portfolio - thus making him one of very few civil servants who made the transition to ministerial office. When Chamberlain was succeeded by Churchill, Hankey was left out of the war cabinet but then served briefly as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and then Paymaster General, before leaving government in 1942. In the late 1940s, he published Politics, Trials and Errors opposing the policy of war-crime trials. He died in 1963.
The History of Government website gives this assessment: ‘As well as a distinguished personal career, Hankey made a major contribution to the system of cabinet government, which can clearly be traced from his period of office to the present day. On his retirement in 1938, he continued to hold the posts of Secretary of the CID, Cabinet Secretary and Clerk to the Privy Council. No-one did more than Maurice Hankey to establish and refine the system of government that was forged in the trials of the First World War, survived the test of the Second World War and still endures in a clearly recognisable form today.’ Further information is also available from Wikipedia, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required), Reviews in History, National Archives, and Spartacus.
Hankey kept diaries for much of his life. These are held by the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge University. Despite being dubbed famous by historians - see Churchill Archives Centre News - they have never been published; they are, though, open to researchers. That said, many extracts from the diaries have been published in a three-volume biography of Hankey - Man of Secrets - by Stephen Roskill (Collins, 1970-1974). The following extracts are taken from the first volume.
16 September 1915
‘. . . Saw Lord K. who asked me to join a new War Office General Staff Committee considering [the] question of future action at the Dardanelles. Churchill also a member. At 5 p.m. Churchill called and told me that the Prime Minister and he both regarded me as responsible for [the] success of arrangements for winter at Dardanelles. This I vigorously repudiated as one cannot have responsibility without authority . . . Churchill then pestered me to take up and press forward provision of a new trench mortar called the Stokes gun . . . This I undertook to do and put Swinton on to it.’
17 September 1915
‘Hurst (F.O. Legal Adviser) called to induce me to take over Lord Crewe’s new Trade Co-ordinating Ctee. as part of C.I.D. Very heavy day writing paper on arrangements for winter campaign [at Dardanelles] and stirring up people at Adty. and W.O. on all sorts of details.’
18 September 1915
‘Lunched at 10 Downing St. P.M. has definitely made up his mind in favour of voluntary service and not compulsory service, and has written to Balfour asking him to stand by him on the question. Completed paper on winter arrangements at Dardanelles.’
2 May 1916
‘Spent morning preparing notes for P.M.’s speech to introduce compulsion for married men. P.M. was very “short” when I saw him and obviously hated the job. I dropped into the House after lunching at the Club and heard the speech. It was not a very good one - not so good as the one I gave him. The House was astonishingly cold. The fact was that the people who want compulsory service don’t want Asquith, while those who want Asquith don’t want compulsory service; so he fell between two stools! It is really an astonishing situation. The only real military case for the Bill is the great offensive. For an ordinary campaign there are heaps of men. That is to say we could fight the whole summer and lose men on the same scale as we lost them last year, which included Gallipoli, Neuve Chapelle, Loos and Festubert, and still have 50,000 men up our sleeve at the end of the year. But the Army want a regular orgy of slaughter this summer, and it is for this that they demand the extra men. Thus the Cabinet have yielded to a demand based solely on carrying out the plan for a great offensive, a plan which no member of the Cabinet and none of the regimental soldiers who will have to carry it out believe in, a plan conceived in the heads of the red-hatted, brass-bound brigade behind, who know little of the conditions at the actual front and are out of touch with real regimental opinion. It is alleged that we must do this thing to save the Russians - yet the French did it all last summer, with the result that they are now bled white and have no reserves left. . . Yet we are asked by the “scientific” soldier to repeat the process, notwithstanding that it may jeopardise the financial stability of this country on which the whole future of the Allies rests! Strongly though I feel on this matter I find it extraordinarily difficult to take any action, because I am not the constitutional military adviser of the government. Yet I have my own plan, which I have communicated to Robertson and Robertson to Haig, and which I am certain must succeed . . . Came home much depressed.’
24 May 1916
‘War Ctee. . . in morning. Frightful row about a minute by the Army Council threatening to resign if the War Committee insisted on an inquiry into the peace question. At the beginning of the meeting all except the Cabinet members were turned out of the room for nearly an hour while the Cabinet members discussed Colonel House, who seems to have sent a communication to the effect that the time has come to avail ourselves of the offer by President Wilson referred to earlier . . . McKenna, with whom I walked home to lunch, told me that they had not reached a decision, but that he, the P.M., Grey and Balfour had been in favour of accepting President Wilson’s good offices, owing to the black financial outlook, while Bonar Law and Ll. George were averse . . . He [McKenna] thought there was every prospect of the proposal being accepted. Apparently Grey had submitted one draft telegram, but another was being prepared on lines proposed by Balfour.’
10 November 1916
‘. . . At 11.30 yet another War Ctee. These have been really dreadful [meetings] . . . Yesterday the P.M. was writing answers to Parliamentary questions all the time, with the result that the discussion was never kept to the point. . . Today Ll. G. came up with an undigested and stupid proposal for a “Shipping Dictator” which wasted the whole meeting. Yet the subjects for discussion are absolutely vital, involving no less than our economic power to continue the war next year . . . I have always foreseen that we should be strangled by our armies, and it is actually happening. Supplies short, prices high and no shipping to be got. There are only two solutions - either to reduce the size of the army or to introduce foreign labour, and the Govt, won’t adopt either . . . Thus and thus is the British Empire governed at a critical stage of the war. I have done all I can to get meetings; to crystallize woolly discussions into clear-cut decisions, and to promote concord - but the task is a Herculean one!’
3 December 1916
‘After tea I went down to 10 Downing St. to find out if I could help in any way in the political crisis, having heard that the P.M. had come back to town. Lloyd George was closeted with the P.M. In Bonham Carter’s room I found assembled Montagu, Bonham Carter, Masterton Smith, Davies, and Marsh.
At the Unionist Ministers’ meeting in the morning a resolution had been passed demanding the resignation of the P.M., which Bonar Law had transmitted, but no-one seemed to regard it as more than a bluff to force the P.M. to give Lloyd George the chairmanship of the War Ctee. Shortly after I arrived LI. G. came out, and after a short palaver with Montagu, asked to see me, as he was awaiting the arrival of B.L. who had been sent for. Ll. George then told me that the Unionists had insisted that he should become Prime Minister, but he had flatly declined, and had insisted that he would only serve under Asquith. Apparently the P.M. had agreed that Ll. G. should have a free hand with the War Ctee, but there was a difficulty about personnel. Ll. G. insisted on Balfour’s leaving the Adty. He himself intended to remain S. of S. for War, and he saw that the First Lord in this event must also be a member, but he would not agree to Balfour. The only reason he gave for this was “too much wool”, but in my opinion he wants to be virtually “Dictator” and Balfour is too strong and dialectically too skilful to allow this. The P.M. however is in a difficult position in getting rid of Balfour, because, when he forced him a week or two ago to substitute Jellicoe for Jackson as First Sea Lord, he added his strong wish that Balfour should remain in office. Lloyd George wishes the War Ctee. to consist of Bonar Law, Carson, and Henderson the Labour man, and apparently the P.M. will put up with this but boggles only over Balfour, who cannot be left out if he remains at the Adty. While Ll. G. was with the P.M. we had foreseen this and Montagu had sent in a note to suggest that Balfour would probably be willing to offer his resignation, if he knew how much depended on it. Then Bonar Law arrived and he and Lloyd George were closeted with the Prime Minister for half an hour or so. Eventually they agreed, that the Cabinet should resign and the Prime Minister should reconstruct on the basis of the Lloyd George plan. This expedient enables the P.M. to get rid of Balfour decently by an exchange of offices. How the Unionist members will take it, and how McKenna and Runciman will take it remains to be seen. The new War Ctee. is really ridiculous. Bonar Law is by common consent the poorest figure on the present War Ctee. Carson, on the old Dardanelles Ctee. was positively pitiful and worse than Bonar Law. Henderson is an untried man, and it is scarcely possible that his education can have fitted him for the job. Really it all depends upon Lloyd George, who is brilliant but often unsound. The others are merely representatives of the noisiest groups in the House of Commons to prop him up, and there is no member of the House of Lords. No one would say that these four were the wisest heads to win the war - two are really feather heads. It is a mere political expedient of the most transparent kind to tide over a difficult crisis. My own position, if I retain the Secretaryship of the War Ctee will be very difficult. If they do foolish things I shall be bound to go to the P.M. about it and Ll. G. will always be suspicious of me and probably shunt me. Then there will be interminable rows with the General Staff, and Ll. G. is nearly certain to shunt Robertson and quite possibly may try and saddle me with the responsibility of giving military advice, a responsibility that in the first place does not pertain to my constitutional position, and in the second place will bring me into serious trouble with the General Staff and its Press myrmidons. Altogether a most difficult position, and one which I look forward to with the utmost apprehension, though not unmixed with amusement. If only I was financially independent, I should not mind a bit, and as it is, it has a spice of adventure that is attractive.’
12 January 1917
‘Saw Amery first thing and told him I could not possibly have his scheme of a subterranean line of communication with the Dominions, . . . and he frankly admitted that his ultimate idea was to displace the Colonial Office, and substitute my office as the means of communication between the Dominions and the Prime Minister. I don’t mind his principle so much, though I doubt its desirability, but anyhow I won’t have his methods and told him so flat. He is a scheming little devil and his connection with The Times would make it possible for him to oust me, so the position is delicate. Then I got a message from the Foreign Office that Sonnino had telegraphed for my notes of the Rome Conference with a view to a procès verbale, and I had to “sport my oak” and dictate for four hours on end . . . Providentially the War Cabinet did not meet until 5 p.m. At the end of the meeting Ll. George suddenly postponed to-morrow’s meeting, which had been most carefully organised for 11.30, until the afternoon, which involved putting off a dozen or so of experts summoned for the different items. . . . These horribly unbusinesslike methods of Lloyd George’s render organisation almost impossible.’
11 February 1917
‘Had a brain wave on the subject of anti-submarine warfare, so ran down to Walton Heath in the afternoon to formulate my ideas to Ll. George, who was very interested. I sat up late completing a long Memo, on the subject. My Memo, was an argument for convoys, but contained a great number of suggestions.’
29 April 1917
‘In one way this has been one of the most dreadful weeks of the war, owing to appalling mercantile losses from submarines. These have depressed me very much, but at last, when it is almost too late, the Govt, are taking action. I spent the whole morning dictating a long Memo, to help Ll. G., who has undertaken to investigate the whole question at the Admiralty on Monday. I also had a talk on the telephone with Lord Stamfordham, who says the King is very angry with the Press attacks on the Admiralty, though in my opinion these attacks are largely justified. For example a few weeks ago they scouted the idea of convoy. Now they are undertaking it on their own initiative, but apparently want weeks to organise it - though this at any rate might have been done earlier. They don’t look ahead. As Lord Fisher has lately written to me the problem is “Can the Army win the war before the Navy loses it?” My horrible prophecy when Lord K.’s army was first conceived, that we should lose at sea without winning on land, threatens to come true . . .’