Saturday 9 January 2021

The U.S.A. may have lost, but Britain made and says "Farewell" to its old and gallant, Prince of Peacekeepers, Brian Urquhart

“If you hold on to your belief in reason and compassion despite all political maneuvering, your efforts may, in the end, produce results” 

                                                                                                        From 'A Life in War and Peace' . 1987

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Brian who has died at the age of 101, at his rural home in Massachusetts, had lived in the USA for 75 years of his long life, partly because, in his diplomatic career, he was based at the UN Secretariat in New York. Nevertheless, he was made in Britain and remained a quintessentially, British gentleman who forged the world's first UN Peace Keeping Force  like a family friend who has moved into a household stricken by disaster. It must conciliate, console and discreetly run the household without ever appearing to dominate or usurp the natural rights of those it is helping”. 

He was born early in 1919, in the market town of Bridport in Dorset, the son of Bertha and his artist father, Murray, a Scot by birth, who himself was the son of a GP in Kirkcudbright. Brian lost his father when he was six years old, when his father left him and his older brother and mother and set up with and then married his cousin, Agatha. Brian revealed, for the first time in 2013, when he was 94, that in 1925 "carrying his easel and paint box, rode away on his bicycle and never came home again” and "Painting took absolute priority in his life, and his wife and children—not to mention national events and international disasters—were all secondary".

His mother, who was now the family breadwinner, taught at the Badminton School for Girls in Bristol where Brian was educated and lived between the age of 6 and 8, the only boy among 200 girls. In his autobiography, he wrote that international affairs formed a large part of the school’s teaching, describing it as “an excellent school with some very un-English characteristics. Of these one of the most important was a passionate anti-xenophobia.” 
The school had been founded in 1858 and the Headmistress in the 1920s was Beatrice Baker assisted by Brian's Aunt, Lucy Rendall, who she met at the school and became her life partner. Together they transformed Badminton into a much-admired progressive school where it was said "Jesus often had to share the stage with Lenin". As a pupil Brian was enouraged to develop a freedom of expression and a questioning approach to his learning. 
The two women supported the work the newly formed League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations and Brian described them, along with mother as "formidable ladies" whose influence on him was "absolutely enormous". "They had a civil belief that the League of Nations ought to work. They didn’t think it would work, because governments weren’t capable of making it work, but they thought something like that had to work. Then, of course, we got into World War II, and it collapsed. But I had always wanted to work at the League of Nations".

Brian then attended a prep school and, after winning a King's  Scholarship, started life, at the age of 11 as a boarder at the boys' public school, Westminster School in London. He described passing the exam as a “turning point because it gave me affordable access to an ancient and civilized school for the next six years”. 

Brian, in 1931, at the age of 12 attended a talk by Mahatma Gandhi, the advocate of a free India when he addressed the school's 'Political and Literary Society' at the invitation of the boys which, in the context of Imperial Britain of 1931, this was quite a controversial event which was was organised and sketched by Brian's History master, John Bowle. 

At school, at the age of 17 in 1936, Brian demonstrated an ability to remain unphazed when he he believed he was right. The German Ambassador to the Court of St James's, Joachim von Ribbentrop, would deliver his son, Rudolf, to school each morning, wearing the school dress of top hat and tail coat, but with a Nazi Party Youth badge with swastika and eagle, incongruously displayed in his lapel. The Ambassador's two chauffeurs would get out of the car and when the Ambassador emerged with his son, then saluted and shouted “Heil Hitler”. Brian recalled that, with other sixth formers : “To offset this insult to an ancient and civilised institution, we took to witnessing Ribbentrop’s arrival with loud laughter”.

When the the German embassy lodged a diplomatic protest, Brian was summoned to Headmaster, John Traill Christie's office and was reprimanded for bringing the name of the school into disrepute. Unphazed, he countered by saying that it was the School that was dishonouring itself by allowing Nazis to shout their slogans. When this cut no ice with the Headmaster, he nimbly changed tack and "mentioned that the Nazi Mercedes was painted a plum colour, the colour at that time reserved in England exclusively for vehicles of the royal family. The Headmaster was thunderstruck. ‘My dear boy,’ he said in tones of sympathetic indignation, ‘why didn’t you tell me this before?’ I was officially regarded as a saviour of national honour, and Von Ribbentrop took to arriving at school just like everyone else.”

At his Mother's insistence Brian did not follow the traditional classical diet of Greek, Latin and Philosophy, but foreign languages instead and with an example of his academic brilliance, finished the course by the time he was 15. He recalled : " I had two years to go at school. I was lucky I transferred to the History part of the school, which was run by a school-master straight out of Evelyn Waugh : John Edward Bowle.  He was an absolutely brilliant, extremely eccentric person who was able, in some extraordinary way; to get one to write; to get one to think about contemporary problems; to read history in a rather personal way and to see how it all came together. I’m very grateful to this remarkable teacher"

As part of the curriculum Mr Bowle got Brian and his fellow sixth form students to read and discuss the books of, for example, Bertrand Russell, Arnold Toynbee and H.G. Wells and arrange for them to come into School to discuss their work with the students. Brian considered that he had been lucky to receive this intellectual stimulus, "the essential shot-in-the-arm", that changed the way he thought and looked at life.

In the 12 May 1937 he took part in the Coronation of George VI in Westminster Abbey as one of Westminster School's King's Scholars in the balcony of the Abbey who shouted "vivat" at the appropriate moment, with that for the Queen before that for the King. Even though he described himself as being a “sceptical, rather left-wing adolescent”, he was at that time “totally involved in the mystique of the occasion” and when the crown was placed on the King’s head, remembered that the “incantations of organ, trumpets, and choir soared and resounded through the vast space.”

In later years Brian recalled the words of the prayer drilled into him at the School : Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest; To give, and not to count the cost, to fight, and not to heed the wounds, to toil, and not to seek for rest, to labour, and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do thy will.”  He said they provided him with comfort in times of stress : "I think it is the most brilliant description of something you ought to try to live up to – it’s the Jesuit prayer. The fact that one fails all the time is neither here nor there. You know, if you have an idea that there’s an enormous good in humanity and you need to do your best to help that along – well, that I suppose is a sort of religion in a way, it’s a faith anyway – and if you want to know how to do it, then that’s a very good prescription". 

Brian had left school in 1937 with the idea "that unless you were some sort of kind of a genius, like a musician or a painter or a poet or something, you should concentrate on the idea of serving" which meant a either career in the Church, the Army or the Civil Service and he had already decided that "I wanted to be a civilian". To that end, to get the requisite education, at the age of 18, Brian began life as undergraduate studying as a Hinchcliffe History Scholar at Christ Church, Oxford.

He recalled : "We spent most of our time demonstrating in one way or another. I nearly joined the Oxford Communist Party in 1937 because it seemed to me that – this was before the Soviet show trials – the Soviets had done a better job of looking after the people of the Soviet Union. But I giggled during the briefings, so that did it. It was called “bourgeois dilettantism” and I was shot out. That was good, but then, we were also demonstrating about Ethiopia as well as the Spanish Civil War, the total failure to react to Hitler and the persecution of the Jews".

Brian recalled that when the Second World broke out on September 1st 1939, he joined the Army by accident the next day. He recalled : "I evidently had too much to drink for lunch and I got the wrong form! I had a kind of romantic idea that the Navy was the thing to be in, but it didn’t really make much difference. I was happy to be in anything by that time. In September 1939, one just felt that, you know, we were in such a pathetic position in comparison to Nazi Germany militarily, that the sooner one got into something as such the better, because if everybody did that we might have a hope in the end". 

On the basis of his public school and university education, he was ordered to report to the 164th Officer Cadet Training Unit at barracks in Colchester, before joining the Dorset Regiment as a second lieutenant and being posted to its 5th Battalion in the town of Frome in Somerset. Having volunteered to be an anti-aircraft gunner on a minesweeper in St Margaret's Bay he, with the crew, had to be rescued by a trawler when the ship hit a mine. The trawler then survived an attack by a force of Italian biplanes and when he arrived on shore Brian was severely reprimanded for letting his revolver go down with the ship.

It was in 1940 that Brian met a charismatic American officer who was then "a completely unknown major-general "called Eisenhower and recalled : "He was the first general officer of the United States to arrive in England. Churchill wanted to display what the London Daily Mail insisted on calling “Britain’s airborne might” – which was about 2,000 somewhat disoriented people like me jumping out of very old aeroplanes, obsolete bombers in fact". Brian jumped with two carrier pigeons in a cardboard carton around his neck, "because they were our form of communication – we didn’t have radios because radios had all these valves and everything, and we couldn’t carry them in those days, it was not possible". 

In the event Brian and other parachutists went straight through the line of watching dignitaries. "The British were all furious. They said “bloody poor show” and that kind of thing, as if it was my fault that the wind was blowing at 45 miles an hour!" Eisenhower, however, came running over : “Are you alright, son?” I said "Yes". He said, “Why are you jumping in this wind!?” I said, “General, it was all laid on” and then he said, “What on earth is that thing around your neck?”  "I pulled one of these damned pigeons out and I said “this is to communicate to our headquarters that we’ve dropped safely.” I threw it in the air. The pigeon had definitely been air-sick, because it fluttered to a nearby bush and sat there, looking at me and General Eisenhower and I burst out laughing – it was too much. And the General burst out laughing and then said, “I think the United States will have to do something about your communications” and left. I never met him again, but what a guy! Everybody else was muttering about jolly poor show – it was sort of wonderful, very refreshing".

Having volunteered for airborne duty, at the age of 20, he became a member of the staff of Major-General "Boy" Browning, Commander of the British Airborne Forces and was nearly killed in 1942, during a practice drop on Salisbury Plain, his parachute failed to open properly. He said :"I realised things were going wrong when I started overtaking all the chaps who'd jumped out before me". This resulted in him sustaining a broken femur, three compacted vertebrae, damaged ankles, various internal injuries and extreme shock. 

At the age of 23 he was initially considered a hopeless case and told he would never walk again, but was saved by the skill of Major-General Rowley Bristow, the Army’s Chief Orthopaedic Surgeon and by his own determination he recovered but his injuries. In the process he spent months on his back, head down in a traction bed, positioned at a 30 degree angle and although he could walk, his airborne days were over and he was left with a lifetime of back pain.

In 1944, when he assisted with the planning for 'Operation Market Garden', an ambitious airborne operation designed to seize the Dutch bridges over the rivers barring the Allied advance into northern Germany. He became convinced that the plan was critically flawed when he received evidence that the 2nd Panzer Corps was refitting in the area close to the paratroopers' dropping zone and RAF photos showed tanks under trees. He then attempted to persuade his superiors to modify or abort their plans in light of this crucial information “only to be treated once again as a nervous child suffering from a nightmare”. Two days before the launch of the doomed operation he was removed and ordered home on sick leave, suffering from “nervous strain and exhaustion”. He had taken a lonely stand, without support from fellow officers, against the High Command and as one senior soldier said of him : “He has a hard core. It is unbendable, like tungsten”. 

The fact that of the 10,000 men who landed at Arnhem, 1,400 were killed and 6,000 were captured and only 2,400 paratroopers crossed to the south bank of the River Rhine in small rubber boats, left him  deeply depressed. He later said : "Before Market Garden I was fairly arrogant, fairly opinionated and great confidence in higher authority and after that I lost all of these feelings. I thought I had not handled it very well, in persuading them to change the plan, which I failed to do. I certainly was not impressed by the British generals involved, mostly General Montgomery, who came into this plan out of the blue to finish the war in one fell swoop"

His failure to persuade was described by Cornelius Ryan in his 1974 book 'A Bridge Too Far' and in the 1977 film version, directed by Richard Attenborough, Brian's character, renamed 'Major Fuller', to avoid confusion with a similarly named British General, was played by actor, Frank Grimes and his superior. Major-General Browning was played by Dirk Bogart.  

After Arnhem Brian had a short spell back with Browning, where he he suffered the unpopularity of being proved right and in 1944 he was transferred to 'T' Force, a unit equipped with armoured cars, which was to move with or ahead of the forward troops of the Allied Armies to discover German installations concerned with the development of nuclear weapons and capture German scientists before they defected to Japan. As a result he was one of the first Allied personnel to enter the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in April 1945. 

He later said : "I knew about the persecution of the Jews but I had no idea that it had got to this unbelievable, really insane, point. And the first thing I saw about Belsen was when we were driving along a little country road and there was a big, high fence in the distance on a corner in the road with what appeared to be logs stacked inside it. And as we got nearer, it suddenly became clear to me these were not logs, these were human corpses. There were something like, I think, fifteen or twenty thousand unburied corpses at Belsen. And so we drove to the gate and I then realized that we had no idea what to do about this situation. We were past anger because it was a terrible spectacle of total, deliberate, human humiliation. It was terrible". He played his role in the take over of the camp  in all its horror, together with its SS guards and Commandant and 60 years later was able to describe the experience to the UN General Assembly when it held, for the first time, a special session to commemorate the liberation of the camps.

Brian summed up the effect the War had on him as : "I think if you survived World War Two, it was the best extended education you could possibly have because you learned how to deal with people and you learned how to deal with your own emotions and you learned a great deal about the way people behave - 'badly', for the most part, but sometimes 'well'. So it was a wonderful education, if you were lucky enough to survive".

After the War Brian joined the Foreign Office Research Department under the renowned historian Arnold Toynbee who had been a visiting speaker at Westminster school and whose son, Philip, Brian had known at Oxford. Brian joined Gladwyn Jebb as his personal assistant organising a blueprint for the new United Nation Organisation as a member of the British Diplomatic Staff. Brian said of Jebb : "He was really the first Secretary-General and he was absolutely outstanding. So I simply sat back for six months and learned. I was lucky – incredibly lucky".

When Brian became the personal assistant to the first official Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, his diplomatic career almost came to an end. "We had a temperamental disconnect, we didn’t fit well together. And I left him in 1948 over various disagreements, including about the Middle East. I really was in limbo for three or four years and was seriously thinking about leaving and then, miraculously, out of the blue, this young Swede arrived". The Swede in question was the brilliant Dag Hammarskjöld, with whom Brian would have a fruitful working relationship until his death in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia in 1961.


At this point there was no reference to 'Peacekeeping' in the UN Charter and the first missions were improvisations which, as Brian once said, were “like penicillin we came across while looking for something else”  During the Suez Crisis of 1956, Brian played a critical role in creating what turned out to be the first major UN effort towards conflict resolution and peacekeeping. As Hammarskjöld's only major adviser with military experience, he took the lead in organizing the Force which was designed to separate the Egyptian and Israeli forces then fighting each other in the Sinai Peninsula. 

It was his idea to differentiate the peacekeepers from other soldiers, by painting their helmets blue in the absence of blue berets, which would have taken six weeks to make. He defined this first UN Peacekeeping Force as an defined as “an army without an enemy, only difficult clients”. Although others, like Secretary General Hammarskjöld, could claim to have founded these Forces, it was Brian who developed the idea in practice and refined it in theory.

taking the job in the congo

The UN's intervention in the Congo, followed after the Belgians departed and the country descended into chaos when the Congolese Army mutinied and the Province of Katanga announced its secession. In November 1961, shortly after the death of Hammarskjöld, Brian replaced Conor Cruise O’Brien as UN representative in Katanga. He recalled : "I got kidnapped the second night I was there, which was unfortunate. I was lucky because the Colonel of the Gurkhas was my great friend - fantastic soldier and the gurkhas had this unbelievable reputation in Katanga. They were supposed to be able to cut peoples limbs off in mid air with their khukuris. But they were wonderful soldiers. I really survived I think by saying : "You can kill me, but don't think they will not come and get you if you do it and I think that's what saved me". 

In fact Brian had realised that his only hope with the “paracommandos”, who were high on hashish, was to keep them talking and in this he was so skilful that the lieutenant in command asked him for his help in to become a ballet dancer. Moïse Tshombe, Katanga’s President, intervened and saved him and he was driven back to town in his personal car. Brian recalled  : “I noticed, with satisfaction, that I was bleeding all over the white upholstery”.  He attended the Press Corps the next day, with a broken nose, cracked ribs and a dislocated hand and his answer to the question : "How do you feel ?" was : "Better beaten than eaten". 

Brian's four year's experience in the Congo had led him to define a UN Peacekeeping Force as one which had contingents from different countries and not all from the same part of the world or the same geopolitical bloc and a unified military command responsible to the Secretary-General. It should be authorised to use force only in self-defense and should neither indulge in reprisals nor become part of the conflict it was supposed to be policing. If it did this it would lose its capacity to keep the peace. This may all seem obvious today, but it is a mark of Brian's stature that it was he who created this definition, which has served the UN for the last 70 years.

Brian was promoted to the position of served as the 'UN Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs' at the age of 53 from 1972 and continued until his retirement at the age of 67 in 1986. In that role he was involved in the deployment of a Peacekeeping Force in Southern Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1978. It proved to be a hazardous assignment, because on one side the Lebanese Government had no control over the Palestinian guerrillas, while on the other side Israel handed over chunks of Lebanese territory, not to the UN, but to a proxy force, the 'South Lebanese Army'. On top of this, he had difficulty in getting the principles of UN Peacekeeping across to some of his own troops. He had objected to a briefing by an officer of the French Parachute Battalion, who referred to both the PLO and SLA as “the enemy” and was told by the officer that as part of the “haute direction” in New York he didn’t understand “l’esprit des paras”. To which Brian countered that he was himself, a “para” , who had helped to train the First Free French Parachute Battalion in Britain, during the Second World War in 1942.

Brian delighted in telling the story of how in 1982, he found himself caught in a freezing blizzard on a light aircraft flying to Beirut and fought off the cold by drinking a lot of Canadian Club whisky. When he explained his inebriation when he met the tea-total Yasser Arafat he explained : “We had a choice of arriving either drunk or frozen to death”.

His last four years of his service with the UN were those of crisis and disappointment, as relations between the two superpowers, Soviet Russia and the USA reached a new low. On top of that war raged in Afghanistan and between Iraq and Iran, Israel again occupied large parts of Lebanon, and the US plunged the UN into financial crisis by withholding part of its dues. Despite this, he directed  Peacekeeping Forces in the Middle East and Cyprus and worked on the negotiations relating to problems in Namibia, Kashmir and Lebanon and also worked on peaceful uses for nuclear energy.

When in 1988 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to 'UN Peacekeeping Forces', Brian was in retirement and could look back on a career in which he had  directed 13 peacekeeping operations, recruited 10,000 troops from 23 countries and instituted peacekeeping as one of the core tenets of the Organisation. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Gutteres, said: “Sir Brian’s imprint on the United Nations was as profound as that of anyone in the Organisation’s history. As an aide to Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, he helped to define the UN’s scope of action in addressing armed conflict and other global challenges and as a close associate of Ralph Bunche, the renowned UN official and Nobel peace prize winner, Sir Brian helped to establish and then propel international peacekeeping into wide-ranging use”.

On the occasion of his 90th birthday in 2009, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a tribute message : “You have had an enormous influence on every Secretary-General. Even today, staffers everywhere seek to live up to your example. And you remain one of our wisest and staunchest advocates.” Two years later Brian had a stroke in Paris and lost most of his ability to speak. Thanks to his determination and daily speech therapy exercises, he learnt to speak again. Indeed, in old age he spent a lot of time speaking to his beloved corgi dog, Archie, insisting : “Archie, my boy, you’re a fine fellow.”

Brian said : "I would say I was a pragmatic optimist and a idealistic realist. I think idealism is the only form of realism because unless you're idealistic to some extent, you don't have anything to look forward to, you don't have anywhere to go. And I think there's no point in being pessimistic. After all, we're only on this world once, as far as we know. You might as well make the best of it". 

There is no doubt that in making his "best of it"working as a Peace Keeper, thousands lived and are alive today, who otherwise might have died. 

* * * * * * * * * 

Some comments :

Col. Oliver Nurton. UK Military Adviser serving with the UN :

'Excellent. Love the Ribbentrop episode'.

Nita Yawanarajah. Former Commonwealth Diplomat and UN Official :

'I didn't know him personally. We met briefly when he signed my copy of his book after an inspiring lecture at Columbia University. Months later I started working for the UN in Rwanda. His words and humour have, without doubt, influenced my 'life in a time of peace & war'. 

   Phil Horn. Queensland. Australia :

'Brian is my daughter-in-law's great uncle and has held a special place in her heart, inspiring her work and research in community health, including projects with African countries'.

Franklin Dehousse. Professor of EU Law :  

     'Finely written about a fine diplomat'.                                                                                            


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