George Buchanan (diplomat)

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Sir George William Buchanan in 1915
George William Buchanan

Sir George William Buchanan, GCB, GCMG, GCVO, PC (25 November 1854 – 20 December 1924) was a British diplomat. Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, he was the youngest son of Sir Andrew Buchanan, 1st Baronet, diplomat and Frances, daughter of Very Rev Edward Mellish by Elizabeth Leigh.

Diplomatic career[edit]

Buchanan entered diplomatic service in 1876, and served as Second Secretary in Tokyo, Vienna and Bern, and as Secretary in Rome. By 1899 he was serving on the Venezuelan Boundary Commission, and later that year he was appointed Chargé d'affaires at Darmstadt and Karlsruhe. In late 1901 he moved to Berlin, where he was appointed First Secretary at the British embassy.[1] From 1903 to 1908 he was Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Bulgaria, and in 1909 he was appointed as Minister to the Netherlands and Luxembourg.[2] Invested with the Knight's Grand Cross of Royal Victorian Order in 1909, he was next sworn to the Privy Council In 1910 Buchanan was appointed as the British Ambassador to Russia. He kept abreast of the political developments in Russia and met some of the leading liberal reformists in the country.

When the Dardanelles were guaranteed by Germany to the Turks, Italy sent two secret documents vis the British diplomatic corps from Sir Michael Rodd to Sir George at St Petersburg. In it were the evidence that Russia needed to persuade Italy to support her Serbian policy in the Balkans. On 4 March 1915 Imperiali, the Italian envoy to London had presented the documents to Sir Edward Grey on an authority of 16 February from Sonnino, their foreign minister. France attached great importance to Italy's decision to join the allies. Buchanan was able to bring Count Sazonov to the negotiating table.

It has been suggested that this was secretly encouraged by the then Liberal government in London:

The British Ambassador George Buchanan was only too aware of the court's `pro-German sympathies'. He complained to the Duma President, M.V. Rodzianko, in November 1916 that he found it difficult to get an audience at court, and expressed his view `that Germany is using Alexandra Fedorovna to set the Tsar against the Allies. Elsewhere, however, Buchanan stated his view that the Empress was `the unwitting instrument of Germany'.[3]

Buchanan had developed a strong bond with the Tsar, Nicholas II, and attempted to convince him that granting some constitutional reform would stave-off revolution. Buchanan actively supported the Duma in its efforts to change Russia's stately system during war-time. Nicholas's opinion of him was under the influence of the Tsarina's sway. Knowing that there were plots to stage a palace coup to replace him, Sir George formally requested an audience of the Tsar in the troubled early days of 1917. At his last meeting with Nicholas he pleaded with him in 'undiplomatic' language: "I can but plead as my excuse the fact that I have throughout been inspired by my feelings of devotion for Your Majesty and the Empress. If I were to see a friend walking through a wood on a dark night along a path which I knew ended in a precipice, would it not be my duty, sir, to warn him of his danger? And is it not equally my duty to warn Your Majesty of the abyss that lies ahead of you? You have, sir, come to the parting of the ways, and you have now to choose between two paths. The one will lead you to victory and a glorious peace – the other to revolution and disaster. Let me implore Your Majesty to choose the former."[4]

Although the Tsar was touched by the Ambassador's devotion, he allowed his wife's malevolent attitudes to overbear the sensible advice he had been given. After the collapse of the Autocracy (see Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia), he developed close relations with the liberal Provisional Government led initially by George Lvov and later by Alexander Kerensky that formed after the February Revolution. At the same time, Buchanan had developed a fear of the dangers of Bolshevism and its growing support, he feared the toppling of the Russian Provisional Government and tried to warn of the fragilities of the Government and the dangers of a Bolshevik revolution. Buchanan had reported to London "They are more active and better organized than any other group, and until they and the ideas which they represent are finally squashed, the country will remain a prey to anarchy and disorder. If the Government are not strong enough to put down the Bolsheviks by force, at the risk of breaking altogether with the soviet, the only alternative will be a Bolshevik Government."[5]However, after the events of the October Revolution and the Bolsheviks ascension to power he was widely criticized for the failure to ensure that the Tsar Nicholas II and his family were evacuated from Russia before their execution by the Bolsheviks at Ekaterinburg in 1918. It is now known that this was not his fault but that of the Tsar's first cousin, King George V who, fearful of revolutionary trends in Britain and the stability of his own throne, persuaded the Lloyd George government to rescind the offer they had made to provide sanctuary for the Imperial Family.[6]

Sir George, disappointed that the fledgling democracy offered by the Provisional Government was strangled by the Bolshevik coup in October, finished his distinguished career as ambassador to the Kingdom of Italy from 1919–21.

Sir George's autobiography, My Mission to Russia and Other Diplomatic Memories, was published in 1923. It is believed that he had to leave out some of what he knew under threat of losing his pension. He died in 1924.


British decorations

  • Order of the Bath
    • CB: Companion of the Order of the Bath (civil division) – 16 January 1900 – for services on the Venezuelan Boundary Commission[7]
    • KCB: Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath
    • GCB: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath
  • Order of St Michael and St George
    • GCMG: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George
  • Royal Victorian Order
    • CVO: Commander of the Royal Victorian Order - 1900
    • GCVO: Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order


Miss Meriel Buchanan in The Graphic, c1916, by Mr Bulla of Petrograd.[8]

Sir George married on 25 February 1885 Lady Georgiana Meriel Bathurst (1863–1922), daughter of Allen Bathurst, 6th Earl Bathurst by the Hon. Meriel Leicester (1839–1872), daughter of George Warren, 2nd Baron de Tabley. Their daughter Meriel Buchanan (1886–1959) wrote several perceptive books about the revolution, which she witnessed, and key figures she had personally known. Meriel married Major Harold Wilfrid Knowling (1888–1954), Army Service Corps, and Welsh Guards, in May 1925; and died on 6 February 1959.

  • White Witch (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1913)
  • Tania. A Russian story (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1914)
  • Petrograd, the City of trouble, 1914–1918 (London: W. Collins, 1918)
  • Recollections of Imperial Russia (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1923)
  • Diplomacy and foreign courts (London, Hutchinson, 1928)
  • The dissolution of an empire (London: John Murray, 1932; reprinted New York: Arno Press, 1971)
  • Anne of Austria: The Infanta Queen (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1937)
  • Queen Victoria's Relations, Cassell, 1954
  • Victorian gallery (London: Cassell, 1956)
  • Ambassador's daughter (London: Cassell, 1958)



  1. ^ "No. 27367". The London Gazette. 22 October 1901. p. 6846. 
  2. ^ "No. 28255". The London Gazette. 28 May 1909. p. 4060. 
  3. ^ Interpreting the Russian Revolution The Language and Symbols of 1917 (1999) By Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii
  4. ^ G Buchanan, 12 January 1917 – page 49, Vol.II autobiography
  5. ^ "However, Buchanan, feared the growing support for the Bolsheviks: The Bolsheviks, who form a..."
  6. ^ F.O 371/2995, Buchanan to Foreign Office, 13 March 1917; Hughes, p.85-90.
  7. ^ "No. 27154". The London Gazette. 16 January 1900. p. 5. 
  8. ^ Karl, his son Viktor, or their studio
  • BUCHANAN, Rt Hon. Sir George (William), Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2015 (online edition, Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • F.H. Hinsley (ed.), 'British Foreign Policy under Sir Edward Grey' Cambridge, 1977
  • Michael Hughes, Inside the Enigma: British Officials in Russia 1900-1939 London: Hambledon Press, 1997
  • Stephen White, Britain and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Study in the politics of Diplomacy 1920-1924 London, 1980

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to His Majesty the King the Bulgarians
Succeeded by
Mansfeldt Findlay
Preceded by
Sir Henry Howard
Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Her Majesty the Queen of the Netherlands, and also to His Royal Highness the Grand Duke of Luxemburg
Succeeded by
Sir Alan Johnstone
Preceded by
Sir Arthur Nicolson, Bt.
British Ambassador to Russia
Succeeded by
no representation following Russian revolution
Preceded by
Sir Rennell Rodd
British Ambassador to Italy
Succeeded by
Sir Ronald Graham