Bureaucracy on the Wires

The British Empire was a massive entity: It was truly global in its proportions. Communication was therefore one of the keys of successful administration. From the middle to late Nineteenth Century onwards it would lie to the telegraph to make this communication possible. However, even the speed of this form of communication could be slowed down immeasurably in the mass of bureacracy and form that characterised the day to day running of the empire. This amusing example is taken from an extract in The Leisure of an Egyptian Official by Lord Edward Cecil.

An Official Correspondence: 1916

January 1st. F.O. to Cairo
101. Greek Prime Minister wishes to import grain. Can you do this?

January 4th. Cairo to F.O.
416. Your 101 not understood. Where does he want to import? Is it into Egypt?

January 8th. F.O. to Cairo
103. Greek Prime Minister wishes to import grain into Greece. Can you do this?

January 11th. Cairo to F.O.
420. Your 103. We have done it several times.

January 12th. F.O. to Cairo
108. Regret copy mislaid. What is gist of my 103? If possible, repeat.

January 14th. Cairo to F.O.
Regret copy to your 103 mislaid here. Believe it concerned Greek Prime Minister.

January 16th. F.O. to Cairo
108. Greek Prime Minister wishes to import grain into Greece. Can you do this?

January 19th. Cairo to F.O.
428. Your 108. We have imported grain into Greece several times. It was believed to go to the German Army.

January 22nd. F.O. to Cairo
112. Your 428. If you import grain to Greek Prime Minister, can you suggest measures to prevent its reaching the German Army? Would Prime Minister's personal guarantee be sufficient?

January 24th. Cairo to F.O.
430. Your 112. Which Prime Minister's guarantee do you suggest? Prefer M. Briand, if still in office.

January 27th. F.O. to Cairo
114. Your 430. We alluded to Greek Prime Minister. Please let me have your views as soon as possible, as matter is urgent and delay to be avoided.

February 8th. Cairo to F.O.
435. Your 114. To avoid delay, suggest the personal guarantee in writing of Greek Prime Minister countersigned by British Consul at Piraeus, with documentary assent of British Government and approval of Director General Customs Administration, Alexandria.

February 10th. F.O. to Cairo
118. Your 435. Have agreed to accept joint and several guarantee of King of Greece, Archimandrite and Greek Prime Minister, countersigned by leading British merchant at Piraeus, Mr Carl Sonnenschein. How much can you send?

February 13th. Cairo to F.O.
440. Your 118. Will reply as soon as possible, but some delay inevitable, as uncertain what Department of the Egyptian Government deals with these questions. Have so far unsuccessfully inquired of Main Drainage, Public Instruction, War Office, Agriculture, Public Works and Wakf. Will wire again later.

March 23rd. Cairo to F.O.
150. Regret delay answering your 118. Matter very complicated. Your 487. Naval authorities object export of seed, as many seeds contain oil suitable for submarines. Can you arrange with Admiralty.

March 26th. F.O. to Cairo
495. Your 150. Have arranged with Admiralty. Seed will be escorted by two destroyers.

March 28th. F.O. to Cairo
499. My 495. Have ascertained seed question less important than at first considered. Greek Prime Minister has written explaining seed is needed for his favourite parrot, who is of great age and delicate. Two pounds of selected will be sufficient. Please obtain and send. Admiralty consider escort unnecessary under circumstances.

March 31st. Cairo to F.O.
161. Your 499. Am obtaining seed at once. Can you inform me of approximate size of parrot, as understand from inquiries that there is a direct relation between size of birds and size of food seeds.

April 7th. F.O. to Cairo
506. Your 161. Stop seed.

April 8th. Cairo to F.O.
165. Your 506. Seed stopped

April 12th. F.O. to Cairo
510. Your 165. As information has reached me that the Greek Prime Minister's parrot died last week of indegestion, no further action in matter is necessary.

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by Stephen Luscombe