A state of uncertainty – November 1917

Teresa Hulton (1890-1972)

November 1917 opened with Italy reeling after the defeat in the Battle of Caporetto. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans had pushed the Italians back 100 miles. The enemy armies were only twenty miles north of Venice when they had to stop because they had outrun their supply line. The Hulton family were very concerned that Venice, where they had their home, might be captured.


This photograph in one of Teresa’s wartime albums shows soldiers unloading supplies from a train

On the 2nd of November 1917 Teresa’s mother, Costanza, wrote that no private telegrams were accepted for Venice as the lines were occupied by the state. Refugees poured into Venice from Udine. This photograph in the Imperial War Museum collection shows the town occupied by German soldiers. Family friend Lady Helen D’Abernon organised a voluntary newspaper subscription for the refugees, whose hardships she likened to those of the Belgians Teresa worked with in England at the beginning of the war.

German troops in Udine, Italy, in November 1917. Imperial War Museum collection, IWM Q 86065

On the 16th of November Lady Helen D’Abernon wrote to Teresa’s sister, Gioconda:

‘I am completely miserable about the threat to Venice & the conditions of want that must be those of a great part of the Veneto refugees. I want to send Teresa 1000 lira for whatever work seems to her most urgent.’

This would have been very helpful as the soldiers Teresa was helping as a nurse had been evacuated from the hospitals and many supplies had been left behind. Helen D’Abernon wished that Venice might ‘at least be saved from looting and bombardment.’

christ statue

The war damaged statue of the crucified Christ photographed in one of Teresa’s wartime albums

Helen adds that in London due to restrictions on motorcar use the streets are quiet at night. Omnibuses and the underground are crowded. ‘Even the highest are not allowed to use petrol motors for pleasure (such as driving out) – and social life is reduced at once to the lowest – and most adventureless – ebb.’

Suspicion was rife. On the 8th of November, Teresa was asked by someone who signs themselves G. to find out all she can from the other nurses about a medium who holds séances in the Hotel Continental. G. writes: I am positive he is a spy & he has said beastly and cowardly things. Who is not with us is against us. But people – even the best patriots are always afraid of pointing out a German viper! I am not afraid, thank heaven, and mean to do all I can to get him on leash.’

The scale of the bombing eventually forced the British Red Cross to order the evacuation of the camp to which Mrs Watkins’s team had fled. Teresa was ordered to move to Milan where she worked at the canteen for soldiers. In a letter to her mother written in the Hotel du Nord in Milan, Teresa describes her feelings about the evacuation:

‘What a terrible business it all is. We are all so broken. We cannot yet believe it. We do not know what to do with ourselves. Thinking over all the horrors and all we could have done better and all our mistakes – wishing we were with the wounded now instead of here.’

Teresa in white clothes

Teresa Hulton

Teresa also worried about the Hulton’s Venetian home. Gioconda wrote to her on the 8th November:

‘Father left for Venice on Nov. 5th – we have had no news of him – yet. He may get there, but what he can bring back is doubtful & as for Mother going, unless the Madonna della Salute holds up the approaching Hunpest, she may not be able to get there at all. Eheu! Ashes is all I ever expect to see of our house. Poor Veneto- it is just too dreadful.’

Attingham Park © National Trust / Andrew Voke

Teresa (nicknamed Bimbele as a child by her family) with her older sister, Gioconda, on the balcony of their home in Venice.

On the 7th of November 1917 Teresa’s father, William Hulton, asked Teresa ‘if you want anything carrying away. We must be hopeful about the house etc. and trust that the enemy won’t reach V.’

bombed house 1

This bombed house photographed in one of Teresa’s wartime albums shows furniture remarkably still standing against the walls of the rooms

Teresa’s fellow nurse Bridget Talbot wrote to her sister Kathleen that All this uncertainty is very trying after 5 weeks of it. I am frightfully disappointed this evening as it was on the cards that I was to go to Venice with Teresa to help her to rescue things from her house there but unfortunately someone else has to go to Padua so I can’ t go. It is sickening.’

Gioconda offered to lend Teresa money as her possessions were lost, saying, ‘How too disappointing for you all to have to leave so much behind you & I am so sorry about the loss of your luggage. I have £ It. 1000 at the bank here, so remember that if you want anything you are only to say so – After all why not spend it – it is not much to hoard anyway.’


These delightful miniatures in the Attingham collection show the sisters as children, painted by Fanny Federici in 1894-6


Teresa received disappointing news about the things that she had to abandon when the nurses fled Cervignano. Philip H. Baker wrote that he ‘reached the town where I hoped to save your possessions, but, for reasons which I can explain better if we meet, I brought nothing away.’ He consoles Teresa: ‘Please know how much you have my sympathy in these days: I too love Italy. But I always harbour a belief that in the end all will not be for the worst: I can’t concede war the power to destroy all the good we know.’

It seems that Teresa planned to return to her parents as Philip advises that she ‘would be wise to make the expedition you proposed with your father or mother, & the sooner probably the easier.’

Family on the beach 1894

The Hulton family on a seaside trip in 1894

By the end of November life became more settled. British and French troops started to bolster the Italian army and Cadorna, who was criticised for his severe discipline, was replaced by Armando Diaz. This was timely as the morale of many Italian soldiers was low following the poor conditions they had endured and the words of Pope Benedict XV about the ‘useless massacre’ of the war.


Lord Berwick (1877-1947)

In November 1917 Lord Berwick received orders that he was to be seconded abroad to serve as a cipher officer and decode messages. He worked at the headquarters of General Herbert Plumer in Italy, stationed mainly at Vicenza near Venice. Vicenza was the headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force in Italy.

Lord B War Appointment 1917

A letter stating that approval has been given for Lord Berwick to begin working as a Cipher Clerk in Italy.

Lord Berwick was contacted by the War Office and informed that:

‘approval is given to the appointment of Lieut. T. H. Lord Berwick, Shropshire Yeomanry, T.F. now attached 2nd Line, Morpeth, Northumberland, as Cipher Officer, Italy. On arrival he should report at General Plumer’s Headquarters’.

Lord Berwick remained in Italy until the end of the war and found it easier to stay in contact with his future wife, Teresa.

DSC00989 compressed

Lord Berwick at his desk


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