Aubrey Herbert was born the second son of Henry Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon, a wealthy landowner, British cabinet minister, and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and his second wife, Elizabeth Howard of Greystoke Castle, Cumberland, sister of Esme Howard, 1st Baron Howard of Penrith. He was a half-brother to George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, a noted Egyptologist who co-discovered King Tutankhamen's tomb with Howard Carter. He was afflicted with eye problems that left him nearly blind from early childhood, losing all his sight toward the end of his life.
Herbert was educated at Eton College. He obtained a first class degree in modern history from Balliol College, Oxford University. He was famous for climbing the roofs of the university buildings, despite his near blindness. He numbered among his friends Adrian Carton De Wiart, Raymond Asquith, John Buchan, and Hilaire Belloc. Reginald Farrer remained close throughout his life. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Nottinghamshire (Sherwood Rangers) Yeomanry Cavalry on 12 January 1900, and promoted to lieutenant on 11 June 1902.
His friendship with Middle Eastern traveller and advisor Sir Mark Sykes dates from his entry into parliament in 1911 when, with George Lloyd, they were the three youngest Conservative MPs. They shared an interest in foreign policy and worked closely in the Arab Bureau (1916). He was also a close friend of T. E. Lawrence; their letters do not feature in the standard Lawrence collections, but are quoted by Margaret Fitzherbert in her biography of her grandfather, The Man Who Was Greenmantle.
Herbert was in his own right a considerable Orientalist, and a linguist who spoke French, Italian, German, Turkish, Arabic, Greek, and Albanian as well as English. A renowned traveller, especially in the Middle East, his trips include journeys through Japan, Yemen, Turkey, and Albania. Herbert often dressed as a tramp on his travels. During the period 1902-04, he was an honorary attache in Tokyo, then in Constantinople (1904–05). He was much more interested in the Middle East than in the Far East.
He became a passionate advocate of Albanian independence, having visited the country in 1907, 1911, and 1913. During a stay in Tirana (1913), he befriended Essad Pasha. When the Albanian delegates to the 1912-13 London Balkan Peace Conference arrived, they secured Herbert's assistance as an advisor. He was very actively fighting for their cause and is regarded as having considerable influence on Albania's success at obtaining eventual independence in the resulting Treaty of London (1913). One of his constant correspondents on Albania was Edith Durham. He was twice offered the throne of Albania. On the first occasion in 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I, he was interested, but Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, a family friend, dissuaded him. The offer remained unofficial and was rejected by the Foreign Office. The Albanian crown went to William of Wied.
The second occasion the crown was offered was after the defeat of the Italian Army by the Albanians in September 1920. Again the offer was unofficial, although it was made on behalf of the Albanian Government. Herbert discussed the offer with Philip Kerr and Maurice Hankey, pursuing the idea of perhaps acting under the banner of the League of Nations; Eric Drummond, Herbert's friend, had become its first secretary general, and by lobbying led to Albania's acceptance as a member in the League of Nations in December 1920. With a change of foreign ministers in the Albanian Government, Herbert's chance of gaining a crown greatly diminished. In April 1921, the crown was, even more unofficially, offered to the Duke of Atholl by Jim Barnes of the British Friends of Albania residing in Italy.
Herbert was an independent-minded Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for the Southern division of Somerset from 1911 to 1918, and for Yeovil from 1918 to his death. Always an advocate of the rights of smaller nations, he opposed the British Government's Irish policy.
Despite very poor eyesight, Herbert was able, at the outbreak of World War I in 1914, to join the Irish Guards, in which he served in a supernumerary position. He did this by purchasing a uniform and boarding a troopship bound for France. During the Battle of Mons, he was wounded, taken prisoner, and escaped. After a convalescence in England and unable to rejoin due to his ocular disability, Aubrey was proposed for service in military intelligence in Egypt by Kitchener's military secretary, Oswald FitzGerald, via Mark Sykes (see Baghdad Railway). In January 1915, Herbert was attached to the Intelligence Department in Cairo under Colonel Gilbert Clayton. In mid-February, he was sent on an intelligence mission into the eastern Mediterranean aboard the cruiser Bacchante.
When the Gallipoli Campaign started, General Alexander Godley, formerly of the Irish Guards and second in command to General Birdwood of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, now commanding the New Zealanders, offered him an appointment as liaison officer and interpreter on the general's staff.
His pre-war contacts (including Riza Tevfik Bolukbasi) and ability to speak Turkish were to prove useful. He became famous for arranging a truce of eight hours, on Whit Monday, 24 May, with the Turkish commander Mustafa Kemal, for the purpose of burying the dead. (This episode appears, with him as "the Honourable Herbert", in Louis de Bernieres's novel. In Eastern Mediterranean Intelligence, he worked with Compton Mackenzie.
In October 1915, on sick leave in England, Herbert carried with him a memorandum, stating in part: "They [FO] trust Egypt with the running of the Arabian Question...", from the Cairo Intelligence Department from Colonel Clayton to the Foreign Office explaining the situation in the Middle East. In November, the memorandum, at first favourably received, became obsolete after the visit of Francois Georges-Picot and his subsequent negotiations with Mark Sykes. It would appear that the Arab Bureau continued working along the lines of the memorandum, which led to contrary promises ensuing accusations of bad faith.
In November 1915, Herbert was in Paris and Rome on a secret mission related to Albania. Following the plan to evacuate Anzac Cove beginning the following month, he volunteered to return to ANZAC to stay with the rear guard, convinced that his knowledge of language and his network of acquaintances would greatly benefit that body if captured. The 20 December successful evacuation of ANZAC and Suvla Bay and the good prospects for Cape Helles countered his proposal.
Impatient with the Foreign Office indecision over Albania, at the start of 1916, Herbert went prospecting for new opportunities. Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss proposed a job for him as a captain in intelligence. When in February the War Office cleared him from involvement in Albania, he took up the offer and found himself in charge of Naval intelligence in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and the Gulf. Following the critical situation of British troops at Kut-al-Amara, the War Office was instructed to offer Herbert's services to General Townshend to negotiate terms with the Turks.
T. E. Lawrence was sent on behalf of the Arab Bureau while Colonel Beach acted for Indian Expeditionary Force Intelligence. Together they were to oversee the exchange of prisoners and wounded, and eventually to offer the commander Khalil Pasha up to ₤2 million for the relief of Kut. Enver Pasha rejected the offer, and the evacuation of the wounded was severely hampered through lack of transport. The situation at Kut led Aubrey to send a telegram to Austen Chamberlain, Secretary of State for India, with the support of General Lake but still in breach of army regulations, condemning incompetence in the handling of the Mesopotamian campaign. The Government of India ordered a court martial, but the War Office refused. Admiral Wemyss, who travelled to Simla for the purpose, supported him throughout.
Back in England in July 1916, Herbert started asking in the House of Commons for a Royal Commission to inquire into the conduct of the Mesopotamian campaign. He opposed the routine evasiveness of Prime Minister Asquith, (a close friend), by speaking in the House four times on Mesopotamia. His critics saw in his obstinacy a personal vendetta against Sir Beauchamp Duff, the commander-in-chief in India, and Sir William Meyer, the financial secretary, but his persistence paid off, and a Special Commission Mesopotamia was subsequently appointed.
In October 1916, Herbert started his post as a liaison officer with the Italian army, whose front line lay in Albania. He apparently was unaware of the clause partitioning Albania signed with Italy in the secret Treaty of London on 26 April 1915. When the Bolsheviks published its secret provisions in 1917, he rejected the idea of Albania as merely a small Muslim state, the fiefdom he believed of Essad Pasha. In December, he was back in England.
The year 1917 saw him working, under Military Intelligence Director George MacDonogh, on plans for a separate peace with Turkey. On 16 July, he conducted a series of meetings with the Turks in Geneva, Interlaken, and Bern, among them a (secret) representative of an influential anti-Enver group. It should be noted that Mustafa Kemal, whom Aubrey knew from Gallipoli, had fallen out with Enver Pasha over the way that - by the Sultan's personal order - his command over the Seventh Army opposite Allenby in Syria had been bestowed on him on 5 July (he had been a staff captain with the Fifth Army in Damascus in 1905).
Aubrey took his notes to the Inter-Allied Conference in Paris. In a memorandum to the Foreign Office, he said "If we get the luggage it does not matter very much if the Turks get the labels. When Lord Kitchener was all-powerful in Egypt his secretary was wearing a fez. Mesopotamia and Palestine are worth a fez."
In November 1917, Herbert was again sent to Italy under orders from General Macdonogh. Now he was in charge of the British Adriatic Mission, with Samuel Hoare coordinating the Mission's special intelligence in Rome. An earlier Pan-Albanian Federation of America (Vatra) proposal of raising an Albanian regiment under Aubrey's command had been renewed. The matter was a contentious one for the Italians, as Vatra became increasingly anti-Italian. On 17 July 1918, the proposal was formally approved in Boston, and the Italian Consulate accepted, provided it became a unit in the Italian Army. The end of the war prevented the issue from growing more complex. Herbert ended the war as head of the British mission to the Italian army in Albania with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Unclear policy led to nationalist criticism from imperial bases such as Egypt (see Saad Zaghlul, 1919) at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, nor was the resulting political handling cause for much optimism to privileged witnesses such as Aubrey, T.E. Lawrence or Gertrude Bell. At the conference, there was a glimpse of further prospect for Aubrey Herbert when the Italian delegates proposed to assume shared responsibility over the Caucasus, an area of vital strategic importance - the Baku oilfields, access from the north to Mosul and Kirkuk. By May 1919, the proposal appeared to be quite empty.
By May 1919, the Intelligence Directorate had changed hands, on the authority of Lord Curzon (acting foreign secretary while Arthur Balfour was negotiating in Paris) from Aubrey's chief General MacDonogh to Sir Basil Thomson of Scotland Yard Special Branch i.e. from military to civilian in view of the Bolshevik threat on the home front. Thus it was possible for Aubrey in February 1921 to amaze a friend he could confide to, Lord Robert Cecil, that he was going abroad as a Scotland Yard inspector: he went to Berlin to interview Talaat Pasha for intelligence.
Aubrey Herbert married Mary, daughter of the 4th Viscount de Vesci, a member of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Lord de Vesci and his wife had converted to Roman Catholicism and raised their children accordingly. Herbert's mother-in-law gave the family a fine house in London. Herbert's mother gave him both a country estate at Pixton Park, Somerset, with 5,000 acres (20 km²) of land and a substantial villa on the Gulf of Genoa at Portofino.
Aubrey and Mary Herbert had four children, a son named Auberon who died unmarried and three daughters, Gabriel Mary, Bridget, and Laura, the last of whom married the novelist Evelyn Waugh.
Herbert was the grandfather of the journalist Auberon Waugh (who was named after Herbert's son) and the great-grandfather of Daisy and Alexander Waugh. Toward the end of Herbert's life, he became totally blind. He was given very bad advice to the effect that having all his teeth extracted would restore his sight. The dental operation resulted in blood poisoning from which he died in London on 26 September 1923. In 1924, Herbert's estate was probated at 49,970 pounds sterling. His son Auberon inherited the Pixton Park and Portofino properties.
The cameo character of the "'Honourable Herbert" in Louis de Bernieres's novel Birds Without Wings is based on Herbert. He appears as a British liaison officer with the ANZAC troops serving in the Gallipoli campaign. A polyglot officer able to communicate with both sides, he arranges the burial of the dead of both sides, achieving great popularity with both sides - a description that mirrors his role in the 1915 truce.
Herbert was also, in part, the model for John Buchan's Sandy Arbuthnot.