Tommy, p.23Richard Holmes
greeted me with the kindness he invariably displayed. He was worried, not so much by the situation, which he was trying to unravel on all fours on the floor, where enormous maps were laid out, as by the facts that chambermaids kept coming into the room, and he had only his pants on.46
In January 1915 Murray, who had suffered a breakdown during the retreat from Mons, was replaced by Major General Sir William Robertson, a hard-headed ex-ranker who had served as commandant of the staff college and did much to tighten up procedures at GHQ. That December he departed for London to become Chief of the Imperial General Staff and handed over to Lieutenant General Sir Launcelot Kiggell. Kiggell has had an almost consistently bad press. It is, however, clear that he provided the commander in chief with what was generally very sound advice. His main fault lay in his reluctance to stand up to Haig, who had little notion of the concept of loyal opposition. This was in part owing to Kiggell’s belief that a chief of staff’s function, as prescribed by regulations, depended ‘on power delegated by the Commander’, and in part owing to persistent ill-health. Lieutenant Colonel Lord Stanhope, who knew him well, thought him:
slow-brained, with excessive loyalty to his Chief, whoever that might be, he allowed loyalty to overwhelm principles, and both character, initiative and personal drive suffered in consequence – a misfortune because he was an absolutely upright man who had studied his profession and should have been of far greater value to his country.47
Kiggell was discredited by the failure of Third Ypres to fulfil expectations, and, as part of a general clearing-out of GHQ, was replaced by Lieutenant General Sir Herbert Lawrence. He had left the army as a major after the Boer War, made a fortune in business, and rejoined in 1914. Possession of what soldiers called ‘fuck-off money’ (officers, more politely, murmured that he ‘had a good position to return to after the war’) meant that he was far more robust with Haig than Kiggell had ever been. He brought much new talent to GHQ, worked well with the French, and was rewarded in Haig’s final dispatch with a tribute to his: ‘unfailing insight, calm resolution and level judgement which neither ill fortune nor good were able to disturb’.48
The chief of staff was most concerned with the general staff (G) branch at GHQ, primus inter pares as far as staff branches were concerned, and responsible for all matters relating to military operations. In contrast, the adjutant general’s (A) branch dealt with discipline, military law, the implementation of appointments and promotions, pay and personal services, casualties and ceremonial. The quartermaster general’s (Q) branch was concerned with the distribution of quarters and billets, supplies of food, ammunition and most stores (perversely, medical equipment was the responsibility of A branch), remounts and postal services. Subordinate to the staff were the armies themselves, the service directors (signals, supply, transport and so on) and the substantial staff of the inspector-general, lines of communication, responsible for the burgeoning world of the rear running back to ‘the base’.
The base was in practice a huge area stretching from Le Havre, the BEF’s main port of entry, to Rouen and Etaples, and up to the Channel ports of Boulogne and Calais. Although the rear area had a growing appetite for men, the non-combatant proportion of the army, rising from 16.3 percent on 1 September 1914 to 33.45 percent on 1 July 1918, remained small by modern standards.49 The ‘teeth to tail ratio’ of the BEF was consistently better than that of the British army of the Second World War. The latter required 84,000 men to maintain one division, while in 1914–18 the figure fluctuated between 44,600 in February 1917 and 64,100 in May 1918.50
The military secretary’s department (MS) worked directly for the commander in chief, and originated in the days when the military secretary was the commander in chief’s confidential penman. It was much more influential than its name suggests, for it was responsible for recommending those appointments, promotions and dismissals which the adjutant general’s branch formally promulgated. By the war’s end the department was headed by Major General H. G. Ruggles-Brise, and its twenty-two officers included five peers or peers’ sons and a high proportion of cavalry or yeomanry officers, probably because its work required self-confident men who could resist external influence. The destruction of the records of the military secretary’s department by German bombing in the Second World War makes it hard to discern just how the department actually worked, although correspondence surviving elsewhere gives many clues. The department maintained lists of officers recommended for battalion, brigade and divisional command, and officers in search of jobs often corresponded with contacts in the department (Sandhurst or staff college chums were always a good start) to see what was about.
Captain Reginald Tompson, a regular gunner with a Boer War DSO, found himself on the lines of communication staff in 1915. He was torn between his desire to stay there – ‘I had a £550 a year job, safety and Bridgy [his wife] very large on the credit side’ – and his wish to get a job on the staff of a fighting formation and play a more useful part in the war. He explained his dilemma to a friend at headquarters lines of communication and the fixing process began. After some difficult manoeuvres, briefly losing his staff pay altogether, he duly got onto the staff, where he: ‘Felt an awful swell in my new red hat and tabs.’ When he was posted to the staff of 7th Division he wrote: ‘Such a relief I have never felt in my life.’51
Thomas Hutton, commissioned into the artillery in 1910 and a temporary captain in 1915, narrowly missed a staff appointment as aide de camp to Major General George Milne, just appointed to command 27th Division. ‘I … have been trying to get you as ADC,’ wrote Milne, ‘but I am afraid there is no chance of the appointment being approved. They say that you are too senior and that not even temporary Captains can be allowed to take up these appointments as they cannot be spared.’ However, the following year he heard from a friend in the military secretary’s department, who cheerfully signed himself ‘Watty’: ‘Do you want General Staff or to be a B[rigade] M[ajor]? Either is open to you as I understand you were recommended for the former & you are within reasonable distance of the latter.’ Hutton ended the war brigade major (chief of staff) of 115th Infantry Brigade.52 Just before Haig handed over command of the BEF he arranged that Winston Churchill, who had recently resigned from the government and come out to France as a major, should be given command of a battalion. ‘I next saw the military secretary,’ he wrote, ‘and arranged for W. to be posted to the 9th K[ing’s] R[oyal] R[ifles] in the 14th Divn.’53
The fixing process was not, however, infallible. In August 1916 Walter Guinness was posted to 11/Cheshire as its second in command. Given his origin as a Suffolk Yeoman he found it rather a puzzle, made all the worse by the fact that the battalion had been badly mauled on the Somme and was in a sorry state. It was only later he discovered that he had been posted in mistake for another W. E. Guinness, a major in the Manchesters, who would have been a much better choice as second in command of a Cheshire battalion. He blamed ‘the AG’s department, which is constantly making mistakes in this way’.54
General headquarters moved frequently in the first two months of the war, but settled in the little town of St-Omer in October 1914. The commander in chief, Sir John French, lived in a lawyer’s modest house in the Rue St-Bertin, and the branches of the general staff were scattered about the town. It was already common for a commander in chief to split his headquarters when battle was afoot, moving up with a small tactical headquarters and leaving the main apparatus back with his chief of staff. French used this procedure during the battle of Loos, when he took a small headquarters forward to a small château near Lillers, less than 20 miles behind the lines. Although he was connected to Robertson’s room at GHQ, he had no telephone connection with 1st Army headquarters, and part of what went wrong in the battle can be attributed to his attempt to fight it in the old style. He visited headquarters to brief commanders personally and, as one officer reported, was seen ‘riding quite alone through the shattered villages behind the line and thanking all he met … we
In the spring of 1916 GHQ moved south to the delightful town of Montreuil-sur-Mer, on the little River Canche, inland from Etaples. The sea had long since receded, and Montreuil sat on a steep hill, with its castle embedded in a citadel built by the great engineer Jean Errard de Bar le Duc and modified by Vauban. GHQ, by now boasting sufficient staff officers and clerks to fill a small town, housed its main branches in the old Ecole Militaire, but spread more widely, with both telephone exchange and pigeon-loft, in perfect encapsulation of the war’s ancient and modern features, in the castle. The town was surrounded by defensive walls whose ramparts enabled staff officers to step out for lunchtime exercise.
The commander in chief, now General Sir Douglas Haig, lived in the Château de Beaurepaire, about 3 miles south-west of the town. Haig was never a man for luxurious living, and the Château de Querrieu, Rawlinson’s headquarters during the Somme fighting, was actually larger and more opulent. Moving to Montreuil made good sense, for Haig was now in the centre of the British front, perhaps two hours by car from Ypres, in the north, and a little less from Amiens in the south. When the war became more mobile in 1918 he split his headquarters, just as French had done in 1915 but with infinitely better results, and commanded from forward GHQ in a train behind his advancing armies.
But nowhere were the effects of the army’s rapid wartime explosion in size more evident than in the case of generals and their staffs. Newly-raised formations required not only experienced commanders but trained staff officers, and because expansion was unplanned there were no significant reserves of either available. The deficit was made good in two ways. Firstly, officers were brought back from retirement. These ‘dug-outs’, as they were known, were a mixed bunch. Some proved very good. Herbert Lawrence, who became Haig’s CGS in 1917, had left the army after the Boer War when passed over for command of his regiment, the 17th Lancers – which went instead to Haig. Within a year of returning to the army in 1914 he commanded first a brigade and then a division in Gallipoli, and in 1916 he beat the Turks at Romani, securing Sinai for the British. Resigning command shortly afterwards on a point of principle, in 1917 he headed 66th Division on the Western Front.
The trim, chain-smoking Sir Bryan Mahon, called out of retirement at the early age of fifty-two, first raised 10th (Irish) Division and was then promoted to be general officer commanding Ireland. J. M. Babington, who had previously led the New Zealand Defence Force, was sixty-one when called back, and commanded 23rd Division with conspicuous success. John Gelliband, a bright Staff College graduate, had retired to Tasmania after being placed on half-pay as a major in the South Lancashires, but commanded an Australian battalion, brigade and division during the war. His outspokenness and informality (he always wore the same uniform as a private soldier) endeared him to his men and to the Australian official historian, Charles Bean. ‘He was a direct speaker of the truth,’ affirmed Bean,
never whittling down a fact or mitigating the sharp edge of a report to please a superior. ‘There comes a day in the life of all young officers,’ he used to say, ‘when a superior will ask them for their opinion. If the youngster gives an answer which he thinks will please, he is done; he is useless. If he says straightly what he thinks, he is the man to get on.’56
Trevor Ternon had retired in 1907, but came back to serve on a divisional staff and then to command the 102nd (Tyneside Scottish) Brigade of 34th Division. Another brigade in the same division, 103rd (Tyneside Irish), was commanded by W. A. Collings, who had retired in 1908 after thirty-six years’ service, but was remembered by one subordinate as ‘a robust, breezy Brigadier’.57
The performance of some other dug-outs was ambivalent. R. G. Broadwood retired as a lieutenant general in 1913, but came back to command a division, usually commanded by an officer of the more junior rank of major general. Deeply upset to have been accused by his corps commander of lacking fighting spirit, he was mortally wounded while crossing a railway bridge over the Lys at Houplines in 1917. A German field gun sniped the bridge whenever men were seen crossing: Broadwood knew that his trip was tantamount to suicide but he crossed anyway, though he asked his staff not to follow him. The gun fired as he began to walk across, and his arrival at the far end coincided with that of the shell: ‘Both his legs were blown to bits and he died that afternoon in the ambulance.’ He asked to be buried between a subaltern and a private soldier, and lies at Sailly-sur-la-Lys between Second Lieutenant Herbert Gittins, 5/Loyal North Lancashire, and Gunner Robert Bannick, Australian Field Artillery.
But there were also some complete failures. The behaviour of an officer brought back to command a brigade in 55th (West Lancashire) Division led Lord Derby to warn General Sir Henry Mackinnon of Western Command that:
he has managed to get the whole Brigade by the ear and has been most insulting to the Commanding Officers and to their methods of training. I want to stop it coming formally before you and so I am going up there this week to see him and I shall tell him for his own sake that he had much better resign his command. He has effectually stopped recruiting in Lancashire by his conduct and he has produced something very near a mutiny among his own officers. I suppose we can always remove him, can’t we, if he won’t go on his own account?58
Robert Graves allegedly overheard a conversation between his adjutant and the chief of staff of a New Army division (21st or 24th, though we cannot be sure which) on the eve of Loos.
Charley, see that silly old woman over there? Calls himself General Commanding! Doesn’t know where he is; doesn’t know where his division is; can’t even read a map properly. He’s marched the poor sods off their feet and left his supplies behind. God knows how far back. They’ve had to use their iron rations and what they could pick up in the villages. And tomorrow he’s going to fight a battle. Doesn’t know anything about battles; the men have never been in the trenches before, and tomorrow’s going to be a glorious balls-up, and the day after tomorrow he’ll be sent home.59
While some officers were brought back from retirement, others were rapidly promoted to fill gaps. Brigade commanders who had proved themselves in 1914 were natural choices for commands of New Army divisions. Ivor Maxse stepped up from 1st Guards Brigade to command 18th Division; R. H. Davies moved from 6th Infantry Brigade to 20th Division; and E. C. Ingorville-Williams from 16th Infantry Brigade to 34th Division. In the same way successful infantry battalion and cavalry regimental commanders of 1914 moved on to command brigades in 1915 and then divisions in 1916. There is no better example than the flamboyant David ‘Soarer’ Campbell. His nickname came, not from his own rapid rise, but from the horse he had ridden to victory in the 1896 Grand National, the Irish National Hunt Cup and the Grand Military Steeplechase. He commanded the 9th Lancers in 1914 and took part in two cavalry charges, one at Elouges on 24 August and the other at Moncel on 6 September. Captain Arthur Osburn, medical officer of the 4th Dragoon Guards, was going round the battlefield tending the wounded when he spotted movement.
Colonel David Campbell, commanding the 9th Lancers, lay sprawled out in a field of clover. Forty yards from his feet and downhill was a small copse, a hundred and fifty yards from his shoulder was a narrow belt of woodland. He had, if I remember rightly, a revolver wound in his leg, a lance wound in his shoulder, and a sword wound in his arm. This field had been the scene of a fine charge. A half-squadron of the 9th Lancers had just charged through a squadron and a half of German cavalry, and the deep clover of the field concealed many wounded horses and men of both regiments.
‘I am sorry to find you like this, sir,’ I said, kneeling down to dress his wounds.
‘Not at all, my boy! Not at all! I’ve just had the best quarter of an hour I’ve ever had in my life!’
… within a few weeks he was back again leading his regiment. This caused no surprise amongst those who knew him. ‘David,’ said one of his subalterns to me afterwards, ‘will someday go down and chase Satan o
Campbell was promoted to command 6th Cavalry Brigade that November, and took over the unlucky 21st Division after its commander (possibly the general we heard being vilified earlier) was sacked in the wake of Loos. He restored its battered morale and commanded it with distinction for the rest of the war, combining frequent visits to the front with personal aerial reconnaissance. It was entirely characteristic of this tough-minded officer that he protested vigorously to his French commander about the poor position allocated his division when it was sent to ‘rest’ on the Chemin des Dames in 1918. It did no good, and when the Germans attacked on 27 May he recorded ‘the worst day I have spent in this war, which is saying a lot’.61
In the British army the regulars kept a tight grip on divisional commands, and no non-regular commanded a division, except as a temporary stand-in, during the whole war. This is in sharp contrast to the Australian and Canadian practice, based as it was on a tradition of a tiny regular force and a bigger citizen army. Both the ANZAC and Canadian Corps (not to mention several of their component divisions) were commanded by men who had begun the war as amateurs. John Monash was a civilian engineer with pre-war service in the Australian equivalent of the Territorial Force, who commanded a brigade at Gallipoli and then a division and corps on the Western Front. Although his career was by no means free of mistakes, his great capacity to learn helped to make him an outstanding success. The huge and profane Arthur Currie was an insurance broker, estate agent and militia officer in British Columbia, whose questionable business practices nearly ruined him just before the war. He commanded 2nd Canadian Brigade at Second Ypres and 1st Canadian Division the following year. When his corps commander, Sir Julian Byng, was promoted to command 3rd Army after the disappointing results of Arras in April 1917, Currie was a natural successor. Neither Monash nor Currie was a heroic leader in the old style, and both favoured a managerial style of command, in part a product of their civilian background.
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