Tommy, p.24Richard Holmes
Although we must guard against the easy ‘British bad – Dominion good’ assumption, which encouraged Lloyd George to opine that Monash might have succeeded Haig, it is clear that the old army has a case to answer. Indeed, the way that it retained control of the levers of power delighted Brigadier General John Charteris, senior intelligence officer at GHQ, who wrote in 1917 that: ‘The amazing thing is that with the exception of the transportation and the postal service, every particular part of the organisation is controlled by regular soldiers.’62 When a brigade commander asked his commanding officers whether any of their officers should be short-listed for battalion command, one remarked that since all his officers were territorials the question did not arise. He meant it as a joke, but the regulars around him nodded gravely and went on to consider more suitable regular candidates.
But if the old army kept a tight grip on the appointment of divisional commanders and, scarcely less important, of their chiefs of staff, the sheer scale of the requirement for brigadiers encouraged a far wider field of selection. Here it is worth sketching out the way officer promotion operated during the war, for this, linked with our knowledge of the way the military secretary’s department worked, helps explain how generals were appointed. Formal notification of an officer’s promotion, reversion, resignation or dismissal was promulgated in a periodic supplement to The London Gazette, the origin of the term ‘gazetted’. It was repeated in the GHQ’s routine orders, and finished up being recorded in the orders of the unit concerned.
The officers’ nominal roll of 3/3rd Queen’s, for instance, notes that Second Lieutenant R. R. B. Bannerman was allowed to retain the acting rank of lieutenant on arrival in France by virtue of GHQ 0/9218 dated 11 August 1917 and was promoted substantive lieutenant with effect from 1 July 1917 by authority of General Routine Orders Nos 2572 and 2600 of 1917, a blanket promotion of officers of specified seniority. Captain H. C. Cannon was appointed second in command by virtue of Third Army’s A/A/9024 dated 6 September 1917. The same book records tragedies with equal dry formality. Lieutenant Colonel U. L. Hooke, killed in action on 21 June 1916 (he had been in France less than a month), was buried in the field, at map reference ‘H.23.bb.75. Ref 1/40,000 518. Cross erected’. The battalion’s heartbeat was scarcely allowed to pause: Major K. A. Oswald, the second in command, took over and was gazetted temporary lieutenant colonel on 23 August. He reverted to major with effect from 5 October 1917, the day when he is recorded as receiving a shell wound to his left arm and knee. The subsequent announcement of a DSO for gallantry in the field on 4 October may have given him some consolation.63
In the old army promotion took an officer from second lieutenant to lieutenant colonel by regimental seniority, with written exams regulating promotion from lieutenant to captain, and from captain to major, and then a practical examination in tactics qualifying him for advancement to lieutenant colonel. Adverse comment in one of his obligatory annual confidential reports could halt promotion or even have him removed from the army as inefficient.64 Beyond lieutenant colonel promotion took an officer outside his regiment, with automatic elevation to full colonel after four years as a lieutenant colonel, and advancement by seniority tempered by selection thereafter. During the First World War the rank of colonel was rare, and, with the exception of medical officers and engineers, was not to be found below corps headquarters. The sighting of a pair of full colonels dining together in Bapaume, doubtless sorting out some knotty administrative problem in the rear area, was worth a diary entry by an astonished infantry officer.
The fact that the first part of this process was regimental meant that promotion moved at different paces between regiments, with a spate of resignations or casualties bringing accelerated promotion to survivors. A regular officer could not be deprived of his permanent rank save by formal administrative action, the sentence of a court martial or the Army Board’s direction that he resign, a punishment inflicted in circumstances where a court martial would have been inappropriate but his continued service no less so. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Repington, The Times’ military correspondent from 1903 to 1918, had been forced to resign his commission for involvement in a well-publicised divorce case. The old army was, indeed, quite prone to such lapses. Field Marshal Sir John French embarked upon a passionate affair with Winifred Bennett, married to a diplomat but the mistress of an officer killed at Ypres in 1914: she was almost half French’s age and several inches taller. The lovers were remarkably discreet. Repington, however, had persisted in his affair after being told to desist, and had attracted precisely the sort of scandal which King’s Regulations warned against.
Most commissions granted during the war were temporary, and would be relinquished after its conclusion. Although wartime officers received the same beautifully-engrossed vellum commission given to regulars, the word ‘TEMPORARY’ was stamped on the front fold to make the point perfectly clear. An officer (regular or temporary) held substantive rank within his regiment, but might be given acting or local rank to carry out a specific appointment, perhaps to step up temporarily to command a company, or to hold a senior appointment outside the regiment. This rank evaporated when the appointment was relinquished, and the officer crashed down to his regimental rank. Unless, that is, he had been thoughtfully provided with a safety net. Brevet promotion (which applied only to the ranks of colonel, lieutenant colonel or major) gave an officer rank in the army, though not in his regiment. In 1929 Thomas Hutton, who we have already seen tweaking the system in the military secretary’s department to become a brigade major, was rewarded with a brevet lieutenant colonelcy, and was thus formally described as ‘Major and Brevet Lieutenant Colonel’. The advantage of brevet rank was that, while it did not guarantee a job in the higher rank, it did mean that its holder would have less far to fall if any temporary rank was relinquished and, if the worst came to the worst, would retire with a more glittering prefix than might otherwise have been the case. Because lieutenant colonels were promoted full colonel four years after their previous promotion, whether they had attained it by brevet or regimental rank, it was possible to rise straight from regimental major, through brevet lieutenant colonel, to become a substantive colonel, which is just what Hutton did in 1933. It was also possible for substantive rank to be conferred for a meritorious achievement or distinguished service: 190 major generals were appointed this way during the war.65
An officer might hold three ranks – permanent, temporary and brevet – spread over a wide range. In perhaps the best-known example, in 1908 W. H. Manning was inspector-general of the King’s African Rifles. He was a substantive captain, a brevet lieutenant colonel and a local brigadier general, and the officers who commanded his battalions were all regimental captains but local lieutenant colonels. Soarer Campbell did very well out of the system. His substantive lieutenant colonelcy dated from March 1912; he was made a temporary brigadier general in November 1915, a brevet colonel the following February and a substantive colonel in March 1916. Appointed temporary major general when he took over 21st Division in May 1916, permanent rank caught up in January 1917. He died in 1936, a full general and a knight. In contrast, Keppel Bethell, who took command of 6th Division as a temporary major general in March 1918 and, at thirty-five, was the youngest British divisional commander in either world war, never rose in regimental rank above captain during the entire war. He became a temporary major in 1915, a brevet major in 1916 and a brevet lieutenant colonel in 1917. Although the four-year rule took him to colonel in 1921, he did not get his rank of major general back until 1930.
Territorials and New Army officers were also, at least in theory, promoted by seniority within their battalions, although there was increasingly large-scale movement between battalions in an effort to achieve some balance of quality. The whole system had become highly fluid by mid-1915, though the old principle of seniority still cropped up to cause confusion. Although Special Reserve battalions did not go to war as formed units, but sent officers and men to reinforce other battalio
over the heads of elder officers who had longer trench service and were better trained than myself. A Special Reserve major and a captain had been recently sent home from the First Battalion, with a confidential report of inefficiency. Being anxious to avoid such disgrace, I went to the adjutant and offered not to wear my badges of rank while serving with the battalion. ‘No, put your stars up,’ he said not unkindly, ‘it can’t be helped.’66
Both Sandhurst and Woolwich continued to produce regular officers throughout the war (there were some 7,000 in all), and regular commissions were offered to many temporary officers. Most, however, had to revert to second lieutenant when appointed to a regular commission, and many found the loss of pay and status a considerable disincentive. Lieutenant Julian Tyndale-Biscoe, holder of a temporary commission, was delighted to be recommended for a regular lieutenancy, but was eventually gazetted a second lieutenant. He was allowed to retain his existing seniority while serving in the same division, so did not immediately become the junior subaltern in his battery. However, he soon resigned his regular commission and reverted to his temporary lieutenancy to retain the higher pay. When Robert Graves rejoined 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers in 1916 one of the reasons for his chilly reception was the hostility of another Special Reserve officer who had reverted to second lieutenant on being granted a regular commission and now grumbled about ‘jumped-up captains’. Graves quoted him a consoling poem:
O deem it pride, not lack of skill,
That will not let my sleeves increase,
The morning and the evening still
Have but one star apiece.67
The military secretary’s branch at GHQ maintained lists of officers suitable for command at battalion, brigade and divisional level, and appointed from them as vacancies arose. It was possible for an officer to be senior by regimental rank but never to get onto the military secretary’s battalion command list, and so, although he might serve as locum commanding officer, he could never take over on a permanent basis. Major Count de Miremont, perennial stand-in as commanding officer of 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers, was Captain Dunn’s particular bête noire. In November 1917 Dunn wrote:
As O.C. Works the Count is in his element, he spends the day among sheets of paper. He conceives a new trench in cubic yards, which he has reduced to feet; he has reduced subalterns and sergeants to distraction, and the work accomplished next to nothing.
He blamed de Miremont for the deterioration of the battalion’s morale in mid-1918, reporting that on 5 July:
A new C.O. arrived in the evening, Lt.-Col. J. B. Cockburn from the 17th Battalion. He was ‘Cocky’ to everyone, behind his back. His transfer was felt to be an effort by Division to pull the battalion together. de Miremont reverted to Acting Major, Second-in-Command.
A month later, after a successful raid on the Germans, he announced that ‘since Col. Cockburn’s arrival morale had been raised to a level it had not been on for a year or more …’.68
Officers sometimes went straight from regimental captain to temporary lieutenant colonel. ‘Tibs’ Crawshay was a captain when he took command of 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers, and put up a crown and star on assuming the appointment. However, when his brigade commander appointed him ‘O.C. High Wood’ after its capture on 15 July 1916, the commanding officer of the nearby 20/Royal Fusiliers declined to accept his authority, having ‘entrenched himself in the Army List. “I am sainior [sic] to Major Cra’shay,” he reiterated, and sat tight; and he let his men at Crucifix Corner sit tight.’ The wood was lost in an unlucky fumble which allowed a German counterattack to break scattered men from a variety of units.69
That same month Rowland Feilding was commanding a Coldstream company when his brigadier told him that he was being recommended for a battalion. Although, as he confided to his wife, ‘I would rather command a Coldstream company than a battalion anywhere else,’ he knew he was too old to remain a company commander. On 6 September he was pleased to be given 6/Connaught Rangers, ‘or rather the remnant of it’, which had lost its CO, second in command and half its men in 16th Division’s capture of Guillemont. His brigadier, the genial George Pereira of the Grenadiers, at once ‘told me to put up a Major’s crowns’ and when his temporary lieutenant-colonelcy was eventually gazetted it was backdated to the date of his take-over that September.
Some lieutenant colonels were very young indeed. Frank Crozier had just visited a wounded officer in hospital with the man’s successor, a twenty-one-year-old subaltern who had just become an acting lieutenant colonel, when ‘a red-nosed major of ruddy countenance and green-banded cap’ emerged from the bar of their hotel and mistook the crown and star on the youngster’s cuff for two stars.
‘Here young fellow,’ says the major, ‘don’t you know a field officer when you see him?’
‘Yes, I do,’ says the colonel.
‘Well, why the devil don’t you salute, you damned young cub? What’s your regiment?’ says the major.
‘I salute my seniors,’ replies the boy quietly. The bleary eyes of the major fall on the fatal cuff. He gasps, turns and makes for the bar, there to fortify himself with another drink.70
Hanway Cumming was commanding 2/Durham Light Infantry in late 1916, standing in for his brigade commander, who was on leave, when he heard that he had been promoted brigadier general to command 91st Brigade of 7th Division. This promotion from temporary lieutenant colonel to temporary brigadier general was par for the course: few officers actually wore the interim rank of colonel. In order to qualify for command of a brigade an officer had to command a battalion successfully. A divisional chief of staff (‘General Staff Officer Grade 1’, in the parlance of the day) was a lieutenant colonel, but if he had not already commanded a battalion he had to have his ticket punched before promotion to brigadier general. For instance, F. W. Lumsden was moved from the staff to command 17/Highland Light Infantry for just six days before being appointed to head 14th Infantry Brigade. Lord Stanhope thought his success a classic example of how somebody could be no good at one level but successful at another. Stanhope thought Lumsden was useless as a GSO2 when they served together, but then he went off to 32nd Division and ‘within three months of his arrival there he had won two bars to his DSO and the VC and had been made a Brigade Commander’.71
Not all brigadiers paid lip service to the process of ticket-punching. Frank Crozier – retired major in 1914, lieutenant colonel in 1915 and brigadier general after the Somme – had predictably firm views. He rejected:
a colonel, a charming fellow, a staff college graduate and a one-time instructor of some military subject, at some military establishment, sent to me for a month ‘to quality for a brigade’. He is unable to kick the Germans out of his line quickly on his own initiative, and prefers to write orders instead of doing things!
When told that ‘he’ll be all right with a little experience,’ Crozier riposted:
Experience is gained here, not in offices, or on staffs: the chief knows that, and says staff officers are to go to battalions to get their promotion to fighting brigades. You seek to evade the order by wringing a recommendation out of me. I have two first-class colonels here, one was a sergeant-major in the Royal Irish Regt in 1914; the other was a second lieutenant in the Ceylon Planters Corps in the same year. They are both going to be r
Crozier was certainly right about the two commanding officers. The first was the legendary Freddy Plunkett. He was regimental sergeant major of 2/Royal Irish in 1914, when he was recommended for the VC at Le Cateau but received a DCM instead. A Military Cross followed in 1915, and he was then commissioned, earning a DSO and two bars and finishing the war as a temporary lieutenant colonel and brevet major. Crozier recommended him for a VC for ‘thirty hours of sustained valour’ in 1918, but was exasperated to report that it was turned down because he had ‘merely done his duty’.73 By 1918 he was suffering quite badly from heart trouble, and this probably prevented him from getting a brigade. Crozier detected a streak of gentleness even in this formidable warrior. The brigade was in garrison in Roubaix at Christmas 1918, and laid on a pantomime for the children. He saw how: ‘Colonel Plunkett, of Mons and Bourlon, treble DSO, MC, DCM, marches at the head of three hundred children, while his band plays the Marseillaise, and his officers and NCOs act as ushers and help on the toddlers.’ Another of the brigade’s COs, Benzie, late of the Ceylon Tea Planters’ Rifles, duly got his recommendation for a brigade, but was badly wounded in March 1918 and was unable to take it up. The other two COs in the brigade were scarcely less formidable. One, Andrews, had run away from school in 1900 to fight in the ranks of the Yeomanry, and had then been involved in several revolutions in South America, and the other, Kennedy, had been a lecturer at the London School of Economics. Even the brigade machine-gun company was commanded by another unconventional but natural soldier, ‘Harrison, a rubber-planter from the Malay States’. Perhaps Crozier had some reason to look askance at staff officers.
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