Tommy, p.27Richard Holmes
However, if the reformers had lost the argument over the blue ribbon general staff, the staff retained the tribal markings invented when it seemed likely that it would indeed be an exclusive and expert group. German general staff officers wore distinctive carmine double trouser-stripes. The British army decided to distinguish its general staff officers by modifying the red and gold collar-tab already worn by generals to produce a red tab with a thin line of red cord running from a button at its apex. General staff officers were also, like generals, to wear a red band round their caps. Officers on special staffs had their own distinguishing tabs and hat bands, like the purple of medical staff and the green of intelligence.
In addition, staff officers and commanders wore armbands which identified their level of command and function. Thus we could identify an approaching lieutenant colonel with red tabs on his collar and a red band on his right arm as the chief of staff of an infantry division, shortly before he asked us what the devil our general service wagons were doing blocking his road. Were he on a corps staff the band would have been red, white and red; it would have been red, black and red for army staff and red and blue (red uppermost) for GHQ. There were elaborate prescriptions for all, down to Inland Water Transport staff officers, who gave the game away by wearing a white brassard with a blue anchor, and servants to military attachés who (partly as a means of self-protection, for a Romanian general’s groom might find it hard to justify himself to a Scots sentry in Montreuil) wore yellow armbands.99
Though there was functional logic to all this, its effects were wholly baneful. Staff officers looked strikingly different, and the fact that red tabs and brassards were worn by all general staff officers, even the subalterns and captains acting as aides de camp to generals, increased the apparent size of the staff. These trappings were certainly not universally welcome to those who had to wear them. Major Arthur Smith of the Coldstream Guards, then on the staff of 38th Division, found himself sheltering from shellfire in a trench full of troops. ‘I admit that I was frightened,’ he wrote, ‘but what bothered me most was that that I should show I was frightened, or that the men lining the trench should see I was a staff officer.’100 Maurice Hankey always wore uniform in Whitehall, ‘but some instinct warned me that it would be better to stick to my regimental uniform than to obtain authority to wear the red tabs of a General Staff Officer’.101 Indeed, it is no surprise that the postwar abolition of the rank of brigadier general (it was briefly replaced by the hybrid colonel commandant and then by brigadier) was accompanied by the removal of red tabs from all staff officers below full colonel.102
Commanders and their staff at GHQ and army level worked in headquarters which moved infrequently and (save for GHQ itself) were usually located in medium-sized châteaux. They lived in nearby private houses, the châteaux themselves, or purpose-built ‘garden suburbs’ like that in the grounds of 1st Army’s headquarters at Hinges Château in 1915. Corps were more mobile, with frequent moves up and down the front in 1915–17 and then some substantial shifts in 1918. They too favoured a château if one was handy, but for major offensives the corps commander would usually move up with a small staff and signallers to try to remain in contact with his divisional commanders. Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Morland of X Corps had, for instance, a forward command post in a wooden gantry up a tree in the western edge of Aveluy Wood, in the centre of his sector, on 1 July 1916.
Day-to-day business at corps level and above was done by telephone, letter and at conferences. The radio grew in importance as the war went on, but although it made a real difference in some areas (such as the control of counter-battery fire from the air) it had little real impact on upper level of command in any of the combatant armies on the Western Front. The distinguished military historian Martin van Creveld has poured scorn on the use of the telephone in the First World War. During the Somme, Haig, he maintains, was ‘positioned at his headquarters where he hoped to have all the facts at the end of a telephone wire …’, but instead he ‘ended up by having none at all, and … was one of the worst informed men on the Somme’.103 But on 1 July Haig did not have ‘no information at all’. He had a good deal, for 4th Army told him what it thought was happening. The fact that 4th Army was often wrong reflected the fact that communication between attacking divisions and their corps had often broken down completely, leaving Rawlinson himself in the dark. Well aware of the limitations of the telephone, Haig went forward to see Rawlinson on the second morning of the battle, and directed him to press his attack where he had been successful the previous day, south of the Albert-Bapaume road. There was indeed a serious communication problem. But it was not at the upper end of the chain of command, between GHQ, army and corps, but down below corps level.
If corps headquarters moved occasionally, then divisional headquarters moved frequently – 51st Highland no less than eighteen times between July and December 1916 – and there were wide variations in their accommodation. Where possible they would spread themselves around a farm or two in Flanders, where big farmhouses, with their buildings on three sides of a square, were so characteristic of the landscape. Walter Nicholson described a Flanders farm occupied by the headquarters of 51st Highland Division in 1915.
It is built four-square and round a great ‘midden’. One side, a single-storeyed building on a raised brick foundation, is the dwelling of the farmer and his family; above the living room runs a long loft. Barns form the other three sides; one for pigs, poultry and cattle. The other two filled with straw or empty according to the season. In the ‘midden’ manure is piled high, and as may be imagined the whole surroundings are in summer black with flies and in winter a swamp. But the farm, impoverished in appearance, frugally furnished, provided in fact the best of all billets. The officers who had experience chose its kitchen in winter to any room in the château; while the barns, after we had repaired them, were far better than bare boards.104
Further south, in Artois and Picardy, the pattern of land use was different, and villages and modest châteaux were more common than the ‘Spanish farms’ of Flanders. When 51st Highland Division moved into the Picardy village of Senlis, with fifty or sixty houses, its headquarters was established in the best house in the village (known to the Jocks as the ‘chotoo’), but sadly it was:
designed for show and not for comfort, with two or even three stairs to overtake the great one-storey farms. Built of brick, with a great dignity of iron railings and of florid decoration within, the floors are highly polished and the windows tightly shut, dust sheets are over all the carpets. They look and feel as dead as mutton …105
A proper château in Hermaville turned out to be little better, for although it was ‘elegant in design’, the big reception rooms ‘caught all the winds of France through the badly constructed great French windows; the many smaller rooms were scruffy and unventilated’. To make matters worse the baron who owned it, an irascible former cavalry officer, shouted ‘Pas des chiens dans la maison’ as the enormous dog Rip strolled in on the heels of his master, ‘Uncle’ Harper, the divisional commander. The beast ‘may have had endearing qualities, but no sense of humour’, and the baron was right to watch his step.106
Staff officers lived and ate in a number of messes, depending on the accommodation available. Divisional practice varied, but usually the commander, his chief of staff and aide de camp would constitute No.1 Mess, with other senior staff officers in No. 2 Mess and separate messes for the artillery and engineer staff. When divisions moved up onto the abomination of desolation that constituted the old Somme battlefield they were forced to improvise amongst the ‘dolls’ houses’ cobbled together in the ruins, with names like The Palace, Evergreen House and Windy Corner. Engineers soon brought a degree of comfort to such surroundings, and in early 1918 Hanway Cumming found 21st Division in ‘a series of the usual wooden huts on the sheltered side of a low ridge and provided with mined dugouts as a protection against aerial bombing, which at the time was common in this part of the line’.107 Improvisatio
pictures from the illustrated papers decorated our walls, and we had thrown away our enamel ware. Tastes had been developed in local wines and liqueurs, which were purchased from neighbouring towns whenever conditions such as the loan of a car permitted and officers returning from leave came laden. ‘Long’ Perry … [brought] two hares and a grouse, Weston returned with pheasants and hares. But my gift of a salmon, the last of the season from Harrods, was marred by three days fog in the channel.
However, the commander Royal Artillery’s mess was unaccountably spartan: ‘They had stew for lunch and cold bully beef for supper; tea, bread and jam at all meals.’108 Nicholson declared that staff messes were always empty except at mealtimes: there was simply too much work to do.
The central figure in all this was the divisional commander, a major general aged anywhere between thirty-five (for the precocious Keppel Bethell) and his late fifties (for Bannatyne Allason, the first commander of 51st Highland, who wore the ribbon of the Kabul-Kandahar Star from Lord Roberts’ 1880 campaign). Many officers agreed with Nicholson that it was good for generals to be exposed to the gentle banter of the young, but when he joined 17th Division he found that different rules applied.
I joined a mess at which the divisional commander sat at one end of a long table and an uncouth spotty second-lieutenant at the other extremity … There was no general conversation, no laughter among the eighteen officers present. One meal in such a mess would have convinced a visitor that the division ‘Hadn’t a hope’.109
Major General Pilcher, the divisional commander, already had a reputation for unhandy relations with his subordinates. Stanhope was delighted to recall an incident when Pilcher was out and about, upbraiding officers and men who were not carrying respirators. He had borrowed one himself just before the trip, and when he took it out to show a harassed subaltern how it should be put on, he discovered that the case contained only ‘an old and dirty pair of socks’. He was replaced by Major General Philip Robertson: soon the food in the mess improved, the place was spotless and laughter was the rule. ‘We treated him as an older equal,’ wrote Nicholson, ‘which is the best sedative you can give any commander.’
The division’s chief of staff (General Staff Officer Grade 1) was, almost without exception, a regular officer and staff college graduate. His relationship with the commander was crucial, as Brigadier General Archibald ‘Sally’ Home admitted when he went to be GSO 1 of 46th North Midland Division on the Somme front in April 1916. Home had already been chief of staff to the cavalry corps, and this apparent step down was intended to give him the familiarity with infantry work which he would need if he was to go further on the staff. Indeed, he was ‘wondering what an infantry division is like, luckily a sahib commands it … Luckily I know him as he is Cis Bingham’s brother-in-law.’ ‘I don’t think I know very much about infantry,’ he confessed, ‘so I have to look wise.’ This wisdom included being surprised by the life led by the infantry. ‘A man has a pack weighing 56lbs on his back,’ he wrote, ‘and how he gets along at all is a marvel to me.’110 Home had moved north to become brigadier general, general staff to the testy Lieutenant General Hamilton-Gordon of IX Corps (whose temper was ruined, it was said, by the fact that he could not taste anything), probably following the career pattern sketched out by the military secretary’s department, by the time 46th Division attacked on 1 July, meeting total failure in its diversionary attack on Gommecourt. The next division south, 56th London, advanced much further, though at greater cost, and accusations of stickiness were not slow in coming.
The commander of 46th Division, Major General the Hon. Edward Montagu-Stuart-Wortley, was speedily sacked following an unfavourable report from his corps commander, Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Snow.
His Division showed a lack of offensive spirit in the recent operations and I attributed this to the fact that Stuart-Wortley was not on account of his physical condition and age able to get about the trenches as much as was necessary for a Divisional Commander to do in this sort of war.
Haig informed the military secretary at the War Office that he was not prepared to have him back in France as a divisional commander. The general at once protested, but although he was given an understrength division in Ireland he was never employed again on active service.111 Home admitted that ‘the failure has been a great blow to me as I helped in the preparations and was responsible for the preliminary work’.112 It is hard to resist the conclusion that Montagu-Stuart-Wortley, past his fighting best at fifty-eight, would have profited from experienced infantry advice in planning his attack, one of the most difficult on the first day of the Somme because its left flank was wide open.
It was helpful for a chief of staff and his commander to have different personalities: if one was a generalist, the other should be a man of detail; if one was taciturn, the other should be outgoing. ‘To get the best out of a combination of men,’ suggested Nicholson, ‘you must have diversity; all high cards, but no pairs.’ Allenby of 3rd Army had not earned the nickname ‘the Bull’ for nothing, and when he left his headquarters the staff would warn subordinates with the Morse letters BBL for ‘Bloody Bull Loose’. Lord Stanhope, who grew to like him, thought that though ‘to some extent he consulted his subordinate commanders, they were nervous of expressing an opinion as he was liable to be severe of anything he thought foolish’. His chief of staff, Hugh Jeudwine, had what his obituarist called ‘a firm, uncompromising outlook’ and Stanhope thought the combination altogether too tough. The only man who could bend Allenby seemed to be his pleasant aide de camp Captain Dalmeny – ‘the bull pup’ – who ‘used to take him out for a walk and bring him back in a peaceful frame of mind’. Plumer and his chief of staff Major General Sir Charles ‘Tim’ Harington worked together so well that Charteris thought it impossible to see where one ended and the other began. Sometimes Harington would rough out a plan and pass it to Plumer for comment, or sometimes the process would work in reverse, with Plumer initiating the scheme and passing it round for the view of his staff. Stanhope, with his extensive experience of headquarters, thought him ‘much the best of our higher commanders’.113
The ‘rule of differents’ also applied at divisional level. Lieutenant Colonel Jack Collins, GSO1 of 17th Division, ‘had all the fire and enthusiasm the general lacked’, and it was an index of the quality of his staff, which worked with broad direction but little detailed supervision, that an artillery brigade attached from another division ‘gave us the unstinted meed of praise that, of the nine divisions that had shot over, we were the only division who really looked after them’.114 But his successor was a man for detail and the mood changed at once.
Previously G2 rang up for buses. ‘That you, Quack, one bus forward, please.’ ‘OK,’ replies Philips, and his OK is absolutely safe. Too trivial a matter for me [the division’s senior administrative staff officer] to know anything about. Now the telephone rings. ‘The GSO(1) would like to see the AA&QMG-’ The G1 looks up, but keeps writing; then ‘I need a bus, please; it’s got to be at Hinges at exactly 1500 hours. Will you see that it doesn’t fail?’ It’s a pinprick, of course; he ignores me but then I deal in many big problems and have a numerous staff for the trifles. So I go back. ‘Underline it, Quack.’115
In all headquarters it was important for the staff branches to pull together. They were usually in different rooms or huts, and it was easy for them to drift into the backwaters of specialisation. Some staffs maintained a rule of personal contact, which decreed that as much business as possible would be done face to face, and that even unexpected visitors would always be met by an officer with a clear view of the big picture. When Lord Stanhope went to XIII Corps he found a state of ‘armed neutrality’ between
His commander, Lieutenant General Sir Walter Congreve, was so involved with the troops that he made himself unpopular with his divisions and brigades, and was so worn out by this that he seemed unaware of what was wrong with his headquarters.
When Stanhope moved on to III Corps, under Lieutenant General Sir Claude Jacob, he found things altogether better. This was, he thought, because Jacob never went up the line, and ‘was thus better able to keep a wide view … While not a clever man he had sound common sense and good judgement. His staff advised him, and Divisional Staffs liked and trusted him, as did the troops.’ Jacob was also not prepared to allow himself to be browbeaten by army commanders. When Gough criticised a plan of attack during Third Ypres, Jacob replied ‘that he must carry out his attacks in his own way or he had better resign and hand over command of III Corps to someone else. Sir Hubert Gough replied that this was the last thing he wanted and let him carry out the attack as he planned it. The attack was a wonderful success.’116 Walter Guinness, then serving on the staff of one of Jacob’s brigades, thought him ‘a very good soldier, but there is little confidence in our Army Commander (Sir Hubert Gough)’ whose staff, by comparison with those of Second Army, ‘struck one as haphazard in its methods’.117
There were functional differences between all these levels of command. Armies prepared large-scale plans of their own either within the context of a campaign plan laid down by GHQ, or on their own initiative. The scheme for Cambrai resulted from ideas put forward by the headquarters of the Tank Corps, with its laterally-thinking chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel J. F. C. Fuller, and the groundbreaking concepts of Brigadier General Hugh ‘Owen’ Tudor, CRA of 9th Scottish Division. Byng backed the radicals, and persuaded Haig to let him try. It was arguably Haig’s readiness to allow the battle to become attritional after its initial success, rather than to order Byng to cut his losses, that paved the way for the depressing setback which came with the German counterattack. The attack on Messines Ridge was contrived and executed by 2nd Army on the direction of, but with minimal interference from, GHQ.
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