“It is a simple historical fact that the British Generals of the First World War, whatever their faults, did not fail in their duty. It was not a British delegation that crossed the lines with a white flag in November 1918. No German Army of Occupation was stationed on the Thames, the Humber or the Tees. No British Government was forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty. The British Generals had done their duty. Their Army and their country were on the winning side. That is the only proper, the only sensible starting point for the examination of their quality.”
Thus wrote John Terraine in his 1980 book ‘The Smoke and the Fire’, and yet here we are nearly forty years later, and still the debate rages. Luckily for all of us, far more qualified people than yours truly have aired their opinions over the ensuing years on the competence or otherwise of British Great War generals, including some of you lot, so it isn’t their quality that we shall primarily be looking at during this series of posts, although doubtless we shall touch on it at times. It is their bravery. The posts are intended, I hope, to serve as a refutation of the whole ‘Château General’ concept on behalf of a group of these generals who were unable to answer back when it came to the post-war recriminations and character assassinations. Because, of course,…
…they were dead.
Around one third of the men you are going to meet over the next six posts were either killed in action, or died of wounds received in action; they did not die of sickness, or disease, or old age, or for any reason other than enemy action. They died because they were close enough to the front lines to be obliterated by a German shell or picked off by the infamous sniper’s bullet. And every single one of them died before 11th November 1918. The remaining two thirds are those generals who were wounded during the war; some lightly, some seriously, some to return to command and others not, but surviving, as opposed to being killed, sheer luck in the mayhem of war, surely should not preclude these men from this series, nor does it suggest in any way that their bravery was anything but equal to those who died.
These were no ‘Château Generals’. Maybe they should have been.
1914 saw the deaths in action of four British generals, the trend continuing into 1915. By October that year British High Command, after another five generals had been killed in quick time, a sixth captured, and at least three wounded at the Battle of Loos, were becoming increasingly concerned that the deaths of their generals was wasting years of experience that would be required in the months and years ahead and could not be easily replaced, and thus with great common sense, issued an edict that senior officers should not visit the front line, indeed ‘no staff officer was to go nearer to the trenches than a certain line.’ The generals who did stay in their châteaux – the men whose reputations would be trashed by, first, the great Welsh comedian Lloyd George in his 1933 memoirs, and then later, in the 1960s, by Alan Clark and his ‘lions led by donkeys’* and the film ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’, and, moving on a few decades, dare I say it, by Blackadder, which, like it or not, could be seen as a primary influence on a generation’s view of the Great War British generals, and like the rest made no distinction between ability and bravery – were actually obeying instructions, if not orders.
*Clark used the purported conversation between Ludendorff and Major-General Carl Adolf Maximilian Hoffmann (rated by some historians as the finest staff officer of his generation) as the title of his book. Ludendorff was supposed to have commented that the English soldiers fight like lions, to which Hoffmann responded, “True, But don’t we know that they are led by donkeys.” Hoffmann appeared to have a serious sense of humour, if that isn’t an oxymoron. After the war, while touring the Tannenberg battlefield with a group of army cadets, he was reported as telling the students “See – this is where Hindenburg slept before the battle, this is where Hindenburg slept after the battle, and between you and me, this is where Hindenburg slept during the battle”.
These British generals had served their country for many years and in many campaigns and they knew the importance of morale on their troops. They put themselves in danger because they believed that their presence would help to maintain that morale, and perhaps because many could not get the ‘whites of their eyes’ syndrome out of their system. These men wanted to be in the thick of the action, as many of them had been in previous conflicts, their very reason d’être being to serve their country in times of war. And to win. So we are going to meet some of them in these posts, all human beings with two arms and two legs (at least to begin with), and huge responsibility on their collective shoulders during a war that began with plumed-helmeted cavalry skirmishing on the French border, and turned into the greatest industrial conflict the world had ever seen.
Following the outbreak of war on 4th August 1914, the first British troops would find themselves crossing the Channel and disembarking at the French ports within just three days. The Battle of Mons would follow on 23rd August, and at the Battle of Le Cateau, on 26th August, the British would suffer their first reported General Officer casualty when Brigadier-General Frederick William Nicholas McCracken D.S.O., G.O.C.* 7th Brigade, 3rd Division (above), was incapacitated by a shell blast. McCracken would return, as a Major-General, to command 15th Division in 1915 and, from 1917, XIII Corps as a Lieutenant-General; indeed many of the wounded men you will meet during these posts were able to return to duty, and did so, some following severe injuries, many to be wounded again. Most of those generals wounded more than once have been placed in this chronological list at the date of their last wound, their previous wounds mentioned in the text where I am aware of them, although doubtless there are other cases that I have yet to uncover.
*General Officer Commanding
Brigadier-General Robert Scott-Kerr, G.O.C. 4th Guards Brigade, 2nd Division (left), would be the second general to be wounded, and the first to be permanently put out of action, when he was badly shot in the thigh by a machine gun on 1st September 1914 at Villers-Cotterets as the retreat from Mons continued. Although he would survive his injuries he would not return to overseas duty, holding a command in the Home Forces until 1918. Next to him in the centre is Brigadier-General Neil Douglas Findlay, C.R.A.* 1st Division, killed on 10th September 1914 aged 55, and the first British General Officer to die in action in the Great War. Whilst selecting positions for his artillery near Priez, south of Soissons, a group of returning infantry passed close by, attracting German shell fire, one nearby shell burst mortally wounding Findlay, who died soon after. He was buried initially in Courchamps churchyard, his body later moved to Vailly British Cemetery. And on the right, Brigadier-General Richard Cyril Byrne Haking, G.O.C. 5th Brigade, 2nd Division, wounded by shellfire on the Chemin des Dames on 16th September 1914. Haking would return to command XI Corps, controversially, at both Loos in 1915 and Fromelles in 1916, and for a period in 1919 he was Chief of the British Armistice Commission.
*Commanding Royal Artillery
Following the Miracle of the Marne in early September 1914, where the French and British Armies halted the German advance on Paris, the Race for the Sea saw both sides turn north. The flatlands of French Flanders would be the scene of the second British general to die. On 14th October 1914, at Vieille Chapelle, about five miles away in the direction in which we are looking in the above photograph, Major-General Hubert Ion Wetherall Hamilton, G.O.C. 3rd Division, while personally reconnoitering to find out why his left flank was not advancing, was hit in the forehead as a salvo of shells burst over him and his fellow officers, killing him almost instantly. Originally buried in La Couture churchyard that night, his body was soon repatriated to England, and on 21st October 1914 he was buried in St. Martin’s churchyard in Cheriton, Kent. He was 53.
On 31st October 1914, with the First Battle of Ypres at its height and a German breakthrough still thought possible, the commanders of the British 1st & 2nd Divisions, Lieutenant-General Sir Samuel Lomax (left) and Major-General Sir Charles Monro (right) arranged a meeting at Hooge Château (bottom left in 1914, bottom right in 1915), less than two miles behind the front lines (Haig and his staff had, incidentally, vacated the château only shortly beforehand). An eye witness recalled seeing the approach to the château packed with cars, a sure sign to the Germans on the ridges to the east that something of interest was taking place. At around 1.30 in the afternoon the first shell landed in the château’s gardens; many within rushed to the window to see the damage, seemingly unaware of the danger. Monro used the interruption to leave the room for a discussion with his Chief of Staff, which probably saved his life. The second shell burst just outside the window, sending blast and jagged shards of metal tearing through the room and the men within it. One, maybe two, more shells hit the château, but the second shell had done the damage. Lomax was severely wounded and evacuated, eventually to England, where we will encounter him again in a later post. Monro, standing in the doorway, was concussed but otherwise unhurt. Lomax’s Chief of Staff, Colonel F. W. Kerr, and another senior staff officer, Major George Paley, were killed, as were Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Percival, who was virtually blown to pieces, Captain Rupert Ommanney, and artillery officer Major Francis Chenevix Trench*, all 2nd Division, and a number of others were injured, two of whom, Captain Graham Shedden of the Royal Garrison Artillery and Captain Robert Giffard, Lomax’s A.D.C., would shortly die.
*unlike Percival, it seems it may have been blast that killed Trench, who although still breathing when found, showed ‘no signs of suffering on his face’ as he died.
Both Shedden and Giffard are buried in Ypres Town Cemetery, Shedden (above) apparently dying later on the day of the tragedy, and Giffard (below, his grave pictured just as the snow began to fall) a day later. The five other men who were killed can be found in the cemetery extension.
Apart from Monro and his Chief of Staff only one officer present, 1st Division’s Colonel Robert Whigham, later to become a general himself, would escape serious injury. The Hooge Château disaster was probably the worst single incident to affect British divisional command during the entire war, and how inescapably ironic, bearing in mind our subject matter, that all the men killed were actually inside a château at the time.
Later that day, on Haig’s agreement, Brigadier-General Edward Stanislaus Bulfin (top) was informed by Brigadier-General Sir John Edmond Gough V.C., Chief of Staff 1st Army, who would himself be killed in action the following year, that Bulfin was to replace Lomax. The very next day, 1st November, Bulfin was wounded in the head and side by a shell near the Menin Road, somewhere in the region of the photograph, although he would soon return to command 28th Division at Second Ypres and later at Loos. And one day later, on 2nd November, Brigadier-General Harold Goodeve Ruggles-Brise, G.O.C. 20th Brigade, 7th Division (bottom), was wounded by shell fire in both arms and the shoulder-blade near Gheluvelt; he too would return to action, commanding 40th Division from the Battle of Loos onwards.
Bulfin, third from right and by now a Lieutenant-General commanding XIII Corps, pictured with other staff officers in Jerusalem in March 1918.
As November progressed, two more British generals would die and another would be wounded in less than 48 hours, all three within a few miles of each other. On the left, Brigadier-General Norman Reginald McMahon D.S.O., G.O.C. 4th Bn. Royal Fusiliers, 3rd Division, who was killed on 11th November 1914 at Herenthage Wood, east of Hooge, on the south side of the Menin Road. In the face of severe German pressure McMahon, whilst rallying his troops, was seen to sink to one knee and begin to remove his leggings, as if hit in the leg. As he did so a shell exploded nearby, killing him instantly. His body was lost in the subsequent fighting and his name can be found on the Ploegsteert Memorial. He was 48. Later that night, in the early hours of 12th November, Brigadier-General Charles Fitzclarence V.C. (centre), aged 49 and G.O.C. 1st Guards Brigade, 1st Division, was killed during an attack at Polygon Wood, hit by fire from the German trenches on the west edge of the wood. His body was not recovered and his name now appears on the Menin Gate, the highest ranking officer among the 54,000 names (hence he is today referred to as O.C. Menin Gate) to be found on the memorial. The same day, 12th November, Brigadier-General Frederick Charles Shaw, G.O.C. 9th Brigade, 3rd Division, on the right, was wounded by shell fire east of Hooge, although he would return for the Gallipoli campaign the following year.
As the first winter of the war set in, the opening months of conflict had seen the deaths of four British generals, alongside another eight wounded, if you include Monro, as I have. And this, as it would turn out, would be just the very tip of the iceberg.