The Bulletin of the Birmingham Branch of the WFA


December 2010

General Lord Cavan, by J. P. Lethbridge


Frederick Rudolph Lambart (Lambart is an alternative version of  Lambert) the future tenth Earl of Cavan was born at Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire, where his mother was staying with her father the Reverend John Olive the village rector, on 16th October 1865.   His grandfather the 8th Earl of Cavan was still alive and his father held the family’s subsidiary title of Viscount Kilcoursie.

The Earldom of Cavan was an Irish title with no seat in the House of Lords.  Frederick Edward Gould Lambart Viscount Kilcoursie the future 9th Earl of Cavan (1839-1900) was a naval Lieutenant (the equivalent of an army Captain) who served in the Crimean War with Russia and against the Chinese; was Liberal MP for South Somerset from 1886 to 1892; and was a well known sportsman and travel writer.

Looking at the earlier history of the Earldom of Cavan  the 1st Earl of Cavan (1600-1660) acquired the Earldom in 1647 through fighting as a royalist in the Irish Civil War of the 1640’s when English and Anglo-Irish royalists, English parliamentarians, Ulster Scottish Presbyterians and the Irish fought a four sided civil war.  He was a Governor of Dublin and a member of the Irish Privy Council and led a ravaging campaign into the Irish held county of Wicklow in 1643. The father of the 1st Earl of Cavan was Sir Oliver Lambart the son of a London goldsmith i.e. banker who came from an old Lancashire family.  Sir Oliver was a soldier of fortune in the Dutch War of Independence, Drake’s attack on Cadiz in 1596 and the Elizabethan and Jacobean conquests of Ireland.  During the conquest of Ireland he was granted some lands and purchased others and so built up a great estate in county Cavan. He died in 1618.   

The future 10th Earl of Cavan was educated at Eton.  At sixteen he was rejected for the Eton Cadet Corps as too short and he had to wait another six months by which time he was five foot four inches tall.  From Eton he went to Sandhurst from where he joined the Grenadier Guards on 29th August 1885. In 1887 Lieutenant Lambart’s grandfather the 8th Earl of Cavan died.  His father became the 9th Earl of Cavan and the young officer in turn acquired his father’s subsidiary title of Viscount Kilcoursie.

From 1891 to 1893 Lieutenant Lambart the Viscount Kilcoursie was Aide de Camp to Lord Stanley the future 16th Earl of Derby the Governor General of Canada.  In 1893 he reverted to regimental duty and married Caroline Inez Crawley the daughter of George Baden Crawley.  The marriage was childless.

Lieutenant Lambart was promoted Captain in October 1897 and was appointed adjutant.  In 1900 he took command of a company and fought with his battalion in the Boer War fighting at Biddulphsberg and Wittebergen. In 1900 while he was in South Africa his father died and he became Captain the 10th Earl of Cavan or Captain Lord Cavan for short.

In October 1902 Captain Lord Cavan was promoted Major and in February 1908 he was made a Lieutenant Colonel and assumed command of the 1st Battalion of the Grenadier Guards.   He was a capable trainer of troops and in October 1911 Cavan was promoted full Colonel butin 1912, aged 47, he went on half pay preparatory to retirement.  In 1913 he took temporary command of a Guards’ Brigade during summer exercises but he disliked peace time high command and in November 1913 not knowing war was coming he retired.

Apart from their other properties the Earls of Cavan owned large estates in the Home Counties.  The 10th Earl of Cavan retired to his estate at Wheathampstead near St Albans and spent his time fishing, golfing and being master of the Hertfordshire Hunt. 

In August 1914 after war broke out  the Earl of Cavan rejoined the army and was given command of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st London Division of the Territorial Army.  On 19th September 1914 he went to France and took command of the 4th Guards Brigade after Brigadier General Scott-Kerr was wounded.

Brigadier General Lord  Cavan and his brigade fought well at First Ypres and after Brigadier General Bulfin was wounded he commanded a force of two brigades. 

In May 1915 the Earl of Cavan and  4th Guards Brigade were in action at Festubert.  He insisted on stopping their attack when it had clearly been checked rather than pressing on for he cared more for the  life of his men than for a few acres of mud.

The Earl of Cavan was promoted Major General in June 1915 and given command of the 50th Northumbrian Division a Territorial unit.   In August 1915 he was given command of the newly formed Guards Division.  It fought well at Loos and the Earl was both liked and respected by his subordinates.

In January 1916  the Earl was given command of XIV Corps and  was made a Lieutenant General.  The Guards Division usually formed a part of this Corps other divisions coming and going.   Ordinary soldiers referred to anything above their division as higher echelons.

In August 1916 XIV Corps took over the right flank of the Somme campaign opposite Guillemont as part of Rawlinson’s Fourth Army.  The Earl proved a capable army corps commander and in September 1916 his Corps’s successes included the capture of  the fiercely defended ruined hamlets of Morval and Lesbouefs on the 25th and the large village of Combles the next day.  British casualties in these operations were high but so were German casualties. 

October 1916 saw XIV Corps press on gaining some ground at the cost of further heavy casualties.

Field Marshal Haig and General Rawlinson of Fourth Army were for carrying on the Battle of the Somme into November for intelligence reports spoke correctly of the state of exhaustion of the German Army after Verdun and the Somme and under the impact of the first tanks German morale had shown signs of cracking. 

Given orders to carry on the attack on the 3rd November 1916 the Earl of Cavan pointed out that the troops were exhausted, enemy resistance was still powerful and winter with its cold, wet and mud which always favoured the defence was setting in.  To quote the official history “no one who had not visited the front could really appreciate the state of exhaustion to which his troops were reduced owing to the rain and mud and the long distance over which all food, water and battle stores had to be carried“.

To their credit Rawlinson and Haig accepted this protest and attacks in Cavan’s sector were scaled down.  Other Army Corps Commanders in Fourth Army and Gough of Fifth Army were less willing to protest or cared less for their troops and attacks still continued on the left flank.  These produced a notable victory in November 1916 when Gough’s Fifth Army captured three  ruined hamlets and seven thousand  prisoners but by and large they merely led to British forces advancing from hill positions with some natural drainage into marshy valley lands.

Lieutenant General Lord Cavan must be given great credit for knowing when to stop an attack.  His courage in defying his seniors was doubtless helped by his not being reliant on his army pay being extremely wealthy.  Haig and Rawlinson deserve some credit for accepting his defiance but less credit for failing to realise that other commanders might think the same but be scared to speak out.  Contrary to myth most British First World War generals were able men but few of them were willing to defy their superiors  in such circumstances although there were exceptions.  Men  who made such protests were sometimes sent home as in the case of  General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien in 1915.

XIV Corps was in reserve at Messines in June 1917.  It then fought at Passchendaele as part of Gough’s Fifth Army starting with the opening day at Pilckem Ridge on 31st July 1917.  Later the name of Langemarck loomed large.   By this time the Earl of Cavan had acquired a reputation as the best British Army Corps commander on the Western Front.   He was a good planner, paid attention to detail and cared for his troops.

In November 1917 after the Italian defeat at Caporetto in north east Italy General Plumer took a British force there and became British Commander in Chief in Italy.  His force included two Army Corps these being Lieutenant General Haking’s  XI Corps and  Lieutenant General Cavan’s XIV Corps.  Five Infantry Divisions were also sent these being the 5th, 7th, 23rd, 41st and 48th(South Midland) Divisions.   The Earl of Cavan went on ahead to help supervise the movement of the troops involved which was a major operation in itself given the limited railway communications between France and Italy,  Austria being an enemy and Switzerland neutral.

The British forces in Italy took up positions along the river Piave in north east Italy.  In March 1918 General Plumer and Lieutenant General Haking returned to France taking the 5th and 41st divisions with them.  These were needed to help stop the great German spring offensives. 

Lieutenant General Cavan then became Commander in Chief of British forces in Italy which took up positions in northern Italy on the Asiago Plateau facing the Austrians in the Alpine foothills.  Under his command were the remaining three British divisions and a bewildering variety of General Headquarters and Line of Communication Troops.   His Deputy Adjutant and Quarter Master General was Brigadier General Alexander to be famous in the Second World War as Field Marshal Alexander (1891-1969).

The British forces launched many trench raids and in June 1918 plans were afoot for a general offensive on the Italian front though the Earl of Cavan was cautious about them.   On 15th  June 1918 the Austrians went onto the offensive.  The British forces were taken by surprise Cavan expecting the brunt of  the Austrian attacks to fall on the French and Italians.

The brunt of the Austrian attack was born by the 48th South Midland Division.  Some lightly defended front line positions were taken and the Austrians penetrated some way into our lines capturing some artillery pieces.  The commander of the 48th Division Major General Sir Robert Fanshawe launched a well timed counter attack, using troops which had been deliberately kept in reserve, and  the captured positions and artillery pieces were retaken.  Both sides suffered heavy casualties the Austrian Casualties undoubtedly being the heaviest.

After this battle the Earl of Cavan had Major General Fanshawe sent home where he took command of the 69th(2nd East Anglian) Division a home defence and training Territorial unit.  Fanshawe had organised what he saw as a successful defence in depth believing that his forward positions were too vulnerable to bombardment to be the main line of defence.  This would have been correct tactics against the Germans.  However conforming to national stereotypes the Austrian artillery was less efficient  than the German and elsewhere French troops had successfully held their forward positions.

Essentially the Earl of Cavan had made a scapegoat of a capable divisional commander.  Fanshawe was however allowed to fall on his feet so probably Cavan was thinking of Italian feelings.

In October 1918 the main British forces moved back to the Piave Valley.  The  Earl of Cavan became an acting full General and took command of  the 10th Army which contained a British Army Corps under Lieutenant General Babington which contained two British divisions; and an Italian Corps under an Italian general which contained two Italian divisions.  One British division the 48th remained in the Asiago area.

General Cavan’s Army stormed the Austrian defences on the line of  the River Piave an operation which required both fighting skill and a massive logistical effort particularly in bringing up bridging materials and boats.  The name of  Papadopoli Island  loomed large. 

10th Army then played a leading part in the final battle of Vittorio Veneto in which the Italians avenged their defeat at Caporetto.  In eleven days of pursuit Cavan’s British and Italian soldiers captured more than thirty four thousand prisoners and over two hundred and forty artillery pieces.  The British forces suffered just over sixteen hundred casualties.

While Rawlinson’s victory at Amiens in August 1918 and Allenby’s defeat of the Turks at Megiddo in September 1918 were the two most crucial victories of the closing stages of the war the battle of Vittorio Veneto sped up the Austrian surrender and also therefore sped up the final German surrender.  It quite possibly shortened the war by weeks or even months.

The Earl of Cavan then opposed over enthusiastic Italian plans for an invasion of Bavaria.  In January 1919 he returned home.  He was replaced in command of  British forces in Italy and Austria by his former subordinate Lieutenant General Babington.

The Earl of Cavan was given Aldershot Command in November 1920.  In 1921 he was made a substantive full General. 

From 1922  to 1926 Cavan was Chief of the Imperial General Staff.  He was aware of the need for mechanisation which made some progress despite large scale defence cuts which were made in a world which seemed to be securely at peace.  Hitler was still regarded as being no more of a danger than we today regard the present German neo-Nazis;  Mussolini was in power in Italy but his designs on Malta were regarded as a nuisance rather than a serious threat in the absence of German backing; and the leaders of Japan were concentrating on expanding their international trade.

Among the Cavan’s actions as Chief of the Imperial General Staff was making the Tank Corps a permanent body.  This ended plans to get rid of our tanks or alternatively split them up between other branches of the Army.

The Earl of Cavan's first wife Caroline Inez the Countess of Cavan had died in 1920.  In 1922 he remarried.  His second wife was Lady Joan Mulholland  the widow of Captain the Honourable Andrew Mulholland who had been killed in action in 1914.  They had two daughters.

In 1927 General Cavan accompanied the Duke of York on a royal visit to Australia and New Zealand.  In 1932 he was promoted Field Marshal.  He commanded the troops at the coronation of George VI in 1937.   This task was an important responsibility since apart from the actual organisation the heated atmosphere created by the abdication of Edward VIII and the awkward European situation meant that real security was necessary. 

Field Marshal the Earl of Cavan died on the 28th August 1946 aged 80.  His title passed to his brother.

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