Bob Butcher has compiled these ‘pen pictures’ of the Generals who at some time commanded one of the five armies that constituted the BEF. Some are well-known, others less so, but as a group they are often regarded as ’butchers and bunglers’. It may therefore be of interest to have a look at them and the main operations while the commanded an army.
EDMUND ALLENBY: Third Army October 1915 – June 1917 (Former cavalry)
Nick-named ‘The Bull’ on account of his explosive temper. He mishandled the Gommecourt diversion on 1 July 1916. Achieved good results in opening stages of Arras 1917 but allowed it to drag on into a battle of attrition and diminishing returns. He was concerned to keep the pressure off the mutinous French Army. He was appointed C in C Egypt and Palestine where he conducted a brilliant campaign.
WILLIAM BIRDWOOD: Fourth Army renamed Fifth Army February 1918 (Former Cavalry)
He had made his name commanding the ANZACS at Gallipoli and then on the Western Front. A good leader admired by his troops. When he toured Australia and New Zealand after the war he was mobbed by enthusiastic veterans calling out ‘Good old Birdie’. His Fifth Army had a relatively quiet time under his command but did everything demanded of it.
JULIAN BYNG: Third Army June 1917 (Former Cavalry)
HUBERT GOUGH: Fifth Army 1916-1918 (Former Cavalry)
He was Haig’s favourite General, a ‘thruster’ who aimed at distant objectives. His reputation as someone who was careless in his planning and pushed tired men too hard meant he was not universally popular among the troops. This was especially so among the Canadians and Australians. Staff and subordinate commanders disliked serving under him. He was responsible for the Fromelles disaster and for the mishandling of Third Ypres, although he did gain more ground at lower cost than Plumer. He bore the brunt of the German Spring Offensive in 1918, following which he was sacked. He may have handled the situation well, but it was his reputation that did for him.
DOUGLAS HAIG: First Army 1915 (Former Cavalry)
Little to criticise about his command during Second Ypres, but he must share some of the responsibility with the C in C for the mishandling of the reserves at Loos. After a good start the battle was an expensive failure, but he managed to shift the blame on to the C in C. A cold and distant man, but an efficient commander.
HENRY HORNE: First Army 1916-1918 (Former Artillery)
The Canadians were part of Horne’s First Army when they captured Vimy Ridge. The remainder of that Army’s operations at the time played an important part in the Third Army’s successes at Arras. Subsequent operations around Lens and Hill 70 employed ‘bite and hold ‘tactics. The First Army performed well during the 1918 Spring Offensive and during ‘The Last 100 Days’. He was regarded as a competent but unspectacular commander well-known for his careful planning and skilful use of artillery.
CHARLES MONRO: Third Army 1915, First Army 1916 (Former Infantry)
In between commanding the Third and then the First Army’s, he was in command at Gallipoli. Early in his command of The First, he lost ‘The Kink’ on the old Loos battlefield. His only attack was at Fromelles which was a serious reverse. He was made C in C of India in October 1916.
HERBERT PLUMER: Second Army 1915-1918 (Former Infantry)
He was ‘Everyone’s favourite General’ and was responsible for the Ypres Salient from May 1915 until the end of the war, except for a brief spell commanding British troops in Italy. He was known for his meticulous planning, especially at Messines and Passchendaele, and his concern for the welfare of his troops. He was an exponent of ‘bite and hold’ tactics and massive bombardments. Early in his command of the Second Army he lost ‘The Bluff’ and Haig considered sacking him, but didn’t and came to value him. His conduct of the latter stages of Passchendaele, have been compared favourably with that of Gough’s.
HENRY RAWLINSON: Mainly Fourth Army1916-1917/18 (Former Guards)
He commanded the First Army throughout 1915 and the Fourth Army from February 1916 until November 1917 when he took over the Second Army which was re-designated the Fourth. In March 1918 he was appointed commander of the Fifth Army which was re-designated the Fourth. All this is very confusing! He is mainly associated with The Somme and The Last Hundred Days. He is generally associated with ‘bite and hold’ tactics but his insistence on 1st July on rigid tactics and a steady advance across no man’s land led to higher casualties. A few days later he authorised a successful dawn attack According to Ian Beckett he ‘presided over some of the most successful operations of the British Army….but also some of its worst catastrophes’
HORACE SMITH-DORRIEN: Second Army 1915 (Former Infantry)
An unlucky general in that he served under a C in C who disliked him and had been appointed against the latter’s wishes. As a Corps Commander his stand at Le Cateau against the C in C’s wishes probably saved the BEF. As an army commander at Second Ypres he raised the possibility of a retirement from a virtually indefensible line and was sacked. His successor carried out the same movement with the C in C’s approval. It can be said that ‘SD’ had a more realistic view of what was happening on the ground than most generals.
You will have your own views as to whether the army commanders were ‘butchers and bunglers’ but they all had good days as well as bad ones. Like generals of all warring armies they had much to learn. They all had to play the hand they were dealt; what would Allenby’s reputation be if he had not gone to Palestine and would Gough have done well if he had gone there instead?
‘MY BOY JACK’
Among the casualties at Loos was Second Lieutenant John (Jack) Kipling of the Irish Guards. He was Rudyard Kipling’s only son and had been in France for just a month. His father had used his considerable influence to get his son a commission at the age of seventeen. He was killed in an area of the battlefield known as The Chalk Pit.
Despite repeated visits to the battlefield, his failure to locate his son’s remains would haunt him for the rest of his life. He dedicated much time to the work of The Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Jack’s remains were identified in 1992, although this is disputed by some, and a new headstone bearing his name was erected in St Marys Dressing Station Cemetery.
Kipling’s sense of guilt is perhaps summarised in the couplet ‘If any ask us why we died/ Tell them ‘Because our fathers lied’
Margot Asquith records in her diary asking Lord Kitchener if the Guards were ‘much knocked about ‘at Loos. His response was, ‘I’ve not looked at the casualty lists, I never do’.
NURSE EDITH CAVELL
Nurse Edith Cavell was executed by the Germans on 12th October 1915. She had been found guilty of treason, specifically for providing ‘reinforcements’ for Germany’s enemies. She had confessed to helping Allied troops escape. Her treatment was described at the time in the British press as callous, brutal and barbarous, but Nurse Cavell said ‘ I have no fear …I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me ‘.
Dame Stella Rimington the former head of MI5 was recently reported as having uncovered in Belgian archives clear evidence ‘that her organisation was involved in sending back secret intelligence to the Allies’