Thursday, 3 March 2011

Sir Ian Hamilton - Who's who in Scottish Military History

If you visit the Scottish War Museum at Edinburgh Castle there is a glass case in one room which contains the medals of a certain Scottish general. There are a lot of medals; probably more medals than any other Scot has been awarded before or since. They belonged to a man who joined the army in 1873 and lived to see the end of the Second World War. His military career effectively ended in 1915 but before that he had served in Afghanistan, India, Burma, South Africa, Sudan, The North West Frontier of India, South Africa again and even served beside the Japanese in Manchuria.

General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton G.C.B. G.C.M.G. D.S.O. T.D. was born in 1853 on Corfu, which at that time was part of the British Empire. He knew from an early age he wanted to follow his Scottish father into the army. After an education which included learning the science of war from a German general he joined the 12th Foot. By 1878 he had managed to get a transfer into the 92nd Gordon Highlanders and it was with them that he won many of his laurels over the next twenty years.

The Gordons had a tough but rewarding time in Afghanistan, and Hamilton was awarded the first of his many medals. The Afghanistan War Medal 1878-80 with two clasps 'Charasia' & 'Kabul'; he was also mentioned in despatches twice. He also met his mentor Sir Frederick Roberts - 'Bobs'. Roberts commanded the British Army in Afghanistan and over the next thirty year Roberts, who became Britain's most famous soldier, would help Hamilton climb through the ranks.

Not that Hamilton needed much help. He was a keen and driven regimental officer. So keen that when in Cawnpore in India in 1881 when he and the other junior officer of the 92nd heard of the Boer uprising in Transvaal in Africa they decided they would go over their commanders' heads and contact London. Hamilton felt a regiment at the top of its game like the Gordons would be better employed in a war than on garrison duty so they telegrammed the War Office and asked to be sent to the Transvaal. The War Office agreed and sent the Gordons from India to Africa.

Unfortunately on this occasion the Gordons were outclassed by the Boers and suffered a heavy defeat at Majuba Hill. Hamilton was badly wounded at Majuba, a bullet shattered his left wrist and for the rest of his life he couldn't use the fingers on his left hand. He remained in the army though and over the next few years he steadily rose in rank including becoming the youngest colonel in the army in 1891 and earned more mentions in despatches, and more medals.
He would often cut short his leave to join expeditions in far flung parts of the Empire when he heard of them. In interview filmed in the 1930's he says "For war, and by war - war was my life". Whenever the British Army was in a scrape Hamilton wanted to be in the thick of it.

By the close of the 2nd Boer War in 1902 he had been in many engagements, often in the middle of the action and he had attained the rank of Lieutenant General. It is said he had twice been recommended for the V.C. but they were turned down because of his senior rank. It is also said he had lost out on a V.C. after Majuba because he was too junior! Hamilton doesn't seem to have been the type who would have let that sort of thing bother him though.

He then moved into a series of general staff appointments. Military Secretary at the War Office, then Quartermaster General of the Army, then General Officer Commanding Southern Command and an appointed to the Army Council. Hamilton was keen on training and musketry and was a dedicated soldier. All his energies went in to improving the efficiency of the soldiers under him.
He even found time to get attached to the Imperial Japanese Army in Manchuria where he was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure and Russia-Japanese War Medal. A spell in Berlin also allowed him to acquire the Order of the Prussian Crown and Order of the Red Eagle for his ever growing chest of medals

His next appointment was an important one. He was created General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Mediterranean and Inspector-General of the Overseas Forces. This meant he made visits to all outposts of Empire including visiting the armies of Australia and New Zealand. The contacts he made during these years before the First World War would stand him in good stead in 1915.

At the outbreak of war in 1914 he was in Whitehall. Although Hamilton was a very experienced soldier he was not sent to France. Instead he was given Central Command in the UK. There was talk of him replacing Sir John French as C-in-C of the BEF in late 1914 but Joffre was unhappy about French being replaced and instead that job would later go to another Scot - Haig.

Hamilton had to bide his time in Whitehall waiting for a field command. In March 1915 Kitchener chose him to lead the British land forces in the attack on Gallipoli. The Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. Winston Churchill was sure the Navy would break through to Constantinople on their own but a land force was assembled anyway. As Kitchener saw it if the Royal Navy couldn't manage it, then it was up to the Army.

Hamilton was under no illusions that this was the biggest task he had ever faced. Churchill convinced him that with the Ottoman Empire out of the war and the Dardanelles in Allied hands then the war would soon turn the Allies way. This campaign was no side-show to the war in France he was told - it was a war winner and once he landed Hamilton must do everything he could to make sure he kept the pressure on the Turks.

Unfortunately after all the campaigns he had served in Hamilton fell into an old trap. A trap he had fallen in to thirty four years before when he had underestimated the Boers at Majuba. This time he thought it would be the Turks who would be a push-over. In 1914 and early 1915 the Ottomans had not put up a great show but this was different. This was them fighting on home ground to defend their capital and they had German backing.

Because the Royal Navy and French Navy had been expected to carry the day, there had been no forward planning on a land campaign to take over when the Navy retreated. A hasty plan to attack the Gallipoli Peninsula was formulated. A lack of Intelligence, supplies and trained soldiers hampered British preparations. Coupled with this was a delay of four weeks between the navy's attack and the army's attack which allowed the Turks and Germans time to prepare strong defences in depth.

Hamilton came up with a bold plan of attack but his largely untried and untrained troops were simply not up to the task. They didn't lack bravery, they just couldn't handle an amphibious operation on such a scale. Apart from overestimating the capability of his own troops and underestimating the tenacity of his enemy, Hamilton also failed to take into account a drawn out campaign. He planned for a quick assault and attack up the peninsula. When his attack stalled he had no proper logistics in place to supply the troops in the trenches.

The first landings happened on 25th April 1915 but the man who had urged Colley to clear the Boers off Majuba Hill at the point of a bayonet could not find the same energy to encourage his own officers to now push their men forward. The attacks stalled and the Turks counter attacked. The British were soon forced back to holding onto their landing grounds. Between then and 8th May Hamilton's British and ANZAC troops took 20,000 casualties out of a force of 70,000.

Reinforcements were quickly sent from the UK to bolster Hamilton's force. The 52nd Lowland Division from Scotland was one of the units now sent to Gallipoli. Repeated failed attacks on the Turkish positions over the next few months meant that towns across Southern Scotland were suddenly suffering losses on a scale never seen before as Territorial units from the Borders and Southwest Scotland were almost wiped out. The 1/4th Bn King's Own Scottish Borderers which recruited from Berwickshire, Peebleshire, Roxburghshire and Selkirkshire almost ceased to exist on 12th July 1915 during the attack at Achi Baba Nullah when they took 535 casualties.

Hamilton pressed on with the campaign. He was determined to break the deadlock with a daring flanking attack at Suvla Bay. On 6th August 1915 his troops landed and whilst other units launched costly diversionary attacks his general in charge (Frederick Stopford) failed to push off the beaches and the attack once again stalled. Most of the generals involved at Suvla were sacked and Hamilton soon followed. On 16th October 1915 he was relieved of his command and returned to England.

That was effectively the end of Hamilton's military career. His last appointment was Lieutenant of the Tower of London in 1918 and he retired in 1920 after forty seven years service.

After the First World War Hamilton poured his energies into many things. Like Haig, Hamilton devoted much of his time to the welfare of former soldiers and the British Legion. He also spent many days in the early 1920s unveiling war memorials and as Colonel of his old regiment the Gordons he often attended their reunions.

He took up writing, including his memoirs of Gallipoli and he and his wife also decided to adopt two children, a boy and a girl. In the 1930s he had a spell as Rector of Edinburgh University and he also did his best to repair relationships with the Germans. He had studied in Germany as a boy and was prepared to forgive his former enemies more readily than most. In the Ian Hamilton papers in The Liddell Hart Centre there is a photograph of Hamilton visiting Nazi Germany in 1934 as part of the Anglo-German Association which he had helped form in 1928. The photograph shows him being entertained on a German warship under the command of Günter Prein. His visits were in vain. Prein would later achieve notoriety as the man to took U-47 into Scapa Flow to sink HMS "Royal Oak".

Unfortunately Hamilton was to live to see his adopted son die. Captain Harry Knight of the Scots Guards was killed in action in North Africa in 1941 just weeks after the death of his wife. He had married in India in 1887 and with son and wife gone his last few years seem to have been spent in quiet retirement. On 12th October 1947 at the age of ninety four the old warrior faded away

Here's the man himself in the uniform of Colonel of the Gordon Highlanders from the 1934 film "Forgotten Men: The War As It Was".

No comments:

Post a Comment