Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Senior Scottish Generals of the First World War

In the First World War four commanders-in-chief of British forces were Scottish. It was probably more accident than design why a small group of Scotsmen should hold such high command around the same time. They don't seem to have been great friends and they had different backgrounds before achieving high rank.

The titles they held were Commander-in-Chief India, Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, Commander-in-Chief British Expeditionary Force and Commander-in-Chief British Salonika Army.

The four soldiers were Douglas Haig, Ian Hamilton, Beauchamp Duff and George Milne. We've covered two of them in Who's Who posts on this blog already so it will only be a quick summary today.

Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief British Expeditionary Force

We have covered Haig before. He’s the most well known of the four and he had the top job. In late 1915 he took over the command of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders and oversaw the bloody battles of the Somme and Passchendaele. He also led the British Army to victory in 1918. It was his army which beat the German Army in the field and captured 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns almost as much as the French, American and Belgian armies combined. General Pershing the US commander in France called him “The man who won the war”. Apart from commanding the BEF, the divisions and corps fighting at the front; he also commanded all British and British Empire armies in France. That meant at its peak he commanded four million men.

Ian Hamilton, Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Expeditionary Force

Hamilton was a Who’s Who not so long ago. He was a very experienced soldier when he got the top job in the Mediterranean in March 1915; this theatre covered Egypt and later Gallipoli. Hamilton was expected to take Constantinople and knock the Ottomans out of the war. It didn’t work out that way and by October 1915 his campaign in Gallipoli had stalled with huge loss of life and he was out of his job. This sacking effectively finished his military career.

Beauchamp Duff, Commander-in-Chief India

In March 1914 Lieutenant General Beauchamp Duff from Turriff in Aberdeenshire was appointed to one of the top jobs in the Empire. The Commander-in-Chief India was responsible for 250,000 men across what is now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Aden. It was a huge responsibility for Duff. And when war broke out a few months later he faced a huge challenge. He had to oversee an expansion of his army, he sent 100,000 men to France to help the then tiny British Expeditionary Force and he then had to send most of his forces to Egypt and later Mesopotamia. At the same time he had to continue to garrison the sub-continent.

In 1916 he was the man ultimately responsible for the disaster at the Siege of Kut-El-Amara where eight thousand British and Indian troops surrendered to the Ottoman Army and there had been a further twenty-three thousand casualties trying to relieve them. Duff was the fall guy and was sacked. He returned to the UK and faced an enquiry. Blamed for the debacle along with the Viceroy he tried to clear his name but when that failed he took his own life.

George Milne, Commander-in-Chief Salonika Army

Aberdonian Milne had a background in the army as a gunner, serving in the Royal Artillery from 1885. He was a Major General in command of 27th Division when he first was sent to Salonika in the north of Greece in 1915. His next appointment was to take over as Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in Thessalonika when it expanded and was renamed The Salonika Army. This wasn't a command as big as the others; there were seven British divisions fighting alongside French, Serbian, Greek, Italian and Russian troops all under the combined command of French general
Franchet d'Esperey. From 1915 his troops fought against the Bulgarians but after their collapse in October 1918 he finished the First World War pushing his troops towards Constantinople which soon capitulated. The Ottoman capital was in Milne's hands three years after Ian Hamilton had failed.

Out of the four only Milne survived the war with his reputation intact and lived to a long age.

Haig worked hard to do his best for his ex-soldiers but the work took its toll and he was dead within ten years of the end of the war. Duff had killed himself before the war was over. Hamilton lived a long life but his career was finished.

Milne made the rank of Field Marshal and was Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1926 to 1933. He was appointed Constable of The Tower of London from 1933 to 1938 and also in 1933 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Milne, of Salonika and of Rubislaw in the County of Aberdeen. Field Marshal George Francis Milne, 1st Baron Milne GCB, GCMG, DSO passed away peacefully aged 81 in 1948.


It is also worth mentioning another Scottish general who died just after the outbreak of the war. Lieutenant General James Grierson died of a heart attack in France on 17th August 1914 just as the British Army was arriving to fight the Germans.

Grierson was from Glasgow and like Milne had seen his early army service in the Royal Artillery. He had written several books military subjects and after the TF was formed in 1908 he wrote the history of the Scottish Volunteer force from 1859-1908. It was a comprehensive history and is still the definitive history of the Scottish volunteers over one hundred years after it was published.

Grierson was sent to France to command I Corps whilst Haig commanded II Corps. He was peer and rival of Haig, and in war games on Salisbury Plain in 1912 had actually beaten Haig. If Grierson had not died an untimely death he may have taken the top job instead of Haig in 1915.

Another Scot worth mentioning is the Edinburgh man Richard Haldane. Haldane had been in charge at the War Office in 1908 when he reformed the army and created the Territorial Force. Haldane and Haig worked together to prepare a British Expeditionary Force which could be sent to France at short notice.

Kitchener gets the glory for forming the New Armies of volunteers in 1914 but it was Haldane's foresight back in 1908 which prepared the British Army for the continental war ahead.

Not in a top job but another senior general was the Ayrshire man Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer Gould Hunter-Weston. The former Royal Engineer commanded VIII Corps at Gallipoli and on the first day of the Somme. There’s not much good you can say about Hunter-Weston. He seems to have had little imagination when it came to tactics and he sent thousands of his men to their deaths throughout the war.

I think I’ve covered the Scotsmen in the top jobs in the Great War but if you know of others in army Commander-in-Chief, or corps Commander roles please leave a comment here, or on our facebook page.

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