Saturday, 30 July 2011

Viscount Haldane - Who's Who in Scottish Military History

Today is the 155th anniversary of the birth of the politician Viscount Haldane. The Edinburgh born and bred MP came from a distinguished family of Perthshire soldiers and sailors, but he himself never served in the armed forces. He was a tubby intellectual once described as a speaking penguin. A Renaissance man not cut out for military life.

He is our Who’s Who in Scottish Military History today because in 1907 he was responsible for the Acts which transformed the British Army and prepared it for the First World War. His reforms also changed the Scottish Volunteer regiments into the Territorial Force. It was his reforms which led to the creation of two of Scotland’s most famous volunteer units; the Lowland Division and the Highland Division. They would achieve undying fame in two world wars as the 51st and 52nd Divisions and the name still lives on today in the 6th and 7th battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

Richard Haldane was born in 1856 in Charlotte square in Edinburgh, just round the corner from where Douglas Haig was born in 1860. Coincidentally the two would work closely together in the Edwardian War Office when Haldane was Secretary of State for War and Haig was a general and the Director of Staff Duties.

I’ll not go into detail of the life of Haldane in the years before 1905 because this is about Haldane the army reformer, not Haldane the politician.

He was appointed Secretary of State for War, the minister responsible for the army, in December 1905. He had been aware of the short-comings of the army since the 2nd Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. The Empire had won but had been humiliated on many occasions by the mostly volunteer Boer army. Haldane knew he needed to shake up the demoralised army from top to bottom. As far back as 1901 he stated he wanted ‘a comparatively small Army - one extremely efficacious and capable for foreign service’, but not one able to ‘compete with the enormous armaments of Europe’. Four years later he was in a position to put his theory into practice.

Almost immediately he was forced to create the British Expeditionary Force. Secret negotiations between the British and French governments in January 1906 committed Britain to sending an army to France in the event of a European War. Haldane created a BEF of six infantry divisions and one cavalry division out of the regular army troops garrisoned in the UK. Each infantry battalion, artillery battery, medical corps ambulance and engineer squadron was allocated to a brigade and division; and would be ready for war within a matter of days.

He then wanted to improve training. This was when he first came into contact with General Douglas Haig who was working as Director of Staff Duties at the War Office at the time. With Haldane’s help in quashing objections from other generals, Haig produced two volumes of the Field Service Regulations. For the first time the army had one set of manuals which covered the training and organisation of all branches of the army, including front line and line of communications troops. When war came all units would now be singing from the same hymn sheet.

Haldane’s next major reform was the creation of the Territorial Force. Haldane saw that the rifle volunteers formed in the 1850s and 1860s to defend Britain against French invasion could be reorganised into brigades and divisions to defend Britain from an attack by Germany. They could also potentially be used overseas too if the men volunteered.

He used the old Yeomanry units as the cavalry for his fourteen new territorial divisions. He also changed the status of the Militia. It was now renamed the Special Reserve and would be the holding unit for the regular battalions of a regiment for reserve soldiers recalled to the colours in the event of war.

At the same time as converting Yeomanry, Militia and Volunteers into an integrated defence and training force for a modern war, he also introduced the Officer Training Corps to schools and universities to train future officers. This part of his reforms alone would guarantee a pool of trained young officers ready to fill the ranks of the rapidly expanded army in 1914.

His last major reform at the War Office was the creation of the General Staff, and shortly afterwards the Imperial General Staff. Once again he worked with Haig on this reform, and this would pay dividends in the later war years when Haig was commander-in-chief in France, and responsible for large contingents of troops from Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa.

The one thing he didn’t do was introduce conscription. He resisted calls for it and was a great believer in his territorial force and OTC in producing hostilities-only soldiers out of keen volunteers.

In 1910 Haldane left the War Office. Haig who had worked closely with Haldane over the previous three years later called him "the greatest Secretary of State for War England has ever had". Haldane was hoping to go to the Admiralty and start his reforms there. His father had been in the Royal Navy and whilst in the cabinet Haldane had seen how unprepared the Navy was for a modern war against a European power. The job went to Churchill instead. It is now one of history’s what-ifs. What if Haldane had reformed the navy as successfully as he had the army?

Haldane had always had many German friends and spoke German fluently. Before 1914 he worked hard to keep the peace but one man could not stop the momentum building up in Europe for war. On the outbreak of war the prime minister called him back to mobilise the army. No-one knew what was needed better then Haldane. Asquith offered him his old job back at the War Office but Haldane turned it down and suggested an experienced soldier like Kitchener instead. Once again we have another what-if. Kitchener dismissed some of Haldane’s carefully prepared mobilisation plans. He reduced the BEF from six divisions to four and ignored the Territorial Force as reinforcements and instead called for his volunteer army to be raised. What if Haldane had been in charge? How would he have created an army of seventy divisions to fight a war against the most powerful army in Europe?

In August 1914 Haldane’s reforms were put to the test and they more than stood up to them. Crucially for the first time in a major war the British regular army knew exactly what to do on the outbreak of war. The divisions moved to France within days and the contemptible little army gave the Kaiser’s army a bloody nose at Mons and Le Cateau. The Territorial Force quickly moved to their war stations and almost to a man volunteered for overseas service. By 1915 many TF units were in action in France and Gallipoli and held the line before Kitchener’s New Army units were ready for action.

Ironically the man who had done so much to reform the army and prepare it for war found he was sidelined during the war because of his supposed German sympathies. His former allies failed to support him against the hostile press and he was forced to resign as Lord Chancellor just at the time his Territorial Force was going to war.

He remained a committed parliamentarian for the rest of his life serving both Liberal and Labour parties. He didn’t forget his homeland though and he had spells as Lord Rector of Edinburgh University, Chancellor of the University of St Andrews and was made a Freeman of the City of Edinburgh.

This most unlikely of Scottish Military heroes died at his family home in Perthshire in August 1928 just a few months after his old colleague Douglas Haig. ‘The Scotsman’ reported that the local territorials including the 6th/7th Bn Black Watch T.A. lined the roads for his funeral service at Auchterarder. Local resident General Sir Ian Hamilton was in attendance and a Black Watch piper played The ‘Flowers of the Forest’ at his graveside in Gleneagles Cemetery.

Twenty years after he had shaken up the war office the army had not forgotten that Haldane was the man responsible for their ability to fight in 1914, and fourteen years later they gave him a fitting send-off.

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