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«A Slashing Man of Action»

The Life of Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston MP

Elaine McFarland

Hailed by General Sir Ian Hamilton as «a slashing man of action», Aylmer Hunter-Weston began the Great War as one of the British Army’s rising stars. By its close, his reputation was very different. Branded by some contemporaries as a «butcher» and a «mountebank», he has also been criticised by modern military historians both for his role in the Gallipoli campaign and also at the Somme, where his corps suffered the worst losses of any engaged on the first day of the battle. Drawing on original archival research, this is the first full-length study of his colourful and controversial career. It explores how he gained his sanguinary reputation, and asks how far this was actually deserved. Rejecting a simplistic «butchers and bunglers» approach, it argues that Hunter-Weston was an intelligent and highly professional soldier, whose failures can best be understood by reference to the structural challenges of modern war on a mass scale. There is no doubt that his personal flaws and idiosyncrasies contributed to his woeful image, but he also emerges as a transitional figure, frustrated by a battlefield in which managerial skills had become more important than heroic personal leadership. Indeed, his career offers valuable glimpses into the practical business of generalship, including the under-researched «political» role of senior officers. While not one of Britain’s great commanders, «Hunter-Bunter» remains one of the most compelling.
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Chapter One: Hunters and Westons

Extract

CHAPTER ONE

Hunters and Westons

In the half century before the Great War, the British officer corps was a remarkably self-contained body. Although there had been a gradual broadening of its membership, there was still a high degree of self-recruitment involving the sons of professional officers, as well as a strong representation of the gentry and aristocracy, for whom military service was traditionally a well-regarded career.1 Often less financially secure than their southern counterparts, Scottish landed families made a sizable contribution to this confident and cohesive elite – by 1914 some 17 per cent of generals were from Scotland, a proportion well beyond its share of the UK population.2 For all his individual flamboyance and striking traits of character, Aylmer Gould Hunter-Weston personified this shared patrician profile. It was a background that shaped his values, his lifestyle, and his friendships, as well as his professional destiny.

An immediate familial military connection existed through Hunter-Weston’s father, Gould Read Weston. Born in 1823, Gould was the second son of a Dorsetshire gentleman, James Willis Weston, but could claim direct descent from an ancient Staffordshire family who had been resident in the county since the reign of Henry II.3 After attending the East India ← 7 | 8 → Company’s Military Seminary, he followed a familiar path for younger sons. Gazetted as an ensign in the 65th Native Infantry, he sailed for India in April 1840, where he spent the next eighteen years. During an eventful career in the army of...

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