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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 Ten: A Dealer in Hope – The Last Battles



A Dealer in Hope – The Last Battles

Unsuccessful generals attract few admirers. Amid the flyblown ineptitude that came to symbolise the Gallipoli campaign, Hunter-Weston is often presented as a pitiless driver of events; the man who exhausted and ‘broke’ the Helles army.1 Many senior Great War commanders would suffer the erosion of their reputations after the war, but in his case the damage began while the fighting was still underway. His public persona, as well as his command decisions, fuelled this process. He was aware that he faced an able opponent, who had the advantage of superior communications by land and sea. For an advocate of the psychological battlefield, this was a painful realisation. The threat of being driven off the peninsula convinced him of two things: that a bold offensive strategy was the only viable route to survival; and that the public face of his command must be one of inspiring optimism. However, Hunter-Weston’s ebullient stance, which had served as ‘quite a good tonic’ at the outset of the expedition, appeared increasingly out of touch as his assault on Achi Baba continued to falter.2

Third Attempt

After less than month on the peninsula, Hunter-Weston was promoted to Corps Commander and temporary Lieutenant-General, formally recognising the authority that he had already accumulated. He was delighted to be ← 177 | 178 → ‘“a big bug” & yet feeling so entirely unlike a big bug & feeling thoroughly capable of filing the position …’3...

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