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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 Eleven: A Day of Disaster



A Day of Disaster

At first, the failure of the Gallipoli campaign was eclipsed by the heroism of its participants. For all the mutterings on the peninsula, Hunter-Weston’s name remained linked at home with the ‘Incomparable’ 29th Division. He was knighted by King George V on the day after his return to Britain and quickly received two prestigious job offers. Lord Kitchener wanted him as his Chief of Staff on his mission to the Balkans and the Dardanelles, while Sir John French invited him to become his deputy as Commander of the British Home Forces.1 These approaches were extremely flattering, but there was no doubt that his real desire was for another field command. His patience was rewarded in March 1916 with a return to VIII Corps, which was reforming in Picardy in preparation for the next great offensive, which was to take place around the River Somme.

Although the Western Front seemed to offer a new beginning, ultimately it was corps command at the Somme that would decisively check Hunter-Weston’s career ambitions. His role was not as conspicuous as it had been at Gallipoli, but historians have since been unrelenting in their analysis of the disaster that befell his men. Travers, for example, uses VIII Corps as a case study of what went wrong on the first day of the battle.2 Prior and Wilson cite Hunter-Weston’s ‘malign effect’ on corps artillery arrangements, while Farrar-Hockley categorises his pre-battle preparation ← 211 | 212 → as...

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