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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 Twelve: Holding On

Extract

CHAPTER TWELVE

Holding On

After his departure from the Somme, the record of Hunter-Weston’s military career seems to disintegrate into anecdotes. Many of these are probably apocryphal, but they evoke a powerful personality confined by routine duties. He still attracted his admirers, but more commonly, it was disgruntled subordinates who bemoaned the ‘madness’ of their corps commander. A particularly perceptive portrait from this period emerges from the letters of Cuthbert Headlam.1 A ‘clever outsider’ drawn into the BEF at the outbreak of war, the former civil servant was in close contact with Hunter-Weston, as GSO2 Intelligence, VIII Corps, between November 1916 and April 1918. Despite his Corps Commander’s personal kindness towards him, he found Hunter-Weston to be an intensely conceited, loquacious and meddling little man who generated much fuss, bustle and extra work for his staff merely by his presence. Nevertheless, he remained rather sorry for him, grasping the misfortunes of his later career. While he thought Hunter-Weston ‘a tremendous windbag’ with ‘the hide of an elephant and the vanity of a peacock’, he also seemed a rather pathetic figure, ‘no longer appreciated at his proper value’.2 Headlam recognised his soldierly qualities, but with more Corps HQs in existence than active sectors it was painfully clear that he had been sidelined during a critical period of development for the BEF. Instead, he played the part of the general to perfection, hosting parliamentary delegations and entertaining allied statesmen, before later making his own flamboyant leap into politics...

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