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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 Thirteen: Breaking Through



Breaking Through

Amid the anxieties and disappointments of the Passchendaele front, politics came to Hunter-Weston’s rescue. In January 1918 he made a remarkable parliamentary debut, delivering what was hailed at the time as ‘the war’s greatest speech’.1 More importantly, the final year of hostilities also brought the resumption of mobile warfare and the return of VIII Corps as a fighting formation. In the battles of the Hundred Days it would no longer be necessary to use his infantry to compensate for the lack of firepower as had been the case at Gallipoli, or to exploit the application of brute force as at the Somme. Instead, control of the battlefield had shifted to the attacker and it was now possible to conduct a material-based offensive without a costly sacrifice of manpower. As an early advocate of the combined arms approach, Hunter-Weston’s command philosophy continued to develop during this period, ensuring that when the final advance began in August 1918 his corps would make a modest yet creditable contribution to the allied victory.

The Speech of the War

The essential background to Hunter-Weston’s triumph as a parliamentarian was the end of the government’s commitment to a ‘large army first’ principle. After Passchendaele, the prospect of continuous battles of attrition without decisive results, coupled with doubts over the long-term sustainability of the British war effort, had led policymakers to attempt to ← 273 | 274 → find a balance between military manpower demands and the competing...

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