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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 Two: A Gentleman and a Soldier



A Gentleman and a Soldier

Hunter-Weston’s birth and family background may have conferred social standing, but it was his education which confirmed him in the rank of a gentleman. It was through his formal schooling that he was expected to acquire the self-belief and sense of purpose that would equip him to lead in any situation. As the ‘embodiment of instant tradition’, public schools in England were at the peak of their influence and mystique during the last half of the nineteenth century and their numbers had multiplied accordingly.1

It is unclear when Hunter-Weston decided that he wanted to become a solider, or the extent to which this was an independent decision.2 However, for a boy who had serious ambitions towards an army career, the choice of school was fairly obvious – on the eve of the Great War, more than one third of the officers in the British Army’s High Command had been educated at either Eton, Wellington, Harrow, Marlborough or Charterhouse.3 Hunter-Weston’s parents chose the newest of these schools, Wellington College. Originally founded in 1859 for the benefit of army families of limited means, it was moving into the first rank by the 1870s, with fees second only to Eton.4 ← 13 | 14 →

Short, robust and cheerful, Hunter-Weston entered Wellington in the Michaelmas Term of 1877. He was determined to make an impression with his turnout. According to family legend, he was discovered in the butler’s inner sanctum on the...

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