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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 Three: Small Wars



Small Wars

Soldiering on the North West Frontier was a high-risk rite of passage, but as Hunter-Weston knew from his father’s experience, the display of a cool resolve under fire was indispensable to building a reputation in the service. At the same time, campaigning in mountainous border territory also revealed the mechanisms of war, enabling him to build a knowledge of topography, supply and logistics. Having already acquired a modern technological education at Woolwich and Chatham, the frontier now taught him another time-honoured lesson – how to make the correct decision in a dangerous situation.

The North West Frontier

Hunter-Weston’s restored career mobility was the product of the British Empire’s ‘scientific frontier’ policy. Replacing the former system of tribal management, this involved the region’s highly independent tribes being brought firmly to heel to allow the construction of advanced military posts, necessitating a growing number of punitive expeditions.1 These ‘small wars’ have been dismissed by historians as anachronistic and unequal contests, but effective resistance from the Pathaan tribesmen underlined the need ← 21 | 22 → for carefully controlled fire and manoeuvre, while placing a growing premium on the tactical dispersion, skill and self-reliance of imperial troops.2

In common with most branches of the Indian Army, the corps that Hunter-Weston joined in December 1889 had recently undergone a process of modernisation. Formed in 1803, the Bengal Miners and Sappers had once been regarded within the Royal Engineers as a refuge for inefficient colleagues.3...

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