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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 Four: Hunting the Boer

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CHAPTER FOUR

Hunting the Boer

In normal circumstances, Hunter-Weston would have left Camberley at the end of 1899 and taken up a comfortable staff appointment. Instead, he was plunged into a colonial conflict which tested the standards of command and staff work in the British army as never before. By the close of hostilities in May 1902, British casualties in the Second South African War amounted to 21,842; among the fallen were four of Hunter-Weston’s Staff College classmates. The war may have proved deadly for many men, but it was also Hunter-Weston’s hour of opportunity. Displaying a powerful blend of professionalism and self-promotion, he began to build a reputation with a British public hungry for heroes.

Field Troop

As a thirty-five year old Brevet Major, Hunter-Weston was hardly party to the arcana imperii that were driving events between Capetown and London. Nevertheless, he became acutely aware of its impact on the ordered life of the peacetime army. The South African crisis had built up slowly during the summer. Continued diplomatic machinations by the British High Commissioner, Sir Alfred Milner, to re-establish supremacy in the region encountered determined resistance from the governments of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. Following the breakdown of negotiations over ‘Uitlander’ voting rights in June, Milner pressed for military reinforcements to overawe the Boer republics. Within weeks a ‘special service draft’ had been despatched from Staff College to augment local staffs and ← 39 | 40 → train mounted infantry...

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