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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 Five: Brain of the Army

Extract

CHAPTER FIVE

Brain of the Army

After six months of convalescence, Hunter-Weston was given command of the 11th Field Company and posted to Shorncliffe Camp in Kent.1 After being so close to the centre of events in South Africa, he found the return to routine duties frustrating. As his professional world shrank over the next few years, he also faced the risk of being leapfrogged by colleagues with equally impressive war records.2 At the root of his problem was the British Army’s fondness for operating in separate compartments. While the South African war had blunted this tendency – as his own attachment to the Cavalry Division proved – the old barriers between the different service arms soon re-asserted themselves.3 Despite his connection with French, whose own turbulent star continued to rise during these years, his affiliation to a specialist corps now threatened to limit his opportunities, particularly as the Royal Engineers were experiencing a painful period of post-war contraction.4 The threat of being marginalised was particularly irksome given that the debate over the army’s future tactics and mission was just beginning to gain momentum. Recognising the influence of modern firepower and weaponry, the officer corps struggled to balance the destructive reality of the new military technology with a professional culture that prioritised the human factor in winning battles. A complex process of administrative reform was also underway, involving both staff work and ← 65 | 66 → command structures, as the British military establishment began to prepare for the growing likelihood...

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