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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 Six: ‘A Brigadier and a Band of Brothers’

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CHAPTER SIX

‘A Brigadier and a Band of Brothers’

A few weeks after war broke out, the Essex County Standard reminded its readers of Hunter-Weston’s warning to his new brigade in the spring of 1914 – ‘We shall be at war with Germany before I give up this command’.1 In the trusting spirit of the pre-war ranker, his men simply assumed he knew more about the international situation than they did. It was impossible for any of them to foresee that by the end of the year, the brigade would have suffered total casualties of 126 officers and 3,357 from other ranks.2

In mourning the deaths of friends and colleagues across the service, officers of Hunter-Weston’s generation also grieved for the loss of the ‘old army’, a finely balanced mechanism whose professionalism and cohesion, which had been moulded by years of soldiering across the empire, was felt to constitute ‘an irreplaceable moral asset’.3 Confronted by modern warfare in a series of desperate actions, commanders coped with their sense of disorientation with varying degrees of success. In Hunter-Weston’s case, his flamboyant personality initially encouraged him to stress the externalities of heroic leadership. He eagerly assumed ‘the mask of command’ and became determined to excel by demonstrating that he was the type of inspirational figure that the situation required.4 Later in his career, this ← 79 | 80 → approach would be condemned as eccentric posturing, but in 1914 it helped him to win recognition as an aggressive soldier...

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