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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 Seven: Winter in the Trenches

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CHAPTER SEVEN

Winter in the Trenches

The September campaign, which began with Hunter-Weston’s tour de force on the heights of Bucy-le-Long, ended in frustration. The BEF prepared to quit the Aisne at the beginning of October and begin a transfer to the left of the allied line in Flanders. The rationale involved a complex mix of logistical and political considerations, but a further unspoken motivation at GHQ was the opportunity to return to mobile warfare.1 The reality was very different. Allied attempts to turn the German flank coincided with a massive enemy offensive which was designed to win the war at a stroke. Rather than advancing, the British were left defending an unprepared and over-extended front out of all proportion to their strength. For Hunter-Weston, the complex, brutal and confused fighting of the First Battle of Ypres and the pernicious stalemate that followed during the winter of 1914–15 marked an important transitional phase in his approach to command.

Promotion and ‘Plugstreet’

The 11th Brigade left the Aisne on 7 October, moving off by moonlight to avoid ‘dratted airplanes’.2 Arriving in Flanders five days later, their first impressions of the region were not good. Described rather wistfully in the Official History as ‘a country of old, decaying towns and prosperous villages’, ← 107 | 108 → its flat, cluttered landscape was very different from the picturesque Aisne.3 An equally unattractive (if less obvious) feature was the sub-surface water table which carried the constant threat of...

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