Show Less
Restricted access

«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.
Show Summary Details
Restricted access



The one thing that a General thinks about all the time is sparing his men’s lives – never does a General attack unless he thinks by so doing he will in the end save [lives]; that is what our job is, we are very careful on the question of loss of life and the human suffering which must occur. Actually speaking if an attack is well thought out, even if you lose life you will probably save life in the end, because you keep the other people apprehensive and they will not be able to concentrate on you and attack you with overwhelming force.1

The comments made by Sir Aylmer Gould Hunter-Weston at the Dardanelles Commission in February 1917 came from a soldier who has since earned a reputation as one of the most brutal, callous and incompetent commanders of the Great War. His case is one that powerfully illustrates the manner in which that destructive conflict has become embedded in the popular memory. There is no doubt that for some contemporaries, he was a ‘butcher’, a jovial ‘mountebank’, who was perhaps even ‘not quite sane’.2 However, this colourful testimony has often been uncritically absorbed into the historical record, so that even the latest revisionist treatments that seek to provide a more nuanced account of the tactical transformation of ← 1 | 2 → the British Army present him as a bullying eccentric; a convenient counterpoint to the ‘learning curve’ displayed by more successful commanders.3

The intention of...

You are not authenticated to view the full text of this chapter or article.

This site requires a subscription or purchase to access the full text of books or journals.

Do you have any questions? Contact us.

Or login to access all content.