21st Division 1914-18...a divisional history




The life of General Sir Hubert Gough


Anthony Farrar Hockley

I read this book over fifteen years ago and it more than any other is responsible for making me consider the Great War in a different light. Having initially drawn my knowledge from the likes of the comic strip magazine ‘Charley’s War’ I had a one dimensional view of the mud and blood of the trenches, totally reflective of the mood set in these comics. Whilst I still feel these comic stories capture some aspects of the western front it does set many stereotypical feelings in the reader. In particular, that the men did all the fighting and the officers were idiots and cowards at best.

Further reading such as ‘1914’ by Lyn Macdonald and ‘Farewell Leicester Square’ by Kate Caffrey, did little to change this perspective and even after reading other more analytical material I was still of the opinion, on the whole, that Generals were stupid ignorant individuals that had no imagination nor care for their men.

But that all changed when I came across Farrar-Hockley’s book ‘Goughie’ about one of the wars most controversial commanders. Even Sir Douglas Haig has more supporters than General Sir Hubert Gough.

Hubert Gough was the archetypical cavalry officer all dash and thrust, seemingly throwing caution to the wind, careless of lives in action, gaining as much ground as possible, hard on those that failed. The youngest full General of the Great War he came from a long line that had served the army and in particular the Indian army for many years. His father, uncle and brother all won the Victoria Cross, which may have been a driving force behind the cavalier attitude that Hubert adopted sometimes in battle, attempting to live up to his relatives exploits.

Yet Farrar-Hockley trys to paint a different picture of the man, which is only slightly watered down by the fact that he was using the private papers of Gough with the surviving family members permission and as such may have felt obliged to be kinder than normal! However this was not typical of the author whose reputation is of shooting from the hip!

It is the questions I asked myself after reading this book that greatly altered my opinion of Generals in the Great War. If only some of the assertions made by Farrar Hockley were true then perhaps some of the myths about commanders were flawed. Gough more than any is the scapegoat of the British Generals, where you can find many who leap to defend the honour of Sir Douglas Haig it is a lonely walk to find any who would put their reputation on Goughie.

That is not to say that Gough was a brilliant commander. He had faults and in many ways it can be difficult to find where in his pre world war one career he showed acts of brilliance. His conduct in South Africa and the loss of his column seem to imply a dash not backed by competence that made me wonder how he then went on to better things. However there is much evidence that Goughie endeared loyalty from rank and file as well as officers.

During the Curragh incident Gough finds himself at the centre of the storm, with the almost comical performance unravelling around him. Yet he only reacts to the events as they happened and did not really instigate them. That may seem out of kilter with the facts, yet Gough always claimed if ordered he would have obeyed, that did not happen and as he saw it he was given a choice, to which he then made his own decision. It is then easy to assume he influenced his officers to follow suit, and in a way he did, with charismatic leaders, it is surely not uncommon to see men follow a leader whom they have placed trust in. Yet can he be blamed for being a man who others would follow!

The flip side however is that he was petulant and impatient. Some of his actions during the Curragh demonstrate this and this can not have helped the situation. Very often unforgiving of others junior and senior around him. This is also demonstrated in 1914 when he detaches himself from Allenby’s command to go on his own. A fine example of insubordination he would not have allowed in others. What’s more he gets away with it. Patronage of Haig may have helped here, yet one can not help wondering why Allenby did not take action.

Gough leads his cavalrymen, by now commanding 2nd Cavalry division, with great courage during the dark days of late 1914 when they are forced to dismount and hold the line around Ypres. This is followed by temporary command of 7th division, whilst Major-General Thompson Capper recovers from a wound, however following this he does not return to his cavalry but is promoted to command I corps. He would lead this corps at the battle of Loos in September 1915.

In the coverage of July 1916, Farrar-Hockley makes a great case for showing the performance of the reserve corps, later to be designated 5thArmy, on the Somme in comparison to 4th Army, though figures can often be massaged to fit a requirement. Though it is worth noting that taking them literally as figures 5th out performs 4th Army in relation to casualties on a like for like basis. This also does not include casualties from the 1st of July. What can not be disputed is the personal recollections from soldiers as to Gough being in the front area, a concept often thought not followed by world war one Generals.

Following the hard fighting at Bullecourt in the aftermath of the battle of Arras, where perhaps we can start to see the tag of ‘butcher’ begin, he is involved in the battles of 3rd Ypres. His controversial appointment to proceed with the continued offensive in place of General Sir Hubert Plumer can not be blamed upon him, that must rest with Haig. However his choice to ignore or not see the importance of the Ghuelvet plateau must be seen as incompetence in a commander.

By now Gough’s command was coming in for some bad press. Not just from the rank and file but from more senior officers, whom it seems were not keen to serve under Gough. The author tries to lay the blame almost solely at the door of Major-General Neil Malcolm, who was 5th Army’s Chief staff officer (MGGS). Whilst it does seem that any veiled threats that emanated from headquarters came from the pen or voice of Malcolm, this is only to be expected as he was the vassal, it was after all his job, that Gough would have used to do this. An image of Gough visiting a command all chipper and full of beans and then Malcolm delivering a ending word out of Gough’s ear is painted. Creating an almost good cop bad cop scenario. Regardless of this it is in many ways irrelevant if this was with or without his sanction, he has to shoulder the blame as senior commander. It was his job to be aware of what was happening around him and whilst it is fair to assume that Malcolm could have filtered information to Gough, there is no evidence to prove this, nor can this be a justification of the conduct of one of his staff. It is also unfair to blame Malcolm, whom is maligned similarly as Kiggell. In both instances Haig and Gough may be guilty of loyalty to a junior officer whom they should have perhaps replaced thinking of the bigger picture. Yet again this is Gough and Haig’s fault not the staff officers.

There is then some irony that Gough is finally removed from command, ironically because, rumours had abounded and are alluded to by the author that Gough had been considered as a replacement to Haig earlier due to his conduct on the Somme in 1916. Though you have to wonder how much of this holds validity as it is not likely that Lloyd-George would have yet forgiven Gough for his part in the Curragh. It is further ironic that Gough is removed not for his part in 3rd Ypres but for the disposition and conduct of 5th army who were assaulted by the Germans on the 21st March 1918. There is good evidence to show that Gough had grave concerns of the ground he had to cover, with less men, worse prepared defences and more line than 3rd Army under Sir Julian Byng. Concerns he had voiced but that seem to have been ignored. The conduct of Gough in these few trying days bears well, he did not panic, his men whilst admittedly withdrawing did so with guts and determination. His dismissal from command was seen by many who made up 5th Army as an insult not just to their commander but to the rank and file, who had fought gallantly.

In later life Gough tried to restore not just his reputation but that of his men by writing an account of this battle.

So was Gough a stupid butcher or a worthy general? Well as is usual in this case the truth lays somewhere between these two poles. He was perhaps not as bad as painted by history but he does show some very serious errors of ability and judgement. Certainly he did not deserve to be sacked for March 1918 but then again he was either blind or compliant to the conduct of Neil Malcolm and as such was guilty.

It may be fair to say he was promoted one pay grade to high. That he did may in part be to Haig’s patronage and its easy to be machiavellian and wonder how his career would have advanced had his brother, a true Haig favourite, not died in 1915. This thought Farrar Hockley does not ponder. It is also fair I think to wonder how we would see Hubert Gough today had he had the advantage of leading 5th Army in the hundred days and how his reputation would have benefited from the success that Rawlinson did.

All of which brings me back to the start, if the book makes me ask questions and if I can do that about General Sir Hubert Gough then it must surely make me ask questions about other commanders.

With out doubt the book is well researched, even if you can question some of the conclusions gained by the author. Dealing not just with the first world war you get a rounded picture of the boy, man and pensioner, including his role with ‘Dads Army’ during world war two and attempts at a business career. Yet it is for the Great war he will always be remembered. Farrar Hockley goes someway to make you question the reputation that Gough receives today, it is down to the individual if he convinces conclusively.

Setting aside my own personal attachment to this book I would still recommend others to read it. It is not stodgy in content nor heavy to read, yet is packed with detail.

Andy Lonergan