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

Lt-Colonel Alan Thomas Paley, DSO, CMG, psc


Born on the 1st May 1876, Alan Thomas was the son of Colonel Edward Paley. He was educated at Eton and The Royal Military College [RMC] Sandhurst being commissioned into the 3rd battalion Rifle Brigade on the 17th March 1897. He joined them on station in Umbala and saw service in the Tirah expedition and recieved the medal with clasp for this campaign. This was followed by the Sudan and the Nile expedition of 1898 where he was at the battle of Khartoum, earning the Egyptian medal with clasp.

On promotion to Lieutenant on the 2nd August 1899 he proceeded to South Africa and became involved in the defence of Ladysmith, where during the sortie of the 10th December he was seriously wounded. Paley was also mentioned twice in despatches ( London Gazette 8th Feb and 10th Sept 1901) and qualified for the Queens South African medal with clasp.

Promotion to Captain on the 18th Jan 1902 was followed in 1905 with the position of adjutant. After relinquished this position on the 7th March 1907 he went on to command a company of Gentlemen cadets at the RMC. In 1911 he attended the staff college passing out in 1912 with the coveted psc. He then served at the War Office from the 8th September 1913 until the outbreak of War, as a General Staff Officer 3 [GSO3]. Hostilities saw Paley assigned to 6th division as a GSO3 and then on the 28th October he was attached to the 18th brigade as its Brigade Major. His Majority followed officially on 1st November 1914. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order [D.S.O.] on the 23rd June 1915 and on the 14th July he took up the position of GSO2 VII Corps.

Following the death of Lt-Colonel Daniell, he joined Major-General David Campbell, who also was new to 21st division at the time, to help prepare the division for its attack as part of XV Corps assault around Fricourt on the 1st July 1916 in the role of GSO1. He would thus be in the position for some of the most critical battles of the subsequent months. He was gazetted brevet Lt-Colonel on the 3rd June, having originally been temporary from the 7th March. This position would see Paley being Campbell's right hand man during the further battles of the Somme in 1916 and then in the follow up of the German withdraw from the Somme. April 1917 saw the battle of Arras and then later that year 3rd Ypres. He finally left the division on the 16th October 1917 to take up the position of Assistant Commandant, Royal Military College (temporary Colonel) until 31st December 1918. On 1st January 1919 he was created brevet Colonel, having been mentioned in despatches five times during the war. He had also been made a Companion of St Michael and St George [C.M.G.] in 1918 and also a Legion of Honour

Time at Asst Commandant RMC was curtailed after the armistice but it is to be guessed that Paley would not have been unhappy as he was given the task of reforming the 1st battalion Rifle Brigade after demobilisation commenced. He took them to Mesopotamia in 1919 during the rebellion and whilst out there he was given a short term command of a brigade and other column commands. In 1921 he took the battalion to Cawnpore and set about training the battalion for the specialist fighting of the North West Frontier. He also took great pride in equipping and teaching the regiment in Polo, wishing to win the Infantry Cup, though the best was to reach a final. Paley left the battalion in Pashwar to take over command of the 143rd infantry brigade 1924-25. He recieved a further mention in despatches and the obligatory campaign medal. He retired in 1925 to Cirencester taking two old Riflemen, Carter and Nelson with him, intending to hunt. He was appointed a Gentleman-at-Arms in H.M. Bodyguard. He was subsequently persuaded to commanded The London Rifle Brigade from 1929 until 1937. After his final retirement he still retained contact with the regiment and was for some time Chairman of the Chronicle committee.

Alan Thomas Paley died on Monday 4th September 1950 aged 74. He left £500 to the Rifle Brigade section of the Rifleman's aid. A fellow officer wrote of him when he had been the 1st battalion commander in that he was 'Tall and very good looking, his belt and boots and turn-out generally were an example to us all.' So it may not come as a surprise to know he also left £100 to a former 1st battalion soldier, Corporal Broome in his will. Stating that Corproal Broome had been the smartest soldier whilst he had been in command.

Whilst this may seem to imply he was a bit of a martinet, the same officer also said of him '..as regards drill, ceremonial, rifle shooting and sport, no one could have done more than Alan to get the battalion back to the pre-war standard of 1914.' 

Perhaps then it is fitting that we should remember Alan Paley for what he was a survivor of the old British army that had in the main withered away under the German attacks of 1914 and 1915. A professional who helped to forge 21st division in trying times of the Somme, Arras and Ypres into a fighting machine.