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

Major-General Sir David Campbell


 ‘Soldier, Sportsman and Administrator’ is the opening title to the Times Obituary of David Campbell, and whilst this is an over simplification of his abilities, both militarily and socially it fits the man.

A keen sportsman he excelled at school in many areas but especially cricket and by the time he was passing through the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst he was noted as an accomplished horseman. This being proved later on more than one occasion (1) but amply demonstrated by his winning of the Grand National in 1896.

The horse that was to lay rise to the nickname that would follow Campbell for the rest of his life was won on the toss of a coin.(2) David ‘Soarer’ Campbell proved with that toss and through out his career that he had that trait that Napoleon valued most highly, luck!

Born on 28th January 1869, his father, H Wootton Campbell was a Major in the Cameron Highlanders. David as could be expected from his exploits decided on a different branch of the army for himself and passed out of the RMA being Gazetted to the 9th Lancers in March 1889.

He would spend his regimental career tied to the 9th Lancers and after promotion to Captain in May 1899 he went to South Africa from India with the regiment to the Cape as tensions were rising with the Boers. He was actually on his honeymoon when he received orders to proceed to South Africa.

By August 1902 he had reached a brevet rank of Major, had commanded a mobile column, been wounded twice and had gained a mention in despatches.

The cessation of hostilities returned Campbell to regimental duties with the role of adjutant from September 1902 until his majority was confirmed in march 1904, upon which he took up the position of Brigade major in October 1905 of the Ambala Cavalry Brigade in India.

He took up command in March 1912 of the 9th lancers , he was 43 years of age. Under his leadership the 9th became one of the best regiments in the British Army and he would lead into battle when the BEF went to France in 1914. It is worth noting, for reasons unknown, that Campbell had not gone to Staff College, given his professional out look on military study this seems strange. However it may come down to something as simple as it did for Hubert Gough who had to abandon his class to go to South Africa.

On the 24th August 1914 the regiment along with a squadron of the 4th Dragoons made a costly charge at Elouges against six battalions of German Infantry and six batteries of guns. It would cost the regiment over 250 men and 300 mounts. Apparently Campbell had been against the charge having realised that they may have been better used dismounted. A role practised by British cavalry and enforced since the Boer war by the rise in marksmanship of Cavalrymen. This action was followed by another charge by the 9th Lancers at Moncel on 7th September with Campbell in the forefront, perhaps too far forward as his horse aptly named ‘Crasher’ and its rider hit the German 1st Guard Dragoons. Faced by a wall of lances Campbell well ahead of the rest of the regiment managed to survive but only after gaining two more wounds. Once again Campbell’s luck held, with the first wound from a lance in the arm and the second a gunshot to his leg catapulting him off his horse the rest of the regiment then rode over him!

A picture of the 9th lancers during the charge.

In November 1914, with the attrition on officers and the BEF Campbell said farewell to his regiment after he and his men had helped to defend the hotly contested Messines on 31st October. He was on his way to command of the 6th Cavalry brigade. This was not to bring a respite for his weary body. During the battle of 2nd Ypres the brigade was involved in the battle of Frezenburg Ridge and he was once again wounded.

With the battle of Loos in September 1915 Campbell had his first encounter with 21st Division when his brigade was called upon to re-enforce the defence on hill 70 where the inexperienced officers and men of the 21st had been thrown into the hailstorm of battle having only just arrived in theatre.

In March 1916 Campbell was raised to the rank of full Colonel, having been running the brigade on an acting status and this was followed in may with a change of command when he took over 21st Division. It was perhaps this move that showed Campbell at his best. He was to remain in this position for the rest of the war, becoming the fifth longest serving divisional commander and under him the 21st would rise from the depths of undeserved disgrace after Loos to one of the finest formations of the BEF by the end of the war.

Upon taking command and with the battle of the Somme fast approaching Campbell made some changes to his Brigade commands, with both Wilkinson and Gloster being sent home. Certainly Gloster was of an age, 52, to warrant a home command but this does seem to have been done without any thought to the service offered by Brigadier-General G M Gloster, who had been with the Division since the early days and had led his 64th Brigade into the guns at Loos.

However it was most probably the best move as the war was showing that this was a young mans enterprise and there was to Campbell no room for sentiment. It was a case of getting the right men in the right jobs. Campbell was blessed with many of his subsequent Brigade commanders, by fault or design, and he let them flourish.(3)

Whilst a regular officer with a somewhat over bearing manner that many who did not know him could see as unapproachable he was in fact a rewarding commander with an open sense of command. This is shown in a diary entry of Cpl TG Mohan

On 3rd July the commander of 21st Division, Maj. Gen. Campbell, inspected the men.

It was unique in many ways. He wouldn't have all the ceremony of presenting arms when he arrived, which a Brigadier General would have had. He had us all sitting down and we were not allowed to rise on his arrival. He addressed us as 'Gentlemen' and said how proud he was to have us in his Division. He concluded by telling us that we could do nothing by ourselves, but only with the help of God, and finally he urged us to pray, and not think that such a thing was foolish or to be despised. What a power for God such a man's witness can be!

He also did not seem perturbed to question Generals Horne (XV Corps) and Shute (V Corps) when he resented their interference or judgement. Not necessarily a wise move. That it did not cost him his command, shows admirably how well he conducted his Division and the respect he had from those above him.

Despite his reservations about the conduct of the opening of the battle of the Somme and how it should have been conducted, he believed that the artillery preparation was not good enough, accurately seeing that there was not enough guns to the ground to be covered, but also believing that he could have rushed the first lines before the barrage lifted completely and the Germans had time to man their machine guns. He believed it cost him a battalion or two! 62nd Brigade on the 3rd July under Brigadier-General Rawling captured Shelter Wood in a competent action that gave 21st Division its first real victory since it had arrived in September of the previous year.

Later the division would perform admirably at Bazentin-le-Petit between 14th to 17th July in further action on the Somme.

1917 would see actions at Arras, third Ypres and later in the year at Cambrai. Thus showing how well the division had come on in a few months as it was committed to the three main battles of that year.

There was also no relenting in 1918 when the German Offensive opened in March. Campbell led the division as it fought subsequent actions at Epehy and Chapel Hill, on the Somme. Switching to the Lys sector and fighting at Messines Ridge. Sent to the Aisne for a rest it was subjected to what Campbell recalled as the worst day he had spent in the war. It was the result of bad positioning of his troops who were put in an exposed salient on the far bank of the river by the local French commander, General Duchene, who refused to listen to Campbell. Using his constant traits of mental and physical energy he reconstructed the division and led it in the defining battles for the BEF during the ‘Hundred Days’ at Miraumont and the Beaurevoir Line.

After the War Campbell was given command of 33rd Division as the army went through its demobilisation process. Later that year he was knighted. He had previously been mentioned six times in despatches during the war and created a CB in 1916. In 1935 he was elevated to GCB.

In March 1920 he left England for India to take up the command of the Baluchistan district and was promoted to Lieutenant-General in 1924. In February 1926 he became Military Secretary to the Secretary of State for War. A position he held for only a year, likely for his attempts to instigate a system that promoted on merit and not seniority, something the old Guard would not release easily. As in war Campbell cared not for what people thought of him and as he had gained resentment from New Army officers initially in 1916 until they began to appreciate his worth, so too did he gain resentment against his equals and superiors now.

It is surprising then that Campbell after submitting his views on the required needs for necessary reorganisation and mechanisation of the army was given the Aldershot Command. But it was to be a long and frustrating tenure of command where budget constraints and an unwillingness for others to see that a World War could be fought again conspired to leave Campbell with a lack of fulfilment on leaving the post in 1931.

He had been promoted full General in June 1930 and in march 1931 he was appointed an ADC to the King before taking up the position of Governor of Malta in October of the same year. It was a hard position to fill. Malta was in a state of transition from Italian influence and twice whilst he was Governor he had to dissolve the senate and the assembly. Campbell was however a popular Governor and the people warmed to him.

In 1935 he was taken ill and had to have an emergency operation before returning home for sick leave, returning to Malta some five months later but broke down again in health just prior to Christmas and nearly died.

After resigning his post of Governor of Malta he passed away in the Queen Alexandria Military Hospital, Millbank at the age of 67 in March 1936. He left behind his wife, Janet May daughter of Sir Robert Aikman whom he married in 1899 and a son and two daughters.


Thanks to Dr John Bourne whose biography on Campbell was invaluable in constructing this section.




(1) He would win not just the Grand National in1896 on Soarer but also the Irish National Hunt Cup and the Irish Grand Military on the same day in 1895 and then again the Irish National Hunt Cup 1896, and the Grand Military Steeplechase at Sandown Park 1896 and 1897. He also had the unequalled distinction of being on the winning sides in the Inter-Regimental and Subalterns Polo Tournament on the same day. In later life he won the Military Drag Hunt Cup at Aldershot in 1930 at the age of 61!

(2) He had by the time of the ride in the Grand National of 1896 sold the Horse on to Mr Hall Walker.

(3) It is a debatable point how much say any commanders had over getting the men they wanted, from Divisional commanders right up to Haig, as many of the General officers sent overseas had to be passed by a War Office Committee. There is scant evidence to show whether this was a formality or if commanders wishes were disregarded by this committee!

(4) This diary extract is taken from Edwin Astill's book on 1st Battalion the Wiltshire Regiment in the Great War.