Home Land War The Generals 'Drip' or 'Daddy' Plumer In The Great War

'Drip' or 'Daddy' Plumer In The Great War

If a cross-section of military historians were asked who was the best (rather than the most successful) general in the British Army in the Great War, quite a few would have probably chosen either Monash or Currie. However, John Monash was Australian and Arthur Currie, Canadian. And, to rub salt into the wounds of British pride, neither was a professional, career soldier.

plumer As for a truly British general, many would be likely to chose General Herbert Charles Onslow Plumer.

Incorrectly reputed to be the model for the Great War cartoonist Low's Colonel Blimp, he certainly did resemble him closely in physique: Plumer was squat of build, sported a large white moustache, had a ruddy complexion and a pot belly. Beyond that physical likeness there was no relation as regards the professionalism of the man. Plumer was meticulous in his planning, cautious but decisive when the occasion arose, highly resistant to panic or fluster and was much liked by all ranks that served under him. The nickname 'Drip' came from his having a perpetually dripping nose due to a chronic sinus problem. 'Daddy' referred to the paternal attitude he showed to his troops, who in return are reputed to have said - 'He doesn't see red, he looks after us'.

He came to command on the Western Front in May, 1915 as Smith-Dorrien's successor and commander of II Corps on the Ypres Front. Promotion soon followed to the command of Second Army with which he served for two dramatic years in the Salient. The highlight of this command was the preliminary Battle of Messines from 7th - 14th June 1917. At Messines Ridge his meticulous planning ensured all the objectives were achieved with far fewer casualties than was the norm at the time. He had no truck with the school of attrition as proclaimed by Haig and other senior commanders. He understood, perhaps better than any other British general on the Western Front, the complexities of 'modern' warfare. Perhaps for the first time on the Western Front, he combined all the available offensive tools into one co-ordinate attacking machine: tunnel mining, rehearsals, an excellent artillery fireplan, railways, water pipelines, creeping barrages, aerial surveillance and photography and tanks. Unfortunately, the weather and the terrain combined to make the tanks largely ineffectual.

The three phases 3rd Battle of Ypres by 5th Army, under the command of Sir Hubert Gough, began on the 13th July 1917 with a lengthy bombardment of over 4 million shells by 2nd and 5th Army (Plumer and Gough respectively); the infantry attacks were launched on the 31st July 1917. Shortly afterwards unseasonal heavy rain began and persisted for several weeks. Irrespective, of the difficult conditions that soon developed on the ground, the march on the Passchendaele Ridge had begun. Initially, Plumer and his 2nd Army had been given the responsibility for a support attack to neutralize the German Reserves. But Gough's 5th Army got literally bogged down in the low-lying Gheluvelt Plateau, and by the end of August 1917 had lost more than 50,000 men with no breakthrough in sight. At this point Haig brought in Plumer and his 2nd Army to take the Gheluvedt Plateau. Characteristically, he and his commanders, put forward an innovative and highly flexible plan of attack in depth. This was launched on 20th September 1917 under an effective creeping barrage. In series of planned steps, Plumer's British and ANZAC troops slugged their way forward under appalling conditions of mud and water. However, on the 4th October 1917, the rains broke again and, as the conditions on the ground grew even worse, both Gough and Plumer urged Haig to call a cessation as they considered further advance under these conditions was tactically impossible.

Haig declined to take their advice, and the attack resumed on the 9th October 1917 in an ever worsening environment. By throwing in more Anzac and Canadian troops, Passchendaele village finally fell on 6th November 1917. The struggle continued for a further two weeks before Haig finally called a halt on the 20th November 1917. The 10 kilometre advance had cost the British, ANZACS and Canadians nearly 250,000 casualties - equivalent to 300 battalions.

After the 3rd Battle of Ypres, Plumer was sent on a mission to Italy to restore order on the collapsing Italian Front. Under his positive influence, from November 1917 to February 1918, solid gains were made.

He was recalled to 2nd Army on the Ypres Front in time to help stem the Second Drive (George I & II) of the 1918 German Offensive - the Kaiserlatcht (Emperor's Battle).

A knighthood (of Messines) and a Field Marshalcy (1919) were the rewards bestowed by a grateful nation to this exceptional 'modern' soldier of the Great War.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 29 May 2008 21:42 )  

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