|Some Prominent British Generals and their Fortunes in The Great War|
SMITH-DORRIEN, (S D) Horace Lockward (1858-1930)
Smith-Dorrien was a classic example of a promising military career cut short by the personal and professional animosity of a superior officer; in this case Field Marshal John Denton Pinkstone French (idem.).
Smith-Dorrien joined the BEF on 20 August 1914 as commander of II Corps after the sudden death from a heart attack on 17 August 1914 of its commander General James Grierson. Faced with most of the force of the German onslaught at Mons, Smith-Dorrien more than coped until ordered to retreat by French. He then made, on his own initiative, a vital stand at Le Cateau on 28 August 1914 that was critical in saving the cohesion of the BEF. Initially, this stand was fulsomely praised by French, although he deliberately withdrew his own I Corps leaving Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps unsupported. Smith-Dorrien was threatened with dismissal by French for disobeying orders at Le Cateau, but was saved by the intervention by Haig (idem.).
As commander of II Corps, Smith-Dorrien took part in the 1914 actions at the Marne (5 to 10 September), the Aisne (12 September to 2 October) and the First Battle of Ypres (19 to17 November). On 26 December, 1914, II Corps was renamed Second Army.
Second Army also participated in the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April to 25 May 1915). Smith-Dorrien, wishing to make a strategic retirement from Ypres to cut casualties, fell foul again of French’s intentions for even more costly assaults. When he approached French in protest, he was immediately dismissed by means of a third party – Robertson (idem.) - with the famous words “Orace, you’re for ‘ome”.
Smith-Dorrien was offered a post in training, but this was scuttled by the Prime Minister, Asquith, who wanted to keep the position free for French, who he planned to sack from the command of the BEF! Smith-Dorrien was also offered the command in East Africa and accepted. But he fell ill en route and was unable to take up the post.
These shenanigans clearly illustrate the unbridled power that the well connected senior-most Great War generals could command over even senior army officers, leaving them with virtually no effective recourse to appeal when their careers were effectively ruined.
General comment: Smith-Dorrien’s most promising career on the Western Front was abruptly cut off by the animosity of the GOC, BEF, French; his memory (he died in a road accident in 1930) was tarnished by patent lies and deliberate falsehoods written in French’s memoir 1914. However, with the help of influential friends, a dignified Smith-Dorrien managed to get the official history of the First War (1922) to cite documents that supported his case.