On a recent trip to the Chemin des Dames, I called in at Berkhamstead. This was to enable me to visit the grave of Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien.
He was in charge of II Corps at Mons and Le Cateau. Later he was in command of 2nd Army at Ypres. Due to the malevolence of John French, he was sent home after he advised French to shorten the line, following Second Ypres. Plumer who took over his command, made the same suggestion, to which French readily agreed.
This controversial action stemmed from French's anger with Smith-Dorrien who had succeeded him at Aldershot in 1907. French sent out piquets to mop up soldiers from the town. Smith-Dorrien believed professional soldiers could be trusted to act responsibly and ended the system. He also provided more leisure facilities, entertainment and showers.
This rankled French, who believed his authority had been undermined. Furthermore, when Grierson died en route to the front, French asked for Plumer as a replacement. Kitchener thought Plumer would not stand up to French, so sent Smith-Dorrien instead.
Smith-Dorrien had also good contacts with the King. One can imagine French's face when Smith-Dorrien told French that the King had asked him to keep him informed of what was going on.
After the retreat from Mons, French wanted II Corps to continue to retreat. However, many of the troops arrived late and exhausted at Le Cateau. Smith-Dorrien realised their only hope was to fight and gave battle on 26 August. Whilst there were substantial casualties, current opinion is that it was the correct decision. Initially French praised Smith-Dorrien, but in his post war book "1914", he virtually libelled Smith-Dorrien over Le Cateau and was seen for the obnoxious person he was.
Smith-Dorrien returned home and never held a major command again, mainly due to illness. It was typical of his professionalism that he asked to be a pall bearer at French's funeral in 1925. Later he governed Malta, but moved to France to live more cheaply. On a visit to England in 1930, he died following injuries sustained as a passenger in a car crash. (Ironically he had survived the massacre of Isandlwana in 1879).
French was a notorious womaniser and often in debt. He owed Haig a substantial sum of money for a long time. He was sacked after Loos and replaced by Haig. He was seconded by Lloyd George in 1918 along with Henry Wilson in an attempt to curb Haig's campaigns.
Smith-Dorrien's grave is in a now disused cemetery and unfortunately has become overgrown. I tried to tidy it up, but much needs to be done. I have been in touch with Andrew Gould, Chairman of the Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire Branch of the WFA. He was at school in Berkhamstead and has promised to see if something can be done. 12 August is the 80th anniversary of his death. If some restoration could be done, it would be a fitting memorial to Smith-Dorrien.
Article extract from the June 2010 edition of "Up the Line", the Branch Newsletter of the Lancashire and Cheshire Branch of the Western Front Association with kind permission of the Editor, Terry Jackson, who also supplied the photographs.