Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien
Son of Robert Algernon Smith-Dorrien and Mary Ann Drever
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About General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien GCB, GCMG, DSO, ADC
General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien GCB, GCMG, DSO, ADC (26 May 1858 – 12 August 1930) was a British soldier and commander of the British II Corps and Second Army of the BEF during World War I.
Early life and career
Horace Smith-Dorrien was born at Haresfoot, a house near Berkhamsted, the 12th child of 16. He was educated at Harrow, and on 26 February 1876 entered the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, passing out with a commission as a subaltern to the 95th (Derbyshire) Regiment of Foot. On 1 November 1878, he was posted to South Africa where he worked as a transport officer. In this role he encountered, and fought against, corruption in the army.
Smith-Dorrien was present at the Battle of Isandlwana during the Zulu Wars on 22 January 1879, serving with the British invasion force as a transport officer for the army's Royal Artillery detachment. As Zulu forces overran the British forces, Smith-Dorrien narrowly escaped on his transport pony. As such, Smith-Dorrien was one of fewer than fifty British survivors of the battle (many more native African troops on the British side also survived). His observations on the difficulty of opening ammunition boxes led to changes in British practice for the rest of the war, though modern commentators argue that this was not as important a factor in the defeat as was thought at the time. Because of his conduct in trying to help other soldiers during his dramatic escape from the battlefield, he was nominated for a Victoria Cross, but, as the nomination did not go through the proper channels, he never received it. He took part in the rest of that war.
He later served in Egypt on police duties, being appointed assistant chief of police in Alexandria on 22 August 1882. During this time, he forged a life-long friendship with Lord Kitchener. On 30 December 1885, he witnessed the Battle of Gennis, where the British Army fought in red coats for the last time. The next day he was given an independent command and, following a bold military action where he went beyond his orders, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
From 1887–9, Smith-Dorrien then left active command to go to the Staff College, Camberley.
He returned to his regiment where he commanded troops during the Tirah Campaign of 1897–98 in India.
In 1898, he transferred back to Egypt and fought at the Battle of Omdurman and commanded the British troops during the Fashoda incident. During this time, he was promoted to the rank of Colonel.
On 31 October 1899, he shipped to South Africa, arriving on 13 December for the Second Boer War. On 2 February 1900, Lord Roberts put him in command of 19 Brigade and, on 11 February, he was promoted to Major-General. He played an important role at the Battle of Paardeberg (18 to 27 February 1900), steering Lord Kitchener and Henry Colville away from tactics of attacking an entrenched enemy over open ground. At Sanna's Post (31 March 1900), Smith-Dorrien ignored inept orders from Colville to leave wounded largely unprotected and managed an orderly retreat without further casualties. He took part in the Battle of Leliefontein (7 November 1900). On 6 February 1901, Smith-Dorrien's troops were attacked in the Battle of Chrissiesmeer. Smith-Dorrien's qualities as a commander meant he was one of a very few British commanders to enhance his reputation during this war.
On 22 April 1901, he received orders to return to India where he was made Adjutant General (6 November 1901) under Kitchener. He was placed in command of the 4th (Quetta) Division in Baluchistan, a post he held until 1907. In the dispute between Kitchener and Lord Curzon over the role of the Military Member, Smith-Dorrien stayed neutral, torn between his relations with Kitchener and with the Military Member himself, Sir Arthur Power Palmer.
Aldershot and other home postings
He returned to England and, in 1907, become GOC of the Aldershot Command. During this time, he instituted a number of reforms designed to improve the lot of the ordinary soldier. One was to abandon the practice of posting pickets to police the soldiers when they were outside the base. Another was to improve sports facilities. His reforms earned many plaudits (but were treated as an implied criticism by his predecessor, Sir John French).
He improved the frequency and methods of training in marksmanship of all soldiers. During this period, the higher ranks of the army were divided on the best use of cavalry. Smith-Dorrien, along with Lord Roberts, Sir Ian Hamilton and others, doubted that cavalry could often be used as cavalry, i.e. that they should still be trained to charge with sword and lance, instead thinking they would be more often deployed as mounted infantry, i.e. using horses for mobility but dismounting to fight. To this end, he took steps to improve the marksmanship of the cavalry. This did not endear him to the arme blanche ('pro-cavalry') faction, which included French and Douglas Haig, and whose views prevailed after the retirement of Lord Roberts.
He also tried to get the army to purchase better machine-guns.
Although Smith-Dorrien was perfectly urbane and, by the standards of the day, kind-hearted towards his troops, he was notorious for furious outbursts of bad temper, which could last for hours before his equilibrium was restored. It has been suggested that the pain from a knee injury was one cause of his ill temper.
In 1911, he was made Aide-de-Camp to King George V. He was part of the king's hunt in the Chitwan area of Nepal; on 19 December 1911, Smith-Dorrien killed a rhino and on the following day shot a bear.
On 1 March 1912, he was appointed GOC Southern Command and on 10 August 1912 he was promoted to full General. Douglas Haig had succeeded Smith-Dorrien as GOC Aldershot.
Unlike French, he was politically astute enough to avoid becoming entangled in the Curragh Incident of 1914.
World War I
In 1914, the Public Schools Officers' Training Corps annual camp was held at Tidworth Pennings, near Salisbury Plain. Lord Kitchener was to review the cadets, but the imminence of the war prevented him. Smith-Dorrien was sent instead. He surprised the two-or-three thousand cadets by declaring (in the words of Donald Christopher Smith, a Bermudian cadet who was present) "that war should be avoided at almost any cost, that war would solve nothing, that the whole of Europe and more besides would be reduced to ruin, and that the loss of life would be so large that whole populations would be decimated. In our ignorance I, and many of us, felt almost ashamed of a British General who uttered such depressing and unpatriotic sentiments, but during the next four years, those of us who survived the holocaust - probably not more than one-quarter of us - learned how right the General's prognosis was and how courageous he had been to utter it."
With the outbreak of the Great War, he was given command of the Home Defence Army; however, following the sudden death of Sir James Grierson, he was placed in charge of the British Expeditionary Force II Corps, by Lord Kitchener, the new Secretary of State for War. Field Marshal Sir John French had wanted Sir Herbert Plumer but Kitchener chose Smith-Dorrien as he knew he could stand up to French.
Smith-Dorrien's II Corps took the brunt of a heavy assault by the German forces at Mons, with the Germans under von Kluck attempting a flanking manoeuvre. French ordered a general retreat, during which I Corps (under General Douglas Haig) and II Corps became separated. Haig's I Corps did not reach its intended position to the immediate east of Le Cateau.
Le Cateau (26 August 1914)
Smith-Dorrien, now at Le Cateau, saw that his isolated forces were in danger of being overwhelmed in a piecemeal fashion. He decided instead to concentrate his corps, supplemented by Allenby's cavalry and the 4th Division of Thomas D'Oyly Snow. On 26 August 1914, he mounted a vigorous defensive action, a "stopping blow", which despite heavy casualties, halted the German advance. With the BEF saved, he resumed an orderly retreat.
His decision to stand and fight enraged French who accused Smith-Dorrien of jeopardising the whole BEF, an accusation which did not amuse Smith-Dorrien's fellow corps commander, Haig, who already believed French to be incompetent.
Smith-Dorrien's II Corps took part in the First Battle of the Marne and the First Battle of the Aisne before the British were moved north to be closer to their supply lines.
First Battle of Ypres
The battle for Hill 60 was a notable struggle here. A defensive line at Neuve Chapelle became known as the Smith-Dorrien Trench (or, sometimes, the Smith-Dorrien Line). On 26 December 1914, Smith-Dorrien took command of the Second Army.
Second Battle of Ypres
In this battle, the British were defending a barely-tenable salient, held at great cost at the First Battle of Ypres five months earlier. On 22 April 1915, the Germans used poison gas on the Western Front for the first time and heavy casualties were sustained.
On 27 April, Smith-Dorrien recommended withdrawal to a more defensible front line as the promised French counterattack (north of the salient) was delayed and then came too small – Sir John French just wanted the situation kept quiet so as not to distract from the upcoming British offensive at Aubers Ridge – one historian describes French’s attitude as “cretinous”. Smith-Dorrien wrote a long letter (27 April) explaining the situation to Robertson (then chief of staff BEF). He received a curt telephone message telling him that, in Sir John's opinion, he had adequate troops to defend the salient. A few hours later written orders arrived, directing Smith-Dorrien to turn command of the salient over to Herbert Plumer and to lend Plumer his chief of staff and such other staff officers as Plumer required. (In practice this meant that Plumer's V Corps, already holding the salient, became an autonomous force reporting directly to GHQ, with Smith-Dorrien left only with II Corps south of the salient). Plumer immediately asked permission for a withdrawal almost identical to that proposed by Smith-Dorrien. After a delay whilst Foch conducted another counterattack, French accepted.
On 30 April, Haig wrote in his diary
Sir John also told me Smith-Dorrien had caused him much trouble. 'He was quite unfit [(he said)] to hold the Command of an Army' so Sir J. had withdrawn all troops from him control except the II Corps. Yet Smith-D. stayed on! [He would not resign!] French is to ask Lord Kitchener to find something to do at home. … He also alluded to Smith-Dorrien's conduct on the retreat, and said he ought to have tried him by Court Martial, because (on the day of Le Cateau) he 'had ordered him to retire at 8 am and he did not attempt to do so [but insisted on fighting in spite of his orders to retire]'.
Smith-Dorrien’s eventual offer to resign (6 May) was ignored, and on that same day French used the 'pessimism' of the withdrawal recommendation as an excuse to sack him from command of Second Army altogether. "Wully" Robertson is said to have broken the news to him with the words " 'Orace, yer for 'ome " (Robertson was a former enlisted man who dropped his aitches), although by another account he may have said " 'Orace, yer thrown " (a cavalry metaphor). The Official Historian Brigadier Edmonds later alleged that French had removed Smith-Dorrien as he stood in the way of Haig becoming Commander-in-Chief, but this seems unlikely as their antipathy went back a long way and French was later (December 1915) replaced by Douglas Haig as Commander-in-Chief of the BEF against his will.
French later wrote a partial and inaccurate account of the opening of the war in his book 1914, which attacked Smith-Dorrien. Smith-Dorrien, as a serving officer, was denied permission to reply in public.
Remainder of the war
After a period in Britain, Smith-Dorrien was assigned a command to fight the Germans in German East Africa (present day Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi) but pneumonia contracted during the voyage to South Africa prevented him from taking command. His former adversary, Jan Smuts, took on this command. Smith-Dorrien took no significant military part in the rest of the war. On 29 January 1917, Smith-Dorrien was appointed lieutenant of the Tower of London.
His next position was as Governor of Gibraltar from 9 July 1918 – 26 May 1923, where he introduced an element of democracy and closed some brothels. According to Wyndham Childs in the summer of 1918, Smith-Dorrien tried, and nearly succeeded, in uniting the Comrades of the Great War, the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, and the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers into one body. The merger later took place in 1921 to form the British Legion.
He retired in September 1923, living in Portugal and then England. He devoted much his time to the welfare and remembrance of Great War soldiers. He worked on his memoirs, which were published in 1925. As French was still alive at the time of writing, he still felt unable to rebut 1914. Despite his treatment by French, in 1925, he rushed across Europe to act as a pallbearer at French's funeral, an act appreciated by French's son.
He played himself in the film The Battle of Mons, released in 1926.
In June 1925, he unveiled the war memorial in Memorial Avenue, Worksop. On 4 August 1930, he unveiled the Pozieres Memorial.
He died on 12 August 1930 following injuries sustained in a car accident in Chippenham, Wiltshire; he was 72 years old. He is buried in the Three Close Lane Cemetery of St Peter's Church, Berkhamsted.
On 3 September 1902, he married Olive Crofton Schneider at St Peter's, Eaton Square, London. She was the eldest daughter of Colonel and Mrs Schneider, of Oak Lea, Furness Abbey. Olive's mother was stepsister to Gen. Sir Arthur Power Palmer GCB, GCIE, who died in 1904. They had three sons:
Grenfell Horace Gerald Smith-Dorrien (born 1904) served in the army, reaching the rank of Brigadier. He was killed on 13 September 1944 during the Italian campaign. His grave is in the Gradara War Cemetery, in the Commune of Gradara in the Province of Pesaro and Urbino.
Peter Lockwood Smith-Dorrien (born 1907) was killed in the King David Hotel bombing on 22 July 1946.
David Pelham Smith-Dorrien a.k.a. Bromley David Smith-Dorrien (29 October 1911 – 11 February 2001.) appears to have been an actor in the 1930s. He joined the Foresters in 1940. After the war, he worked to keep alive his father's reputation, designing a first-day cover commemorating the Battle of Le Cateau and helping his father's biographer A. J. Smithers. He is buried in Kennington Cemetery.
Horace and Olive Smith-Dorrien informally adopted Power Palmer's two daughters (Gabrielle and unknown), who were left homeless after his second wife's death in 1912. During World War I Lady Smith-Dorrien founded the Lady Smith-Dorrien's Hospital Bag Fund. A problem had been identified that wounded soldiers often became separated from their personal effects while in hospital. Volunteers for the fund sewed between 40,000 and 60,000 bags a month to hold soldiers' valuables, totalling around five million throughout the war. For this work, she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). She also served as President of the animal welfare charity, The Blue Cross, alleviating the suffering of war horses. For her services in that field, she received the gold medal of the Reconnaissance française.
In 1932, Olive became Principal of the Royal School of Needlework (RSN). In 1937, the RSN worked on the Queen's Train (Coronation Robe), canopy and the two chairs to be used in Westminster Abbey during the Coronation. She was awarded the King George VI Coronation Medal for work done. During the Second World War, she led the RSN in collecting lace which was sold for the war effort. She revived the manufacture of hospital bags. She died on 15 September 1951.