Aylmer Gould Hunter-Weston, of Hunterston
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About Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer Gould Hunter-Weston KCB DSO GStJ
Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer Gould Hunter-Weston KCB DSO GStJ (23 September 1864 – 18 March 1940) was a British Army general who served in World War I at Gallipoli and the Somme Offensive. He was also a Member of Parliament.
Nicknamed "Hunter-Bunter", Hunter-Weston has been seen as a classic example of the stereotyped British "donkey" general — he was described by his contemporary superior Sir Douglas Haig as a "rank amateur", and has been referred to by one modern writer as "one of the Great War's spectacular incompetents". However, another historian writes that although his poor performance at the battles of Krithia earned his reputation "as one of the most brutal and incompetent commanders of the First World War" "in his later battles he seemed to hit upon a formula for success ...(but) these small achievements were largely forgotten". Another writer claims that Hunter-Weston's performance at Gallipoli was "competent" but that he is unfairly vilified for his premature blowing of the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt on 1 July 1916.
Commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1884 he served on the Indian North West Frontier and took part in the Miranzai Expedition of 1891 and was wounded during the Waziristan Expedition of 1894-95. During this time he was promoted to brevet major. He was on General Herbert Kitchener's staff in 1896. He later took part in the Second Boer War in South Africa between 1899 and 1902 as a staff officer then as commander of the Mounted Engineers; he was described as having "reckless courage combined with technical skill and great coolness in emergency".
He was General Sir John French's chief staff officer in the Eastern Command from 1904 to 1908, after which he performed the same role in the Scottish Command until 1911. He married Grace Strang-Steel in 1905. In 1911, he became the Assistant Director of military training; in the same year, he succeeded his mother as the 27th Laird of Hunterston and was made a member of the Order of the Bath.
At the outbreak of the war in 1914, he was a brigadier general in command of the 11th Infantry Brigade based at Colchester, and he commanded this unit as part of 4th Division on the Western Front, including at the battles of Le Cateau and the Aisne, where he supervised his command from a motorbike (at a time when senior generals used cars and most other officers used horses). He "often appeared in the most surprising places" and his handling of the brigade was "skilful".
When the Battle of Gallipoli commenced in March 1915, Hunter-Weston was promoted to the command of the British 29th Division, which was to make the landing at Cape Helles near the entrance to the Dardanelles.
When asked for his advice before the landings, Hunter-Weston cautioned General Hamilton that the Turks had had ample time to turn the peninsula into "an entrenched camp", that Helles was less vulnerable to Turkish attack than Suvla Bay but conversely offered little room for maneouvre and given Britain's lack of High Explosive shells needed to cover attacks risked an Allied bridgehead becoming "a second Crimea" which would damage Britain's standing with then-neutral Greece and Romania.
On the day of the Helles landings Hunter-Weston "remained anchored off W beach.. He was out of contact with S and Y, neglected X and seemed determined to avoid any knowledge of V... (he) took no steps to gather information for himself. His one positive move (to shift troops from V to W beach) had nothing to do with the situation at V and only succeeded because the Turkish defence was stretched too thinly."
Hunter-Weston was referred to as "The Butcher of Helles". Progress up from the bridgehead at Helles was severely hampered by lack of artillery: at the First Battle of Krithia (28 April 1915) only 18 guns were available - a comparable division-sized assault on the Western Front at the time might have had 200 - and there was a shortage of mules to pull them forward, and nobody was sure where the Turkish front line actually was. On 2 May, seeking to exploit the repulse of a Turkish attack the previous night, he launched an attack across the line, despite his troops being tired and short of ammunition - the 86th Brigade, too tired even to attack, stayed completely stationary - "no ground was gained by this lamentable episode". By this time 29th Division had suffered 4,500 casualties, leaving 6,000 effectives, although the French attacking on the right flank had suffered in similar proportion.
At the Second Battle of Krithia, 105 guns were now available, of which probably 75 were used, but this was still far fewer than would have been used on the Western Front, and there was still a lack of HE shells (many guns were 18-pounders firing only shrapnel), mules and knowledge of the Turkish positions, whilst Hunter-Weston's plans were excessively detailed and complex, full of map references and complex wheeling maneouvres. When his plan of attack failed on the first day, he proceeded to repeat the plan on the second and third days.
As the campaign proceeded and more reinforcements were dispatched to Helles, Hunter-Weston's responsibilities grew until on 24 May he was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of the VIII Corps.
At the Third Battle of Krithia, Hunter-Weston planned with more caution and realism, gaining better intelligence of Turkish positions (including aerial photography), ordering night digging to get the start-off point within 250 yards of the Turkish positions (it had been 1,800 yards the previous time) and ordering a lull in the bombardment in the hope that the Turkish guns might give away their positions by retaliating, thus enabling counter-battery fire. However, although a breakthrough towards Krithia was almost attained by the British infantry in the centre - where the artillery fire had been concentrated - he was worried about an advance in the centre being trapped a salient and so committed his reserves to the unsuccessful attacks by the Indians on the left flank and the Royal Naval Division on the right. This error of reinforcing failure rather than success made the battle "not one of (his) finer moments".
However "there is strong evidence that (Hunter-Weston) took to heart the lessons" that concentrated High Explosive bombardment by heavy howitzers was needed for success, and held a series of meetings with the French General Gouraud at which they agreed to cooperate with their artillery and adopt this strategy in future. Progress was made in some attacks in late June and early July, with one French attack using a density of shelling up to 20 times that of the early attacks. In some cases these inflicted greater casualties on the Turkish defenders than were taken by the attackers, as lack of space, reserves and guns did not allow the Turks to adopt the defensive tactics used by the Germans later in the war: holding the front line thinly, counterattack and artillery duels with Allied batteries. Even in this period, attacks did not always turn out as hoped: during the Battle of Gully Ravine in late June 1915 he attacked with the inexperienced Scottish 52nd (Lowland) Division - the attack succeeded on the left, where artillery fire was concentrated (as the Indians had been thrown back there earlier in June), but the attack was over too wide a distance, and half the 156th Brigade, attacking on the right with insufficient artillery support, became casualties, of which over a third were killed (this was the attack of which Hunter-Weston claimed he was "blooding the pups").
However, having been discovered by the Allies, these "bite and hold" tactics were then abandoned and their discovery in Gallipoli largely forgotten by historians. This may be because Hunter-Weston and Gouraud were both soon invalided out of the peninsula, or because the Allies had never intended Gallipoli to be about trench warfare and so were not interested in learning tactical land warfare lessons from it, or simply because the development of artillery tactics throughout the war was not a clear-cut process, as is shown by the fact that similar tactics almost worked at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, but were then not used for over a year afterwards. When political leaders in London agreed to commit a further five divisions to Gallipoli in July, they decided that further attacks from the Helles bridgehead were too slow and costly, and that a fresh landing at Suvla Bay offered a better chance of swift victory.
Gordon Corrigan claims - without giving further detail - that his command of the division was "one of the more competent aspects" handling of the Helles landings and that "his handling of the division, once ashore, was thoroughly competent" but this appears to be a minority view.
Hunter-Weston was invalided from Gallipoli in July and returned to England. In his Gallipoli (2001) Les Carlyon wrote: " What was wrong with (Hunter-Weston) has never become clear. The explanations run from sunstroke and exhaustion to enteric fever and dysentery to a collapse and a breakdown. Hamilton ... saw him 'staggering' off to a hospital ship.”
Return to Western Front
Hunter-Weston returned to command the VIII Corps when it was re-established in France in 1916. At the launch of the Somme Offensive on 1 July 1916 it was Hunter-Weston's divisions, attacking in the northern sector between the Ancre and the Serre, that suffered the worst casualties and failed to capture any of their objectives. Artillery fire was weaker here, and the Germans had the advantage of height, whereas in the southern sector the opposite was true, but the decision had been made by senior generals (Haig and Rawlinson) to launch the attack over a wide front.
At the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, the plan was to explode 19 mines dug by Royal Engineer tunnelling companies to weaken enemy defences. The northernmost mine of 40,000 pounds (18,000 kg) of explosives was under the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt, a front-line fortification west of the village of Beaumont Hamel on the Hunter-Weston's sector. He wished to detonate the mine four hours early, but this was vetoed by the Inspector of Mines at BEF GHQ, who pointed out that the British had a poor record of seizing craters before the Germans got there. As a compromise Hunter-Weston was allowed to detonate at 07:20. This led to the successful filming of the explosion by British cinematographer Geoffrey Malins, who was filming the 29th Division's attack. The other mines were detonated at 7:28 am, two minutes before Zero hour when the infantry advance would begin. In many cases, including Hawthorne Ridge, the Germans were able to seize the craters before the British troops crossed No Man's Land.
In an October 1916 by-election, he was elected to the House of Commons as the Unionist member for North Ayrshire. Hunter-Weston, who was the first Member of Parliament to simultaneously command an Army Corps on the field, continued to command VIII Corps but was not involved in any further major offensive.
Hunter-Weston continued in politics after the war, being elected again for Bute and Northern Ayrshire in 1918. He resigned from the Army in 1919.
He retired from Parliament in 1935, and died in 1940 following a fall from a turret at his ancestral home in Hunterston.