Thursday, 13 November 2014

The General, a Lion, not a Donkey...

Figure 1. Major-General W.N. Congreve, V.C. and Major Paley,
Brigade Major, 18th Brigade in the Trenches at Houplines, Spring 1915.
It is General at the back of the photo. 

Throughout most of the later 20th Century it has become almost standard practice for most military historian's to accuse the British Armies First World War General's of living remotely from their men in chateau's far behind the lines and of having little idea of what their men were going through.

If that was ever indeed the case, the Queen's Westminster Rifles were extraordinarily lucky in having as their Brigadier, and then Divisional Commander, Walter Norris Congreve.  It is quite clear from the surviving accounts from the QWR that they did not regard Congreve as being in the slightest bit remote. And nobody could accuse him of never visiting the trenches.

The photograph above shows the general looking for all the world like an elderly batman standing in front of the parapet at Houplines in the Spring of 1915.

Major Henriques would write of him..

"General Congreve possessed that charateristic quality of a leader which makes each individual under him feel a personal link between himself and his commander.  Such a feeling begets trust, and General Congreve possessed the trust of his troops to a welcome degree.  His frequent visits to the trenches were welcomed, by company commanders and junior officers, as those of a helpful friend rather than a critic; and his advice, especially in the early days, and the manner in which it was given, created a spirit of confidence that was of the very greatest help to Territorial officers, who both realised their inexperience and felt their responsibilities.  Who will forget his cheery "good morning" to the men as he passed down the muddy trenches, or his habitual greeting "and how are the Westminsters this morning?"

"On one occasion, in January [1915], he narrowly escaped being shot by an enemy sniper, when visiting the trenches held by the Battalion, one of the sentries being shot through the head and killed instantly while pointing out to him some of the danger spots in the German lines." [1]

On the 29th April 1915 Major-General W.N. Congreve would be promoted to command the 6th Division.

During the Boer War Congreve had been awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in rescuing the guns at the Battle of Colenso. With several other men he had crossed over 500 yards of bullet swept flat ground with a scratch team of horses and a limber in an attempt to retrieve several field guns who had opened fire too close to the Boer lines. Within a very short time the crews were all dead or wounded. Congreve was a subaltern with the Rifle Brigade. Amongst the other men to go forward was the son of Lord Roberts. Roberts was shot and wounded. Seeing Roberts lying in the line of fire Congreve went out into the direct sight of the Boers and managed to retrieve Roberts. Whilst making his dash forwards Congreve was shot through the leg and foot, and several other Boer bullets passed close enough to his body to tear holes in his uniform.
Congreve would later go on to command the XIII Corps and to mount one of the very few successful attacks during the Battle of the Somme when the 18th and 30th Divisions were the only ones to take all their objectives on 1 July.  Congreve soon added to his reputation through his advocacy of a night advance and dawn assault.  This tactic, which returned surprise to the operational agenda, was successfully carried out on 14 July at Delville Wood.  Congreve congratulated himself in his diary:

Haig came to see me and was very complimentary and grateful for our success yesterday, and indeed it was a good operation.  I do not think so great a force was ever before got into position within 300 yards of an active enemy for a dawn attack, and our losses before the advance were very small.  Our advance was over 1,400 yards of open ground.  The arrangements of the Brigade staffs, the discipline of the battalions and the effectiveness of our artillery are the causes of our success.  I think it will be a text book operation.  I am told it is the most successful of the war and I planned it![2]

The Battle of Delville Wood is remembered today for the appalling losses suffered by the South African troops involved in attacks later in the day. However the initial attack had been well planned, but as was to be the case until the Battle of Amiens in 1918 the Germans were able to move up reinforcements faster than the British could exploit the breakthrough that Congreve and his men had made.

In many ways Congreve's tactics are the precede the very similar tactics developed later so successfully by the Australia and Canadian Generals.

His son Major William La Touche ‘Billy’ Congreve, was killed on the Somme on 20 July 1916 leading from the front and then going out into No Man's Land to bring his wounded men in.  William joined his father in winning a VC.  However for the General the strain was to become almost unbearable and in August 1916 he caught cholera.

Eventually Congreve's habit of visiting the Front would catch up with him.  During June 1917, he had his left hand  blown off by a German 5.9” shell near Vimy Ridge.  He was the only corps commander to be wounded during the war.

Congreve was an asthmatic who suffered from bronchitis. Although he did return to command during the March 1918 retreat, he had by that time become exhausted and his troops suffered very badly from his decision to try to hold the line.

After the war he would be made Governor of Malta where he died in 1927.

Figure 2.  The Monument to Major-General W.N. Congreve on Malta.

Something of his care for his men comes over in the following quotation from a letter he wrote to his son.

‘I don’t feel I can ever make a general,’ he wrote to his son on 5 April 1916, ‘for I cannot face having men killed in the ruthless way generals must do ...’[3]

[1] Henriques, Major J.Q. The War History of the First Battalion Queen's Westminster Rifles, 1914-1918. Page 50 and 51.
[2] From the Centre for First World War Studies "Lions Led by Donkeys " by John Bourne
This article is a very good one about Congreve and goes into a great deal about his early career. I thoroughly recommend it to you if you are interested in Congreves life.
[3] John Bourne Centre for First World War Studies.

No comments: