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In the Line of Duty: Remembering the Great War's fallen Generals

It’s a myth World War One Generals just sat back and never reached the frontlines. We take at how high-ranking officers gave their lives in the Great War.

The generals who fell during World War One

How many Generals died in the Great War?

High ranking British Generals confer in France, 1914.Image: Lieutenant-General Douglas Haig, Brigadier-General E.M. Percival, Brigadier-General John Gough and Major-General Charles Monro confer in France, 1914. Gough, second from the right, would be killed during the war (Wikimedia Commons).

Many people’s perception of World War One is that it was only the common soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and ordinary ranks who died fighting. While it’s true the majority killed were enlisted men, this isn’t really the case.

Senior ranking officials were caught up in the conflict too. More than 200 Generals, including Lieutenant-Generals and Major-Generals and other high ranks, were killed, wounded, or captured between 1914-1918.

For the British, 78 officers of Brigadier-General rank or higher would die during the Great War.

We all too often picture the command staff of World War One British and Commonwealth forces in the mould of Blackadder’s General Melchett.

The common idea is that Generals simply sent men into meat grinders without a thought for their safety, too concerned with image, prestige, and the movement of their drinks cabinets than the lives of their troops.

Again, this isn’t the case. Generals put themselves in the line of fire, as did other ranks such as Majors, Brigadiers, Colonels, Captains, Lieutenants, and so on. The Great War was indiscriminate when it came to who was killed.

In percentage terms, 18% of British Generals that served during World War One would lose their lives during the conflict.

To put that into perspective, the British Army fielded a total of 8.7 million men during World War One. Total casualties of killed, captured, or wounded amounted to 1.5 million, or around 17.6%. The rate of attrition for those ranking Brigadier-General or higher is in line with the overall casualty rate.

Why were high-ranking officers on the front?

Allied high commanders visit the front, 1915Image: Field Marshal John French alongside French Commander-in-Chief Jacques Joffre and General Haig visit the frontlines in 1915.

Generals and high-ranking officers might be at the front for various reasons.

During the war’s opening salvoes on the Western Front, the war was still one of movement and flanking. It had not descended into the trench warfare we typically think of when we think of World War One.

As such, battlefield situations and frontline locations could change rapidly. High-ranking officers could get caught up in enemy advances and attacks just as easily as regular troops during the war’s early stages.

When the fighting reached stalemate around late 1914/early 1915, command staff and Generals were obligated to visit the front for many reasons.

They may wish to undertake personal reconnaissance of battlefields for themselves, for instance, or have their command headquarters set up within artillery range.

Other reasons why Generals would take trips to the front would include troop inspections and morale visits.

Morale is one of the major components of war. Soldiers must keep motivated to keep fighting. A drop in morale can prove deadly for any army.

Generals would often visit their men on the front to gauge their conditions and general mood. When inspecting troops or visiting trenches, this left them exposed to the same dangers as the enlisted men: artillery, gunfire, gassing, grenades and so on.

Of the 78 British Generals killed during World War One, around 40% of them were killed by artillery fire, according to historian Frank Davis in his book Bloody Red Tabs. A further 28% were killed by small arms fire, usually from snipers.

Generals could also be caught out when on the move, either on land, air, or sea. Only one general was killed in an aircraft-related incident during the Great War, but the dangers associated with movement in wartime were still exceptionally high.

Stories of fallen Great War Generals

Here is a small selection of British high-ranking commanding officers that died during World War One.

Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener

Earl Kitchener in 1901Image: Earl Kitchener in 1901 (Wikimedia Commons).

Technically, Earl Kitchener was not a Great War General.

By the time of World War One, the former Field Marshal was serving in the government role of Secretary of State for War.

Prior to this, Kitchener had enjoyed one of the most distinguished careers in the British Army. He had served across the world, including in Egypt, Sudan, India, and South Africa.

By 1909, Kitchener had been appointed Field Marshal: the highest rank in the British Army.

Kitchener was one of the most famous men in the British Empire. His reputation as one of the finest soldiers of his era won him great renown. He even served as commanding officer of 55,000 or so troops stationed in London for the Coronation of King George V, acting as one of the swords tasked with guarding the new monarch during the ceremony.

While storm clouds were gathering over Europe, Kitchener was serving as the British Agent and Consul-General in Egypt. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith recalled the former Field Marshal in August 1914 and quickly appointed him Secretary of State for War.

Interestingly, Kitchener was one of the few who foresaw a long war. It wouldn’t be all over by Christmas as others were predicting.

He may not have been commanding soldiers in the field but Kitchener’s influence over the British Army during the war’s early stages was significant.

The small professional British Expeditionary Force had been obliterated during the war’s earliest campaigns. It was up to Kitchener, who predicted Britain would have to use all its manpower “to the last million”, to recruit and train new British armies from scratch.

The solution was the creation of “New Armies” drafted from civilian conscripts.

A wave of recruitment swept over the UK, spurred on by the now iconic “Lord Kitchener Wants You” poster designed by Alfred Leete.

Ordinary men and women signed up to either fight or support the war effort by the million.

While this allowed the British Empire to eventually field the largest armies it have wielded up to that stage, the “New Armies” were not without their drawbacks.

Lord Kitchener Wants You poster

Image: Albert Leete's iconic "Lord Kitchener Wants You" poster (Wikimedia Commons).

One problem was the Pals Battalions. These were units made up of young men from close local communities, be they towns, villages, or even streets.

They may have been good for morale and creating tight-knit bonds among soldiers, but Great War battlefields were brutal. Entire communities were tragically wiped out, sometimes within the space of several minutes.

Despite his enormous popularity with the public, Kitchener was not without criticism.

His running of the war effort came under fire following costly setbacks in the Dardanelles at Gallipoli and Loos, Belgium, and his handling of the munitions crisis. Gradually, his powers were reduced as others took up the burden of steering the course of the war, but he would be relied on for more diplomatic purposes.

In 1916, Kitchener was appointed to lead a delegation to Tsarist Russia to discuss armament supplies and support for the beleaguered Russian Army.

Together with France and Britain, Russia was one of the Entente Powers opposing Imperial Germany and its allies.

On the 5th of June 1916, Kitchener and his delegation left Scapa Flow naval base, Scotland, aboard HMS Hampshire. The ship and its passengers were headed for the Russian port of Arkhangelsk.

A misreading of weather reports, and intelligence indicating German submarine activity in the North Sea, spelled trouble for Hampshire from the off.

Conditions were harsh with Hampshire battling its way through a force 9 gale.

Suddenly, the steamship hit a mine laid by the newly launched U-75. Terrible damage was caused to the ship’s hull.

HMS Hampshire and 737 souls sank beneath the waves in rough seas west of the Orkney Islands. Earl Kitchener was one of Hampshire’s casualties. Only 12 men survived.

Eyewitnesses spotted Kitchener stoically standing on the ship’s quarterdeck for the 20 minutes it took Hampshire to sink. His body was never found.

Kitchener’s death rocked the British Empire. He was an exceptionally popular figure with the British public.

Upon hearing the news, one sergeant on the Western Front is recorded to have said: “Now we’ve lost the war.”

Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who would go on to become overall commander of the British Army, said: “How shall we get on without him?”

The Entente Powers would go on to win a costly victory, but the death of Kitchener was a massive blow to British morale.

Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, is commemorated on the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, UK.

Brigadier-General John Gough VC

Upon his death on 22nd February 1915, many in British high command were absolutely devastated when John Gough, Johnnie to his friends, passed away.

A young John GoughImage: A young John Gough (Wikimedia Commons).

Gough was known as a fighting general, a man of great determination and grit but also tempered by realism and pragmatism.

His contemporary General Sir George Barrow described Gough as “a twentieth-century Chevalier Bayard”, referencing the 15th-century French knight Pierre Terrail. Terrail was known as a paragon of virtue and duty, something which, according to his friends and colleagues, Gough embodied.

Gough is famous for a remark made in November 1914 during a German attack.

“As he watched the enemy swarming over a low ridge one of his staff said the fight was decided,” historian Ian F.W. Beckett reports in his book Johnnie Gough V.C. “Gough turned with his eyes ablaze and exclaimed: ‘God will never let those devils win’”.

It’s said this quote completely summed up Gough’s character and attitude.

Further reinforcing his reputation was how Gough earned the Victoria Cross as a 31-year-old Major in the Rifle Brigade while serving in Somaliland.

On 22nd April 1903, Gough and his column of troops were attacked during the Third Somaliland expedition.

The British managed to conduct a solid defence and a fighting withdrawal but some men were left behind. Gough returned to the front to aid Captains William George Walker and George Murray Rolland in transporting a mortally wounded officer out of the firing line.

The wounded man was hoisted aboard a camel but was tragically, fatally wounded and died.

Rolland and Walker were given Victoria Crosses for their actions. Gough downplayed his role in the incident, but it was later revealed the then Major was also worthy of the Commonwealth’s highest military honour.

The Brigadier-General was often used as a sounding board for Field Marshal Douglas Haig, having travelled to France with I Corps of the BEF of which Haig was commander. He continued to be Haig’s number two when Haig took up greater command responsibilities as the war progressed.

Gough was considered a constructive yet not uncritical voice and had a good understanding of how Haig’s mind worked.

Many of his contemporaries believed that if Gough had gone on to command a division, he would have reached even higher rank. Indeed, he was poised to take command of one of Kitchener’s New Armies in February 1915.

An armoured vehicle pauses during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.

Image: An armoured vehicle during the battle of Neuve Chapelle. John Gough was preparing for the battle before he was killed (© IWM Q 50727)

At this time, Gough was preparing for the attack on Neuve Chapelle. This action would result in small territorial gains for the Entente but incur just shy of 13,000 British and Indian casualties.

Gough was expected to take full command of one of the New Army divisions in March 1915. He would have achieved the rank of Major-General had this come to pass. Sadly, it was not to be.

On 20th February 1915, Gough headed to the front to visit the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade at Fauquissart, some 3 km north of Neuve Chappelle. His plan was to take lunch at the HQ Officers’ Mess there, before travelling back to the UK to take command of his new division.

While inspecting the line, Gough was hit in the chest by a ricocheting German bullet. The Brigadier-General was mortally wounded.

While it was not unusual for senior officers to get hit by sniper’s bullets, this particular incident was essentially down to massive bad luck. It’s thought that the bullet came from a single shot at a distance of 1,000 yards from the British front line, deep within German territory. It’s only by chance Gough was hit.

A field ambulance unit ferried Gough to Estaires, around 7 km from the frontline, where Gough succumbed to his wounds. He died on the morning of 22nd February 1915.

Gough was buried in the Estaires Communal Cemetery where he is commemorated to this day.

He was posthumously knighted and gazetted as a Knight Bachelor. This added to a long list of honours Gough had acquired over his highly distinguished military career.

Major-General Hubert Hamilton

Like many British Generals of the Great War, Hubert Hamilton was the son of a General himself. He was one of four brothers to enter the British Army. Even his brother-in-law was a General.

It seemed Hamilton was destined for command.

Hubert HamiltonImage: Hubert Hamilton in his dress uniform (Wikimedia Commons).

Hamilton’s service would take him all over the world. Starting from moving with his unit, the 2nd Foot Regiment (Queen’s Royal Regiment), to India, Hamilton would take part in actions in Sudan, Egypt, and South Africa.

By 1914, Hamilton was commanding the BEF’s 3rd Division. The division was one of the first British units to arrive in France, forming part of II Corps under General Horace Smith-Dorian.

3rd Division was essentially constantly engaged in frontline fighting between August-September 1914.

The unit was one of the key formations in the Race for the Sea: the deadly game of manoeuvre and counter manoeuvre as the Entente Powers and Imperial Germany vied to reach the North Sea coast first.

Major-General Hamilton and his men fought exhausting, continuous combat for nearly two full months. During that time, they would help halt the Imperial German advance at the First Battle of the Marne, as well as fight at the Battles of Mons and Le Cateau.

British troops advance during the First Battle of the Marne.Image: BEF troops on the move during the First Battle of the Marne (© IWM Q 51493).

Hamilton diced with death and was often on the frontline amongst his men. This earned him their admiration, as their commanding officer saw fit to share in their hardships. The men of the 3rd Division took to calling their CO “Hammy” to show their affection for their commander.

On 26th September 1914, Hamilton came close to death. While conferring with two of his senior colleagues regarding operations near the front, a German artillery shell landed just feet away. Luckily, it did not detonate. Hamilton was spared but he was living on borrowed time.

By October, the 3rd Division was part of the vanguard as French, German, and British troops fought for control of the Picardy coast.

Hamilton alongside a retinue of subordinates and aides-de-camp travelled to the village of La Couture near Béthune on October 14th. They were there to inspect the unfolding situation and get a sense of how the battle was flowing.

The party had arrived on horseback. No sooner than they dismounted from their steeds, a shrapnel shell detonated overhead. Miraculously, none of the officers that accompanied their General had been hit.

Hamilton was not so lucky. Although he had survived the shell burst and its deadly rain, a bullet struck the Major-General in the middle of his forehead. He was killed instantly.

Herbert Hamilton thus became the first British divisional commander to die in World War One.

Such was the esteem Hamilton was held in by his troops, a full funeral service was given for his burial in La Couture churchyard, even as fighting raged nearby.

Lighting was provided by car headlines and a representative of each regiment in 3rd Division attended as an honour guard.

Shellfire often caused the chaplain to pause the service while gunfire would zing and ricochet off the church’s walls and headstones. Somehow no soldiers were hit.

Once the fighting died down, Hamilton’s body was exhumed and transported back to England. The Major-General was buried at St Martin Church in Cheriton, Kent. He remains there to this day.

Discover more stories of the fallen with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

You can learn more about the Great War Generals and discover who we commemorate using our Find War Dead tool.

Simply add the “Rank” field to your search to find the high-ranking officers we commemorate at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Tags First World War World War One