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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

"Clever" Men


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I`m reading Woodward`s biography of Robertson and it struck me that every time I come across a reference to a soldier as "one of the cleverest men in the army", he always seems to be in a staff job behind a desk somewhere, not in a field command. Was "cleverness" perhaps thought to be secondary to other qualities for field command, or are there references to reputedly clever men I just haven`t come across yet?

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I once read, I think it was in George MacDonald Frasers "The General Danced At Dawn", that," the mark of a good officer was the ability to make quick decisions, if they happened to be the right decisions, so much the better".


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I`m sure decisiveness comes high. I would have thought it was more important at lower levels (platoon, company) than, say, brigade or division? The higher you get, the more time to make a decision and the more important to get it right?

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Good staff officers needed to have several attributes we associate with cleverness. They need great attention to detail without losing the overall picture. They need to make correct decisions on given information, however much that might be. They need to be flexible in their thinking and able to rejig plans if necessary. Entrance to Staff College was fairly hard and the pass rate not high. Haig needed a ' leg up ' to get in although he did well while there. To rise through the various echelons of the staff would not be easy for a stupid person. It also tended to be a slow track for promotion. It would attract capable officers wishing to advance their careers through application rather than the younger or less gifted sons of the great houses.

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Whilst regimental life appealed to most infantry officers in British Army outposts or in the Indian Army - lots of sport, socialising, occasional campaigning - it also could suffocate those with agile & active minds.

Therefore chaps who had probably never thought that they would become "professional" staff officers often became just that so that they could work at mentally demanding duties whilst continuing to serve in an environment that they enjoyed.

Also if the Memsahib ruled the roost, as was often the case, she wanted her hubby in a job with regular office hours.

There were others, perhaps more crafty than clever, who realised then as now that the staff route to promotion & a higher pension is easier & safer than the regimental route. Staff blunders can be more easily ignored or concealed than can say losing too many men in an avoidable ambush on the Frontier.

War experience in a front-line formation HQ could quickly change the situation. There were never enough well qualified & experienced staff officers available, leading to the few good ones often being overworked & then woken-up constantly with messages whilst they tried to sleep.

As volunteers enlisted in the early days of the Great War I am sure that many of them would have possessed the qualities required of a useful staff officer. I do not know if the Army appreciated that & selected & trained them accordingly. Probably those chaps were spotted first by their COs & used as adjutants & intelligence officers, & then if they survived long enough, posted to a Brigade or L of C junior staff post.


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There are many instances of "clever" Brigadier-Generals (mind you, there's a few duffers in there too).

Here's one. Text courtesy of Dr John Bourne:

George Henry Gater


CMG. DSO* GOC Infantry Brigade

Winchester College, Oxford University

Sherwood Foresters

George Henry Gater was the son of W H Gater, a solicitor. He had a quite remarkable war. In 1911 he abandoned teaching for a career in educational administration and the following year was appointed Assistant Director of Education for Nottinghamshire. He was still in this post when the war broke out. Like hundreds of thousands of other young men he rallied to Kitchener’s call to arms and was commissioned in the 9th Battalion Sherwood Foresters. He served with this unit at Gallipoli. He later commanded 9th Sherwoods and 6th Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment (both battalions being in 33rd Brigade, 11th (Northern) Division). After Gallipoli, he saw action on the Somme and at Third Ypres, twice being wounded. The citation to his second DSO, on 17 September 1917, spoke of his ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He led his battalion with brilliant skill and resolution during an attack, minimising their casualties during three days of intense shelling, by his able dispositions and good eye for ground. He directed the consolidation and remained in command for three days although severely wounded in the face early in the action’. His reward was not only another DSO, but also promotion to GOC 62nd Brigade on 1 November 1917, following the death in action of Brigadier-General C G Rawling. This completed an astonishing rise from civilian to brigadier-general in just over three years. He was not yet 31.

62nd Brigade was in Major-General D G M Campbell’s 21st Division. Campbell was an outstanding soldier, but he was very much a pukka Regular who never went out of his way to court popularity, especially among New Army officers. Gater nevertheless not only survived under Campbell’s command for the rest of the war but also flourished. On two occasions, during the worst of the fighting in the spring of 1918, Gater was chosen to command ad hoc units to help stem the German tide. The first, known as Gater’s Force, consisted of composite battalions from 62nd, 64th and 110th Brigades, together with sixty-six Lewis guns of 4th Tank Brigade. This was sent to reinforce 3rd Australian Division on 29–30 March 1918. The second, known as Gater’s Independent Brigade, and again composed of composite battalions from 62nd, 64th and 110th Brigades, plus support units, was sent to block any German advance beyond the Marne on 2 June 1918, where it came under the command of the French Fifth Army.

After the war Gater returned to his career and became a distinguished educational administrator and senior civil servant. He was knighted in 1941. Gater was the only British general of the Great War with an entry in Who’s Who who did not refer to his military rank. He is also possibly the only fighting general in British military history with a Dip. Ed.

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Harry - I appreciate what you say. It makes sense. You consider, then, that a clever man generally chooses staff appointments rather than being thought less suitable for field command?

CB - An excellent example of virtue rewarded. Of course, he wouldn`t have prospered so except for the exigencies of the War.

I was really thinking about the 1880s & 90s which were the formative years for the top brass of WW1.

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Brig Gen Gater. There`s a coincidence. He was probably Director of Education for Lancashire when I started my schooling there.


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If bread is the staff of life, what is the life of the Staff?

One long loaf.

And also from Fraser: "They generally have to be excused boots."

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So you owe it all to a donkey, eh?

I suppose I could claim I studied under Brig Gen Gater? :)

But to return to the topic - would perceived cleverness keep men away from the field command structure in favour of "fighting generals"?

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I think it was Wavell, or possibly Slim, whose father was once told "There is really no need for your son to go into the Army: he is really quite intelligent" !

On a more serious point, the qualities needed in a good senior commander do not include high intelligence (although it can be useful). Decision-making, in both a timely manner and with the persistence to hold to a decision in the face of initial adverse developments, certainly ranks high. The ability to accept casualties without overt display of emotion is also important. The ability to choose the right subordinates, and to allow them to exercise delegated authority balanced with the degree of supervision need according to their ability and experience, is important too.

Of course there must be moderation: decisiveness but not obstinacy, acceptance of casualties without callousness, delegation without abrogation of responsibility.

In a nutshell, they need to be man-managers, and although a manager should be familiar with his field of endeavour, it doesn't matter if he is not an expert as long as he has people reporting to him who are.

At more junior levels, though, it is also important that the officer should be able to do everything his men are expected to do, and at least as well as most of them. or he will lose their respect.

The best generals also have a certain charisma, whether natural (like Wellington) or partly manufactured (like Montgomery).


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