General Sir Hubert Gough was a British general who rose to command the Fifth Army during the First World War. He gained an early reputation as an impetuous cavalry commander during the Boer War, was involved in the Curragh incident of 1914, had commander of the early phases of the third battle of Ypres and was in command of the section of the line that was worst affected by the first German offensive of 1918.
His early career rather resembles the clichéd image of the late Victorian British army officer. He was educated at Eton before gained entrance to Sandhurst in 1888, with the aid of a crammer. In March 1889 he entered the 16th lancers, one of the more expensive regiments of the British army. Between 1890 and 1902 he rose from lieutenant to lieutenant-colonel, while engaging in a constant round of racing, polo and hunting. He did attend the Staff College at Camberley, but was called away to South Africa before completing his course.
During the Boer War he gained a reputation as a dashing cavalry commander in a way that could hardly have reassured the men serving under him in 1917. At the relief of Ladysmith his were the first men into the besieged down, despite orders to the contrary. The next year he suffered a defeat at Blood River Poort (17 September 1901) after ignoring intelligence reports. Gough was briefly captured but escaped on the same day. His dashing exploits raised his profile but hardly seem to justify his appointment as an instructor at the Staff College (1904-1906).
In 1906 he returned to the cavalry as commander of the 16th lancers. In 1911 he was promoted to brigadier-general and given command of the 3rd cavalry brigade, in Ireland. While in Ireland Gough was involved in the Curragh incident, or mutiny, of March 1914. This saw a number of British army officers in Ireland make it known that they would not be willing to fight to support the Government’s Home Rule bill if resistance broke out in Ulster. The situation was eventually defused without impacting on the careers of those involved, while Home Rule had to be postponed after the outbreak of the First World War.
Gough would seem to be a good example of someone promoted too far. He was a successful brigade commander in the early weeks of the war in France. He was promoted to major-general and given command of the 2nd cavalry division during the first battle of Ypres. In March 1915 he was moved across to command 7th division.
Things begin to go less well after Gough was promoted to lieutenant-general and given command of I corps in July 1915. At this level his strengths were less relevant and his weaknesses, amongst them a perceived lack of attention to detail and to administration became more prominent, although in some respects he was simply unlucky.
I corps was involved in initial attack at the battle of Loos (25 September-14 October 1915). It was the less successful of the two corps involved in the first attack, partly because the preliminary gas attack failed in front of its sector, but did make some progress, capturing the Hohenzollern Redoubt. The overall failure of the British attack at Loos had little to do with Gough, and more to do with Sir John French’s decision to keep the reserves under his own control of 25 September.
The decline in Gough’s reputation began with the third battle of Ypres (31 July-10 November 1917). The start of the battle had been delayed to allow Gough’s Fifth Army to take over from General Plumer’s Second (both armies would take part in the battle). Gough was a friend of General Haig, who believed him to be more aggressive than the careful Plumer.
The two men had very different approaches to the battle at Ypres. Plumer wanted to launch a series of small scale battles with limited objectives, to wear down the German lines. In contrast, Gough wanted to overwhelm a large part of the German line on the first day. This was almost entirely the wrong approach to take in the circumstances of 1917. The German defences at Ypres were designed to let the attacker take the lightly defended first line, disrupt their advance through the careful placement of strong points and make then vulnerable to a counterattack. This is exactly what happened to the first attack at Ypres. The situation was then made worse by the wettest weather for 75 years.
After two more attacks failed, command of the attack was given back to Plumer. Gough and the Fifth Army played an important role in Plumer’s successful “bite and hold” offensives (Menin Road Ridge, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde). Gough’s reputation began to suffer.
Gough eventually lost his command as a result of the German offensive of 1918. The Fifth Army had been given the task of defending the Somme section, abandoned by the Germans early in 1917 when they pulled back to the Hindenburg Line. The Fifth Army was thinly stretched along a 42 miles sector. Part of his sector had only recently been taken over from the French. Even a year after the Germans had pulled back, the Allied defences on the new front line were much weaker than along most of the line, and of course their position had been dictated by the location of the new German lines.
On 21 March Ludendorff launched his great offensive (second battle of the Somme). Seventy six German divisions, many freed up by the collapse of Russian resistance in 1917, attacked twenty eight British divisions. A massive artillery bombardment knocked out the British front lines, while the reserve line was largely incomplete. At the end of the first day of fighting Gough’s Fifth Army had been pushed back at both ends. At the other end of the line a dangerous gap threatened to appear between the British Fifth Army and the French Sixth Army.
Gough was partly a victim of circumstances and party of his own actions. He had been aware of the danger of an attack on his front, and had warned Haig, but had not pushed as hard as he should have. Once the attack began, Gough attempted to organise a fighting retreat, but his orders were not precise enough, and one of this corps commanders, Ivor Maxse, withdrew to the Somme, forcing others to join him to avoid leaving a gap in the line.
Gough can not be blamed for the defeat on the Somme, but combined with his conduct of third Ypres his position was untenable. On 28 March he was removed from command of Fifth Army in favour of Sir Henry Rawlinson. Haig would later admit that Gough had been made a scapegoat, and in the post-war period his reputation would largely be restored, at least as far as to say that the defeat was not actually his fault.
His military career was not quite over. In 1919 he was briefly head of the allied military mission to the Baltic, which was meant to help overthrown the Bolshevik government in Russia. That was his last regular commission and in 1922 he retired with the rank of full general. He returned to action in 1939, aged nearly seventy, helping to form the Chelsea Branch of the Home Guard. He retired from active service for a second and final time in 1942.
Gough was one of many First World War generals to write memoirs. In his case he would survive to write two sets, Fifth Army in 1931, and Soldiering On in 1954. He was one of the most long-lived of all First World War commanders, dying aged 92 in 1963.