John Sherwood Kelly was certainly an interesting figure. He was raised in South Africa and joined the Imperial Light Horse during the Boer War. He then joined a force heading to Somaliland, where his bad temper saw him arrive as a sergeant but end as a private. His early life marks him out as tempermental, apparently willing to argue with those in authority over him, but equally unwilling to accept similar behaviour from those below him.
In 1913 he travelled to Ireland ready to fight on the Protestant side in a possible civil war, but the Irish troubles were overwhelmed by the outbreak of the First World War, bringing Kelly into the British Army after quite a gap. As with many early volunteers it took some time for Kelly to actually reach the fighting, and when he did it was at Gallopoli. When he did get to the Western Front it was to take part in the battle of the Somme, and then most famously at Cambrai, where he won his Victoria Cross. His style of leadership was to lead from the front – indeed rather more than was appropriate once he reached battalion command – but it was this sort of leadership that was needed during the German counterattack at Cambrai.
We also get a great deal on Kelly’s personal life, which was rather troubled. His mother died in an accident during his childhood. He was married twice, and divorced twice, although stayed close to his second wife, had a child with a third woman, and in his will left his possessions to a fourth, otherwise unknown woman!
The author has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about Churchill, and keeps on reminding us about it. Churchill gets the blame for the implementation of the land campaign at Gallipoli, despite it being an Army operation. We kept getting snide shots at Churchill seemingly at random throughout the text, apparently all building up to what I expected to be a dramatic court martial in which Kelly clashed with Churchill, effectively ending his career. In reality he was courtmartialed for writing letters to the press critising the campaign in Russia while still a serving officer, the trial only lasted one day, and although he was found guilty he was given the lowest possible punishment. The court martial doesn’t appear to have affected his fame after the war, and by this point in the book it is quite clear that he was never going to have a career in the peace-time British army. In a wartime army that included 200,000 ‘temporary gentlemen’, with no military background or experience, Kelly was actually one of the more experienced men, and rose to battalion command rather more quickly than they did (although by September 1918 one fifth of all infantry battalions were commanded by ‘temporary gentlemen’). Very few of his juniors would have been Sandhurst men by the time Kelly was commanding his battalion. The book would be much improved if most of the references to Churchill were removed. Not only would this return the focus more fully to Kelly, it would also give those sections where Churchill is actually relevant more impact.
This is a generally well written biography of a fascinating if flawed character. As is often the case I feel that the author is too sympathetic to his subject, but that’s a minor flaw, and Kelly does indeed emerge as a worthy subject of a biography.
1 - The Imperial Adventure, 1830-1902 - Part 1: Nature or Nurture?
2 - The Imperial Adventure, 1902-1913 - Part 2: Finding his Way
3 - Ireland, 1912-1914 - The Ulster Crisis and the Road to War
4 - Gallipoli and the Odyssey Begins, 1914-16
5 - The Somme, 1916 and Marriage
6 - Cambrai and the Victoria Cross, 1916-17
7 - The Russian Revolution, 1917-19
8 - Intervention and Court Martial, 1919
9 - At War with Peace, 1919-26
10 - The End of His Journey, 1924-31
Author: Philip Bujak
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military