Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, 1858-1930

Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was a British General, prominent during the first year of the First World War. His father was a retired colonel, and after attending Harrow, Smith-Dorrien joined the army in 1876. He was commissioned second lieutenant in the 95th (Derbyshire) foot, before attending Sandhurst.

Smith-Dorrien’s first experience of battle came during the Zulu War of 1879. He was present in South Africa as a supernumerary transport officer (extra to the established staff of the regiments present in the field). He was present at the battle of Isandlwana, and was one of only five officers to escape from that defeat, attributing his survival partly to his blue jacket. He remained in South Africa, and was present at the battle of Ulundi (4 July), where he won a mention in dispatches.

He next saw action in Egypt and the Sudan. In 1882 the 95th took park in the campaign against Colonel Ahmad Arabi Pasha. In 1885 he was adjutant of the mounted infantry battalion in the Suakin field force, and was present at the battle of Giniss (30 December 1885), winning the DSO.

In 1887 he attended the Staff College at Camberley, where despite his experience of such work, he did not excel. Like so many British army officers of the period, he spent most of the next decade in India, where he saw little active service (his only campaign was the Tirah expedition of 1897-8), but plenty of the polo field.

He returned to the Sudan in 1898, commanding the 13th Sudanese battalion at the battle of Omdurman (2 September 1898). This campaign renewed his close association with General Kitchener, which would later come to haunt him.

Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien
Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien

After the Sudan, Smith-Dorrien was promoted to brevet colonel, and given command of the 1st battalion of the Sherwood Foresters. In December 1899 that battalion was part of the army corps sent to South Africa under the command of Sir Redvers Buller. In the aftermath of a series of humiliating defeats (Black Week), Buller was replaced by Lord Roberts, with Kitchener as his chief of staff.

Smith-Dorrien was promoted to command the 19th infantry brigade. This brigade took part in the Great Flank March, the campaign that combined the relief of Kimberly with the capture of Bloemfontein and Pretoria. Smith-Dorrien’s brigade was present at the battle of Paardeberg (18-27 February 1900), which saw the capture of the force that had been besieging Kimberley. It then took part in the advance on Pretoria. The capture of the two Boer capitals was widely seen as ending the war, and Lord Roberts returned to Britain. Kitchener was left in command in South Africa. As it became clear that the Boers had not given up, but were instead conducting guerrilla warfare, Kitchener began a series of great sweeps. Smith-Dorrien was given command of one of the columns used in this period of the war, effectively giving him command of a division.

The war in South Africa would begin a feud between Kitchener and Sir John French. Kitchener was a supporter of Lord Roberts, and served as his chief of staff. Neither Kitchener nor Roberts were impressed with French’s performance during the Great Flank March, and perhaps unfairly blamed him for the escape of the Boer army at Poplar Grove.  Smith-Dorrien sided with his patron Kitchener, while French had the support of his own chief of staff, Douglas Haig. All four men would hold senior posts in 1914.

For the moment Smith-Dorrien’s association with the Roberts-Kitchener faction helped his career. Lord Roberts became commander-in-chief of the British army, and appointed Smith-Dorrien adjutant-general of the Indian army. He arrived at a period when the Indian army was in conflict with the viceroy, Lord Curzon. The arrival of Kitchener as command-in-chief of the Indian army in November 1902 only made the situation worse. In April 1903 Smith-Dorrien requested a transfer away from a job he found detestable, and was appointed commander of the 4th (Quetta) division.

The controversy between French and Smith-Dorrien renewed in 1907 after Smith-Dorrien was promoted to lieutenant-general and appointed to replace French as commander of the Aldershot command. This was a crucial period for the British army, struggling to come to terms with the lessons of the South African war, where the British regulars had struggled against Boer riflemen. Despite the arguments between French and Smith-Dorrien, which were only intermittent during this period, the training on offer at Aldershot did not suffer. The BEF of 1914 was a much better trained force than the Army Corps of 1899. In 1912 Smith-Dorrien was moved to the southern command and promoted to full general.

Smith-Dorrien was not initially appointed to a senior command in the BEF in August 1914. II corps was to be commanded by General Sir James Grierson, an officer with a deep knowledge of the German army, and good relations with the French. On 17 August, the day after arriving in France, Grierson died of a heart attack. A successor would be needed.

Sir John French was now commander of the BEF. He wanted Lieutenant-General Sir Herbert Plumer to take over II corps, but Lord Kitchener had just been appointed secretary of state for war. He decided to appoint his old protégé Smith-Dorrien to command II corps, creating a potential for disaster in the British high command.

To both of their credit the perhaps inevitable clash did not come until the second battle of Ypres. Smith-Dorrien arrived to take over his new command on 20 August, three days before they were heavily engaged at the battle of Mons. There the BEF demonstrated the value of the training they had received under French, Smith-Dorrien and Haig at Aldershot, but were forced to retreat to avoid a gap developing on their flanks.

The high point of Smith-Dorrien’s career came six days later, during the long retreat to the Marne. On 26 August Smith-Dorrien was forced to stand and fight to prevent the Germans from overwhelming his column on the march. His skilful handling of II corps at Le Cateau held off a much larger German force and allowed the corps to escape to the south.

Once there it would play a role in the first battle of the Marne and the battle of the Aisne. When the BEF relocated to Flanders in October 1914, II corps would take up a position to the immediate left of the French line, fighting the battle of La Bassée, 10 October-2 November 1914, the first of the series of battles that led up to the first battle of Ypres. On 26 December II corps would be renamed as the Second Army.

The feud with French finally cost Smith-Dorrien his command during the second battle of Ypres (22 April-25 May 1915). After the chaos caused by the first German gas attacks on 27 April, Smith-Dorrien recommended pulling back closer to Ypres. French was in one of his more optimistic moods, and felt that Smith-Dorrien was being unduly defeatist. On 27 April Smith-Dorrien was ordered to pass command of his troops to Heneral Sir Herbert Plumer, command of V corps. On 6 May Smith-Dorrien requested to be relieved of command, and returned to Britain. Meanwhile, Plumer ordered exactly the same retreat as Smith-Dorrien had planned.

This was not the end of his military career. In November 1917 he was appointed to command the campaign in East Africa, where Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was carrying out a successful guerrilla campaign that would last for the entire war. Smith-Dorrien got no further than Cape Town before being struck down by pneumonia and invalided back to Britain. In January 1917 he was appointed lieutenant of the Tower of London. Between September 1917 and November 1923 he served as governor of Gibraltar.

The controversy between French and Smith-Dorrien erupted against after the war. French’s memoirs, published in 1919, badly misrepresented Le Cateau. Smith-Dorrien, as a serving officer, was refused permission to publish his own account of the battle, but was vindicated by the publication of the official history of the fighting in 1914. Smith-Dorrien died on 12 August 1930, of injuries sustained in a car crash. 

Stemming the Tide: Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force 1914, ed. Spencer Jones. A generally positive study of the senior and middle ranking officers of the BEF, covering the main characters at GHQ, the three corps commanders, a selection of division and brigade commanders and finishing with a more general study of battalion and company commanders. Focuses on their pre-war careers, how their experiences prepared them for the trials of 1914 and how they actually coped (Read Full Review)
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (26 August 2007), Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, 1858-1930 ,

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