Cuthbert, seedy

17th October 1914

The Dorsets remained in and around Festubert all day in billets.

I wonder if I detect some of resentment towards Cuthbert and the 13th Brigade in Gleichen’s memoirs? Comments such as “but Cuthbert was not there, so it was a little difficult to combine any action”, “we met the Headquarters of the 13th Brigade, minus their Brigadier” and “Cuthbert eventually turned up from somewhere” don’t exactly sing his praises.

Perhaps I am looking too hard. But certainly Cuthbert, CO of the 13th Brigade did not seem to be a popular man. A martinet with old fashioned views, his leadership of the 13th Brigade came to an abrupt end on the 1st October due to “illness”. Gleichen puts it succinctly. “Cuthbert, seedy”. This illness was pure fabrication. Cuthbert was fired. The 13th Brigade war diary states “Cuthbert ordered to England” and “Cuthbert left by motor for Paris”.

His replacement was Dublin-born General William Bernard Hickie. He was popular but he was also very unexperienced. His leadership of the 13th Brigade lasted just 11 days. He was carted off in an ambulance in the afternoon of the 13th October. Another “illness”. Smith-Dorrien, commander of II Corps, says in his diary that Hickie “had to go sick”. Hickie had refused to push his men forward along the south side of the canal. This refusal made it into the 5th Division’s war diary: “General Hickie considered open ground so unfavourable between his right and enemy’s position that he declined to co-operate without orders from superior authority.” This decision not to move forward had a huge impact on the failure of the French and the Dorsets’ attacks. But I don’t think we can blame the 13th Brigade.

Nikolaus Gadner, in his book Trial by Fire: Command and the British Expeditionary Force in 1914, follows the same line of enquiry. Although some of his assessment of the day is a little unfair (he claims the Dorsets retired in disarray due to lack of officers) he argues that a lack of experienced officers was really starting to tell in the 5th Division, leading to the replacement of senior officers, and ultimately Fergusson, commanding the 5th Division, on 18th October. Sacking experienced commanders was incredibly damaging to the BEF. There were few replacements available.

Gadner goes on to argue that all these sackings stemmed from Sir John French’s own insecurity as Commander-in-Chief of the BEF. He despised Smith-Dorrien of II Corps so it was easy for him to pass criticism from London his way. Smith-Dorrien did what managers do all over the world. He passed the blame down the line. And down it went. All the way to 13th Brigade. Ultimately, this power struggle led to the Dorsets dying in droves on the 13th October 1914.

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