Book Review – The Silent General: Horne of the First Army – A Biography of Haig’s Trusted Great War Comrade-in-Arms

Don Farr, The Silent General: Horne of the First Army – A Biography of Haig’s Trusted Great War Comrade-in-Arms. Helion & Company Limited, Solihull, 2007. 352 pp. £25.00.

Don Farr and his publishers, Helion, are to be congratulated.  Firstly, for giving us the first biography of General Lord Horne, who hitherto has been relatively unknown, remaining rather a shadowy figure for historians and one of the forgotten generals of the war despite his seniority and participation, apart from one brief absence during the winter of 1915-16, throughout the war as a commander at divisional, corps and army level on the Western Front.  It is ironic that until now there has been no full-length study, modern or contemporary, of Horne’s career, whereas his subordinate, General Sir Arthur Currie, who commanded the Canadian Corps, has at least three biographies and has, as a result, tended to monopolise the credit for the triumphs such as Vimy Ridge, Lens, the Drocourt-Queant Line, Canal du Nord, Valenciennes and Mons, which should have been shared with his Army Commander, Horne.  Secondly, they have provided a handsome and pleasant volume to read which with many maps and photographs puts to shame many other publishers who stint on such luxuries as well as filling a yawning gap in the historiography of the First World War.

In a book of just over 300 pages, including footnotes, bibliography and index, Farr has supplied us with a detailed outline of Horne’s background and career as a soldier, notably his active service in South Africa between 1899 and 1902 and on the Western Front between 1914 and 1919, which forms the core of the book.  Thus, Horne’s rapid advance through the ranks, climbing from the rank of Colonel with the temporary rank of Brigadier-General to that of full General in two years – a meteoric rise equalled only by General Sir Hubert Gough (Fifth Army) amongst the Army Commanders in France is clearly delineated.  Horne had eagerly grasped the opportunity provided by the outbreak of the war and Farr gives us a blow-by-blow narrative of the operations in which Horne took part: notably his experiences with the Cavalry Division led by Sir John French and his staff officer, Douglas Haig, in South Africa; establishing his reputation as Haig’s artillery expert with I Corps in the Retreat from Mons, the advance to the Aisne, and the First Battle of Ypres; as commander of the 2nd Division at Cuinchy, Givenchy, Festubert and Loos in 1915; the  interlude of some six months in the Near East in 1915-16 visiting Gallipoli and Salonika with Kitchener prior to the evacuation from Gallipoli and advising on the defence of the Suez Canal; his command of XV Corps in France taking part in the Battle of the Somme as part of Rawlinson’s Fourth Army during 1916; his promotion to command the First Army at the end of September !916, participating in the capture of Vimy Ridge and Hill 70 in 1917, and the Battles of Lys, the Scarpe, the Drocourt-Queant Line, the Canal du Nord, Valenciennes, and Mons in 1918.

Although Farr has provided a good introduction to Horne’s career as one of Haig’s principal and most trusted lieutenants during the long, hard slog on the Western Front, one would nevertheless like more analysis of the events and Horne’s career.  With the notable exception of a chapter discussing the thorny question of Horne’s contribution to the adoption of the Creeping Barrage by the British Army during battles on the Somme in 1916 and another chapter assessing Horne’s achievements at the end, the book remains largely a traditional narrative of events with little in-depth discussion or analysis of Horne’s personality (he largely remains an enigma in terms of any explanation of his actions and attitudes within the army’s ethos as a whole) and relationship with superiors like Sir Douglas Haig or subordinates such as Currie and General Sir Hastings Anderson, his MGGS at First Army, or the basis for his rapid rise, which some hostile contemporaries such as Sir Basil Liddell Hart are quoted as attributing solely to his friendship with his fellow Scot, Haig.

Some of this can, I think, may be the result of the sources that have been consulted in writing the book.  Farr has relied heavily on Horne’s own papers, which are held in the Department of Documents at the Imperial War Museum, and in particular on the memoirs written by Anderson, and his fellow Gunner, Lieutenant General Sir Herbert Uniacke.  He has used comparatively few other primary sources.  For example, he consulted some papers at the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King’s College London but has not consulted those of General Sir Alexander Godley, who was one of Horne’s Corps Commanders in 1918.  In addition, the official records, such as the papers of the XV Corps and the First Army held at the National Archives at Kew, or the correspondence with the Official Historian (Brigadier-General Sir James Edmonds) are not cited as having been consulted.  The footnotes are at times somewhat sparse and rather cryptic leaving one unsure what sources certain assertions are based on.

Similarly in terms of secondary sources and recent research in particular, Farr has consulted the official histories and works by Gary Sheffield and John Bourne but other important books (by authors such as Ian Beckett, Ian Malcolm Brown, Tim Lupfer, Robin Prior, Bill Rawling, Andy Simpson, Michael Snape, Tim Travers, and Trevor Wilson), which would have put Horne’s career into some sort of analytical framework, are not mentioned in the bibliography.  Farr uses the recent, important doctoral thesis by Sanders Marble on the place of artillery in the BEF but there is little discussion of Horne’s development as a gunner and, somewhat surprisingly, of his overall contribution as a gunner to the development of the artillery during the war which was such a major factor in British success or failure in the battles of 1915-18. As a result we are given a clear and detailed narrative of Horne’s career and of the operations during the First World War in which he participated but there are only brief glimpses of the technical problems faced by generals during the trench warfare of 1915-17, the German development of the defence in depth, the problems associated with the rapid expansion of the British Army during the war and the lack of experience at all levels of warfare on a continental scale, the contribution of men such as Horne to the process of turning things around in 1917-18, how Horne was judged by his peers in the Army, and what professional and personal qualities persuaded men like Haig and Robertson to promote him so rapidly.

Undoubtedly Horne owed much to Haig at crucial times during the war, notably the command of the 2nd Division in January 1915 and his return to France in April 1916, but he also had many qualities, such as technical knowledge as an artilleryman, professionalism (despite not attending Staff College; which Farr does not discuss), a facility for working tactfully with his peers, politicians and allies such as the French, Canadians and Portuguese, an ability to innovate and provide success on the battlefield, and a certain ruthlessness in removing those officers who did not come up to scratch, which also endeared him to his superiors.  Although Farr does not really address these issues, in the depth, one would like and one might disagree with some of his judgements (he verges at times, towards the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ version of the Great War), he deserves, like Horne, credit and recognition for his achievements.  Farr has taken Horne from his underserved obscurity and put him firmly back in the limelight where he belongs and I hope that others will now look at the careers of some of the other Army, Corps and Divisional Commanders, such as Birdwood, Congreve, de Lisle, Godley, Heneker, Hunter-Weston, Jeudwine, Morland, Nicholson, Pinney, Stephens, Strickland, and Williams, to assess their careers and contribution to operations between 1914 and 1918. 

Dr Simon Robbins, Honorary Research Fellow in War Studies, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

A printable version can be downloaded here.

Citation: Simon Robbins, ‘Review of Don Farr, The Silent General: Horne of the First Army – A Biography of Haig’s Trusted Great War Comrade-in-Arms’, Birmingham “On War”, 10 September 2012

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One response to “Book Review – The Silent General: Horne of the First Army – A Biography of Haig’s Trusted Great War Comrade-in-Arms

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