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Field Marshal William Edmund Ironside, 1st Baron Ironside GCB, CMG, CBE, DSO (6 May 1880 - 22 September 1959) was a British soldier who played a significant role as commander of British forces in Persia in 1920-1921. He went on to serve as Chief of the Imperial General Staff during the early part of World War II.

Army career

He was born in Edinburghmarker, Scotlandmarker, the second child of Surgeon-Major William Ironside, Indian Army and was educated at Tonbridge Schoolmarker, Kentmarker. After Royal Military Academy, Woolwich he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1899. A very tall man, he was given the ironic nickname "Tiny", which stuck for the rest of his life. Later that year he was sent to South Africa and during the Second Boer War worked as a spy. It has been suggested that these experiences later made him the model for Richard Hannay, a character in the novels of John Buchan. He received his first Mention in Despatches in September 1901.

He was posted to India in 1906, promoted to captain in 1908, followed by a further South African posting, where he served as a Staff Captain and brigade major, he returned home in late 1912, and attended Staff College in 1913, where he was apparently a rather disruptive student. On the outbreak of the First World War he was sent to Francemarker, where he served on the Western Front, initially as a Staff Captain. He was appointed a General Staff Officer, Grade 3 in November 1914, and attached to 6th Division, promoted to Grade 2 in February 1915, and Grade 1 (and temporary lieutenant-colonel) in March 1916 (made a brevet rank that year's King's Birthday Honours). With this promotion he was transferred to the 4th Canadian Division and fought with them at Vimy Ridgemarker and Passchendaelemarker. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in the 1915 King's Birthday Honours. In 1918 he briefly served as Commandant of the Small Arms School before being appointed to command 99th Infantry Brigade as a temporary brigadier-general.

Ironside was sent to Arkhangelskmarker in north-west Russiamarker in 1918, and placed in command of the Allied army fighting against the Bolsheviks. The war, fought on permafrost, was very difficult and involved British, Canadian, French, Italian and American soldiers who were greatly outnumbered. Ironside was popular with his men, with stories, due to his large size, of having crushed a Boer soldier with his arms, in the Boer War. The Red Army managed eventually to gain a superior position in the Civil War and in autumn 1919 he was forced to abandon the White Army to their fate. Ironside was made a Knight Commander of the Bath, and promoted to substantive major-general for his efforts.

In 1920 he served with British forces in Izmitmarker, Turkeymarker. He commanded some 6,000 British troops in Persia (NORPERFORCE) with headquarters in Qazvinmarker from 4 October 1920 to 18 February 1921. His four and a half months in Persia were known primarily for two accounts. First, his role in the discharge of more than a hundred Russian officers and NCOs of the Cossack Division and their replacement by Persians under the command of Reza Khan, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty; and second, his encouragement of Reza Khan's coup d'état of 1921. On each occasion Ironside acted on his own responsibility without authority from Londonmarker. He distrusted Russianmarker loyalties after the 1917 Revolution and with the assistance of Herman Norman, the British Minister in Tehranmarker, persuaded the Shah to dismiss the Cossack Division's commanding officer, and every Russian under him. It was also Ironside who selected Lieutenant Colonel Reza Khan as the Russian's successor. The appointment was based on the advice of a British officer friend, attached to the Cossacks for a short time, and after several visits to their camp near Qazvin where he was much impressed by the Persian contingent. Ironside's decision "to let the Cossacks go" was, according to his diary, because he wanted a strong military commander in the capital to save the country from the Bolsheviks and chaos and safeguard the imminent withdrawal of NORPERFORCE from Persia. In return, Reza Khan promised not to hinder British withdrawal or depose the Shah.

Ironside was given the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun, Third Class in 1922. He was Commandant of the Staff College from 1922–1926. In 1926 he was appointed to command 2nd Division, holding the appointment until 1928. He commanded Meerutmarker district in India from 1928–1931 before he was appointed Lieutenant of HM Tower of London in July 1931, and held the post until September 1933. He returned to India as Quartermaster General from October 1933 until he was appointed head of Eastern Command in 1936. He was promoted to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB) in the 1938 King's Birthday Honours, and served as Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Gibraltarmarker (1938-39). In June 1939 he was made a knight of the Venerable Order of Saint John.

Chief of the Imperial General Staff

Ironside became Chief of the Imperial General Staff in September 1939 when he replaced General Lord Gort who had been sent to Francemarker as head of the British Expeditionary Force at the outbreak of World War II. In November 1939 he was appointed to the Army Council, Ironside himself was sent to France in May 1940 to liaise with the BEF and the French in an attempt to halt the German advance. He was not well-qualified for this task, having a deep dislike and distrust for the French, whom he considered "absolutely unscrupulous in everything." At a conference in Lensmarker he clashed with the French generals Billotte and Blanchard, whom he considered defeatists. He wrote: "I lost my temper and shook Billotte by the button of his tunic. The man is completely defeated." Although Billotte was supposed to be co-ordinating the British, French and Belgian armies' operations in Belgium, Ironside took over the job himself, ordering Gort and Blanchard to launch a counter-attack against the Germans at Arrasmarker. This attack achieved some local success, but the German onslaught proved unstoppable. The French commander-in-chief, General Weygand, so resented Ironside's actions that he said he would "like to box Ironside's ears."

On Ironside's return to Britain, a German invasion of Britain seemed imminent, so Ironside was appointed Commander-in-Chief of Home Forces but was replaced in July that year. In 1941, he was raised to the peerage (in the New Year Honours), and retired from active service, although as a British field marshal he remained in nominal service until his death.

Lord Ironside died in London on 22 September 1959.


  1. Julian Jackson, The Fall of France, Oxford 2003, 87
  2. Julian Jackson, The Fall of France, Oxford 2003, 82
  3. Julian Jackson, The Fall of France, Oxford 2003, 86
  4. Julian Jackson, The Fall of France, Oxford 2003, 91. Jackson continues: "causing one British witness to observe that to do this Weygand would have had to climb on to a chair."


Further reading

  • High Road to Command: The Diaries of Major-Gen. Sir Edmund Ironside 1920–1922 Edmund Ironside, Cooper, 1972
  • The British Field Marshals 1736-1997, Tony Heathcote, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 1999, ISBN 0-85052-696-5
Official despatches
  • Operations carried out by the Allied Forces under my Command during the period from 1 October, 1918, to 11 August, 1919
  • Operations carried out by the Allied Forces under my Command during the period from 11 August, 1919, to 27 September, 1919.

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