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Lieutenant General Sir Edwin Alfred Hervey Alderson KCB (8 April 1859 – 14 December 1927) was a senior British Army officer who served in several campaigns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the First World War he was placed in command of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the first half of the war but made enemies amongst the Canadian political and military elite and suffered disastrous casualties during operations in 1915 which forced his sidelining and eventual retirement from service.

Despite the opposition he faced, Alderson transformed the ill-trained and poorly prepared Canadian recruits into tough, veteran soldiers and laid the foundations for later victories at Vimy Ridgemarker and in other operations. An accomplished sportsman, Alderson wrote several books and was a keen proponent of hunting and yachting, pastimes he believed to be at risk from developments in motor sports.

Early life

Born in 1859 in Capel St Marymarker, a village in Norfolk, Edwin Alderson was the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Mott Alderson and his wife Catherine Harriett Swainson. At 17 Edwin gained a commission in the Norfolk Militia Artillery and at 19 transferred to his father's regiment, the 91st Foot (soon to become the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment). Joining his regiment in Halifax, Nova Scotiamarker, Alderson was soon transferred to Gibraltarmarker and later South Africa, where he was detached to the Mounted Infantry Depot at Laing's Nekmarker.

Mounted Infantry

The Mounted Infantry Depot was a post where young officers could be stationed, forming a ready reserve of young, educated officers available as volunteers for staff or command positions in African colonial campaigns. It was whilst attached to this post that Alderson saw service in the First Boer War in 1881 in the Transvaalmarker. The following year, Alderson served in the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War, fighting at the battles of Kassassinmarker and Tel-el-Kebir. Two years later, Alderson was attached to the Mounted Camel Regiment during the failed expedition to relieve Khartoum and rescue General Gordon. During this campaign, Alderson was presented with the Gold Medal of the Royal Humane Society after diving into the Nile to rescue a drowning soldier. For his service in these campaigns, Alderson was promoted to Captain and was stationed at Aldershotmarker with the European Mounted Infantry Depot. The same year he married the daughter of the vicar of Cheriton, a Miss Alice Mary Sergeant.

The next ten years of Alderson's career were spent on staff duties and with his old regiment in England. He also undertook training at the Staff College, Camberley and in 1896 was sent to Mashonaland as a commander of a regiment of local troops during the Second Matabele War. Following the campaign's successful conclusion, Alderson returned to Aldershot and wrote his first book, "With the Mounted Infantry and the Mashonaland Field Force, 1896", an account of the war and a thesis on the tactical uses of mounted infantry. A second book on military tactics followed in 1898 called The Counter-attack. His third book, "Pink and scarlet" was published in 1900 and was another tactical treatise concerning the relationship between fox-hunting and the cavalry and the connection that these gentlemanly and military concerns had in training young officers and developing new innovations in cavalry tactics. In 1908, he released a compilation of notes made on campaign entitled Lessons from 100 notes made in peace and war.

Second Boer War

In 1900, shortly after the outbreak of the Second Boer War, Alderson returned to South Africa to command the Mounted Infantry Depot against the Boer forces. His experience with mounted infantry made him ideal for this role as in the Boer guerillas, the British were fighting against masters of mounted infantry tactics and suffered heavy losses from their hit and run campaigns. Alderson was instrumental in forming British counter-tactics and used his brigade to great effect against the Boers, his elite troops being two regiments of Canadian soldiers. The force was under the overall command of experienced Canadian soldier Edward Hutton, who became a lifelong friend.

By 1901, Alderson's innovations had resulted in several successful operations, participating in the battles of Paardebergmarker and Driefontein as well as the relief of Kimberleymarker and the capture of Bloemfonteinmarker and Pretoriamarker. The result of Alderson's contribution of these campaigns was to be rewarded with confirmation as a Brigadier-General, initiation as a Companion of the Order of the Bath and to receive the ceremonial post of Aide-de-Camp to Queen Victoria, who died the same year. In 1903 he was given command of the 2nd British Brigade at Aldershot and in 1906 was again promoted to Major-General. Two years later Alderson was posted to the 6th Infantry Division based in Poona, Southern Indiamarker. In 1912 he returned to England in semi-retirement, becoming a hunt master in Shropshiremarker and developing an enthusiasm for yachting.

First World War

At the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914, Alderson was placed in charge of the East Anglianmarker yeomanry but was immediately requested by the newly formed Canadian Army due to his experience in South Africa commanding Canadian troops. Personally selected by Sir Sam Hughes, Canadian Minister of Militia, Alderson meet the first shipments of Canadian troops in October and almost immediately came into conflict with his superior. Hughes had preceded his men and insisted that the Canadian contingent was not only fully trained and battle ready but also equipped with the best weaponry available. Alderson however saw his charges differently, commenting on the poor quality of the politically appointed officers, the low degree of training and the total ineffectiveness of the Ross rifle, a weapon personally approved by Hughes.

Training his new charges on Salisbury Plainmarker, Alderson made some headway in toughening his troops encamped in the wet, autumn weather and dismissing the officers appointed by Hughes who had proved ineffectual. When Hughes' representative in England, Colonel John Wallace Carson, secured preferential accommodation for the Canadian soldiers at the expense of a British brigade, Alderson refused the barracks and in doing so, made both Carson and Hughes into determined enemies. Carson wrote to the Canadian Prime Minister Robert Laird Borden that Alderson "does not treat our men with a firm iron hand covered with the velvet glove which their special temperaments require".

Dispatched to France in the spring of 1915, the Canadian Corps was briefly initiated to trench warfare on the periphery of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle before being attached to the British 2nd Army under Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien in the Belgian town of Ypresmarker. It was in front of Ypres on 22 April that the Canadians bore the brunt of the most furious German attack of the year. At dawn, the Canadians and the French Algerian troops stationed next to them saw a fog traveling across no-mans land, covering the advance of German forces. The fog was chlorine gas, the first occasion in which this substance had been used in warfare. The Algerians broke and fled, suffering over 6,000 casualties in a matter of minutes and the Canadians were consequently forced to defend twice the length of their front line in the face of a new and deadly weapon. Although the Canadian Corps held on for more than two days, much ground was lost and the Corps had themselves suffered over 50% casualties, nearly 6,000 men.

For Alderson the battle had been a failure: Although his troops had held, he had found himself out of touch with the front line and unable to get accurate information about the situation. At one stage he had been commanding 33 divisions across several miles of front line with no central co-ordination and great confusion between his distant headquarters and the trenches. In addition to his personal failings however, the Ross rifles had proven almost useless in battle and Alderson's officer corps had performed poorly, in particular Brigadier-General Garnet Burk Hughes, Sam Hughes' son. Carson however, who reported personally to Hughes, downplayed the difficulties and blamed the heavy casualties on Alderson's leadership, indicating that the Corps had only been saved from annihilation by the actions of Richard Turner and Garnet Hughes.

Ross rifle controversy

Alderson's situation worsened at the Battle of Festubert in May 1915, when the Canadian Corps failed to make any headway and suffered nearly 2,500 casualties. Another operation a month later cost 366 casualties for no appreciable gain. Again, Alderson was not solely at fault in these actions and he remained popular with British Army Headquarters, Prime Minister Borden and with his men, resulting in promotion to command the entire Canadian Expeditionary Force when a second Corps arrived late in 1915. Despite this popularity, Sam Hughes continued to hold a grudge against Alderson and opposed him in political circles, taking offense at Alderson's refusal to accept promotions made by Hughes or Carson of untried Canadian officers and instead promoting veteran British officers in their place. The main area of argument between the two men however was again over the Ross rifle.

By early 1916 it had become clear to all serving on the front lines that the Ross was useless in the filthy conditions of the trenches and its incompatibility with the British Lee Enfield rifle meant that the Canadian troops were continually running out of ammunition. Hughes however had invested great political capital in the weapon and refused to countenance a switch to the British-made alternative. This issue reached a head when Alderson, newly knighted as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, circulated a document listing ten deficiencies with the rifle and claiming 85% of Canadian soldiers no longer wished to use it. Hughes was furious at Alderson's defiance and sent 281 letters to senior military figures backing the Ross and attacking Alderson's character. Alderson responded by ordering all subordinate commanders to prepare reports on the efficiency of the Ross rifle. Carson sent a copy of this order back to Hughes, along with a note from Turner that "action is being delayed too long as regards Alderson".

Turner had his own reasons for wanting Alderson gone, following the Battle of St-Eloi in April 1916. After British troops had taken a large crater near the ruins of the Belgian town of St Eloi, a brigade of Tuner's division was ordered to hold the gain against German counter attacks. Due to dreadful management of the Canadian forces by Turner and Brigadier-General Huntley Ketchen, German soldiers overran the crater, causing 1,400 Canadian casualties and retaking the land around the crater, negating the gains made at heavy cost just a few days before. Sir Herbert Plumer, the commander of British 2nd Army who had overall responsibility for the front, demanded Ketchen's immediate dismissal and when Turner claimed that if Ketchen was dismissed he would resign, Alderson dismissed him as well. Both officers were supporters of Sam Hughes, who made it clear in no uncertain terms to Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig that if Turner went then Haig could no longer rely on Canadian support.

Haig's solution to this diplomatic crisis was a compromise. Alderson was transferred to the nominal post of Inspector-General of Canadian Forces and the highly effective Sir Julian Byng replaced him in command of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, supported by Sir Arthur Currie. In exchange, Haig finally got rid of the Ross rifle, all Canadian troops being reissued Lee Enfields in preparation for the upcoming Battle of the Somme. Alderson was not made aware of the purely nominal nature of his position until later, when he requested a staff car and was informed that he was no longer entitled to one. In September 1916, Alderson became Inspector of Infantry in the British Army, a position he retained until 1920, when he retired from active service at the age of 61.

Retirement

Alderson enjoyed an active retirement, becoming Colonel Commandant of the Royal West Kent Regiment and pursuing hunting and yachting with fervour, being an active member of the South Shropshire Hunt and Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club. He was also very concerned that the growing popularity of motor sports would result in the demise of these traditional pastimes and expended much energy promoting them. He died in December 1927 of a sudden heart attack and was buried at Lowestoftmarker, survived by his wife. She later arranged for his private papers to be given to the nation and they are currently stored at British Librarymarker and the National Archives of Zimbabwe.

Alderson retained strong feelings about his treatment at the hands of Hughes and his allies, commenting to a friend that "Canadian politics has been too strong for us". Nonetheless, he was well liked by the men he commanded and was remembered in The Times on his death as "An Englishman of a fine type" and that "the affection which he inspired in all who knew him was great". The Dictionary of Canadian Biography recalls him as "A decent, honourable, unimaginative man, [who] had been more faithful to the interests of Canadian soldiers than their own minister".

Works

  • With the Mounted Infantry and the Mashonaland Field Force, 1896, 1898
  • The Counter-attack, 1898
  • Pink and Scarlet or Hunting as a School for Soldiering William Heinemann, 1900
  • Lessons from 100 notes made in peace and war, 1908


Notes

  1. Alderson, Sir Edwin Alfred Hervey, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Retrieved 5 November 2007
  2. Alderson, Brig-Gen Edwin Alfred Hervey, Anglo-African Who's Who and Biographical Sketchbook, 1907, Walter H. Willis, Retrieved 12 November 2007
  3. 90 Years and Counting, Military Communications and Electronics Museum, Kingston, Ontario, Retrieved 5 November 2007
  4. Who's Who: Sir Edwin Alderson, First World War.com, Retrieved 5 November 2007
  5. Sources are divided over who was responsible for the defeat, some retrospectively blaming Alderson as overall commander. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography however indicates that Turner and Ketchen were primarily responsible, a stance seemingly corroborated by the actions of Plumer.
  6. Alderson, Sir Edwin Alfred Hervey, National Register of Archives, Retrieved 5 November 2007


References




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