Historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore takes us through his new Somme book, highlighting the case of one Brigadier General who started off his career in the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment.
Butchers is the description most commonly ascribed to World War One generals.
But there were some who had not been so desensitised by all the horrors they had witnessed, and who consequently retained a sense of proportion.
One such officer was the 49-year-old Frederick Carleton, commander of 98th Brigade on the Somme, who had started off his military career serving with the King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster).
When, on August 26 1916, he was instructed by his superior officer, 33 Division’s Major-General Herman Landon, to dig a new fire trench to cover a gap in the British line between High Wood and Delville Wood just days after some of his troops had carried out a costly attack on the former wood, he was appalled.
Even without the extra work, his men were at full stretch.
Partly because of the recent casualties sustained, they had too few men in their front line to be absolutely sure they would not give way if attacked, and that was the case even if the men had been fresh.
They were not.
They were exhausted after what they had been through over the last days, and at least one battalion’s commanding officer indicated that he also had no confidence in his non-commissioned officers.
Upset that he was being asked to drive his men beyond their endurance, something snapped in Brigadier-General Carleton’s brain.
He refused to compel his men to comply with the order.
As he explained to Landon, “Every available man I have is required for making good the line I now hold.
“The fulfilment of the demands now made would prove a grave menace to the safety of the position.
“If in spite of this protest, I am compelled to carry out the instructions, I can no longer hold myself responsible for the safety of the line.”
Nevertheless Landon insisted that Carleton’s battalions’ commanding officers were told that they must do the work “no matter what the cost and how heavy the casualties. No excuse will be accepted.”
Landon also decided to take a hard line against Carleton.
If this had been the first time Carleton had questioned one of Landon’s instructions, it is possible that the general would have had a civilized discussion with his brigadier, and reached a compromise solution.
But papers filed in the Imperial War Museum reveal that Carleton had transgressed on a previous occasion while on the Somme.
During the previous month, he had refused to comply with an order asking him to make just the kind of last minute advance which the British commander-in-chief General Sir Douglas Haig, chastened by the long list of failed attacks, was now discouraging.
Carleton had a good reason for pointing out that the order was impractical.
Within the space of three hours, he would have had to rush his troops five miles over congested roads to reach the assembly point in time.
This might have proved impossible, and he was right to tell the staff officer who handed over the order that was the case.
On that previous occasion, Landon’s staff officer, who had presented the order to Carleton, had backed down.
But not before making it clear he believed Carleton was being obstructive.
This time Landon was not going to be accommodating. On August 28 he fired off a letter to his superior, XV Corps’ commander, Lieutenant General Henry Horne, alleging that he was sacking Carleton for failing to comply with his instructions relating to the new trench.
“Present conditions require characteristics in a brigadier which are not possessed by General Carleton, i.e someone who has quick practical methods of command, and a cheerful outlook which will communicate itself to the troops.”
Carleton, who was told to hand over his command to another brigadier immediately, was devastated, as can be seen from the following words he included in the letter he sent to his 42-year-old wife: “Darling Gwenny,
“I am going to give you the shock of your life.
“At any rate I have been deprived of the command of my brigade. We were ordered to do something which was a physical impossibility. We did our best and failed, human endurance having reached its limits.
“I have been sacrificed to the ambitions of an unscrupulous general, but thank God I’ve done nothing to reproach myself with.”
It is not clear whether Carleton was impugning Landon or Horne when he referred to the unscrupulous general.
Perhaps both were in his sights.
Landon had told Carleton it was Horne who was pressing him to have the trench dug so that it was done before the next attack.
Whoever was the target of his anger, his abrupt dismissal humiliated Carleton to such a degree that he appeared to have a mental breakdown. Or perhaps in modern terminology, he was merely depressed because of the anti-climax brought about by no longer being required to fight the Germans.
It did not take long for him to recover, and he successfully lobbied Haig to give him another brigade to command. Unfortunately, after another period in command, he broke down again, and was sent home permanently.
He had survived the war, but not for very long.
He died of a heart attack in 1922 aged just 54, like so many officers who did not make old bones, the victim of the anguish he had suffered through being a decent man in impossible circumstances.
* The paperback edition of Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Somme: Into the Breach, published by Penguin, is out now, as is the updated 75th Anniversary paperback edition of his Enigma: the
Battle for the Code with new material added, published by Orion’s Weidenfeld & Nicolson.