From Tel-el-Kebir to Cambrai: The Life and Letters of Lieutenant General Sir William Pulteney
by Anthony Leask
Lieutenant General Sir William Pulteney might well have been the inspiration for Blackadder`s nemesis, General Melchet. Although almost unknown to the public, then as now, Pulteney - nicknamed ‘Putty’ - was the longest serving corps commander in the First World War. He has been described variously as ‘one of the war’s “donkey’s” and “butchers and bunglers”’, ‘notorious for his ignorance of staff work’, and a general who ‘never visited the trenches’. Indeed, his chief of staff described him as ‘the most completely ignorant general I served during the war, and that is saying a lot’. His corps’ enormous casualties on the first day of the Somme have been attributed to his failure to use his artillery effectively, and the costly failure of a large counter-attack later in the battle to his rejection of advice about the use of tanks in woods. He also stands accused of ignoring warnings of a major German counter-attack during the battle of Cambrai, and that ‘paralysis of command’ subsequently reigned at his headquarters. Three month after the battle, Field Marshal Haig sent him home. It has been suggested that the only reason he was not replaced much earlier was the result of royal patronage and aristocratic connections.
Putty left school (Eton) at the age of 16. He did not attend Sandhurst, joining the Regular Army - the Scots Guards - from the Militia; nor did he subsequently attend Staff College. He made his name as a junior officer on secondment in a number of overseas campaigns - in Uganda (where he won the DSO) and the Congo - before commanding the Scots Guards in the South African War. A highly successful commanding officer, he was rewarded with promotion and command of a column (a small, mobile brigade-group), and here he caught the eye of a number of senior officers, including the future Field Marshal French. Back home, Putty moved in aristocratic and royal circles - a crack shot, he was a popular shooting party guest - and was described as a friend by the Prince of Wales. By 1914, Putty was commanding a division in Ireland and was selected as one of the three corps commanders for the BEF. He was to serve in that appointment for almost three and a half years.
In this, the first biography of Putty, Anthony Leask provides a timely and meticulously researched study of his life and career. Putty left no diary or private papers, and has suffered at the hands of some who did, but his biographer has unearthed highly relevant documents which shed light on his performance and the challenges facing him. In particular, there are a series of revealing letters he wrote throughout the war to a number of confidantes - mostly aristocratic ladies - whom he clearly expected to pass on his views on the conduct of operations to their well-placed friends. A further important source are the monthly reports he wrote for the King.
Together with official histories, reports and the war diaries of the formations involved, these documents are used with great skill by the author to put the spotlight firmly on Putty as a military commander. As a former major general, Anthony Leask is well placed to subject his performance to critical examination and make informed judgments. In many cases, the accusations or innuendo made against Putty are shown to have little or no basis; often, Putty was a convenient scapegoat for the inadequacy of others, in particular his immediate superiors Rawlinson and Byng, with whom he had major disagreements. It emerges that during the Battle of the Somme, Putty made representations to Rawlinson about the latter’s over-confidence in the effect of artillery. And the official enquiry after Cambrai made no criticism of Putty, but Haig was under political pressure from London and Putty’s was a convenient scalp. Perhaps it was, in any case, time for Putty to go: three and a half years as a corps commander on the Western Front must have taken its toll. Why he was retained in post for so long remains an intriguing question. Was it because of friends in high places at home? Or was it because Haig, while recognising Putty’s limitations, nevertheless had confidence in him as a corps commander? Certainly the barbed comment of Putty’s one-time chief of staff about ‘the most completely ignorant general’, though much repeated by historians, does not appear to be supported by other contemporaries. Nor, in the opinion of the author, is the charge of ‘paralysis of command’ at his headquarters in any way substantiated: Putty managed crises with a cool head.
This book is not, however, the case for the defence. Where Putty bears some responsibility for failures or inadequacies, the author says so - as he does where luck played a part in Putty’s successes. Indeed, the final judgment of Putty as a military commander is left for the reader to decide. The result is a fascinating and important account, a major re-appraisal of Putty himself, and one which throws new light on many of the commanders with whom he served.
Putty. From Tel-el-Kebir to Cambrai: The Life and Letters of Lieutenant General Sir William Pulteney 1861-1941 is published by Helion and Company www.helion.co.uk