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October 1981

General The Lord Horne Of Stirkoke: Caithness's Greatest Soldier
P R Myers

General The Lord Horne of Stirkoke is justifiably Caithness's greatest soldier who in 1916, was awarded command of the British First Army, the only artillery officer to become an army commander during the Great War. It was a unique distinction when one considers that the war on the Western Front was essentially siege warfare where artillery was all important and was to inflict more casualties than any other weapon. However Lord Horne remains one of the least known British generals of that war and I have had to piece together his military career from a number of secondary sources of which only one or two gave any clue to Lord Horne's personality. One historian described him as "a man of oak, uncommunicative, dour but obedient", In that terrible holocaust generals had to be men of oak especially when many lost their nerve when things went badly wrong. Although the generals of the Great War did not share the continuous danger, strain, and physical discomfort, of the front line, they had to endure great anxieties as they tried to control large armies with primitive and often ineffective communications especially when under sustained attack from the enemy. Lord Horne's greatest triumphs were the successful storming of the Vimy Ridge by his Canadian Corps in April 1917 and the splendid feats-of-arms achieved by his First Army during the final "Hundred Days" of the War in 1918.

Lord Horne was born Henry Sinclair Horne at Stirkoke on 19 February 1861, the third son of Major James Horne and his wife Constance Mary. The family was one of the best known in Caithness and had lived at Stirkoke for several generations. He was educated at Harrow and at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, from which in May 1880, he received a commission in the Royal Artillery. Horne was constantly with his unit except for two years (1890-02) when he was on the staff in Bengal. In 1897 he married Kate, daughter of George McCorquodale of Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire. During the Boer War (1899-1902) he was under the command of Sir John French and took part in various operations including the relief of Kimberley, the occupation of Bloemfontein, the occupation of Johannesburg, and the battle of Diamond Hill. From the end of 1901 Horne was employed with mounted columns in the Orange River Colony and Cape Colony and for his services was mentioned in dispatches. In 1905 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel and became staff officer for horse and field artillery at Aldershot under command of his fellow Scot, Sir Douglas Haig. In May 1912 he was appointed inspector of horse and field artillery with the rank of brigadier-general which he was to retain until the outbreak of the War in August 1914.

At the beginning of the retreat from Mons (24 August 1914), General Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the I Corps, B.E.F., organised a rearguard under the command of Horne, his artillery commander. This consisted of the 5th Cavalry Brigade, two battalions of infantry and two field artillery brigades. Horne concentrated this force at the cross-roads south of Le Bonnet and was to take the offensive at daybreak with the purpose of delaying and misleading the German forward troops. Under cover of this rearguard action the 1st and 2nd Divisions were to retire by successive stages to the Bavai position. Unlike Smith-Dorrien's II Corps which fought two general actions and had retreated 75 miles, Haig's I Corps was able to make an almost uninterrupted retirement since the Germans made no attempt at any general attack.

Horne further distinguished himself at the First Battle of the Marne (5-9 September) where the slow British advance proved to be decisive. The very reappearance of the B.E.F., in spite of the losses and hardships of the retreat from Mons, was unnerving for an enemy who had dismissed then from his calculations. At the Battle of the Aisne, Haig pushed his brigades forward up the spurs leading to the Chemin des Dames ridge and were poised to break through the German lines. German reinforcements blocked the British advance and for the first time trench warfare was resorted to, as both sides gritted their teeth and clung to their positions. Deadlock had been reached and the "Race to the Sea" began.

Horne was involved in the grim defensive actions known as the First Battle of Ypres (19 October-22 November 1914) and which stopped the German advance, but only just. Haig organised his defence into a few "strong points" supported by Horne's guns, some of which were firing at point blank range at the enemy. The British shellfire took such a heavy toll of the young German reserve divisions that it became known as "The Massacre of the Innocents Ypres".

In October, Horne was promoted major-general as a reward for distinguished service in the field, and at the end of the year was made a Companion of the Bath. In January 1915 he was placed in command of the 2nd Division of the I Corps, and led it in operations about Givenchy in March 1915. At Festubert on 15/16 May, Horne proposed to carry out the left attack by, night as his troops were already familiar with the ground. At 11.30 p.m. on 15 May, the assault troops of the 2nd Meerut Division, some 10,000 men, advanced under cover of darkness. It was the first night attack of the War made by the British Army. Some of the objectives were attained but elsewhere the advance faltered. Fresh artillery bombardments followed by infantry attacks made movement difficult as the Germans strengthened their positions. The situation was made worse when British ammunition supplies became exhausted which led to "The Great Shell Scandal". The Daily Mail launched a fierce attack upon the Government singling out the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener. Kitchener had warned the Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French, the danger of prolonged and costly attacks like the battle of Festubert. In a memorandum, French had written to Kitchener, the significant words: "The ammunition will be all right". Sir John French was held to blame for later British disasters and was removed from his command at the end of 1915 to be replaced by Sir Douglas Haig. A further result of the Festubert fiasco was a change in the system of command of the artillery at Horne's suggestion.

At the Battle of Loos (25 September - 8 October 1915) gas warfare had become an obnoxious and unwelcome feature of the War on the Western Front. On the whole the British Army was hesitant about releasing gas because there was the fear that the gas would simply hang about the British trenches. In Horne's 2nd Division, the officer in charge of the gas in the 2nd Brigade declined to assume responsibility for turning on the cylinders which would release the greenish yellow chlorine gas. On their being reported to Horne, he ordered that the programme must be carried out whatever the conditions.

In November 1915 Horne left the stalemate of the Western Front to accompany Lord Kitchener to the Dardanelles. Here they assisted in organising the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula which has been described as a "masterpiece of planning, ingenuity, and deception" The Turks were completely deceived; and did not interfere with the evacuation which was accomplished without loss.

Kitchener again called upon Horne to devise a scheme for the defence of the strategically important Suez Canal where in January 1916, Horne was given command of the new XV Corps in the northern sector of the Canal defences. In March 1916 the XV Corps was moved to France where it joined the Fourth Army which was preparing for the "Big Push" on the Somme.

The Battle of the Somme opened on 1 July 1916, a day which ended in probably the greatest single catastrophe of the whole War when British losses totalled 57,740 officers and men of whom nearly 20,000 were dead. The shock of this terrible carnage has largely obscured the achievements of the remaining 140 days in which the British Army inflicted their first major defeat upon the Germans, and carried forward the process of attrition which brought Germany's collapse.

Horne's own XV Corps faced the head of the Fricourt salient. the cornerstone of the German line between the Ancre and the Somme. In spite of earlier setbacks the XY Corps captured Fricourt and the ruined village of Mametz with the loss of over 8,000 men of all ranks. Both Horne's XV Corps and Congreve's XIII Corps effected a deep penetration of the German front. However, both officers were reluctant over exploiting their successes and restrained their enterprising infantry.

As the Battle of the Somme raged on for four and a half months, the initial rawness of the British soldiers wore off as they learned their trade and became experienced battle practitioners. New Zealanders of Horne's XV Corps captured Flers on 15 September with the aid of thirteen of the new tanks. The tanks were only briefly in action but the effect they produced was immediate. Press correspondent translated the observation of reconnaissance aeroplane as "Tank walking up the High Street of Flers with the British Army cheering behind".

In September Horne was created Knight Commander of the Bath and after the capture of Flers he was promoted with the temporary rank of general to the command of the First Army, succeeding Sir Charles Munro on 29 September. Another of Horne's achievements during 1916 was the invention, or at least the improvement, of the creeping barrage which was first used on the Somme and was directed so as to fall a little way in front of advancing troops to protect them from enemy fire. However in practice the mathematical complexities of firing an artillery piece which involved gun wear, map inaccuracy, changes of temperature, wind and pressure as well as casing and powder charge differences made accuracy very difficult and sometimes British infantrymen were killed while following close to a creeping barrage.

In the spring of 1917, General Nivelle, the commander-in-chief of the French army, proposed a major diversionary offensive to be launched by the British. The area chosen was Arras, which involved an assault upon the famous and fearsome Vimy Ridge which had been repeatedly denied to attacking French troops in 1915. Nivelle's staff was sceptical of a British success and was openly critical of Horne's plans for its capture. Arras was to be a "set-piece" battle depending chiefly on artillery of which Horne's First Army had 1,462 guns and howitzers.

Vimy Ridge stood to the north of Arras, rising to 500 feet and the view from the crest dominated hundreds of square miles of enemy territory - the Douai plain - lying north, east, and south of its wooded heights. The First Army attack on the Ridge was to be executed mainly by the Canadian Corps, who along with the Australians and the New Zealanders, had emerged as the British Army's shock troops. The four divisions of the Canadian Corps "went over the top" at 5.30 a.m. on 9 April covered by the fire of 983 guns and mortars. The Canadians swept everything before them and by mid-afternoon they were standing on the crest of the Ridge, looking down on the peaceful countryside of the plain of Douai. It was a dramatic triumph and the full value of its capture was not realised until the German offensive of March 1918 when Vimy Ridge became the backbone of the British defensive system. The successful realisation of Horne's plans was fortunately not handicapped by a painful broken leg caused by a fall from his horse.

Owing to the failure of Nivelle's own attack, the operations on the Arras front had to be continued until well into May. Thereafter Haig began to transfer troops to his northern flank in preparation for the battles of Messines and Passchendaele, and the role of the First Army became one of attracting the attention of the Germans to itself with reduced effectives; a part which Horne skilfully played until October 1917, when the Canadian Corps was taken away from him for the battle of Passchendaele.

Throughout the winter of 1917-18 the British and the French prepared themselves for a major German offensive expected in the spring since the Germans had now been reinforced with nearly a million men transferred from the Eastern Front following the collapse of Russia. General Horne's First Army held the Allied front line from Armentieres along the dominant features of the Lorette and Vimy Ridge for 33 miles as far as the village of Gavrelle, just north of Arras. His army covered the important Bethune coalfields and had been strengthened because of that. It comprised fourteen divisions, including two Portuguese divisions and the Canadian Corps. Here was concentrated 1,450 guns and howitzers, which together with advantages of the ground were considered enough to beat off any strength which the enemy could accumulate opposite it.

The brunt of the German Michael Offensive, which was launched on 21 March 1918, fell on the armies further south but on March 28, a heavy German attack was made on the Vimy Ridge and successfully beaten off. In April, Horne placed some weak divisions on his left flank, in the sector which he believed to be safe. These divisions were still "convalescing" after their recent mauling by the Germans further south. The only serious chink in Hornes' armour were the 1st and 2nd Portuguese Divisions which were due for relief and had become very tired and disgruntled.

On 9 April - the day of the proposed relief of the Portuguese by the 50th Northumbrian Division, the Germans unleashed an intense bombardment on the Lys front and after it had lifted, nine German divisions attacked the Portuguese through the mist. The British tried to stem the breach but the Germans advanced six miles as far as the banks of the River Lawe, behind which the soldiers of the famous 51st Highland Division awaited the next morning's battle. The situation had become highly critical, but the firm stand of the 55th Divisions (Territorials from West Lancashire) at Givenchy saved the Vimy Ridge. The British Army was now on the defensive and as it fell back methodically, it inflicted heavy casualties upon the enemy. As one veteran told me, the grey ranks of the German stormtroopers withered and fell under the raking fire of the machine-guns with which the British were now plentifully equipped.

The penetration of Horne's left flank brought the Bethune coalfields into great danger. It was felt that Sir Henry Horne's responsibilities were too great in the of his front for him to be able to handle satisfactorily the fracas on his left flank, so command of the battle area down to its southern border was taken over by General Sir Henry Plumer at noon on 12 April.

Although the Germans became stuck within five miles of Hazebrouck, it had become a murderous experience for the British soldiers, and a time of terrible anxiety for their commanders. On 11 April Haig addressed his famous Order of the Day to his army: "Victory", he said, "will belong to the side that holds out longest". With their backs to the wall, his troops mastered the German attack and after May the German efforts were directed against the French, giving the First Army a breathing space in which to recover and prepare for attack in its turn.

On 8 August General Rawlinson's Fourth Army broke the specially strengthened front before Amiens which destroyed "six battle-worthy divisions". The collapse seemed clearly due to an extension of a rot on the German home front to the front line. At the end of August, the First Army began an advance which was to be continuous until the Armistice of 11 November. On 2 September Horne's First Army, in co-operation with the Third Army on its right broke through the Drocourt-Queant Switch of the Hindenburg Line. Led by 59 tanks, the Canadians stormed through the German line. The days of trench warfare were over and the success of the British manoeuvres were due to the growing efficiency and imagination among the British coupled with the failing strength of the enemy.

The next phase of the advance on the main British front might be called the "battles of the Canals". On the left, or northern flank, General Horne's Army faced the obstacle of the Canal du Nord; on the right Rawlinson's Fourth Army faded the St. Quentin Canal both of them integral features of the Hindenburg Line. Once again the spearhead of General Horne's operation was to be the Canadian Corps who were now very tough, resilient, shock troops. Artillery would provide the main support work and since Horne was an artilleryman this was of a high standard in the first Army. The Canadians advanced "hugging their artillery cover" and rapidly broke through the Canal du Nord line on 27 September. Then in swift succession, Lens (3 October). Douai (17 October) and Valenciennes (2 November) were captured.

Fighting alongside the Canadians was the redoubtable 51st Highland Division who stormed into Thiant, a village below Valenciennes, and had a fierce struggle with German snipers shooting from the houses, while the villagers sheltered in the cellars. The Germans counterattacked and succeeded in pressing the Scotsmen partly out of the place, but the Highlanders then renewed the attack, clearing all the village and releasing the grateful French civilians.

On 9 October Haig received a telegram from the Prime Minister Lloyd George who congratulated him and his generals for their success in the field. However Haig was annoyed because the original message made no mention of Horne and the First Army when the Canadian Corps were actually in Cambrai, and had experienced such hard fighting for Mouchy-le-Preux. The Commander-in-Chief said of all the congratulations he had received, the Prime Minister's showed the least understanding of the efforts made by the whole of the British Army.

In the last days of October the British Army knew it was winning but when Haig met his four army commanders, Horne, Byng, Rawlinson, and Birdwood, they all agreed that the Germans were fighting a very good rear-guard action and they were not sufficiently beaten as to cause them to accept unconditional surrender. The closing months were not a walk-over because the British suffered over 800,000 casualties in the last eight months. This does not diminish the fact that the great victories of the British Army in the last "Hundred Days" of the Great War are as "deserving of commemoration as Austerlitz or Waterloo" as suggested by the military historian John Terraine. The four battles of the Great War which have really engraved themselves on the British popular memory are Mons, Ypres, Gallipoli and Passehendaele, every time a disaster. The names of the great battles which broke the German armies have been ignored partly because Lloyd George had such contempt for Sir Douglas Haig and his generals as indicated in the telegram (q.v.) which ignored the achievement of General Horne's army.

Many post-First World War writers criticised generals for never being seen near the front line. However the evidence shows that with the greatly expanded British Army in the field which came to number over a million men, it became more difficult for generals to be continually in the front line. With this increase in the size and complexity of the army there was a tendency for generals to immerse themselves in operational planning, assisted by an inadequate staff, in an H.Q. far to the rear. It must also be taken into account that many generals were personally brave men, and professionals who could not comprehend fear and physical danger and therefore failed to see the effect of trench war on other men, many of whom were amateur soldiers.

General Horne, being a gunner, had fixed ideas about military propriety and only rarely visited his front line units when he was a Divisional Commander in 1916. Earlier in that year, Haig had rebuked both Horne and Sir Charles Munro after he had discovered that their troops were occupying trenches filled with water to the hips. On the whole, generals of the Great War were almost unknown to their troops, even Haig was only known by photograph or recruiting poster. However I did discover a remarkable photograph showing General Horne addressing his assembled troops following an open-air religious service at the beginning of 1918.

At the end of the War, Horne was created K.C.M.G. in 1918 and G.C.B. in 1919. For his services in the War General Horne received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament, was raised to the peerage as Baron Horne of Stirkoke, and given a grant of 30,000. He was appointed G.O.C., Eastern Command, and concerned himself with the problems of demobilisation and the reorganisation of the Army. Refusing offers of governorships abroad, he retired from the Army in May 1926 and in the same month he was appointed Master Gunner of the Royal Artillery, an office which he was to hold until his death. He interested himself in Service charities including the British Legion. He became governor and commandant of the Church Lads Brigade, and took a prominent part in the affairs of Caithness of which he was deputy-lieutenant. In 1929 he was made colonel of the Highland Light Infantry, in which his father had served. In that same year he died suddenly while shooting on his estate at Stirkoke on 14 August. Lord Horne was buried in the family plot at Wick Cemetery which is near the East entrance, the last resting place of a very distinguished soldier who was much liked and respected by the people of his native county.

B I B L I 0 G R A P H Y

 

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1930

Alan Clark

The Donkeys 

London 

1961 

Colin R. Coote 

Article in The Daily Telegraph

18th March

1978

Anthony Farrar- Hockley 

Goughie, The Life of Sir Hubert Gough

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Sir J. A. Hammerton (Ed.)

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James Marshall- Cornwall

Haig as military commander 

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1973

Barrie Pitt 

1918 The Last Act 

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1962

John Terraine 

The Great War

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John Terraine 

To Win a War, 1918 the Year of Victory London 

London

1968

Published in October 1981 Bulletin