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General Horace Smith-Dorrien - Commander, Second Army Corps, Start Great War (WWI, World War 1, European War)

Updated on February 5, 2015

General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien

General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien.
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. | Source

Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien belonged to a family that did not stint in the giving of itself to the fighting forces of Britain. Two of his brothers were brothers-in-arms (Army), and two others were in the Senior Service (Navy).

This brief catalogue is representative, not exhaustive:

Great Work in Africa and Asia

  • 1882 - Captain Smith-Dorrien raised and commanded a force of mounted infantry in Egypt, and won the war medal and the bronze star.
  • 1884-1887 - he took part in engagements in the Nile region, notably at the Battle of Ginniss, gained mention in despatches, and received:

He then served in India for a long and honourable period.

  • 1892 - gazetted Major.
  • 1893-94 - he was Deputy Assistant Adjutant General (D.A.A.G.) in Bengal.
  • 1894-96 - Assistant Adjutant General (A.A.G.) in the Punjab.
  • 1895 - D.A.A.G. of Brigade in the Chitral Relief Force.
  • 1897-98 - he was mentioned in despatches and awarded the brevet rank of Lieut.-Colonel, the medal and two clasps, for his services in the Tirah campaign.
  • 1898 - he was again mentioned in despatches, and given the brevet rank of Colonel for his services with the Nile Expedition.

General Smith-Dorrien first became noticed in the public conscience during the Boer War, at the commencement of which, as supernumerary Major-General, he commanded the 19th Brigade forming part of General Colville's force. The Brigade included the Gordon Highlanders, the Canadians, and the Shropshire and Cornwall Light Infantry Regiments.

Those who witnessed it have told of his cool heroism when General Smith-Dorrien galloped through heavy fire to save the Gordons at Doornkop.

Second Boer War

Smith-Dorrien Saves The Highlanders

The Highlanders had dashed up the kop (hill). Seeing this, Smith-Dorrien realised the risk they ran of being surrounded. He rode across the enemy's front to stop them before it was too late. He succeeded. Then he returned to his position at the rear of the troops, as if nothing had happened.

General Smith-Dorrien was mainly responsible for bringing about the capture of Cronjé and his army, by his impressive work at Modder River. He was also instrumental in the set-off to the ambush at Sanna's Post.

He commanded the line of communication from Kroonstadt to Pretoria. He was mentioned three times in despatches. His services being recognised officially by promotion to the rank of Major-General, and with the medal with five clasps.

His tribute to British Overseas forces is well worth transcribing:

"Give me a thousand Colonials, let me train them for six months, and I will lead them against any Continental army."

He lived to realise his wish, and to prove how good was his judgement.

  • 1901-1903 - he was Adjutant-General in command of a First-Class District, Bombay.
  • 1902 - Smith-Dorrien married Olive Crofton, only daughter of Colonel Schneider. The wedding gifts they received included a solid silver statuette of a Gordon Highlander. It had the single word "Doornkop" at the base. It was subscribed for by every unit in the regiment. Sir Horace and Lady Smith-Dorrien had three sons.
  • 1903-1907 commander of the 4th Division at Quetta, where he founded the first soldiers' club.
  • 1904 - he was given the C.B.
  • 1906 - he was raised to the position of Lieutenant-General.
  • 1907 - he was made a K.C.B.
  • 1907-1912 - General Smith-Dorrien succeeded Sir John French in the Aldershot command.
  • 1910 - appointed Aide-de-Camp General to King George V.

At Aldershot he abolished the night pickets, putting the men on their honour to be of good behaviour in the public streets. This proved to the private soldier that he was being trusted for the first time. Not once was the general's confidence abused. Things were better all round. The civilian inhabitants could sleep at night; while the soldiers were permanently relieved of an unpopular and unpleasant duty.

Here Comes Kitchener's Army

Smith-Dorrien Appointed to the Second Army Corps

Then occurred the tragically sudden death, through heart failure, in a train, of Lieut.-General Sir J. M. Grierson, while on his way to the front.

  • 1914 - General Smith-Dorrien was appointed to succeed Grierson in command of the Second Army Corps.
  • 1914 - August 23rd - General Smith-Dorrien was one of that momentous conclave which met near Mons on that critical day, when Sir John French discussed with him, Sir Douglas Haig, and the commander of the Cavalry Division, the situation in front of the British Force.
  • 1914 - August 26th - Wednesday - Second British Army Corps, under Sir Horace Smith- Dorrien, saved the flanking of the French army, when five German army corps, were hurled against its flank position at Cambrai.

Later French bore testimony to Smith-Dorrien's capabilities. The General grappled with the problem; one that was as grave as it was unprecedented. Then he became the hero of one of the finest military feats in history. The 2nd Corps fought its way out against overwhelming enemy numbers, and odds.

General Smith-Dorrien Preparing for the Front

General Smith-Dorrien (in centre) with his Staff officers embarking at Folkestone for the front.
General Smith-Dorrien (in centre) with his Staff officers embarking at Folkestone for the front. | Source

The Man of the Moment at Mons

"I say without hesitation, that the saving of the left wing of the army under my command, on the morning of the 26th August, could never have been accomplished unless a commander of rare and unusual coolness, intrepidity, and determination had been present personally to conduct the operation." - General French's Despatch, 7th September, 1914.

General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, G.C.B., G.C.M.G., D.S.O.
General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, G.C.B., G.C.M.G., D.S.O. | Source

Confusion of Names Explained

Some curiosity has been displayed in reference to the name of Smith-Dorrien and that of Dorrien-Smith being shared by members of one family.

The matter has been explained in this way:

  • Mr. Augustus Smith, had a younger brother, Robert, who married an heiress, and, in consequence, took the name of Dorrien in addition to his own, thus becoming Mr. Smith-Dorrien.
  • Augustus did not marry, and when he died his estates were inherited by his nephew, Mr. Thomas Smith-Dorrien, who thereupon added Smith to his name, becoming Mr. Smith-Dorrien-Smith, usually abbreviated Dorrien-Smith.
  • But his brothers made no alteration in their names.

Hence the fifth Sir Horace, was Smith-Dorrien.

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