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Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood, Commander of ANZACs in Great War (World War 1, WWI, European War) to 1918
A Tribute to the Original ANZACS - April 1915
Gallipoli, the land between the Hellespont and the Aegean, had been the downfall of many a reputation, political and military, since April, 1915.
The plans made in Whitehall were wholly criticised, as had been the operational control on the Peninsula between that April and January, 1916. These criticisms had been insistent and severe. But the troops, for which these operations had been implemented, covered themselves with glory, even in the eyes of the enemy.
And some of this glory had, for some of the leaders, reflected well upon them, and they had come through that ordeal with records not only undiminished, but enhanced in value. Of these leaders one can probably single out General Birdwood as the main recipient.
Lieutenant-General Sir William R. Birdwood
The ANZACS at Gallipoli.
Hard Training on the Indian Frontier
Lieutenant-General Birdwood belonged to a family with varied talents in science, languages, and the arts of war and government. His family had left a permanent impression upon India.
- 1865 - September 13th - William Riddell Birdwood was born.
His father was Herbert Mills Birdwood, an eminent Anglo-Indian administrator, and his mother, Edith Marion Sidonie, daughter of Surgeon-Major E. G. H. Impey. His paternal grandfather was General Christopher Birdwood, of the Bombay Army, and his uncle the veteran scholar, Sir George Birdwood.
William was educated at Clifton College, and at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst.
- 1883 - William Birdwood entered the army as a lieutenant in the 4th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers.
- 1885 - he exchanged to a cavalry regiment, the 12th Lancers.
- 1886 - he transferred to the 11th Bengal Lancers.
- 1891 - it was on the North-Western Frontier of India, not too dissimilar to the physical features of Gallipoli, that Lieutenant Birdwood came under fire for the first time. He took part in the Black Mountain (Hazara) Expedition under General Elles. This expedition encountered many hazardous enterprises. He was awarded the medal and clasp.
- 1892 - he was with the Isazai Field Force under Sir William Lockhart.
- 1893 - he became Adjutant of the Viceroy's Bodyguard.
- 1894 - Sir William Birdwood married Janette Hope Gonville, eldest daughter of Colonel Sir Benjamin P. Bromhead, Bart., C.B., of Thurlby Hall, Lincoln. They had one son and two daughters.
- 1896 - he was promoted captain.
- 1897-1898 - he was present at the actions of Chagra Kotal and Dargai, the capture of Sampagha and Arhanga Passes, and the operations in the Bazar Valley, always in the thick of the Frontier fighting. He was mentioned in despatches and received the medal with three clasps.
His Morning " Tub " on the Dargai Heights
An interesting story is told of him in the Tirah Campaign, in which he acted as ordnance and transport officer.
Early one morning Captain Birdwood was discovered tending a fire he had built. The temperature was below zero, and snow was thick on the ground. Asked if he were cold, the captain replied :
"Cold be hanged ; I'm trying to melt enough ice to have my ' tub'!"
The chronicler added :
"Twenty minutes later I happened to return that way, and there was Birdwood, standing in the snow, quite nude, and rubbing himself down briskly with a coarse towel as big nearly as a blanket, while a lot of natives stood round him in a ring at a respectful distance, muttering to one another that the English sahibs were ' mad quite mad !'”
This story adds credulity to the daily routine undertaken by "Iron Birdwood," as he came to be known, when he enjoyed his morning and evening "dip" in the sea off Gallipoli, regardless of Turkish shell-fire.
- 1899-1902 - in the South African War, Captain Birdwood was severely wounded for the first time . Serving respectively on the Staff as:
- Brigade-Major Mounted Brigade (Natal),
- Deputy Assistant-Adjutant-General (D.A.A.G.), and
- military secretary to the Commander-in-Chief (Lord Kitchener).
He took part in the Battles of Colenso, Spion Kop, Vaal Krantz, Tugela Heights, Laing's Nek, Belmont, Lydenburg, and Pieter's Hill, and was at the relief of Ladysmith.
He gained in succession:
- the brevet of major,
- the brevet of lieutenant-colonel,
- awarded the Queen's Medal with six clasps, and
- the King's Medal with two clasps.
When Lord Kitchener went to India as Commander-in-Chief, Lieutenant-Colonel Birdwood went with him as Assistant Military Secretary and Interpreter.
- 1904 - he was appointed Assistant-Adjutant-General (A.A.G.), Headquarters.
- 1905 - he attained the rank of full colonel.
- 1905-1909 - he was Military Secretary to Lord Kitchener.
- 1906-1910 - he was Aide-De-Camp (A.D.C.) to King Edward VII
- 1908 - he was Chief of Staff to Sir James Willcocks in the Mohmand Expedition, being present at the action at Kargha.
His services were recognised by:
- mention in despatches,
- award of the medal and clasp,
- award of the Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.), and
- Companionship of the Order of the Indian Empire.
.General Willcocks said of him:
"He is an able and resourceful officer, who never acknowledges difficulties, and by his influence and tact secured the smooth working of the entire Staffs of my force. In fact, he rendered most valuable services throughout the operations, and he was always in the right place during a fight."
- 1909 - he was promoted brigadier-general.
- 1909-1912 - brigade commander at Kohat.
- 1910-1911 - A.D.C. to King George V.
- 1911 - promoted to major-general and a Companion Commander of Bath (C.B.)
- 1912 - May to November - Quartermaster General (Q.M.G.), India.
Major-General Birdwood was next Secretary to the Government of India, Army Department at Delhi, and a member of the Legislative Council of the Governor-General of India.
- 1914 - he was called from India to Command of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps attached to the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force.
His services with the Anzacs were marked by repeated mention in General Sir Ian Hamilton's despatches.
He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-General, and gained :
- the Knight Commander of the Star of India (K.C.S.I.),
- the Knight Commander of St Michael and St George (K.C.M.G.),
- the Insignia of a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, and
- the Croix de Guerre,
and he held the admiration of the "dare-devil" Anzacs.
"Australia, New Zealand Army Corps!
Cherish their fame for evermore
--- The Anzacs !
The old oak's branches,
From prairies and ranches,
Are doing their bit,
And proving their grit,
In the tightest fit
--- The Anzacs.
Sons of the boundless bush and farm.
Their hearts are young, their blood is warm
--- The Anzacs.
Willing when wanted,
They fought and they fell.
How bravely, how well,
No pen can tell
--- The Anzacs."
"The Soul of Anzac."
General Birdwood showed his powers of organisation in connection with the highly complex, difficult, and hazardous Anzac landing operations at Gaba Tepe on April 25th-26th, 1915, operations
"... crowned with a very remarkable success."
During the subsequent fighting he was in command. At the fighting in May he was wounded. A Turkish bullet completely removed his hat, and, as he said, ploughed a new parting in his hair. This did not dissuade him from his command, and Sir Ian Hamilton wrote of him :
"Lieutenant-General Birdwood has been the soul of Anzac. Not for a single day has he ever quitted his post. Cheery and full of human sympathy, he has spent many hours of each twenty-four inspiring the defenders of the front trenches ; and if he does not know every soldier in his force, at least every soldier in the force believes he is known to his Chief."
"The entire details of the operations allotted to the troops to be employed in the Anzac area were formulated by Lieut.-General Birdwood, subject only to my final approval. So excellently was this vital business worked out on the lines of the instructions issued that I had no modifications to suggest, and all these local preparations were completed in a way which reflects the greatest credit not only on the Corps Commander and his Staff, but also upon the troops themselves."
The exceptional work of the Anzac and Suvla landing, and the subsequent fighting was rivalled only by the unparalleled co-ordination of the Gallipoli evacuation.
In the landing, the fighting, and the evacuation, Sir William Birdwood was always to the fore. Resourceful, indefatigable, refusing to recognise difficulties. The tragic failure of the whole expedition must have been a terrible shock to one who, as Sir Ian Hamilton declared, had done
"... all that mortal man can do "
It was to his credit that the Gallipoli evacuation was an incomparable success.
The Evacuation of Gallipoli
At half-past three on Monday morning the last of the Australians fired a forty-five-foot-deep mine under the Turkish trenches. This was as a farewell act of battle. Volunteers with fuses set light to some large dumps of bully beef, to save them from the ignominy of evacuation. And by five o'clock on that dark, midwinter morning the evacuation was complete.
The total casualties were one officer and four men wounded.
It was one of the most incomprehensible feats in the history of the Great War; in fact, any war. The Turks had not stirred from their trenches, even when every Briton and Australian was safe aboard ship, and the naval guns were destroying the breakwaters and landing-stages.
They did not know, when dawn broke, that no enemy faced them.
Their guns bombarded the bonfires, shelled the battleships, and peppered the abandoned front, but they were firing only at ghosts, and ships out of range.
It was mainly Staff work of an extraordinary nature that had extricated the Australasian and British forces from an apparently hopeless situation.
We can speculate what the German Staff said, and we can ask ourselves what they could do, when men like Sir William Birdwood performed miracles?
I don't know whether it was ever reported, what Enver Pasha said to his German generals when they told him that the Suvla-Anzac forces had escaped from their long-predicted, certain destruction, without a single death, but I can surmise that it was probably unprintable!