Edmonds, Sir James Edward (18611956), military historian, was born in Baker Street, London, on 25 December 1861, the son of James Edmonds, master jeweller, and his wife, Frances Amelia Bowler. He went as a day boy to King's College School, London, then still in the east wing of Somerset House, and astonished masters by the extent, maturity, and exactitude of his knowledge. He was wont to relate that he learned languages at the breakfast table at home. In after life he could extract what he wanted from any European language and a number of eastern ones, although he could not write an idiomatic letter in any foreign language except German. He passed first into the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and the most experienced examiners were unable to recall any year in which he would not have done so. As a matter of course he passed out first after winning the sword awarded for the best gentleman cadet, the Pollock medal, and other prizes. In 1881 he was gazetted to the Royal Engineers, specializing in submarine mining, then treated as a task which the Royal Navy could not be expected to undertake.
In 1885, after long anxiety about the possibility that Russia might walk into Hong Kong without warning, it was decided to reinforce the colony with two companies of engineers of which one, the 33rd, was Edmonds's. His criticism of the situation was blistering. The reinforcement of two companies reached the scene in one case eight strong, in the other about thirty. The non-starters were either sick, permanent invalids, or on attachment from which they had not been liberated in time to catch the boat. Edmonds found that the numerous rock pillars just below the surface in Hong Kong harbour were uncharted and consequently often grazed by ships, once in a while causing a serious accident. He set about demolition by trailing a rail between two longboats and lowering a diver to fix a gun-cotton necklace on the peak.
Three months' sick leave in Japan was followed by a leisurely return home in 1888 by way of the United States. In 1890 Edmonds became instructor in fortification at the Royal Military Academy, where he spent six happy years and made use of the long vacations to travel and learn more languages, including Russian. In 1895 he entered the staff college, once again first, and in that year he married Hilda Margaret Ion (d. 1921), daughter of the Revd Matthew Wood; they had one daughter. His conversation became more stimulating and impressive than ever. Among those who enjoyed it were Douglas Haig, of whom he heard an instructor predict that he could become commander-in-chief, Aylmer Haldane, and E. H. H. Allenby. His verdict on Allenby was that it was impossible to hammer anything into his head, an error typical of Edmonds's worst side.
In 1899 Edmonds was appointed to the intelligence division under Sir John Ardagh, with whom in 1901 he went to South Africa, at the request of the Foreign Office, to advise Lord Kitchener on questions of international law. Lord Milner next borrowed him (19024) in the task of establishing peace. Back at home in 1904, Edmonds resumed work at the War Office in the intelligence division and was put in charge of a section formed to follow the Russo-Japanese war. He was promoted in 1907 to take charge of MO5 (counter-espionage, later known as MI5). It was Edmonds who in 1908 definitely convinced the secretary of state for war, R. B. Haldane, of the size, efficiency, and complexity of the German espionage network in Britain.
In 1911 Edmonds, who had reached the rank of colonel in 1909, was appointed GSO1 of the 4th division. His divisional commander, Thomas Snow, a formidable and irascible man, gave him his complete confidence and at an early stage said to him I provide the ginger and you provide the brains. This was very much to Edmonds's taste, and if ever he spoke with excessive pride it was of his achievement in the training of the 4th division for the war, the summit of his career, although fatal to his personal ambitions. During the retreat from Mons he broke down from insufficient food, lack of sleep, and strain. The engineer-in-chief stretched out an arm to him from general headquarters, where he remained for the rest of the war, in the latter part of it as deputy engineer-in-chief. He was regularly consulted by Haig and regarded as a mentor on the general staff side and every branch of his own corps, which in its turn could afford him greater knowledge of transportation problems than those who had to undertake the tasks.
In 1919 Edmonds retired with the honorary rank of brigadier-general and was appointed director of the historical section, military branch, committee of imperial defence. His task was to direct; all narratives were to be written by historians; but finding the first choice unsatisfactory, Edmonds himself took over the main field, the western front, and sowed and reaped it to the end. He was altogether too patient with failures, although delighted to be able to say that he sacked three lieutenant-generals in quick succession. He has been blamed for tardiness in producing the history, but his resources were minimal by comparison with those accorded to the historians of the Second World War. The first virtue of his style was compression, the second lucidity; but it was attractive to a minority only and came to be regarded as dull. A feature of the method, not new, but brought to perfection, was the combination of material from British records with those of foes and allies with equal care, whereas many famous predecessors had left the second and third as pale as ghosts. He was allowed to establish liaison with his German opposite number and treated him with complete candour. He found Berlin equally reliable and disinclined to make propaganda, a practice which only began after Hitler's ascent to power. It may indeed be said that Edmonds revolutionized the very principles on which the history of campaigns and battles had hitherto been compiled in Britain. His humour as chief was mordant, but when he denounced one person as a crook, another as a drunkard, and a third as utterly incompetent, he was nine-tenths of the time playing an elaborate game. Part of the vast stock of boutades took the form of letters which were treasured by recipients. Some turned up finally as evidence for theories which he would have repudiated: for instance, the belittlement of Haig.
Edmonds was gifted with a prodigious memory. He never forgot the sciences learned in youth and kept up with them throughout his life. The originality of his reflections and his skill in engineering earned for him the sobriquet of Archimedes, which amused him and with which he frequently signed letters to the press. A history of the American Civil War (1905), in collaboration with his brother-in-law W. B. Wood, ran through a number of editions and became an official textbook in the United States. He collaborated also with L. F. L. Oppenheim in the official manual Land Warfare (1912), an exposition of the laws and usages of war on land. After his retirement in 1949 he wrote A Short History of World War I (1951). Coming from an author almost ninety years of age, it naturally showed signs of wear and tear, but it is none the less a highly useful and creditable vade-mecum.
Edmonds was the happiest of individuals and never felt the slightest regret that he had not risen to a rank befitting his talents. As a soldier he was intellectually brilliant and in both theory and technical knowledge the outstanding figure of his generation; yet he could not be regarded as complete master of his profession or as having to reproach fortune for failure in attaining that status. He was over-sensitive, shy, inclined to be uncertain in emergency, and lacking in that sustained energy, carried almost to the point of harshness and sometimes beyond it, which has marked great soldiers and without which powers of command are generally limited.
Edmonds was appointed CB in 1911, CMG in 1916, and knighted in 1928. He received the honorary degree of DLitt from the University of Oxford in 1935. He retired to Brecon House, Long Street, Sherborne, Dorset, and died there on 2 August 1956.
Cyril Falls, rev. H. C. G. Matthew
E. E. B. M., Brigadier-General Sir James Edmonds, Royal Engineers Journal, new ser., 70 (1956), 3958 · The Times (7 Aug 1956) · The Times (10 Aug 1956)
King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. and papers incl. those relating to historical interests
Royal Engineers Museum, Gillingham, military papers | CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir E. L. Spears
King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart
W. Stoneman, photograph, 1919, NPG
Wealth at death
£551 4s. 2d.: probate, 27 Nov 1956, CGPLA Eng. & Wales