We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Feature essay

General officers of World War I

 General officers of the First World War by John Singer Sargent, 1922 [left to right: Birdwood, Smuts, Botha, Byng, Rawlinson, Lukin, Monash, Horne, Milne, Wilson, Russell, Plumer, Cowans, Haig, French, Robertson, Maude, Allenby, Marshall, Currie, Lambart, Dobell] General officers of the First World War by John Singer Sargent, 1922 [left to right: Birdwood, Smuts, Botha, Byng, Rawlinson, Lukin, Monash, Horne, Milne, Wilson, Russell, Plumer, Cowans, Haig, French, Robertson, Maude, Allenby, Marshall, Currie, Lambart, Dobell]
John Singer Sargent's group portrait Some General Officers of the Great War, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1922, was presented by the South African financier Sir Abe Bailey to the National Portrait Gallery, where it now bears the title General Officers of World War I. In October 1918 Bailey offered to have painted, by different artists, three groups of military commanders, naval commanders, and statesmen of the British empire to commemorate their services during the Great War. At the invitation of the NPG's trustees Sargent took on the military group, which was intended to comprise about twenty subjects. Two of the gallery's trustees, Evan Charteris (1864–1940), who was later Sargent's biographer, and the former colonial secretary Viscount Harcourt, drew up a preliminary list of generals to be included in the group, and their selection of names was amended and approved by Bailey himself.

The resulting portrait features twenty-two of the approximately 1500 men who held the rank of brigadier-general, major-general, lieutenant-general, or field marshal in the British army of the First World War. Not all of Sargent's subjects were the most famous or distinguished generals of the period. The criteria for inclusion appear to have been influenced by seniority; for the most part, all subjects held the rank of lieutenant-general or above. There was an obvious policy of reflecting the imperial dimension, no doubt reflecting Bailey's connections, and exceptions were made in the case of two major-generals who were included as representatives of the South African and New Zealand forces. South Africa, with three individuals, is over-represented, given that Australia and Canada each have one only.

The post of chief of the Imperial General Staff, the professional head of the British army, was filled by Sir William Robertson from November 1915 until his removal in February 1918. Robertson was among the greatest chiefs that the British army has had but his strategy and dour personality led him into a number of serious clashes with David Lloyd George, the prime minister from December 1916. These led to Robertson being manoeuvred out of the position of chief of the Imperial General Staff. His replacement, Sir Henry Wilson, was also an impressive staff officer and had a deserved reputation as being one of the most politically minded of British commanders. However, as chief he did not prove entirely to Lloyd George's taste. The only general in the painting who served in an administrative role throughout the war was Sir John Cowans, who as quartermaster-general was faced by the formidable challenge of expanding support services to meet the needs of a hugely enlarged army. He succeeded magnificently in achieving what has been described by one historian as ‘a triumph of administrative improvisation’.

  Douglas Haig (1861–1928) by Walter Stoneman, 1914 Douglas Haig (1861–1928) by Walter Stoneman, 1914
Painted clutching their field marshal's batons are the two commanders-in-chief of the British expeditionary force, Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig. French took the expeditionary force to France in 1914, and remained in command until he was removed in controversial circumstances after the failure of the battle of Loos in 1915. Historians are unanimous that French was not up to the job of commander-in-chief. There is no such consensus on Haig, who continues to divide historical opinion between those who subscribe to a more sophisticated version of the popular view of him as a ‘donkey’, and another school that sees him in a rather more positive light. Taking over from French in December 1915, Haig oversaw the battles of the Somme in 1916 and Passchendaele (the third battle of Ypres) in 1917. Like Haig himself, these battles are controversial, with some seeing them as outright failures, while others point to the cumulative effect of attrition on the German army and the learning process of the British expeditionary force. The argument that these two factors contributed to the impressive victories achieved under Haig's command in 1918 is a powerful one that has yet to be satisfactorily refuted.

The level of command below commander-in-chief was that of army commander, of whom Sargent depicts five. In the centre of the picture is General Sir Herbert Plumer, who commanded the Second Army from 1915 to 1917 and, after a sojourn in Italy, again in 1918. Plumer, despite his Blimpish appearance, earned a reputation as a safe pair of hands, solicitous of his soldiers' lives—no mean feat considering that for much of his period of command he was responsible for the ever dangerous Ypres salient. He was a master of ‘bite and hold’, the limited set-piece attack. General Sir William Birdwood was an Indian army officer more famous for his command of the Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand army corps) but he commanded the Fifth Army in 1918.
  Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby (1861–1936) by Eric Kennington, pubd 1926 Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby (1861–1936) by Eric Kennington, pubd 1926
Conversely, although General Sir Edmund Allenby commanded the Third Army in 1916–17 he owes his principal fame to his achievements after leaving the western front. Moved sideways after an unsatisfactory performance in the battle of Arras (April–May 1917) to command the Egyptian expeditionary force, Allenby presided over a series of successes in the Middle East, including the capture of Jerusalem in 1917 and culminating in the decisive battle of Megiddo in September 1918.

Sir Julian Byng succeeded Allenby in command of the Third Army in 1917 after a distinguished period in command of the Canadian corps; the capture of Vimy ridge in April 1917 was his most successful operation. In the victorious offensive of August–November 1918 Byng's Third Army was the largest of the five armies under Haig's command. One of Byng's fellow army commanders in that campaign was Sir Henry Rawlinson of the Fourth Army, who was one of only two men who had also commanded armies in 1916 (the other was Plumer). Rawlinson was the principal operational commander during the 1916 battle of the Somme. Sir Henry Horne, a Royal Horse Artillery officer and one of Haig's protégés, built a steady if unspectacular reputation as commander of the First Army from 1916 until the end of the war. There is one other army commander featured in the painting, Rudolph Lambart, tenth earl of Cavan, but he led an army in the order-of-battle of a foreign state (albeit one that contained British troops). After commanding at divisional and corps level on the western front his 14th corps was sent to Italy, and he subsequently took command of the Italian Tenth Army.

Below the level of army came corps. Several of Sargent's subjects commanded corps before going on to higher things (including Haig, Wilson, Cavan, and the five army commanders). However, the only generals depicted in the painting who finished the war as corps commanders on the western front were Sir Arthur Currie (Canadian corps) and Sir John Monash (Australian corps). Both came from outside the charmed circle of British regular officers, being pre-war part-time soldiers. Currie was an estate agent and insurance broker in Canada, while Monash, whose family was of German-Jewish origin, had been an engineer in Australia. In both cases they proved to be highly competent commanders of élite formations. The same was true of Sir Andrew Russell, who commanded the New Zealand division throughout its existence. The New Zealand division was perhaps the finest single division the British empire put into the field, and Russell, a brave and tactically astute disciplinarian, played a significant role in its success. Russell and Sir Henry Lukin of 9th (Scottish) division are the only commanders who rose no higher than divisional command to feature in the painting. Indeed it could be argued that Lukin, a British-born South African, was included because of earlier experience at an even lower level, as a highly effective commander of the South African brigade on the western front.

  George Francis Milne (1866–1948) by Walter Stoneman, 1920 George Francis Milne (1866–1948) by Walter Stoneman, 1920
The final group of generals are those who commanded major forces in theatres other than the western front, the so-called sideshows. Sir George Milne, who under overall French command led the British forces at Salonika from 1916 to 1918, had a difficult task that nevertheless ended with a crushing victory over the Bulgarian forces in 1918. Sir Stanley Maude's career had no such happy ending. Sent out to Mesopotamia to pick up the pieces after the disastrous defeat at Kut al-Amara in 1916, he died of cholera after achieving two considerable successes: rebuilding the army and capturing Baghdad. His successor, Sir William Marshall, continued Maude's work and led the Mesopotamian expeditionary force until the end of the war.

  Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870–1950) by Elliott & Fry, 1917 Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870–1950) by Elliott & Fry, 1917
Two of Sargent's subjects had in earlier times been in arms against the king–emperor. Both Jan Christian Smuts and Louis Botha had fought the British in the South African War (1899–1902), but were later reconciled, took part in the political process, and rose to high political office in South Africa. When war came in 1914 both men proved loyal to the British empire. In 1915 Botha led a force that conquered German South-West Africa, while Smuts commanded imperial forces in the east African campaign in 1916. Smuts travelled to England in 1917, where he became a hugely influential member of the war cabinet. The final general depicted in the painting is probably the least known. Sir Charles Dobell commanded imperial forces in the protracted conquest of the German west African colony of Cameroon before serving, without much success, in the Middle East.

There are a number of prominent generals whom one might have expected Sargent to paint but were nevertheless omitted. Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, who as commander of the 2nd corps in 1914 was widely credited with saving the British expeditionary force at Mons and Le Cateau, was promoted to command the newly formed Second Army. He was controversially sacked by his enemy Sir John French after suggesting a strategic retreat during the second battle of Ypres in 1915. Haig's protégé Hubert Gough was for much of the war a high-flyer. He led the Reserve (later Fifth) Army at the Somme and Passchendaele, but was a scapegoat for the disastrous initial phase of the German spring 1918 offensive. Several other generals who commanded armies on the western front are also omitted. Sir Charles Monro (First and Third armies in 1915–16) was excluded, despite moving on in 1916 to have a distinguished tenure as commander-in-chief in India, where he played a major role in reorganizing the Indian army. The omission of two officers who temporarily commanded armies for short periods, Sir Richard Haking and Sir William Peyton (1866–1931), is easier to understand. The same is true of Sir Charles Kavanagh (1874–1950), the commander of the cavalry corps (1916–18), who was treated by Haig as the equal of an army commander in 1918.

Away from the western front several commanders of major forces were excluded. The obvious example is Sir Ian Hamilton, perhaps the most intellectual general the army produced in this period, who led the ill-fated Gallipoli expedition of 1915; his name had been included in the proposed list of sitters, but was struck out by Bailey. The commanders in the early and unsuccessful phase of the Mesopotamia campaign, Sir John Nixon and Sir Percy Lake, were omitted, as was Sir Charles Townshend, whose force suffered the most humiliating British defeat of the war, at Kut in April 1916.

Officers who served in administrative roles on the home front, no matter how important, were also poorly served. Candidates might have included the two wartime master-generals of the ordnance, Sir Stanley Von Donop (1860–1941) and William Furse (1865–1953); the adjutant-general Sir Nevil Macready; and Sir George Macdonogh, the director of military intelligence (1915–18). Administrative officers on the battle fronts, men like the two quartermaster-generals of the British expeditionary force, Ronald Charles Maxwell (1852–1924) and Travers Clarke (1871–1962), were completely ignored.

Staff officers were not well represented. Three of the wartime chiefs of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Charles Douglas, Sir James Wolfe Murray, and Sir Archibald Murray (who also was French's chief of staff in 1914 and went on to command the Egyptian expeditionary force in 1916), were excluded. Field commanders did not operate in a vacuum, and some formed close and effective partnerships with their chiefs of staff. In particular, the names of Plumer and his chief of staff, Sir Charles (Tim) Harington, in the Second Army, and Rawlinson and Sir Archibald Montgomery in the Fourth Army, were closely linked. Neither chief of staff was painted by Sargent, and neither—surprisingly—were Haig's two chiefs of staff at general headquarters, Sir Launcelot Kiggell and Sir Herbert Lawrence. Kiggell's reputation has been assaulted by many historians. It is possible that the criticism has been too severe, but the evidence suggests that Lawrence was a more independently minded and effective chief of staff.

A final group of generals who were conspicuous by their absence were the leaders of the Royal Flying Corps and the tank corps. The Royal Air Force was formed on 1 April 1918 from the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Hugh Trenchard, the ‘father’ of the RAF, was an admirer and supporter of Haig whose strategy in the air complemented the commander-in-chief's on the ground. Sir David Henderson and John Salmond were other prominent military airmen who might well have been included. So might Hugh Elles, the commander of a comparable organization, the tank corps. None of these men rose above the rank of major-general during the war. Unlike Lukin and Russell, Sargent did not make an exception for them.

Gary Sheffield


W. Stoneman, photograph, 1914, NPG; Douglas Haig, first Earl Haig [see illus.] · Elliott & Fry, photograph, 1917, NPG; Jan Christiaan Smuts [see illus.] · E. Stoneman, photograph, 1920, NPG; George Francis Milne, first Baron Milne [see illus.] · J. S. Sargent, group portrait, oils, 1922 ([General Officers of World War I]), NPG [see illus.] · E. Kennington, pastel, pubd 1926, NPG; Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby, first Viscount Allenby of Megiddo [see illus.]