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Rawlinson, Henry Seymour, Baron Rawlinsonlocked

  • Robin Prior
  •  and Trevor Wilson

Henry Seymour Rawlinson, Baron Rawlinson (1864–1925)

by H. Walter Barnett

Rawlinson, Henry Seymour, Baron Rawlinson (1864–1925), army officer, was the elder son of Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, first baronet (1810–1895), and his wife, Louisa (d. 1889), daughter of Henry Seymour. Rawlinson was born at Trent Manor, Dorset, on 20 February 1864, and educated at Eton College. His enthusiasm for sports secured him a comfortable passage through school. His father, a notable Assyriologist, saw military service in India, and formed a strong association with Frederick Roberts, subsequently commander-in-chief in India. This association was to assist the younger Rawlinson in his service career. Rawlinson entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, just before turning nineteen and soon thereafter served in India and Burma. In 1889, owing to the illness (soon followed by the death) of his mother, he returned to England, where he undertook the care of his ageing father, to whom he was much attached, and whom he succeeded in the baronetcy in 1895. On 6 November 1890 he married Meredith Sophia Frances (d. 1951), daughter of Coleridge John Kennard of Hampshire. The marriage endured for the rest of his life. There were no children.

Early career

In 1893 Rawlinson entered the Staff College, Camberley, where he profited greatly from the teaching skills and engaging personality of the military historian G. F. R. Henderson. Although India at this time remained the centre of Britain's military concerns, Henderson also took his students through events more appropriate to the coming European struggle: the American Civil War and the Prussian campaign against France in 1870–71. The latter inspired Rawlinson to tour the battlefields of the Franco-Prussian war, and to visit the military establishments of Germany and France. He drew useful conclusions. For example, he noted that the German army did not keep its various elements—infantry, artillery, cavalry—in watertight units but got them working together. He regretted that in the British army, by comparison, 'It is no one's business to pool experience' (diary, CAC Cam., Rawlinson MSS).

In 1895 Rawlinson went to Aldershot with the rank of brigade major, and established a reputation as a promising staff officer. In January 1898, by chance or good management, he found himself in Cairo (where his wife had been directed for her health) just as General Kitchener was mounting his expedition against Khartoum. Needing a staff officer to manage the influx of troops, Kitchener turned to Rawlinson, who consequently secured for the first time a responsible position during a major military episode. Kitchener habitually operated with a less than sufficient staff, so that Rawlinson was soon fully engaged in transferring fresh arrivals to the front and coalescing them into a division. Kitchener was suitably impressed.

The South African War

A year later Britain entered its largest and most testing colonial war: the South African War. Rawlinson soon took up a staff appointment there, and in short order found himself besieged in Ladysmith. He rapidly formed a favourable opinion of the Boers' skill with artillery, contrasting this with British gunners who 'think too much of their horses and not enough of their guns' (diary, CAC Cam., Rawlinson MSS). His developing awareness of the importance of artillery had a practical consequence. Before the Boer trap closed on Ladysmith, Rawlinson managed to bring in some long-range naval guns which proved serviceable in the subsequent siege.

Ladysmith was relieved early in March 1900. By then Rawlinson's long-term benefactor, Lord Roberts, had taken command in South Africa, with Kitchener as his chief of staff. Rawlinson was appointed to their staff and invited to live in Roberts's house: 'so I have kept up my practice of falling on my feet' (diary, CAC Cam., Rawlinson MSS). He was soon forging a coherent force out of the dispersed and diverse bodies of troops which were to accomplish the advance on Pretoria, thereby gaining experience in expanding a peacetime army into the much larger force required by war.

Roberts returned to Britain in November 1900, assuming that the South African War was as good as over. Rawlinson went with him. But the Boers resorted to an effective form of guerrilla warfare, and Rawlinson forthwith returned to join Kitchener. After performing much the same staff duties as before, he managed to persuade Kitchener to give him a command in the field. The ensuing brief periods of action seemed to him pretty enjoyable, even though once he became—if only for a matter of minutes—the prisoner of two Boers who had shot his horse from under him.

Rawlinson emerged from this spell with a reputation as an efficient commander in the field. Kitchener, he related on 2 January 1902, 'has been very nice to me and very complimentary' (diary, CAC Cam., Rawlinson MSS). Rawlinson was next placed in command of a big column to hunt the Boers in the Orange River Colony ('I am going up in the world'), and when the enemy there surrendered he was transferred to the western Transvaal, where he participated in the last Boer defeats of the war. Rawlinson noted that, between his taking up command on 1 April 1901 and the Boer capitulation in May 1902, his forces had marched 5211 miles, taken 1376 prisoners and 3 guns, and inflicted on the Boers 64 killed and 87 wounded, while the British had sustained casualties of 12 killed and 42 wounded. In terms of the large distances travelled and the small number of losses suffered by both sides, this was a very different war from the next in which he would participate.

On his return to Britain in 1902, Rawlinson was first assigned to the newly created department of education at the War Office, then appointed commandant of the Staff College; after that he was given command of an infantry brigade at Aldershot. He was then promoted to the rank of major-general and for four years commanded a division on Salisbury Plain. He travelled much, including a visit to the Sambre valley, where German railway building towards the Belgian frontier suggested ominous developments. All the time Rawlinson was seeking to divine the lessons to be learned from recent wars and changes in military technology. So in reflecting on the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–5 he noted the importance attached by the Japanese army to the employment of engineers, and their superior use of machine-guns in support of infantry.

Rawlinson did not always draw appropriate conclusions. He exaggerated the importance of morale on the battlefield as against weaponry, and he failed to recognize the potency of trench defences in slowing Japanese operations against the Russians. But, overall, when war came to Europe in 1914 he seemed well equipped to exercise command in battle.

The outbreak of the First World War

As chance had it, on 1 August 1914 Rawlinson was not employed. Having recently handed over command of his division, he was on half pay and unoccupied. Britain's declaration of war on Germany on 4 August changed that, but not initially to his satisfaction. Instead of a command in the field, he was appointed director of recruiting at the War Office, renewing acquaintance with Kitchener (just appointed secretary of state for war) and drawing the same conclusions as his chief about the probable lengthy duration of the war.

Rawlinson soon made the transition to the battlefield. Briefly he replaced the injured commander of 4th division on the Aisne and caught a glimpse of the stalemated trench warfare already developing in France. Then, at the beginning of October 1914, he was given charge of an infantry and a cavalry division intended to assist the Belgians in the defence of Antwerp. In the event, Antwerp was doomed by the time he arrived, and his force was withdrawn to west Belgium to join the main British expeditionary force (BEF). Rawlinson was given command of the 4th corps, consisting of two infantry divisions, which took up position at Ypres on 14 October. There the Germans, seeking to strike towards the port of Calais, fell upon it, in what became the first battle of Ypres.

Rawlinson extricated his force from a potentially dangerous situation with skill, but in so doing aroused the displeasure of the commander-in-chief, Sir John French, who had expected him to show more aggression. It was the start of strained relations which would continue until, late in 1915, French was replaced.

1915: Neuve Chapelle to Loos

Rawlinson was to participate in some of the key battles fought by the BEF in 1915, as a corps commander serving in Douglas Haig's First Army in a low-lying (and damp) part of Flanders. In March Haig directed him to devise a plan for seizing the village of Neuve Chapelle and proceeding on to the Aubers Ridge: the first set-piece attack against an entrenched position by the British army in this war. Rawlinson, from the outset, identified artillery predominance as vital to success, even against the single trench line which at the time was the norm. And he directed his attention just to the capture of this line and the village of Neuve Chapelle, notwithstanding Haig's directive that he should aim to press on to Aubers Ridge and open the way for cavalry exploitation.

The opening phase of the attack on 10 March 1915 was markedly successful, thanks to Rawlinson's well-calculated concentration of artillery. But then his forces passed beyond the support of the guns and were stopped by a hail of fire from German strongpoints. Renewed endeavours on the two days following achieved nothing, and the operation petered out. In the aftermath, Rawlinson blamed one of his divisional commanders for failing to press home the initial success, and called for his removal. It then transpired that any blame rested with Rawlinson. His conduct further stimulated French's antipathy towards him, and only the intervention of Haig saved him from demotion. That established a pattern. Rawlinson hereafter was dependent for advancement on Haig's goodwill.

Rawlinson derived clear lessons from Neuve Chapelle. Success against trench defences depended on artillery superiority. Cavalry had no part to play in such endeavours. And a limited advance ('bite and hold') was the most that could be hoped for. However, such insights did not inform all his subsequent actions. When called on to deliver a further attack on Aubers Ridge on 8 May, he deemed the guns 'well registered and we have enough' (diary, CAC Cam., Rawlinson MSS). Yet by Neuve Chapelle standards he clearly did not have enough, and the result was a costly fiasco. By contrast, when he attacked at Givenchy a month later, with similar results, he realized in advance that his artillery was insufficient.

Late in September 1915 Rawlinson was involved in the much larger operation at Loos. The available gunnery was recognized on all sides to be inadequate (only pressure from Kitchener, citing the needs of Britain's allies, caused the attack to be undertaken), but poison gas was employed in the hope of making good the deficiency in shells. Rawlinson's expectations ranged from the muted to the fairly optimistic. In the event, his forces overran their first objectives, but were then halted by an unimpaired second line of German defences. The only reserves available for the operation arrived late, having been kept under French's personal command. This hardly mattered. In the absence of adequate artillery support, the reserves had little chance of improving the situation whenever they appeared. But Rawlinson concluded otherwise. He took the view that only French's misuse of the reserves had denied him a considerable success. And, in company with others (including Haig), he conveyed this view to important people in London. In December 1915 French was replaced by Haig as commander-in-chief.

1916: The Somme

The change soon led to Rawlinson's advancement. Initially he was given temporary command of First Army. Then, in January 1916, Haig called into being a new Fourth Army, largely made up of recruits raised and trained since the outbreak of war. Haig not only appointed Rawlinson to its command but assigned to it the principal role in Britain's major campaign for 1916: a large offensive astride the River Somme.

In his planning for this endeavour, Rawlinson straightaway stressed the primacy of artillery, disregarded the cavalry, and devised an operation that was essentially bite and hold. He proposed a bombardment lasting for several days to a depth of just 1 to 2000 yards. Thereby he would overwhelm and occupy the German first line. Then the artillery would move forward and the process be repeated against the second line. Haig was not impressed. In the first phase of planning, he proposed a scheme to capture the German second line at an early stage of the attack and to advance southwards along it so as to aid the French, who would be carrying out the major part of the offensive astride the Somme. Later, as it became clear that German operations at Verdun would force the French to play only a minor role on the Somme, Haig demanded of Rawlinson a new plan for overwhelming all three German defensive positions at the outset so as to open the way for cavalry exploitation.

Although clearly uneasy about this major extension of his first-stage objectives, Rawlinson did not protest. The most he felt able to do was persuade Haig to forgo the hurricane bombardment he favoured, although without bluntly telling his chief that his forces did not possess sufficient guns to dispatch the available shells except over an extended period. But he capitulated to Haig's insistence that the limited quantity of shells at their disposal should be spread to the depth of the entire German defensive system. The result was predictable. The preliminary bombardment had neither the weight nor the volume to eliminate the successive lines of enemy trenches. So when Rawlinson's forces went over the top on 1 July 1916, they suffered casualties unprecedented in British military history, and made no advance on two-thirds of the front attacked.

The campaign was not abandoned. Britain's New Army had spent two years training and accumulating munitions for this operation. France needed Britain's aid to relieve the terrible pressure being exerted by the Germans at Verdun. And early setback did not diminish Haig's conviction that, in time, he could still accomplish the sweeping advance promised for the first day.

Rawlinson's performance during the ensuing four and a half months, until rain and mud and diminishing manpower forced the British command to halt, was decidedly mixed. On some occasions, such as 14 July and 25 September, he employed large quantities of artillery against limited sectors and achieved moderate, and not too costly, advance. More often he allowed small units unsynchronized with one another to deliver piecemeal attacks which attracted disproportionately heavy resistance. Thereby he sustained severe casualties and made only trivial gains of ground. And although he sometimes acknowledged that such operations were not rewarding and were even being delivered in the wrong sectors, he persisted in these operations. He welcomed the appearance of the tank, which first saw battle in his large offensive of 15 September, but by rendering his artillery subordinate to the tanks he ensured that neither tanks nor infantry would achieve much. Overall, between the start of July and the middle of November 1916, Rawlinson's operations inflicted substantial casualties on the enemy but brought even greater losses to his own army and advanced his line a bare 4 miles without strategic gain. The cost to the British army was 400,000 casualties.

1917: Sidelined

Perhaps strangely, Rawlinson emerged from the Somme campaign a figure of note. He was promoted to full general, and written up favourably in the press. But his eminence was insubstantial. Lloyd George, who became Britain's prime minister in December 1916, had spoken of him disparagingly even before the Somme campaign began. And his conduct during that long endeavour had sometimes displeased his commander-in-chief. Haig had told him bluntly on 24 August that 'something is wanting in the methods employed', and had delivered him a lecture on the appropriate conduct of an army commander (general headquarters to Fourth Army, OAD 123, 24 Aug 1916, Fourth Army MSS).

So in 1917 Rawlinson found himself directing no large operations, and was soon writing of the Cinderella role assigned to his forces. In March and early April, as the enemy in his sector fell back to powerful defended positions (the Hindenburg line), he followed up cautiously, more convinced of the dangers of being counter-attacked in the open than he was eager to seize hypothetical opportunities. In May, after believing himself assured that he would direct Britain's next big offensive, he was (as he confided to his diary) 'very much disgusted and disappointed' to learn that he had been passed over. Although there would indeed be another great offensive, in the second half of 1917, the most that Rawlinson was asked to command was a subsidiary operation that would be delivered from the sea in conjunction with an advance along the Belgian coast once the main attack had made considerable progress.

The Ypres offensive never achieved this sort of success, so the proposed coastal operation remained a pipe dream. For Rawlinson the resulting inactivity was galling. 'I do not find much to occupy my time', he lamented in September; and, in October, 'I find it hard to get through the day'. Early in November he was belatedly placed in charge of the dying phase of the Ypres operation. Then, in February 1918, he was assigned to a different role. He was appointed British representative on the executive war board of what was euphemistically called the supreme war council, a body set up by Lloyd George to diminish Haig's role in military decision making. By nominating Rawlinson, Haig intended to ensure that little diminution would take place.

1918: Offensive and counter-offensive

After a month Rawlinson was rescued from this unrewarding activity by dramatic events on the battlefield. On 21 March 1918 the Germans launched a massive, and initially successful, offensive against an undermanned British sector on the Somme. 'Not good days on the battlefront', Rawlinson noted in his diary. They proved, nevertheless, to be useful days for Rawlinson. On 28 March he was summoned to take command in the area of the setback. The situation awaiting him seemed perilous. His forces were drained in manpower, and few reinforcements were readily available. But the position was not beyond hope. The German advance had sustained heavy casualties and had outrun its artillery support. And in order to regain momentum, the German command decided to strike elsewhere, with only spasmodic efforts in Rawlinson's sector. By mid-year, with reinforcements and large quantities of weaponry to hand, and with raids by his Australian forces alerting him to the indifferent quality of the defences and troops opposing him, Rawlinson drew an important conclusion. The situation was hopeful for a counter-offensive with limited objectives. A trial run was carried out at Hamel on 4 July and yielded encouraging results. So in the next few weeks the Canadian and Australian corps and the British 3rd corps were concentrated near Amiens, and large supplies of weaponry brought in amid great secrecy. By employing, with all the skill now at his disposal, devastating amounts of artillery in combination with machine-guns and mortars and tanks and aircraft, he might, at tolerable cost in the lives of his troops, suppress enemy trenches and big guns long enough to get his forces forward at least to the distance that his artillery could bombard.

On 8 August 1918, outside Amiens, Rawlinson's forces attacked on a 19,000 yard front. By the end of the day, for moderate losses, they had overrun the main defended positions and eliminated six enemy divisions. The assault continued for three more days, but with steadily diminishing results. Rawlinson was then persuaded by his corps commanders that the operation should be halted. He succeeded in pressing this judgement on Haig. At last, and in marked contrast to the enemy's conduct so far that year, a measure of realism was prevailing in Britain's higher military circles.

On 23 August, after his artillery had moved forward, Rawlinson attacked again, once more driving the enemy from their defended positions. From then to 3 September his forces made limited advances daily. The German high command (much against its will) was obliged to withdraw to its 1917 stronghold, the Hindenburg line. Rawlinson's forces attacked these seemingly impregnable entrenchments in two operations. On 18 September they captured the ridge overlooking the main line, thereby securing artillery domination. Then on 29 September, after a truly massive bombardment, they pressed right through the Hindenburg positions. It was the British army's most distinguished operation of the war. By this stage Rawlinson was trusting to the expertise of a myriad of subordinate commanders, rather than dominating events himself. Yet he still had a role to play, for example by extending the length of front attacked on 29 September and so incorporating the area where the decisive advance was made.

Post-war career

With this triumph and with the accelerating advance of the other British armies, along with the French and the Americans, Germany's capitulation could only be weeks away. It came on 11 November 1918. Rawlinson did not pass into retirement. In mid-1919, simultaneous with being created Baron Rawlinson of Trent and receiving a grant of £30,000 from a grateful parliament, he was sent to north Russia to evacuate British troops engaged (unavailingly) in aiding anti-Bolshevik forces. Back in Britain in November, he took over the Aldershot command. Then in August 1920, in fulfilment of a long-standing ambition, he was appointed commander-in-chief in India.

This was a difficult time in India, with the demands for self-government gaining momentum. Rawlinson, nevertheless, experienced a relatively successful occupancy. He decentralized the army headquarters. He ended a long controversy by establishing his post as the sole source of military advice to the Indian government. He countered the onset of economic stringency by reducing the military budget and the size of the Indian army while improving equipment and not harming efficiency. Although proving less than welcoming to the demand for full Indianization of his forces, he conceded enough to avoid severe confrontation. And by construction of roads and the establishment of military stations, he advanced military control into disaffected parts of the north-west frontier.

By early 1925 Rawlinson deemed his role in India fulfilled. He intended to return to London, but on 24 March 1925, while only sixty-one years of age and in seeming good health, he was taken ill following games of polo and cricket. Four days later, in Delhi, after an operation, apparently for appendicitis, he died. His remains were returned to England and interred at his home at Trent, Dorset, on 30 April. Since then Rawlinson has been largely forgotten. His private life lacked drama, and his diaries, when published, proved wanting in extreme malice. As regards his career, military rule in the British empire has ceased to attract attention. And although interest in the First World War continues unabated, the part played by army commanders is usually disregarded or judged adversely. At least as concerns Rawlinson's operations in 1918, this may seem less than just.


  • R. Prior and T. Wilson, Command on the western front: the military career of Sir Henry Rawlinson, 1914–1918 (1992)
  • F. Maurice, The life of General Lord Rawlinson of Trent (1928)
  • J. F. Maurice and M. H. Grant, eds., History of the war in South Africa, 1899–1902, 4 vols. (1906–10)


  • CAC Cam., diaries and papers
  • NAM, diaries and papers
  • NAM, papers relating to Sudan and South Africa
  • BL OIOC, corresp. with seventh earl of Derby, MS Eur. D 605
  • Durham RO, corresp. with Lord Londonderry
  • IWM, Fourth Army MSS
  • IWM, corresp. with Sir Henry Wilson
  • King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir F. B. Maurice
  • Lpool RO, corresp. with seventh earl of Derby
  • NAM, letters to Lord Roberts
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Kitchener, PRO 30/57; WO 159


  • BFINA, news footage
  • IWM FVA, actuality footage
  • IWM FVA, documentary footage


  • IWM SA, oral history interview


  • I. Sheldon-Williams, pencil and watercolour drawing, 1900, NPG
  • F. Dodd, charcoal and watercolour drawing, 1917, IWM
  • W. Orpen, oils, 1918, IWM
  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1918, NPG
  • J. S. Sargent, oils, 1919–1922, NPG
  • O. Birley, oils, 1920–23, Staff College, Camberley
  • J. S. Sargent, group portrait, oils, 1922 (General officers of World War I), NPG
  • H. W. Barnett, photograph, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£4042 8s. 7d.: resworn probate, 16 May 1925, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
National Army Museum
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
Churchill College, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge
Imperial War Museum, London