The Character Assassination
of General Rees
The Case Against General Rees
When he wrote his book British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One (1988), the historian John Laffin chose General HC Rees as a particularly glaring example of military incompetence:
Few British commanders tried to grasp the nature of modern warfare and the alarming problems which it produced … Brigadier-General Rees was one who was blind to problems. He commanded the 94th Infantry Brigade of the 31st Division and immediately after his brigade’s advance on1 July 1916 he wrote:
I saw the lines which advanced in such admirable order melting away under the fire. Yet not a man wavered, broke the ranks, or attempted to come back. I have never seen, I would never have imagined, such a magnificent display of gallantry, discipline and determination. The reports I have had from the few survivors of this marvellous advance bear out what I saw with my own eyes, viz., that hardly a man of ours got to the German front line.
and Laffin offers this judgement on Rees:
This is an incredible report. Rees writes as if he had had a victory, yet the ‘marvellous advance’ failed and his men were virtually wiped out. Mentally, he seems to have convinced himself that the gallantry, discipline and determination were the equivalent of victory. Perhaps an officer who had lost his entire command had to rationalise defeat in the way Rees did.
John Laffin, British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One (1988) pp.9-10.
The case – although stated in extreme terms – seems almost undeniable. Surely Rees condemns himself out of his own mouth! To boast about the soldiers’ bravery when they have all been wiped out is at the best insensitivity, and at the worst psychotic sadism. Rees is portrayed as an exemplification of the kind of general we all suspect ran the British Army during World War One, mindlessly and carelessly sending millions of young men ‘over the top’ to meet certain death marching into the German machine guns.
The case against Rees also appears in Tim Travers’s book, The Killing Ground (1987). Here, Travers argues that the British generals failed because they were trapped in a 19th century mindset which believed in cavalry charges, discipline and morale. Again, Rees is used as the example. Travers writes:
Brigadier General Rees, for example, described as a ‘marvellous advance’ the destruction of his brigade on 1 July 1916, when ‘hardly a man of ours got to the German front line’. Rees was obviously more concerned here with the discipline and gallantry of his men than with the results of their assault, and such thinking shows how difficult it was for officers with a nineteenth-century background to come to grips with modern warfare.
Tim Travers, The Killing Ground (1987) p.85
Misrepresentation and misinformation
The only problem with Laffin’s and Travers’s accounts is that they are utter rubbish.
The first thing you have to understand is that Rees did NOT write what Laffin says he wrote. In Laffin, the source is unprovenanced. Even in Travers it is noted as: ‘Notes by Brigadier General Rees’ (Travers p.98). Neither is this true. The extract is taken in fact from the War Diary of VIII Corps.
The diary actually read:
He saw the lines which advanced in such admirable order melting away under the fire. Yet not a man wavered, broke the ranks, or attempted to come back. He has never seen, indeed could never have imagined, such a magnificent display of gallantry, discipline and determination. The reports he had had from the few survivors of this marvellous advance bear out what he saw with his own eyes, viz., that hardly a man of ours got to the German front line.
Robertson Papers, KCL 1/21/27/2
The entry is correctly quoted in Travers (p.158), although Travers still states ‘Rees wrote an interesting report at the time’.
You will immediately notice that – instead of the ‘I’ account in Laffin – the real record is written ‘he’. Laffin doctored the quote to make it appear as direct speech by Rees. Instead, someone other than Rees seems to have written the report. And this is in fact the case.
In his memoirs, which he wrote in the 1920s, Rees explains what happened. His command had only been temporary, and he was replaced as Brigade commander the day after the attack:
On the 2nd July I was informed that General Carter Campbell had returned from sick leave & would resume command of his brigade. This was a bitter blow to me. I hoped to have retained command of the brigade although I was only acting for General Campbell. I said goodbye [and left]. I went on later to H.Q. VIIIth Corps & gave General Hunter Weston an account of the battle. He put my remarks into his own language & I think that particular report of mine is somewhat more ornate than anything else I have put my name to.
Extract from the memoirs of Brigadier-General Hubert Conway Rees, held at the Imperial War Museum Department of Documents (IWM 77/179/1).
What Really Happened
Rees’s memoirs allow us to work out, moreover, what REALLY happened at the battle on 1 July 1916. His account of the battle (admittedly in retrospect with the benefit of hindsight) is very different from the kind of mindless advance into the guns suggested by Laffin and Travers.
According to Rees, his orders were over-ambitious:
The short space of time allowed for the capture of each objective made it essential for the whole of my Bde [Brigade] … to advance at zero hour, otherwise they would not reach the positions assigned to them at the time laid down. In twenty minutes I had to capture the first four lines of trenches in front of Serre. After a check of twenty minutes, I was allowed forty minutes to capture Serre, a village 800 yards deep, & twenty minutes later to capture an orchard on a knoll 300 yds beyond. My criticisms on these points are not altogether a case of being wise after the event. I did not like them at the time, but I do not profess to have foreseen the result of these arrangements should a failure occur. A great spirit of optimism prevailed in all quarters.
On the day of the attack, therefore:
the attack began at 7.30am, but ten minutes before zero our guns opened an intense fire. I stood on top to watch. It was magnificent. The trenches in front of Serre changed shape and dissolved minute by minute under the terrific hail of steel. Watching, I began to believe in the possibility of a great success, but I reckoned without the Hun artillery. This ten minutes intense bombardment combined with the explosion of twenty tons of dynamite under the Hawthorn Redoubt near Beaumont Hamel must have convinced any enemy observer that the attack was in progress &, as our infantry advanced, down came a perfect wall of explosive along the front trenches of my Bde & the 93rd. It was the most frightful artillery display that I had seen up to that time & in some ways I think it was the heaviest barrage I have seen put down by the defence on any occasion.
It is at this point that Rees does, indeed, pay tribute to the bravery of his men, in words similar to those used by Hunter Weston in the Corps diary:
At the time this barrage really became intense, the last waves of the attack were crossing the trench I was in. I have never seen a finer display of individual and collective bravery than the advance of that brigade. I never saw a man waver from the exact line prescribed for him. Each line disappeared in the thick cloud of dust & smoke which rapidly blotted out the whole area. I saw a few groups of men through gaps in the smoke cloud, but I knew that no troops could hope to get through such a fire.
However, there is no suggestion in Rees’s memoirs that he was happily sending men to their death, and words such as ‘wall of explosive’, ‘frightful artillery’ show that he was not unaware of the horror that his men were facing. Rather, he spent the whole battle after the initial attack trying to save his men, and trying to stay the over-ambitious orders from an HQ which still thought the attack was going well. The following extracts make this quite clear:
My two staff officers, Piggott and Stirling, were considerably surprised when I stopped the advance of the rest of the machine gun company & certain other small bodies now passing my Headquarters. It was their first experience of a great battle & all that morning they obviously found it difficult to believe that the whole brigade had been destroyed as a fighting unit.
Messages now began to pour in. An aeroplane reported that my men were in Serre. The Corps & the division urged me to support the attack with all the force at my disposal. I was quite sure that we had not got anyone into Serre except a few prisoners, but the 93rd Bde on my right reported that their left had got on, whilst the 4th Division beyond them again claimed the first four lines of German trenches & were said to be bombing down our way. It was obviously necessary to attempt to get a footing in the German front trenches to assist these two attacks. The hostile barrage had eased off by now & was no longer formidable so I ordered two companies of the 13th York & Lancs to make the attempt.
As soon as this fresh attack was launched down came the barrage again. One company was badly mauled, whilst the other wisely halted short of [the objective].
The wildest reports were rife at divisional headquarters at this time. I was ordered to send a company to bomb the Germans out of the front trench of the 93rd Bde. I expostulated & said that no front trenches existed, but to no purpose. I therefore ordered seventy men near Bde Hdqtrs [Brigade headquarters] to draw bombs from the dump & take their time about it. A little later I was talking to General O'Gowan & told him that I didn't believe the Germans were in the 93rd's trench at all. He said, to my considerable astonishment, "Nor do I". "In that case" said I "I will stop the attack which you have just ordered me to make" & rushed out of the dug out to cancel the order.
I was asked whether I recommended making an attack with the 92nd Bde. I said "no", very decidedly… General Ingles came over to see me early in the afternoon & a member of the corps intelligence branch arrived. I gave the whole lot a lecture on the situation as I saw it & at last convinced my own staff that the whole attack was a terrible failure.
Rees as a Soldier
Actually, we might have expected Rees to make sensible decisions such as these. Rees was not a general without experience. He had fought at the time of the battle of Mons as a Captain with the 2nd Battalion of the Welch Regiment. His diary shows that he had experienced battle at the sharp end – the entry for 22 August, for instance, records entering a village when the inhabitants and a squadron of French cavalry mistook them for Germans, having to disarm one of his staff who had become ‘wildly excited’ and let off a shot from his revolver, and falling into a stream in the dark:
Before turning in I got a harrow from a neighbouring farm and planted it in the middle of the road for the benefit of any stray German cavalry. I hadn’t been in bed half and hour when I was woken up by the sergeant of the guard to say that the owner of the harrow wanted it back! This was really the last straw! I told them both where to go.
Rees won the DSO for his conduct at the battle of Langemarck in October 1914, when his battalion was (in his words) ‘annihilated’. In 1915 he fought at the battle of Neuve Chapelle. He was brave and experienced, and respected by his men. After his replacement from 93rd Brigade on 2nd July 1916, a major in the Accrington Pals wrote to him:
I am writing you a line to try & convey to you on behalf of myself & what remains of the battalion currently under my command the very deep feeling of regret at your transfer to another Brigade. I can assure you that although you were only a short time at the helm you held the complete confidence & respect of every officer, N.C.O. and man in the battalion…
The story of General Rees warns historians that it is wrong to look back and too quickly write off someone as a fool. Laffin, and to a lesser extent Travers, were looking for an example of a stupid general, and they took the entry in the VIII Corps diary out of context and without weighing its authenticity. Laffin then doctored it to make it sound even worse.
Nobody with even the slightest knowledge about Rees could ever write him off as a ‘head-in-the-clouds’ ‘donkey’ of a general, who could take delight in a brigade of men being mown down. Rather, Rees comes across as a down-to-earth soldier, who acknowledged the amazing courage of his men in terrible conditions, but who also did everything possible to protect them from further slaughter.
Rees was not a commander with sole power to start or finish the attack. The battle of the Somme was a huge affair conducted over 15 miles of front, in which each brigade had a specific and set part to play. Rees himself had orders that his men had to reach certain points by certain times, that he had to renew his attack etc. – and in the army, even a Brigadier-General is not allowed simply to ignore an order. Moreover, failure by one brigade could jeopardise the success of another, and Rees’s memoirs show that he was aware – despite the losses of his own brigade – of the obligation to offer support to other troops.
To describe him as incompetent or blind to the failure of 1 July 1916 is unjustified.