The Life of General Sir Charles Carmichael Monro
by Field Marshal Viscount Plumer
GENERAL SIR GEORGE BARROW has written an admirable account of the life and service of a typical soldier; for that is exactly what Charles Monro was.
Sir George is in a specially favourable position to write the narrative as he served under Monro both in peace and war, as a staff officer, and as a subordinate commander, and much of what he has written was compiled from personal knowledge.
It is to be hoped that these pages will be perused by many readers and that in studying them they will realize that they are apt illustration of what splendid services to his country can be rendered by a soldier like Monro ; and it must be remembered that at the outset of his career be had no special advantages over his contemporaries, and that the promotions he gained, the high positions he filled, and the honours awarded to him were all due to personal merit and nothing else.
The four achievements, all different in character, with which his name will chiefly be associated are:
(1) The new and improved system of Infantry training, which was inaugurated under his auspices when he was Commandant of the School of Musketry at Hythe in 1903-7.
(2) His Command of the First and Third Armies in France, 1915-16.
(3) The decision to evacuate the positions at Gallipoli, and the successful accomplishment of that difficult and hazardous operation, 1916.
(4) The reforms and reorganization of the Army in India which he carried out while he was Commander-in-Chief in that country from 1916-20.
But it is not on these special achievements alone, great as they undoubtedly were, that the friends and admirers ol Sir Charles Monro (and the two terms are synonymous) base his claim to a prominent place in the history of our times, but on the whole of his career, being as it was a splendid example of a great soldier's life, which exercised a wonderful influence over all with whom he came in contact.
This was due to the fact that throughout the whole of his life the keynote of his actions was a high sense of duty, and this inspired him to exercise on himself and to instil into others the spirit of true discipline, which is based on respect for superiors and sympathetic consideration for subordinates.
Certainly he was a man whose opinion always " counted " ; even as a young man his advice was often sought and accepted by men older than himself because they knew that his views would be the result of careful study and thought, and for the same reason his decisions were always received without demur by his subordinates and his instructions carried out implicitly.
The chief characteristics of his work were earnestness and thoroughness, and the development of these can be traced in this biography, as he advanced step by step to ^positions of increasing responsibility, but these were always relieved by those flashes of boyish humour which made him such an attractive associate and companion.
His judgments were always sound, and no one could persuade him to say or do anything which he did not believe to be right or in accordance with the best interest of the service and country he loved so well and served so faithfully.
I think his personality can be best summed up by describing him as a soldier " sans peur et sans reproche."
The Army was richer for his life, and poorer by his death.
Kitchener recommends evacuation of Suvla and Anzac and retention ol Helles. Comments. General Staff and War Committee advise evacuation of whole Peninsula. Cabinet still hesitate. Lord Curzon's fears. The November gale. Monro appeals for early decision. Kitchener wavers. Monro remains firm. Bonar Law's memorandum. Salonika question forces a decision. Comments. Monro's courage. Admiral Wemyss opposes evacuation. Admiralty reply. A general fights on two fronts. General Monro discomfits Mr. Churchill. A conflict of personalities
IT will be remembered that General Monro's command comprised all the British forces east of Malta, excluding Egypt, and therefore included the Salonika front. He was at Salonika, called thither by the serious nature of the situation, when he received news of the Government's decision to withdraw from Suvla and Anzac.
The 10th Division under General Mahon had recently moved into occupation of the line east of Strumnitza, while the Germans and Bulgarians were concentrating in the Strumnitza Valley. British reinforcements were arriving at Salonika, but owing to the bad state of the communications, transport and other difficulties, there was no prospect of their being able to reinforce Mahon's line in time to meet an attack. General Monro saw the imperative necessity of holding back the enemy until the reinforcing divisions should have the time to complete their debarkation. At the same time he impressed on General Sarrail, commanding the French troops, the urgency of an immediate withdrawal from Serbia, as a defeat of the British would result in the cutting of the French line of retirement.
The Bulgarians attacked the 10th Division with a superiority in numbers of three or four to one. The 10th Division putting up a stubborn resistance throughout the fight, which lasted for three days, retired slowly to positions covering Salonika. It lost 1,800 men and eight guns and inflicted very severe losses on the Bulgars. The situation at one time was so serious that the possibility of having to carry out a double and simultaneous embarkation, at Gallipoli and at Salonika, had to be faced. Fortunately the Bulgars were brought to a standstill and the British were able to consolidate their hold on Salonika. General Monro reported that the troops, who had already suffered considerably from cold in the highlands of Macedonia, had conducted themselves very creditably in withdrawing from a difficult position.
Sir Charles was still detained, after the termination of this operation, in order to take part in negotiations which concerned the relations between the Greeks and the French and which had for their object the prevention of a rupture with the former Power. It was not, therefore, until December 12th, that he was able to return to Mudros. He had already, on December 8th, telegraphed to General Birdwood instructions to proceed with the preparations for evacuation.
From now onwards the preparations for the evacuation of Suvla and Anzac were rapidly carried forward, Helles was to be retained. The cause of this decision to cling on to the end of the Peninsula may be looked for in the advocacy of the sailors. The actual reason given was that by holding on to Helles we should be in a position to renew attack, based on another plan, at some future date, should the Government so decide.
This argument is unconvincing. There is no worse way in war of utilizing one's military forces than not to use them ; to keep them locked up on an off-chance that they may perhaps be required for some speculative purpose at some indeterminate date. Anyhow, neither Sir Charles Monro nor the General Staff were convinced. On December 20th Sir Charles sent a telegram to Lord Kitchener in which he pressed for the evacuation of Helles for the reason that " it would greatly facilitate the reorganization of the Dardanelles army, would lead immediately to reduced expenditure and would liberate a large quantity of freight“ and he went on to say that the army " when rested and reorganized would constitute a valuable asset in a central position, ready to strike either in France or wherever demanded by the situation." On December 22nd the General Staff came forward with a memorandum in which they said:
" The arrival of gun ammunition and of fresh guns to help the enemy will, moreover, greatly add to the difficulties in the way of. holding on to Helles at all. Not only have munitions arrived from Germany, but artillery which had been previously opposed to Suvla and Anzac will be moved to act against our forces cooped up in the thoroughly bad position they now occupy at the southern end of the Peninsula. Wastage, heavy before, will become greater. The troops, furthermore, are perfectly well aware that the Dardanelles undertaking has definitely failed, and, realizing that they have no hope of advancing or of causing the enemy any serious injury, will become dispirited. There will serious risk that the enemy will make a successful attack, and nay, in the circumstances, cause us a disaster.
" The necessity of concentration of effort, if this war is to be brought to a successful conclusion, has been drawn attention to hi recent papers prepared by the General Staff, and there is no object in labouring this point afresh ; retention of Helles means dispersion, not concentration of effort." The General Staff, therefore, "recommend that the Gallipoli Peninsula should be entirely evacuated, and with the least possible delay."
General Sir William Robertson had by this time taken up the appointment of C.I.G.S., and we see in this memorandum evidence i the clear logical mind and firm grasp of essentials which are characteristic of that distinguished soldier.
These combined opinions finally settled the question. On December 23rd the War Committee decided on the evacuation of Cape Helles, and four days later the Cabinet gave its tardy consent. Fifty-seven days had elapsed since Monro had telegraphed his evacuation despatch on October 31st!
In order to support his contention that the Gallipoli adventure had never have been abandoned, Mr. Churchill in The World Crisis quotes Count Metternich, German Ambassador at Constantinople during the War, as saying later, " If you had only known what the state of the Turkish army (on the Peninsula) was, it would have gone hard with us."
It is always wise in war to endeavour to see the situation from the enemy's point of view, and it is always interesting to do so when the war is over; and it is as well, for this purpose, to consult the best authorities. It will generally be admitted that the eminent soldier commanding on the spot is a better authority on the point in question than the German Ambassador at Constantinople. Marshal Liman von Sanders has stated that he entirely agreed with the wisdom of the British decision to evacuate the Peninsula."
It had all along been apparent to General Monro that the evacuation of the Peninsula, whether voluntary or forced, and however inch delayed, would have to be undertaken eventually. Consequently the measures to be adopted for carrying out the embarkation had been occupying his mind ever since he had penned his first despatch. Without waiting, therefore, for the Government's final decision he directed General Birdwood in the latter end of November to set about the preparation of a detailed scheme for the withdrawal. The general idea on which the scheme was to be based is given in his despatch of March 6th, 1916, where he writes:
" I had in broad outline contemplated soon after my arrival on the Peninsula that an evacuation could be best conducted by subdivision into three stages.
" The first, during which all troops, animals and supplies not required for a long campaign should be withdrawn.
" The second, to comprise the evacuation of all men, guns animals and stores not required for defence during a period when the conditions of weather might retard the evacuation, or in fact seriously alter the programme contemplated.
" The third, or final stage, in which the troops on shore should be embarked with all possible speed, leaving behind such guns, animals and stores as were needed for military reasons at this period.
" This problem with which we were confronted was the withdrawal of an army of considerable size from positions in no case more than three hundred yards from the enemy's trenches and its embarkation on open beaches, every part of which was within range of Turkish guns, and from which, in winds from the south and south-west, the withdrawal of troops was not possible
"The attitude which we should adopt from a naval an< military point of view in case of a withdrawal from the Peninsula being ordered, had given me much anxious thought. According to text-book principles and lessons from history it seemed essential that this operation of evacuation should be immediately preceded by a combined naval and military feint in the neighbourhood o the Peninsula, with a view to distracting the attention of the Turks from our intention.
" When endeavouring to work out the concrete fact how such principles could be applied to the situation of our forces, I came i to the conclusion that our chances of success were infinitely more probable if we made no departure of any kind from the normal life which we were following both on sea and land. A feint 1 which did not fully fulfil its purpose would have been worse than useless, and there was obvious danger that the suspicion < i the Turks would be aroused by our adoption of a course, the real purport of which could not have been long disguised."
During the period in which the Government had been discussing the question of the withdrawal from Gallipoli the time facto had been daily growing in importance. The storm of November had given an indication of what might be expected in the winter Vice-Admiral Wemyss, writing of the evacuation from Suvla and Anzac, says:
" A southerly wind of even moderate force at any time during this period must have wrecked piers and have caused considerable loss among the small craft—such loss of craft would have made anything in the nature of rapid evacuation an impossibility, and would have enormously increased the difficulties“. This means that a moderate southerly wind would have eliminated the all-important element of surprise, and a gale I would have caused a disaster.
On Monday morning, December 20th, by 5.30 a.m., the embarkations at Suvla and Anzac were completed. Twelve hours later the weather broke ; a storm raged and the landing stages it Suvla and Anzac were washed away. The margin, which the 1 government had taken thirty-seven days in cutting, was indeed u narrow one.
It has been seen that the Government, when at last obliged to come to a definite decision on the question whether the Gallipoli Peninsula should be evacuated or not, was unable to refrain from looking both ways at once. Suvla and Anzac were to be given up; Helles was to be retained. But General Monro would not budge an inch from the position he had taken when writing the report in which he recommended the entire evacuation of the Peninsula, and not all the Government's piety, wit nor tears could induce him to cancel half a line of that report.
They turned to the General Staff, thinking that here perhaps they might get some support to their own desires. They got none. Sir W. Robertson endorsed General Monro's views absolutely: he blessed when it was hoped that he would curse. At last the Government yielded to Sir Charles' representations and warning regarding the daily increasing dangers of delay. On December 27th they gave their final consent to the withdrawal from Helles in a telegram which was received by General Monro on the 28th.
As in the case of Anzac and Suvla, the scheme for the withdrawal and re-embarkation had been prepared by the Dardanelles army in anticipation of Government's orders, and on December 24th Sir William Birdwood had been directed by the Commander-in-Chief to take the preliminary steps for an immediate evacuation which followed the same system as had been practised at Suvla and Anzac. " The situation," wrote Sir Charles in his despatch of March 6th, 1926, " had not materially changed owing to our withdrawal from Suvla and Anzac, except that there was a marked increased of activity in aerial reconnaissance over our positions, and the islands of Mudros and Imbros, and that hostile patrolling of our trenches was more frequent and daring. " The most apparent factor was that the number of heavy guns on the European and Asiatic shores had been considerably augmented, and that these guns were more liberally supplied with German ammunition, the result of which was that our beaches were continuously shelled, especially from the Asiatic shore."
As already shown, a feint did not, in Sir Charles Monro's opinion, offer any prospect of success. Time and the uncertainty of weather conditions in the Aegean were among the reasons which influenced him in coming to this conclusion. It was decided, therefore, with the concurrence of the Vice-Admiral, that the Navy was to do its utmost to counter-batter the Turkish batteries should these open serious fire during the withdrawal, while in the event of the Turkish guns remaining quiescent, the Navy was to refrain from aggressive action. The final stage of the operation was to be completed in one night and the troops withdrawn direct1 from the fire trenches to the beaches without occupying any intermediate position. The lives of the troops were not to be endangered by the devotion of too much time to the destruction of stores or of bringing stores away with them.
We see in this last instruction, Sir Charles' readiness to free the commanders concerned from criticism for any undue haste in withdrawing which they might have had to face had the withdrawal been less successful than it was.
On the night of January 8th-9th the operation was carried through without a hitch, according to plan. By dawn of January 9th the entire evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula was completed. It has been rightly described as a triumph of Staff work. Sir Charles Monro wrote in his despatch : "It demanded for its successful realization two important military essentials, viz, good luck and skilled disciplined organization, and they were both forthcoming to a marked degree at the hour needed. Our luck was in the ascendant by the marvellous spell of calm weather which prevailed. But we were able to turn to the fullest advantage these accidents of fortune.
" Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood and his corps commanders elaborated and prepared the orders in reference to the evacuation with a skill, competence and courage which could not have been surpassed, and we had a further stroke of good fortune in being associated with Vice-Admiral Sir John de Robeck, Vice-Admiral Wemyss and a body of naval officers whose worl remained throughout this anxious period at that standard of accuracy and professional ability which is beyond the power <>! criticism or cavil.
"The line of communication staff, both military and naval represented respectively by Lieutenant General E. A. Altham, Commodore S. M. Fitzmaurice, R.N., principal naval transport officer, and Captain H. V. Simpson, R.N., superintending transport officer, contributed to the success of the operation by their untiring zeal and conspicuous ability. " The members of the Headquarters staff showed themselves, without exception, to be officers with whom it was a privilege to associated ; their competence, zeal and devotion to duty were uniform and unbroken."
To this generous appreciation of others the Dardanelles Commision appended the remark, "In these words of well-deserved commendation of officers and men, the name of Sir Charles Monro should be included."
The highest commendation is due to every officer and man engaged ; none failed to give of their best. The Prime Minister announced the news of the evacuation to the Commons in the following words: "The House and Country will have learnt with extreme gratification of the successful retirement of the forces at Cape Helles without the loss of a single life. Eleven guns only were left behind—not a very large number—of which ten were worn-out fifteen-pounders, and before being abandoned all were rendered unfit for further service. Such of the stores and reserve ammunition which could not be removed were set on fire at the last moment and the whole retirement was conducted with an absolute minimum of loss.
" This operation, taken in conjunction with the earlier retirement from Suvla and Anzac, is, I believe, without parallel in military or naval history. That it should have been carried through with no appreciable loss, in view of the vast amount of personnel and material involved, is an achievement of which all concerned—commanding officers, officers and men in both services—may well be proud. It deserves, and I am sure will receive, the profound gratitude of the King and Country, and will I take an imperishable place in our national history.
" His Majesty will be advised that General Sir Charles Monro, Admirals de Robeck and Wemyss, Lieutenant Generals Birdwood and Davies and other generals who worked under them, shall receive special recognition."
The successful evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula will go own in history as a wonderful feat of arms, with which the names of General Sir Charles Monro, and Sir William Birdwood and Vice-Admiral Sir John de Robeck will be for ever associated. The news swept away one of the heaviest clouds of suspense that hung over the British people during the War. Lord Derby writing to General Monro on December 27th, 1915, says : " What a wonderful achievement of yours, getting all those men off Gallipoli. I don't think you can possibly imagine what a feeling of relief came over the whole country when we heard the news."
There were a few people outside the Government at the time, there are some even to-day, who held the opinion that, bringing fresh troops into the fight, we should have continued the offensive at the earliest possible moment, or maintaining our positions on the Peninsula throughout the winter we should have resumed the offensive in the following spring. This opinion is jejune ; it pays no regard to the hard facts of the case.
In November, 1915, the Turks had on the Peninsula or at close call 200,000 rifles. The effective strength of the British was 90,000 rifles. In order to have any prospect of success it would have been necessary to raise the British forces to at least 250,000 rifles. It would not have been practicable to land the additional 100,000 reinforcements before the stormy winter season set in, not to mention the proportionate number of guns and the large amount of supplies of food, clothing and munitions which they would require.
Again, without extensive preparations which would have needed several months to complete, these masses of men with their transport animals could not have been disposed on the restricted area which existed behind our trench line, the whole area being exposed to observed artillery fire. The water supply was also limited and partly sea-borne and a succession of stormy days would have created an alarming situation in this respect. But perhaps the most important consideration of all was the certainty of an immense increase in the weight of artillery fire to which every portion of the ground occupied by us would be subjected, now that direct communication between Germany and Turkey was open.
The shelling of the trenches was already increasing daily and the casualty rate rising proportionately. Everyone having the experience of the Western Front will realize that a concentration of observed fire of heavy and medium guns would have quickly converted the contracted area held by the British into a terrible scene of desolation and carnage.
Since the War we have learnt that the Germans were actually preparing to bring about this denouement, and had our withdrawal been delayed, the British arms would have suffered a disaster unparalleled in their history.
Sir Charles Monro had early appreciated the grave risks attendant on a decision to retain our positions on the Peninsula, and in addition to those which have been mentioned, he pointed to the difficulties of supply and maintenance owing to the inadequate piers and the danger of these being destroyed; to the probability of the beaches being isolated from outside sources lay stress of bad weather during the winter; to the great strain placed on the Navy; and to the fact that an increase in the enemy's gun power, if it did nothing worse, would enable the Turks to hold us in check with a small force, while they withdrew the bulk of their strength for operations elsewhere.
These were the facts and they cannot be ignored, although there may be a difference of opinion regarding the value to be given them. A commander, in whose hands the the lives of his men and the welfare of his country, weighs the facts in scales that are generally more reliable and well-balanced than those held by the usual onlooker.
Field Marshal Sir William Robertson in a letter to The Times says: "Credit for the successful evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula was due to all who took part in it as Sir Charles himself is the first to declare, but to him alone, almost, was due the credit for evacuation taking place when it did.
" Fearing the possible consequences of withdrawal and the confession of failure which it involved, certain members of the Cabinet—Mr. Bonar Law being a notable exception—tried to prevent it or, at any rate, to delay it, and had not Sir Charles stood firm and declined to water down his expressed opinion that evacuation was imperative it might have been deferred until too fate to be carried out at all, and at the best great hardships and additional loss of life would have been suffered by the troops for no useful purpose."
A proper share of the credit for the evacuation must be given to Field Marshal Sir William Robertson himself, for it was largely owing to his advice that the Cabinet nerved itself, at long last, to accept Sir Charles Monro's recommendations.
As a military operation it was one of the most remarkable achievements of the Great War. General Sir Ian Hamilton wrote in his despatch:
" On October 11th Your Lordship cabled asking me for an estimate of the losses which would be involved in an evacuation of the Peninsula. On October 12th I replied in terms showing that such a step was to me unthinkable."
He put the probable losses of a withdrawal at thirty thousand to forty thousand men, besides guns and stores and transport. He was supported in this estimate by others, both soldiers and civilians. The losses incurred were :
At Anzac: Four 18-pounder guns, two 5-inch howitzers, one 4.7-inch naval gun, one aircraft gun, three 3-pounder hotchkiss, fifty-six mules, some carts stripped of their wheels, some supplies burnt.
At Helles: Ten worn-out 15-pounder guns, one 16-inch gun, six French old heavy guns—all these were blown up ; 508 animals, most of which were destroyed, some vehicles and a quantity of supplies and stores burnt.
At Suvla: Every man, gun and animal was embarked and a small stock of supplies was burnt.
General Sir Ian Hamilton's opinion was that which many another skilled and instructed soldier might have given, and yet it was one which after events proved was entirely wrong. If war were all science and no art, it would have been a correct opinion.
But there is a point in the conduct of war where science ceases and art comes in, and then it is that the seemingly impossible is accomplished : when Gideon and his hundred men with the battle cry, " a sword for the Eternal and for Gideon," routed the Midianites, the Amalekites and the Bedouin, " who were lying along the valley in swarms like locusts, and their camels were past counting, as the sand on the seashore ; " when the little Revenge fought, single-handed, the Spanish fleet of fifty-three great galleons from the uprising of the sun until its going down and " the stars came out far over the summer sea " ; when Wolfe scaled the cliff and assembled his army in the face of an enemy on the Heights of Abraham ; when Napoleon ordered his Polish Lancers to charge in the Pass of Somosierra and they put a whole Spanish army in position to flight—these were accomplishments of the seemingly impossible.
Similar actions are recorded on many pages of the History of War and the measure of their greatness is shown in their " impossibility," as gauged by the rules and conceptions of ordinary men.
The British nation owed a debt of gratitude to Sir Charles Monro for his clear vision and military insight, for his decided and lucid reports, for his undaunted adherence to the opinions he expressed and for his part as supreme director of the evacuation. The debt was never fully repaid as will be seen later.
With the issue of his instructions and orders in connection with the evacuation of Helles, Sir Charles' task at Gallipoli was finished. He had received a telegram from the War Office on December 30th directing him to hand over the command of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force to General Sir Archibald) Murray! who had left London on December 28th. Consequently he broke up his Headquarters at Mudros and proceeded with a small staff on H.M.S. Cornwallis to Alexandria. Here he had the satisfaction of receiving the news of the successful withdrawal and re-embarkation at Helles, and of knowing, on the last day of his command, that his harassing mission had ended in triumphant success. Sir Charles Monro was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George for his Gallipoli services.
He left Egypt in order to assume command of the First Army in France.
On the voyage the P. and O. ship on which Sir Charles and his personal staff were travelling was pursued one morning for a considerable distance by a German submarine. All the passengers sat on deck wearing their lifebelts. When the luncheon gong sounded Sir Charles told Lord Herbert Scott that it was a very bad thing to be either submerged or captured on an empty stomach, and the two descended to the saloon and enjoyed some excellent chops, while the majority of the passengers preferred to remain above. The approach of some British destroyers during the afternoon caused the submarine to sheer off, and the remainder of the voyage was completed without further incidents.