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A Soldier’s Life

General Sir Ian Hamilton 1853 to 1947

Published by Macmillan in 2000, and Pan paperback in 2001
ISBN – 0333734440

When John Lee studied for his MA in War Studies at King’s College, London, he wrote a paper on the historiography of the Gallipoli campaign, and his extended essay (10,000 words) was on the military thought of General Sir Ian Hamilton. With the encouragement of his mentor, Professor Brian Bond, he embarked on a new study of Hamilton’s life and times. (The biography by Sir Ian’s nephew, “The Happy Warrior”, had been written in 1965). The huge collection of Hamilton papers are at the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, and he worked on them for nearly ten years. He had an essay on Hamilton and Gallipoli published in Brian Bond’s collection, “Fallen Stars”, about generals who failed in their big test. One day, at a literary event organised by his employer, Macmillan, at No.1 Hyde Park Gardens, he mentioned to an editor that this was the London home of Ian Hamilton and that he had nearly finished a book about him. The editor asked to see it, liked it, and the rest is history!

It got a stunningly good first review in the Sunday Times, and was then selected by Dr Alan Sked as a ‘Book of the Week’ for the Spectator. He called it ‘a model of military biography’, which duly appeared on the front cover of the paperback edition.

The book seeks to rescue Ian Hamilton from the savage criticism levelled at him, over the failure at Gallipoli, but also over some aspects of his Boer War service. He was a remarkably intelligent soldier, with very forward-thinking ideas. It looks at his military career in the round, confirming what the Great German General Staff said about him in 1914 – he was the single most experienced soldier alive in the world at that time. The Gallipoli campaign was doomed by the inadequate preparations made at the highest levels before it even began. An assault landing in the face of modern quick-firing weapons had never been attempted before by anyone. The promise of the Royal Navy to suppress the shore defences by naval gunfire was not fulfilled and the soldier’s paid the price.

There were two important pieces of information that were highlighted in the book but which failed to leave their mark on reviewers (!) Hamilton is often blamed for failing to seal a pass in the Magaliesburg Mountains in South Africa, thus letting the Boer commando leader, De Wet, escape a trap closing in on him. John Lee, by carefully reading the daily intelligence reports between Lord Roberts’ headquarters and Hamilton’s column, showed that Hamilton had been directed towards another pass at the very last moment. De Wet’s escape was not his fault but, out of intense loyalty to Roberts, Hamilton would never seek to pass the blame. Similarly, he would not have pointed the finger of blame if he had known the other ‘revelation’ at the time. Not until he read the drafts of the Official History after the war did Hamilton know that Lord Kitchener had ordered Sir John Maxwell, Commander-in-Chief in Egypt, to accede to any request Hamilton made for extra troops at Gallipoli. Those fresh troops, available before the Turks had really built up their strength, might have made all the difference to the campaign. Whether Maxwell chose not to reveal the order, or whether it was a simple ‘snafu’, we will never know.

This reference to Maxwell brings us to one mistake in the hardback book that was corrected in time for the paperback. During the Dardanelles Enquiry into the campaign’s failure, a cabal of disgruntled officers met to co-ordinate evidence against Hamilton. John thought the one named Maxwell was Sir John, of Egypt, but it turned out to be a junior press officer with an axe to grind.
On the subject of errors, Ludendorff appears in the book as a ‘von’, which he was not! The author insists that he did not write this and can only assume that a copy editor put it in because he/she thought he had left it out!!