Men of Unusual Character
If Kyngdon seems to have had some respect for R.O.C. Ward, it is hard to believe that he could have viewed Major Watson, the commander of No. 11 Company, with anything other than bafflement and suspicion.
A full ten years younger than both Kyngdon and Ward, William Henry Lowe Watson came from a resolutely non-military background as the son of a campaigning clergyman. He had begun his army career as a humble corporal, risen to command a battalion of bicyclists, and then transferred to the tanks despite his outlandishly unsuitable physique: in a unit that fought in appallingly cramped spaces, he was a gangling 6 feet 6½ inches tall. To make matters worse, he had chronicled his wartime exploits in a series of magazine articles and a book that were characterized by their dry and self-deprecatory wit, and in which he claimed to be a physical coward.1
With the distance of time, and seen through the prism of Watson’s own writings, it is hard not to warm to him, and to appreciate his human and humorous perspective on such a dark period in our history. But to a career soldier such as Kyngdon, he may well have symbolised the lengths to which the army had gone in its drive to make up the numbers.
When war broke out Watson was studying history at Balliol College, Oxford, where The Times noted that ‘he made a strong impression on his contemporaries as a man of unusual character and ability’. As president of a debating society, founder and editor of his own magazine, and a member of the college tennis team,2 he epitomised the gilded youth who frolicked in Oxford during that glorious heyday. But there was more to him than that, and he had inherited some of the free-thinking qualities of his father Patrick, the vicar of Battersea and then Earlsfield in south-west London, who was described as ‘a man of much independence of mind’.3 While his father’s religious convictions were distinctly High Church – he was once the subject of a court complaint after refusing to marry a pregnant woman4 – he also sympathised with the local radical MP John Burns, and supported a range of causes promoting the welfare of the poor.5
Rev. Watson was also an authority on the Holy Land, and when he baptised his son William in 1891, he did so using water he had brought back from the River Jordan.6 In 1898 he travelled to Egypt, but it was a journey from which he never returned, for he died suddenly at Helwan, south of Cairo,7 and his wife was left to bring up their four children alone. Fortunately Patrick and his wife both came from wealthy backgrounds, and at least in financial terms, the family was able to weather the tragedy. William Watson attended Harrow School, and then studied economics and German at Göttingen University in Germany, before going up to Oxford.8
Even there fate continued to stalk the family, and one day in April 1913 William’s older brother Patrick went out punting with their two sisters and two male undergraduate friends. Patrick, aged twenty-five, was already employed as a curate in Westminster and was due to take his Master of Arts degree the following day. As their punt neared a spot called Folly Bridge, it was swept between two moored steamers and the strong current caused it to slowly fill with water. In a desperate scramble for safety, one of the girls clung to the boats’ mooring chain and was dragged out by the two undergraduates, who also pulled her sister from the water. Patrick, who had also been seen clinging to a chain, was swept away and drowned. William told the inquest that his sister ‘thought her brother let go the chain when he saw she was being swept down stream in order to save her life.’9
The death cast a shadow over Watson’s sunlit student days, but just over a year later a much bigger storm brought them to an end for ever. Watson was caught up in the heady excitement as his college friends scrambled to enlist as soon as war was inevitable: ‘Physical coward or no physical coward – it obviously had to be done.’10 Having seen an appeal for motor-cyclists, he made his way to the Central London Recruiting Depot in Great Scotland Yard on the day after war was declared. ‘There I was taken up to a large room full of benches crammed with all sorts and conditions of men. The old fellow on my right was a sign-writer. On my left was a racing motor-cyclist. We waited for hours. Frightened-looking men were sworn in and one phenomenally grave small boy... Nobody said a word of his reason for enlisting except the sign-writer, whose wages had been low... Later I should have said that a really fine stamp of man was enlisting. Then they seemed to me a shabby crew.’11
The next day, having bought his own motor-cycle, he drove to the Royal Engineers’ depot at Chatham in Kent, where Frank Heap would also go to enlist a month later. ‘I had come only to make inquiries, but I was carried away. After a series of waits I was medically examined and passed. At 5.45 P.M. I kissed the Book, and in two minutes I became a corporal in the Royal Engineers. During the ceremony my chief sensation was one of thoroughgoing panic.’12
Bearing in mind his limited military experience – he had been in the Officers’ Training Corps at school and university – what happened next was extraordinary even by Watson’s standards. Unlike men such as R.O.C. Ward and Frank Heap, who enlisted a few weeks later and were sent to create the new battalions envisaged by Kitchener, Watson was immediately posted as a despatch rider to the 5th Division, which formed part of Britain’s existing regular army. Issued with a uniform, he took his motor-cycle to Ireland, where the division was based, and sailed across the Channel with them. On 19 August, less than two weeks after joining up as a student, he landed in Le Havre and was on his way to war.13
For the next six months, Watson was a small but crucial cog in the military machine that marched, fought and (at times) retreated across France and Belgium. At this stage the war was still mobile and unpredictable, and despatch-riders often provided the only link between the division’s scattered battalions, batteries and brigades. Despite the exhaustion and the ever-present risk of running into a patrol of German lancers, just a year later Watson looked back on this as a golden age: ‘We had been riding all day and often all night. But those were heroic days, and now as I write this in our comfortable slack winter quarters, I must confess – I would give anything to have them all over again. Now we motor-cyclists are middle-aged warriors. Adventures are work. Experiences are a routine. Then, let’s be sentimental, we were young.’14
Watson also gave the lie to his claim of cowardice by being awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal ‘for conspicuous gallantry and resource on numerous occasions in carrying messages under shell and rifle fire, especially on the Aisne and at Givenchy.’ He was clearly officer material, and in February 1915 Corporal Watson became Second Lieutenant Watson, and transferred from the Signal Company to the Cyclist Company of 5th Division.15 His move to the Army Cyclist Corps took him into one of the more curious units of the British army, created in the expectation that bicycles would be ideal for reconnaissance, and for transporting troops quickly and easily around the battlefield. They had proved their worth in the early months of the war, but the stagnation of the Western Front had put a spoke in their wheel and now the cyclists tended to be used as a reserve to be drawn on when additional manpower or labour were required. They were sometimes referred to mockingly as ‘gaspipe cavalry’, associating them with another arm of the service which, despite its loftier social status, was also struggling to demonstrate its military value.
From time to time the cyclists were sent to man the trenches, an experience that Watson (writing in the third person) did not relish: ‘The Gaspipe Officer... gave a few hurried orders, crawled into his dug-out, and determined to stop there until he was relieved. He disliked Fritz intensely.’16 But although rarely in the front-line, they were not out of danger, and in April 1915 Watson was hit in the leg by shrapnel when a shell dropped among his patrol during a German attack on the Ypres Salient.17
Although the wound was treated in France, he managed to convince a sceptical medical board to grant him home leave. On this occasion his height worked to his advantage, allied to the fact that he attended the board with an under-sized pair of crutches: ‘It was a long time before the Gaspipe’s turn came. Then, his length hunched between the pigmy crutches, he valiantly assailed the steps. Twice he failed, and the third time he succeeded. This curiously impressed the Board, and his frank assertion that he was perfectly well, so obviously belied by his infirmities, told in his favour.’18
The spell in England marked a turning-point, for in May 1915 an anonymous series of articles entitled ‘Adventures of a Despatch Rider’ began to appear in Blackwood’s, the foremost literary magazine of its day. It turned out that Watson’s letters home, in contrast to the disjointed scribblings of most of his comrades, provided a cogent narrative of the great events he had witnessed since August 1914. His mother had shared these with his old housemaster at Harrow, George Townsend Warner, and through his contacts Watson now became a published author.19
His military career was also forging ahead, and during this time he was promoted to captain and given command of the Cyclist Company of 16th (Irish) Division. As one might expect of Watson, there was nothing conventional about this unit, since it was raised in the southern Irish counties where hostility to British rule had been mounting before the war. John Redmond, leader of the largest nationalist movement, had urged his followers to enlist in the belief that supporting Britain in its hour of need would help to build momentum for Irish home rule, as well as providing the nucleus for a future Irish army. Watson was well aware that ‘in ruling these Irishmen he must be a cautious and understanding despot’,20 and his usual warmth and good humour seem to have stood him in good stead during the months of training in Ireland and England.
Ever industrious, Watson used this respite to rework his articles into a book, also called Adventures of a Despatch Rider, and before the end of the year a further series of articles began to appear in Blackwood’s, entitled ‘Tales of a Gaspipe Officer’. These chronicled his experiences with the Army Cyclist Corps, and in them Watson continued to poke fun at the military, and at the civilians they encountered, and above all at himself. Now that front-line soldiers spent most of their time below ground-level, his improbable height was a recurring source of humour, as when they marched through Dublin to cheers and catcalls from the local women: ‘Mercy on us! Look at that long gentleman! He’s as good as a corpse already.’21
Watson continued: ‘The recipient of this shaft, not being an Irishman, gave a sickly smile, as his men tittered and hurled back retorts into the welter. The women were fierce and tearful. One escaped the constable, and, rushing up to an officer, lifted an imploring face to his. “Bring him back safe, misther; bring him back safe! He’s the only one I have, and a good boy;” then, changing to a cheerful scream – “Kill the murtherers; kill them, and bring me back a helmet.”’22
Watson’s private life also benefited from his extended stay in Blighty, and in October 1915 he announced his engagement to Ruth Barbara Wake-Walker, the strikingly attractive daughter of a solicitor and granddaughter of a naval admiral.23 It would be nearly a year before they could marry, but the relationship would sustain him in the difficult months ahead, after he returned to the Western Front in December 1915 at the head of his company of Irish cyclists.
Meanwhile ‘Tales of a Gaspipe Officer’ continued to appear on a monthly basis in Blackwood’s, but not all of Watson’s readers appreciated his outpourings. His service file includes a message dated 26 April, 1916, from Colonel Wilkinson Bird, the army’s Director of Staff Duties, complaining that Watson’s book had not received official approval. ‘In present circumstances it has been decided that books of this nature purporting to give experiences of the present war cannot be published. The fact that they are published without permission causes much discontent amongst those who have applied for and been refused official sanction for publication.’ The Director of Personal Services, Major-General Sir Wyndham Childs, retorted: ‘This case has already been dealt with,’ and their correspondence degenerated into a squabble between various authorities (including MI7, a now-defunct section of Military Intelligence) about exactly who was responsible for censoring what.24
The upshot was that ‘Tales of a Gaspipe Officer’ came to an abrupt halt in March 1916, and although a further instalment appeared in January 1917, it was now more stilted and self-conscious, as if Watson was trying to prove the propaganda value of his work. The article ended optimistically ‘to be continued’, but it never was. From then on Watson’s colleagues may have suspected that he was writing about them, but they would have to wait until the war was over – assuming he survived – to find out what he had said.
If Watson’s literary career had run into a road-block, his military career continued to forge ahead, and in March 1916 he became a trainee staff officer, helping to plan operations at the headquarters of 16th Division. His personality and intellect seem well suited to this world, but a note in his service file says that he ‘preferred command to staff’, and instead he was put in charge of the Cyclist Battalion of XI Corps.25 While he seems to have genuinely relished the interaction with his men, he may also have realized that seeing the war at first-hand was likely to provide much better copy for his next book than shuffling papers in a château.
In any case Watson, now promoted to major, was about to make a final and fundamental change of course. He described the mixture of hope and disillusionment that prompted him to apply for service with the tanks in December 1916, when stationed near Béthune:26
To us in our damp and melancholy retreat came rumours of tanks. It was said that they were manned by ‘bantams’ [i.e. men below the standard military height]. The supply officer related that on the first occasion on which tanks went into action the ear-drums of the crews were split. Effective remedies had been provided. We learned from an officer, who had met the quartermaster of a battalion that had been on the Somme, the approximate shape and appearance of tanks. We pictured them and wondered what a cyclist battalion could do against them. Apparently the tanks had not been a great success on the Somme, but we imagined potentialities. They were coloured with the romance that had long ago departed from the war. An application was made for volunteers. We read it through with care.
I returned from leave. It was pouring with rain and there was nothing to do. The whole of my battalion was scattered in small parties over the Corps area. Most of my officers and men were under somebody else’s command. I sent in an application for transfer to the heavy branch of the Machine-Gun Corps, the title of the Tank Corps in those days. I was passed as suitable by the Chief Engineer of the Corps, and waited.
Watson was accepted and summoned to the headquarters at Bermicourt, arriving around the same time as R.O.C. Ward. Like him, he now began the process of preparing his company for war.
Watson was not one of those like Ward who thrust themselves into the cannon’s mouth, and until he joined D Battalion he had never taken part in an attack, let alone led one. When Lieutenant Gerald Edwards from No. 11 Company read one of his former commanding officer’s books he noted in the margin: ‘Major Watson was never in action with a tank’.27 This may sound slightly dismissive, but in fact company commanders normally went to war on foot: there was no room in their tanks for passengers, whatever their size, and in any case there would have been no way to communicate with the rest of the company. Besides, it could be just as hazardous outside a tank as inside, though the risks were of a rather different nature.
If anyone had doubts about Watson’s leadership qualities, they would not have been allayed by his first experience in command of No. 11 Company – which turned out to be what even he admitted was ‘a minor disaster’. In retrospect, the first battle of Bullecourt on 11 April, 1917, was no less successful than many other early tank actions, but it had an unfortunate corollary: the infantrymen of 2nd Australian Division, who also took part, blamed its failure directly on the tanks, and made their feelings known in a scathing report which summarized the co-operation with tanks as ‘useless, or worse than useless’.28
Among a catalogue of criticisms, the report by Captain Albert Jacka stated that ‘the tank crews seemed to know little or nothing of an attack by infantry or nothing whatever about the particular operation they were to participate in... Tank crews did not even know the direction of the enemy. This is verified by the fact that they opened fire on our troops, thereby causing us many casualties... The organisation seemed to be bad and no one appeared to be in direct command of the show. This was shown by the fact that tanks wandered aimlessly about in every direction, thereby drawing enemy fire on us and on all our trenches.’
He left his most damning allegation until last (the capitals are his): ‘The whole outfit showed rank inefficiency and in some cases, TANK crews seemed to lack BRITISH TENACITY and PLUCK, and that determination to go forward at all costs, which is naturally looked for in Britishers.’29
It could be pointed out that almost everyone in the army lacked pluck in comparison to Jacka, sometimes described as Australia’s finest fighting soldier,30 who already held the Victoria Cross and would also win the Military Cross twice before the war was over. The charge was also hard to square with No. 11 Company’s losses, since every one of their eleven tanks suffered at least one direct hit, and of the 103 men who went into action, fifty were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
Jacka’s report was apparently either suppressed or toned down, but the damage had been done, and all Watson could do was seek to refute the claims: ‘The Australians, in the bitterness of their losses, looked for scapegoats and found them in my tanks, but my tanks were not to blame.’31 He could point to messages of support from Brigadier-General Hugh Elles, commander-in-chief of the HBMGC (and later the Tank Corps),32 and from Lieutenant-General Hubert Gough, whose Fifth Army was responsible for the attack and who praised the ‘gallant efforts’ of Major Watson and his men, adding that he was ‘convinced that the tank crews did everything that was possible to ensure success, and that the failure was due to no fault of theirs.’33
The row flared up again in the 1930s when Charles Bean, the Australian army’s official historian, continued to question Watson’s version of events, while going out of his way to praise him as a ‘very gallant officer’ and ‘most fair-minded writer’.34 Whatever the rights and wrongs, there is no doubt that the affair created a mistrust of tanks in the minds of the Australian military, and that however unjustified, the outcry could have done nothing to convince Lieutenant-Colonel Kyngdon – who, incidentally, had spent his formative years in Australia – about Watson’s qualities as a commander.
It is clear that Watson was a warm and empathetic man, and his books overflow with judicious praise for individual officers, and occasionally men. Where he feels it necessary to criticise he normally provides a veil of anonymity, though this is usually easy to penetrate. The fact that he says virtually nothing about Kyngdon, his commanding officer from May 1917, suggests that the bond between them was weak at best, and was likely to be severely tested under battle conditions.
Watson’s second-in-command at Bullecourt, Captain Richard Haigh, transferred to HBMGC headquarters following the battle35 and was later sent, in Watson’s words, ‘to instruct the Americans’.36 He became something of a media celebrity as commander of a tank called Britannia which toured American cities from October 1917 onwards to boost support for the war effort, with Lance-Corporal Ernest Jagger among his crew. This meant that Haigh beat his former commanding officer to the bookstalls with a memoir called Life in a Tank, which was published in the USA in June 1918 and included an account of the tank actions at Bullecourt – though unsurprisingly, there was no mention of the debacle involving the Australians.37
Watson’s position could not have been helped by the fact that his new second-in-command was another man of unusual character, but one with whom Kyngdon probably had more in common than anyone else in the battalion. Major Richard Cooper was one of the few officers to have been in the pre-war regular army, and he had a striking family connection with Africa – both factors that may have endeared him to his battalion commander.
Major Cooper also seems to have possessed a slightly dangerous glamour, and the kind of bluff bonhomie that is often a by-product of substantial wealth. This was largely thanks to his father Frank, who came from a family of landowners in the East Midlands, but decided early on that the Wild West offered more potential for both business and adventure. Heading straight from Eton to the Rockies, he began a series of hunting trips, the scale of which can be gauged from the fact that ‘in 1881 he secured the “record” bear, roughly estimated as weighing over a thousand pounds, the largest of the forty-three that fell to the rifles (four) of the party during this most successful expedition.’38
Success of a different kind came after he acquired a ranch at Laramie in Wyoming and became a prominent ‘cattle baron’, with extensive interests in the refrigeration and transport of beef.39 As business boomed, Frank turned his attention, and an array of guns, towards the plentiful big game of Africa, and in 1887 accompanied the celebrated hunter Frederick Courteney Selous on an expedition to what is now Zimbabwe. This was notable for the fact that the local king Lobengula provided an escort of 150 men, ostensibly to act as guides but in fact to stop the visitors prospecting for gold, and on learning that this had taken place, had the escorts summarily beaten and stabbed to death. A newspaper reported that ‘the English hunters were simply cautioned and conducted back, having seen the whole of their unfortunate friends slaughtered before their eyes. They were, of course, powerless to prevent the butchery, and were very lucky to escape with their lives.’40 Despite this, another account of the trip records simply that ‘all concerned had wonderful sport’ and killed a total of 12 lions.41
Richard grew up at his father’s country seat, Culland Hall in Derbyshire, surrounded by these travellers’ tales, and by an array of sporting trophies which was ‘justly considered the finest private collection in England’42 and included a carpet made of twenty-four bearskins.43 It was hardly surprising that he should inherit his father’s love of big game hunting, or that he should decide to pursue a career in the army. This took him from Wellington College, a school founded for the sons of officers, to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in 1911, and from there to a commission in 1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers,44 one of the more prestigious infantry regiments.
From potting wildlife it was a short step to potting Germans, and when war broke out his battalion went to France in September 1914 as part of the original British Expeditionary Force. Lieutenant Cooper was soon in the thick of the fighting, at a time when Corporal Watson was still buzzing around the roads on his motor-bike. But unlike the huntsman’s normal prey, the Germans had an unfortunate propensity to shoot back – a fact that was brought home to Selous when he rejoined the army in his sixties and was shot in the head by a sniper in 1917, during the fighting in what is now Tanzania. In Cooper’s case the result was less catastrophic, as he was shot in the calf in October 1914 during an attack near Armentières45 and later returned to his battalion, before transferring to the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps in October 1916.46
Watson refers frequently to Cooper in his writings but mostly without comment, either positive or negative, which is a worrying sign in one normally so ready to give praise. Some may have suspected that Cooper was there to beef up the command of No. 11 Company, and that his appointment reflected some official unease about Watson’s leadership qualities. It could not have escaped anyone’s attention that both men held the same rank of major, or that Cooper, with his impeccable military credentials, was a likely successor to Watson, if and when the company commander succumbed to sniping from the Germans, or more probably to metaphorical sniping from his own superiors.
In the meantime Cooper remained in Watson’s shadow, but no-one could be certain what would happen when their relationship faced its ultimate test in battle.
1. Watson, Major W. H. L., Adventures of a Despatch Rider, Edinburgh & London, 1915, p. 3.
2. The Times, 12 December 1932.
3. Evening Telegraph, 16 December 1898, quoting The Record.
4. Western Mail, 17 March 1894.
5. Newcastle Journal, 20 December 1898.
6. Parish register of Christ Church, Battersea.
7. Consular death index; National Probate Calendar.
8. The Times, 12 December 1932.
9. Ibid., 26 April 1913.
10. Watson, Adventures of a Despatch Rider, p. 4.
11. Ibid., pp. 4-5. The order of sentences has been slightly changed.
12. Ibid., p. 5.
13. Date from medal index card.
14. Watson, Adventures of a Despatch Rider, p. 103.
15. Service record in National Archives (NA) (WO 339/23425).
16. ‘Tales of a Gaspipe Officer’ by ‘Despatch Rider’ (W. H. L. Watson), Blackwood’s Magazine (December 1915), p. 803.
17. Service record in NA (WO 339/23425).
18. ‘Tales of a Gaspipe Officer’ by ‘Despatch Rider’ (W. H. L. Watson), Blackwood’s Magazine (February 1916), p. 253.
19. Watson, Adventures of a Despatch Rider, foreword. George was the father of the novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner.
20. ‘Tales of a Gaspipe Officer’ by ‘Despatch Rider’ (W. H. L. Watson), Blackwood’s Magazine (March 1916), p. 362.
21. Ibid., p. 364.
23. The Times, 12 October 1915.
24. Service record in NA (WO 339/23425).
26. Watson, Major W. H. L., A Company of Tanks, Edinburgh & London, 1920, pp. 11-12.
27. Handwritten note by Lieutenant Gerald Edwards in Watson, A Company of Tanks, p. 145.
28. Official Report on Co-operation of “Tanks” Fight of 10/11th April 1917, by Captain A. Jacka, in Australian War Memorial (AWM38-3DRL606-247-1).
30. See biography by Ian Grant entitled Jacka, V.C.: Australia’s Finest Fighting Soldier, South Melbourne, 1989.
31. Watson, A Company of Tanks, p. 69.
32. Ibid., pp. 71-2.
33. Letter dated April 1917 from Major-General N. Malcolm to D Bn’s commanding officer, in War Diary of 1st Brigade Tank Corps HQ in NA (WO 95/97).
34. Royal Tank Corps Journal (December 1933), originally published in Reveille.
35. War Diary of 4th Bn Tank Corps in NA (WO 95/110) – entry for 5 August 1917.
36. Watson, A Company of Tanks, pp. 20-1.
37. Haigh, Richard, M.C., Life in a Tank, Boston & New York, 1918.
38. Randall, J. L., The Meynell Hounds and Country 1780 to 1901, London, 1901, pp. 183-4.
39. US National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form for Cooper House, Laramie.
40. Derbyshire Times & Chesterfield Herald, 31 December 1887. For a fuller account see Taylor, Stephen, The Mighty Nimrod, London, 1989, pp. 123-8.
41. Millais, J. G., Life of Frederick Courtenay [sic] Selous, D.S.O., London, 1918, p. 157.
42. Randall, The Meynell Hounds and Country 1780 to 1901, p. 183.
43. Derby Daily Telegraph, 5 March 1928.
44. Service record (held by Ministry of Defence).
45. War Diary of 1st Bn Royal Fusiliers in NA (WO 95/1613/2).
46. Service record (held by Ministry of Defence).