Following on from this month’s Remembrance Sunday, marking the beginning of the final year of World War 1’s centenary, historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore argues in his newly published Somme paperback that the criticism of Major General Montagu Stuart Wortley, the owner of Highcliffe Castle in 1916, has been overdone, and his reputation trashed unfairly.

WHEN you are looking for a scapegoat, whether in politics or on the battlefield, the man who has been given all the advantages in life denied to his men, including a triple barrelled surname and a top class education at Eton, not to mention a huge castle, presents an easy target.

Such a man was the Honourable Edward Montagu-Stuart-Wortley who in 1916 owned Highcliffe Castle, near Christchurch . He was the Major General whose forces were routed opposite the village of Gommecourt at the northern end of the British line during the great attack that started the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916.

After that performance, his corps commander Lieutenant General Thomas Snow, accused him of being responsible for his 46th Division’s "lack of offensive spirit". In a critical letter sent the day after the attack to General Allenby, commander of the 3rd Army, Snow recommended that the 58 year old Stuart-Wortley, whose legs were weakened by sciatica, should be replaced by "a younger man". According to Snow, Stuart-Wortley was "not of an age, neither has he the constitution, to allow him to be as much amongst his men in the front lines as is necessary to imbue all ranks with confidence and spirit."

This stinging criticism, which effectively accused his men of cowardice, prompted Stuart-Wortley to protest that Snow had jumped to the wrong conclusion. Snow had given his judgment before he had even seen Stuart-Wortley’s report. After he saw it, Snow quickly wrote to "congratulate the troops of the 46th Divison for the manner in which they fought. Many gallant acts both by units and individuals are to hand." But in a subsequent letter to Stuart-Wortley’s superiors, Snow refused to resile from the allegation that Stuart-Wortley was not fit enough to command a division in France.

The Commander-in-Chief General Sir Douglas Haig apparently agreed. Without waiting for the enquiry set up by Snow, he sent 46 Division’s commander home from France, with the following parting shot addressed to the War Office: "I am not prepared to accept him as a divisional commander in this country."

It is not surprising that Stuart-Wortley was puzzled by Snow’s contradictory statements. He also feared that Haig had leapt at the chance to dismiss him not because of what he had done on the battlefield, but for talking out of turn to the King. The previous year Haig, who at the time was commander of the 1st Army, had given Stuart-Wortley to understand via an intermediary that he was not happy that a subordinate should write to the King without his permission. Stuart-Wortley’s statement that he had previously been given permission by the Commander-in-Chief was, it seemed, no defence.

Was Stuart-Wortley unfit to command in France when he was sent home? He certainly believed he had been wronged, and for years after the war, he wrote to officials at the War Office begging them to remove the stain on his reputation.

It was a question which was indirectly addressed by Snow’s post-mortem enquiry into whether 46 Division’s 137 Brigade had failed to "close with the enemy". The evidence collected refuted the suggestion that the troops had remained in their trenches during the first attack. They had clearly advanced at 7.30am, zero hour, on July 1, 1916. Lieutenant Cyril Ashford, 137 Brigade’s intelligence officer, wrote: "I examined the scene from the branches of a tall tree on the outskirts of Fonquevillers (behind the British front line), and could see the dead and wounded like a high water mark close to the German wire."

But had they refused to budge when told to attack again? Far from revealing that the men had disobeyed the order to make a second attack after the first had been repulsed, the enquiry concluded that the failure to advance was down to an incomplete command by the brigade-major.

Major Richard Abadie had been warned that the brigade on 137 Brigade’s left might not be able to advance because no smoke bombs had been made available to hide them from the German guns. But he omitted to mention this to the units in 137 Brigade. Consequently when the very young leaders of these units observed that at zero hour, the brigade to their left had remained in their trenches, they presumed that they should follow suit. There was no demoralisation of the men due to Stuart-Worthy’s immobility but merely a misunderstanding due to an ambiguous command.

However Stuart-Wortley was not totally blameless. The enquiry established that there was "no excuse for the uncut state of the wire not being known" on the right of the attack, the checking having been "badly arranged by the Division". That explained why troops on the extreme right of the attack had failed to make it through the wire shielding the German trenches during their first attempt to advance.

The enquiry also ruled that the Division had not prevented the "disorganisation of the rear waves" of the attack, which meant that reinforcements for those assault troops who did briefly make it into the German lines were held up by the men carrying supplies.

Having said that, Snow, when forwarding the enquiry minutes to General Allenby, admitted that the "outstanding" reason for the disaster was not Stuart-Wortley’s errors, but rather the "great distance between our trenches and those of the enemy." His letter continued: "Had the distance been 150 yards instead of 350, the result would probably have been different. We should have been able to keep our troops, after they had reached the enemy’s trenches, supplied with grenades and reinforcements."

A month later Snow, having survived in post himself, revealed that another crucial problem had been the failure to make enough guns available for counter-battery work, a factor which was as much Haig’s, Allenby’s and Snow’s fault as Stuart-Wortley’s.

He might have added that ironically Stuart-Wortley’s "errors" may well have saved lives. Because of the delays in the British rear trenches, fewer of Stuart-Wortley’s division’s men were exposed to the murderous gunfire in No Man’s Land than would otherwise have been the case. The 46th Division's casualties were much lower than those sustained by the 56th Division on its right which had, for a few hours, held the German trenches it had seized. The 46th Division ended up with approaching 3,000 casualties, as against almost 5,000 in the 56th Division. Yet the result achieved by both divisions was identical: they both ended the day back in their own trenches.

  • The paperback edition of Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Somme: Into the Breach published by Penguin is out now price £9.99, as is the updated 75th Anniversary paperback edition of his Enigma: the Battle for the Code with new material added, published by Orion’s Weidenfeld & Nicolson price £10.99.