Gibraltar Governor Horace Dorrien (Sir Horace Lockwood Smith Dorrien), (1858-1930), army officer, was born on 26 May 1858 at the family home of Haresfoot in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, the sixth and last son, and eleventh of fifteen children, of Colonel (retired) Robert Algernon Smith-Dorrien and his wife, Mary Anne, daughter of Thomas Driver MD. He was educated at Egypt House preparatory school, Isle of Wight, from 1865, then at Harrow School until 1875, where the Hon. John Fortescue became a lifelong friend.
Early career, 1871-1898
Smith-Dorrien’s family was well connected in society, and he readily agreed to his father’s suggestion of an army career. On 26 February 1876 he was commissioned second lieutenant in the 95th (Derbyshire) foot and attended the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, where he did well enough to earn a year’s seniority, joining his regiment in Cork on 4 January 1877 as a lieutenant, and becoming adjutant a year later. His main character traits were already well established: the mischief and aggression understandable in a boy from such a large family became both courage and extravagance in the officer, and a violent and ugly temper (which his son ascribed to persistent teeth trouble) in the general. He could work hard when necessary, but throughout his life shooting, hunting, sports, and socializing were his chief interests. His diary, kept regularly from 1895 until his death, was principally a list of social engagements, supplemented by more serious meetings as his career developed, which later enabled him to be precise about events.
Smith-Dorrien’s first active service came as a supernumerary transport officer in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, where he displayed unexpected organizational skills and attracted the attention of Evelyn Wood of the ‘Wolseley ring’. Inclined throughout his career to use staff or supernumerary positions to get near the fighting, Smith-Dorrien was one of only five officers (together with fifty other Europeans and 300 Africans) to survive the catastrophic defeat by the Zulu at Isandlwana. By his own account, he helped distribute ammunition until the rout became general, and then escaped first a short distance on horse and then on foot, helping others and fighting off parties of Zulu as he went. An accomplished cross-country runner, he also noticed that like all the officers who survived Isandlwana he had worn a blue patrol jacket rather than the red coat which identified British soldiers to the Zulu. After a spell of illness he served on until the end of the campaign, being present at the battle of Ulundi on 4 July, and receiving his first mention in dispatches. He returned to regimental duty in Britain and Gibraltar, during which his regiment was renamed 2nd battalion, the Sherwood Foresters (Derbyshire regiment). In August 1882 he was promoted captain, just as his battalion arrived in Egypt as part of the reserve under Wood for the campaign against Colonel Ahmad Arabi Pasha. Wood employed Smith-Dorrien to organize patrols of mounted infantry against Arab raids near Alexandria.
Smith-Dorrien accompanied his battalion to India in February 1883, but two months later was invalided to Britain with a recurring ailment described as a knee injury sustained when hunting (he also suffered from intermittent headaches and fevers). He was in Egypt in January 1884 on his way back to India when Wood, now sirdar of the Egyptian army, offered him an appointment. His service in Egypt brought him into contact with many later famous figures, notably Kitchener, but his knee trouble prevented him from taking part in the Gordon relief expedition. He saw active service as adjutant of the mounted infantry battalion of the Suakin field force during its brief existence (March-July 1885), and as a staff officer with the Egyptian cavalry of the Sudan frontier field force at the battle of Giniss (30 December 1885), for which he won the DSO and the Mejidiye and Osmanieh medals (both fourth class).
Spending 1886 alternating between Britain and Egypt, where he raised and commanded the 13th Sudanese battalion, Smith-Dorrien passed for the Staff College, Camberley, arriving in February 1887. He was a poor student (one story claims that after three months he had not located the library) but an enthusiastic sportsman, becoming master of the draghounds. He managed to pass the final examinations and obtained his certificate. He rejoined his battalion in India in January 1889 for almost a decade of the pleasures typical of a rich British officer in India. Regimental and staff posts alternated with long leaves, and Smith-Dorrien became involved particularly in polo and horse-racing, for which he kept a stud numbering thirty-two horses at one time, his favourite jockey being his close friend Hubert Gough. Promoted major in 1892, his only active service was with his battalion during the Tirah expedition between October 1897 and January 1898, for which he was made brevet lieutenant-colonel.
The Sudan and South Africa, 1898-1901
Smith-Dorrien’s career revived in 1898 when he offered himself to Kitchener (then sirdar) for the Sudan campaign, being given the 13th Sudanese battalion once more and commanding it at the battle of Omdurman (2 September), after which Kitchener placed him in charge of his escort for the ‘Fashoda incident’. He received a brevet colonelcy, and after a year in Malta commanding 1st battalion, the Sherwood Foresters, he took them to South Africa in December 1899 for the South African War. In February 1900 he assumed command of the 19th infantry brigade, part of the main force under Lord Roberts (with Kitchener as his chief staff officer) which included the cavalry division under John French. Smith-Dorrien’s brigade saw action at Paardeberg Drift on 18-27 February, and then formed part of Ian Hamilton’s column for the advance to Pretoria, taking part in the battle of Zand River on 10 May. He then commanded his own divisional-sized column in the guerrilla phase of the war under Kitchener. Already, recriminations about the war between Roberts, Kitchener, and Hamilton on one side, and French supported by his chief staff officer, Douglas Haig, on the other, marked the start of an antagonism which would affect the rest of Smith-Dorrien’s career. Smith-Dorrien subsequently lent copies of his diary to Roberts, and to other favoured contacts such as Conan Doyle.
India and England, 1901-1914
In April 1901 Lord Roberts, as commander-in-chief, promoted Smith-Dorrien to adjutant-general of the Indian army with the rank of major-general. This involved him directly in the confrontation between the viceroy and the acting commander-in-chief, General Sir Arthur Power Palmer-a situation which grew worse with Kitchener’s arrival to replace Palmer in November 1902, and the subsequent ‘Kitchener-Curzon’ affair. Smith-Dorrien was temperamentally unsuited to such positions (one of his strongest words of disgust was ‘courtier’), and he requested a transfer, being given 4th (Quetta) division in April 1903. As a divisional commander he was said to know the names not only of all his officers but of their polo ponies as well.
Smith-Dorrien was married on 3 September 1902 at St Peter’s, Eaton Square, London, to Olive Crofton, daughter of Colonel (retired) John Schneider of Oak Lee, Furness Abbey. In keeping with the family connections, his wife was god-daughter to Sir Donald Stewart, and her mother was stepsister to General Palmer. Their first son, Grenville, was born in 1904, followed by Peter in 1907 and David in 1911. The couple also effectively adopted the two daughters of General Palmer who were left homeless after his death in 1912.
On promotion to lieutenant-general (with a knighthood) in December 1907, Smith-Dorrien left Quetta to take over Aldershot command in succession to Sir John French, who became inspector-general of the forces. This was Smith-Dorrien’s first service in Britain since the Staff College. He arrived, heavily associated with Roberts and Kitchener, in the middle of the complex debate on army reform still coloured by different views of the war in South Africa. In particular, he supported Roberts in favouring compulsory military training, and sided against French on the future role of cavalry. Even so, no satisfactory explanation has ever been offered for French’s mercurial attitude towards Smith-Dorrien, which from this period alternated between the highest praise and the lowest condemnation, French seeming unable to decide whether Smith-Dorrien was an enemy, a subordinate, or a rival. Some historians have identified Henry Wilson, who held various staff positions under French from 1907, as the malevolent influence between the two men. These controversies have obscured both some real achievements and reforms undertaken by Smith-Dorrien at Aldershot, and also the continuity of training between French, Smith-Dorrien, and Haig as his successor which produced the very high standards of the British expeditionary force (BEF), and made its rapid mobilization in 1914 possible. In February 1912 Smith-Dorrien was given the lesser appointment of southern command, being promoted to full general in August.
The First World War and after
On the outbreak of the First World War an almost accidental sequence of events placed Smith-Dorrien in a critical position. The BEF under French consisted of 1st corps under Haig and 2nd corps under General Sir James Grierson. On 17 August Grierson died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and Kitchener, newly appointed secretary of state for war, decided to replace him with Smith-Dorrien, despite knowing that French preferred another officer and of his intermittent feud with Smith-Dorrien, who in turn stepped voluntarily into the confrontation, maintaining a private correspondence with both Kitchener and George V throughout his period of command. Smith-Dorrien took over 2nd corps on 20 August, and three days later the BEF was heavily engaged in the battle of Mons, followed by a retreat closely pursued by considerably superior German forces.
In the early hours of 26 August Smith-Dorrien was advised by Allenby, commanding the cavalry division, that for once his cavalry were too dispersed to cover the 2nd corps retreat. Fearing that the Germans would overwhelm his troops on the road, Smith-Dorrien accepted that his only choice was to stand and fight, delivering a ‘stopping blow’ to the enemy. Strictly, this was against French’s orders to continue the retreat, but it was a situation well understood in military regulations. Smith-Dorrien’s decision was supported by others on the spot who agreed to serve under him, including Allenby, and permission to fight was received from French shortly before dawn. However, French, whose conduct of the campaign was becoming increasingly erratic, let 1st corps continue its retreat rather than moving to support 2nd corps.
The resulting battle of Le Cateau was a demonstration of one of the most difficult of all military manoeuvres, a delaying operation and retreat from contact. Smith-Dorrien’s troops, with both their flanks in the air, fought a German attack of about twice their own strength to a standstill, and then marched away in broad daylight. Casualties for the battle were heavy at 7812 men (German casualties are not known), but it enabled 2nd corps to break contact, and the Germans did not locate the BEF again until 1 September. The destruction of half the BEF had Smith-Dorrien mishandled 2nd corps at Le Cateau would have had incalculable results, and his military reputation has come to rest heavily on this small but important battle.
Smith-Dorrien commanded 2nd corps through the battles of the Marne (5-10 September), the Aisne (12 September to 2 October), and the first battle of Ypres (19 October to 17 November). On 26 December his expanded command was renamed Second Army. However, his relations with French continued to deteriorate, with matters coming to a head during the second battle of Ypres (22 April to 25 May 1915). After advising a limited withdrawal on 27 April, Smith-Dorrien was ordered by French to surrender command of his troops to Lieutenant-General Sir Herbert Plumer commanding 5th corps (French’s original choice to succeed Grierson). On 6 May, bowing to the inevitable, Smith-Dorrien requested to be relieved of command.
A famous anecdote has Smith-Dorrien being advised of his impending dismissal some days before this by William Robertson, chief of staff of the BEF at the time, with the words ”Orace, you’re for ‘ome’. Although Robertson (who liked to drop his aspirates for effect) did visit Smith-Dorrien on 29 April, the story may be apocryphal, and at least one other version: ‘Well, ‘Orace, I’m afraid you’ll ‘ave to ‘op it’, was in circulation (see Lloyd George, a Diary by Frances Stevenson, ed. A. J. P. Taylor, 1971, 114).
On Smith-Dorrien’s return to Britain, Kitchener attempted to make him inspector-general of training. But this was blocked by the prime minister, Asquith, ironically because the post was being held in reserve for French as a method of dismissing him from command of the BEF, which finally took place in December. One month before this, Smith-Dorrien was offered command of the campaign in German East Africa. He left Britain in December, but was almost immediately struck down by severe pneumonia which led to his being invalided back from Cape Town, effectively ending his military career. In January 1917 he was made lieutenant of the Tower of London, and in September 1918 he was appointed governor of Gibraltar, serving for five years until his retirement from active service in November 1923.
French’s dismissal of Smith-Dorrien was a by-product of his struggle with Kitchener, and in a sense unremarkable, resembling many other cases which have established the British military convention whereby a sufficiently senior officer might remove a subordinate on grounds of mutual dislike or lost confidence, virtually regardless of the facts. What was unusual was French’s own subsequent behaviour in making the dismissal both a controversy and a scandal. In April 1919 the Daily Telegraph began to serialize extracts from French’s memoirs of the 1914 campaign. Published two months later as the book 1914, this contained an account of Le Cateau and Smith-Dorrien’s conduct so inaccurate as to verge on the defamatory, as well as contradicting the version in French’s own official dispatches. Although now Viscount Ypres and lord lieutenant of Ireland, French was, like Smith-Dorrien, still on the active list, and the publication itself was of doubtful legality. Smith-Dorrien requested either a royal commission or the public right of reply, both of which were refused by Wilson, now chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS). But Smith-Dorrien was granted permission to record his views for posterity.
By 1919 French had few friends or supporters left, and sufficient records existed to discredit his version of events. Fortescue, now royal librarian, helped Smith-Dorrien to spread his own account, and to lodge with the British Museum in 1923 one of twenty-eight copies of his privately printed rebuttal of French, the remainder of which were discreetly circulated from December 1919 onwards to more than sixty selected members of the army, the court, and society. Smith-Dorrien’s final triumph came when the first volume of the official history of the First World War, France and Belgium, 1914, appeared in 1922, citing official documents supporting his position. Although largely forced upon him, Smith-Dorrien’s dignified public silence won him much sympathy and credence for his own memoirs, Memories of Forty-Eight Years’ Service, which appeared in 1925 after French’s death (Smith-Dorrien was one of the pallbearers at his funeral).
His supporters have seen Smith-Dorrien as a thwarted military genius. He was a fairly typical general of his era, and the events of 1914 show him to have been a good field commander, but he lacked the political sophistication to go higher. In addition to his DSO (and an unsuccessful VC recommendation after Isandlwana), Smith-Dorrien was appointed KCB in 1907, and was awarded the GCB in 1913, and the GCMG in 1915. But thereafter his involvement in the Kitchener-French feud made any further award or promotion politically impossible, and deprived him of many of the perquisites granted to his fellows.
After retirement in 1923 he settled with his family briefly in France, first in Biarritz, which proved too expensive, and then in Dinard, buying a house called Les Bocages. Photographs and paintings of Smith-Dorrien show a lantern-jawed individual with a sharp moustache and eyes that give more than a hint of his notorious temper. He was of medium height and build, but prided himself on his physical fitness (despite his illnesses), and on the smartness of his appearance. There are few photographs of Smith-Dorrien during the First World War, and little or no film, but most unusually he chose to play himself in a brief appearance in the 1924 feature film Mons (British Instructional Films), which relied heavily on historical authenticity.
On 11 August 1930 Smith-Dorrien was fatally injured in a car crash on the Bath Road while visiting friends near Chippenham, Wiltshire, and died in Chippenham Cottage Hospital next day without recovering consciousness. His funeral took place at St Peter’s, Eaton Square, on 16 August, and he was buried at Berkhamsted. His wife and three sons survived him.
Sources H. Smith-Dorrien, Memories of forty-eight years’ service (1925) + I. F. W. Beckett, ed., The judgement of history: Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, Lord French and 1914 (1993) + A. J. Smithers, The man who disobeyed (1970) + C. Ballard, Smith-Dorrien (1931) + R. R. Stein, ‘Forging a rapier among scythes: Lieutenant-General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and the Aldershot command, 1907-1912’, MA diss., Rice University, Houston, Texas, 1980 + S. D. Badsey, ‘Fire and the sword: the British army and the Arme Blanche controversy, 1871-1921’, PhD diss., U. Cam., 1982 + J. E. Edmonds, ed., Military operations, France and Belgium, 1914, 1, History of the Great War (1922) + D. R. Morris, The washing of the spears, new edn (1973) + Viscount French of Ypres [J. D. P. French], 1914 (1919) + B. Bond, The Victorian army and the Staff College, 1854-1914 (1972) + The Times (13 Aug 1930) + WWW + R. Holmes, The little field-marshal: Sir John French (1981) + J. Fortescue, Following the drum (1931)
Archives BL, papers relating to First World War, Add. MSS 52767-52777 + IWM, corresp. with official historian relating to battle of Le Cateau, 1914; diary and papers + NRA, eyewitness account of battle of Isandlwana + TNA: PRO | IWM, French MSS + King’s Lond., Liddell Hart C., letters to Sir J. E. Edmonds + NL Scot., Haig MSS + NRA, priv. coll., letters to Sir John Ewart + TNA: PRO, Kitchener MSS + Wilts. & Swindon HC, corresp. with Viscount Long FILM BFINA, performance footage [playing himself in an instructional film, Mons, 1924]
Likenesses F. Dodd, charcoal and watercolour, 1918, IWM · F. A. Swaine, photograph, c.1918, NPG [see illus.] · O. Birley, oils, 1935, Harrow School, Middlesex · Bassano, photograph, The Convent, Gibraltar · J. Russell & Sons, photograph, NPG · Spy [L. Ward], caricature, chromolithograph, NPG; repro. in VF (5 Dec 1901) · photographs, repro. in Smith-Dorrien, Memories · photographs, repro. in Smithers, The man who disobeyed · photographs, repro. in Ballard, Smith-Dorrien
Wealth at death £6519 3s.: probate, 30 Dec 1930, CGPLA Eng. & Wales