Thomas Pilcher

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For the Catholic martyr, see Thomas Pilchard.
Thomas David Pilcher
Thomas Pilcher (1858-1928).jpg
Pilcher, photographed in South Africa c. 1900
Born 8 July 1858
Died 14 December 1928 (aged 70)
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch Flag of the British Army.svg British Army
Rank Major-General
Commands held 2nd Bn Bedfordshire Regiment
Burma Division
17th (Northern) Division
Battles/wars Second Boer War
First World War

Major-General Thomas David Pilcher, CB, (8 July 1858 – 14 December 1928) was a British Army officer, who commanded a mounted infantry unit in the Second Boer War and the 17th (Northern) Division during the First World War, before being removed from command in disgrace during the Battle of the Somme.

Pilcher spent his early career as an infantry officer, first seeing active service on colonial campaigns in Nigeria in the late 1890s followed by field command in the Second Boer War (1899–1902), on which he published a book of lessons learned in 1903. Following the war, he held a number of senior commands in India. However, further promotion was checked by his having come into conflict with his commander-in-chief, who regarded him as unsuited for senior command in part because of his writings; Pilcher was a keen student of the German army and its operational methods, and an active theorist who published a number of controversial books advocating the adoption of new military techniques as well as an anonymous invasion novel.

On the outbreak of the First World War he was on leave in England, and eventually obtained the command of 17th (Northern) Division, a New Army volunteer unit. The division supported the initial attacks at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, where Pilcher again clashed with his superiors over his refusal to push on an attack without pausing for preparations, believing it would result in failure and heavy casualties. After ten days of fighting, Pilcher was sacked and sent to command a reserve centre in England. From here, he wrote a series of books before retiring in 1919. He ran as a parliamentary candidate for the splinter right-wing National Party in the 1918 general election, and continued a loose involvement with right-wing politics which extended to membership in the early British Fascisti.

Pilcher had married Kathleen Gonne, daughter of a cavalry officer, in 1889; the marriage was strained, partly through Pilcher's gambling habits and adultery, and partly through his dislike for Maud Gonne, Kathleen's sister and a prominent Irish nationalist. The couple divorced in 1911, having had four children; one would later become a High Court judge, while another died on the Western Front in 1915. Pilcher remarried in 1913, and remained married to his second wife Millicent until his death in 1928.

Early career[edit]

A group of British and Australian mounted infantry officers, circa 1900, including Pilcher (seated centre, with pith helmet)

After being educated at Harrow School, Pilcher joined the Dublin City Artillery, a Militia unit, and from there transferred into the regular Army.[1] He was initially commissioned into the 22nd Regiment of Foot, but transferred shortly afterwards into the 5th Fusiliers (later the Northumberland Fusiliers).[2]

Pilcher attended the Staff College, Camberley, passing the course in 1902, and from 1895 to 1897 was deputy assistant adjutant-general for Dublin District.[2] From here, he took a posting in colonial West Africa in the late 1890s, where he was involved in raising a battalion of the West African Frontier Force and commanded an expedition to Lapai and Argeyah.[3]

In 1899 Pilcher transferred regiments for the third time, to the Bedfordshire Regiment, where he took command of the 2nd Battalion.[2] It served in the Second Boer War from 1899 to 1902, during which time Pilcher was also given command of a column of mounted infantry, including a large contingent of Australians.[1] In 1901 he was made an aide-de-camp to King Edward VII,[3] and commanded regular brigades at Aldershot from 1902 to 1907.[2] From here, he was posted to India, where he held a variety of commands, culminating in that of the Burma Division, the senior military officer in the colony, from 1912 to 1914. At the time of the outbreak of war, though still holding the Burmese posting, he was on leave in England.[2]

Personal life and writing[edit]

In 1889, Pilcher married Kathleen Mary Gonne, daughter of Colonel Thomas Gonne of the 17th Lancers;[3] her sister, Maude Gonne, later became a prominent Irish nationalist and mother of the politician and Nobel laureate Seán MacBride, as well as a close associate and muse of W. B. Yeats.[2] Pilcher disapproved of his sister-in-law, particularly after her marriage to John MacBride, and relations were frequently strained; however, the two sisters remained close.[4] The couple would have a daughter, Thora, and three sons – Toby, Tommy, and Pat.[4] The elder son, Gonne ("Toby", to his family), became a Judge of the High Court of Justice,[5] while Tommy would be killed at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, aged 21.[6]

Pilcher's marriage was not a happy one; a gambler and womaniser, he expected his independently wealthy wife to bail out his debts and turn a blind eye to his mistresses. The two gradually drifted into separate lives, and after finally confronted with an affair becoming public, Kathleen sued for divorce.[7] The precipitating event was Pilcher having been named as co-respondent in a divorce suit; it was alleged that he had committed adultery with Millicent Knight-Bruce, the wife of Major James Knight-Bruce. The case dragged on through 1910, delayed by Pilcher's inability to return from India to attend the court.[8] Pilcher did not contest his wife's suit, and his own divorce was granted in 1911;[7] he married Millicent, now divorced, in 1913.[3]

Pilcher was a particularly active observer of the German army, studying their military methods and attending German army manoeuvres. He would later publish a translation of Clausewitz.[1] His writing was sometimes controversial, beginning with the 1896 Artillery from an Infantry Officer's Point of View, in which he argued strongly in favour of adopting indirect fire techniques from concealed locations. Conventional doctrine held that artillery should be used to fire directly on its targets, as much from principle as from practical effect, with one prominent artillerist arguing that "firing from cover ... will destroy the whole spirit of the arm". The argument ran for two years.[9] As well as provoking debate, his writing proved problematic for his career; in part because of a 1907 pamphlet, Fire Problems, he was twice blocked for promotion by the Commander-in-Chief India.[2] In it, he had encouraged the development of machine-gun tactics, and much heavier concentration and use of the weapons, an unusual position for the pre-war period.[1]

In 1906, Pilcher had also published an anonymous invasion novel, The Writing on the Wall, which described a German invasion of Britain;[1] The war he theorised was an invasion by Germany followed by a rapid collapse of the British forces, particularly the volunteers, which he saw as unfit for purpose; he advocated a form of conscription and a mandatory reserve system to strengthen the Army. The Spectator was dismissive, comparing the novel unfavourably to The Invasion of 1910 ("many useful hints are given as to practical lessons ... [but] the general plot entirely destroys any value it might otherwise possess") and noting that the suggestions were "highly typical", but that it was counterproductive to simply malign the Army and encourage the country to adopt German military policies.[10] It was translated and published in Germany the same year, as Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin: Englands überwältigung durch Deutschland.

First World War[edit]

At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 Pilcher was on leave in England, and offered his services to the War Office, but was initially turned down as unsuitable for command by Sir John French;[11] however, in January 1915 he was appointed to command the newly formed 17th (Northern) Division, a New Army division predominantly drawn from northern England.[3]

The division moved to France in July 1915, where it held a sector near Ypres for the remainder of the year.[12] It fought in an action at St. Eloi in March 1916, following which Douglas Haig considered relieving Pilcher of his command – he was not highly rated by his superior officers – but in the end his corps commander, Hew Fanshawe, was sacked instead.[11] Pilcher was perceived by many as old-fashioned and disengaged, rarely visiting the trenches;[11] the journalist Philip Gibbs remarked on his "courteous old-fashioned dignity and gentleness of manner", but concluded simply that "modern warfare was too brutal for him".[13] Pilcher's command was certainly slack; an observer in the summer of 1916, recently appointed to 17th Division as a staff officer, recalled finding a completely disorganised unit, with no central co-ordination, no effective provision of laundry or comforts for front-line units, and described the divisional staff as simply "of no value".[2]

The 17th was deployed for the Battle of the Somme in July.[12] It was engaged on the first day of the Somme, 1 July, where it supported the capture of Fricourt and lost 1,155 men killed or wounded. Following this, it was involved in the capture of Contalmaison and the capture of Mametz, and had taken a total of 4,771 casualties by the time it was relieved on 11 July.[14] Many of these casualties stemmed from an unsuccessful attack on the "Quadrangle Trench Support" on 7 July; the division had captured the main trench system on 5 July and Pilcher ordered it to pause and prepare for a subsequent assault. However, he was over-ruled by higher command, who forced an attack the next night – which failed – followed by a daylight attack on 7 July, which Pilcher strongly protested but eventually acquiesced in. He ordered an attack with the minimal amount of men necessary, assuming it would inevitably be doomed to failure and high casualties, which outraged his superiors.[2] Pilcher later wrote that "It is very easy to sit a few miles in the rear and get credit for allowing men to be killed in an undertaking foredoomed to failure, but the part did not appeal to me and my protests against these useless attacks were not well received."[15]

Following the division's withdrawal, Pilcher was promptly sacked by his corps commander, Henry Horne, along with the commander of the neighbouring 38th (Welsh) Division; Horne considered him lacking in "initiative, drive, and readiness", while Haig simply dismissed him as "unequal to the task" of divisional command.[11] Pilcher was succeeded by Philip Robertson on 13 July 1916.[16] He was later appointed to command the Eastern Reserve Centre at St. Albans, and retired from the Army in 1919.[17]

Later life[edit]

Following the end of the war, Pilcher contested the seat of Thornbury in the 1918 general election.[3] He opposed the sitting Liberal member Athelstan Rendall, a Coalition Coupon candidate, representing the splinter right-wing National Party of Conservatives opposed to the Coalition.[2] He was heavily defeated, taking only 38% of the vote in what had previously been a relatively close seat. He continued a loose association with right-wing politics, chairing the anti-Bolshevik National Security Union,[2] and joining the anti-socialist and protectionist British Commonwealth Union. When the British Fascisti was formed in the early 1920s, Pilcher became a member and an official of its London branch.[18]

Pilcher died in 1928, aged 70, of pneumonia. He was survived by his second wife.[1]

Publications[edit]

Pilcher published a number of books through his career:[17]

  • Manœuvre block (1895)
  • Artillery from an Infantry Officer's Point of View (1896[?])
  • Some Lessons from the Boer War, 1899–1902 (1903) – digital copy
  • Some considerations connected with the formations of infantry in attack and defence (1906)
  • The writing on the wall [published anonymously as "General Staff"] (1906)[1]
  • Fire problems (1912)
  • A general's letters to his son on obtaining his commission [published anonymously] (1917) – digital copy
  • A General's letters to his son on minor tactics [published anonymously as "X. Y. Z."] (1918) – digital copy
  • War according to Clausewitz [edited, with commentary] (1918)
  • East is East: stories of Indian life (1922) – digital copy

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Browne, Spencer (8 February 1921). "Comrades three: deaths of fine soldiers". Brisbane Courier. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Thomas David Pilcher at the Wayback Machine (archived 12 August 2007) in "Lions Led by Donkeys", Birmingham Centre for First World War Studies. (Archived from the original, 2007)
  3. ^ a b c d e f "PILCHER, Maj.-Gen. Thomas David", in Who Was Who (2007). Online edition
  4. ^ a b The Gonne – Yeats letters 1893–1938 : always your friend (1st ed. ed.). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. 1994. p. 459. ISBN 0-8156-0302-9. 
  5. ^ "PILCHER, Sir Gonne (St Clair)", in Who Was Who (2007). Online edition
  6. ^ Casualty details: PILCHER, THOMAS PERCY, Commonwealth War Graves Commission
  7. ^ a b Jeffares, edited by A. Norman; White, Anna MacBride; Bridgwater, Christina (2004). Letters to W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound from Iseult Gonne : a girl that knew all Dante once. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 41. ISBN 1-4039-2134-2. 
  8. ^ "General as Co-Respondent". Marlborough Express. 2 August 1910. . Full names taken from National Archives file J 77/984/9879.
  9. ^ Spiers, Edward M. (1999). The late Victorian army, 1868–1902. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 254. ISBN 0-7190-2659-8. 
  10. ^ "The Invasion of England". Spectator: 18–20. 29 September 1906. 
  11. ^ a b c d Robbins, Simon (2010). British generalship during the Great War the military career of Sir Henry Horne (1861–1929). Burlington, VT: Ashgate. pp. 118–119. ISBN 1-4094-0948-1. 
  12. ^ a b Baker, Chris (2014). "The 17th (Northern) Division of the British Army in 1914–1918". The Long, Long Trail. 
  13. ^ Gibbs, Philip (1920). Now It Can Be Told. 
  14. ^ Miles, W. (1938). History of the Great War: Military Operations in France and Belgium, 2 July to the End of the Battles of the Somme (IWM & Battery Press 1992 ed.). London: Macmillan. p. 58. ISBN 0-89839-169-5. 
  15. ^ Middlebrook, Martin (2001). The first day on the Somme. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-192694-5. 
  16. ^ Quarterly Army List for the quarter ending 30th June 1919. London: HMSO. 1919. pp. 51d. 
  17. ^ a b PILCHER, Thomas David (1858–1928), Major General – Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives.
  18. ^ Linehan, Thomas (2000). British fascism, 1918–39 : parties, ideology and culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 43. ISBN 0-7190-5024-3. 
Military offices
Preceded by
?
General Officer Commanding the Burma Division
1912 – May 1914
Succeeded by
?
Preceded by
?
General Officer Commanding the 17th (Northern) Division
January 1915 – July 1916
Succeeded by
Philip Robertson