James Edward Edmonds

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Sir James Edward Edmonds
Born 25 December 1861
London, England
Died 2 August 1956(1956-08-02) (aged 94)
Sherborne, England
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
Rank Brigadier General
Commands held Secret Service Bureau
Chief of Staff, 4th Division (1914)
Historical Section, Committee of Imperial Defence
Battles/wars Second Boer War
Russo-Japanese War
First World War
Awards Knight Bachelor
Companion of the Order of the Bath
Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George
Mentioned in Despatches

Brigadier General Sir James Edward Edmonds CB, CMG (25 December 1861 – 2 August 1956) was a British First World War officer of the Royal Engineers. Edmonds became the Director of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence on 1 April 1919 and was responsible for the post-war compilation of the 28-volume History of the Great War. Edmonds wrote nearly half the volumes, including eleven of the 14 volumes dealing with the Western Front (Military Operations, France and Belgium). His task was not completed until the final volume was published in 1949.

Early army life[edit]

Edmonds was educated at King's College School, London and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. Edmonds passed into the Royal Military Academy with the highest marks instructors could remember, won the Sword of Honour for the Best Gentleman Cadet and was commissioned into the Corps of Royal Engineers in 1881.[1] In the Royal Engineers, his intellect earned him the nickname Archimedes.

Edmonds possessed a considerable intellect and was fluent in many European and Asian languages. In 1896, he entered the Staff College, Camberley, achieving the highest score of his class on the entrance exam. His classmates included Douglas Haig, who became Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in December 1915, during the First World War; Edmund Allenby, who led British forces in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign from 1917–18 and William Robertson, who became Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1916.

Military Intelligence and MI5[edit]

Edmonds passed the two-year staff course at the top of his class. He was understandably marked for work in military intelligence and was posted to the War Office Intelligence Department in 1899. He served as an Intelligence Officer in South Africa from 1901–1904 and was then appointed to the Far Eastern desk of the War Office Intelligence Department, following the removal of an officer found to have made basic mistakes in the role. He performed well, rising to be the head of the renamed Military Operations Directorate 5 (MO5) in 1907, by which time he was a highly experienced intelligence officer.[2]

In 1905, with W. Birkbeck Wood, Edmonds authored The Civil War in the United States with Special Reference to the Campaigns of 1864 and 1865, a two-volume history of the American Civil War. The book, "subsequently abbreviated and constantly republished, remains to this day the best English history of the war".[3]

Edmonds was arguably the leading army intellectual of his day; as a child living in France he had witnessed the Franco-Prussian War and had studied the German Army ever since. He developed many German links and was important in convincing Ministers of a German spy threat before World War I. He is widely credited as being a pioneer of intelligence in the departments that developed into MI5, the British Security Service.[4] Edmonds was a supporter of the appointment of Captain Vernon Kell to the Secret Service Bureau, the predecessor of MI5 of which Kell became the first head.

Later career[edit]

At the outbreak of the war in 1914, Edmonds was chief-of-staff of the 4th Division of the Expeditionary Force (renamed British Expeditionary Force on the arrival in France of the Indian Expeditionary Force) but the strain of the Great Retreat following the Battle of Mons (23 August), led to his replacement in September, within a month of the opening of hostilities. He spent the remainder of the war as a staff officer at GHQ of the BEF, during which time he gathered documents to be used in the Official History. Edmonds needed to demonstrate great diplomacy to obtain information. He told his Australian counterpart, C.E.W. Bean,

I was on terms of friendship with all the British generals from Haig downwards. I never belonged to any party and since I was not competing for promotion, I enjoyed confidences I otherwise might not have had.

— Edmonds

The Official History produced by Edmonds has been criticised as propaganda, for being too lenient on the British generals. It has been suggested that Edmonds' favourable portrayal of Haig was a counterpoint to the scathing criticism delivered by the former British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George in his memoirs. In 1991, British historian Denis Winter, a critic of Haig, acknowledged Edmonds' comprehensive understanding of British operations during the war but said

Only a profoundly knowledgeable man could have produced an Official History so misleading and yet with that ring of plausibility which has led to a general acceptance for so long.

— Winter

Andrew Green in Writing the Great War: Sir James Edmonds and the Official Histories 1915–1948 (2003) considered the volumes of the Official History for Gallipoli, the Somme, 3rd Ypres and the German March offensive of 1918 and concluded that Edmonds had been far more objective than others had given him credit,

By almost every standard by which the Official Military Histories of the Great War might be judged, one must conclude that the works were of substantial historical, military and literary value.... Even those who have accused Edmonds of bias have had to acknowledge that his assessments and conclusions are correct.

— Green[5]

Edmonds was knighted in the 1928 Birthday Honours.[6] In 1939, he became Secretary of the Cabinet Office Historical Section, following the resignation of Colonel E. Y. Daniel and on 15 November 1939, the section moved to Lytham St Annes, Lancashire where it stayed until April 1942, then moved to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.[7]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Andrew 2009, p. 11.
  2. ^ Andrew 2009, pp. 7–8.
  3. ^ McElwee 1974, p. 322.
  4. ^ Andrew 2009, p. 13.
  5. ^ Green 2003, p. 207.
  6. ^ LG 1928.
  7. ^ Edmonds 1987.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Andrew, C. (2009). The Defence of the Realm – The Authorised History of MI5. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-7139-9885-6. 
  • Edmonds, J. E. (1987) [1944]. The Occupation of the Rhineland, 1918–1929. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence. orig. For Official Use Only (Imperial War Museum facsimile ed.). London: HMSO. ISBN 0-11-290454-8. 
  • Green, A. (2003). Writing the Great War: Sir James Edmonds and the Official Histories 1915–1948. London: Frank Cass. ISBN 0-7146-8430-9. 
  • London Gazette. London: HMSO. 1928. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 33390. p. 3846. 4 June 1928.
  • McElwee, W. (1974). The Art of War: Waterloo to Mons. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-31075-X. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Travers, T. (2003) [1987]. The Killing Ground: The British Army, the Western Front & the Emergence of Modern War 1900–1918 (Pen & Sword ed.). London: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0-85052-964-6. 
  • Winter, D. (1991). Haig’s Command: A Reassessment. London: Viking. ISBN 978-0-67080-225-8. 

External links[edit]