Horace Smith-Dorrien - History of World War I - WW1 - The Great War

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World War 1 Picture - Horace Smith-Dorrien's grave in Berkhamsted

Horace Smith-Dorrien Information

Horace Smith-Dorrien

Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien

Nickname: "Smith Doreen", Smith D., S.D., Smithereens
Place of birth: Haresfoot, Berkhamsted
Place of death: Chippenham, Wiltshire
Allegiance: United Kingdom
Service/branch: British Army
Years of service: 1876-1923
Rank: General
Commands held: Southern Command, Second Army of the BEF
Battles/wars: Anglo-Zulu War
Battle of Isandlwana
Mahdist War
Battle of Gennis
Battle of Omdurman
Tirah Campaign
Second Boer War
Battle of Paardeberg
Sanna's Post
Battle of Leliefontein
World War I
Battle of Mons
Battle of Le Cateau
First Battle of the Marne
First Battle of the Aisne
First Battle of Ypres
Second Battle of Ypres
Awards: Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George
Distinguished Service Order
Grand Officier of the Legion of Honour
Other work: Governor of Gibraltar

Anglo-Zulu War

Battle of Isandlwana

Mahdist War

Battle of Gennis
Battle of Omdurman

Tirah Campaign Second Boer War

Battle of Paardeberg
Sanna's Post
Battle of Leliefontein

World War I

Battle of Mons
Battle of Le Cateau
First Battle of the Marne
First Battle of the Aisne
First Battle of Ypres
Second Battle of Ypres

General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien GCB, GCMG, DSO, ADC (26 May 1858 - 12 August 1930) was a British soldier and commander of the British II Corps and Second Army of the BEF during World War I.

Early life and career

World War 1 Picture - Horace Smith-Dorrien's grave in Berkhamsted

Picture - Horace Smith-Dorrien's grave in Berkhamsted

Horace Smith-Dorrien was born at Haresfoot, a house near Berkhamsted, the 12th child of 16. He was educated at Harrow, and on 26 February 1876 entered the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, passing out with a commission as a subaltern to the 95th (Derbyshire) Regiment of Foot. On 1 November 1878, he was posted to South Africa where he worked as a transport officer. In this role he encountered, and fought against, corruption in the army.

Zulu Wars: Smith-Dorrien was present at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879, serving with the British invasion force as a transport officer for the army's Royal Artillery detachment. As Zulu forces overran the British forces, Smith-Dorrien narrowly escaped on his transport pony. As such, Smith-Dorrien was one of fewer than fifty British survivors of the battle (many more native African troops on the British side also survived). His observations on the difficulty of opening ammunition boxes led to changes in British practice for the rest of the war, though modern commentators argue that this was not as important a factor in the defeat as was thought at the time. Because of his conduct in trying to help other soldiers during his dramatic escape from the battlefield, he was nominated for a Victoria Cross, but, as the nomination did not go through the proper channels, he never received it. He took part in the rest of that war.

Egypt 1882-7: He later served in Egypt on police duties, being appointed assistant chief of police in Alexandria on 22 August 1882. During this time, he forged a life-long friendship with Lord Kitchener. On 30 December 1885, he witnessed the Battle of Gennis, where the British Army fought in red coats for the last time. The next day he was given an independent command and, following a bold military action where he went beyond his orders, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

From 1887-9, Smith-Dorrien then left active command to go to the Staff College, Camberley.

India: He returned to his regiment where he commanded troops during the Tirah Campaign of 1897-98.

Egypt and Sudan: In 1898, he transferred back to Egypt and fought at the Battle of Omdurman and commanded the British troops during the Fashoda incident. During this time, he was promoted to the rank of Colonel.

Second Boer War: On 31 October 1899, he shipped to South Africa, arriving on 13 December. On 2 February 1900, Lord Roberts put him in command of 19 Brigade and, on 11 February, he was promoted to Major-General. He played an important role at the Battle of Paardeberg (18 February to 27 February 1900), steering Lord Kitchener and Henry Colville away from tactics of attacking an entrenched enemy over open ground. At Sanna's Post (31 March 1900), Smith-Dorrien ignored inept orders from Colville to leave wounded largely unprotected and managed an orderly retreat without further casualties. He took part in the Battle of Leliefontein (7 November 1900). On 6 February 1901, Smith-Dorrien's troops were attacked in the Battle of Chrissiesmeer. Smith-Dorrien's qualities as a commander meant he was one of a very few British commanders to enhance his reputation during this war.

India: On 22 April 1901, he received orders to return to India where he was made Adjutant General (6 November 1901) under Kitchener. He was placed in command of the 4th Division in Baluchistan, a post he held until 1907. In the dispute between Kitchener and Lord Curzon over the role of the Military Member, Smith-Dorrien stayed neutral, torn between his relations with Kitchener and with the Military Member himself, Sir Arthur Power Palmer.

Aldershot and other home postings

He returned to England and, in 1907, become GOC of the Aldershot Command. During this time, he instituted a number of reforms designed to improve the lot of the ordinary soldier. One was to abandon the practice of posting pickets to police the soldiers when they were outside the base. Another was to improve sports facilities. His reforms earned many plaudits (but were treated as an implied criticism by his predecessor, Sir John French).

He improved the frequency and methods of training in marksmanship of all soldiers. During this period, the higher ranks of the army were divided on the best use of cavalry. Smith-Dorrien, along with Lord Roberts, Sir Ian Hamilton and others, doubted that cavalry could often be used as cavalry, thinking they would be more often deployed as mounted infantry. To this end, he took steps to improve the marksmanship of the cavalry. This did not endear him to the 'pro-cavalry' faction, which included French and Douglas Haig.

He also tried to get the army to purchase better machine-guns.

Although Smith-Dorrien was perfectly urbane and, by the standards of the day, kind-hearted towards his troops, he was notorious for furious outbursts of bad temper, which could last for hours before his equilibrium was restored. It has been suggested that the pain from a knee injury was one cause of his ill temper.

In 1911, he was made Aide-de-Camp to King George V. He was part of the king's hunt in the Chitwan area of Nepal; on 19 December 1911, Smith-Dorrien killed a rhino and on the following day shot a bear.

On 1 March 1912, he was appointed GOC Southern Command and on 10 August 1912 he was promoted to full General.

Unlike French, he was politically astute enough to avoid becoming entangled in the Curragh Incident of 1914.

World War I

In 1914, the Public Schools Officers' Training Corps annual camp was held at Tidworth Pennings, near Salisbury Plain. Lord Kitchener was to review the cadets, but the imminence of the war prevented him. Smith-Dorrien was sent instead. He surprised the two-or-three thousand cadets by declaring (in the words of Donald Christopher Smith, a Bermudian cadet who was present) that war should be avoided at almost any cost, that war would solve nothing, that the whole of Europe and more besides would be reduced to ruin, and that the loss of life would be so large that whole populations would be decimated. In our ignorance I, and many of us, felt almost ashamed of a British General who uttered such depressing and unpatriotic sentiments, but during the next four years, those of us who survived the holocaust - probably not more than one-quarter of us - learned how right the General's prognosis was and how courageous he had been to utter it.

With the outbreak of the Great War, he was given command of the Home Defence Army; however, following the sudden death of Sir James Grierson, he was placed in charge of the British Expeditionary Force II Corps, by Lord Kitchener, the new Secretary of State for War. Field Marshal Sir John French had wanted Sir Herbert Plumer but Kitchener chose Smith-Dorrien as he knew he could stand up to French.

Smith-Dorrien's II Corps took the brunt of a heavy assault by the German forces at Mons, with the Germans under von Kluck attempting a flanking manoeuvre. French ordered a general retreat, during which I Corps (under General Douglas Haig) and II Corps became separated. Haig's I Corps did not reach its intended position to the immediate east of Le Cateau.

Le Cateau (26 August 1914)

Smith-Dorrien, now at Le Cateau, saw that his isolated forces were in danger of being overwhelmed in a piecemeal fashion. He decided instead to concentrate his corps, supplemented by Allenby's cavalry and the 4th Division of Thomas D'Oyly Snow. On 26 August 1914, he mounted a vigorous defensive action, a "stopping blow", which despite heavy casualties, halted the German advance. With the BEF saved, he resumed an orderly retreat.

His decision to stand and fight enraged French who accused Smith-Dorrien of jeopardising the whole BEF, an accusation which did not amuse Smith-Dorrien's fellow corps commander, Haig, who already believed French to be incompetent.

Smith-Dorrien's II Corps took part in the First Battle of the Marne and the First Battle of the Aisne before the British were moved north to be closer to their supply lines.

First Battle of Ypres

The battle for Hill 60 was a notable struggle here. A defensive line at Neuve Chapelle became known as the Smith-Dorrien Trench (or, sometimes, the Smith-Dorrien Line). On 26 December 1914, Smith-Dorrien took command of the Second Army.

Second Battle of Ypres

In this battle, the British were defending an untenable salient. On 22 April 1915, the Germans used poison gas on the Western Front for the first time and heavy casualties were sustained. On 27 April, Smith-Dorrien recommended withdrawal to a more defensible front line. On 30 April, Haig wrote in his diary

Sir John also told me Smith-Dorrien had caused him much trouble. 'He was quite unfit [(he said)] to hold the Command of an Army' so Sir J. had withdrawn all troops from him control except the II Corps. Yet Smith-D. stayed on! [He would not resign!] French is to ask Lord Kitchener to find something to do at home. … He also alluded to Smith-Dorrien's conduct on the retreat, and said he ought to have tried him by Court Martial, because (on the day of Le Cateau) he 'had ordered him to retire at 8 am and he did not attempt to do so [but insisted on fighting in spite of his orders to retire]'.

French used the 'pessimism' of the withdrawal recommendation as an excuse to sack Smith-Dorrien on 6 May. His replacement, Herbert Plumer, then recommended a withdrawal almost identical to that proposed by Smith-Dorrien, which French accepted. In December 1915, French himself was removed by Kitchener; Douglas Haig then replaced French as commander of the BEF.

French later wrote a partial and inaccurate account of the opening of the war in his book 1914, which attacked Smith-Dorrien. Smith-Dorrien, as a serving officer, was denied permission to reply in public.

Remainder of the war

After a period in Britain, Smith-Dorrien was assigned a command to fight the Germans in German East Africa (present day Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi) but pneumonia contracted during the voyage to South Africa prevented him from taking command. His former adversary, Jan Smuts, took on this command. Smith-Dorrien took no significant military part in the rest of the war. On 29 January 1917, Smith-Dorrien was appointed lieutenant of the Tower of London.

Final years

World War 1 Picture - Close-up of the plate on Smith-Dorrien's gravestone

Picture - Close-up of the plate on Smith-Dorrien's gravestone

His next position was as Governor of Gibraltar from 9 July 1918 - 26 May 1923, where he introduced an element of democracy and closed some brothels. According to Wyndham Childs in the summer of 1918, Smith-Dorrien tried, and nearly succeeded, in uniting the Comrades of the Great War, the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, and the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers into one body. The merger later took place in 1921 to form the British Legion.

He retired in September 1923, living in Portugal and then England. He devoted much his time to the welfare and remembrance of Great War soldiers. He worked on his memoirs, which were published in 1925. As French was still alive at the time of writing, he still felt unable to rebut 1914. Despite his treatment by French, in 1925, he acted as a pallbearer at French's funeral, an act appreciated by French's son.

He played himself in the film The Battle of Mons, released in 1926.

On 4 August 1930, he unveiled the Pozieres Memorial.

He died on 12 August 1930 following injuries sustained in a car accident in Chippenham, Wiltshire; he was 72 years old. He is buried in the Three Close Lane Cemetery of St Peter's Church, Berkhamsted.


On 3 September 1902, he married Olive Crofton Schneider at St Peter's, Eaton Square, London. She was the eldest daughter of Colonel and Mrs Schneider, of Oak Lea, Furness Abbey. Olive's mother was stepsister to Gen. Sir Arthur Power Palmer GCB, GCIE. They had three sons:

Grenfell Horace Gerald Smith-Dorrien (born 1904) served in the army, reaching the rank of Brigadier. He was killed on 13 September 1944 during the Italian campaign. His grave is in the Gradara War Cemetery, in the Commune of Gradara in the Province of Pesaro and Urbino.
Peter Lockwood Smith-Dorrien (born 1907) was killed in the King David Hotel bombing on 22 July 1946.
David Pelham Smith-Dorrien a.k.a. Bromley David Smith-Dorrien (29 October 1911-11 February 2001.) appears to have been an actor in the 1930s. He joined the Foresters in 1940. After the war, he worked to keep alive his father's reputation, designing a first-day cover commemorating the Battle of Le Cateau and helping the biographer A. J. Smithers.

Horace and Olive Smith-Dorrien informally adopted the two daughters of Power Palmer (Gabrielle and unknown), who were left homeless after his death in 1912. During World War I Lady Smith-Dorrien founded the Lady Smith-Dorrien's Hospital Bag Fund. A problem had been identified that wounded soldiers often became separated from their personal effects while in hospital. Volunteers for the fund sewed between 40,000 and 60,000 bags a month to hold soldiers' valuables, totalling around five million throughout the war. For this work, she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). She also served as President of the animal welfare charity, The Blue Cross, alleviating the suffering of war horses. For her services in that field, she received the gold medal of the Reconnaissance franx§aise.

In 1932, Olive became Principal of the Royal School of Needlework (RSN). In 1937, the RSN worked on the Queen's Train (Coronation Robe), canopy and the two chairs to be used in Westminster Abbey during the Coronation. She was awarded the King George VI Coronation Medal for work done. During the Second World War, she led the RSN in collecting lace which was sold for the war effort. She revived the manufacture of hospital bags. She died on 15 September 1951.


The following memorials have been established:

Stall plate 14 in the Henry VII Chapel of Westminster Abbey (1913)
Dorrien, a vineyard area in South Australia (1916)
Mount Smith-Dorrien, Alberta, Canada (1918)
Smith-Dorrien Trail and Smith-Dorrien Creek, Alberta
Smith-Dorrien Institute in Aldershot
Smith Dorrien Road, Leicester
Smith Dorrien Avenue, Smith Dorrien Bridge, and Smith Dorrien House, Gibraltar
Smith Dorrien Street, Netherby, South Australia
Smith-Dorrien Avenue, Esterhazy, Saskatchewan

In 1931, after his death, the Smith-Dorrien Memorial was added to the Sherwood Foresters Memorial in Crich, Derbyshire, which Smith-Dorrien himself had opened on 6 August 1923.

World War I Poem

John Betjeman, mentions Horace in Chapter III "Highgate" of his autobiographical blank-verse poem Summoned by Bells:

In late September, in the conker time,
When Poperinghe and Zillebeke and Mons
Boomed with five-nines, large sepia gravures
Of French, Smith-Dorrien and Haig were given
Gratis with each half-pound of Brooke Bond tea.

In late September, in the conker time,
When Poperinghe and Zillebeke and Mons
Boomed with five-nines, large sepia gravures
Of French, Smith-Dorrien and Haig were given
Gratis with each half-pound of Brooke Bond tea.

Horace also features in the poem "Canada to England" by Craven Langstroth Betts:

Lead out, lead out, Brave Mother, for the sake of sacked Louvain!
Give us our own Smith-Dorrien, yield us the van again!

Lead out, lead out, Brave Mother, for the sake of sacked Louvain!
Give us our own Smith-Dorrien, yield us the van again!

Further reading

Principal references

Ballard, C, Smith-Dorrien, London: Constable and Co Ltd, 1931. - This is largely a condensed version of Smith-Dorrien's autobiography but for the first time included material from Smith-Dorrien's defence against French's allegations in 1914, now that both Smith-Dorrien and French had died.
Beckett. Dr. Ian F, The Judgement of History: Lord French, Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and 1914 Tom Donovan Publishing, 1993; ISBN 1-871085-15-2 - The bulk of this book is Smith-Dorrien's General Sir Horace Smith-Domien’s statement with regard to the first edition of Lord French’s book "1914”, his privately circulated rebuttal of French's criticisms of Smith-Dorrien's actions at Ypres. Useful introductory essay by Dr. Beckett.
Beckett. Dr. Ian F, Corvi, Steven J. (editors) Haig's Generals Pen & Sword, 2006 ISBN 1-84415-169-7 - Includes a 25-page chapter by Steven Corvi with an emphasis on Smith-Dorrien's contributions to the Great War
Fortescue, John William, Sir, 'Horace Smith-Dorrien' in Following the Drum Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh, 1931, pp251-98.
Smith-Dorrien, Sir Horace, General Sir Horace Smith-Domien’s statement with regard to the first edition of Lord French’s book "1914” c.1920
Smith-Dorrien, Sir Horace, Memories of Forty-Eight Years' Service, John Murray, 1925. - Sir Horace's autobiography. (Republished as Smith-Dorrien: Isandlwhana to the Great War Leonaur, 2009 ISBN 978-1846776793)
Smithers, A J, The Man Who Disobeyed: Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and His Enemies, London: Leo Cooper, 1970 ISBN 0-85052-030-4 - Only modern biography.


Corvi, Steven J. General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien: Portrait of a Victorian Soldier in Modern War, unpublished PhD thesis, Northwestern University (Boston), 2002
Siem, Richard Forging the Rapier among Scythes: Lieutenant-General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and the Aldershot Command 1907-1912, unpublished MA dissertation, Rice University (Houston), 1980

Archives relating to Smith-Dorrien

Archival material relating to Horace Smith-Dorrien listed at the UK National Register of Archives
DE LISLE, Gen Sir (Henry De) Beauvoir (1864-1955) (correspondence with Smith-Dorrien)
SIMPSON-BAIKIE, Brig Gen Sir Hugh Archie Dundas (1871-1924) (manuscript letter to Simpson-Baikie from Gen Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien on adverse comments about Smith-Dorrien in 1914 John French, 1st Viscount of Ypres, 1920 and typescript letter from Professor Robert Clifford Walton concerning Smith-Dorrien, 1972)
Papers of Sir James Ramsay Montagu Butler (1889-1975) historian

Other references

Altham, E. A., Sir. The principles of war historically illustrated. With an introduction by General Sir Horace L. Smith-Dorrien 1914.
Anon. Report on the 4th (Quetta) Division Staff Ride Under the Direction of Lieut.-General H.L. Smith-Dorrien C.B., D.S.O., Commanding 4th (Quetta) Division, May 1907 4th (Quetta) Divisional Press, 1907. (This was a five-day exercise conducted around Gulistan and north to Chaman on the North-West Frontier, involving an imaginary war with Russia.)
Childs, Wyndham Episodes and reflections: being some records from the life of Major-General Sir Wyndham Childs, K.C.M.G., K.B.E., C.B., one time second lieut., 2nd Volunteer Battalion, the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry Cassell, 1930
Barnett, Kennet Bruce Handbook on Military Sanitation for Regimental Officers ... With an introduction by Lt.-General Sir Horace L. Smith-Dorrien Forster Groom & Co. London, 1912
Gilson, Capt. Charles J. L. History of the 1st Battalion Sherwood Foresters (Notts. and Derby Regt.) in the Boer War 1899-1902 Swan Sonnenschein & Co. Ltd. 1908. Introduction by Lieut.-Gen. Sir H L. Smith Dorrien. Reprinted by Naval & Military Press. Much of this introduction can be read in this PDF extract.
Holmes, Richard The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004 ISBN 0-297-84614-0 - Includes a good account of French's relationship with Smith-Dorrien.
Paice, Edward Tip and Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007, ISBN 978-0297847090 - Has some details of S-D's involvement with the East African campaign
[Pilcher, Major-General T. D.] A General's Letters to His Son on Obtaining His Commission Introduction by Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. Cassell, 1917 (Author is uncredited in the book itself.) Reprinted 2009 by BiblioBazaar ISBN 978-1103992683 (Authorship of this book is incorrectly attributed by the publisher of the reprint to an "H. S. Smith-Dorrien")
Who Was Who Vol. III (1929-1940) A & C Black Publishers Ltd Second Edition 1967 ISBN 9780713601701
Winnifrith, Douglas Percy The Church in the Fighting Line: With General Smith-Dorrien at the Front, Being the Experiences of a Chaplain in charge of an Infantry Brigade London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1915 (Available online at: archive.org)
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