Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien
Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien was born on 26th May 1858, in Haresfoot House, Berkhampsted, Hertfordshire, and the eleventh child of a family of fifteen, to Colonel Robert Algernon Smith-Dorrien, formerly of the 16th Lancers and his wife, Mary Anne. He was educated at Egypt House School on the Isle of Wight, and subsequently at Harrow Public School. He entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst on 26th February 1876, on completion of his training he was gazetted to the 95th (Derbyshire
) Regiment of Foot in January 1877.
In 1878 Lieutenant-General Frederic Augustus Thesiger, General Officer Commanding the British Forces in southern Africa, cabled the War Office, at Horseguards, London. Thesiger, who in October of 1878, following the death of his father would succeed the title of Lord Chelmsford, asked his superiors for reinforcements and additional Special Service officers for duty in southern Africa. The War Office denied the request for reinforcements, but permitted that for the Special Service officers. Thesiger had previously served in the 95th as a lieutenant-colonel, during the Indian Mutiny, and he desired to have his old regiment represented. He contacted the regimental headquarters of the 95th and asked for three officers from the battalion. The Regiment's Lieutenant-Colonel, Charles Frederick Parkinson denied the request. At the time Horace Smith-Dorrien was performing duties as the Regimental Adjutant. Smith-Dorrien was fully aware of the request and of Parkinson's answer. Using extreme guile, Smith-Dorrien sent a telegram to Commander-in-Chief’s Military Secretary at the War Office, in which he volunteered his services at the Cape of Good Hope in any capacity that His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge might see fit. Smith-Dorrien’s artifice bore fruit and within just three days he was en-route to South Africa on board the hired transport Edinburgh Castle. Travelling with him were two other Special Service officers; Lieutenants William Francis Dundonald Cochrane of the 32nd (Cornwall
) Light Infantry and Henry Charles Harford of the 99th, the Duke of Edinburgh’s (Lanarkshire
) Regiment of Foot.
On reaching Durban, Smith-Dorrien was detailed for transport duties. Of his two travelling companions, Harford was selected to serve in the recently formed Natal Native Contingent, his boyhood had been spent in Natal and he was conversant with the Zulu language. Cochrane was deputed to staff duties in the command of the then Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony William Durnford. Smith-Dorrien’s duties found him controlling convoys of supplies being moved up through Natal to the requisitioned Mission-Station at Rorke’s Drift on the Natal/Zulu frontier. These supplies were part of Lord Chelmsford's logistical preparation for what was then the inevitable invasion of Zululand.
Following the declaration of the ultimatum by the Governor of Cape Colony, Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere to King Cetshwayo kaMpande of the AmaZulu. On the 11th of January 1879, British forces invaded Zululand in three attacking columns, with two other columns being held in reserve. Smith-Dorrien remained at the depot at Rorke's Drift ensuring the supply of Number Three Column, which was commanded by Brevet Colonel Richard Thomas Glyn, of the 1st Battalion, 24th(2nd Warwickshire
) Regiment of Foot. Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford attached his headquarters to this his strongest column, and accompanied it. The column had an initial success in defeating a small Zulu force at kwaSokhexe on the 12th January. On the 19th the column halted on the slopes of the mountain of Isandlwana, where a staging camp was established prior to any further advance into Zululand. Two days later, on the 21st, Smith-Dorrien rode to the camp at Isandlwana to supervise the return of the empty supply wagons to Rorke’s Drift, where they would reloaded with more supplies.
At around midnight on 21st/22nd January, 1879, Smith-Dorrien was summoned to General’s Headquarters tent and given a dispatch to convey to recently promoted Brevet Colonel Durnford, Commander of Number Two Column - one of the reserve forces - part of which was currently at Rorke's Drift. During the day of the 21st, a two-pronged reconnaissance had located a large Zulu force some twelve miles east of Isandlwana, and it was Chelmsford’s intention to reinforce the reconnaissance. Through the pitch-black African night Smith-Dorrien rode alone back to Rorke’s Drift. He arrived just before first light on Wednesday, 22nd January to find Durnford about to break camp and relocate his force of native irregular cavalry, with this force was Smith-Dorrien’s former travelling companion, Lieutenant Cochrane. The dispatch ordered Durnford that he and his Natal Native Horse were to reinforce the camp at Isandlwana during the General’s absence. Durnford rode on to the curious Sphinx-like mountain of Isandlwana. Smith-Dorrien remained at the store depot to check on the progress of some riems - rawhide thongs that were being stretched on a contraption resembling a gallows. Having seen to this he then procured eleven rounds of revolver ammunition from the commander of ‘B’ Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment - Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead. Smith-Dorrien told Bromhead that “a big fight was expected.” Little could either man know that within hours both of them would be fighting for their lives. Having obtained the ammunition he set off back to Isandlwana.
On his arrival he witnessed a verbal exchange between Durnford and Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Burmester Pulleine of the 1st/24th, whom Chelmsford had left in command of the encampment. Durnford apparently requested infantry support for a reconnaissance he wished to undertake to establish the whereabouts of a force of Zulus who had been seen at about 8 a.m. close to the vicinity of the camp. Pulleine apparently remonstrated, his orders were to defend the camp and he only had six companies of regular British infantry, a part squadron of Mounted Infantry, elements of local mounted volunteers and the Natal Mounted Police. A compromise was apparently reached whereby Pulleine agreed to commit his infantry should Durnford encounter any difficulties.
Whilst skirting the Nquthu plateau a troop of Durnford’s Natal Native Horse, under the command of Lieutenant Charles Raw, chanced upon the concealed Zulu impi of some twenty-five thousand warriors. In doing so the patrol had pre-emptied an attack planned by the Zulu commanders for the following day, the 23rd. The Zulu attacked and overwhelmed the British camp. The causes for the defeat still intrigue historians to this day, but it is not the purpose of this article to discuss that in any great detail. One of the accepted causes of the disaster was the extended line between the troops in the line and their reserve ammunition in the camp. It is here in the camp that we find the twenty-year old Smith-Dorrien. With no specific duties to perform he mustered a number of troops, officers’ servants and horse-holders, and set about opening ammunition boxes to hurry the re-supply to those on the firing line. Whilst doing so he was approached by Quartermaster Edward Bloomfield of the 2nd/24th, who castigated him, saying, “For heaven’s sake, don’t take that man for it belongs to our Battalion!” Bloomfield in this now famous, and much quoted statement was obviously inferring that his battalion, the 2nd/24th, who were out with Lord Chelmsford, save for one company, might have need of their reserve ammunition at a moment’s notice should they become engaged in a fire-fight. Smith-Dorrien’s reply is equally famous as it has given rise to the belief that Bloomfield was a narrow-minded authoritarian, “Hang it all, you don't want a requisition now, do you?” Quartermaster Bloomfield was to die shortly after this exchange in the act of issuing ammunition.
With the ox-drawn transport harnessed and making for the road back to Rorke's Drift, Smith-Dorrien felt that his duties were absolved and he mounted his horse and joined the flight back towards Natal, whilst those who had no means of escape chose to remain and fight. Smith-Dorrien rode through the Zulu right horn of which had swept around the reverse slope of Isandlwana and cut the line of retreat. Yet no Zulu hindered his escape, he went completely ignored, later he would put his good fortune down to the fact that he was wearing a blue patrol jacket and therefor not clearly identifiable as a “red soldier”. In his flight he witnessed the limbered cannon of ‘N’ Battery, 5th Brigade, Royal Artillery come to grief in the Manzimyama ravine. He encountered and exchanged a few brief words with Lieutenant Nevill Coghill, of the 1st/24th Coghill would eventually gain the posthumous award of a Victoria Cross for his actions that day. Smith-Dorrien pressed on across the broken ground and marsh, which led to Buffalo River. He reached a bluff above Sothondose’s Drift, the name of which would in time change to Fugitives’ Drift. From his position he saw Lieutenant Teignmouth Melvill, of the 1st/24th carrying his precious charge - the Queen’s Colour of the Regiment. Melvill like his brother officer Coghill would also receive a posthumous V.C. that day. Smith-Dorrien dismounted to assist a wounded mounted infantryman and began to apply a tourniquet to the soldier's wound. A sudden shout came from behind him, Brevet Major Stuart Smith, of ‘N’ Battery, 5th Brigade, shouted that the Zulus were upon them. Within seconds the three were surrounded by warriors baying for their blood, Smith and the mounted infantryman died in a flurry of assegais, who also stabbed Smith-Dorrien’s mount. Drawing his revolver Smith-Dorrien blazed at the encircling foe, and threw himself off of the bluff into the swollen waters of the Buffalo River. On gaining the dubious safety of the Natal bank he came upon an exhausted locally recruited transport officer, J.N. Hamer. Seeing his plight, Smith-Dorrien caught a stray horse and put Hamer upon it, thus saving him from certain death. Smith-Dorrien was by now under a constant fire from the Zulu bank. He scramble up the heights above the drift only to be confronted by a new threat, some twenty Zulus had crossed upstream and were now intent on killing him. With cautious use of his revolver he managed to keep the warriors at bay, the fleet of foot Zulus had met their match with young lieutenant, whose athletic prowess had been the renown of his old school, Harrow. After some three miles the Zulus abandoned their chase. By sunset the exhausted young officer reached the safety of the hastily thrown-up laager at Helpmekaar, he had covered a distance of almost twenty miles on foot.
On the evidence of other survivors Smith-Dorrien was recommended for the award of the Victoria Cross, but the award was denied. In his own words and with the hindsight of the horrors of the First World War he stated, “...for any trivial act of good Samaritanism I may have performed that day would not have earned an M.C.,[Military Cross] much less a V.C. ...” Only five imperial officers would save the battle of Isandlwana. Fifty-five British and Colonial officers were killed. In total 1353 officers and other-ranks - black and white perished. The following day, the 23rd January, he returned to Rorke’s Drift to find that the post had held against the Zulu onslaught. To his alarm and disgust he also found that his riem gallows had been used to execute two Zulus.
Shortly afterwards, whilst he was garrisoning the fort at Helpmekaar, Smith-Dorrien was taken ill with typhoid. The illness was brought on by the wretched conditions of the fortified laager. For two months his life was in the balance. When he regained his health he took part in the advance to the Zulu king’s capital at Ulundi (oNdini). On the night of the 31st May 1879, we know that he had a conversation with His Imperial Highness Louis Napoleon, the exiled Prince Imperial of France. The Prince was accompanying the British force as a “spectator”, to learn the art of war with a possible view of regaining the French throne. Less than twenty-four hours later the Prince was dead, killed in an ambush, and with his death also died any dream of an imperial restoration.
On the 4th July 1879, Smith-Dorrien witnessed the final battle of the Anglo-Zulu War from the laagered camp on the south bank of the White Mfolozi River. On the conclusion of the campaign he returned to his Regiment, then serving at the Curragh, Ireland. From there he was subsequently stationed at the home of the British Army - Aldershot, and thence to the Regiment’s Depot at Derby. Under the 1881 Childers' Reforms of the British Army the 95th were transformed into the 2nd Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters (Derbyshire Regiment
). In 1882 the Battalion were ordered to Egypt to suppress the revolt of the Egyptian Army under Arabi Pasha. By this time Smith-Dorrien had risen to the rank of Captain. During the Egyptian Campaign, he initially served as Chief of Police in Alexandria, before being given command of a mounted infantry squadron, which he commanded with great success. Smith-Dorrien returned to Egypt in early 1884, when he elected to join the reformed Egyptian Army, under the leadership of Sir Henry Evelyn Wood. He served in the Nile and Suakin expeditions. In March 1885 he was given command of a company of British mounted infantry. At the battle of Ginnis on the 30th December 1885, Smith-Dorrien so distinguished himself for his actions that he was awarded the then newly instituted Distinguished Service Order. The Ottoman Empire recognised his service and also awarded him the Order of Osmanieh, 4th Class.
In February 1887, he returned to Britain to undergo the Staff College Course at Camberley, Surrey. On completion of the course he returned to his Regiment then serving in India. Smith-Dorrien served in the Tirah Campaign of 1897-98, for which he received the brevet rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. On his journey home from India he received news that unrest had broken out in the Sudan. He broke his journey at Cairo and appealed to the Sirdar of the Anglo-Egyptian Army, General Herbert Horatio Kitchener, for an appointment, alas the request went unheeded. Smith-Dorrien resumed his homeward journey, within four weeks he received an order from Kitchener – “Return to the Sudan!”
On the 2nd of September 1898, Smith-Dorrien was in command of the 13th (Sudanese) Battalion of the Egyptian Army at the battle of Omdurman. Together with ‘Fighting Mac’ Hector MacDonald, who also commanded a Sudanese battalion. The two battalions bore the brunt of the Dervish assault, and as the Sudanese were still armed with the single-shot Martini-Henry rifle, the same rifle as used at Isandlwana, thus their rate of fire was slower than their British colleagues armed with the magazine loaded Lee-Metford, and the Dervish forces were able to close on them causing the most casualties to the Anglo-Egyptian force. Shortly after the victory at Omdurman, Smith-Dorrien was ordered to Fashoda, where a French force had marched into Egyptian territory, whilst the British and Egyptian allies were preoccupied with defeating the Khalifa at Omdurman, and seized an unoccupied fort in the name of France and raised aloft the Tricolour. Thanks to Smith-Dorrien and others' diplomatic skills an incident was averted, and the matter concluded amicably, and the French retraced their steps out of Egyptian territory. For his services in the Sudan Smith-Dorrien was rewarded with a brevet colonelcy, and given the command of the 1st Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, which was then posted in Malta.
In November 1899 the battalion were ordered to South Africa at all speed in the wake of the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and the Boers, the descendants of the mainly Dutch-speaking colonists. In December, Smith-Dorrien received the command of the 19th Infantry Brigade, which included the Canadian Infantry. He was present at the action of Paardeberg, where his brigade was always at close quarters with the Boers for days, and, due to his skilful leadership, proved himself to be a terror to his foe. The Brigade was also present at the capture of the capital of the Orange Free State, Bloemfontein, and various minor actions. Smith-Dorrien then served in the eastern Transvaal and on the Swazi border. On the 27th April 1901 he was promoted to the rank of Major-General, the rank was ante-dated to February 1900, which made him Queen Victoria’s last General Officer. With his promotion came a new appointment he left the seat of war and was appointed Adjutant-General in India. He held this position until April 1903, when he was given command of the 4th Division in Baluchistan.
In 1907 he was selected for the command of the Aldershot Division with the rank of Lieutenant-General. In 1911 he was appointed as Aide-de-Camp General to His Majesty King George V, and he accompanied the King on a tour of India. The King obviously looked favourably on him as he was knighted and became Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien.
In February 1912 he was appointed to the Southern Command, and in August promoted to General. In the summer of 1914 war-clouds loomed over Europe, the Southern Command was placed on a state of readiness in late July. On the 5th August 1914, the day that war was declared Smith-Dorrien was given a command in the Home Defence Army. On the 17th August, came news that Sir James Grierson, the Commander of the IInd Corps of the British Expeditionary Force had suffered a fatal heart attack. Kitchener, now British Commander-in-Chief, allocated the vacant command to General Smith-Dorrien. On the 21st of August he assumed the active command of the Corps. IInd Corps was positioned between the towns of Mons, Frameries, Dour and Boussa. Hindered by a lack of communication, Smith-Dorrien was unaware that the French 5th Army had been forced back by the rapidly advancing Germans, thus leaving the B.E.F. in a vulnerable and salient position. Also ignorant of this fact was the commander of the B.E.F., Field Marshal Sir John French. French had totally underestimated the German strength in that sector, and believed opposing him were only one or two corps, reinforced by a cavalry division, whereas in fact the German strength was an entire Army Group under the command of General Alexander von Kluck. Smith-Dorrien expressed his concern regarding the danger of holding the Mons salient, a concern echoed by Field Marshal French, who ordered a withdrawal to the south of Mons.
On the 23rd of August, the Germans attempted to outflank the B.E.F.'s position. The accurate and rapid rifle-fire of the British troops convinced the Germans that they were facing a large number of machine guns. At 3a.m. on the 24th of August, Smith-Dorrien received a message from his Chief Staff Officer; French had ordered the retreat of the B.E.F. The fighting in Smith-Dorrien's sector was intense; the battle for the town of Frameries was hard fought, as was the flank near Elouges where the 15th Brigade of the IInd Corps lost over one thousand, one hundred men. In two days of fierce rearguard action Smith-Dorrien’s corps had sustained three thousand, seven hundred and eight-four casualties. Smith-Dorrien received a dispatch from French ordering him to retreat on the town of Le Cateau. On reaching Le Cateau at 3.30p.m. on the 25th August, Smith-Dorrien discovered that French had already withdrawn his headquarters to the town of Saint Quentin, some twenty-six miles to the south. Smith-Dorrien waited anxiously for General Douglas Haig's Ist Corps, which was retreating parallel to him. The welfare of his own men was then a cause for concern for Smith-Dorrien. IInd Corps was comprised of some 60% reservists, they had fought desperately for two days, retreating twenty miles under the intense heat of a scorching sun, and it became evident to him that his men were fatigued. The evening brought little respite when a heavy storm broke over their position drenching the men and their equipment. Rumour and counter-rumour abounded as to the fate of Haig's Ist Corps.
Early in the morning of the 26th of August, General E.H.H. Allenby, commanding the Cavalry Division arrived, his men and their mounts were exhausted, and were scattered over a distance of ten miles. Smith-Dorrien then made a momentous decision - he would retreat no further - his men would stand and fight. Allenby placed himself under Smith-Dorrien’s command, as did General Thomas D’Oyly Snow, himself a veteran of the Anglo-Zulu War, Snow's 4th Division were quite literally just off the train from England. At 5a.m. French was informed of Smith-Dorrien’s bold decision, which was in strict contravention of his direct order to retreat. French replied in a dispatch, ‘If you can hold your ground the situation appears likely to improve. Fourth Division must co-operate. French troops are taking offensive on right of Ist Corps. Although you are given a free hand as to the method this telegram is not intended to convey the impression that I am not anxious for you to carry out the retirement, and you must make every endeavour to do so.’ Smith-Dorrien at this time then had under his command less than eighty-thousand men. His opponent, von Kluck commanded more than one hundred and eighty thousand. Smith-Dorrien saw to the disposition of his troops and allowed them to rest. A runner arrived with word that French wished to speak to him on a telephone some half-a-mile away at Bertry railway station, Smith-Dorrien hurried to the station. But the voice on the other end of the telephone was not that of French himself, instead Smith-Dorrien found himself speaking to Sir Henry Wilson, the Sub-Chief of the General Staff. Wilson informed Smith-Dorrien that he was to break off the action as soon as was possible. Smith-Dorrien replied that he would endeavour to do so, however, he foresaw difficulties. Wilson bade him good luck, and Smith-Dorrien returned to his own headquarters. On his arrival he discovered that the action had already commenced in the town of Le Cateau, the British defenders were slowly evacuating the town under heavy fire. For a period of six hours the IInd Corps held their line, stubbornly contesting every inch of ground, they held off the fierce assaults of an entire German Army. With every unit committed the Corps came under intense artillery fire, in some cases at near point-blank range. To counter this Smith-Dorrien had his own artillery brought up into the firing line alongside the infantry. I heard from a man whose father was present in the action at Le Cateau, who told his son he heard the General say, “Don’t fight too bravely lads, remember Isandlwana!” With his casualties mounting Smith-Dorrien ordered a withdrawal, but unfortunately the order was not relayed to some of his foremost units. However these steadfast men, numbering less than a thousand held up the German advance.
The remnants of IInd Corps withdrew, but the Germans fearing a ploy failed to take advantage of the situation. By the end of the day Smith-Dorrien's command had lost five thousand, two hundred and twelve men, with further two thousand, six hundred men taken prisoner. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to members of Smith-Dorrien’s command during the course of the retirement from Mons. The gallant stand at Le Cateau had broken the German impetus, and had given the B.E.F. a vital breathing space, permitting them to regroup and reorganise. Initially, Smith-Dorrien was applauded for his ingenuity. French stated “I say without hesitation that the saving of the left wing of the Army under my command on the morning of August 26th could never have been accomplished unless a Commander of rare and unusual coolness, intrepidity, and determination had been present to personally conduct the operation.” His adversary, von Kluck, later stated, “I tried very hard to outflank them, but I could not do so. If I had succeeded the war would have been won.”
Sadly, the British High Command subsequently changed its view of General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, from the saviour of the B.E.F. he became the man who had disobeyed a direct order in not continuing to retreat. He remained on the Western Front until May 1915, when he was summoned to return to Britain by Kitchener. He was informed of this by General “Wully” Robertson, an ex-ranker with the words “’Orace, you’re for ’ome.” He held various commands in England until November of 1915, when he was ordered to take over the operations in German East Africa. On his voyage out he was taken seriously ill with pneumonia, as a consequence of which the South African General Jan Smuts was appointed in his stead. His illness rendered him unfit for military operations, but by September 1918 he was considered fit enough to be appointed as Governor of Gibraltar, a position which he held for five years.
Horace Smith-Dorrien died on the 12th of August 1930 following a road traffic accident on the Bath Road, Chippenham, Wiltshire. He was buried in a family plot at Berkhampsted in Hertfordshire. In recent years, General Smith-Dorrien has acquired the sobriquet The Man Who Disobeyed. However, I concur with the opinion of the great British patriotic poet and war historian, Sir Henry Newbolt, who wrote, “Smith-Dorrien saved us... simply by being himself...” Who are the “us”? I leave you to draw your own conclusions. Suffice to say that if Smith-Dorrien had not stood at Le Cateau, von Kluck could have reached Paris or the B.E.F. swept into the English Channel. The course of modern world history could have been radically altered. In my humble opinion, Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien was the most contemptible of “that contemptible little army”, for it was he that had halted the mighty army of Kaiser Wilhelm, and dashed Wilhelm’s hopes of European domination. But is there a statue to this forgotten British hero? No there is not, yet Douglas Haig and John French are remembered in effigy. Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien was scorned by the High Command, and those they had the ear of - including the highest in the land - just for doing what he thought to be right.
In 1992, I had the honour of meeting only surviving son of the General, David Pelham Smith-Dorrien, his two brothers paid the supreme sacrifice and had died in the service of their country, a country which, in my opinion, had betrayed their father. In conversation he remarked, “I’m surprised anyone these days remembers my father.” I told him that through my words I hoped to perpetuate the memory of his many great deeds and achievements.
Horace Smith-Dorrien, Memories of Forty-eight Service
, Published London 1926
Private Papers regarding the retreat from Mons.
Conversation and correspondence with David Pelham Smith-Dorrien.
Edit re-Hamer with my acknowledgement to Keith Smith. 8th December 2008.Lt. Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, Hythe, 1878Isandlwana