Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Forgotten General


I recently finished reading ‘The Forgotten General” (ISBN 978 1 877505 07 2), Jock Vennell’s biography of Major General Sir Andrew Russell (Allen and Unwin, 2011).



I first became aware of Russell’s extraordinary achievements when reading Glyn Harper’s ‘Spring Offensive’, detailing the New Zealand Division’s part in the Second Battle of the Somme in March 1918, and recall thinking at the time that Russell must surely rank as one of the truly gifted generals of World War 1. Indeed, Vennell joins Harper and Pugsley in saying so.

Russell was born in New Zealand and sent to England for his education, at the end of which he passed out from Sandhurst with the sword of honour for the best cadet officer of his year in 1887. His professional career with the British army came to an end when he left the army, bored with the frontier duties and attitudes that he found. He commanded the NZ Brigade at Gallipoli and came out of the campaign with a Knighthood, and command of the NZ Division that was then sent to France. He commanded the Division right through to the end of the war, turning down a Corp Command suggested by of both Haig and Godley, as his health failed in the last few months of the war.

This is the story of an extraordinary man who made (and admitted) his  share of mistakes (the NZ Division’s losses in their 12 October 1917 attack at Passchendaele would be his worst) but who learned quickly. He valued the lives of his men, and combined tough discipline with tactical innovation and thoroughness of preparation and planning, to create one of the best performing divisions on the Western Front.

In the Preface, Vennell writes: 


“… prominent military historian Dr Chris Pugsley went much further, rating Russell as not only the outstanding divisional commander among the British armies that fought on the Western Front, but the one military commander of genius that New Zealand produced in the twentieth century.”


If you are looking for an in depth analysis of Russell’s performances on the battlefield, then you would be better advised to read Harper’s ‘Spring Offensive’, but for a fascinating view of the life of New Zealand’s ‘Forgotten General’, you could do little better than to read Vennell’s biography. I highly recommend the book to all 'students' of World war 1, and New Zealand military history.