Birdwood, William Riddell, first Baron Birdwood 1865-1951, field-marshal, was born at Kirkee, India, 13 September 1865, the second son of Herbert Mills Birdwood [qv.], under-secretary to the Government of Bombay, later a high court judge, and his wife, Edith Marion Sidonie, daughter of Surgeon-Major Elijah George Halhed Impey, of the Bombay Horse Artillery. All five sons were to serve the army in India.
Educated at Clifton College, Birdwood obtained a commission in the 4th battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers, in 1883. He entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, but as a result of the Penjdeh incident of 1885 he was gazetted earlier than he expected to the 12th Lancers and embarked for India in that year; he transferred to the 11th Bengal Lancers at the end of 1886. He first saw active service in the Black Mountain expedition in 1891; and acquitted himself well in the Tirah expedition in 1897. In 1893-8 he was adjutant of the Viceroy's Body Guard.
Promoted captain in 1896, Birdwood went in November 1899 to South Africa as a special service officer and was appointed to the staff of the Natal mounted brigade commanded by Lord Dundonald [qv.]. He took part in the battle of Colenso and in the further campaigns to relieve Ladysmith; was later wounded; and five times mentioned in dispatches. When the Natal Force was broken up towards the end of 1900 Birdwood became deputy assistant adjutant-general to Lord Kitchener [qv.] and on the conclusion of the South African war accompanied him to India as his assistant military secretary (1902-4) and military secretary (1905-9). Birdwood's relationship with Kitchener was one of the decisive elements in his career: we seemed to take to each other at once, and for the next nine years [1900-1909] I was scarcely ever away from him.
Birdwood was promoted colonel in 1905 and in 1908 was chief staff officer to Sir James Willcocks [qv.] in the Mohmand Field Force. He was appointed to the D.S.O., mentioned in dispatches, and appointed C.I.E. He became brigadier-general in 1909 and major-general in 1911. From 1909 to 1912 he was in command of the Kohat independent brigade. In 1912, after a short period as quartermaster-general, he became secretary to the Government of India in the army department and a member of the governor-general's legislative council. He was thus called upon to play an important part in the dispatch of the Indian Army units to France, Egypt, and Mesopotamia after the outbreak of war in 1914. In December he was given command of the new Australian and New Zealand contingents being sent to Egypt, with corps commander status and the rank of lieutenant-general.
Birdwood at once discerned the outstanding quality of the independent and ardent young Anzacs. He built up an excellent staff and training was put in hand. The original intention was to send the troops to France after training but they were destined for an earlier and more spectacular initiation. A few days after Admiral Carden [qv.] opened the naval assault on the Dardanelles on 19 February 1915, Birdwood was instructed by Kitchener, now secretary of state for war, to proceed to the Dardanelles and to report back. Birdwood was at once impressed by the difficulties of a purely naval attack and reported in this sense at a time when (Sir) Winston Churchill was urging Kitchener to send the 29th division to the Eastern Mediterranean theatre to support our diplomacy. Kitchener at this stage was vacillating, but some Anzac units and others of the Royal Naval Division were sent to the island of Lemnos where Admiral Wemyss [qv.] was endeavouring to create an advanced supply base with no staff and hardly any facilities. It was Kitchener's intention that Birdwood should command any military force that might be needed; but his decision on 10 March to send the 29th division was one of the factors which resulted in the appointment of Sir Ian Hamilton [qv.] to take command of what was to be called the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. One consequence of this decision was that the preparatory work done by Birdwood's staff was largely negatived. Hamilton's failure to bring Birdwood's staff into his planning and the extent to which he ignored his administrative staff were factors which caused friction.
After the failure of the naval attack of 18 March and the decision taken jointly on 22 March and without reference to London by Hamilton and Carden's successor Admiral De Robeck [qv.] to deliver a combined naval and military attack as soon as Hamilton's force had been reorganized, Birdwood was strongly opposed to any landings on the Helles beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula (which he had previously favoured) as the vital element of surprise had been lost. In this he was strongly supported by (Sir) Aylmer Hunter-Weston [qv.] (29th division), (Sir) Archibald Paris [qv.] (Royal Naval Division), and Sir John Maxwell [qv.] (G.O.C. Egypt). Hamilton stuck firmly to the plan to land the 29th division at Helles and rejected Birdwood's arguments for a landing on the Asiatic shore of the Dardanelles.
The role of the Anzac Corps was to land on the peninsula at a point just north of the conspicuous promontory of Gaba Tepe on the western shore of the Gallipoli Peninsula and advance eastwards to the eminence of Mal Tepe, thus cutting off the Turkish forces opposed to the 29th division at Helles. Birdwood determined to land his covering force at first light, with no preliminary naval bombardment, in order to achieve the maximum of surprise. The combined assault took place on Sunday, 25 April. The Anzac covering force, for reasons which have never been satisfactorily explained, landed in some confusion well to the north of Gaba Tepe in a small bay subsequently known as Anzac Cove. In spite of this initial error, the surprise was almost complete and some units penetrated deep inland against hastily gathered Turkish resistance. The momentum of the advance was not maintained. Colonel Mustapha Kemal, commanding the Turkish 19th division at Boghali, engaged all available forces. The steep cliff and precipitous gullies above Anzac Cove became the scenes of fierce and unco-ordinated fighting throughout the day. By evening a thin drizzle was falling on the exhausted dominion troops, Anzac Cove was the scene of serious congestion and confusion, and the ground secured was in fact a small perimeter which penetrated inland barely a thousand yards in places. In these depressing circumstances, Birdwood's divisional commanders urged him to recommend evacuation. Against his own inclinations Birdwood did so. In the general confusion the message was not addressed to anyone and it was only by chance that Hamilton received it. His reply was a firm order to hold on.
For six months the Anzacs defended their wretched, tiny, and arid fragment of coast, overlooked by the enemy and constantly exposed to his fire. Intense heat and disease subsequently added to the already severe burdens of the resolute dominion troops. Birdwood may be faulted for certain aspects of his handling of Anzac operations, and particularly for the failures of the night attacks of 2-3 May and for the heroic but poorly commanded attempt to seize the Sari Bair heights on 6-9 August. He may also be criticized for failing to appreciate until too late the debilitating effects of sickness on the Anzac troops which played a significant part in the failure of the August attacks. But in defence his confident and determined example and bearing fully merited the tribute of Hamilton that he was the soul of Anzac.
Birdwood was one of the very few British commanders to leave Gallipoli with an increased reputation. In one respect he was fortunate. The failure of the IX Corps under Sir Frederick Stopford [qv.] at Suvla on 6-9 August obscured the errors of Birdwood and (Sir) Alexander Godley [qv.] at Anzac, both then and later. When, following Hamilton's recall in October, Sir Charles Monro [qv.] recommended evacuation, Kitchener wanted to appoint Birdwood in his stead. Birdwood, greatly to his credit, protested and the proposal was shelved. It was ironic that Birdwood, the only senior commander initially opposed to evacuation (he subsequently agreed that the decision was right), should eventually be in executive command of the evacuation, as commander of the Dardanelles Army under Monro, when the Cabinet decided upon it. This brilliantly successful operation in December 1915 and January 1916 rightly increased his already high reputation.
After the death of Sir William Bridges [qv.] at Anzac in May 1915, Birdwood had been made responsible to the Australian minister of defence for administration in addition to his responsibility to the War Office for the conduct of military operations. It was largely due to Birdwood that this arrangement worked so well.
At the end of March 1916 the two Anzac Corps embarked for France, the first under Birdwood's command. In November 1917 it was renamed the Australian Corps and comprised the five Australian divisions in France. In May 1918 Birdwood took command of the Fifth Army. He was promoted general in 1917 and after the war was awarded £10,000 and created a baronet (1919).
Birdwood had proved himself a brave and resolute soldier and keenly alive to the importance of personal relations. But the failings demonstrated in attack on Gallipoli were also evident in France. As was written after his death he remained a character, a virile personality rather than a master of war. His unconcealed eagerness for personal recognition was one facet of his character which some found unattractive. If not in the first he was high in the second rank of British commanders in the war of 1914-18.
After the war Birdwood commanded the Northern Army in India (1920-24) and in 1925 was preferred to Sir Claud Jacob [qv.] as commander-in-chief. He was promoted field-marshal at the same time. He was a good commander-in-chief with a deep and sympathetic knowledge of the country and its peoples.
The one position Birdwood coveted but did not attain was the governor-generalship of Australia. On his retirement from India in 1930 he was elected, somewhat unexpectedly, to the mastership of Peterhouse, Cambridge, an office which he exercised with manifest enjoyment until 1938. In 1935 he was appointed captain of Deal Castle and in 1938 was created Baron Birdwood, of Anzac and Totnes. He had been appointed C.B. (1911), K.C.B. (1917), and G.C.B. (1923); K.C.S.I. (1915) and G.C.S.I. (1930); K.C.M.G. (1914) and G.C.M.G. (1919); and G.C.V.O. (1937). His long and distinguished life, darkened in later years by failing eyesight, ended on 17 May 1951 when he died at Hampton Court Palace.
Birdwood married in 1894 Janetta Hope Gonville (died 1947), daughter of Sir Benjamin Parnell Bromhead, fourth baronet. It was a very happy marriage. They had two daughters and a son, Christopher Bromhead (1899-1962), who succeeded to the title.
The Imperial War Museum has portraits by Alfred Hayward and Francis Dodd, a pencil and water-colour General Birdwood returning to his headquarters by Sir William Orpen, and a bust by Sigismund de Strobl; Birdwood is included in the group Some General Officers of the Great War by J. S. Sargent in the National Portrait Gallery where there is also a drawing by Sargent.
The Birdwood papers (Australian War Memorial, Canberra)
Lord Birdwood, Khaki and Gown, 1941, and In My Time, 1945
C. F. Aspinall-Oglander, (Official) History of the Great War. Military Operations, Gallipoli, 2 vols., 1929-32
C. E. W. Bean, Official History of Australia in the War, 6 vols., 1921-42
R. R. James, Gallipoli, 1965
The Times, 18, 22, 25, and 30 May 1951
Contributor: Robert Rhodes James.