Byng, Julian Hedworth George, Viscount Byng of Vimy 1862-1935, field-marshal, was born at Wrotham Park, Barnet, 11 September 1862, the youngest of the four sons of George Stevens Byng, second Earl of Strafford, by his second wife, Harriet Elizabeth, younger daughter of Charles Compton Cavendish, first Lord Chesham. His grandfather, John Byng, first Earl of Strafford [qv.], had commanded a brigade at Waterloo and ended his career as a field-marshal. Julian Byng was educated at Eton, entered the army through the militia (7th battalion, the King's Royal Rifle Corps), and was gazetted to the 10th Hussars in January 1883. The 10th Hussars was an expensive regiment, and Byng had a very small allowance, so that for many years he could afford no social gaieties. As, however, he had no taste for them, this was not a deprivation, and, the regiment being stationed in India, he was able to enjoy all the polo that he could desire. Being a good horseman and player, ponies bought cheaply became speedily of increased value after being acquired by him. Since he was extremely popular, he also had at his disposal good mounts lent by friends. The 10th Hussars was on its way home in 1884 when it was landed at Suakin for the campaign in the eastern Sudan against Osman Digna; so that by unexpected good fortune Byng, at an early stage in his career, saw active service and took part both in the historic charge at El Teb (29 February) and in the fierce struggle at Tamai (13 March). In 1886 he became adjutant to his regiment. In 1894 he passed the Staff College and in 1897 was appointed deputy-assistant-adjutant-general at Aldershot. He was promoted captain in 1889 and major in 1898.
On the outbreak of the South African war in 1899 Byng was sent out to serve in the first instance in a provost marshal's appointment. In November 1900 he raised the South African Light Horse which he commanded until April 1901. A strict disciplinarian by instinct and coming from a British regiment where discipline was of the strictest, he none the less readily adapted himself to the unconventional and free-and-easy atmosphere of his new command. He was soon on as good terms with it as he had been with his own regiment. His sense of humour helped him when he was confronted with eccentricities, and he became a leader of irregular light horse of the highest quality. He was employed in command of a column, and later on of more than one, throughout the period when this form of warfare was practised. At one period Mr. Winston Churchill acted as his galloper. Byng received successively the brevet rank of lieutenant-colonel and of colonel, and was on five occasions mentioned in dispatches.
After the war had come to an end Byng was appointed to command his regiment, the 10th Hussars, and remained at its head for the next two years. In 1902 he married Marie Evelyn, only child of (Sir) Richard Charles Moreton, of Crookham House, near Fleet, Hampshire, ninth son of H. G. F. Moreton, second Earl of Ducie [qv.], and thus gained an ideal partner who was to give him invaluable support in the years of his public life. From 1904 to 1905 he was commandant of the Cavalry School at Netheravon. From 1905 to 1907 he commanded the 2nd Cavalry brigade in the Eastern Command, and was appointed C.B. in 1906. From 1907 to 1909 he commanded the 1st Cavalry brigade at Aldershot, but in April of the last-named year he was promoted major-general and in October 1910 returned to the Eastern Command to command the Territorial East Anglian division. Now for the first time he had a home, near Dunmow, which was then something of a literary centre. Byng took pleasure in the society of the London editors and novelists who were his neighbours. He was an intense reader himself, but for the most part of utilitarian subjects connected with his profession.
In October 1912 Byng was appointed to the command in Egypt, and was there when war broke out in August 1914. He was soon recalled, and late in September appointed to the command of the 3rd Cavalry division. In the first battle of Ypres he proved himself as sound and as determined a commander as the best judges had foretold, and this in adverse circumstances, the hardest test of a general. His division gave brilliant support to the I Corps and was repeatedly called upon to restore ugly situations at the shortest notice and in the most unfavourable conditions. In March 1915 he was appointed K.C.M.G. and in May took over command of the Cavalry Corps with the temporary rank of lieutenant-general. In the following August he was sent out to the Gallipoli Peninsula to command the IX Corps at Suvla, where the opportunities of a new landing had been frittered away. It was a thousand pities that General Sir Ian Hamilton's request for Byng's services to conduct that landing had been refused, since now he came too late. No senior officer was more strongly in favour of evacuation than he. He began, in fact, to study the problem almost immediately after his arrival, proof of remarkable detachment in a commander who had been summoned in the hope that he would redeem a failure. He considered, too, contrary to the general belief, that withdrawal need not be costly, provided that it was carried out before more German forces and material arrived on the scene and before the weather broke. He drew up the plan, but left the detail to two reliable divisional commanders, Major-Generals (Sir) E. A. Fanshawe and (Sir) F. S. Maude [qv.]. The withdrawal was completely successful, and Byng was appointed K.C.B. (1916).
After a brief spell in Egypt in the Suez Canal defences and in command of the XVII Corps in France from February to May 1916, Byng took over command of the Canadian Corps in the latter month. This was a fine appointment, since, whereas other army corps were simply headquarters to which divisions were attached as required, the commander of the Canadian Corps could always count on having the Canadian divisions under his command. Within a week, on 2 June, he had to deal with an ugly situation, when the Germans attacked at Mount Sorrel, Hill 62, and Sanctuary Wood, in the Ypres sector, and captured some valuable ground. Local counter-attacks failed, but on the 11th the situation was righted by a successful counter-offensive, which was, however, unpleasantly expensive. Byng had an extraordinary gift for impressing his gay and friendly personality upon the troops under his orders, and he gained not only the confidence but also the affection of the Canadian Corps. It is hardly too much to say that nowhere in the world at war was there a formation so large in which the links between the commander and the troops were so strong. The Canadian Corps distinguished itself on the Somme in the battle of Flers-Courcelette in mid-September, and again at the end of the month in the Thiepval ridge operations, but its greatest feat, which will ever be inseparably connected with its name, was the capture of Vimy ridge in April 1917.
In June of that year, Byng, although loth to leave his Canadians, was appointed to command the Third Army in succession to General Sir Edmund (later Viscount) Allenby [qv.] who went to command the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Byng passed straight to preparation for the most daring and original operation yet undertaken by the British on the western front, the Cambrai offensive. This depended on two factors, the use of tanks operating independently and in unprecedented strength to open gaps in the enemy's wire without the need for a preliminary bombardment such as had hitherto rendered surprise impossible, and—as a further element in surprise—the employment of predicted fire from the massed artillery, without preliminary registration. The objects were to capture the wooded height of Bourlon and to roll up the German front towards the Sensée marshes to the north, and at the same time to thrust eastwards, capture Cambrai, and exploit in the direction of Valenciennes. The first stage of the assault, launched on 20 November, was brilliantly successful; but serious hitches occurred, and the available reserves could not maintain the momentum. At the end of the month the Germans counter-attacked the salient created by the British advance. On the north they were generally held, but they broke the southern flank, and the situation was not stabilized until after hard touch-and-go fighting. As an operation Cambrai was a disappointment, but it pointed to the road to victory.
That, however, was still some way ahead. The German offensive of March 1918 fell heavily upon the Third Army, though less heavily than upon the Fifth on its right. The Third put up a splendid resistance, lost relatively little ground, and smashed the offensive round Arras. Byng had, however, to make a rapid withdrawal, which got temporarily out of hand, from the remains of the Cambrai salient. That autumn the Third Army played a great part in the offensive which decided the issue of the war. Its first attack was launched on 21 August. By a series of heavy blows, in conjunction with the Fourth Army on its right and the First Army on its left, it drove the enemy back to the Hindenburg Line and on 27 September broke that position. In the space of eighty days it advanced sixty miles—a fast pace for that war—and took 67,000 prisoners and 800 guns. Byng's qualities of leadership were unquestionably high, and the only two episodes which can possibly create controversy on this subject are his aims in the battle of Cambrai and his delay in evacuating the Cambrai salient in March 1918. It has been suggested that in the former instance he was unduly optimistic, refusing to modify an ambitious plan when it was found impossible to put at his disposal resources as large as originally intended because they had been used up at Passchendaele and in Italy. It may be so, but it should be recalled that plans were carefully scrutinized by the commander-in-chief, Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig [qv.], who was not the man to give army commanders their heads if he considered them rash. It is probable that Byng's judgement was more questionable in the second case than in the first, but his conduct of the final offensive showed him to be as capable in command of a big army as he had been in command of a column, a division, and an army corps.
In 1919 Byng, who had been gazetted to the full rank of general in 1917, was appointed G.C.B., raised to the peerage (October) as Baron Byng of Vimy, of Thorpe-le-Soken, in Essex, and received the thanks of parliament and a grant of £30,000. He received, on various occasions, a number of other honours, British and foreign, including honorary doctorates from Cambridge (1919) and Oxford (1931). In 1919, also, he was offered the Southern Command, but asked leave to retire and make way for a younger man. While he was in Egypt before the war his wife had bought Thorpe Hall, Thorpe-le-Soken. This old house she restored and enlarged, making it into a beautiful home with a widely famed garden. There was good shooting, and shooting was now his favourite sport. But he was far from idle, and took over the trying and delicate task of administering the United Service Fund
In June 1921 Byng was appointed governor-general of Canada. Needless to say, the choice was largely dictated by his prestige and popularity in the Dominion, where his name was known to everyone. Yet even those who had hoped most from it were astonished by the success which he made of his mission. Well supported by Lady Byng, he kept up the requisite state and entertained on a large scale, but was otherwise unconventional, mixing with people as had none of his predecessors. He travelled widely and developed a talent for making brief and telling speeches which did not contain the platitudes too common on official occasions. The theme to which he constantly returned, in terms sometimes approaching admonition, was the need for unity in the Dominion and for eliminating the bitterness of political strife. His popularity, great from the first, never ceased to grow. In his last year there was a widespread desire that he should serve a second term, but this he would not consider
Just before he was due to return to England, in June 1926, Byng became involved, by reason of his office, in a painful political crisis. The prime minister, Mr. W. L. Mackenzie King, had in the previous September sought and obtained from the governor-general a dissolution of parliament, with the stipulation that it could not again be granted in similar circumstances. The general election which followed had seriously worsened Mr. King's position, and he had since carried on the government with his own liberal party in a minority dependent on outside support. Now, having to face a vote of censure, certain to go against him, he asked for a second dissolution. Byng refused it, and called upon Mr. Arthur Meighen, the conservative leader, who believed that he could command a majority. Had he been right in this, the affair would not have created an inordinate stir, but he was defeated by a single vote, owing to the breaking of his ‘pair’ by a pledged supporter. Byng then granted him a dissolution, and in the subsequent election the liberals were victorious. The affair was complicated by the fact that when Mr. Meighen took office there was an interregnum because the liberals had left their offices, so that there was no ministry. If the new ministers had now accepted offices of profit they would have had to vacate their seats and seek re-election. To avoid this until the session was ended, Mr. Meighen decided that there should be no appointment to offices and no emoluments, but that a small number, who had already taken the oath of privy councillors, should carry on as ministers without portfolio. This procedure was strongly reprobated by the liberal party. Byng's last days in Canada were clouded by this episode, although Mr. King himself and all the more responsible of his adherents refrained from criticizing the governor-general's motives and expressed their appreciation of his sincerity. Yet it was with unfeigned affection and deep regret that the people of Canada said farewell to him. It has been asserted that the decision of the Imperial Conference which was held shortly after Byng's return proved that he had been in error in his handling of the crisis; but this is an over-simplification of the problem. What the Imperial Conference decided was that the governor-general is the representative of the king, not of the British government, and that the constitutional relationship between him and the prime minister of Canada is the same as that between the king and the British prime minister. Byng had, in fact, acted in accordance with this principle. He believed, as did Mr. Meighen, that, in similar circumstances, the king would have acted as had Byng.
In June 1928 Byng was asked by the home secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks [q.v.], to become chief-commissioner of the metropolitan police. He strove to excuse himself on the grounds of age and indifferent health, but strong pressure was put upon him, and he gave way. There was need at Scotland Yard for an able man with high prestige and a combination of tact and ruthlessness. The public was becoming disquieted about what appeared to be inefficiency and by certain unsavoury scandals. But Byng, the least politically minded of men, became once more the subject of a political controversy. The appointment was strongly resented by the labour opposition in the House of Commons, and a heavy attack was made upon it by one of the labour leaders, Philip Snowden [q.v.]. This agitation presently died down. Byng's reforms were wide-spread and fundamental. He retired a number of senior officers, not because he suspected them of complicity in the scandals but because he considered that the force was in need of fresh and vigorous blood. He reorganized the system of patrolling, abolishing the conventionality and clock-like regularity to which the malefactor had become accustomed. He instituted police telephone boxes and extended, if he cannot be said to have instituted, the use of police cars. He tightened up discipline. Yet his reforms were not resented, as had at first seemed possible, in the force, over which he established as strong a hold as he had done over every other body of men whom he had commanded. When the labour government took office in 1929, mindful of the criticism with which his appointment had been received, he went to the home secretary, Mr. John Robert Clynes, and told him that he was prepared to resign, although he would be glad to continue at his post if the government so desired. Mr. Clynes informed him that he possessed the confidence of the government and that he could rely upon its support. Byng's health deteriorated towards the end of his term of office, and he resigned in September 1931.
Byng had been appointed G.C.M.G. in 1921 and advanced to a viscountcy in 1928, but the highest honour of the career of arms had so far eluded him. Although not an ambitious man, his hopes had been set upon the field-marshal's baton. A former secretary of state had decided that it should not be accorded to a retired officer, despite the fact that Byng would probably have had it had he remained two or three years longer on the active list and not retired voluntarily to make way for youth. To his great satisfaction, he received it in October 1932. He died suddenly at Thorpe Hall 6 June 1935, leaving no issue, and his peerage therefore became extinct.
Byng had developed, through careful self-preparation and experience, from a somewhat shy young officer, avoiding when he could all society except that most congenial to him, to a public figure at home in any society and able to impress his personality upon multitudes. Yet he was to the end essentially simple-minded, and his greatest weakness was a guileless belief in the integrity of mankind. Since he never suspected an ulterior motive in any action, men less scrupulous than himself could on occasion take advantage of his trustfulness. Yet the man who expects most from his fellow men generally gets more from them than does the suspicious man, and this was the case with Byng. He had a genius for friendship and many friends in all walks of life. As a soldier he was thoroughly competent as well as personally inspiring. He never held independent command in the field, and it is doubtful whether he possessed the scope or the forcefulness of Haig. On the other hand, he did well what he was called upon to do, and the manner in which he first welcomed and then developed the draft scheme for the Cambrai offensive proves that as a commander he was lacking neither in open-mindedness nor in imagination.
There is a portrait of Byng, by P. A. de László, at 5 St. James's Square, and another, in field-marshal's uniform, by the same artist, at Thorpe Hall. A third portrait is included in J. S. Sargent's picture, ‘Some General Officers of the Great War’, painted in 1922, in the National Portrait Gallery.
Sir J. E. Edmonds, Cyril Falls, and Wilfred Miles, (Official) History of the Great War.
Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1914-1918, 1922-1940;
C. F. Aspinall-Oglander, (Official) History of the Great War.
Military Operations, Gallipoli, vol. ii, 1932;
Lady Byng, Up the Stream of Time, 1945;
E. A. Forsey, The Royal Power of Dissolution of Parliament in the British Commonwealth, 1943;
Contributor: Cyril Falls.