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Ironside: The Authorised Biography of Field Marshal Lord Ironside

Ironside: The Authorised Biography of Field Marshal Lord Ironside

Edmund Ironside
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
The Royal Artillery (RA) produced two of the three Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) who served this country during the Second World War. One was Lord Alanbrooke. Everyone has heard of Alanbrooke but, outside the RA, few have ever heard of the other, who was William Ironside. Why is Ironside so little-known? Why do many histories of the Army in the 20th century and of the Second World War barely mention, or simply omit, him? This readable and well-constructed biography goes far towards repairing that omission.

Ironside is the biography of a remarkable man, written by his son, the Second Lord Ironside. The first holder of the title, Field Marshal Baron Ironside of Archangel and of Ironside in the County of Aberdeen, had an impressive career by anyone's standards. Born in 1880, William Ironside died in 1959: he witnessed the zenith of British imperial power and experienced its rapid decline following the two World Wars. He played an active part in three major wars: the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 and the First and Second World Wars, as well as other conflicts. At 6 feet 4 inches in height, exceptionally strong and ruggedly handsome, Ironside was a born commander and a brilliant linguist, who played rugby for Scotland and won the Army heavyweight boxing championship.

Educated at Tonbridge School and the RMA Woolwich, Ironside was commissioned in the Royal Artillery in 1899. His first experience of war was in South Africa, where, among other roles, he spied on the Germans in what is now Namibia. He befriended John Buchan, who based his fictional hero, Richard Hannay, on Ironside. Ironside's career was however even more exciting and eventful than Hannay's. During the First World War Ironside received six Mentions in Despatches as well as the DSO; he also received command, first in the Machine Gun Corps and then of an Infantry brigade (despite being a Gunner) and a posting to northern Russia. By the end of the war, aged 39, he had been knighted, become a substantive Major General and the Military Secretary's office had marked him as an officer of exceptional promise.

In the interwar period Ironside, among other appointments, served as Commandant of the Staff College at Camberley; commanded the 2nd Division at Aldershot and at Meerut in India; was promoted Lieutenant General; became a reforming Quartermaster General of the Indian Army and in 1936 was promoted General and appointed GOC Eastern Command. In 1939 he became Inspector General of Overseas Forces and Commander Designate of the field force designated to proceed to France in the event of war. The latter posting did not materialise, to Ironside's chagrin; in the event Lord Gort, the then Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) took command of the field force (the BEF).

Ironside's consolation prize was to become the next CIGS; a job for which he considered that he was “not suited by temperament”. He was probably right, although one wonders whether any CIGS could have survived that most difficult of times with his reputation intact. More recently General Lord Richards has commented that “whoever was CIGS during this period was not destined to be in the post for too long”. In the event Ironside remained as CIGS for nine stressful months from 3 September 1939. In 1940 he reached the age of 60 and was retired. His friend Winston Churchill arranged for him to be promoted Field Marshal and ennobled as his reward for successfully organising the defence of Calais as a shield for the BEF's withdrawal from Dunkirk and his final service as C-in-C Home Forces at a time when invasion seemed imminent.

Ironside's period as CIGS did not enhance his reputation, but there were other factors. Ironside served his country bravely and imaginatively at a time when orthodoxy was the order of the day; this did not make him popular. For example, as Staff College Commandant, Ironside supported Major General J. F. C “Boney” Fuller's radical ideas at a time when many members of the Army Board considered Fuller to be a dangerous eccentric, if not a lunatic. Some of Fuller's associates, such as the magician, Aleister Crowley, arguably fitted that description but Fuller himself is now generally recognised as a far-sighted early theorist of mechanised warfare who in his numerous books intelligently examined the business of fighting in terms of the relationship between warfare and social, political, and economic factors in the civilian sector. Fuller emphasized the potential of new weapons, especially tanks and aircraft, to stun a surprised enemy psychologically. None of this is controversial now but in the 1920s, it was.

Some of the criticism directed at Ironside was definitely not merited: he and other Generals of his generation were sometimes blamed for the inadequate preparedness of the British Army when it confronted the German Wehrmacht in 1940. In reality the Generals did the best that they could with the means at their disposal, which were not sufficient. Responsibility for the outcome rests with the interwar British Governments, who failed to recognise the menace of resurgent Germany until almost too late; who did not listen to those, such as Churchill, who did recognise it; and who failed to fund and equip the Armed Forces of the Crown as they should have done.

Above all, Ironside was a soldier's soldier and this was reflected in his 1959 obituary in The Glasgow Herald:

“Ironside, his troops felt, was an ideal leader, a big man physically as well as in character. .. A famous military historian wrote of him that he might well become a national hero; while that forecast was not fulfilled, he certainly made his own legend with those who served under him.”

Ironside could not have wished for a better epitaph.

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