A study in the limitations of command : General Sir William Birdwood and the A.I.F., 1914-1918

by John Dermot Millar

Institution: University of New South Wales
Department: History
Year: 1993
Keywords: General William Birdwood; military command; command structures; officers; World War I; World War One; World War 1; 1914-1918; military planning; operations; Army; Gallipoli; Western Front; France; Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F.) corp command; corps commanders
Record ID: 1033221
Full text PDF: http://handle.unsw.edu.au/1959.4/38742


Military command is the single most important factor in the conduct of warfare. To understand war and military success and failure, historians need to explore command structures and the relationships between commanders. In World War I, a new level of higher command had emerged: the corps commander. Between 1914 and 1918, the role of corps commanders and the demands placed upon them constantly changed as experiences brought illumination and insight. Yet the men who occupied these positions were sometimes unable to cope with the changing circumstances and the many significant limitations which were imposed upon them. Of the World War I corps commanders, William Birdwood was one of the longest serving. From the time of his appointment in December 1914 until May 1918, Birdwood acquired an experience of corps command which was perhaps more diverse than his contemporaries during this time. He is, then, an ideal subject for a prolonged assessment of this level of command. This thesis has two principal objectives. The first is to identify and assess those factors which limited Birdwood���s capacity and ability to command. The second is to explore the institutional constraints placed on corps commanders during the 1914-1918 war. Surprisingly, this is a comparatively barren area of research. Because very few officers spent much time as corps commanders on their way to higher command appointments and because the role of the corps commanders in military planning and in the conduct of operations was not immediately apparent, their role has been practically ignored. Historians have tended to concentrate on the Army and divisional levels creating a deficient view of higher military command in World War I. However, corps commanders could and did play an important part in planning operations and in military affairs generally. Birdwood���s experience at Gallipoli and in France reflect some of the changes to command structures that were prompted by the successes and failures of operations directed at the corps level. In as much as these two theatres of war were vastly different and Birdwood was confronted with dissimilar problems, it is possible to draw some general conclusions about the evolution of higher command after 1914. Using a wide range of primary and secondary sources located in Australian and British archives, this thesis traces Birdwood���s career as a corps commander at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. It also examines his tenure as G.O.C. of the A.I.F.