Horace Smith-Dorrien was born at Haresfoot, Berkhamsted, the 11th child of 15. He was educated at Harrow, and on 26 February 1876 entered the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, passing out with a commission as a subaltern to the 95th (Derbyshire) Regiment of Foot. On 1 November 1878, he was posted to South Africa where he worked as a transport officer. In this role he encountered, and fought against, corruption in the army.
Zulu Wars: Smith-Dorrien was present at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879, serving with the British invasion force as a transport officer for the army's Royal Artillery detachment. As Zulu forces overran the British forces, Smith-Dorrien narrowly escaped on his transport pony. As such, Smith-Dorrien was one of fewer than fifty white survivors of the battle. His observations on the difficulty of opening ammunition boxes led to changes in British practice for the rest of the war, though modern commentators argue that this was not as an important factor in the defeat as was thought at the time. Because of his conduct in trying to help other soldiers during his dramatic escape from the battlefield, he was nominated for a Victoria Cross, but, as the nomination did not go through the proper channels, he never received it. He took part in the rest of that war.
Egypt 1882–7: He later served in Egypt on police duties, being appointed assistant chief of police in Alexandria on 22 August 1882. During this time, he forged a life-long friendship with Lord Kitchener. On 30 December 1885, he witnessed the Battle of Gennis, where the British Army fought in red coats for the last time. The next day he was given an independent command and, following a bold military action where he went beyond his orders, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
From 1887–9, Smith-Dorrien then left active command to go to the Staff College, Camberley.
India: He returned to his regiment where he commanded troops during the Tirah campaign of 1897–98.
Egypt and Sudan: In 1898, he transferred back to Egypt and fought at the Battle of Omdurman and commanded the British troops during the Fashoda incident. During this time, he was promoted to the rank of Colonel.
Second Boer War: On 31 October 1899, he shipped to South Africa, arriving on 13 December. On 2 February 1900, Lord Roberts put him in command of 19 Brigade and, on 11 February, he was promoted to Major-General. He played an important role at the Battle of Paardeberg (18 February to 27 February 1900), steering Lord Kitchener and Henry Colville away from tactics of attacking an entrenched enemy over open ground. At Sanna's Post (31 March 1900), Smith-Dorrien ignored inept orders from Colville to leave wounded largely unprotected and managed an orderly retreat without further casualties. He took part in the Battle of Leliefontein (7 November 1900). On 6 February 1901, Smith-Dorrien's troops were attacked in the Battle of Chrissiesmeer. Smith-Dorrien's qualities as a commander meant he was one of a very few British commanders to enhance his reputation during this war.
India: On 22 April 1901, he received orders to return to India where he was made Adjutant General 6th November 1901) under Kitchener. He was placed in command of the 4th Division in Baluchistan, a post he held until 1907. In the dispute between Kitchener and Lord Curzon over the role of the Military Member, Smith-Dorrien stayed neutral, torn between his relations with Kitchener and with the Military Member himself, Sir Arthur Power Palmer.
He returned to England to become GOC of the Aldershot training base. During this time, he instituted a number of reforms designed to improve the lot of the ordinary soldier. One was to abandon the practice of posting pickets to police the soldiers when they were outside the base. Another was to improve sports facilities. His reforms earned many plaudits (but were treated as an implied criticism by his predecessor, Sir John French).
He improved the frequency and methods of training in marksmanship of all soldiers. During this period, the higher ranks of the army were divided on the best use of cavalry. Smith-Dorrien, along with Lord Roberts and Sir Ian Hamilton and others, doubted that cavalry could often be used as cavalry, thinking they would be more often deployed as mounted infantry. To this end, he took steps to improve the marksmanship of the cavalry. This did not endear him to the 'pro-cavalry' faction, which included French and Douglas Haig.
He also tried to get the army to purchase better machine-guns.
Although Smith-Dorrien was perfectly urbane and, by the standards of the day, kind-hearted towards his troops, he was notorious for furious outbursts of bad temper, which could last for hours before his equilibrium was restored. It has been suggested that the pain from a knee injury was one cause his ill temper.
In 1911, he was made Aide-de-Camp to King George V. He was part of the king's hunt in the Chitwan area of Nepal; on 19 December 1911, Smith-Dorrien killed a rhino and on the following day shot a bear.
On 1 March 1912, he was appointed GOC Southern Command and on 10 August 1912 he was promoted to full General.
Unlike French, he was politically astute enough to avoid becoming entangled in the Curragh Incident of 1914.
With the outbreak of the Great War, he was given command of the Home Defence Army; however, following the sudden death of Sir James Grierson, he was placed in charge of the British Expeditionary Force II Corps, by Lord Kitchener, the new Secretary of State for War. Field Marshal Sir John French had wanted Sir Herbert Plumer but Kitchener chose Smith-Dorrien as he knew he could stand up to French.
Smith-Dorrien's II Corps took the brunt of a heavy assault by the German forces at Mons, with the Germans under von Kluck attempting a flanking manoeuvre. French ordered a general retreat, during which I Corps (under General Douglas Haig) and II Corps became separated. Haig's I Corps did not reach its intended position to the immediate east of Le Cateau.
Le Cateau (26 August 1914)
Smith-Dorrien, now at Le Cateau, saw that his isolated forces were in danger of being overwhelmed in a piecemeal fashion. He decided instead to concentrate his corps, supplemented by Allenby's cavalry and the 4th Division of Thomas D'Oyly Snow. On 26 August 1914, he mounted a vigorous defensive action, a "stopping blow", which despite heavy casualties, halted the German advance. With the BEF saved, he resumed an orderly retreat.
His decision to stand and fight enraged French who accused Smith-Dorrien of jeopardising the whole BEF, an accusation which did not amuse Smith-Dorrien's fellow corps commander, Haig, who already believed French to be incompetent.
Smith-Dorrien's II Corps took part in the First Battle of the Marne and the First Battle of the Aisne before the British were moved north to be closer to their supply lines.
First Battle of Ypres
The battle for Hill 60 was a notable struggle here. A defensive line at Neuve Chapelle became known as the Smith-Dorrien Trench (or, sometimes, the Smith-Dorrien Line). On 26 December 1914, Smith-Dorrien took command of the Second Army.
Second Battle of Ypres
In this battle, the British were defending an untenable salient. On 22 April 1915, the Germans used poison gas on the Western Front for the first time and heavy casualties were sustained. On 27 April, Smith-Dorrien recommended withdrawal to a more defensible front line. On 30 April, Haig wrote in his diary
Sir John also told me Smith-Dorrien had caused him much trouble. 'He was quite unfit (he said)] to hold the Command of an Army' so Sir J. had withdrawn all troops from him control except the II Corps. Yet Smith-D. stayed on! He would not resign!] French is to ask Lord Kitchener to find something to do at home. … He also alluded to Smith-Dorrien's conduct on the retreat, and said he ought to have tried him by Court Martial, because (on the day of Le Cateau) he 'had ordered him to retire at 8 am and he did not attempt to do so but insisted on fighting in spite of his orders to retire]'.
French used the 'pessimism' of the withdrawal recommendation as an excuse to sack Smith-Dorrien on 6 May. His replacement, Herbert Plumer, then recommended a withdrawal almost identical to that proposed by Smith-Dorrien, which French accepted. In December 1915, French himself was removed by Kitchener; Douglas Haig then replaced French as commander of the BEF.
French later wrote a partial and inaccurate account of the opening of the war in his book 1914, which attacked Smith-Dorrien. Smith-Dorrien, as a serving officer, was denied permission to reply in public.
Remainder of the war
After a period in Britain, Smith-Dorrien was assigned a command to fight the Germans in German East Africa (present day Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi) but pneumonia contracted during the voyage to South Africa prevented him from taking command. His former adversary, Jan Smuts, took on this command. Smith-Dorrien took no significant military part in the rest of the war. On 29 January 1917, Smith-Dorrien was appointed lieutenant of the Tower of London.
His next position was as Governor of Gibraltar from 9 July 1918 – 26 May 1923, where he introduced an element of democracy and closed some brothels. According to Wyndham Childs in the summer of 1918, Horace tried, and nearly succeeded, in uniting the Comrades of the Great War, the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, and the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers into one body. The merger later took place in 1921 to form the British Legion.
He retired in September 1923, living in Portugal and then England. He devoted much his time to the welfare and remembrance of Great War soldiers. He worked on his memoirs, which were published in 1925. As French was still alive at the time of writing, he still felt unable to rebut 1914. Despite his treatment by French, in 1925, he acted as a pallbearer at French's funeral, an act appreciated by French's son.
He played himself in the film The Battle of Mons, released in 1926.
He died on 12 August 1930 following injuries sustained in a car accident in Chippenham, Wiltshire; he was 72 years old. He is buried in Berkhamsted.[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
Lt. Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, Hythe, 1878