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Birdwood, William Riddell (Baron Birdwood) (1865–1951)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

William Birdwood, by James Quinn, 1919

William Birdwood, by James Quinn, 1919

Australian War Memorial, ART03338

William Riddell Birdwood (1865-1951), 1st Baron Birdwood of Anzac and Totnes, field marshal, was born on 13 September 1865 at Kirkee, India, second son of Herbert Mills Birdwood, under-secretary to the government of Bombay, and Edith Marion, daughter of Surgeon Major E. G. H. Impey of the Bombay Horse Artillery. Birdwood was educated at Clifton College, Bristol, and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, England, from which he was commissioned early owing to the Russian war scare of 1885. He was posted to the 12th Lancers in India, transferring in 1887 to the 11th Bengal Lancers. In 1894 he married Jeannette Hope Gonville, daughter of the fourth Baron Bromhead of Lincoln.  

By 1914 Birdwood was an experienced and successful officer. He had served in numerous North-West Frontier campaigns and in the South African War, and had held an important frontier command. He had been on Lord Kitchener's staff in South Africa and India, and later recognized Kitchener as 'the greatest influence on my life'. Awarded the D.S.O. and C.I.E. in 1908, he became major general in 1911 and was appointed C.B. He became secretary to the Army Department, government of India, and member of the Viceroy's Legislative Council in 1912, and was already regarded by some as a future commander-in-chief. However, the outbreak of war in Europe turned his career in a wholly unexpected direction.

In November 1914 Kitchener, as minister for war, gave Birdwood command of the forces raised by Australia and New Zealand for service in Europe. He reached Egypt, where they were assembling, on 21 December accompanied by a small, carefully chosen staff. From the beginning, Lieutenant-General Birdwood struck the note which was to characterize his command throughout the war; he left his staff to get on with their work and went among his troops.

Kitchener at first gave Birdwood command of the troops who were to land on the Gallipoli Peninsula in support of the fleet trying to force the passage of the Dardanelles. Birdwood's report, made after reconnoitring the Straits and discussions with the Royal Navy, convinced Kitchener that a greater military effort was needed; he allotted more troops and appointed General Sir Ian Hamilton to command. Hamilton, disregarding Birdwood's plans, ordered him to land north of Gaba Tepe on the Aegean side of the peninsula, simultaneously with other landings around Helles and on the Asian shore. He was to press inland and cut off the Turks in the southern part of the peninsula. Birdwood insisted on a silent attack before dawn to ensure surprise.

The covering force went ashore on 25 April, a mile north of the designated beach. The consequent confusion was aggravated by the abrupt and lofty ridges, narrow gullies, dense scrub and increasing Turkish resistance. By dark the force was disorganized, the men almost exhausted and their objectives still in enemy hands. The divisional commanders W. T. Bridges and A. J. Godley impressed on Birdwood their doubts about withstanding a counter-attack and urged him to make arrangements with the navy for re-embarkation. This he refused to do but agreed to place their views before Hamilton. The latter's firm refusal to withdraw and his injunction to 'dig, dig, dig until you are safe' ended the first crisis of the campaign.

The impression that Birdwood had made on the Anzacs in Egypt deepened during the seven months on the peninsula when the attackers became a besieged garrison. Daily the short, lean figure of their commander was seen in the front trenches, chatting with the soldiers, noting with professional eye what the amateurs had overlooked and giving orders for its amendment, sharing the risks but never the water that was offered because he knew that every drop had been carried up from the beach. He neither smoked nor drank any form of alcohol but refreshed himself by swimming daily off Anzac — the name he gave the landing place — in spite of enemy fire. 'Birdie's' serene courage won the admiration of all. His concern for the soldiers and his fighting spirit became important factors in Anzac morale. Robert Rhodes James states that his popularity 'was something of a newspaper myth' and quotes an unnamed Australian observer: 'He bored the men and they bored him'. Charles Bean, who saw Birdwood at close quarters throughout the war, does not confirm this view; nor does Birdwood's enthusiastic reception by Australians in London on Anzac Day 1916, nor his triumphal progress around Australia and New Zealand in 1920. Whatever the extent of his popularity, there is no doubt of the respect in which he was held for his courage and his example. In Hamilton's memorable phrase, he was 'the soul of Anzac'.

After Bridges died on 18 May 1915 Birdwood temporarily took command of the Australian Imperial Force, but was not formally appointed until 14 September 1916. He had suggested the move and, while admitting his ambition, it must be conceded that, from the standpoint of fairness and military efficiency, this decision was crucial to the future of the A.I.F. which in 1915 had expanded to two divisions and included troops under New Zealand command. Birdwood brought an Australian expert in personnel matters to his headquarters and in September chose Colonel (Sir) Brudenell White from 1st Division Headquarters as chief of staff. Thus began a military partnership which contributed markedly to the development of the A.I.F.

Birdwood's attacks in May and August were costly and mostly unsuccessful — hardly surprising, given the nature of the ground, the lack of depth in the Anzac position and the commanding heights occupied by the Turks. He had held this position against all Turkish efforts. When the question of evacuation was debated in November, Birdwood was the only senior officer opposed to it but it fell to him to command the brilliant operations whereby Suvla, Anzac and Helles were evacuated without loss in December and January. After expanding the A.I.F. to four divisions in Egypt, he sailed for France in command of the 1st Anzac Corps in March 1916.

In France, Birdwood's influence on the A.I.F. was no less important than in Egypt. Successfully resisting General Headquarters' attempt to take charge of Australian administration, he built up the A.I.F. base and training establishments in England and united the five Australian divisions in the Australian Corps. He insisted on retaining command of the A.I.F. in Egypt, but failed either to go himself or to send White to visit the Light Horse and other units.

Birdwood's policy was to appoint Australians to commands and staffs, but pressure from home forced him to accelerate the process. By 31 May 1918, when he handed over the corps to Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash, whom he had recommended as his successor, only one British officer remained in a senior command. Birdwood, who had been promoted general in 1917, went to command the Fifth Army much against his own wishes; he took White as chief of staff and to advise in Australian matters, as he still retained command of the A.I.F. Although most Australian generals supported this arrangement, there was strong opposition from Bean and (Sir) Keith Murdoch, the journalist and confidant of W. M. Hughes; they argued that Monash should command the A.I.F. and White the corps as, in their view, Birdwood could not command a British army and efficiently administer the A.I.F. In August Hughes offered Birdwood the administrative command full time and he accepted, while obtaining Hughes's agreement to his remaining with his army until 30 November.

Birdwood was appointed K.C.M.G. (1914), K C.S.I. (1915), K.C.B. (1917), G.C.M.G. (1919), and was created a baronet and granted £10,000 (1919). He was mentioned in dispatches frequently and awarded many foreign decorations. In the Australian Military Forces he was made a general (1920), field marshal (1925), and honorary colonel of the 3rd Infantry Battalion and the 16th Light Horse; he also received further British honours.

Birdwood toured Australia and New Zealand in 1920 after which he returned to the Indian Army, becoming commander-in-chief in 1925. He retired in 1930. An ambition of which he made no secret was thwarted when Sir Isaac Isaacs was made governor-general of Australia that year. King George V had wished to appoint Birdwood but Prime Minister Scullin insisted on an Australian. However, his election to the mastership of Peterhouse, Cambridge, England, in 1931 was an enjoyable coda to a long and distinguished career. In 1938 he was created Baron Birdwood of Anzac and Totnes.

Birdwood's success as a commander lay in the field of leadership rather than in tactics or organization. Nevertheless he was careful to choose able subordinates and the quality of his staffs was high. His choice of White, widely regarded as the outstanding Australian officer, strengthened his position in dealing with the Australians as well as with higher authority. If he lacked the tactical flair and imagination of General Allenby, he was a very competent professional who set and obtained high standards. In view of the reputation of the Australian Corps when he left it in May 1918, he must be accorded his share of the credit for creating so illustrious a force. Throughout the war he kept up a valuable correspondence not only with the governor-general, the prime minister and the minister for defence but also with bereaved or anxious families in Australia. He also wrote to officers who had been decorated or promoted. When Field Marshal Haig told White that he should command the corps, White's reply was significant: 'God forbid! General Birdwood has a position among Australians which is far too valuable to lose'.

Survived by a son and two daughters, Birdwood died at Hampton Court Palace, Middlesex, on 17 May 1951 and was buried in Twickenham cemetery with full military honours. His autobiography, Khaki and Gown, had been published in 1941 and a short book of reminiscences, In My Time, in 1946. Portraits are in the Australian War Memorial and the Royal Military College, Canberra, as well as the National Gallery of Victoria. A town in South Australia bears his name. His elder daughter married Colin Craig, a Western Australian grazier.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924), and The A.I.F. in France (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • C. F. Aspinall-Oglander, Military Operations: Gallipoli, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1929, 1932)
  • R. R. James, Gallipoli (Syd, 1965)
  • E. Bush, Gallipoli (Lond, 1975)
  • Who Was Who 1951-1960 (Lond)
  • Birdwood and Pearce papers (Australian War Memorial)
  • Chauvel papers (held by Lady Chauvel, Melb)
  • Novar papers (National Library of Australia)
  • newsclippings, 1914-51 (Australian War Memorial).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Birdwood, William Riddell (Baron Birdwood) (1865–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/birdwood-william-riddell-baron-birdwood-5240/text8823, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 April 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

William Birdwood, by James Quinn, 1919

William Birdwood, by James Quinn, 1919

Australian War Memorial, ART03338