Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gwynn, Sir Charles William (1870–1963)

by Gavin Long

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Charles William Gwynn (1870-1963), by unknown photographer

Charles William Gwynn (1870-1963), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, P02029.022

Sir Charles William Gwynn (1870-1963), soldier, was born on 4 February 1870 at Ramelton, Donegal, Ireland, son of Rev. John Gwynn, sometime professor of divinity at Trinity College, Dublin, and his wife Lucy Josephine, née O'Brien. His brothers were Stephen, scholar and author; Robert, who became professor of Hebrew at Trinity College; Edward, provost of Trinity College; and John Tudor, a writer on Indian affairs.

Gwynn was educated at St Colomba's College, Dublin, and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, was commissioned in the Royal Engineers on 15 February 1889, and in 1893-94 took part in operations against the Sofas in West Africa; he was wounded three times and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and mentioned in dispatches. In 1897-1901 he worked in the geographical section of the intelligence branch at the War Office and in the Sudanese-Abyssinian frontier, and in 1901-04 was attached to the Egyptian Army. In 1900 he was promoted captain and brevet major. The reconquest of the Sudan had involved much surveying and Gwynn was employed on delimiting the wild Sudan-Abyssinian frontier; for this work he was appointed C.M.G. in 1903. Next year he returned home and married Mary, widow of Lieutenant Lowry Armstrong, R.N.; they had no children. After graduating at the Staff College, Camberley, in 1906 he studied for a year at the London School of Economics, and in 1908-09 was a commissioner of the Abyssinian and East African Boundary Commission. He was promoted major in 1908.

When the Royal Military College at Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, was opened in June 1911 with Brigadier General (Sir) W. T. Bridges as commandant, Gwynn, as director of military art and with local rank of lieutenant-colonel, was the senior of a small group of outstanding British Army officers appointed to key posts. This learned and widely experienced soldier made an immediate impact on the young Australian cadets as their first instructor in strategy, tactics and military history. His influence on the college was the greater because Bridges, always a remote figure, was absent visiting military academies in Europe in 1911-12; thus for more than half of the college's first years Gwynn acted as commandant.

His four-year term was cut short by the outbreak of war in August 1914. When the 1st Division of the Australian Imperial Force was formed with Bridges as its commander, Gwynn was by far the best qualified officer available for the post of senior staff officer, but his relations with Bridges had not been entirely harmonious and the appointment went to a promising Australian, Major (Sir) C. B. B. White. 'Much as I should have wished to join the A.I.F.', Gwynn recalled in 1932, 'it was pretty apparent that there was no immediate chance of my finding a niche in it'.

Though urged by the governor-general Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson to remain in Australia, Gwynn was in England by the end of September, but was told at the War Office that there was no chance of his getting to France. After serving with a Territorial division he was sent to the Middle East in July 1915, and was ordered to Gallipoli to become G.S.O.1 to Major General J. G. Legge of the 2nd Australian Division; he served with the division until the evacuation, temporarily commanding the 5th and 6th Brigades. His hopes of leading the 6th Brigade in France were dashed in February 1916 when he was appointed chief of staff to Lieutenant-General Sir Alexander Godley, commanding II Anzac Corps; in this post Gwynn served until after the Armistice.

Thus he headed the staff of the corps at the battle of Messines in June 1917 when it played the leading part in the first thoroughly planned offensive carried out by the British Army in France. In this and later operations (at the end of 1917 the corps was renamed the XXII British Corps) the support of a talented chief of staff was needed by Godley, who was more at home in colonial campaigning or on the hunting field than in large-scale European warfare. In 1918 Gwynn was appointed C.B. and during the war was mentioned in dispatches six times, received the brevet ranks (British Army) of lieutenant-colonel and colonel, and was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre and the Légion d'honneur. In a Reveille article in 1932 he wrote of the Australian soldiers: 'No troops showed greater appreciation of the value of training or more care to work out the details of every operation—great or small. Although no troops showed more desire to kill the enemy, few showed as much determination to keep alive themselves in the process'.

In 1919, after six months commanding a brigade with the army of occupation on the Rhine, he was appointed G.S.O.1 of the 1st Division at Aldershot, was promoted colonel in 1920, and in 1920-24 was on the staff of Eastern Command. In January 1925 he was promoted major general and in May 1926 was made commandant of the Staff College, Camberley. In his five years there he had as instructors or students the future field marshals Wilson, Brooke, Montgomery and Alexander and as students several Duntroon graduates destined for high appointments in 1939-45, notably Lieuts-General (Sir) Sydney Rowell and (Sir) Frank Berryman. He retired in 1931 and was appointed K.C.B. His book, Imperial Policing, was published in London in 1934. In his retirement he also wrote military articles for The Times, Daily Telegraph and Morning Post. He died in Dublin on 12 February 1963.

Gwynn was of medium height, spare, and had a slight stammer, which, as Rowell remembered, was 'intensified after the third glass of port'. At Duntroon he won esteem by his learning, high standards of discipline and behaviour and impartiality. His influence on the college after its establishment was as potent as that of Bridges. In action he proved one of the outstanding staff officers of the British Army, and in peace a notable trainer of future senior commanders.

Select Bibliography

  • A. J. Godley, Life of an Irish Soldier (Lond, 1939)
  • J. E. Lee, Duntroon (Canb, 1952)
  • S. F. Rowell, Full Circle (Melb, 1974)
  • Royal Engineers, June 1963
  • Times (London), 13 Feb 1963.

Citation details

Gavin Long, 'Gwynn, Sir Charles William (1870–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gwynn-sir-charles-william-6511/text11175, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 19 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Charles William Gwynn (1870-1963), by unknown photographer

Charles William Gwynn (1870-1963), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, P02029.022