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Sir Cyril Brudenell White (1876–1940)

by Jeffrey Grey

This article was published:

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Cyril Brudenell White (1876-1940), by John Longstaff, 1921

Cyril Brudenell White (1876-1940), by John Longstaff, 1921

Australian War Memorial, ART02985

Sir Cyril Brudenell Bingham White (1876-1940), soldier, was born on 23 September 1876 at St Arnaud, Victoria, seventh child of John Warren White, stock agent and retired army officer, and his wife Maria, née Gibton, both Dublin born. The family moved to Queensland in 1881 and lived on pastoral stations in the Gympie, Charters Towers and Gladstone areas before settling at Clayfield, Brisbane. Although he was unsuccessful as a pastoralist, in 1885 John became president of the Brisbane Stock Exchange. Brudenell was educated at Brisbane Central Boys' School and for one year at Eton Preparatory School, Nundah. He had wanted to be a barrister, like his grandfather, but at the age of 16 took a job as a bank clerk and studied in his spare time.

While based at Gympie, he became friends with (Sir) Thomas Glasgow; through this connexion, and with the assistance of Captain C. B. Steele, White was provisionally commissioned on 7 October 1896 in the 2nd Queensland (Wide Bay and Burnett) Regiment. Transferring to the permanent forces, he was commissioned on 7 June 1899 in the Queensland Regiment of the Royal Australian Artillery, was stationed at Thursday Island in 1900-01 and continued to serve in the Australian Military Forces. On 18 February 1902 he embarked for service in South Africa with the 1st Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse. The unit engaged in minor operations in the western Transvaal and Bechuanaland; hostilities ended in June and White wrote: 'I would have liked to see a little fighting'. Sailing for Australia next month in the poorly equipped Drayton Grange, he went among a group of mutinous soldiers who threatened to 'toss him in a blanket' and placated them.

In January 1904 he was detached from his duties with the artillery in Victoria and appointed aide-de-camp to Major General Sir Edward Hutton, general officer commanding the A.M.F. His one year association with Hutton, during which the two formed a lasting friendship, marked the beginning of White's formative years as a staff officer. Promoted temporary captain, he travelled extensively with the G.O.C. and learned much about the state and organization of the infant Australian Army. On 15 November 1905 at Christ Church, South Yarra, White married Ethel Davidson with Anglican rites. Next year, nominated by Hutton, he became the first A.M.F. officer to attend the British Army Staff College, Camberley, England. He began the course with relatively little regimental experience and limited active service. That he graduated well up in his class-list was testimony to his ability and capacity for hard work, traits which increasingly brought him to the notice of his superiors. Returning to Australia, he was promoted captain and in March 1908 joined the staff of the chief of intelligence, Colonel (Sir) William Bridges, who shared many of his views. By the end of the year White was again in Britain, serving on exchange as a general staff officer, 3rd grade, at the War Office.

His attachment to the War Office gave him experience in handling large forces and developed his skills in planning and administration; it also introduced him to officers with whom he would later work and deepened his 'commitment to the British Empire'. Writing regularly to Bridges, he elaborated an Imperial view of Australian defence which contrasted to the more independent stance of officers such as Lieutenant-Colonel James Legge. In January 1909 White wrote: 'I have always held that an Imperial General Staff must of necessity be able to accomplish more than any local one'. He favoured bringing Australian forces under the British Army Act in time of war, and opposed the creation of an Australian navy. The need for trained officers in Australia led to his recall and to his appointment on 1 January 1912 as director of military operations at Army Headquarters, Melbourne. He had been promoted major the previous year.

In his new post he was responsible for developing strategic policy and administering the military system recently formulated by Legge and Lord Kitchener. White maintained and updated Bridges's mobilization plans for home defence and supported the concept of a citizen force. Although pleased by the depth of Imperial sentiment among politicians, especially in the Labor Party, he was frustrated by the refusal of successive defence ministers to allow contingency planning for war between Britain and Germany. In 1912, however, (Sir) George Pearce approved talks with New Zealand representatives on common action to be taken were either country attacked. It was agreed that a jointly-manned division would be fielded. Instructed by Pearce to work in secrecy, White compiled specifications for raising, equipping, training and dispatching the Australian portion of such a force. In July 1914 he was made acting chief of the General Staff, pending Legge's return from Britain. Next month, as a result of his earlier planning, White was able to endorse the government's offer to the United Kingdom of a force of 20,000 men to proceed overseas at short notice in the event of war.

When Bridges was appointed in August 1914 to command the Australian Imperial Force he chose Lieutenant-Colonel White as his chief of staff. Drawing on White's plans, the two worked closely to create the force and to establish administrative arrangements to preserve its separate identity within the British Army. By December the first contingent of the A.I.F. was training in Egypt. With Bridges, White planned the landing of the 1st Australian Division at Gaba Tepe, while expressing the view that the total force to be used in the assault on Gallipoli was inadequate. In the confusion of the landing on 25 April 1915, he accompanied Bridges on his rapid tour of A.I.F. positions and helped to pull together the disorganized threads of command and communications. He was 'the perfect complement to Bridges' until the latter's death in May. Next month White was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his exceptional efforts as a staff officer. On 1 October he became brigadier general, General Staff, Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, and began his long partnership with Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood who took permanent command of the A.I.F. that month. White was the logical choice for a position which involved operational duties, the administrative control of the A.I.F., and issues of policy between the Australian government and the British commander of its overseas forces.

With Birdwood's departure to act as commander-in-chief at Imbros in October 1915, White remained at corps headquarters. There he planned and supervised the evacuation of Anzac, the most successful operation of the campaign. Put into effect in three stages, his plan lulled the Turks into thinking that a lessening of activity was part of preparations for winter; on the night of 19-20 December the last 10,000 men were evacuated, transported to Imbros and thence to Egypt; the withdrawal was accomplished without incident or casualties. White was twice mentioned in dispatches for his work at Gallipoli. In Egypt he had the principal role in implementing the expansion of the A.I.F. to four divisions. One of the new divisional commands might have gone to him, but Birdwood chose to maintain continuity in the force's administration. Appointed C.B., White embarked for France on 29 March 1916 as B.G.G.S., I Anzac Corps.

His authority over the A.I.F. on the Western Front was pervasive. It was generally recognized that he was responsible for running the corps, while Birdwood exercised command through regular and direct contact with the men. Notwithstanding his close relationship with 'his' Australians, Birdwood's administration and organization were weak, and his tactical acumen suspect. White more than compensated for these shortcomings. When General Sir Douglas Haig rebuked the Anzac Corps staff after a failure at Pozières Heights in July 1916, it was White who showed him 'in detail, item by item' that the criticism was unfounded. Haig was sufficiently impressed to reply: 'I daresay you are right, young man'. Moreover, White understood the need to provide for the comfort and well-being of the troops, notably in the dreadful winter of 1916-17 when there was an urgent requirement to build camps, roads and railways. Because it became known that he could get things done, problems were referred to him: 'During this, the most difficult period of the A.I.F.'s existence', he wielded unprecedented influence.

Although concern had already been expressed that he was 'being kept back on account of his usefulness as a staff officer', as Birdwood had admitted in a letter to Hutton in September, White was promoted temporary major general on 1 January 1917 and continued as Birdwood's chief of staff. Throughout the advance to the Hindenburg line in March, he constantly advised the divisional commanders and maintained control in the unfamiliar conditions of fighting on the move. Finding that Haig had not been informed of the need for the Australian divisions to rest, White told a senior British staff officer in May that he would never again recommend sending an Australian force overseas unless its representative had direct access to the commander-in-chief. At times his responsibilities bore hard upon him. Writing to his old friend Brigadier General (Sir) John Gellibrand next month, after the two costly battles of Bullecourt, he vented his dissatisfaction with Birdwood and the remainder of the staff. Yet, he attributed his irritability to tiredness: 'I know in my innermost heart that all I need is a certain amount of rest and freedom from responsibility and I will see the world in correct perspective again for a while'.

In July 1917 White rejected Haig's suggestion that he take command of the corps, arguing that Birdwood's position with the Australians was too valuable to lose. Charles Bean and (Sir) Keith Murdoch agitated behind the scenes later in the year to have White placed in command, though to no avail. He was appointed C.M.G. in December. Following the collapse of the British Fifth Army in the German offensive of March 1918, General Birdwood was selected as its commander, opening the question of who should lead the newly formed Australian Corps. On learning in May that Major General Sir John Monash would be appointed and that White would go to the Fifth Army with Birdwood, Bean and Murdoch revived their campaign: their aim was to have Monash promoted general and made general officer commanding the A.I.F. in England, thus leaving White to take the corps. White gave them no encouragement and dissociated himself from their manoeuvres. Monash's appointment had been proper and deserved. As arrangements stood, administrative command of the A.I.F. would remain nominally with Birdwood, but in effect with White, thereby enabling him to retain control of the cherished force he had done so much to create and advance. For these reasons, White suppressed personal ambition for what he held to be a greater good. On 1 June he took up duties as major general, General Staff, Fifth Army, and had little further involvement in operations.

Sent to London to preside briefly over the Demobilization and Repatriation Branch, he was promoted temporary lieutenant-general and made chief of staff, A.I.F., on 28 November 1918. He was appointed K.C.M.G. on 1 January 1919. For his services after Gallipoli, he received five foreign decorations, was appointed aide-de-camp to King George V and mentioned in dispatches five times. His brilliant war record had been due to his loyalty, professionalism, intelligence and the capacity to work harmoniously with successive leaders. 'A tallish, wiry man with elegant carriage, direct and compelling blue eyes and a dominant nose', he had personal charm which cloaked a strong will.

His brother Dudley Persse White (1867-1947) had also served in the war. He was born on 31 July 1867 at Minnieboro station, near Glenorchy, Victoria. Commissioned in the Queensland Land Forces in 1889, he transferred to the permanent forces and by 1913 was a lieutenant-colonel, Administrative and Instructional Branch, A.M.F. On 25 March 1904 he married Lynette Charlotte Yaldwyn with Anglican rites at St John's Pro-Cathedral, Brisbane. Appointed to the A.I.F. in November 1916, he commanded the 13th Light Horse Regiment on the Western Front from May 1917 to the end of hostilities. He was promoted brevet colonel, A.M.F., for specially meritorious service, mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre. Having retired in 1922, Dudley White went to live in England and died on 15 April 1947 at Much Marcle, Herefordshire.

Returning to Australia in June 1919, Sir Brudenell found that his first peacetime task was to join Legge, Sir James McCay and George Swinburne on a committee which considered the future organization of the A.M.F. Their report recommended a modified system of compulsory military training and a citizen force structure of six infantry and two mounted divisions—some 180,000 men. In February 1920 the committee, enlarged to comprise six generals of the former A.I.F., produced a second report. Minor changes to the earlier proposals were suggested. Becoming chief of the General Staff on 1 June, White was prepared to implement the proposals, but faced savage cuts in defence spending. Rather than building a citizen army, as he had hoped, he found himself preserving as much of it as he could in a nucleus organization which would be capable of expansion in an emergency.

Retiring as C.G.S. in June 1923, White was appointed chairman of the newly constituted Commonwealth Public Service Board. Although his primary task was to reclassify the service, he also supervised the progressive transfer of departments from Melbourne to Canberra. In 1927 he made the Federal arrangements for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York and was appointed K.C.B. He had been appointed K.C.V.O. in 1920 for organizing the tour of the Prince of Wales. Wishing to remain within weekly commuting distance of his grazing property, Woodnaggerak, near Buangor, Victoria, where he had established his home, he chose not to move to Canberra and in 1928 declined a further term on the Public Service Board. That year he became chairman and superintendent for Australia of the New Zealand Loan & Mercantile Agency Co. Ltd. His withdrawal from public office enabled him to build up his pastoral interests and to enjoy the simple pleasures he preferred. He read widely, with a special interest in history. Ever ready to give his time to charitable and service organizations, he was a trustee of the A.I.F. Canteen Funds Trust and the Baillieu Education Trust, and a member of the Australian War Memorial Board and the Board of Management of the Alfred Hospital. President (1934), he was prominent in the affairs of the Melbourne Club.

Claims have been made that White was involved in right-wing 'secret armies' in the 1920s and 1930s. The evidence for such assertions is circumstantial at best, consisting mainly of hearsay in police intelligence files which alleges that he was prominent in the 'White Army'; this organization, however, took its title from the political associations of the colour and not from White's surname. A man of sensitivity and intellect, he believed in the rule of law. His training and experience had finally persuaded him that democracy was 'right in principle'. He later argued that there was 'no need for national guards, legions, or such like organizations': citizens should be encouraged to support their elected political leaders. Though patrician in manner and very conservative in his views, he was an improbable political vigilante.

Placed on the retired list in the rank of honorary lieutenant-general in August 1939, White was recalled to be C.G.S. on 15 March 1940, following the death in office of Lieutenant-General Ernest Squires. His sense of duty compelled him to accept the post—which brought promotion to general—even though at 63 years of age he believed himself to be out of date: 'I feel like Cincinnatus called from his farm. And may I say that I much prefer being Cincinnatus at the plough although I do appreciate the honour paid to me'. One of White's first acts as C.G.S. was to recommend Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Blamey for command of the new A.I.F. In April he urged that Blamey and the 7th Division should sail as soon as possible to join the 6th Division; in May and June he recommended that the A.I.F. should be brought into the fighting without delay, preferably assisting the beleaguered French. Meanwhile, he grappled with the problems of training and munitions supply.

His second term as C.G.S. was too short to affect the course of Australia's effort in World War II. White's greatest achievement had been in the previous conflict: one of the founders of the A.I.F., he had become its 'tactical and administrative commander in all but name'. A consummate chief of staff, his distinction in the role had denied him senior command and the public recognition that went with it. Nevertheless, Bean described him as the greatest man he ever knew, and his judgement was shared by many. On 13 August 1940 White flew from Melbourne in the company of three Federal ministers, James Fairbairn, Sir Henry Gullett and Geoffrey Street; their aircraft crashed near Canberra aerodrome, killing all on board. After a service at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, with state and military honours, White was buried in Buangor cemetery. His wife, two daughters and two sons survived him; his estate was sworn for probate at £20,699. A portrait of White by John Longstaff is in the Australian War Memorial and he is commemorated by a bronze plaque in the Church of St John the Baptist, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • C. E. W. Bean, Two Men I Knew (Syd, 1957)
  • G. Serle, John Monash (Melb, 1982)
  • D. M. Horner (ed), The Commanders (Syd, 1984)
  • M. Cathcart, Defending the National Tuckshop (Melb, 1988)
  • Historical Papers (Brisbane), 10, no 1, 1975-76
  • Herald (Melbourne), 6 June 1931, 16 Mar 1940
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Jan 1973
  • C. B. B. White papers (National Library of Australia and Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Jeffrey Grey, 'White, Sir Cyril Brudenell (1876–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Cyril Brudenell White (1876-1940), by John Longstaff, 1921

Cyril Brudenell White (1876-1940), by John Longstaff, 1921

Australian War Memorial, ART02985

Life Summary [details]


23 September, 1876
St Arnaud, Victoria, Australia


13 August, 1940 (aged 63)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

air crash

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