Wartime issue 50 feature article: Hooky Walker, the English general

The AIF needed senior British officers until Australians of suitable rank, training and experience became available.

By Peter Burness

The Turkish round that mortally wounded Major General Sir William Bridges on Gallipoli also struck a deadly blow against the Australian government’s wish that the AIF be commanded by an Australian. Shortly after Bridges’s death, command of the 1st Australian Division was passed to Major General Harold Walker, while administrative control of the AIF was given to Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood; both were British generals. In a continuing trend, as the AIF expanded, British regular officers filled several of its most senior appointments until a change became possible in mid-1918. It is unfortunate that the modern interpretation of the Anzac legend often derides British generals as a class. This is unfair and particularly ignores both the contribution that some of them made to the creation of the legend, and the debt owed to them.

For three years Harold Bridgwood Walker forged the 1st Division on the anvil of war. He had been born the son of a country clergyman on 26 April 1862 at Fox Earth, Staffordshire, and educated at Shrewsbury School, one of England’s leading boys’ public (in our terms, private) schools. Charles Bean later wrote fondly of him at Anzac, saying he was “playing the game as a Shrewsbury boy and an English gentleman”. Walker went on to Jesus College, Cambridge, but left without completing his degree.

From the time he was a schoolboy, Walker was known as “Hooky”. But there is nothing revealing in this, as those named Walker were often given this nickname, just as Clarks have been called “Nobby”. At the age of 22 he embarked on his army career. In the era of Queen Victoria, he joined the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, some of whose older and senior officers had been in the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. Scarlet jackets were still worn in battle when Walker went to war for the first time in 1884.

Hooky Walker’s first campaigns were in Egypt and the Sudan. He was part of the force that was sent in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue a British hero, the eccentric Major General Charles Gordon, who was besieged in Khartoum. Later, with the mounted infantry, he took part in the battle of Giniss, where the British and Egyptian forces inflicted a decisive defeat on the Sudanese.

Having married in 1887, Walker spent the following decade serving on the North-West Frontier of India. He was with his regiment in expeditions against heavily armed tribes: he was a captain in the actions at Tirah and the Bara Valley. For two years from mid-1898 he undertook staff and intelligence tasks, including reconnaissance and survey work for the Burma–China Boundary Commission, for which he received the MacGregor Memorial Medal.

Service in the South African War further cemented Walker’s reputation as a fighting soldier. Arriving early, he transferred as a Special Service Officer and from November 1900 commanded the 4th Mounted Infantry Regiment. He saw extensive service, mostly in the Transvaal. He had a reputation for always applying maximum effort: on one occasion he led a forced mounted march of almost 60 kilometres to capture a vital pass. For all this he was twice mentioned in despatches, awarded the Distinguished Service Order and promoted. When the war was over, he was made assistant commandant of the army’s school of mounted infantry.

In 1904 Walker was transferred to the 2nd Battalion, the Border Regiment, as second-in-command. Four years later he was promoted to command the 1st Battalion, which was to go to India. The new CO set about bringing the unit to a high standard of fighting efficiency. Later, one of Walker’s subalterns at the time wrote:
Colonel Walker was one of those milestones, which crop up from time to time in the history of most Regiments. He ... kept his Battalion on the tip of its toes, keen, eager, and active. He was an ideal Commanding Officer, one whose steely eye and incisive manner caused him to be feared, yet deeply respected.

In 1912 Walker was promoted and shifted to a desk on the headquarters staff in India. It was an uncomfortable fit. However, the outbreak of the Great War soon saw him back to holding a fighting command.

Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood, a 50-year old cavalryman, was Secretary to the War Department in India. In late 1914 he was appointed to command the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) assembling in Egypt, and Walker was made his chief staff officer with the rank of brigadier general. Birdwood already knew of his reputation as “a fine fighting soldier” although he had closer ties with some of the others on his staff. He wrote: “At the head of my A.Q. Staff I secured my old friend Carruthers, late of my regiment. My ‘G’ Staff officers were Andrew Skeen – on of the very best – and Cyril Wagstaff ... As A.D.C. I took Onslow, of my old regiment.”

Walker got to know the men of the AIF as they trained outside Cairo. None could match his experience. He was already well known to Alexander Godley, a British infantry officer who commanded the composite New Zealand and Australian Division (containing one infantry brigade from each country). Now Walker met Bridges, commanding the 1st Australian Division (1st, 2nd, 3rd Australian Brigades), and began his fruitful association with Bridges’s chief staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel Brudenell White.

Birdwood commanded the ANZAC at the Gallipoli landing. Walker was involved in the planning but, disdaining staff work, he left much of the finer detail in Skeen’s willing hands. Looking at the overall scheme, Walker was unimpressed and, to Birdwood’s discomfort, had made his views known.

By chance, Walker quickly found himself among the fighting from the first day. Colonel Francis Johnston, the commander of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade, was indisposed, and Godley asked if Walker could hand over to Skeen and step into the gap. Birdwood agreed. Walker met the brigade ashore after most of the Australians had landed. The first of them had been ordered up the left ridge (later called Walker’s ridge) to reinforce the line on Baby 700, which seemed under threat.

With the New Zealanders needed to directly support Bridges’s Australians, Godley had no chance to take executive control of his division, so it was Walker who was in charge of the main New Zealand contribution throughout that vital day. Misled by poor maps, he ordered his troops to advance via Plugge’s Plateau on the right, rather than up Walker’s Ridge. This turned out to be the more difficult approach and only reinforced the already strong part of the line.  But it was already too late.  The opportunity to take the high ground had been lost hours earlier, and Walker knew it.

Walker was constantly on the move. At one point the concussion from an enemy shell knocked him to the ground. “We thought he was dead,” recalled one of the New Zealanders. No sooner was he on his feet than he noticed some men were faltering and looking for cover. Still stunned, he ran across the open ground waving his cane. “Come on, boys, here’s the front line over here,” he urged.

The day brought confrontations with Bridges, who was showing a reckless disregard for the enemy’s fire. White tried to get him to move to cover; he only went when Walker became insistent. Words became sharper after Bridges was convinced that the landing had failed and the force would have to pull out. Walker told Bridges in no uncertain terms that he opposed evacuation. He was outspoken and his manner was even described as “insubordinate”.

Walker stayed with the New Zealand brigade for a few days until Johnston returned. He was later pictured as “cap tilted over one eye, radiating confidence in [those] feverish days”. Then Colonel Henry MacLaurin, who commanded the 1st Australian Brigade, was killed on 27 April, and Walker was shifted across to take over that brigade.

A more serious vacancy occurred at the head of the Australian division when Bridges was mortally wounded a few weeks later. Walker stepped in. The general’s loss was a shock, and it was decided that Major General James Legge would be sent from Australia to replace him. Legge’s appointment was not popular, and after reaching Anzac he remained for little over a month before he was sent to Egypt to form the 2nd Australian Division. Walker now took over for good. However, although he was an astute planner, he never had the feel for administration that Bridges had, and White had to take on a heavier load. But the two men worked well together and saw eye-to-eye on most things.

In August the British made fresh attacks to regain the initiative at Anzac. Most of these fell to Godley’s now expanded division. However, the 1st Brigade was to provide the curtain raiser by making a diversionary attack at Lone Pine on the evening of the 6th. This was followed by another attack using the 6th Battalion (2nd Brigade) at German Officer’s Trench. Walker hated the plan from the start and objected, but only managed to get a slight change to the timings.

The battle for Lone Pine at least had the appearance of success, with ground being taken from the Turks. Elsewhere, all the other main attacks failed with heavy losses. At German Officer’s Trench the men attacked in waves, only to be cut down by machine-gun fire. Had Walker’s reputation hung on this battle alone, it would have been in tatters. Always demanding maximum effort, Walker did not stop the attack soon enough, despite repeated urging. But in the following days, attention turned to the action at Lone Pine and the holding of the ground there, and the subsequent award of seven Victoria Crosses.  

By this time Walker had imposed his personality on the division. Although he came from a different background to most of the Australians, his boldness and courage impressed them. Birdwood observed that Walker “distinctly” had the full confidence of those serving under him. Each day the men usually saw him visiting some part of the front line. He had a firmness that they trusted and they were reassured to know that he was not a man who would lose his nerve.

Bean sent a story to the Australian newspapers from Anzac, in which he wrote:

Walker [is] constantly visiting corners into which he would not allow anyone else to go. He knows every point of the defence line, as possibly no other man in the Division knows it, and knows men, and is known by them, in a way which is seldom possible for any high officer.

Returning their loyalty, Walker developed an admiration for his soldiers. In September, when the war correspondent Keith Murdoch visited Anzac, Bean arranged for him to meet Walker. Next day Bean reported that Murdoch said that “Walker had been really expansive telling him [Murdoch] how he had come to believe in and love his men and how he would not change his command for the world.”

In September illness forced Skeen from Anzac and Birdwood took White in his place. Walker’s loss was made up the following year when he gained 32-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Blamey, an Australian regular who had been to staff college in India and carried a field marshal’s baton in his knapsack.

The Gallipoli campaign had fallen into stalemate, but Walker was determined to maintain an aggressive spirit and keep his men active. After the August losses he saw no purpose in wasteful frontal attacks, so he concentrated on sapping and tunnelling. The defences were also constantly improved. A couple of times he received minor injuries while observing from the front line. On 29 September he was half-buried and badly cut and bruised when a shell hit his dugout. “Nothing wrong with me,” he declared when he was pulled out of the debris. A fortnight later, on 13 October, the end came when a Turkish machine-gun fired on a loophole where the general was standing. Two rounds came through, striking him in the arm and hip. Although badly wounded, Walker limped to the dressing station. He was duly evacuated to hospital and sent to England for treatment. It was months before the division saw him again, but by March the following year he was back in command. France was the new field of operations.

On the Western Front, big battles were conducted by corps or armies, and divisional commanders had little scope. Still, Walker’s part at Pozières is noteworthy. Arriving on the Somme, on 18 July 1916 he had been greeted by General Sir Hubert Gough, commander of the Reserve Army, who said, “I want you to go into the line and attack Pozières tomorrow night.” Fearing the destruction of his division through lack of preparation, he sought a postponement. So did White at I ANZAC headquarters. The attack was rescheduled for 23 July, and Walker chose its direction. Only days later, Legge’s 2nd Division was rushed into the battle. This caused disastrous losses and cast a shadow over Legge’s reputation. When he became ill at the end of the year, Birdwood took the opportunity to replace him with another British officer, Major General Nevill Smyth VC.   

Walker was at his peak commanding a division. He was not a great tactical innovator and mostly left administration to others, while demanding high standards from them. His great strengths lay in his understanding of the business of war, the capacity to read a battle, and his command of men. He was also served by two remarkable Australian staff officers, White and Blamey.

From June 1918 Australia’s Sir John Monash was appointed to command the Australian Corps (which had replaced ANZAC) while Birdwood went off, taking White with him, to lead the British 5th Army. The “Australianisation” of the corps continued, with other British officers being replaced. Against his own best interests, and despite his seniority, it was a concept that Walker supported. He handed the 1st Division to Major General Thomas Glasgow, a Queenslander, who took over on 28 June 1918. Blamey went off to serve with distinction as Monash’s chief of staff. Walker commanded the British 48th Division in Italy, and when the war ended was in charge of all British forces in the country. He was knighted in 1918 (KCB) and 1919 (KCMG). After accepting a high post in India, he finally retired from the army as a lieutenant general in 1928; he died six years later.

Harold Walker’s close connection with Australia had ended quite abruptly. He never produced memoirs, left no papers and did not visit Australia. Within the history of the AIF, the battle-scarred general is remembered as “a cultured, brave and unselfish ‘English gentleman’.” When writing Anzac to Amiens in 1946, Charles Bean needed to describe him in just a few carefully chosen words. He said that he was “a tiger in a fight”.   

Peter Burness is a Senior Historian in the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial.