Wartime Issue 50 - Burning Bridges

Was the 1st Australian Division’s first commander a good general or a dud?

By Peter Pedersen

At Anzac on 15 May 1915, a Turkish sniper mortally wounded Major General William Bridges, the commander of the 1st Australian Division. In September 1915 his remains were interred on Mount Pleasant in Canberra, overlooking the Royal Military College Duntroon, of which he was the founding commandant. Until the return of the Unknown Australian Soldier from France for reburial at the Australian War Memorial in 1993, Bridges was the only Australian serviceman who had died overseas in the First World War to be brought back to Australia.

Though generous, the words on his epitaph, ”a gallant and erudite soldier”, paled alongside other estimates of Bridges. The Sydney Morning Herald described him as “a keen strategist and a born leader of men”, who died a hero’s death while “brilliantly and fearlessly” leading his division. Charles Bean, the Australian official historian, reckoned that Bridges would probably have emerged as “the greatest of Australia’s soldiers” had he lived. Was all this praise warranted, or was it a case of not speaking ill of the dead?

Scottish-born Bridges had certainly established himself as Australia’s pre-eminent soldier by 1914, and not just because he held the Army’s senior appointment, Inspector General. Widely respected for his military knowledge, Bridges had also been Chief of Intelligence on the Military Board that administered the Army; he was also the first Chief of the Australian General Staff and the Australian representative on the Imperial General Staff in London, as well as Duntroon’s commandant. Aided by an intellectual outlook, through these postings he became fully conversant with defence policy issues and the workings of the defence machinery, and also grew accustomed to dealing with politicians. When war broke out in August 1914, he was the Commonwealth government’s logical choice to raise the 20,000-strong contingent that it offered to Britain.

Bridges was given command of the contingent as well. He called it the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and, by insisting on making it a divisions instead of separate brigades that could be parcelled out among British formations, he ensured its national character. The AIF was ready to sail in September 1914, which meant that almost 8,000 horses as well as guns, wagons and transport had been assembled and all the men clothed and equipped six weeks after enlistments began. It was an astonishing achievement on the part of Bridges and Lieutenant Colonel Brudenell White, his chief of staff. As the Governor General, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, remarked, the question now was how “the best soldier in peace” would perform in war. On this count, Bridges, who took direct command of the 1st Division while remaining in overall charge of the AIF, had two strikes against him.

The first was his personality. Concealing an intense shyness with a humourless and brusque manner to the extent that a grunt was his conversational trademark, Bridges was indifferent to friends and the feelings of others. The land commander at Gallipoli, General Sir Ian Hamilton, had observed these shortcomings in Bridges on a pre-war visit to Australia and concluded that he would make an excellent chief of staff but an unlikely leader. As it was, Bridges had little empathy with the free-willed volunteers who made up the AIF. Seeing as much, White thought that Bridges was lucky that his first command was a division, because at that level a commander does not have close contact with his men. Even so, Bridges managed to make more of a dent than an impression on those under him.

One officer said of Bridges, during the 1st Division’s pre-Gallipoli training in Egypt as part of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), that “the sphinx has met its human prototype”. Colonel Talbot Hobbs, the division’s chief gunner, called Bridges “an uncouth, ignorant boor”. Bearing Hobbs out was an incident in which Bridges’s aide kept him from being dragged after his horse fell. Though the aide probably saved his life, Bridges did not thank him, merely remarking that anyone else could have done the same thing. The aide eventually sought to return to his battalion, his confidence eroded by such treatment. Bridges’s attitude also discouraged initiative and frank advice, vastly increasing his decision-making load and so wasting the talent at his disposal, for he had skimmed off the cream of the Army’s officers to get an outstanding divisional staff. Eleven of its original members were generals before the war’s end.

As for the men, Bridges got them offside by habitually swearing at them, knowing that they could not answer back. Indifferent to sports, he did not bother about recreational outlets for the men either. The 1st Division’s camp outside Cairo initially boasted nothing more than a YMCA tent, so it was no wonder that men were always Cairo-bound. Thanks to the city’s attractions, drunkenness, venereal disease and absence without leave soared until, at the start of 1915, the AIF’s discipline hung in the balance. Only when rebuked by Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood, the commander of the ANZAC, did Bridges take action, sending hardcore troublemakers home. Indiscipline in the New Zealand and Australian (NZ and A) Division, the other formation making up the ANZAC, was nowhere so bad. Having the practical experience of soldiering that Bridges lacked, its commander, Major General Alexander Godley, made leisure facilities at its camp a priority and clamped down on misconduct early on.

The second strike against Bridges was a singular lack of command experience, which may explain why he originally recommended that the AIF should be headed by Lieutenant General Sir Edward Hutton, a British officer who had commanded both the New South Wales colonial forces and the Australian Military Forces, and had led Australian troops during the Boer War. Birdwood thought that this lay behind Bridges’s reasoning. He remarked in 1916 that Bridges did not have “complete confidence” in his own ability to command. But the government wanted the AIF to be in Australian hands.

Any self-doubt on Bridges’s part would have been justified. He had served mainly in instructional and staff jobs, first in the NSW Colonial Artillery before Federation in 1901, and again in the important positions he held after it. Even his five-month Boer War stint had been spent on attachment to British units for instructional purposes. The upshot was that senior militia officers such as John Monash, who were able to manoeuvre their brigades on the few days allowed them at annual camps, had more hands-on practice of command than Bridges did when he took over the 1st Division. As its training in Egypt never reached the stage of divisional manoeuvres, Bridges got precious little practice himself before the dawn landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 1915. The situation he faced there was daunting.

Going in first, the 3rd Brigade was mistakenly put ashore below rugged hills. Nonetheless, it was still in reasonable shape after it had reorganised to cover the landing of the rest of the ANZAC by securing the third ridge inland. But Colonel Ewen Sinclair-MacLagan, the 3rd’s commander, had always been gloomy about the prospects of success. Though few Turks were to be seen, he decided shortly after the reorganisation that the third ridge was too big and, at 1,200 yards off, too far to occupy. MacLagan halted his brigade on the second ridge and diverted the 2nd Brigade onto its right, from where he expected a counter-attack. The 2nd Brigade should have gone left to the Sari Bair heights, which had to be held if the ANZAC were to fulfil its mission of advancing across the narrowest part of the peninsula to cut the Turks’ communications to Cape Helles at its tip, where the British were making the main attack.

Landing with White at 7.20 am, Bridges went straight to the right flank and noticed the bulk of the 2nd and 3rd Brigades stationary and undisturbed by firing. Unable to see anything to prevent the advance continuing, both he and White felt that the hour in which it might still be made was being lost. Shots were heard on the left, but time and distance precluded a lengthy reconnaissance of that flank, so Bridges merely satisfied himself from a vantage point above the beach that it was not threatened. Even though well over 8,000 Australians were ashore at this stage, with fewer than 500 Turks directly facing them, he did nothing to address the problems caused by MacLagan’s change of plan. This change had left the Sari Bair heights the weakest part the 1st Division’s line – yet they were its main objective, and on their capture everything else depended.

A study of the Turkish documents that have emerged from the joint Australian War Memorial/Macquarie University Gallipoli Centenary Research Project shows that Bridges had a good two hours to beef up the heights before the Turkish attacks on them started. Holding even Chunuk Bair, the closest height, would have been enough. Such was its dominance that the Turks could not have closed up on the ANZAC line on the second ridge. Indeed they would have found it difficult to get beyond the third ridge in any strength, which would have given the ANZAC more breathing space.

Instead, Bridges let things slide, which made a painful contrast to the urgency and enterprise shown by Mustafa Kemal, the commander of the Turks’ reserve division. Hearing of the landing and realising the importance of the heights, Kemal on his own initiative headed straight for them at the head of one of his regiments. The Turks began arriving around 10 am and the few Australians then nearing Chunuk Bair fell back. All of the high ground on the left remained in Turkish hands. On the right, the Turks were badly outnumbered but their artillery, of which the Australians had none ashore, compensated. The 1st Division was stuck fast and Bridges could do nothing except send reinforcements to those parts of the line deemed threatened, including, finally, the left flank. Though he did so coolly and decisively, the battle was already lost, in large part as a result of his inaction compounding MacLagan’s action.

By nightfall, the ANZAC was clinging to a beachhead a few kilometres square. With straggling back to the beach lending credence to reports of demoralisation in the line, and the probability that the Turks would bring up reinforcements and more artillery for an overwhelming dawn counter-attack, evacuation began to be discussed. Bridges and Godley reasoned that it would avert annihilation and save the ANZAC for use at Helles – but an evacuation would hardly make for an auspicious first outing by the AIF. White later recalled that Bridges, who was in charge ashore as Birdwood was still afloat, could not decide what to do. In the end he went along with Godley, who favoured pulling out. Birdwood was summoned and Bridges put the proposal to him, whereupon Birdwood’s fiery chief of staff, Brigadier General Harold Walker, ridiculed it and accused Bridges of not doing enough to ascertain the true situation. One observer reckoned that Bridges had never been spoken to so harshly in his life.

Walker’s outburst was justified. Lance Corporal Hedley Howe, who had landed with the 3rd Brigade, later derided the evacuation proposal as “sheer panic, arrived at . . . without any knowledge of the true state of affairs”. Had any of the senior officers bothered to make the 15-minute walk to the closest part of the line, Howe maintained, they would have seen that there was no demoralisation. On the contrary, at sunset the Turks’ artillery had ceased and their infantry fire became inaccurate. Able to move about and dig in properly, men quickly got below ground, their spirits further boosted by the arrival of Monash’s 4th Brigade.

In any case, both Bridges and Godley should have known that achieving a successful withdrawal of almost 20,000 men from a disjointed firing line – in the dark, without prior planning, while they were in close contact with the Turks and had the sea at their backs – would have required a miracle. The naval commander thought it would take three days to get the ANZAC off. Perhaps Bridges was rattled and deferred to the far more experienced Godley. In fairness to them both, it should be said that Birdwood did not reject their recommendation but passed it on to Hamilton, who did.

On 26 April the expected massive Turkish counter-attack did not eventuate but Bridges blundered again. Ordering the line straightened on the right flank, he did not ensure that the 4th Battalion, next to those units which had to move, was forewarned and told to stay put. After seeing Bridges give the instructions and then receiving a garbled verbal order that had been relayed down the line, the 4th assumed an advance was underway; it moved as well and was cut up.

Walker, as much as Bridges, averted another fiasco, at least for the 1st Division, when Birdwood ordered an attack on 1 May to improve the precarious ANZAC position. The ANZAC’s two divisions were to move on diverging axes, with the expanding gap between them to be filled progressively as the advance continued. As the necessary coordination would be virtually impossible under heavy fire, and less than 24 hours had been allowed for preparation, Walker regarded the prospects as “hopeless”. Now directly under Bridges, after taking over the 1st Brigade when its commander was killed, Walker again objected most forcibly to him. This time Bridges listened. He decreed that the 1st Division would not take part. Attacking alone, the NZ and A Division achieved nothing but heavy loss.

As trench warfare set in, there was little mellowing of the cold, uncaring persona that Bridges projected. His nagging criticism of the meals incensed Major John Gellibrand, a future divisional commander, but for the moment a busy staff officer who doubled as secretary of the divisional headquarters mess. Furiously reminding some soldiers sheltering from Turkish fire that they were Australian, Bridges ordered them into the open to re-form and several were hit. He visited the line daily, which was to his credit, but habitually took needless risks on his rounds. When a concerned soldier implored him on one occasion to take cover, Bridges snapped back, “Be damned.”

No doubt Bridges felt that he had to set an example. In this regard, Bean said that his personal courage and coolness in the days after the landing were starting to win him respect and to compensate for his deficiencies as a leader. Many soldiers would have disagreed. They ridiculed Bridges’s disregard of cover during his visits because it “drew the crabs” (Turkish fire) which kept up after he had gone. Monash, for whom valour was never the better part of discretion, summed up the common view by saying, after two senior officers were pointlessly killed at the end of April, “such unnecessary exposure does no possible good and seriously impairs morale”. Bravery was never in short supply in the AIF but it did not entail wanton risk-taking. Ironically, Bridges seemed to be exercising a newfound caution when he was hit on 15 May. Remarking, “Anyway, I have commanded an Australian division for nine months,” he died three days later. It was hardly a hero’s death.

Far from being “a born leader of men”, Bridges had struggled as a leader because flaws in his temperament and personality prevented him from getting the best out of those he led. “Fearlessly leading his division”? Yes. “Brilliantly” leading it? No way. Blighted by mistakes and uncertainty, his time in charge of the 1st Division was rather less than brilliant. Potentially ‘the greatest of Australia’s soldiers’? For that, Bridges would have had to eclipse the successes of Monash, who is customarily given that title, in his role as commander of the Australian Corps in 1918. It is hard to imagine, for Bridges was simply not comparable in intellect, eloquence, lucidity or personal magnetism. On the generalship scale, Monash, though not without his faults, ranks among the very able. Bridges’s record, short though it was, puts him nearer the duds.

Could anyone else have done better? The only other contender for the AIF command in 1914 was Major General Gordon Legge, the Chief of the General Staff. Like Bridges, he lacked the appropriate experience and proved to be a mediocre commander of the 2nd Australian Division in France. But even experienced officers floundered at this stage of the war, because the conditions they faced defied anything that they were familiar with. Birdwood and Godley hardly set the world on fire in these early days. Bridges performed much as they did, but was denied the chance to do better. He deserves to be remembered for founding Duntroon and organising the AIF, both great achievements, rather than for his brief and forgettable period as a field commander.

Dr Peter Pedersen is the acting head of the War Memorial’s Military History Section.