Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Where Do Failed Generals Go?

What do you do with senior commanding officer with a previously unblemished record who fails when his big moment comes? Or — in 1970s lingo — What happens after the "Peter Principle" kicks in? 

The career of Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, who was responsible for the 1915 Gallipoli land campaign, is a case in point. First — to appease the political gods — the defeated commander must endure the ritual rack of governmental investigations until subsequent disasters provide distraction; then, to keep him from causing any further damage while avoiding sending discouraging signals to your remaining generals, you let him finish his military career in a safe sinecure. In Hamilton's case — he was highly esteemed by the King — an appointment of great prestige, Warden of the Tower of London, was granted him. After retirement from the Army, he worked at restoring his reputation by serving as honorary colonel to several famous regiments and representing the veterans of both Scotland and South Africa. He died peacefully in 1947.


  1. Admiral Byng was shot on his quarterdeck for failing to follow up the French at Minorca. Wellington was hauled before of Inquiry for the Convention of Cintra. French as Commander-in-Chief of the BEF after several bungled battles in 1915 was appointed CINC Home Army and later CINC Ireland. So Hamiltob being kicked upstairs was in line with this.

    1. Yes Bill, you're correct. This is actually the first of a series. Next up is Robert Nivelle.


  2. Unfortunately American generals since World War II have often been left in their commands and not relieved, despite failure. Thomas Ricks makes this point in his excellent book, The Generals, which is a study of military command in the U.S. Army since World War II. General Marshall was quick to relieve a general who failed at his job or was misplaced for his skills. Since then, however, the Pentagon and President have been very reluctant to remove a general for battlefield mistakes (leaving Westmoreland in command in Vietnam) as opposed to personal pecadillos (Stanley McChrystal for giving an unfortunate press interview.) Kicking a bad general upstairs is probably better than keeping him or her in command.

  3. On the other hand, officers can learn from their mistakes and most were not well versed or tried in modern warfare when WWI battles came. If Churchill had been banished for his mistakes at Gallipoli, as he thought he might, he would not have been able to bolster England for the Battle of Britain. So it is a tough call and a fine line but always a tough learning curve with men's lives at risk.