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

Thursday, December 29, 2022

New Zealand's Forgotten Warrior: Andrew Hamilton Russell

Major General Andrew Russell (center) with
Key Staff Somewhere in France

By Chris Pugsley

General Andrew Russel (1868—1960) was a New Zealand military leader in the First World War.  Russell was one of the few generals in the was to display innovation and tactical skill.  He brought to his command the practical experience of a working farm manager combined with an understanding of men, and a broad study of military history and tactics.   Born in Napier, he was educated in England, first at Harrow School and then at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, as was family tradition. After serving for five years in India and Burma, Russell left the 1st Border Regiment to return to New Zealand and farm sheep with his uncle, William Russell. In 1900, while still farming, he formed and commanded the Hawke's Bay Mounted Rifle Volunteers. In 1911 Russell was appointed commander of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Brigade.

When the New Zealand Expeditionary Force was raised in August 1914, Godley, its commander, offered Russell command of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade. He accepted, but had time to do little more than inspect the separate regiments before the brigade sailed. It was not until the New Zealand Expeditionary Force arrived in Egypt in December 1914 that training started. The Mounted Rifles Brigade landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on 12 May 1915, without their horses, to act as infantry.

Russell took over the northern sector of the ANZAC perimeter, establishing his headquarters on the plateau that later became known as Russell's Top. His troops seized the foothills below Chunuk Bair on the night of 6–7 August and opened the way for an infantry advance, which was one of the most brilliant feats of the campaign. Russell later commanded his exhausted and depleted brigade in the unsuccessful attacks on Hill 60 at the end of August. After this offensive Sir Ian Hamilton, who commanded the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, considered Russell the outstanding New Zealander on the peninsula. He was made a KCMG on 4 November 1915. Russell succeeded Godley as commander of the New Zealand and Australian Division and was promoted to the rank of major general when Godley assumed command of the ANZAC Corps on 27 November 1915. He commanded the rearguard during the last 48 hours before the evacuation.

New Zealand's Wellington Battalion Preparing for
the Final Assault on Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli

Russell was one of the few commanders to emerge from the campaign with an enhanced reputation and was the obvious choice to command the New Zealand Division on its formation on 1 March 1916.. He was a front-line general, seen to take personal risks. The New Zealand Division became one of the best fighting divisions in France, due largely to Russell’s insistence upon daily inspections, zealous discipline and efficient administration. His subordinates believed Russell took too many risks; in 1917 one of his brigadiers was killed at his side, and two days later a sniper's bullet passed through his steel helmet, creasing his scalp.

New Zealanders at Flers, Somme Battlefield

The New Zealand Division attacked as part of the British XV Corps on 15 September 1916 during the battle of the Somme. Its success established its reputation as one of the finest fighting divisions in France. Much of this was due to the tactical training conducted by Russell in the weeks before the attack. Haig, the British commander in chief, wrote that for 23 consecutive days, the longest single tour by any British division in this battle, the New Zealand Division had carried out "with complete success every task set…always doing even more than was asked of it." This was at a cost of 7,408 New Zealand casualties, and Russell believed that these could only be justified if his division learnt from the experience and became more professional. 

In June 1917, they were tasked with capturing the town of Messines (Mesen) in Flanders. Russell’s aggressive strategy resulted in the seizure of the town, but their concentration in "an awkward salient" led to nearly 3700 New Zealand casualties, including 700 deaths. Haig believed Messines to be the outstanding success of the war to that time. Russell's performance placed him at the forefront of the more innovative commanders in the British, French and German armies. 

New Zealand Division Dressing Station, Passchendaele

The New Zealand Division again suffered severe casualties in October 1917, during the attack on Passchendaele. With artillery hampered by rain and mud, an attack on Bellevue Spur faltered, leaving more than 800 New Zealanders killed and almost 2000 wounded or missing. This represents the highest recorded loss of New Zealand lives in a single day, Russell blamed himself: "It is plain we attacked a strong position, stoutly defended with no adequate preparation." He told Allen that if Parliament wanted a culprit, then he was that man. 

In March 1918 he trained his division in open warfare techniques in the event of a German breakthrough. This was tested when it was deployed to the Somme. The tactical superiority of the New Zealand Division was demonstrated in its advance as part of IV Corps from 21 August. The corps commander gave Russell freedom to plan and fight his division's advance, and the New Zealanders spearheaded the attack. Bypassing population centres, minimising risk, and with firm instructions to its commanders to avoid needless casualties at all costs, the division was usually far ahead of flanking British divisions. Its success often led to the German defences giving way on each flank. The  surrender of Le Quesnoy and the advance through the Forêt de Mormal in early November 1918 marked the end of the war for a division that was still capable of continuing the fight, although Russell's health was increasingly problematic, and he appeared  quite exhausted.

A Fatigued Russell Later in the War

After the war, Russell was president of the New Zealand Returned Soldiers’ Association for more than a decade. In the Second World War, at age 72 he was made inspector general of New Zealand military forces, but retired from this appointment in July 1941. For most of his post-Great War life,Russel lived on his sheep station at Tunanui until his death at the age of 92.

Russell's military achievements were recognised with a CB in 1916 and, in 1917, a KCB. He was awarded the French Légion d'honneur (croix d'officier) and Croix de guerre (avec palme), the Belgian Ordre de Léopold (commander) and Croix de guerre, the Serbian Order of the White Eagle (first class) and the Montenegrin Order of Danilo.

Source:  The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

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