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

Friday, December 22, 2023

Remembering a Veteran: John Standish Surtees Prendergast Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort - WWI Hero and WWII Field Marshal

December 1918: The Hero Returns from War

By James Patton

Several Britons who have advanced to the rank of field marshal have been granted peerages, but it is rare to find one who was a hereditary peer. It is also rare that a future field marshal was a Victoria Cross (VC) holder. In fact, John Vereker (1886–1946) VC GCB CBE DSO MVO MC, 6th Viscount Gort (familiarly known as "Lord Gort" or just "Gort") is probably the only one.

His family’s Irish peerage is named after Gort, in County Galway, but he was born in London and grew up entirely in England. He was educated at Harrow, where at the age of sixteen he became the 6th Viscount. Subsequently he attended Trinity College, Cambridge and the Royal Military Academy Woolwich. Although "the shop" produced artillery or engineer officers (Sandhurst was for infantry or cavalry), as a peer young Gort went to the foot guards. As a lieutenant he commanded the Grenadier Guards catafalque party at the funeral of King Edward VII in May 1910. On 22 February 1911, Gort married his second cousin, Corinna Vereker. They had two sons and a daughter before they divorced in 1925. Gort never remarried.  

On 5 August 1914, Gort was promoted to captain. He promptly went to France with the 2nd Grenadier Guards in the 4th (Guards) Brigade and was engaged in the Battle of Mons, the First Battle of the Marne, the First Battle of the Aisne, the First Battle of Ypres and the Battle of Festubert, acting as the Brigade Major in the latter days. In June 1915 he was awarded the brand-new Military Cross (sometimes colloquially called the "George V" Cross). Breveted to major in June 1916, he joined General Haig’s staff. In April 1917 be became an acting lieutenant colonel and  took over the 4th Grenadier Guards. In June 1917 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and in September 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele he earned a bar to his DSO. This citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. Although hit in two places in the shoulder by the bursting of a shell early in the day and in great pain, he refused to leave his battalion, and personally superintended the consolidation subsequent to a successful attack. He remained with them until 5 p.m. on the following day, when he was ordered to come out and have his wounds dressed. His conduct set a very fine example of self-sacrifice, and was of great value in maintaining the high morale and offensive spirit of his battalion. 

Subsequently Gort took command of 1st Grenadier Guards. On 27 November 1918, Gort was awarded the VC. This citation reads:

For most conspicuous bravery, skillful leading and devotion to duty during the attack of the Guards Division on 27th September 1918, across the Canal du Nord, near Flesquieres, when in command of the 1st Battalion, Grenadier Guards, the leading battalion of the 3rd Guards Brigade. Under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire he led his battalion with great skill and determination to the "forming-up" ground, where very severe fire from artillery and machine guns was again encountered. Although wounded, he quickly grasped the situation, directed a platoon to proceed down a sunken road to make a flanking attack, and, under terrific fire, went across open ground to obtain the assistance of a Tank, which he personally led and directed to the best possible advantage. While thus fearlessly exposing himself, he was again severely wounded by a shell. Notwithstanding considerable loss of blood, after lying on a stretcher for awhile [sic], he insisted on getting up and personally directing the further attack. By his magnificent example of devotion to duty and utter disregard of personal safety all ranks were inspired to exert themselves to the utmost, and the attack resulted in the capture of over 200 prisoners, two batteries of field guns and numerous machine guns. Lt.-Col. Viscount Gort then proceeded to organise the defence of the captured position until he collapsed; even then he refused to leave the field until he had seen the "success signal" go up on the final objective. The successful advance of the battalion was mainly due to the valour, devotion and leadership of this very gallant officer. 

He was also mentioned in despatches eight times during the Great War. As a result of these exploits he gained the sobriquet of "Tiger Gort.”

1939: In Command in France

In 1919, Gort attended the Staff College, Camberley. Then he served in various staff and training appointments, eventually becoming a brigadier in 1930 and CO of the Guards Brigade. He made major general in 1935 and returned to the Staff College, Camberley as CO. Between 1928 and 1938 Gort was appointed to the civil honours, the CBE and the KCB (later upgraded to GCB).

In September 1937, in a surprise move, he was appointed the Military Secretary to the War Minister, Leslie Hore-Belisha (1893–1957) 1st Baron Belisha, which carried a promotion to temporary lieutenant-general. On 6 December 1937, in a major shake-up, Gort was made a general and appointed the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS). 

As the CIGS, on 2 December 1938 Gort submitted his annual report on the readiness of the army. As a result of the decision in 1937 to create a "general purpose" army, he found that Britain didn’t have the forces needed for the defense of Holland, Belgium, and France. He recommended that Britain urgently needed complete equipment for four Regular infantry divisions, two Regular armored divisions, and four Territorial divisions. Gort bitterly complained that the army was only getting £277 million out of a total £2,000 million spent on defense.

At the outbreak of war, Gort assumed command of the new British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France, arriving on 19 September 1939. Gort was criticized for not building defensive positions. When the German breakthrough in the Ardennes split the Allied forces and communications between the BEF and the French broke down, Gort’s position was untenable—he was subordinate to French high command but also responsible to Whitehall. On 25 May 1940 he made a unilateral decision to ignore his French orders to move the BEF southward. Instead he ordered a withdrawal to the north which ended at the beaches of Dunkirk. He is credited by most as reacting correctly to the situation and saving the BEF, although at the time some criticized his decision not to join the French in their plan to attempt a First Marne-like counterattack and the subsequent pull-out as dooming the French and defeatist. Due to this controversy Gort, became persona non grata in Whitehall.

1943: Awarding George Cross to Malta

Upon his return to England from Dunkirk he was made an ADC General to the King, and sent on a futile mission to meet with refugee French leaders in Morocco. He was then parked in a training role and sent to inspect facilities on Iceland, Shetland, and the Orkneys. During this time his only son, 2nd Lieut. Charles “Sandy” Vereker, committed suicide. In 1941 Gort was appointed Governor of Gibraltar and then Governor of Malta (1942–44). Gort's leadership during the siege of Malta was exemplary, and the Maltese awarded him their Sword of Honour. Contrary to his instructions he extended the airfield runways and was later commended for this when the airfield became a vital link between the UK and Egypt. The King visited Malta on 20 June 1943 and gave Gort his field marshal's baton. 

On 29 September 1943 Gort and Generals Eisenhower and Alexander were present when Italian Prime Minister Marshal Pietro Badoglio signed the formal surrender document on the battleship HMS Nelson anchored at Valletta. Gort was also present in Italy on 3 March 1944 when his son-in-law, Major William P. Sidney (1909–1991) 6th Baron de L’Isle, also a Grenadier Guard, received the VC for leading the defense of the Anzio bridgehead against a determined counterattack. 

1945: In Palestine

Leaving Malta, Gort was appointed the High Commissioner for Palestine and Transjordan. Under his authority the Fitzgerald Report was prepared, which proposed to divide Jerusalem into separate Jewish and Arab Sectors. Due to illness Gort resigned in November 1945 and traveled to London where he was diagnosed with incurable cancer. He died on 31 March 1946 and was interred in the de L’Isle family vault at Penshurst, Kent. The title passed to his brother Standish Vereker (1888–1975) MC, K.St.J.

Sources include military-history and The Imperial War Museum.

No comments:

Post a Comment