THE first time I saw Sir Edmund Ironside was in 1936. I had been asked to luncheon by some friends and on entering their drawing room I had the impression that it was smaller than I remembered. I then realized that what had changed its proportions was the presence of an enormous and most restless man. He was pacing up and down between the windows discussing with his host some point of military administration. I observed his great square shoulders and his great square jaw; he reminded me of Field Marshal Allenby, although his movements and the manner in which he spoke were infinitely more brisk. From the tone of authority in his voice it was evident that he was a very senior officer. Yet there was something about him which was different from the typical general. I supposed, at first, that it was his restlessness which made the difference. There was none of the slow grace of Haig, none of the ponderous and monumental rigidity of Kitchener, none of the lazy, lanky swing of Henry Wilson. There was something in the way he moved, at once nervous and decisive, which recalled the quick gestures of Marshal Foch. Yet what really made the difference was the manner in which he spoke. Most senior officers speak unwillingly, weighing their words, studiously avoiding anything which might appear to be unconventional or indiscreet. This man, it was obvious, was bursting with ideas and anxious to express them. I have observed that most British generals confine their conversation to the familiar and the expected; one realized that this man might at any moment say something very unexpected indeed.

"Who is he?" I asked my hostess in a low voice.

"Ironside," she answered.

Even in a whisper the name resounded through the room.


In the county of Aberdeenshire, in the highlands of Scotland, there lies a village of the name of Ironside. Around that village have clustered for centuries families of that name -- sturdy country folk, leading resolute and frugal lives, and bearing their stern name proudly from generation to generation. It is from this stock that Edmund Ironside is descended.

His father entered the army and rose to the rank of Surgeon Major of the Royal Horse Artillery. He married a Miss Richards of a well-known Somersetshire family. Their only son was born on May 6, 1880. The father died when Edmund was little more than a child and upon the widowed mother fell the responsibility of educating a son and daughter on a slender pension.

It would be tempting to define Edmund Ironside's heredity as a blending of the dour determination of his Scottish ancestry with the gentler, more sensitive and more imaginative fibers of the soft southwest. It would form a more usual pattern were one to represent the father of Edmund Ironside as possessing all the solid qualities of character and his mother as providing that element of grace, of imagination and of sensitiveness which goes to the making of outstanding personalities. There may in truth be some basis for such a picture. Yet seldom has the gentle southwest produced a character of such formidable strength as that of Edmund Ironside's mother. From St. Andrews she went to Rochester and brought up her two children under the shadow of the Cathedral. When Edmund reached school age she moved to Tonbridge in order to give him the benefit of a first-class school. He did not profit overmuch by the teaching of Tonbridge; he played rugby football with determination and even with dexterity; yet he had to be crammed before he could enter Woolwich. From the moment he entered Woolwich his mother's anxieties regarding him were at an end.

This indomitable lady never relaxed the hold which she possessed over her son, even as he never moderated the deep devotion with which he regarded her. They understood each other perfectly. They shared a liking for the caustic comment and the astringent phrase. He would write to her regularly when he was absent overseas. When he returned to England she took a cottage near his home. Every winter, even when she was over ninety years of age, she would travel out to Alassio or some other Italian resort. In March of 1939 he learnt that her health was failing. He was Governor of Gibraltar and crisis was in the air. He boarded a torpedo boat and dashed across to Italy. She rose from her bed and they lunched together gaily. He returned to the great fortress which was in his charge, and she a few days later died triumphantly at the age of ninety-six.

It was from the Richards strain that Edmund Ironside derived the independence, the originality, of his temperament. He shared with his mother an unfaltering curiosity regarding the strange habits of human beings, a constant intellectual energy, a tolerant but slightly acid contempt for the conventionalities, the twists and turns, of weaker spirits. From one point of view this long lanky young man, with his stern acceptance of duty, his profound sense of discipline, was the type of subaltern which the ordinary regimental officer dearly loves. Yet there were moments when young Ironside would say things which most subalterns were not expected to say, and there were other moments when the fierce straight eyes of the young man would sparkle with a disconcerting gleam. Was it obstinacy? Was it amusement? Could it possibly be criticism? His regimental superiors decided that young Ironside was efficient, a fine leader of men, but "odd." It took twenty-five years to convince them that what they had mistaken for oddity was in fact exceptional intelligence.

Opportunity came to him early in his career. He left Woolwich at the age of nineteen and served in the South African War. He was mentioned in despatches and reached the rank of a staff captain. Thereafter he might well have returned to ordinary regimental routine. It was at this stage that his innate originality asserted itself; he decided to remain in Africa and was seconded to the Secret Service. The British were anxious to obtain information regarding German activities in East and South-West Africa. They required first-hand details as to German methods of colonial administration, their handling of the Herero rising, their military and strategic plans. Captain Ironside volunteered to get this information. For a period of two years he disappeared from regimental life and assumed the disguise of a young Boer who had refused to accept British rule and was anxious to help the German colonial administration. He grew a beard, he climbed onto an ox wagon, and off he went.

He had always had a gift for foreign languages, a gift seldom found in conjunction with the highest form of intelligence. When he was a boy his mother would scrape her savings together and take her two children to Belgium and Holland, encouraging them to learn French, Flemish and Dutch. During the war he had mastered Afrikaans and Taal. The Germans never suspected that this young Boer volunteer was a British staff officer.

On two occasions he was nearly discovered. Once he forgot that he was supposed to be an ignorant Boer farmer and answered a German non-commissioned officer in pure German. He covered up his slip with a flood of Taal. The second occasion was even more disconcerting. He has a passion for dogs and even when in the trenches during the Great War his bull terrier would always accompany him. There was naturally a dog with him on his trek through German South-West Africa. One afternoon he was discussing routes and transport with a German staff officer and his dog was lying upon the verandah beside him. Suddenly he noticed that neatly engraved upon the dog's collar were the words "Ironside. United Service Club." He went on talking and as he talked he stroked the dog's neck, carefully coaxing the hairs to cover the denunciatory label. The Germans never discovered his identity. He was accorded the German Military Medal by General von Deimling as a reward for the services which he had rendered to the German forces. Fifteen years later, during the Great War, he was in command of a brigade opposite that which von Deimling commanded. They never met.

It seemed at the time as if this great private adventure had had no sequel. Yet when nearly forty years later Sir Edmund Ironside accompanied General Gamelin on an inspection of Aldershot they were presented to a young officer who had just succeeded to the title of the second Lord Tweedsmuir. "Did you ever know, Sir," the young officer said to him, "that my father John Buchan took you as his model for the character of Richard Hannay?"


He returned to regular service. He was promoted Brigade Major at the age of twenty-nine. The years between the South African and the first German Wars were spent in routine duties, varied by visits abroad and the intense study of foreign languages. He became a first-class interpreter in German, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch and Afrikaans and a second-class interpreter in French. He later acquired a good knowledge of Russian, Turkish and Persian. He can now claim to speak fourteen languages. Yet these linguistic triumphs did not interfere either with his intelligence or with his modesty. Unlike so many soldiers who can speak foreign languages, he did not forget that the business of a soldier is to study the art of war.

In August 1914 Ironside, with the rank of Staff Captain, was actually the first British officer in uniform to land in France. He remained there throughout the war. He shared in the retreat from Mons; in 1915 he was accorded the D.S.O. for "outstanding bravery;" he became a Major in November 1914, a Lieutenant Colonel in 1916. He commanded the 99th brigade in France from March till October 1918, when he was appointed Brigadier General upon the General Staff. In November 1918, he was chosen to command the Allied forces at Archangel.

The origins of this expedition are not generally known. After the collapse of Russia and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the Germans under Von der Goltz threatened to seize the Russian ports of Murmansk and Pechenga. The Soviet Government intimated that they were themselves unable to oppose this seizure and asked that an Allied force come to their aid. The Allies agreed, and in May 1918 a mixed force of Americans, French, British and Poles landed at Murmansk under the command of General Poole. Three months later the Tsar was murdered and the expedition began to assume an anti-Bolshevik rather than an anti-German character. It was decided to raise local anti-Red levies, and General Ironside was chosen for this task.

From then onward he became a specialist in forlorn hopes. The condition of his forces was not encouraging. He found himself occupying an area as large as Great Britain and having to cope with a force which was of so mixed a character that discipline became difficult. The climate was almost unendurable and the health of the troops, owing largely to a shortage of fresh vegetables, began to suffer. In spite of these obstacles General Ironside managed to consolidate his position and to recruit some 25,000 of the local population. It seemed at one moment as if the Archangel force would be able to join up with Kolchak and to suppress Bolshevism in Russia. These hopes were disappointed.

The Russian levies became disaffected; the mixed force, after the armistice, began to lack cohesion; and predominant opinion in Great Britain and France was much opposed to prolonging the war merely for the purpose of intervening against the Bolsheviks. By the summer of 1919 the Allied Governments had decided to withdraw from Archangel and orders were issued to that effect. Evacuation, however, was a most difficult operation. The Bolsheviks had learnt that the force was about to retire and they attacked it without stint. It required all Ironside's skill and resolution to avert a major disaster. By constant rear guard action, admirably planned and executed, he was able to embark his force without serious losses. He himself left Archangel on September 27, 1919. On his return to London he was made a Knight Commander of the Bath and was at once despatched upon another forlorn hope, this time to Asia.

It will be remembered that under the Armistice of Mudros the Allied Armies had occupied Constantinople and drawn a cordon around the Straits. The Greek forces meanwhile had been entrusted by the Allied Supreme Council with the task of occupying Smyrna and controlling the nationalist Turkish armies which had assembled round the banner of Mustapha Kemal. It was feared that the Turkish nationalists might advance upon the Straits and an Allied force was therefore sent to occupy the Ismid Peninsula. It was this force which Ironside was appointed to command. It was not a congenial or even a glorious task. There was little fighting, since the Allied Governments were determined not to be drawn into any large-scale operations. All that Ironside could do was to maintain his line and his communications, to cope with Turkish bands and to perfect himself in the ungainly Turkish language. He was glad when in the late summer of 1920 he was recalled for other duties.

After a short diplomatic experience in the final adjustment of the boundary between Hungary and Rumania, and after a very short visit to India, he was asked to take over a divisional command in 'Iraq and thereafter went to command the North Persian Force which was still seeking to prevent the Russians from advancing from Gilan and Mazanderan into the center of Persia. Here again he was confronted with a dispiriting situation. He was far from any organized base; his force was a mixed one of British and British-Indian troops, with a section of Persians who had been trained in the old Cossack Brigade. The country in which he had to operate was unhealthy and infested by robber bands under the leadership of Kutchik Khan. Moreover, the adventures and trials of Norperforce did not command a very sympathetic ear in Whitehall, which came increasingly to look upon this isolated sanitary cordon as most insanitary and only doubtfully a cordon. General Ironside maintained discipline, established order and was universally respected by European and Persian alike. He was relieved when he was recalled to Mesopotamia.

His short command in northern Persia was, however, productive of one definite (and to some minds most regrettable) result. At his final inspection of the Persian Cossacks he observed a huge trooper, with sullen eyes, a thin little voice, a bullet head and a chin and mouth indicative of the most determined ferocity. "You," he said, "look the sort of man who ought to command the others. What is your name?" "Reza," answered the trooper.

It was thus due to General Ironside that Reza Khan came to command the Cossack Brigade. With its help he in due course turned out the Persian Government, made himself the Defender of the State, dismissed the Qajar dynasty and seated himself upon the Peacock Throne, founding the dynasty of Pahlevi. It remains an open question whether Ironside's judgment of character proved a benefit or a disaster for the people of Iran.


After these three forlorn hopes Ironside resumed, for a short time, his command in 'Iraq. He would visit the outlying units by air, but at that date the aerodromes were few and far between. On one occasion his plane was caught in a dust storm and had to make a forced landing in a marsh. Both the pilot and the wireless operator were knocked out and General Ironside broke both thighs. He had sufficient strength however, in spite of the leeches which at once fastened on his wounds, to recover the wireless apparatus and to tap out a message calling for help. It was on recovering from this ordeal that he was given an appointment after his own heart. He returned home and became Commandant of the Staff College at Camberley.

The enormous bulk of General Ironside (he is six foot four, with shoulders of reinforced concrete), his capacity as an officer in the field, his strict sense of discipline, his amazing courage, may have given to many the impression that he is above all a fighting rather than a thinking soldier. He is both. In Cairo, once, T. E. Lawrence remarked to Eric Kennington: "A friend of mine is coming to see you. You will find that he is a very big man, but he also has a great intellect." "And why shouldn't he have a great intellect?" asked Kennington. "Well," said little Lawrence, who was vain and sensitive on such matters, "have you ever known a big man who had a great intellect?"

It was at the Staff College that the true nature of Ironside's intelligence became apparent. He refused in the first place to allow discussion of the art of war to circle round and round the experience gained between 1914-1918. He knew well that strategy and even tactics are an art rather than a science and that as such they develop constantly from year to year. He taught his officers that imagination is of all qualities the most necessary for those who seek to hold high command. He taught them that too much preoccupation with detail tended to make the military mind rigid, whereas fluidity of intelligence was what was needed. He advised them to go to the root of every principle, since principles are unvariable whereas circumstances change. He insisted upon their knowing the technique of soldiering in every particular, but he never let them forget that the aim of technique is to render certain operations matters of instinctive habit, and thus to free the intelligence from all minor preoccupations. It was during his years at the Staff College that the correct Ironside legend arose. He ceased to be regarded as an "odd" outspoken soldier with a curious taste for foreign languages and travel. He was already known to be a fighting officer of unexampled vigor and resource; but in his lectures and discussions at Camberley he showed them that he was something more than all this -- that he was that rare combination, the imaginative and the practical man.

On relinquishing his appointment as Commandant of the Staff College, Ironside held a succession of important posts. He commanded the Second Division at Aldershot; he went out to India in command of the Meerut district; he became for a short time Lieutenant of the Tower of London; he returned to India as Quartermaster General; he was appointed G.O.C. Eastern Command in England; and in November 1938 he was sent out as Governor and Commander in Chief to Gibraltar.

His work in India, although of more or less a routine nature, was executed with his usual personal drive. Instead of remaining up at Simla he insisted upon investigating every case personally, and in the peak of the hot weather he would travel endlessly across the burning plains, inspecting units, adjusting grievances, seeing the thing at first hand for himself.

His appointment to Gibraltar caused some surprise. By that date the name of Ironside was known in circles usually ignorant (except in time of war) of military personalities. The post of Governor of Gibraltar has always been regarded as one which is accorded to a meritorious officer who has reached the stage of retirement. His duties, in normal times, are not onerous; he lives in a fine old house and can walk in peace under the wide colonnades, or pace the terrace garden looking out upon the men-of-war signalling to each other in the harbor below. In the great dining room are embossed the names of his distinguished predecessors; and former comrades, on their way to India or back, will leave their steamers for a few hours and inform the Governor of what is passing in the great world beyond. An honorable, a comfortable, but not in normal times an exacting appointment. Public opinion was therefore surprised when Ironside went to Gibraltar.

It was fortunate that he did. The optimism which, in the early stages of the Spanish Civil War, had inspired the garrison of Gibraltar, the firm faith which they placed in the rapid victory and ultimate good intentions of General Franco, had blinded many eyes to the fact that Gibraltar was a strategic position of very great importance to the British Empire. It is not, and never can be, a place where we can afford to run any risks. Ironside is not an optimist, nor does he indulge in day dreams. He flung his huge energy into the task of rendering Gibraltar capable of defense in modern warfare. Only a man of his energy, only a man whom the politicians at home could not disregard, could have accomplished what Ironside accomplished. Perhaps we shall one day realize the great debt that we owe him for this tremendous feat.

As the war clouds gathered, he was needed for wider purposes. He was appointed Inspector General of our Overseas Forces. He paid rapid visits to Egypt and Palestine. He was recalled, when the war came, to be Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Then, as the Germans reached Calais on May 26, he was made Commander in Chief of the home forces defending England.

He works there, in his room at the War Office, day and night. He has never cared for comfort and there are corners of his sedate room which recall a bivouac. He has never bothered much to unpack and he keeps a great many things besides a baton in his knapsack. His bed is by his desk and he sleeps there every night. Although he rejoices in the company of his fellow men, he is also a lover of solitude. He will play patience for an hour at a time, thinking out some problem. His domestic life is one of great felicity. He writes excellent letters and his diary, if ever published, will be a literary event.

Yet always there pulsates within Ironside the twin engines of his nature. A grasp of detail and a grasp of principle: efficiency and imagination. He is not vain; but he is immensely proud. His self-confidence is tremendous. It is not the self-confidence of a self-satisfied man; it is the self-confidence of a man who possesses a cool but vivid mind, a man of resolution and wide experience, who has seen many things go wrong and who has triumphed over many impossibilities.

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  • HAROLD NICOLSON, National Labor M. P., formerly in the British diplomatic service; author of "Peacemaking 1919," "Curzon: the Last Phase, 1919-1925," "Diplomacy" and many other works
  • More By Harold Nicolson