Few people who walk past the grave of General Henry Rawlinson, in the Dorset village of Trent, will be aware of the significant role he played in British history. But Shaftesbury-based author, Rodney Atwood, describes him as, ‘the Dorset soldier who won the First World War’.
A small community on the Somerset border is an unlikely burial site for such an important military leader. “For a man who has been all over the world, all over the British Empire, and in constant action, his last resting place is in a quiet country churchyard.” Rodney will share stories of Rawlinson during a talk at Shaftesbury Library on Thursday. He says it is the perfect time.
“When David Cameron was Prime Minister he asked the British public whether they would like to commemorate the war and the answer was twofold – ‘yes’ and ‘we would like the commemoration to concentrate on the dead.’ That’s understandable,” said Rodney. “But there were a lot of men who were still alive at the end of the war who contributed hugely to the victory. My father served in the Royal Flying Corps in the Royal Air Force and my great uncle served in the Royal Navy. I have quite an interest in presenting a more optimistic side of the war,” he said.
Rodney has published five books and, before he moved to Shaftesbury, taught history at a school in Surrey. But his fascination with the Great War started long before his academic or teaching career. “I’ve always been interested in the First World War since the time I was a boy in Canada. Time Life magazine published a series of articles on the war with very good illustrations, photographs and paintings of the time. Ever since then I have been reading about it,” said Rodney.
“For my biography of Rawlinson, I spent four years researching and reading a huge number of papers at the National Army Museum in London. His chief of staff’s papers are held at Kings College. Rawlinson’s First World War diaries are at my old college, Churchill, in Cambridge. There are also Fourth Army papers at the Imperial War Museum and there is a huge collection in the National Archive.”
Rodney believes that it is fair to attribute Britain’s WW1 victory, in part, to Rawlinson’s efforts. “If you look at the statistics of the casualties inflicted on the Germans, the British Army captured nearly as many prisoners and nearly as many German guns as all of the other Allied armies on the Western front put together.”
Rawlinson’s successes were not widely reported. Instead the papers highlighted American President Woodrow Wilson’s proposed ‘fourteen points for peace’. Those negotiations were reported more extensively than the General’s ‘extraordinary victories’.
“A year after that, in July 1919, a reporter for the left-wing Manchester Guardian newspaper wrote ‘Who Actually Won the First World War?’ The answer was Rawlinson and the Fourth Army, by piercing the Hindenburg Line. It was the last strong German defence. Once they got through, the Germans knew that they were beaten.”
Rodney offered that there is an alternative view – that the German Army was, in part, defeated by domestic events. “There were mutinies at home. There were food strikes and a lot of the public were against the government by then. The German army was clearly beaten, though. When the armistice terms were published, the new president of the Weimar Republic, Philipp Scheidemann, asked the Chief General, Groener, ‘Do we have to accept these terms?’ Groener said that there was no chance,” said Rodney.
Henry Rawlinson was born in 1864, the son of an East India Company General. He grew up surrounded by people from the Empire who had served as soldiers, statesmen or politicians. He went on to serve in Burma, Sudan and South Africa. He was a good friend of Field Marshall Lord Roberts and Kitchener.
Unlike many authors, Rodney won’t be signing copies of his book following his talk at the library. “It’s part of a very academic series of books and, although I did not know it when I agreed to write the book, it costs £85. In two years, I am told that they will bring out a paperback at a reasonable price. There is still hope,” Rodney laughed.
Rodney’s talk takes place at Shaftesbury Library between 5pm and 6.45 pm on Thursday, 8th November. Light refreshments will be offered afterwards.
There’s more from Rodney on Rawlinson’s wartime successes, his life and career, in the audio interview on ThisIsAlfred.com.