General Hubert Gough was one of Field Marshal Haig’s favoured generals during World War One. Gough saw out most of World War One within the Ypres Salient. Some military historians such as Robin Neillands believe that it was Haig’s support for Gough that stopped the victory by the Allies at Messines Ridge being as great as it might have been had the plan been allowed to develop as Haig had originally intended – much to the anger of the commander who developed that plan for the actual attack on Messines Ridge – Herbert Plumer.
Hubert Gough was born on August 12th 1870. Three members of his family, including his father, had been awarded the Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery – the only family to have won the medal three times. Therefore Gough was born into a family with a military pedigree. After Eton, Gough went to RMA Sandhurst in 1888. On completing training here, Gough joined the 16th Lancers in 1889 and saw service in the Boer War.
From 1904 to 1906 he served as an instructor at the Staff College, Camberley, before taking command of the 16th Lancers. He later served in Ireland as commander of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade with the rank of brigadier-general. Gough found favour with the Ulster Unionists as he spoke out against the use of force with regards to the imposition of Home Rule and he was directly involved with the 1914 ‘Curragh Mutiny’.
At the start of World War One, Gough served as a cavalry commander and commanded the 7th Division within the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from 1914 to 1915. Gough placed great faith in mobility and the 7th Division was nicknamed ‘Gough’s Mobile Army’. He subsequently served at the Somme, Arras and Ypres.
Gough placed great faith in the use of cavalry attacks in the face of obvious evidence that trench warfare, mud and artillery made such attacks extremely dangerous. Other senior officers on the Western Front were at best cautious of his views and at worst highly critical of them. However, Gough formed a positive relationship with Field Marshal Haig, Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in the Western Front. Haig was also from a cavalry background and this may have helped to cement their friendship.
Plumer certainly blamed Gough for failing to take advantage of the Allied success at Messines Ridge. While the Germans were in disarray around Messines, Gough was meant to use his 5th Army to drive a wedge between the German forces based to the east of Ypres at the Gheuvelt Plateau. Plumer had banked on this gap being too great for the Germans to plug. Or if they did it would have required them to move men from other sectors, therefore weakening those sectors and leaving them open to attack.
Gough failed to use his army as planned. His rationale was that if the plan failed his men could have been wiped out and Ypres, the Allies most important base in the area, could have fallen. Haig was quick to defend Gough and there was a lot of logic in what Gough said. The attack on Gheuvelt Plateau was put off. The Allies could have survived defeats in outlying areas of the Ypres Salient – as they did at times – but they would not have survived losing Ypres itself – the heart from which the Allied campaign beat in the Ypres Salient.
Plumer never wrote about his World War One experiences or his relationship with other senior officers. However, historians such as Neillands do believe that if Gough had done as the plan required, the German military might to the east of the Ypres Salient may have been fatally weakened. However, if Plumer had got it wrong, the consequences could have been major.
There is little doubt that Gough had made enemies at the top of the British High Command. He was criticised for not countering the Germans during their Spring Offensive in 1918. While Ypres was not taken, many areas around the town were including the village of Passchendaele near Ypres that the Allies had captured in 1917 only for it to be retaken in 1918. The same was true for Messines Ridge. Gough was considered not to have offered up a more robust defence.
Given that the Germans used storm troopers for the first time and that their tactics had drastically changed from previous ones and that they had major success throughout the whole line of the attack, such criticism may have been unfair and unwarranted. Also the 5th Army had to defend a 42-mile front and by the very nature of this their strength was thinly spread. However, the finger of blame was pointed at Gough and even Haig could not save him this time. On March 28th 1918 he was replaced in his command by General Sir William Birdwood. Gough was not given another command for the rest of the war.
Hubert Gough retired from the army in 1922 with the rank of general. In 1931 he wrote about his experiences as commander of the Fifth Army in a book simply titled ‘Fifth Army’. To those who had criticised his leadership during the World War One, the book was little more than an attempt to blame anyone else other than himself for the defeats suffered by men he commanded. To others, the book vindicated his style of command.
In September 1939, Sir Hubert Gough (he had been knighted in 1937) helped to create a Home Guard unit for Chelsea. He retired from this in 1942.
General Sir Hubert Gough died in 1963 aged 92.