Field Marshal Herbert Plumer was commander of the 2nd Army in the Ypres Salient between 1915 and 1917. Plumer was the principal planner behind the highly successful attack on Messines Ridge in June 1917. As an officer who had come up through the ranks of the infantry, Plumer had sympathy for the plight of the front line troops under his command. He was popular among his men who nicknamed him ‘Old Plum and Apple’ or ‘Daddy Plumer’.
Herbert Plumer was born in Torquay on March 13th 1857. Educated at Eton and Sandhurst, he received his commission in 1876 when he joined the 65th Foot (later the 1st Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment). Plumer saw service in the Sudan at El Teb in 1884. From 1885 to 1887, Plumer took the Staff Course and he fought in South Africa during the Boer War where he led the relief column to Mafeking. Plumer became popular among his men primarily as he commanded from the front. While he was famed as being a strict disciplinarian, Plumer was also a man who had a sense of humour.
After the Boer War, Plumer rose quickly through the ranks. In 1902 he became Commander of the 4th Brigade within 1 Army Corps and was made a Companion of the Order of Bath. One year later Plumer was promoted to General Officer Commanding 10th Division within IV Army Corps. In 1904 he became Quartermaster-General to the Forces and by 1906 Plumer was General Officer Commanding 5th Division within the Irish Command as well as a Knight of the Realm. In 1911, Plumer was given charge of the Northern Command.
In May 1915 Plumer was given the command of Second Army Corps that was based in the Ypres Salient. Once given the command of the Second Army, he withdrew what he could in terms of men and equipment from the Salient as such and based himself and his men in and around the immediate vicinity of Ypres. Between May 1915 and June 1917 Plumer witnessed static trench warfare and all the difficulties associated with it. However, by pulling back he had left the elevated Messines Ridge for the Germans and this ridge gave them a major advantage over Plumer. He was willing to grasp any ideas that would break the deadlock of trench warfare and the Germans occupation of Messines Ridge.
For his planned attack on Messines Ridge, to the southeast of Ypres, he wanted to coordinate the use of artillery, infantry and engineering tactics. Engineers would build tunnels underneath heavily defended German lines on Messines Ridge while artillery and infantry units would combine for the actual attack on the ridge using a creeping barrage. Plumer had his watchwords, which were ‘Trust, Training, and Thoroughness” and this showed through in the final attack on Messines Ridge.
The attack on Messines Ridge, in stark contrast to the Battle of the Somme eleven months earlier, was a major success. The Germans lost the high ground around Ypres that had given them such an advantage over the Allies. 7,000 German prisoners were taken while the Allies lost just 3,538 killed and just over 20,000 wounded or missing. “Plumer is one of the few commanders who came out of the Great War with an enhanced reputation.” Robin Neillands in ‘The Great War Generals’.
In 1918, Plumer was appointed Commander of the British Army of the Rhine. A year later he became Governor of Malta. His final major appointment was as High Commissioner of Palestine – a post he held for three years.
Herbert Plumer died on July 16th 1932 and is buried in Westminster Abbey, London.
Plumer never wrote about his experiences so his thoughts about what he experienced in World War One have been lost to History. The first book that came out about him was in 1935 and was written by General Sir Charles Harrington. However, Harrington had little to go on as Plumer burned all his private papers before his death. Therefore we do not know what Plumer thought of the overall strategy of the Allied campaign in World War One and there is no record of any comments he may have made to former colleagues once he had retired.