Edwin Alfred Hervey Alderson, KCB, first commanding officer of the 1st Canadian Division (October 1914–September 1915) and of the Canadian Corps (September 1915–May 1916), army officer, author (born 8 April 1859 in Capel St Mary, England; died 14 December 1927 in Lowestoft, England).
Edwin Alfred Hervey Alderson, KCB, first commanding officer of the 1st Canadian Division (October 1914–September 1915) and of the Canadian Corps (September 1915–May 1916), army officer, author (born 8 April 1859 in Capel St Mary, England; died 14 December 1927 in Lowestoft, England). British Army officer E.A.H. Alderson commanded Canadian troops in the South African War (1899–1902) and in the First World War. During the Great War, the conscientious Alderson helped to transform raw Canadian troops into an effective fighting force. However, he clashed with Canadian politicians, particularly Sam Hughes, the minister of militia and defence, over a number of issues including officer promotion, training and discipline, and the Ross Rifle. This contributed to his dismissal as Corps commander in May 1916, following the disastrous Battle of St. Eloi.
Family and Early Career
Alderson was born into a military and sport-loving family. His father had served in the Crimean War, and Alderson himself was a subaltern in a Norfolk (England) militia unit at age 17. In 1878, he joined his father’s former unit (97th Regiment of Foot), which soon became the Royal West Kent Regiment. Alderson served with the West Kents in Halifax, NS, and in Gibraltar and South Africa, where he was detached to the Mounted Infantry (MI). As an MI officer, he also served in Egypt (1882) and in the Sudan (1884–5), where he was part of the Mounted Camel Regiment. In 1896, Alderson (now a major) commanded the MI and the entire Mashonaland Field Force in South Africa during the suppression of the Matabele revolt. Two years later, he published With the Mounted Infantry and the Mashonaland Field Force (1898).
South African War
Alderson returned to South Africa in 1900 during the South African War, and took command of two battalions of the Canadian Mounted Rifles. By the end of the war, Alderson was inspector-general of mounted infantry and an aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria, and had been made Companion of the Order of the Bath, one of the highest chivalric orders in Britain. Following the war, he commanded the 2nd Infantry Brigade at Aldershot (1903–7) and the 6th (Poona) Division of the Indian Army (1908–12). He was on half-pay when the First World War began in August 1914.
First World War
Not long after war broke out, Alderson was appointed to lead the new Canadian infantry division that was being assembled at Valcartier, QC; this appointment was largely due to his experience commanding Canadians in the South African War. However, Alderson would quickly find this to be a difficult command, owing in large part to interference from the minister of militia and defence, Sam Hughes.
Alderson met the 1st Canadian Division (18,000 men in total) when they disembarked in England in October 1914. He faced a considerable task — organizing, equipping, and training a large force of officers and men, many of whom had little to no military experience. Alderson was critical of several of the Canadian officers and dismissed a number of them, including some appointed by Hughes himself (although he respected Arthur Currie, who later became the first Canadian to command the Canadian Corps during the war).
Alderson soon came into conflict with Hughes and his representative in England, Colonel John Carson of Montréal. The 1st Canadian Division was encamped on Salisbury Plain, which had become a muddy quagmire due to the amount of rain that fell in the winter of 1914–15. Although other imperial troops were camped in the same area, Carson demanded that the Canadians be moved to a better location. Alderson refused this special treatment, and according to First World War historian Tim Cook, the soldiers themselves did not blame him for the conditions. Indeed, Alderson seems to have been well-liked by the men — if not always by his subordinate (Canadian) officers. His decision, however, infuriated both Carson and Hughes.
Alderson also disagreed with Hughes over a controversial decision to ban alcohol at the Canadian camp. Hughes, known to some as the “Foe of Booze,” ordered that no alcohol would be available at the camp. Consequently, many soldiers instead drank at nearby villages, causing the local authorities to demand that Alderson control his colonial troops. He therefore rescinded Hughes’s order, setting up canteens that sold beer. Alderson’s decision was very popular with the men; according to Cook, one officer — Lieutenant Victor Tupper (grandson of Charles Tupper, former prime minister) — wrote home that Alderson was a “fine fellow” who had “won the hearts of all ranks by fighting Sam Hughes and establishing wet canteens.” Hughes, however, took Alderson’s actions as a personal insult.
Following several months of training, Alderson and the 1st Canadian Division arrived in France in February 1915. After a minor role in the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle (March 1915), they moved to Belgium, where they were part of the deadly Second Battle of Ypres (April–May 1915), in which chlorine gas was used for the first time by the Germans. The Canadians fought bravely and helped defend the Ypres Salient, but suffered over 6,000 casualties — about one third of their force. Alderson criticized two of his officers, Brigadier-General Richard Ernest William Turner and Garnet Burk Hughes (son of Sam Hughes), brigade-major of Turner’s 3rd Canadian Brigade; Carson, however, believed that Turner and Hughes had performed well and that Alderson himself was to blame for the heavy loss of life. They also disagreed about the usefulness of the Canadian-made Ross Rifle, which Hughes had convinced the government to purchase. Although the Ross was more accurate than the British Lee-Enfield rifle, it had a tendency to jam (as at Ypres) and was more cumbersome than the Lee-Enfield; many Canadian soldiers disliked the Ross and had picked up Lee-Enfields on the Ypres battlefield instead. Alderson’s criticism of the Ross was another point of conflict with Hughes, who continued to defend the weapon.
Though relations between Alderson, Hughes and Carson were strained, the general was still held in high regard by the British commander-in-chief, Sir John Denton Pinkstone French, and by Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden. In September 1915, Alderson was appointed head of the new Canadian Corps, which now included two divisions, while Arthur Currie took his place as commanding officer of the 1st Division. However, Alderson resisted Hughes’s demand that another Canadian officer, Turner, be given command of the 2nd Division. This had the effect of further aggravating both Hughes and Turner (who had already complained to Carson about his British superior officer).
St. Eloi and Dismissal
It was the disastrous battle at St. Eloi (April 1916) that led to Alderson’s dismissal as Corps commander. This was the first engagement for soldiers of the 2nd Canadian Division, who were sent to relieve British troops at the frontlines. When they arrived at St. Eloi on 3 April, they found little shelter from German fire, as the British had exploded a series of mines that had left huge craters and few actual trenches. The Germans launched a series of attacks, creating mass confusion among the Canadians, particularly as officers received very little information about the battle’s progress and did not know where many of their soldiers were located. The unit suffered over 1,300 casualties, and by 16 April, German forces held most of the key positions.
Following the battle, Alderson was instructed to dismiss Brigadier-General Huntley Douglas Brodie Ketchen, the commander of 6th Canadian Brigade, which had spearheaded the Canadian fighting at St. Eloi. Turner vowed to resign if Ketchen was dismissed, leading Alderson to request Turner’s removal as well. The result, however, was the dismissal of Alderson himself, as both British and Canadian high commands were concerned about the public reaction to the removal of two senior Canadian officers. He was replaced by another British officer, Sir Julian Hedworth George Byng. Alderson was named inspector-general of Canadian forces in England and France, a nominal post that effectively ended his military career. He retired in 1920 and died in 1927.
The conflict between Alderson and Hughes likely affected not only his military career, but also his position in Canadian history. While his successors as Canadian Corps commander, Byng and Currie, are well remembered, Alderson is relatively unknown to Canadians. However, his efforts to train and better equip the Canadian divisions early in the First World War contributed to their development as an effective fighting force. Alderson was, moreover, well-liked by his men (if not always by the Canadian officers who served under him). One described him as a “kind, gentle, little man” who showed both interest in and compassion for his wounded soldiers. In Desmond Morton’s words, Alderson was a “decent, honourable, unimaginative man, [who] had been more faithful to the interests of Canadian soldiers than their own minister.”
With the Mounted Infantry and the Mashonaland Field Force (1898)
The Counter-Attack (1898)
Pink and Scarlet: Or Hunting as a School for Soldiering (1900)
Lessons from 100 Notes Made in Peace and War (1908)
Honours and Decorations
Medal, Royal Humane Society (1885)
Companion, Order of the Bath (1900)
Knight Commander, Order of the Bath (1916)
Tim Cook, The Madman and the Butcher (2010); Andrew Iarocci, Shoestring Soldiers: The 1st Canadian Division at War, 1914–1915 (2008); Tom Leppard, “Sir Edwin Alderson: Gentleman Soldier,” in Colonel Bernd Horn and Craig L. Mantle, eds., Neither Art, Nor Science: Selected Canadian Military Leadership Profiles, Vol. 2 (2007); Desmond Morton, A Peculiar Kind of Politics: Canada’s Overseas Ministry in the First World War (1982) and “Alderson, Sir Edwin Alfred Hervey,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15.