Bucks author sheds new light on First World War General's controversial sacking

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A recently-published book by Buckinghamshire-based military historian and author, Derek Plews, sheds new light on the controversial sacking of a First World War general who commanded local troops.

Major General Sir Robert Fanshawe, who came from Milton Common, near Thame, in Oxfordshire, led the 48th (South Midland) Division, for much of the conflict, before being sent home, his reputation in tatters, a few months before the war ended.

It has been claimed that Fanshawe was sacked due to a failure of “generalship” after Austrian forces broke into his front line near the town of Asiago in the foothills of the Italian Dolomite Mountains, in June, 1918. However, after several years of painstaking research, Mr Plews has shown that there were other - more politically-motivated - reasons for his downfall.

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Among the soldiers who fought for him at Asiago, Italy, during the battle were men of the 1/1st Buckinghamshire Battalion and the 1/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, the latter bearing much of the weight of the initial Austrian attack. Both units recruited across the county, the former having its pre-war headquarters in Aylesbury.

Major General Sir Robert Fanshawe, pictured as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1907.Major General Sir Robert Fanshawe, pictured as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1907.
Major General Sir Robert Fanshawe, pictured as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1907.

The author believes Fanshawe was treated very harshly by his immediate superiors, Lt General Lord Cavan, commanding XIV Corps, and General Sir Henry Wilson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff – even by the standards of that time.

“If you look at the line he was defending, running through dense pine forest, with a very obstructed field of fire, it was inevitable that a determined attack by a strong, well-motivated enemy would penetrate the front trenches. The key objective was to prevent a break-in becoming a break-through and that is exactly what Fanshawe achieved,” explained the author. “His dismissal was entirely unjustified on military grounds.”

“A Brilliant Little Victory”, published by Warwick-based Helion and Co., tells the story of the 48th Division, a Territorial Force formation, from its creation in 1908 to its triumphant advance into Austria as the fighting came to a close in November, 1918. It documents the division’s introduction to trench warfare in the Spring of 1915 near the Belgian city of Ypres, how it fought through the dark days of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and the subsequent pursuit of the German army to the Hindenburg Line, before moving back to Ypres for the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. In November of that year, following the crushing defeat of Italian forces at the Battle of Caporetto, the 48th was selected to be part of a joint Franco-British force despatched to shore up the routed Italian army.

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The author is a retired journalist, civil servant and army officer who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the chair of the Buckinghamshire Military Museum Trust, a small charity that seeks to maintain the military history and heritage of the county.