Lieutenant General Sir Frederick William Stopford - Becoming the epitome of incompetent generalship
Compared to the likes of Sir Douglas Haig or even Field Marshal Conrad von Hötzendorf, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick William Stopford doesn’t seem like the prime candidate for “worst general of the 20th century”, especially with von Hötzendorf’s infamous record. However, when your performance in command is considered one of the most incompetent feats of generalship of the First World War, so much so that enemy victory was almost total, it gives Stopford a bit of a leg up, if not the entire leg and then some.
Sir Stopford’s career started like any other British upper class ponce. The younger son of the 4th Earl of Courtown, Sir Stopford was commissioned into the Grenadier Guards and participated in the Battle of Tel el-Keber in 1882 as aide-de-camp to the chief of staff of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, acting as Sir John Adye’s personal assistant and secretary. He continued this post alongside Major General Arthur Fremantle during the Suakin expedition. Afterwards he was made brigade major for the Brigade of Guards posted to Egypt. Later in 1886 he became brigade major of 2nd Infantry Brigade, and deputy assistant adjutant general at Horseguards and Aldershot, later becoming full on assistant adjutant general for Horseguards in 1897. Now for those not in the know, Horseguards and Aldershot are both headquarters for the British army. For some time, when it came to officers, it would sometimes be a matter of who you knew at Horseguards if you were looking to be promoted or assigned to prestigious postings. Essentially, they were a rich boy’s club where knowing the right person was more important than actual skill.
His military career continues on, as he participated in the Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War. This war was more of a show of force, as the local Ashanti people refused to surrender sovereignty to the British. Not a single shot was fired in the 2 month war, but 18 men died with half of the troops falling sick to disease. During the Second Boer War, he again found himself as secretary to the commanding officer, this time General Sir Redvers Buller, and the secretary to the general officer commanding Natal. Apparently he did such a good job that he was knighted and appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George in November 1900.
So, let’s take stock of where we are right now. Sir Frederick Stopford’s military career up to this point has been “Secretary, Secretary, Adjutant General at the Military’s own boy’s club, participant in a 2 month war where all casualties were from disease, Secretary, and again Secretary”. In vast comparison, Conrad von Hötzendorf, the typical poster child for incompetent generals, started as a lieutenant in a jäger battalion and graduated from the Kriegsschule military academy, reformed field exercise of the 11th Infantry Division and was professor of military tactics at said academy. Sure he had little direct combat experience, but he studied and wrote about theory and tactics, so much so that his published works on infantry tactics sold well. He even campaigned for modernizing the armed forces. Even Sir Douglas Haig had plenty of combat experience and spent time actually learning about warfare and the implementation of it. Compared to two of the worst regarded military commanders of the First World War, Sir Frederick Stopford seems to not only take the cake but the entire bakery as well.
Unfortunately for history, his career does not stop there. He finally was given a chance to command as the chief staff officer for I Corps with the temporary rank of brigadier general, followed by the appointment of major-General commanding the Brigade of Guards, commanding the London District from 1906. In spite of the lack of actual combat experience, he was made the director of military training at Horseguards, and made GOC of the First Army on August 5 1914 until some absolute idiot decided to give him IX Corps.
By now the First World War was in full swing, and Sir Frederick Stopford found himself leading one of the last attempts to break the deadlock of the Battle of Gallipoli. Leading the Mediterranean Expeditionary force, General Sir Ian Hamilton ignored the fact that Stopford had in fact retired in 1909 and never commanded men in battle, and instead accepted the appointment of Stopford to lead the Suvla landing for the August Offensive purely based on seniority. For some reason Stopford’s hesitancy during preparations for the landing, a sign of things to come, did not set off any alarm bells in Hamilton’s head. The stage then was set for Stopford to show history how truly incompetent one commander can be.
On August 6th 1915, Stopford and IX Corps began putting their plan into motion, as the 32nd and 33rd Brigades of the 11th Division began landing at “B Beach” south of Nibrunesi Point just before 10pm. Two companies from the 6th Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment, drove the Ottomans away from the hillock of Lala Baba, but not without losing all but two of their officers and a third of their strength. The 34th Brigade attempted their landing at A Beach within the Suvla Bay, but their destroyers anchored 1000 yards too far south and on the wrong side of the channel. Two lighters were grounded on the reefs and the men were forced to wade ashore in water up to their necks.
Things did not go any better for the 9th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, as they waded ashore in darkness and were pinned between the beach and salt lake by sniper and artillery fire. 7 Officers, including the CO, were killed from Ottoman fire. The greatest success came in the form of the 11th Battalion, The Manchester Regiment. Having come ashore from the destroyer HMS Grampus, they managed to find their way to the Kiretch Tepe ridge and fought some distance along it to the east, paying in 200 men.
All along the bay, the landing was in chaos. The pitch darkness of the night of August 6th resulted in units getting mixed up and officers unable to locate their positions or their objectives. Once the moon rose, British troops became prime targets for Ottoman snipers. Hill 10 wasn’t even captured until after dawn on the 7th, as no one in the field knew where it was, and the Ottoman rearguard had withdrawn during the night.
But where was Stopford during all this? Well, he was on board the HMS Jonquil. Not commanding mind you, that would actually be something a somewhat competent commander would do. Instead, Stopford did the only sane thing he could do. As the landing was in progress, Lieutenant-General Frederick Stopford went to sleep. In fact, he did not receive any news on the landings until 4am on August 7th, when Commander Unwin came aboard to discourage further landings in Suvla Bay.
The next day did not fare any better. With the chain of command breaking down, progress had become minimal. Lack of supplies, especially drinking water, and Stopford “commanding” from offshore led to a lethargic advance, just managing to seize Chocolate Hill and Green Hill in the evening with minimal resistance but with constant harassment by shrapnel and snipers. The command structure of the British forces completely broke down by the end of day on the 7th, and the butchers bill tallied 1700 casualties. This was a figure that exceeded the total size of Major Wilhelm Willmer’s 3 battalions, the sole defending forces under command of the Bavarian cavalry officer lacking machine guns and under orders to delay enemy advances. Fortunately for Major Willmer, Stopford was doing a good job of that himself.
General Otto Liman von Sanders, the German commanding officer of the defenses in the area, redirected two divisions to reinforce and repel the British. While enemy reinforcements were en route, Stopford proceeded to make it as easy as possible for the Ottomans. He had no intention of advancing to the high ground, and instead signaled Hamilton that he would instead consolidate the position held. The lack of progress and absence of any drive led General Hamilton to dispatch Captain Aspinall and Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Hankey to find out what was happening, and on receiving Stopford’s signal decided to see the clusterfuck for himself.
Once Aspinall arrived along with Hankey, he found Stopford in excellent spirits and well satisfied with the progress, despite the fact that his men had barely made it off of the beach. Hamilton arrived not long after, and with a clear picture of the travesty that was going on, went to confront Stopford with Aspinal and Commodore Roger Keyes. Stopford had finally planned an advance that would take his men off of the beach and to the important Tekke Tepe ridge, but in usual cautious fashion, had planned it to take place the next morning on August 9th. Hamilton, understandably frustrated, insisted it take place immediately, sending the 32nd Brigade 2 ½ miles to the ridge that evening. The attack was a shambles, as the brigade took 10 hours to reach the ridge in the dark over unfamiliar and rough terrain, and fresh Ottoman reinforcements met the exhausted British with a bayonet charge that virtually annihilated the brigade in a matter of minutes. Hamilton wrote of the situation: “My heart has grown tough amidst the struggles of the peninsula but the misery of this scene wellnigh broke it... Words are of no use”
The evening of August 8th did not serve to improve the British position, as the Ottoman reinforcements had arrived and took up positions. However, Feizi Bey, the commander of the reinforcements, objected to Von Sanders’ orders to attack immediately. If he did, considering the ineptitude of the British command, he might have broken the British right away. Instead, Von Sanders dismissed him and replaced him with an aggressive and capable commander, Mustafa Kemal, who boosted Ottoman morale. Seeing the position he was in, he was in no rush to sacrifice the defensive line while dealing with the Sari Bair ridge threat. British Reinforcements were also arriving, but command continued to remain paralyzed. Stopford began giving complete nonsensical and surreal reasons for inaction, including that the Ottomans were “inclined to be aggressive”.
6 days after the landings began, Hamilton finally cabled Lord Kitchener to replace the IX Corps generals. Kitchener, who had appointed Stopford in the first place, approved of this, saying that he would send any competent generals to Hamilton. Even before Kitchener got a response, he made Lieutenant-General Julian Byng available. Stopford was ultimately dismissed on August 15th, replacing him with Major-General Beauvoir De Lisle while Byng was en route from France. Major-General Hammersley was also dismissed, and while Lieutenant-General Sir Byan Mahon was supposed to remain in command of the 10th Division, he abandoned his division while it was in the thick of the fighting on Kiretch Tepe. Mahon was incensed that de Lisle was appointed above him, as he disliked the man. Major-General John Lindley of the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division also resigned. Once de Lisle arrived, he reorganized and reinforced the front, leading to the climax on August 21st with the Battle of Scimitar Hill. Fighting became sporadic, until the British evacuated in late December.
Lieutenant General Sir Frederick William Stopford shoulders the blame for the failure of the Suvla operation due to inaction, indecisiveness, gross inexperience, and incredible incompetence. Lord Kitchener and Sir Ian Hamilton share responsibility for this as well, with the former as the one who appointed the old inexperienced general to an active command and the latter who not only accepted the appointment but also failed to impose his will on his subordinate. Hamilton in fact waited a full week before finally replacing Stopford. However, one thing to keep in mind is that this was still the thing during the First World War, and in some capacity in the Second World War. Ever since the times of the Napoleonic War, the 7 Years War, the Hundred Years War, even as far back as the Roman conquests of Gaul, it was commonplace to allow nobles with lack of military experience into commanding positions within the military. The majority of European nations at least were all involved in this practice, as well as granting elderly generals positions based purely on seniority. Kitchener and Hamilton don’t have the same weight of responsibility because of this. Instead, the lives of every British soldier and complete and utter failure of the Suvla Bay landing lies at the feet of Stopford. By the end of the landings on the 15th, the British advance had stopped after only a single mile and no objectives were even achieved. It was a complete Ottoman Victory.
To me, and hopefully to you, you can see now why Stopford is not only considered to have been responsible for one of the most incompetent feats of generalship of the First World War, but is also deserving of the title “worst commander of the 20th century”. A man who bought his way into command, who never once served in active duty commanding soldiers, who never even went through military training himself, who was given command of an operation due to his age, who decided it was more important to sleep during the initial landings and to secure the 1 mile advance along the beach than it was to actually command, and who hammered the final nail in the coffin of the Gallipoli offensive through inaction, overcautiousness, and incompetence. It is fortunate for the rest of the British forces active during the Great War that he, as far as I’m able to find, was never given command again, and retired from the service in 1920.