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The Memoirs of Sir James Edmonds

Brigadier General Sir James Edmonds
C.B., C.M.G., Hon. D. Litt. (Oxon.) R.E. (Retired) p.s.c.
Edited by Ian Beckett. Professor of Military History, University of Kent


Brigadier General Sir James Edward Edmonds (1861-1956) remains relatively little known outside military history circles but he has had the most profound impact on the historiography and popular image of the First World War through his sometimes controversial work as the Official Historian of British Military Operations. His memoirs cover his early career in the Royal Engineers, his period as Deputy Engineer-in-Chief during the First World War, as well as his period as a military historian from 1919 - 1949.  Always well-connected and with a waspish personality, his memoirs offer an intriguing and very personal view of British military, social and political life during a period of enormous change and cataclysmic events. These memoirs, published now for the first time in a limited edition of 300 numbered copies, include three major chapters that have been made available by the Edmonds family for the first time.

Edmonds directed the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence (and, later, the Cabinet Office) from 1919 until 1949, overseeing all twenty-seven volumes devoted to Military Operations, writing personally eleven of the fourteen devoted to the Western Front and providing the preface for three more. The last volume on Third Ypres was completed in 1948 when Edmonds was eighty-seven years old, itself a remarkable achievement. Over the course of twenty-nine years, Edmonds had devoted seven days a week for three months at a time to the history, then taken ten days’ leave before resuming work. He had kept fit by “swinging two pound dumbbells and pouring a jug of cold water over his head every morning before breakfast.” In 1951 he also published A Short History of World War I.

Apart from imposing his own stamp on the official version of the war, however, Edmonds was also influential in his selective revelation of what might be termed the “hidden history” of operations to other authors such as Basil Liddell Hart. This was achieved through his wide circle of correspondence; his other writing; and his frequent contribution to periodicals and press. While Edmonds’s contribution to the historiography of the Great War has attracted academic attention for some years, more recently he has also become known for his crucial role in the foundation of MI5, heading what was then known as first MO5 and then the Counter-Espionage Section of the Secret Service Bureau from 1907 to 1910. Historians have also sought to illuminate the character of the officer corps of the British Army through Edmonds’s knowledge of his contemporaries at the Staff College in 1896-97, including Douglas Haig.

Apart from those aspects of Edmonds’s professional life already known, the memoir helps to illuminate the wider career of an engineer officer in the late Victorian and Edwardian armies. Though clearly intellectually gifted – he passed first in the examinations for both the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and the Staff College, where he became known as “Archimedes” – Edmonds made little real mark until his late thirties. In that respect, perhaps, he suffered from his modest background as the son of a master jeweller.

Edmonds was born in London on 25 December 1861 and educated at King’s College School and the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich before being commissioned in the Royal Engineers on 26 July 1881. After further training at Woolwich and Chatham, Edmonds spent time in Hong Kong and North China between 1884 and 1888, being employed primarily as a specialist on submarine mining (i.e., the defence of harbours with mines). It was his only active command appointment. It was then back to Chatham – where his nickname was “Theodolite” from his prowess at snooker and pool – and Woolwich from 1888 to 1895, at the latter as Instructor in Fortification. Along the way, however, he was able to see something of Japan, North America and Russia, developing a lifelong interest in the American Civil War through meeting the former Confederate partisan, John Mosby, who was serving as US Consul at Hong Kong. Indeed, in 1905 Edmonds published a history of the war in cooperation with his brother-in-law, W B Wood.

At Staff College, Edmonds made the acquaintance of the Army’s future leaders, notably the dour Haig, to whom Edmonds was effectively assigned as intellectual mentor by the Professor of Military History, George Henderson. Other fellow students in Edmonds’s intake were Edmund Allenby, George Macdonogh, Richard Haking, Thompson Capper, and Reginald Dyer of Amritsar fame. The year below Edmonds included two future Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff, William “Wully” Robertson and Archibald Murray

Staff College was followed by a routine posting to Jamaica and at last, Edmonds was given an opportunity of exercising his talents in an appointment worthy of his capabilities, by joining the War Office Intelligence Division in 1899.

Edmonds was sent out to South Africa to advise Kitchener on matters of international law, on which he was to become something of an authority. Subsequently, he accompanied Sir John Ardagh to Geneva in 1906, acting as secretary to the British delegation at the conference revising the 1864 convention on the conduct of war - in 1912 he was to go on to write, with Professor  L. F. L. Oppenheim, the official British Army manual, Land Warfare: An Exposition of the Laws and Usages of War on Land for the Guidance of Officers of His Majesty’s Army.

Back with the Intelligence Division, Edmonds first monitored the Russo-Japanese War but then became head of the Special Duties Section in 1906, later MO5. It became the Special Services Bureau in October 1909, following the deliberations of a subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) and would be renamed MI5 in January 1916.

In 1910 Edmonds went to 4th Division as GSO1, forming an effective partnership with the divisional commander, Major General Thomas D’Oyly Snow, with whom he went to war, at the age of fifty-two, as part of the British Expeditionary Force in August1914.

In the war’s first campaign, although Edmonds's contribution resulted in a mention in despatches, he suffered from extreme exhaustion during the night of 26-27 August and was subsequently found a position at GHQ, where he remained for the rest of the war. Initially he was appointed as GSO1 attached to the Engineer-in-Chief, to act as Liaison Officer between the E-in-C and the General Staff and he ended the war as Deputy Engineer-in-Chief. His final responsibilities included: training and schools, camouflage, searchlights, electrical power and plant, publications, draughtsmen and maps, experimental workshops, stores (including mining, water-supply and electricity) engineer equipment, engineer intelligence of the topography of the theatre of war, including geology, engineer intelligence from enemy and Allied forces, records of operations, and rear defences outside Army areas.

With the war’s end, Edmonds escaped being sent to the Paris Peace Conference by his appointment to the CID Historical Section on the recommendation of Ernest Swinton, and it is to the compilation of the official history that the last part of his memoir is devoted. This has been the aspect of Edmonds’s career most studied, resulting in a range of, sometimes conflicting, assessments.

By the time Edmonds drafted his memoirs, nearly all of his contemporaries had died. Of the major military figures of the Great War, only Hubert Gough was to outlive Edmonds.

Appointed  CB in 1911 and CMG in 1916, Edmonds was knighted in 1928 and received an Honorary D.Litt from Oxford in 1935. He died at his home in Sherborne on 2 August 1956.  His wife, Hilda, whom he had married in 1895, had predeceased him in 1921.


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