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A great soldier who was not a great enough man

By Brian Holden - posted Thursday, 21 April 2011

Anzac Day can be a time for reflection on the human condition which goes beyond the usual rhetoric of politicians and clergy. What was in his footloose background which drove John Simpson to be so courageous at Gallipoli? How did a Jew, John Monash, rise to the top of the First AIF?

There are millions of lifelines associated with the Great War - most of them fascinating in their own way. But, there was one man in the millions who could have made a decision on one particular day of the war which would have made him the most valuable person who has ever lived.

The story begins on January 22, 1879


A British force of about 1400 was encamped in an exposed area below Isandlwana Hill in Natal. The soldiers of the queen wore red jackets and white pith helmets. About 12,000 (some say 20,000) Zulu warriors attacked them. The attackers rhythmically rattled their short iron spears against their cowhide shields. It sounded like an oncoming train. The low murmuring of their war chants sounded like a swarm of bees. On foot over level ground they could charge at a speed of a fifth of a mile a minute.

The British felt fear in their bowels - bowels that might be exposed to the sunlight if the victorious Zulu did not want his victim's vengeful spirit to haunt him. A redcoat had good reason to panic and run - except that in his sweaty hands was a Martini-Henry MKII breach-loading rifle which, at a rate of 12 per minute, could fire projectiles which could put a big hole in a cowhide shield and in the man behind it.

But "the Henry" was not enough. The near-annihilation of the British force at the hands of "savages" shocked, not only the British people, but all of Europe. Nevertheless, it become one of the most romanticised battle in British history. It was the British equivalent of Custer's Last Stand. What career soldier in the British army would not have given his right arm to be able to say: " I was at Isandlwana".

As the trap was about to be snapped shut, there was a careerist in the few who escaped. He was subaltern Horace Smith-Dorrien - and he escaped with all body parts intact.

The path to glory

In the sunset years of Queen Victoria's reign, the masters at Harrow and Eton were able to enthuse their boys with stories of the exploits of British arms. Notable was the campaign led by the charismatic Lord Kitchener in the Sudan and the fighting with the cruel Afghan at the Khyber Pass. Careerist Smith-Dorrien was in the thick of both of them. These engagements of men below a fluttering Union Jack and holding the line against hoards of primitive heathens provided enough material to generate several imaginative movies in the following century.


Then came the Boer War of 1899-1901. It was the empire versus farmers of Dutch extraction who simply wanted their independence. Smith-Dorrien was in the thick of that one too. He emerged with a rank only one below that of field marshal. Then came the Great War in which the highest ranking officers were in command of hundreds of thousands of men.

Few Australians today have heard of Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. But, his illustrious military career has a dimension to it which is profound when one looks into the details. On December 26, 1914, fate dropped an opportunity into is lap for him to become the most valuable person who has ever lived.

The time we needed a truly great man

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About the Author

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

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