If only one officer was to be taken who might serve as an exemplar of the aggressively effective New Army CO, then that individual might well be Lieutenant-Colonel William Robert Aufrère Dawson. Born in 1891, Dawson had a military background, his grandfather Henry Hill Dawson having been a captain of the 19th Foot. He attended Oriel College, his father William also being an Oxford law graduate. His mother was also a solicitor, as was his brother Colin who served in the Royal Army Service Corps during the war.
Bound elsewhere than the family law firm, Dawson was commissioned from Oxford University OTC into the Special Reserve of the Royal Field Artillery in early 1914, but obtained a Regular commission in 1st Royal West Kent on 10 June that year. He was transferred to 6th Royal West Kent as a 2nd Lieutenant on 3 September 1914, when the battalion was 15 days old, and accompanied it to France on 1 June 1915 as a Captain. Wounded twice in 1916, Dawson was promoted Major on 12 August, taking over command when Lieutenant-Colonel C.S. Owen was given command of 36 Brigade on 28 November 1916. He rose from 2nd Lieutenant to Lieutenant-Colonel in the same battalion in a period of 26 months, commanding until his fatal wounding on 23 October 1918. Dawson spotted celery in the garden of an empty house and was picking it when a shell shattered his leg, amongst other wounds. He died in hospital at Camiers on 3 December 1918 at the age of 27.
One of his officers, Alan Thomas, leaves us a rare analytic pen-picture in his book ‘A Life Apart’: “No man I have ever met was more suited by nature to be a commanding officer: no man succeeded in his job more magnificently than he did … (being) endowed with peculiar qualities of leadership”. He continued: “A man secure in his authority, one whose stature was heightened by adversity … men would follow him to hell”. In all he was wounded six times, and having won the DSO as a Captain, added three bars as CO, awards which demonstrate his courage and aggression, his initiative, and his ability to inspire.
The citation for his first bar reads: “When the situation was somewhat critical he displayed conspicuous bravery in organizing the defence. Although his troops were exhausted from prolonged exposure, he completely reorganized the line under heavy shell fire. His total disregard for personal danger was most marked”. The citation for his second bar, earned during the German spring offensive of 1918, reads: “When a party of the enemy had broken through the brigade front, he led the personnel of his headquarters as a fighting formation, and, co-operating with the counter-attacking battalion, inflicted heavy losses on the enemy and captured two machine guns and some prisoners. On the following day, when the enemy attacked in force, he organized and led a counter-attack with two companies. He repulsed the enemy and re-established and advanced the line. Later, when the enemy attacked some advanced posts, he counter-attacked and drove the enemy off with loss. By his capable leadership, promptness of action and courageous example, he was largely responsible for the position held by his battalion being maintained intact.” The citation for the final bar, awarded during The Hundred Days advance, reads: “For conspicuous gallantry and good leadership of his battalion from 18 to 29 Sept. 1918, near Epehy and Vendhuille. During the period they took part in three assaults successfully. On the 21st-22nd and 28th-29th he was continually in the front line, superintending operations and encouraging his men. The success of his battalion was largely due to his fine leadership and personal example.”
Alan Thomas viewed Dawson as a ‘natural’ commanding officer. He was a “man of moods and uncertain temper” (he once knocked down a man in the street who he believed had insulted his wife), but his positives far outweighed his negatives. Firstly, his referent power was seemingly immense: “His personality overpowered me.” Secondly, he had courage. When Thomas found him clinging to the side of a trench, Dawson acknowledged his fear of the shelling, but stated: “I don’t show the fear I feel”. Dawson clearly understood the importance of modelling coping, and the power of ‘hands on’ leadership. Thomas noted: “A Colonel has no business to go out on patrol in no-man’s land”, thinking Dawson sometimes “reckless and foolhardy” (he once led his battalion into action during the Hundred Days on horseback). The ‘all tasks shared’ style of leadership was, however, the keystone of Thomas’s statement: “He expected as much as he gave, which was everything”. Thirdly, Dawson’s expert power was evident in his ultimate competence on the battlefield: “He knew his job … an instinctive grasp of soldiering”.
It is difficult to imagine that Dawson would not have been promoted brigadier-general in 1919. He is one of the officers who gives us insight into the sheer experience and skill of many of the BEF’s infantry battalion COs in the Hundred Days.