One of the strengths of the British Army in the First World War was its willingness to promote citizens of 1914 to senior commands. The number of citizens promoted to battalion command rose as 1918 progressed.
Three individuals were promoted to brigade command. George Gater, Spencer Weston, and William Millward.
Brigadier-General Hanway Cumming wrote of George Gater: ‘General Gater was a product of the new army; he had never seen or thought of soldiering before the war … He was a first-class Brigade Commander, very able and quick; indeed it was difficult to imagine him in any other capacity.’ He was in line for divisional command when the end of the war intervened, Major-General David Campbell’s recommendation reading: ‘A Brigadier of the highest class and thoroughly qualified to command a division. Has proved himself to be an excellent organizer, trainer and fighter. A very remarkable man as with only four years’ service he has proved himself well fitted for a higher command. He is most popular and has the absolute confidence of all serving under him. A very good disciplinarian. Very active and energetic.’ His rise had been nothing short of astonishing.
George Henry Gater was assistant Director of Education for Nottinghamshire on the outbreak of war. Born in 1886, the son of a solicitor, he was educated at Winchester College, where he had spent five years in the cadet corps reaching the rank of corporal, and obtained a BA in Modern History and a Diploma in Education at New College, Oxford, where he seemingly avoided the Officer Training Corps. He attested on 14 August 1914, and was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant on 29 October in 9th Sherwood Foresters. Arriving at Cape Helles on 19 July 1915 as a captain, he was hospitalised two weeks later with enteritis, and only rejoined his battalion on 20 October, yet found himself in command on 1 December as a major for nearly a month. Awarded the DSO for his efforts on Gallipoli, he arrived on the Western Front on 4 July 1916, and was appointed to command 6th Lincolnshire on 10 August. His rise from 2nd lieutenant to lieutenant-colonel had taken 20 months. He earned a bar to his DSO for his leadership at the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917. The citation reads: ‘He led his battalion with brilliant skill and resolution during an attack, minimising their casualties during three days’ intense shelling by his able dispositions and good eye for ground. He directed the consolidation, and remained in command for three days, although severely wounded in the face early in the action’. Ordered with only an hour’s notice to form up on the Wytschaete Ridge two miles away and attack the third objective, Gater had found himself with only battalion HQ and ‘D’ Company in line, and pushed on with this limited body of men to avoid losing the barrage, receiving a shell splinter in the mouth and ear. Reaching the objective, over the next two days he sustained three heavy counter attacks. He took over the command of 62 Brigade, a new army formation, on 1 November 1917, and commanded it through the pounding it took in the 1918 German spring offensive, during which he was again wounded in the back on 24 May, and in the Hundred Days.
Campbell’s eulogy put the activities of organising and training first in anticipation of divisional command. Gater’s pre-war job implied considerable organisational ability, and in the post-war period he was appointed Director of Education for Lancashire in 1919, moving in 1924 to be Director of Education for the London County Council, becoming its Clerk in 1933, in which role he was knighted. He then joined the civil service as Permanent Secretary, Head of the Colonial Office from 1942 to 1947. He died in 1963, aged 77. His whole life was a testimony to his power of leadership.
Of Spencer Percy Vaughan Weston, little is known. He was a stock exchange clerk. He joined the Public Schools Special Corps as a private and was commissioned lieutenant in December 1914 in the Royal Berkshire Regiment. Transferred to the 1st Battalion he was promoted captain, company commander, in January and major in September 1916. He commanded 17th Royal Fusiliers from April 1917 until June 1918 when he became brigadier-general 122 Brigade, a post he held until the armistice. The first bar to his DSO was awarded as commanding officer for ‘tactical skill, coolness and example’ in handling his battalion in a six hour attack during the German spring offensive of 1918; the second for ‘fine powers of leadership’ in retreat during the same period.
William Colsey Millward was born in 1886. He had played cricket for the Worcestershire second XI, but was also a keen footballer, playing in an All-England Amateur Cup Final. He was a clerk in August 1914 working on the Argentine railways, and enlisted in 11th Sussex, ‘Lowther’s Lambs’, in September 1914, being commissioned two months later. He was promoted captain commanding a company in August 1915, and major second-in-command in July 1916, taking command of the battalion he had joined as a private two and a half years earlier in March 1917. He was awarded the DSO as commanding officer, showing ‘splendid leadership and ability’ in launching an attack and holding the captured position for two days, displaying ‘great coolness, courage and determination’. He was promoted brigadier-general in March 1918 with 116 Brigade but 11 days later whilst shaving outside his tent suffered wounds to his leg from a shell which resulted in amputation. He died on 23 October 1956.
It says something of the reality of merit-based promotion in the BEF that two clerks could rise to the rank of brigadier-general.