Having survived one of the most disastrous episodes of the Battle of the Somme, 100 soldiers refused to attack again ... and a Scottish doctor was blamed for the mutiny. As the final year of the First World War’s centenary begins, historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, author of Somme: Into The Breach, argues that the evidence exonerates Dr George Kirkwood

DOCTOR George Kirkwood may have seen some terrifying sights while training as a general practitioner in Glasgow, the town where he was born and where he read medicine at university, but he is unlikely have seen any more petrified men than on the night of July 9-10, 1916, when he was asked to give his opinion on 100 shellshocked soldiers during the Battle of the Somme.

Eight days earlier, those same men had survived the most disastrous attack in the history of the British Army when in the space of 12 hours on July 1, 1916, there were more than 57,000 British casualties. The 11th Battalion, the Border Regiment, in which Lieutenant Kirkwood served as the medical officer, was among the worst hit, losing all the officers who attacked and more than 500 of its 800 other ranks.

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So it was understandable when, on July 9, they were ordered to attack again, they were less than enthusiastic. Yet when Kirkwood told the officer who had been brought in to command what was left of the battalion that the men were in no fit state to carry on fighting, rather than being praised for his compassion, he was bitterly denounced by some of the most senior officers in the Army.

As far as they were concerned, the Scottish doctor’s verdict legitimised what amounted to a form of mutiny, and after the disaster on July 1, there was a fear it would spread to other units.

Dr Kirkwood’s diagnosis certainly further sapped the morale of the Borders who saw him, and when they managed to delay their march to the front line by failing to pass on orders, and by – accidentally on purpose – "losing their way" while walking up to the front line, the planned attack had to be called off.

General Sir Hubert Gough, commander of the Reserve Army, blamed Kirkwood. He stated that Kirkwood was "a source of danger to the service if he remains in it". This view was shared by one of his major generals, who ruled that the "deplorable state of discipline" and "absence of courage" displayed by the men "merits the extreme penalty", adding that "immediate steps must be taken to remove Lieutenant Kirkwood from the service". Both agreed that Kirkwood, who was supposed to be facilitating the attack, had instead obstructed it, and in so doing, demonstrated that he "has no conception of the duties and responsibilities of a Regimental medical officer".

But was it as simple as that? In the course of a subsequent enquiry, Kirkwood explained his conduct in the following terms: "On the night of July 9-10, 1916, at about 10.30 pm, I got a wire from the adjutant of the Battalion to report at once. I did so. On my way I met a number of men of the Battalion who wanted to see me. I told them I could not do so.

HQ stated that an operation had to be carried through by 100 men that night and that a number of the men detailed were reporting sick. The OC wanted my opinion as to the fitness of the men to carry it through.

I gave my opinion that they were unfit, and that was based on the following: The attack on 1st July when the battalion lost all its officers and more than half of the men had had a most demoralising effect and the men had not recovered their mental equilibrium. The few days rest sorting out their deceased comrades’ kit did not improve their mental state."

According to Kirkwood, the same could be said of the following additional factors: "Carrying up the rations under heavy and incessant shell fire. Digging out the dead and carrying them down as well as living in the atmosphere of decomposed bodies. Exposure in trenches under continuous shell fire without sleep. Twenty men that day had been sent to the Advanced dressing station suffering from shell shock."

He sent an abbreviated summary of his advice to James Jardine, the unit’s Brigadier, presumably expecting it to be heeded, only to discover later that his diagnosis had been ignored, and the order given that the attack should go ahead.

The men did not even have a chance to appeal to their new commanding officer since he had himself succumbed to shell shock as a result of the shelling that had taken place earlier that evening.

It was in these circumstances that the rebellious men, grieving for their lost comrades, deprived of effective leadership due to the death and wounding of their original officers and the breakdown of their new commander, denied access to their doctor and disbelieved by their brigadier, effectively sabotaged the attack which, with the benefit of hindsight, everyone directly involved realised was a mistake.

The first sign that Kirkwood was likely to obtain a fair hearing was after Sir Arthur Sloggett, Director General of Medical Services, heard about what had happened. The first words in his report at GHQ said it all: "The whole case seems a deplorable one in which the medical officer appears to be the scapegoat."

His report summed up the situation as follows: "A brigadier totally ignorant of the state of a battalion in his brigade, the officer commanding in a prostrate condition, and the medical officer overwhelmed with the responsibility of having at a critical moment to give a sudden decided opinion.

"I would point out that Lieutenant Kirkwood did not volunteer his opinion, but was ordered to give it and sent it direct to the Brigade HQ in accordance with instructions from the Adjutant, and this opinion was not acted on, so it can hardly be argued that the conduct of the men was due to his action."

Haig evidently agreed. On August 6, 1916, the Adjutant General wrote to the generals at the Reserve Army: "The Commander-in-Chief does not agree with the recommendation that Lieutenant Kirkwood should be removed from the service. He considers that this medical officer ought not to have been asked the question which he was called upon to answer. For though it is the duty of the regimental medical officer to inspect individual cases, it is most improper to require him to give a general opinion on the physical fitness of 100 men in the circumstances set out."

In other words Dr Kirkwood was exonerated.

So who was really responsible for the mutiny? When Haig gave his judgment about what his Adjutant General referred to as "this lamentable incident", he blamed the Borders’ commanding officer Captain Geoffrey Palmer.

This was in line with the preliminary comments by the Reserve Army generals that Captain Palmer’s "conduct in asking the Medical Officer for his opinion as to the fitness of the men to carry out the operation in question was tantamount to questioning the orders received by him, and was calculated to encourage the spirit of indiscipline and cowardice already shown. He was largely responsible for this disgraceful episode".

However this allocation of blame was also unfair, as the following extract from the report by Major General William Rycroft, commander of 32 Division, reveals: "In common fairness to this officer, I must state that he has informed me that his nerve is at the present time absolutely broken. He was severely wounded in the fighting around Ypres, and only returned to the battalion about the middle of June. He had hoped that he would be fit to carry out his duties and did not inform his commanding officer that his state of health had affected his nerves."

As for the other ranks within the 11th Borders, they also had a good excuse, as the following comments by Brigadier-General James Jardine, commander of the 97th Brigade, established: "I have no doubt whatever that the men and NCOs were not in a fit state mentally to carry out the operation I ordered. The true state of affairs was a shock to me, for I had forgotten one thing that is peculiar to this battalion, and which does not apply to anything like the same extent to any other battalion that I know of. This unit was raised and commanded by a most able officer – Colonel Percy Machell – whose powers were far above the average. This led to the officers doing everything, and the NCOs in consequence having very little responsibility.

"Such being the case, the worst happens. On the first day of attack, all the officers became casualties, and it was shown at once that they had not an nco to take an officer’s place." The men could not be blamed for the fact that the battalion was left leaderless.

The paperback edition of Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Somme: Into The Breach, is out now (Penguin, £9.99), as is the updated 75th anniversary paperback edition of his Enigma: The Battle For The Code with new material added (Orion’s Weidenfeld & Nicolson price £10.99). If any readers have a photograph of Dr George Kirkwood, Hugh would be pleased to hear from them. Contact him via www.hughsebagmontefiore.com