Sir David Graham Muschet (‘Soarer’) Campbell

KCB. GOC Infantry Division 
Clifton College, RMC Sandhurst
9th Lancers

David Graham Muschet (‘Soarer’) Campbell was the son of Major H Wotton Campbell, Cameron Highlanders.  He was commissioned in the 9th Lancers on 16 March 1889.  During the first decade of his military career Campbell was better known for steeplechasing than for soldiering.  He won the Irish National Hunt Cup (1895, 1896), the Grand National (1896) and the Grand Military Steeplechase (1896, 1897), a unique record.  The Grand National was won on a horse called ‘The Soarer’, which Campbell acquired on the toss of a coin and which henceforth gave him his nickname.[1] This impression of Campbell as a dilettante soldier is, however, quite false.  Seriousness began in earnest with the South African War, which he received orders to join while on his honeymoon!  He served throughout the war, including a period in command of a mobile column, and was twice wounded.  Wounds were to become a feature of his military career.

After the end of hostilities Campbell returned to regimental soldiering, serving as Adjutant of the 9th Lancers (1902–4), before a period as a Brigade Major in India (1905–9).  He was appointed CO of his regiment on 15 March 1912 at the age of 43.  By common consent, under his command 9th Lancers became one of the best units in the British Army.  He was to have an eventful war as its CO.  9th Lancers were engaged with the enemy within 19 days of British mobilisation.  On 24 August 1914 the regiment, together with a squadron of 4th Dragoon Guards, made a charge at Elouges against six battalions of German infantry and six batteries of guns.  The cost was high: 250 casualties and 300 horses.  Campbell was ordered to charge.  He would have preferred to fight dismounted.  This was also a recurrent pattern in Campbell’s career: the conflict between orders and his own sense of what was militarily possible or prudent.  9th Lancers, with Campbell in the van – indeed rather further in the van than he intended – made a second charge, this time against the German 1st Guard Dragoons at Moncel on 7 September.  Campbell was on a fresh horse, his previous one having gone lame.  The new horse was called ‘Crasher’.  It was well named.  Fortified by an over-generous portion of oats, the horse tore off towards the enemy.  Campbell found himself nearly 100 yards in front of the rest of the regiment and facing a wall of lances.  Amazingly, he survived, despite twice being wounded.  The first wound was inflicted on his arm by a German lance.  Campbell was one of the last men in British military history to be wounded by this historic weapon.  The second was a gunshot wound to his leg, very probably inflicted by one of his own men. The bullet catapulted him over the hindquarters of his mount.  He fell to the ground and the rest of the regiment rode over him.

Campbell’s career as a regimental commander ended in November 1914 when he was promoted to the command of 6th Cavalry Brigade.  This did nothing to improve his well being.  He was wounded again, at the Frezenberg ridge on 13 May 1915, this time by a shell.  The soldier-poet Julian Grenfell (1st (Royal) Dragoons) was mortally wounded in the same incident.  Campbell’s destiny was clearly hazardous, but charmed.  He remained in command of 6th Cavalry Brigade until May 1916, when he found himself promoted to command 21st Division, a New Army formation that had been misused and badly shaken during the battle of Loos.  Campbell commanded 21st Division for the rest of the war.  He was one of only two men to command it in action.  By the end of the war he was the fifth longest serving divisional commander in the BEF.

Claud Jacob had nursed 21st Division back to military health after Loos. Jacob evidently did a good job.  Campbell made few personnel changes when he assumed command.  The chief of staff (GSO1) he inherited, Lieutenant-Colonel Alan Paley, remained with the division until October 1917, when he went home to become Assistant Commandant of the RMC.  His successor, Lieutenant-Colonel [later General Sir] Harold Franklyn, was at Campbell’s side for the rest of the war.  The division’s CRA, Brigadier-General Richard Wellesley, stayed in post until May 1917, when he was promoted BGRA XIII Corps.  His successor, Brigadier-General Henry Newcome, commanded 21st Division’s guns until the day before the Armistice.  Continuity was even more pronounced at the head of the administrative staff, where Lieutenant-Colonel G J Acland-Troyte continued in post until the end of the war.  Campbell inherited as his CRE one of the war’s outstanding soldiers, Clifford Coffin. Coffin had only two successors, Lieutenant-Colonel G H Addison (January 1917–July 1918) and Lieutenant-Colonel G Master. Campbell did, however, replace two of his three brigade commanders. Recent research confirms the ability of divisional commanders to remove subordinates whom they felt to be inadequate. It is less clear, however, what influence – if any – they had in selecting replacements. If Campbell had influence, he exercised it well. If he did not, he could count himself fortunate in those he was given. Cecil Rawling replaced the GOC 62nd Brigade, Brigadier-General E B Wilkinson, on 13 June 1916. Rawling was responsible for 21st Division’s first great achievement, the brilliant capture of Shelter Wood, on 3 July 1916. After Rawling’s death, in October 1917, the remarkable George Gater commanded the brigade. The GOC 64th Brigade, Brigadier-General G M Gloster, was also removed on 13 June. Campbell apparently had Gloster sent home as soon as he learned his age, 52, without further enquiry into his abilities as a soldier. His replacement, Hugh Headlam, remained with the division until July 1918, when Andrew McCulloch, who enjoyed a short but brilliant career as a brigade commander, succeeded him.

Campbell’s principal characteristics, according to those who knew him best, were his mental and physical[1] He was unsparing in his determination to get to the bottom of any problem and he understood the importance of attention to detail. This inclined him to be receptive to new ideas. He regularly visited his front line and even over flew it, on one occasion taking part in aerial combat. His standards were those of the first-class pre-war regimental commander. He knew no others. His adherence to them did not always endear him to ‘civilian’ soldiers, especially New Army officers. But Campbell knew that it was going to be a hard war against a formidable enemy. ‘Softness’ was not an option.

If he harboured any doubts about this, the division’s attack on the opening day of the Somme, at Fricourt on 1 July 1916, provided all the reinforcement he needed. ‘It does make me sick to read about this “terrific bombardment”, it is absolute rot and written by a lot of rotten war correspondents,’ he commented in a letter possibly written on 5 July. ‘No doubt we have many more guns than formerly, but we have not a quarter enough and every gunner will tell you so.’ ‘Sally’ Home recalled a conversation with Campbell a few days later. ‘Went to see David Campbell who commands 21st Div.,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘and had a talk with him with reference to his attack on the north of Fricourt village. He had over 5,000 casualties in his Division. His view was that it could have been taken in the first rush before the Boche had time to get his machine guns out of the dug-outs. Later it cost us a Battalion or more.’[3]

21st Division was several more times engaged on the Somme, performing especially well at Bazentin-le-Petit (14–17 July), where it took all its objectives. Campbell frequently found himself in conflict with the GOC XV Corps, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Horne, whose interference and pressure he resented. (Campbell was also to have a stormy relationship with the GOC V Corps, Lieutenant-General Cameron Shute, in the autumn of 1918, but by then Campbell’s experience had taught him to be more forceful in his dissent.) During 1917 21st Division took part in the battles of Arras, Third Ypres and Cambrai, a testimony to high command’s opinion of its military efficiency. There was no respite in 1918. 21st Division fought three major actions during the German Spring Offensive: on the Somme at Epéhy and Chapel Hill; on the Lys at Messines Ridge; and on the Aisne. The division was sent to the Aisne for a ‘rest’. It was deployed in an exposed salient on the far bank of the Aisne despite Campbell’s protest to the French commander General Duchêne, who not only ignored belated intelligence of German offensive intentions but also showed contempt for the experience of subordinates who had repeatedly faced the German infiltration tactics. The result was a disaster. ‘Monday (27 May) was the worst day I have spent in this war, which is saying a lot,’ Campbell laconically commented.

It was perhaps Campbell’s greatest achievement as a soldier to put 21st Division back together yet again and to lead it in successful attacks, notably those at Miraumont and against the Beaurevoir Line, during the ‘Hundred Days’.

Campbell remained in the Army after the war and was knighted in 1919. He was appointed Military Secretary in 1926. Campbell’s wartime experience had made him an enemy of the pre-war army’s chummy ways and an advocate of merit, which he did his best to advance. This did not go down well and he was replaced within a year. As GOC Aldershot (1927–31) he turned his attention to the re-organisation and mechanisation of the army, but these were difficult policies to advance during a period of economic stringency when the official line was that there would be no more ‘Great Wars’. Major-General Sir David Campbell died in Malta, where he was Governor and GOC-in-C in March 1936. He was, in the words of Richard Holmes, ‘a great and good man’.