An Irishman’s Diary on Hubert Gough, an enigmatic general
Key figure in Curragh Mutiny and first World War
Gen Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough: His role as neutral Ireland’s defender, and the champion of Irish personnel serving in the British forces, is an unwritten story.
This year marks the centenary of the Curragh Mutiny and the outbreak of the Great War, as well as the 75th anniversary of the start of the second World War. One figure who stands at the intersection of these events, a man often misunderstood, is Gen Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough. Born in London in 1870, Gough came from a long lineage of soldiery. His family were Irish by adoption and were prominent Anglican churchmen, but gradually began to abandon clerical vocations for the “profession of arms”. Hubert was the son of Sir Charles Gough, who distinguished himself at Lucknow, during the Indian Mutiny, winning the Victoria Cross and becoming a major general.
In 1888, aged just 17, Hubert entered the Royal Military College, and in 1889 he joined the 16th Lancers serving in the Malakand Field Force in Northwest India. By the time of the “Curragh Mutiny”, Gough was a brigadier. In March 1914, he led 57 fellow officers of Third Cavalry Brigade to deliver an ultimatum to Gen Paget, declaring that they would accept dismissal “if ordered north” to put down the UVF. Called to Whitehall, Gough and his colonels requested a written assurance that they would not be ordered to enforce Home Rule in Ulster and Secretary of State for War JE Seely agreed to their demands, but Prime Minister Herbert Asquith could not allow army officers to dictate policy and Seely resigned.
During the Great War, Gough was the youngest British general commanding on the Western Front, but was greatly disliked by his superiors because he challenged their decisions and encouraged his own staff to do so. Field Marshal Smuts, however, learned much from Gough about the condition and vulnerability of the line while inspecting the front in January 1918, and described him as “a terrific fellow, oozing with character and Irish humour”.
Such favour would not save him when his Fifth Army bore the brunt of the last German offensive of March 1918. Gough was relieved of his command, despite leading a spirited defensive action against colossal odds. Lloyd George needed to divert attention from his government’s failure to bolster the line adequately and according to his biographer, Anthony Farrar-Hockley, Gough was “sacrificed to political expediency”.
Historians are divided in opinion about Gough; some label him a callous “butcher among generals”, whereas others judge him to have been unusually considerate towards his soldiers.
In his retirement, he stewarded the Fifth Army Comrades Association and led the Chelsea Home Guard in the second World War. It was in this capacity that, ironically, Gough attacked Northern Ireland’s unionist government in August 1941. He co-authored a letter to Churchill and Canadian prime minister William Mackenzie King, criticising Stormont for organising a local defence force, analogous to Britain’s home guard, but “recruited along politico-sectarian lines”. Gough, and other retired Anglo-Irish officers, castigated Craigavon for his policies. While disagreeing with Irish neutrality, they defended the sovereign right to pursue such a course and desired to see old wounds and divisions healed through a spirit of reconciliation.
Gough brought about recognition of the contribution of Irish citizens to Britain’s war effort. In September 1941, he published an editorial in the Times of London, citing that “very large numbers of Irishmen have joined H.M. Forces” and, upon his suggestion, Churchill formed the 38th Irish Brigade, which fought valiantly in North Africa and Italy.
Gough also observed that there was no facility where Irish servicemen and women could meet and rest in London.
With a donation of £1,000 from the Guinness family, he opened the Shamrock Club in Park Lane in March 1943, a venue often frequented by many Irish personnel on leave. In 1946, Gough famously wrote to the Times of London, claiming that, by July 1944, British next-of-kin lists contained 165,000 addresses in the south of Ireland.
He felt that Britain owed a “debt of honour” to these volunteers, who “in spite of their country’s neutrality, crowded unasked to the aid of the United Kingdom in its blackest crisis”.
Gough died in March 1963, his chief legacies being the “preventative mutiny” at the Curragh and his reputation as an “incompetent officer” in 1918. However, his role as neutral Ireland’s defender, and the champion of Irish personnel serving in the British forces, is an unwritten story which, in the year 2014, is fitting to tell.