Haig’s ‘tower of strength’ – An Irishman’s Diary on Sir Edward Bulfin

A century ago on the Western Front, the British Army – with many Irish regiments – had broken free from the static trench warfare of the previous four years and was driving the Germans out of France. What is largely forgotten is that on September 19th, 1918, Gen Sir Edmund Allenby launched his army in a lightning assault against the Turks at the Battle of Megiddo, in what is now northern Israel. Megiddo, one of the greatest cavalry battles of history, was fought on the biblical site of Armageddon and spelt the end of the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally.

Providing the battering ram to breach the Turkish front line, and allow the mounted squadrons to break through and pursue the enemy, was the XXIst Corps, commanded by an Irish general, Sir Edward Bulfin, a figure largely forgotten today.

Edward Bulfin was not from the usual stable of Irish generals at that time, the “Anglo-Irish” landed gentry. He was a Roman Catholic, the most senior one from Ireland in the British Army, at a time when the British establishment still treated such with a degree of suspicion.

The Bulfins were an adventurous family, originating from Birr in Co Offaly, then “King’s County”. His first cousin was William Bulfin, a fervent nationalist. Two of the latter’s children became closely involved in Ireland’s struggle towards independence – Eamonn, one of the early Irish Volunteers, who raised the flag on the roof of the General Post Office on Easter Sunday in 1916, and Catalina (“Kid”), who married Seán MacBride.

Edward’s father Patrick, however, was a “Castle Catholic”, albeit the term had yet to be coined. A successful merchant in Dublin, he became lord mayor in 1871 but died in office. Edward, one of eight children, was just eight years old.

Born in 1862, he was sent to the Jesuit public school, Stonyhurst, in Lancashire – a school where five of the seven Victoria Crosses were won by old boys from Irish families.

After attending Trinity College Dublin, he joined the Yorkshire Regiment (the Green Howards) in 1884, serving in India as well as leading a column in the Kachin Hills of Burma. Later he caught the eye of Gen Sir William Butler, a fellow Irish Catholic and husband of the famous Victorian war artist Elizabeth Butler, and accompanied him to South Africa as his staff officer in the year before the Boer War.

Earning his spurs during that war as a brigade-major then column commander, by the outbreak of the first World War, he was commanding an elite infantry brigade. This was unusual for someone who had not attended Sandhurst, Staff College nor commanded his regiment.

His fighting spirit and outstanding leadership caught Haig’s eye during the 1914 Retreat from Mons and at the Aisne; Haig called him a “tower of strength”. Leading two critical counter-attacks, he helped save the day at the First Battle of Ypres, before being seriously wounded during the height of the battle.

But 1915 was a miserable year for him. With little time to recover, he was given command of 28th Division and bore the brunt at the Second Battle of Ypres, followed by the “unwanted” battle of Loos, where his division suffered further.

Unable to get on with Hubert Gough, not a rare occurrence, and still suffering from his wounds, he was sent home to rest. In early 1916, he raised the 60th London Division, a territorial formation later to gain fame in Palestine.

His career might have sunk but, after taking his division to the Arras front and then to the backwater of Salonika, it was saved by Allenby’s arrival in Egypt in the summer of 1917. Knowing Bulfin from Ypres, Allenby chose him to command an infantry corps. Bulfin’s corps broke the Turkish line at the Third Battle of Gaza in autumn 1917, led in the hard fighting to reach Jerusalem, and finished as the battering ram at Megiddo, Allenby’s great and final triumph; amongst his desert-hardened infantry were the Connaught Rangers.

After the war, Bulfin had the unpleasant task of putting down the 1919 uprising in Egypt, often ruthlessly, before refusing Churchill’s order in 1920 to command the police in Ireland during the War of Independence; he was not prepared to order policemen to fire on his fellow countrymen. He retired in 1926 as a full general and died in Bournemouth in August 1939.

Edward Bulfin, an admirable soldier who never lost his Irishness, was typical of that lost class of Irish Catholics, loyal to the British Empire as well as to his country of birth – and deserves to be better known and remembered.

Haig's Tower of Strength: General Sir Edward Bulfin – Ireland's Forgotten General (Pen & Sword Books)