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William Edmund Ironside, 1st Baron Ironside
6 May 1880(1880-05-06) – 22 September 1959 (aged 79)
Field Marshal Lord Ironside
Nickname Tiny
Place of birth Edinburgh
Place of death Queen Alexandra Military Hospital, London
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch Flag of the British Army.svg British Army
Years of service 1899-1940
Rank Field Marshal
Commands held 99th Infantry Brigade (1918)
Allied Troops Archangel (1918 - 1919
North Persian Force (1921)
Staff College, Camberley (1922 - 1926)
2nd Division (1926 - 1928)
Meerut District, India
Eastern Command (1936 - 1938)
Governor and C-in-C, Gibraltar (1938 - 1939)
Inspector-General of Overseas Forces (1939)
CIGS (1939 - 1940)
C-in-C Home Forces
Battles/wars Second Boer War
World War I
North Russia Campaign
World War II
Awards [1]Mentioned in Despatches
DSO (1915)
CMG (1918)
KCB (1918)
GCB (1938)
created Baron Ironside of Archangel (1941)
CBE (1952)
Croix de Guerre avec Palme (2nd Class)
Order of St. Vladimir
Order of the Rising Sun, Third class (1922)
Croix d'Officier de la Légion d'Honneur
Grand Croix de la Légion d'Honneur (1946)

Field Marshal William Edmund Ironside, 1st Baron Ironside GCB, CMG, CBE, DSO (6 May 1880 - 22 September 1959) was a British Army officer who served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff during the first part of the Second World War.

Ironside joined the Royal Artillery in 1899, and fought in the Boer War and the First World War before rising to command the Allied intervention force in northern Russia in 1919 and a British force in Persia in 1921. During the 1920s and 1930s he held a number of administrative posts, including a period as a divisional and district commander, and became an advocate for the ideas of J. F. C. Fuller, a proponent of mechanisation. However, his blunt approach limited his career prospects, and after being passed over for the role of Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) in 1937 he became Governor of Gibraltar, a traditional staging post to retirement.

However, he was recalled from "exile" in mid-1939, and appointed as Inspector-General of Overseas Forces, a role which led most observers to expect he would be given the command of the British Expeditionary Force on the outbreak of war. However, after some political manouvering, Lord Gort was given this command in September, and Ironside appointed as the new CIGS. He himself believed that he was temperamentally unsuited to the job, but felt obliged to accept it. In early 1940 he argued heavily for Allied intervention in Scandinavia, but this plan was shelved at the last minute when Finland collapsed. During the invasion of Norway and the Battle of France he played little part; his involvement in the latter was limited by a breakdown in relations between him and Gort. He was replaced as CIGS at the end of May, and given a role to which he was more suited; Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, responsible for anti-invasion defences and for commanding the Army in the event of German landings. However, he served less than two months in this role before being replaced. After this, Ironside was promoted to field-marshal and given a peerage, as Baron Ironside; he retired to Norfolk to write, and never again saw active service or held an official position.


Early career

He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, the second child of Surgeon-Major William Ironside of the Indian Army, who died when he was very young. In order to live on an Army pension, his mother travelled around continental Europe, where her income would go further; in this environment Edmund quickly demonstrated an aptitude for picking up foreign languages, and would end up able to officially interpret in seven, with some command of perhaps ten more.[2]

He was educated at schools in St Andrews before being sent to Tonbridge School in Kent for his secondary education; at the age of sixteen he left Tonbridge to attend a crammer, having not shown much academic promise, and was admitted to the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in January 1898. at the age of seventeen. At Woolwich he flourished, working hard at his studies and his sports; he took up boxing, and captained the second rugby team as well as playing for Scotland. He was built for both of these sports, six feet four inches tall and weighing seventeen stone, for which he was nicknamed "Tiny" by his fellow students. The name stuck, and he was known by it for the rest of his life.[3]

After attending the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in June 1899.[4] Later that year he was sent to South Africa, where he fought during the Second Boer War and was wounded three times.[5] He was promoted to lieutenant in February 1901,[6] and received his first Mention in Despatches in September.[7] After acquiring a fluency in Afrikaans, he carried out intelligence work in South West Africa, a German colony, in 1904, working in the transport section of the German colonial forces.[8] This later led to claims that he was the model for Richard Hannay, a character in the novels of John Buchan.[5]

He was posted to India for a few months in 1906,[5] promoted to captain in 1908,[9] followed by a further South African posting,[5] where he served as a staff officer[10][11] and brigade major.[12] He returned home in late 1912,[13] in order to attend the Staff College, Camberley.[5]

First World War

Ironside's two-year course at the Staff College, which he found unstimulating, was cut short by the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914; he was assigned to a staff position at Boulogne-sur-Mer and St. Nazaire, both large Army bases supporting the expeditionary force.[5] By some accounts, he was one of the first British officers to arrive in France.[14] He was promoted to major and attached to the newly arrived 6th Division in October 1914,[5] then appointed a General Staff Officer, Grade 3 in November,[15] and promoted to Grade 2 in February 1915,[16]

He was promoted to temporary lieutenant-colonel and made a Grade 1 GSO in March 1916.[17] With this promotion he was transferred to the 4th Canadian Division and fought with them at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.[5] In 1918 he briefly served as Commandant of the Small Arms School[18] before being appointed to command 99th Infantry Brigade as a temporary brigadier-general at the end of March.[5]

Russia and Persia

In September 1918, Ironside was attatched to the Allied expeditionary force fighting the Bolsheviks in northern Russia, and in November given command of the force. This was his first independent command, and he threw himself fully into it; for over a year, he travelled continually along the Northern Dvina River to keep control of his scattered international forces, at one point narrowly escaping assassination. However, the Red Army managed eventually to gain a superior position in the Civil War and in late 1919 he was forced to abandon the White Army to their fate. In November he handed command over to Henry Rawlinson, who would supervise the eventual withdrawal, and returned to Britain.[5] Ironside was made a Knight Commander of the Bath,[19] and promoted to substantive major-general[20] for his efforts; this made him one of the youngest major-generals in the army.[21]

In early 1920 he commanded a military mission which supervised the withdrawal of Romanian forces left in Hungary after the Hungarian–Romanian War of 1919, and in the summer was attatched to the force occupying İzmit, Turkey, as it prepared to withdraw. His third overseas posting of the year was to Persia in late August, where - among other things - he appointed Reza Khan to command the elite Cossack Brigade;[5] Khan would later seize control of the country, and rule as Shah from 1925 to 1941. The exact level of British involvement in Khan's coup is still a matter of historical debate, but it is almost certain that Ironside himself at least provided advice to the plotters.[22]

After Persia, he attended the Cairo Conference, where Winston Churchill persuaded him to take command of the newly reorganised British force in Iraq; however, returning to Persia in April, the aircraft he was flying in crashed and he was invalided home after several months in hospital.[5]

Interwar period

After recovering from his injuries on half-pay, Ironside returned to active duty as commandant of the Staff College in May 1922. He spent a full four-year term there, running the college efficiently as well as publishing several articles and a book on the Battle of Tannenberg. Most importantly for his future career, he became the mentor of J. F. C. Fuller, who was appointed a lecturer at the College at the same time, and became a close acquaintance of Basil Liddell Hart. Fuller's views were deeply influential on Ironside, who became a supporter of reforming the Army as an élite armoured force with air support, and of forming a single central Ministry of Defence to control the services.[23] He argued frequently over the need for faster modernisation and rearmament, and the problem of the 'old men' still filling the upper ranks of the army; in the end, he had to be reprimanded by the Chief of the General Staff, Sir George Milne.[5]

After Camberley he was appointed to command 2nd Division, a post he held for two years with little effect or interest - he was frustrated by the task of training an infantry force with no modern equipment - and then sent to command the Meerut district, in India, in 1928. He enjoyed life in India, but found the military situation to be equally uninteresting; the equipment was old-fashioned, as were the regimental officers and the overall strategic plans. He was promoted to lieutenant-general in March 1931, and left for England in May, where he returned to half-pay with the notional sinecure of Constable of the Tower of London. He was relieved from this bleakness by a posting to India as Quartermaster-General in 1933, where he travelled extensively, crossing the country to visit regiments and oversee the Indianisation process. For all this, however, it was the best of a bad job; he was still far from the War Office, and unable to make significant impact on the Army's preparation for a future war.[5]

Preparation for war

He returned home in 1936, recently promoted to full general, to lead Eastern Command, one of the corps-level regional commands in the United Kingdom. Here, he realised that a European war would come sooner rather than later, and that the army was in a parlous state to defend the country. However, he found that as with his earlier posts, he could achieve little in Eastern Command - the major decisions would be made in Whitehall. He himself seemed to lose his opportunity for higher office in 1937, when he was rebuked over his mishandling of a mobile force in the annual exercises; until this point, he had been considered a possible candidate as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, but was dropped from consideration in favour of Lord Gort, whom Ironside considered unfit for the job. Officially, Hore-Belisha told him he was too old for the post, at 57. He was appointed an aide-de-camp to the King in October, a purely ceremonial position, and early in 1938 accepted the offer of a posting as governor of Gibraltar, generally seen as a quiet role in which to retire.[24]

He was helped to accept Gibraltar by the suggestion that, in the event of war, he could be transferred to command the forces in the Middle East; as he believed no major force could usefully be sent to France, this seemed to him likely to be the main focus of British attention in the war.[25] He took up the governorship in November 1938, and threw himself into preparing the colony for war; here, finally, he had free rein. Under his tenure, the defences were strengthened and the garrison prepared for a long siege.[5]

In December 1938, only a month after he had taken up the post, Hore-Belisha had begun to consider the possibility of recalling Ironside to become Inspector-General of Overseas Forces. The position gave him overall responsibility for the readiness of forces based outside the United Kingdom, and it was worried by many at the War Office that he would interpret it as a precursor to being given formal command of the Expeditionary Force on the outbreak of war. However, after some debate, Hore-Belisha went a head and offered Ironside the position in May, appointing a corresponding Inspector-General of Home Forces at the same time, both under Lord Gort.[26] The decision to recall Ironside may have been helped by the fact that Hore-Belisha was particularly reliant on the advice of Basil Liddell-Hart, an old acquaintance of Ironside's, and was already beginning to fall out with Gort.[27]

Ironside (centre) with Polish Chief of Staff General Wacław Stachiewicz (left)

As expected, Ironside chose to interpret the posting as indicating that he was the presumptive commander in chief, and soon began to clash with Lord Gort over their respective powers. Whilst Gort was nominally in a more senior position, Ironside had seniority of rank and a far more dominant personality, and had concluded several months earlier that Gort was "out of his depth" as CIGS; he is unlikely to have shown much deference. He held the post of Inspector for a few months, visiting Poland in July to meet with the Polish high command. Whilst his sympathetic manner reassured the Poles, the visit may have unintentionally given the impression that Britain was intending to provide direct military assistance. He returned able to report that the Polish government was unlikely to provoke Germany into war, but warned that the country would be quickly overrun and that no Eastern Front was likely to exist for long. His warnings, however, were broadly ignored.[28]

Second World War

Ironside became Chief of the Imperial General Staff in September 1939 when he replaced General Lord Gort who had been sent to France as head of the British Expeditionary Force at the outbreak of World War II.

In a Commons debate on propaganda in October 1939, an MP referred to Ironside as "a man whose name is worth an Army Corps alone".[29] In November 1939 he was appointed to the Army Council,[30][31][32]


Battle of France

Ironside himself was sent to France in May 1940 to liaise with the BEF and the French in an attempt to halt the German advance. He was not well-qualified for this task, having a deep dislike and distrust for the French, whom he considered "absolutely unscrupulous in everything."[33] At a conference in Lens he clashed with the French generals Billotte and Blanchard, whom he considered defeatists. He wrote: "I lost my temper and shook Billotte by the button of his tunic. The man is completely defeated."[34] Although Billotte was supposed to be co-ordinating the British, French and Belgian armies' operations in Belgium, Ironside took over the job himself, ordering Gort and Blanchard to launch a counter-attack against the Germans at Arras.[35] This attack achieved some local success, but the German onslaught proved unstoppable. The French commander-in-chief, General Weygand, so resented Ironside's actions that he said he would "like to box Ironside's ears."[36]

Home Defence

On Ironside's return to Britain, a German invasion of Britain seemed imminent, so Ironside was appointed Commander-in-Chief of Home Forces but was replaced in July that year.


A month and a half after his resignation as Commander in Chief of Home Forces, Ironside was appointed a field marshal at the end of August. He was raised to the peerage in the New Year Honours, as Baron Ironside of Archangel and of Ironside in the County of Aberdeen,[37] and retired to the country with his family. He was never given another military posting, and was avoided by the Army establishment;[5] he rarely visited London, and never spoke in the House of Lords.[38]

He turned to lecturing and writing books, including a study of the Archangel expedition, and farming his estates in Norfolk. After almost two decades in retirement, having survived a driving accident, he was injured in a fall at his home; he was taken to Queen Alexandra Military Hospital in London, where he died on 22 September 1959, aged 79. His coffin was escorted to Westminster Abbey with full military honours, and he was buried near his home in Norfolk.[5] His son, Edmund, succeeded him in the peerage.

Personal life and honours

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in the 1915 King's Birthday Honours.[39] Ironside was given the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun, Third Class in 1922.[40]

He was promoted to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB) in the 1938 King's Birthday Honours.[41] In June 1939 he was made a knight of the Venerable Order of Saint John.[42]

Lord Ironside died in London on 22 September 1959.


  1. ^ British Army Officers 1939-1945 - I
  2. ^ Cairns (2004); Bond, p. 17
  3. ^ Cairns (2004); Bond, pp. 16-17
  4. ^ London Gazette: no. 27095, p. 4138, 4 July 1899. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Cairns (2004)
  6. ^ London Gazette: no. 27285, p. 1149, 15 February 1901. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  7. ^ London Gazette: no. 27353, p. 5927, 10 September 1901. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  8. ^ IRONSIDE, William, Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives
  9. ^ London Gazette: no. 28119, p. 1968, 13 March 1908. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  10. ^ London Gazette: no. 28188, p. 7641, 23 October 1908. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  11. ^ London Gazette: no. 28191, p. 7915, 3 November 1908. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  12. ^ London Gazette: no. 28268, p. 5194, 6 July 1909. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  13. ^ London Gazette: no. 28665, p. 8580, 22 November 1912. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  14. ^ Life, 31 July 1939, p. 62. Online edition
  15. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 29096, p. 9541, 20 November 1914. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  16. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 29096, p. 2475, 9 March 1915. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  17. ^ London Gazette: no. 29519, p. 3180, 24 March 1916. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  18. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 30526, p. 2050, 12 February 1918. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  19. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 31488, p. 9945, 1 August 1919. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  20. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 31764, p. 1375, 30 January 1920. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  21. ^ Bond, p. 18
  22. ^ The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 7 (1991); pp. 210, 219-220
  23. ^ Cairns (2004); Holden Reid (2009)
  24. ^ Cairns (2004); Bond, pp. 19-20
  25. ^ Bond, pp. 19-20
  26. ^ Bond, p. 20
  27. ^ Bond [chapter on Gort], p. 37
  28. ^ Bond, pp. 20-21; Prażmowska, pp. 76-77, 97-98
  29. ^ Speech by Sir Hamilton Kerr; Hansard, 11 October 1939
  30. ^ London Gazette: no. 34738, p. 7799, 21 November 1939. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  31. ^ London Gazette: no. 34834, p. 2382, 23 April 1940. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  32. ^ London Gazette: no. 34873, p. 3608, 14 June 1940. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  33. ^ Jackson (2003), p. 82
  34. ^ Jackson (2003), p. 86
  35. ^ Jackson (2003), p. 87
  36. ^ Jackson (2003), p. 91. Jackson continues: "causing one British witness to observe that to do this Weygand would have had to climb on to a chair."
  37. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35029, p. 1, 31 December 1940. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  38. ^ Speech by Edmund Ironside, 2nd Baron Ironside; Hansard, 3 November 1965
  39. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 29202, p. 6117, 22 June 1915. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  40. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 32600, p. 1064, 6 February 1922. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  41. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 34518, p. 3687, 7 June 1938. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.
  42. ^ London Gazette: no. 34639, p. 4238, 23 June 1939. Retrieved on 2008-01-14.


  • Jackson, Julian (2003). The Fall of France. Oxford University Press.  
  • Bond, Brian - "Ironside". In Keegan, Ian, ed (1999). Churchill's Generals. Abacus. ISBN 0349113173.  
  • Bond, Brian - "Gort". In Keegan, Ian, ed (1999). Churchill's Generals. Abacus. ISBN 0349113173.  
  • Prażmowska, Anita J. (2004). Britain, Poland and the Eastern Front, 1939. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521529387.  
  • Nicolson, Harold (1940). "Ironside". Foreign Affairs 18 (4): pp. 671-679.   JSTOR 20029035

Further reading

  • Ironside, Edmund (1962). The Ironside diaries, 1937-1940.  
  • Ironside, Edmund (1972). High Road to Command: The Diaries of Major-Gen. Sir Edmund Ironside 1920–1922.  
  • Eastwood, James (1940). General Ironside. Pilot Press.  
  • Soutar, Andrew (1940). With Ironside in North Russia. Hutchinson.  
  • Heathcote, Tony (1999). The British Field Marshals 1736-1997. Pen & Sword. ISBN 0850526965.  
Official despatches
  • Operations carried out by the Allied Forces under my Command during the period from 1 October, 1918, to 11 August, 1919
  • Operations carried out by the Allied Forces under my Command during the period from 11 August, 1919, to 27 September, 1919.
Military offices
Preceded by
Lord Gort
Chief of the Imperial General Staff
Succeeded by
Sir John Dill
Government offices
Preceded by
Sir Charles Harrington
Governor of Gibraltar
1938 – 1939
Succeeded by
Sir Clive Liddell
Peerage of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
New Creation
Baron Ironside
Succeeded by
Edmund Ironside


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