William Birdwood

Lieutenant General William Birdwood was a British military officer born in India on 13 September 1865. He was educated in England and attended the Royal Military College Sandhurst. During the Boer War he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his work serving on Lord Kitchener’s staff. Lord Kitchener was then later responsible for placing Birdwood in command of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs).

Portrait of General William Riddell Birdwood GCB, GCMG, GCVO, KCB, wearing a slouch hat.

Image 1: Portrait of General (later Field Marshal) William Riddell Birdwood GCB, GCMG, GCVO, KCB, wearing a slouch hat.

The Australian Imperial Force (AIF)

The Australian component of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps had been largely designed by Major General William Bridges, Commander of the 1st Australian Division and the AIF, and his Chief of Military Staff Lieutenant Colonel Cyril White. The AIF at that time was structured to be a single division made up of twelve battalions. To make use of the territorial competition that still existed amongst newly federated States, when recruiting they filled battalions from regions that were close together.

The battalions were then grouped together into State-based brigades with 1st Infantry Brigade supplied by New South Wales, 2nd Infantry Brigade supplied by Victoria and 3rd Infantry Brigade made up of a battalion from Queensland, a battalion from South Australia, a battalion from Western Australia, and a battalion half from Tasmania, and a quarter each from South Australia and Western Australia.

Portrait of Major General Sir William Throsby Bridges KCB CMG.

Image 2: Portrait of Major General Sir William Throsby Bridges KCB, CMG.

The work of Bridges and White was vitally important in designing the force, recruiting the men, and getting them to the training camps in an organised state. Following Major General Bridges death at Gallipoli on 18 May 1915, Major General James Legge briefly replaced Bridges before returning to Egypt to form and command the 2nd Division. The Australian Government then appointed Birdwood as the commander of the AIF, a position he would retain until the end of the war.

12 December 1914 – Birdwood is promoted to temporary lieutenant general in preparation for a command appointment in the war.

21 December 1914 – Lieutenant General Birdwood arrives in Cairo and takes command of the AIF and New Zealand Expeditionary Force elements in Egypt, now organised into the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. To shorten this designation in Defence correspondence, the abbreviation 'ANZAC' quickly becomes an everyday word.

Australian and New Zealand Army Corps Order of Battle (as of January 1915):

1st Australian Division was commanded by Major General William Bridges (Australian) and made up of 19,000 men in three brigades and nine artillery batteries:

  • 1st Australian Brigade commanded by Colonel Henry Maclaurin (Australian) – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Battalions
  • 2nd Australian Brigade commanded by Colonel James McCay (Australian) – 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th Battalions
  • 3rd Australian Brigade commanded by Colonel Ewen Sinclair-MacLagan (British) – 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th Battalions
  • I, II and III Field Artillery Brigades
  • 1st, 2nd and 3rd Field Company Engineers

The New Zealand and Australian Division was commanded by Major General Alexander Godley (British) and consisted of 12,000 men in two brigades and four artillery batteries:

  • The New Zealand Infantry Brigade commanded by Colonel Andrew Russell (New Zealander) – Auckland, Canterbury, Otago and Wellington Battalions
  • 4th Australian Brigade commanded by Colonel John Monash (Australian) – 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th Battalions
  • New Zealand Field Artillery Brigade
  • New Zealand Field Howitzer Battery
  • Field Company New Zealand Engineers

ANZAC Corps Troops consisting of 1,000 men including two mountain batteries:

  • 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade – 21st Kohat Battery and 26th Jacob’s Battery
  • Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps

LTGEN Birdwood: During the War

Birdwood was well known for leaving his staff to get on with planning while he spent time surveying the battlefield and speaking with his troops. He was described as ‘short and dapper’ as well as a ‘vigorous, brave, upright and understanding leader of fighting men’. By the end of the war, he was to have earned trust, respect and adoration from the Australian soldiers that few British commanders would ever achieve. This was no easy feat, noting that the men of the newly formed AIF often did not afford automatic authority to those within top military positions, particularly those from other nations.

In 1916, Birdwood commanded I ANZAC Corps in France. In 1917, he commanded the newly formed Australian Corps, handing that command over to Lieutenant General John Monash in 1918.

Following the war, Birdwood toured Australia and New Zealand before returning to India to command the Indian Army. He retired from the military in 1930 and had aspirations of becoming the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. Unfortunately this never eventuated, with the Prime Minister at the time insisting the appointment be held by an Australian.

Birdwood was an extremely important, and oftentimes understated character in the history of the First World War for Australia. Although not an Australian, he played a vital role in the formation of the ANZAC tradition, which we will uncover in greater detail later in this series.