Guardsman & Intelligencer: Lord Edward Gleichen

Anyone with an interest in the Sudan campaign of 1884-85 to relieve General Gordon in Khartoum is presumably familiar with Count (later Lord) Edward Gleichen's entertaining and informative book, With the Camel Corps up the Nile (1889). Gleichen at the time was a subaltern in the Grenadier Guards and had been nominated as the lieutenant in the Grenadiers' company of the Guards Camel Regiment. Commissioned from Sandhurst in 1881, the Nile Expedition was his first experience of active service but it would not be the last in a career lasting nearly 40 years, which also would include some interesting appointments in Military Intelligence and would end with his attaining general's rank.

Born in 1863, Gleichen was of part-German origins and had Royal connections and royal Naval antecedents. His grandparents were both of the German nobility. His great-grandmother had been married twice, first to Prince Leiningen, by whom she had a daughter, Gleichen's grandmother, and after his death, to the Duke of Kent by whom she had Princess, later queen, Victoria. Gleichen's grandmother and the Queen were therefore half-sisters. At the Queen's suggestion, Gleichen's father, Prince Victor of Hohenlohe Langenburg (in Wurtembourg), had left Germany when young and entered the Royal Navy in 1848, with which he served in the Crimean War and in China in 1857, reaching the rank of Admiral before he retired in 1866. Gleichen's mother was the daughter of Admiral of the Fleet Sir George Seymour. The Queen maintained an interest in her half-sister's family which resulted in the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, being appointed Gleichen's godfather. This kept Gleichen close to Royal circles and led, eventually, to his marriage in 1910 to the Honourable Sylvia Edwardes, Maid of Honour to Queen Alexandra.

Despite his naval forbears on both Gleichen, after being educated at Charterhouse and Sandhurst, entered the Grenadiers and served with the 1st and 2nd battalions in London, Windsor and Dublin until 1886, a period which included his participation in the Nile Expedition. His experiences with the Guards Camel Regiment can be read in his book - which he also illustrated with his own sketches - so need not be related further here. However one point may be worth noting. Wolseley and others laid the blame for the failure to reach Gordon in time on Sir Charles Wilson (who had assumed command of the Camel Corps after Sir Herbert Stewart was mortally wounded) and his two days' delay at Gubat. Gleichen maintained in a later book (1) that, in the circumstances then prevailing at Gubat and around Khartoum, those two days would have made no difference to the outcome. He, who had been on the spot, had no doubt that the failure was due, primarily, to Gladstone's prevarication over sending an expedition at all and, second, to the insufficient supply of camels.

Gleichen's father had originally intended his son to enter the Diplomatic Service and to this end had made sure he became fluent in French and German while still a boy, a process assisted by visits to his German relations, and in which his expertise won him a scholarship at Charterhouse - though his classics paper earned him the fury of one master. Having a natural gift for languages he packed up some Arabic in the Sudan and, by mid-1886, had also acquired some Russian and Persian.

In those days most Guard's officers in London, except the most junior, enjoyed a lavish amount of leave; a battalion's commanding officer expected, according to Gleichen, at least six months per years and sometimes got eight. After returning from the Sudan Gleichen found he was due four months which he determined to spend in Russia and the Caucasus, including a trip to Persia if time permitted. With five companions, all officers, he set off for St Petersburg in January 1886. There they were handsomely entertained by a ball at the Winter Palace and visits to three Imperial Guard regiments. After the consumption of much champagne Gleichen found himself embraced by the Grand Duke Nicholas! (2) Such friendship and hospitality extended to five British officers might not seem unusual in the context of the times, except that imperial Russia was then counted as one of the British Empire's chief potential enemies through its supposed threat to India, and indeed the previous year Britain and Russia had been on the brink of war following the Pandjeh Incident (3). However the Grand Duke concluded his embrace with the pledge that, should the Russian Red Hussars of the Guard ever meet the British Grenadier Guards in battle they "will salute each other and pass by on the other side". Gleichen's later experiences on this trip included a discreet reconnaissance of military roads through the Caucasus, an inspection of the Baku oil fields, duck-shooting in Persia, a look at the Persian army, a near- ambush from tribesmen, and a visit to the Crimean War battlefields.

His leave ended with a telegram from Major General Brackenbury, whom he had encountered in the Sudan, inviting him to join the Intelligence Department, then located in a modest house at 18 Queen Anne's Gate. He accepted with alacrity but, such were the military arrangements at the time, he would have to combine his new duties with those required of him by his battalion until if left for Ireland. By dint of volunteering for the Bank Picquet, which did not mount until late afternoon, he was Queen Anne's Gate.

This was the first of several Intelligence staff appointments that Gleichen was to hold during his career, interspersed with spells of regimental duty and visits, both on duty and on leave, to foreign parts including attendance at the German Army manoeuvres of 1888, missions to Morocco, Abyssinia and Montenegro, all of which yielded useful information for the Department. When Gleichen joined it in 1886, it had only been in existence for some dozen years and was both small and underfunded; under Brackenbury it grew in scope, collecting and collating information about foreign armies and possible theatres of war, as well as establishing a close liaison with the Foreign Office. Unfortunately a less close relationship existed between the Department and the War Office, which tended to undervalue, even ignore its findings and recommendations. Even as late as 1915, when General Sir Ian Hamilton was appointed to command the Dardenelles Expedition, his staff were unable to unearth any intelligence to assist his planning. Yet Gleichen, by then commanding an infantry brigade in France, could, had be been asked, have told them there was a mass of information about the Dardenelles and its Turkish defences collected during his two spells with the Austro- Turkish section of the Department in 1894-99 and 1907-11, which should have been available to Hamilton's staff; somehow they failed to find it.

Gleichen's first appointment with the Austro-Turkish section coincided with the upgrading of the Intelligence Department into the Directorate of Military Intelligence at the War Office. His earlier job, from 1886-88, had revealed his aptitude for this kind of work as well as a keen interest in it. So much so that, before joining the Austro-Turkish section, he utilised a month of his January- February 1894 leave to join a friend, then an Intelligence Officer at Malta (4), with the intention of investigating French defence and signals installations along the North African coast while posing as tourists. At that time France was a potential enemy, particularly in northern African (as would be seen in the Fashoda affair of 1898), rather than the ally she would become in 1904. To have been caught out in their true purpose as Gleichen nearly was when memorising a naval flag code in a semaphore station while his companion distracted the keeper with enthusiastic comments about the view - would have incurred a fine of 10,000 francs and five years in a fortress. Later in Corsica, to have a discreet look at its coastal batteries, he had just booked in at a hotel under an assumed name when he was suddenly greeted by an English lady using his real name. He disarmed the hotel manager's suspicions by explaining he had an assignation with a different lady.

In his memoirs Gleichen admitted that the DMI's work did not always yield the result expected of it. It attracted much blame for inadequate topographical information both for Kitchener's 1898 Sudan campaign end, a year later, of the Traansvaal and Orange Free State, despite it not having been possible to survey these regions during the preceding decade. Furthermore the Directorate suffered severely from underfunding and its total War Office strength was a mere sixteen officers with some six clerks - without any typewriters, all reports and documents being copied out in longhand. On the other hand, its estimate of the forces the Boers could put into the field proved to be only about 2,000 more than they actually mustered in 1899.

When war came that Gleichen went out with the 3rd Bn Grenadier Guards as its junior major to join Methuen's force in the west. Over the preceding dozen years he had alternated his intelligence staff work with regimental duty in one of his regiment's battalions as he advanced from subaltern to field officer.

To widen his military knowledge further he entered for the 1890 Staff College course. For the officer of the 1990s graduation from this establishment is a sine qua non for future advancement, but a hundred years it was regarded with little enthusiasm by most officers. Indeed Gleichen was warned by a cousin to say nothing of his intent to his brother-officers or he would get himself "jolly well disliked", Staff College students being then viewed as two- year "shirkers" from regimental duty with their eyes on "loafing and well-paid jobs in the plums of the profession". Nevertheless he was not deterred and, having passed the entrance exam - largely, he though, on his foreign languages -completed the course successfully, followed by four months' attachment to cavalry and artillery units to learn how "the other half" functioned. Thus, by the outbreak of the South African War, he was both experienced in regimental soldiering and a fully qualified staff officer - a fairly rare combination in those days.

The 3rd Grenadiers' first action was the assault on the Boer-held kopjes at Belmont just before dawn on 23 November 1899. Gleichen noted that all the battalion officers were armed and accoutred like the guardsmen to avoid being picked off by the Boer marksmen. This enabled him both to appreciated, for the first time, how heavy the men's Slade-Wallace equipment was, and to account for two Boers with his rifle. The second, whom he killed at close quarters, caused him some misgivings later as he balanced a feeling that he should have tried to take the man prisoner against the sight of his subaltern being shot dead by a wounded Boer while offering the man a drink of water. The position was finally taken but not without some confusion, owing to faulty maps, in the course of which Gleichen lost his company and found himself in the midst of the Coldstream.

After Belmont came the action at Graspan, followed by the unfortunate day at Modder River when the Guards Brigade became pinned down for most of the day by very heavy fire on flat ground with little cover. Just has his battalion was preparing to withdraw under cover of darkness, Gleichen was wounded in the neck by a bullet which just missed his carotid artery. This put him out of action for a month and, though he briefly rejoined his battalion in the New Year, he was posted away to assist with Kitchener's reorganisation of the army's supply and transport, a lack of "a peculiarly uncongenial nature" about which he knew nothing.

Two months later he was given employment more to his liking, as Intelligence Officer to the newly formed 9th Division under Major-General Colvile. One of his first jobs was to carry out an aerial reconnaissance of Cronje's positions at Pardeberg from a balloon - somewhat nerve-wracking when the balloon was pierced by Boer bullets, but he survived. He remained with the Division until after the capture of Pretoria when it was broken up; a period somewhat marred for Gleichen by the frequent clashes between Roberts' headquarters and Colvile, never an easy man as many found, but a brother-officer and friend of his in the Grenadiers for 17 years. As the conventional fighting gave way to guerrilla warfare Gleichen, after a spell as Provost Marshal in Pretoria, was back to intelligence work, seeking to locate commandos raiding the line of communication between Pretoria and the east by using a body of scouts and agents he recruited from all races.

At the end of 1900 a new job beckoned - in Cairo. After a few weeks in England, during which he took part in Queen Victoria's funeral and met again his godfather, now King Edward VII, and the Kaiser, he assumed his new post at the Egyptian Army Headquarters as director of Intelligence with special responsibility for the Sudan, not seen since his days with the Guards Camel Regiment. His regimental soldiering was now at an end and from 1901-11 all his work had an intelligence aspect. After Cairo he became Military Attache in Berlin - where he found the Kaiser far less friendly, indeed quite hostile, than on his previous meeting - from where he moved to be Military Attaché in Washington. This was followed by a return to the hub of affairs as assistant Director of Military Operations (which included military intelligence) at the War Office in the branch dealing with the hostile Powers of seven years hence and the Balkans. Not surprisingly this involved much hard work, long hours and trips abroad, but resulted in a very fair estimate of German capabilities an intentions to assist Haldane's reorganisation of the Army to face a European War.

Gleichen had not served with troops since 1900 but in 1911 he was appointed to command 15th Infantry Brigade in Belfast. Any ideas he might have had of this being a military backwater were soon dispelled by the Irish crisis of 1912- 14, the Home Rule Bill, the organisation of armed groups by the Ulster Unionists, the imminent threat of civil war, and the Curragh Incident when a number of officers refused to march against the Ulstermen. Gleichen and his brigade weathered the storm without undue strain on their loyalties until a greater test called them elsewhere. On 26 July 1914 Gleichen wrote in his diary: "It will be really comic if the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is going to settle to Irish question!". By mid-August the 15th Brigade was in France.

Here Gleichen passes beyond our field of interest so suffice it to say he continued to command his brigade until March 1915. Subsequently, as a major-general, he commanded the 37th Division until October 1916, including the Battle of the Somme. He was then appointed Director of the Political Intelligence Bureau of the recently established Department of Information, of which his close friend, the author John Buchan, was a deputy director (5); this post he held for the rest of the war. He retired from the Army in 1919 and died on 14 December 1937. During the course of his life he published seven books, most of a military nature but including one, in 1928, on London's open- air statues. In sum, a full, active and useful career, much of it at the centre of events, and all a far and varied cry from the distant days when he faced the Dervish spears at Abu Klea.

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