William Birdwood

Full name:
William Riddell Birdwood, 1st Baron Birdwood of Anzac and Totnes, GCB, GCSI, GCMG, GCVO, CIE, DSO
Born:

Khadki, Maharashtra
India
Died:

London
United Kingdom
Home town:
Twickenham
United Kingdom
Occupation:
Education:
Clifton College, Bristol, United Kingdom
Fate:

Survived World War I

Highest rank:
Field Marshal
Enlistment:
Decorations/ commendations:
Service:
British Indian Army
Conflict:
Second South African (Boer) War 1899-1902, World War I 1914-1918
Military event:
Unit:
Australian Corps, I ANZAC Corps, II ANZAC Corps, Australian Imperial Force, Australian and New Zealand Army Corps

The 'soul of Anzac'

Soldier stand at entrance of a sandbag dugout
Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood outside his dugout at Anzac. AWM G00761

Lieutenant General William Birdwood was a senior officer in Britain's pre-1914 Indian Army. In December 1914, he was appointed to the command of the Australian and New Zealand forces then assembling in Egypt. These units were soon formed into the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, with two divisions:

  • 1st Australian Division AIF (Australian Imperial Force) commanded by Major General Sir William Throsby Bridges
  • New Zealand and Australian Division commanded by Major General Sir Alexander Godley

In the corps headquarters at Shepherd's Hotel in Cairo, material addressed to the 'Australian and New Zealand Army Corps' piled up. The title seemed far too cumbersome. Demands were made for a simpler name. Lieutenant AT White, one of Birdwood's clerks of the Royal Army Service Corps, suggested the abbreviation 'ANZAC'. Birdwood approved it, and the word 'Anzac' was born.

On Gallipoli, it was Birdwood who requested that:

  • the position held by the Australians and New Zealanders be known as 'Anzac'
  • the place where most troops had landed on 25 April be known as 'Anzac Cove'.

Soon, those who fought there were themselves being called 'Anzacs'.

In late 1917, Birdwood approved an AIF order to oblige all veterans of the Gallipoli Campaign to wear a small brass 'A' for Anzac on their unit colour patches on each shoulder.

Man swimming in the sea
Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood swimming at Anzac Cove, May 1915. AWM G00401

Birdwood has been described as the 'Soul of Anzac'. His Corps headquarters was located in the hills just behind Anzac Cove and open to Turkish shelling. Anxious members of his staff often tried to pile up bales of hay on the exposed parts of his dugout to protect him. According to Australia's official historian, Charles Bean, 'many a man lost his life within a stone's throw of the place'.

Birdwood was often to be seen walking around the Anzac position and up along the trenches on the ridges. On most days, he could also be observed swimming off the beach, sharing the dangers of Turkish shelling with everyone else.

2 soldiers walking along a path with horses and other soldiers behind them
Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood (on left, with stick in right hand) on his rounds at the entrance to Shrapnel Gully, Anzac, 1915. AWM H00201

Birdwood's behaviour, coupled with crowded conditions at Anzac, made him very visible to the troops. This was unlike other generals the men had encountered. Bean summed up this aspect of Birdwood:

Above all, he possessed the quality, which went straight to the heart of Australians, of extreme personal courage.

[Charles Bean, The Story of Anzac, Vol 1, Sydney, 1941, p121.]

'Birdie', as he was known to his close friends, greatly admired his Anzacs. He claimed to have got on well with men who rarely gave automatic authority to anyone. British historian Robert Rhodes James thought Birdwood’s popularity with the Anzacs was newspaper propaganda. But Bean saw him as a ‘rare leader’:

His delight was to be out in the field among his men, cheering them by his talk, feeling the pulse of them.

[Charles Bean, The Story of Anzac, Vol 1, Sydney, 1941, p121.]

2 soldiers shake hands while others watch on
Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood (centre, in lighter uniform) introducing Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, British Secretary for War, to officers at Anzac in November 1915. After his visit, Kitchener recommended the total evacuation of British forces. AWM H10355

Two stories reveal Birdwood's understanding of conditions on Anzac and the nature of Australians.

It was Birdwood's habit, despite the heat, never to accept water in the front lines. He knew how much effort it took the soldiers to lug litres of water up the valleys and steep slopes to the trenches. Only once did he take up an offer of a cup of tea at Quinn's Post. The forceful post commander, Lieutenant Colonel William Malone of the Wellington Battalion, insisted he drink it.

Another time, described by Australian journalist Philip Schuler, 'Birdie' was on his rounds without any badges of rank when he met two Anzacs cooking. He engaged them in banter:

'Got something good there?’, remarked the General as he stopped near the steaming pot of bully-beef stew.

'Ye-es', replied the Australian, ‘it’s all right. Wish we had a few more spuds, though’ … at last General Birdwood signified his intention of going, bidding the soldier a cheery ‘Good-day’, which was acknowledged by an inclination of the head. The General walked up the path … and the Australian turned to his mate, who had been silent, but now began to swear softly under his breath –

'You … fool! Do you know who you were talking to?'

'No?'

'Well, that was General Birdwood, that was, yer coot!'

'How was I to know that? Anyway, he seemed to know me all right.'

Soldier steps on a pile of timber sleepers on the beach
Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood at North Beach, Anzac, on the day of the final evacuation, 19 December 1915. AWM G00659

Apart from a short period towards the end, Birdwood commanded the Anzac Corps right through the Gallipoli Campaign.

In 1916, he went to France as the commander of I Anzac Corps. In late 1917, he was given command of the newly formed Australian Corps, comprising all five divisions of the AIF. He relinquished command of the Corps to Lieutenant General Sir John Monash in May 1918, but retained administrative command of the AIF.

After the war, Birdwood went on a successful tour of Australia with his wife, then returned to the Indian Army.

In 1925, Australia made him a Field Marshal in the Australian Military Forces.

Birdwood wanted to be appointed Governor-General of Australia, but that post was never offered. Instead, he was elevated to the British peerage, taking the title 'Baron Birdwood of Anzac and Totnes' in 1938.

Birdwood died in his apartment at Hampton Court Palace in 1951, aged 85. His private grave in Twickenham Cemetery is cared for by the Australian Office of War Graves within the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA).

Bibliography

AJ Hill, 'Birdwood, William Riddell', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol 7, 1891-1939, Melbourne, 1979, pp 293–296.

Charles Bean, The Story of Anzac, Vol 1, Sydney, 1941.

Robert Rhodes James, Gallipoli, Sydney, 1965.

Phillip Schuler, Australia in Arms, London, 1916.


Last updated: 26 June 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), William Riddell Birdwood, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 3 December 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/biographies/william-riddell-birdwood
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