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Story: Russell, Andrew Hamilton

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Russell, Andrew Hamilton


Sheepfarmer, military leader

This biography, written by Chris Pugsley, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Andrew Hamilton Russell was born at Napier, New Zealand, on 23 February 1868 to Katherine Sarah Tinsley and her husband, Andrew Hamilton Russell, who with his brother William Russell had taken up Tunanui station in 1861. Russell followed in the family tradition and was educated at Harrow School and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, graduating with the sword of honour in 1887. He joined the 1st Border Regiment as a lieutenant in the same year.

Guy Russell, as he was known to the family, served for five years overseas, first in India, then, after a brief period in England, in Burma. In 1892 his regiment returned to England. Not liking the prospect of garrison life in England, and against family advice, in a 'diabolical fit of the blues' Russell resigned his commission to go sheepfarming in New Zealand. He joined his uncle, William Russell, at Tunanui and Twyford first as a farm cadet and later as manager. He assumed ownership of both properties in 1909.

On 5 April 1896, at Hastings, he married Gertrude Mary Beetham Williams, the daughter of a wealthy Hawke's Bay family. The couple were to have three daughters and two sons. Russell had a difficult time financially: he had to remit money to his father, now back in England, and needed to sell sheep to remain under his overdraft limit. In addition, the property suffered a severe flood in 1897 and was afflicted by plagues of caterpillars and grass grubs. Russell was chairman of the Hawke's Bay branch of the New Zealand Farmers' Union in 1903 and also chaired the local Agricultural and Pastoral Society.

In 1900 Russell formed and commanded the Hawke's Bay Mounted Rifle Volunteers with the rank of captain. He was promoted to major in December 1908 and to acting lieutenant colonel in June 1909 as commanding officer of the 4th Regiment Wellington (East Coast) Mounted Rifle Volunteers. The Defence Act 1909 and the introduction of compulsory military training saw the rapid expansion of the New Zealand Defence Forces under the direction of a British officer, Major General Alexander Godley. Russell impressed Godley. On the formation of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Brigade in March 1911 Russell was appointed its commander and promoted to colonel. In 1912 Godley offered Russell a position in the New Zealand Staff Corps with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Russell was tempted but family commitments made him refuse. He led the Hawke's Bay contingent that mobilised as special constables to police the 1913 wharf strike in Wellington.

When the New Zealand Expeditionary Force was raised in August 1914, Godley, its commander, offered Russell command of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade. He accepted, but had time to do little more than inspect the separate regiments before the brigade sailed. It was not until the New Zealand Expeditionary Force arrived in Egypt in December 1914 that training started. The Mounted Rifles Brigade landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on 12 May 1915, without their horses, to act as infantry.

Russell took over the northern sector of the ANZAC perimeter, establishing his headquarters on the plateau that later became known as Russell's Top. His troops seized the foothills below Chunuk Bair on the night of 6–7 August and opened the way for an infantry advance, which was one of the most brilliant feats of the campaign. Russell later commanded his exhausted and depleted brigade in the unsuccessful attacks on Hill 60 at the end of August. After this offensive Sir Ian Hamilton, who commanded the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, considered Russell the outstanding New Zealander on the peninsula. He was made a KCMG on 4 November 1915. Russell succeeded Godley as commander of the New Zealand and Australian Division and was promoted to the rank of major general when Godley assumed command of the ANZAC Corps on 27 November 1915. He commanded the rearguard during the last 48 hours before the evacuation.

Russell was one of the few commanders to emerge from the campaign with an enhanced reputation and was the obvious choice to command the New Zealand Division on its formation on 1 March 1916. He took his raw untried division to France in April 1916, barely six weeks later. Russell had hoped for an extended period of training in France but his New Zealanders were in the trenches in the Armentières sector by May. This was too soon. Russell faced administrative and command problems brought about by inexperienced officers and NCOs.

The New Zealanders initially formed part of Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood's I ANZAC Corps, but were transferred to Godley's II ANZAC Corps when it arrived in France in June. Russell continued a good working relationship with Godley and also established a sound understanding with James Allen, the New Zealand minister of defence. His correspondence with Allen gave an unvarnished picture of the strengths, achievements, and also failings of the division, and Allen respected Russell's judgement.

Russell's ambition was to have the best division in France. At Armentières he initiated a daily routine of unit and front-line inspections that became his practice for the rest of the war. Russell was a front-line general who closely monitored the state of his units, demanded improvement, and then ensured his commanders carried it out. His subordinates believed Russell took too many risks; in 1917 one of his brigadiers was killed at his side, and two days later a sniper's bullet passed through his steel helmet, creasing his scalp.

This was a difficult time for the New Zealanders. The division took part in the intensive raiding and patrol programme conducted along the entire British front to prevent the Germans reinforcing the Somme prior to the start of the offensive on 1 July 1916. Many mistakes were made, and New Zealand units were stretched to breaking point. This was reflected in the high rate of absenteeism and drunkenness. Russell's initial response was rigid discipline that attacked the symptom rather than the cause. His willingness to recommend the death penalty for desertion was moderated by the experience and judgement of General Sir Douglas Haig's staff.

The New Zealand Division attacked as part of the British XV Corps on 15 September 1916 during the third battle of the Somme. Its success established its reputation as one of the finest fighting divisions in France. Much of this was due to the tactical training conducted by Russell in the weeks before the attack. Haig, the British commander in chief, wrote that for 23 consecutive days, the longest single tour by any British division in this battle, the New Zealand Division had carried out 'with complete success every task set…always doing even more than was asked of it'. This was at a cost of 7,408 New Zealand casualties, and Russell believed that these could only be justified if his division learnt from the experience and became more professional. In particular, disciplinary zeal was now matched by efficient administration, and Russell's philosophy became, 'Men's comfort and safety first, the rest nowhere.' He insisted that his junior officers and NCOs be trained to achieve this, and encouraged the supply of trained reinforcements.

In June 1917 the New Zealand Division had to capture the town of Messines (Mesen) as part of II ANZAC Corps' first major offensive operation. Godley delegated much of the preliminary planning to his divisional commanders, Russell and the Australian, John Monash. Russell's innovative approach to the attack was based on careful planning and rehearsal. Haig thought Russell's plan too bold and one that would produce 'an awkward salient prematurely'. He suggested a more deliberate advance in three jumps, behind the artillery. Most British divisional commanders would have seen the commander in chief's suggestion as an order to be followed, but Russell kept to his original plan. The rapid New Zealand advance on 7 June led to crumbling German resistance on both flanks.

Haig believed Messines to be the outstanding success of the war to that time. Russell's performance placed him at the forefront of the more innovative commanders in the British, French and German armies. The weakness of the Messines offensive was that too many men were pushed onto the ridge and fell victim to German artillery fire. Russell alone anticipated this and planned to minimise casualties by withdrawing one of his two attack brigades, evacuating Messines itself and defending it with machine-guns and artillery. He was directed to keep both brigades forward and, as he feared, it was this that led to the 3,666 New Zealand casualties.

The New Zealand Division repeated its success on 4 October 1917 when it took part in an attack by both ANZAC corps before Passchendaele (Passendale). Russell had spent the preceding month training his division in the techniques needed to overcome the network of concrete pillboxes which now formed the basis of the German defence. Rain dampened prospects of further success, but Godley wanted to push on and attacked with two British divisions on 9 October. Believing that his personal reputation was at stake, he insisted that it was the wish of Russell and Monash that it should continue on 12 October.

The plan failed to get artillery forward in the mud, and the New Zealand move into the line was hampered by the wounded of the outgoing British divisions who had been deserted and left to die. Nothing that Godley's II ANZAC Corps promised happened. On 12 October the New Zealand attack on Bellevue Spur failed, with 2,735 killed, wounded and missing. Russell blamed himself: 'It is plain we attacked a strong position, stoutly defended with no adequate preparation.' He told Allen that if Parliament wanted a culprit, then he was that man. Russell's admission of failure, for what was primarily Godley's staff's ineptitude, is a rare example of a military commander's willingness to accept responsibility for failure.

New Zealand morale was again dented by the 2nd Infantry Brigade's failure at Polderhoek in December 1917. Russell hoped his division would go to Italy with General Herbert Plumer; instead, it wintered in the Ypres (Ieper) salient. Russell did his best to make the impossible endurable by concentrating on rebuilding the division's strength and morale. It was reduced from four to three brigades, and Russell fought for a furlough scheme to allow men to return to New Zealand on leave. He weeded out exhausted officers and, being himself increasingly prone to sickness, was conscious that perhaps it was time that he too was replaced. In March 1918 he trained his division in open warfare techniques in the event of a German breakthrough. This was tested when it was deployed to the Somme. A battle took place with the New Zealanders filling the gap on the Ancre river with ad hoc brigades. The division consolidated its position, culminating in a successful attack on 28 March by the 3rd New Zealand (Rifles) Brigade. German attacks in early April were held. It was a major success, yet Russell demanded 'something better still… I certainly do expect the New Zealand Infantry both in thought and action, to be at least 50 percent quicker than the new Armies.'

From April to August 1918 Russell trained his division in mobile work with artillery for the counter-offensive which he was sure would come. On 24 June 1918 Haig offered him command of a British corps, the only dominion general to be so honoured. Russell's diffident response amounted to a refusal.

The tactical superiority of the New Zealand Division was demonstrated in its advance as part of IV Corps from 21 August. The corps commander gave Russell freedom to plan and fight his division's advance, and the New Zealanders spearheaded the attack. Bypassing population centres, minimising risk, and with firm instructions to its commanders to avoid needless casualties at all costs, the division was usually far ahead of flanking British divisions. Its success often led to the German defences giving way on each flank.

Throughout, Russell's men displayed a cohesiveness and level of training and tactical skill unmatched in the British armies in France, including the Canadian and Australian corps. Despite this achievement Russell was conscious of his own exhaustion, and in September 1918 suggested to Allen that it was time he was relieved. But events progressed too fast. The bypassing and surrender of Le Quesnoy and the advance through the Forêt de Mormal in early November 1918 marked the end of the war for a division that was still capable of continuing the fight.

Russell fought his New Zealand Division with consummate skill. He insisted on subordinates using every opportunity to learn lessons from each operation, and anticipation and planning remained his hallmark. Messines had shown his mastery of the set-piece attack, and the battles of 1918 showed his mastery of the advance and encounter battle.

Russell's military achievements were recognised with a CB in 1916 and, in 1917, a KCB. He was awarded the French Légion d'honneur (croix d'officier) and Croix de guerre (avec palme), the Belgian Ordre de Léopold (commander) and Croix de guerre, the Serbian Order of the White Eagle (first class) and the Montenegrin Order of Danilo. He was nine times mentioned in British dispatches.

Russell returned to managing his Tunanui property in 1919, but it was two years before his health recovered from the exertions of war. Apart from steering his property through difficult financial periods in the 1920s and 1930s, Russell's preoccupation was the care and welfare of ex-servicemen. He unsuccessfully stood for Parliament as an independent in 1922, and was president of the New Zealand Returned Soldiers' Association from 1921 to 1924, and again from 1927 to 1935. Russell was posted to the retired list in 1932. In 1934 he was appointed honorary colonel of the Wellington Regiment, and in 1937 honorary colonel of the Wellington (East Coast) Mounted Rifles. In 1940 he was made inspector general of New Zealand military forces, but retired from this appointment in July 1941. Russell died at Tunanui on 29 November 1960, aged 92, and received a funeral service with full military honours. He was survived by his wife, three daughters and a son.

Russell was one of the few generals in the British armies to display innovation and tactical skill in the First World War. He brought to his command the practical experience of a working farm manager combined with an understanding of men, and a broad study of military history and tactics. Thinking things through was one of his strengths and his range of interests gave him the ability always to see the bigger picture. He was widely read, fluent in French (he read Proust in the original), an enthusiastic cellist, an opera lover, and a brilliant conversationalist. Despite these gifts, Russell, a man of strong Anglican religious convictions, was self-effacing and modest.

Russell took a keen interest in world affairs and was a founding member of the Round Table in New Zealand. He always thought in terms of what was good for his country and for the generation of New Zealanders that he commanded. He took the same risks as his soldiers and knew their capabilities. Under his leadership the New Zealand Division grew in professionalism. Its survival and outstanding success on the western front was his achievement.

How to cite this page:

Chris Pugsley. 'Russell, Andrew Hamilton', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3r34/russell-andrew-hamilton (accessed 14 June 2024)