Broken Sword: The Tumultuous Life of General Frank Crozier 1879–1937

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2014), Reviews, Volume 22

Charles Messenger
Pen and Sword Books
£25

ISBN 9781848848970

Reviewed by
Timothy Bowman

Broken Sword

On 1 July 1916, F.P. Crozier, then a lieutenant colonel, led his men of the 9th Royal Irish Rifles out of Thiepval Wood to attack the Schwaben Redoubt during the Battle of the Somme. In doing so he defied orders that no commanding officers were to accompany their troops into action. By all accounts, his example of courage and decisive leadership contributed to the success of the 36th (Ulster) Division in its initial assault on one of the strongest German defensive positions on the Somme. After the battle, by Crozier’s own account, his immediate superior, Brigadier General W.M. Withycombe, recommended him for the Distinguished Service Order (generally regarded as being second only to the Victoria Cross in prestige amongst British valour medals) but his divisional commander, Major-General Oliver Nugent, cancelled this, noting that Crozier should be court-martialled for disobeying orders.

By his actions on 1 July 1916 alone Crozier would have earned a place in the history books. This, however, was but one episode in a remarkably colourful military career that encompassed service in the ranks of Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry during the South African War, commissioned service in the Manchester Regiment, service in Nigeria with the West African Frontier Force, command of 119th Brigade in 40th Division on the Western Front, 1917–18, and as Inspector General of the Lithuanian Army, 1919–20. In addition, Crozier claimed to have served in the Ceylon Light Infantry, in local forces raised in Natal during the Zulu uprising of 1906 and in the Saskatchewan Light Horse, but there is no documentary evidence to support any of these claims. Crozier’s life also encompassed a career as a successful and popular author and as a campaigner in the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s. In other circumstances Crozier could have followed a more traditional military career. His background was Anglo-Irish, his father an army officer and he was educated at Wellington College, but his short stature meant that he could not enter Sandhurst at the age of nineteen as originally planned. While serving in Nigeria, facing tough conditions and in charge of an isolated command, he became an alcoholic and this seems to have led to financial problems. In 1909 he had to resign his commission after issuing a series of dishonoured cheques, and a note on his voluminous file at the UK National Archives, Kew, notes that he would not have been recommissioned in 1914 had it been realised that he was the same officer who had resigned five years previously.

For those interested in Irish history, there are two other important episodes in Crozier’s career beyond his service in the 36th (Ulster) Division. In 1913, as a member of the British League for the Support of Ulster and the Union and an ex-army officer, Crozier was sent to West Belfast to help train the Ulster Volunteers. He became commander of the Special Service Section of the West Belfast Regiment and it was his men who provided the guard at Craigavon in March 1914, when it was feared that the government was going to try to arrest Sir Edward Carson, who was in residence there, along with James Craig and the rest of the Ulster unionist leadership.

In August 1920 Crozier enlisted in the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary. It seems that, owing to his personal friendship with Major-General H.H. Tudor, newly appointed as the British government’s ‘police advisor’ for Ireland, and his wartime rank of brigadier, Crozier was quickly appointed to command the Auxiliary Division. In February 1921 Crozier resigned this command in controversial circumstances, claiming that his attempts to have a number of cadets tried by court martial for looting in Trim had been overruled by the Dublin Castle administration.
Charles Messenger, a well-known popular military historian, has produced an interesting and easily accessible biography that utilises an impressive array of archival documents. Nevertheless, I do have some reservations about this work. The main one is that, in parts, this is too reliant on Crozier’s own volumes of memoirs, published in the 1930s (his best known are A brass hat in no man’s land and The men I killed). As noted above, Crozier did embellish his military record and there is also the problem that these were written long after the events described, without, it seems, any reference to a contemporary diary or letters. Allied to this is Messenger’s failure to understand the wider context within which Crozier was operating. The chapters concerning Crozier’s service in the Auxiliary Division of the RIC cite relatively few of the many books available on the Irish Revolution and, depressingly, a number of references are made to ‘the Cairo Gang website’, when professional historians have long ago established that British military intelligence in Ireland was much more ad hoc than this term suggests. Finally, as an academic historian, I would raise concerns about Messenger’s research in that in his introduction he thanks Mike Taylor, who is working on a Ph.D on Crozier, as he ‘very generously shared archival research that he had done, thus saving me much time and effort’ (p. x). This raises an obvious question about which archives Messenger himself visited and what exactly Taylor’s contribution has been to this project.

Timothy Bowman is Senior Lecturer in modern British military history at the University of Kent.

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