General Sir Brudenell White

23 September 1876 - 13 August 1940

Accession Number: ART03347 Artist: Quinn, James Title: Major General Sir Cyril Brudenell White Date Made: 1918 Medium: oil on canvas Dimensions: Overall: 76.6 x 63.8 cm Classification: Painting Copyright: AWM copyright

Born at St Arnaud, Victoria on 23 September 1876, Cyril Brudenell Bingham White was educated at Brisbane Central Boy's School and Eton Preparatory School, Nundah. At the age of 15 he left to become a clerk at the Australian Joint Stock Bank in Brisbane.

In 1897, White was commissioned into the 2nd Queensland Regiment. The next year he passed an exam for a commission in the Permanent Military Forces, in the Queensland Artillery. White served briefly in the Boer War in 1902 as a junior officer with the Commonwealth Light Horse. Then in 1904 he was appointed aide-de-camp to Major General E. T. H. Hutton, GOC AMF. In this capacity he toured Australia, and became familiar with the set up of the defence establishment.

Hutton arranged for White to attend the staff college at Camberley in England in 1906-7, the first Australian to do so. On return to Australia in 1908 he was promoted to captain and posted to the staff of the Chief of Intelligence, Colonel W. T. Bridges. But he was there for only a few months before he was on his way back to England on a four year exchange posting to the War Office. Here, White became familiar with the workings of the British Army, and developed considerable competence in staff work. White was recalled early in 1911 to become Director of Military Operations, with the rank of major. As such, he drew up the plans for an expeditionary force that would eventually become the blueprint for the AIF.

Major White was acting Chief of Staff when war broke out in 1914, in the absence of Colonel Legge, who still en route from England. It fell to White to get approval for the country to be placed on a war footing.

White developed his plan for an expeditionary force into one for the creation of the first contingent of 20,000. When Bridges was appointed to command the AIF, White became his chief of staff, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. White assisted Bridges with the organisation and equipment of the force and its despatch to Egypt. White assisted Bridges with the plans for the landing at Anzac. In recognition of this service, White was awarded the DSO. Like many, White was eventually evacuated sick from Gallipoli.

When he returned in October, White was promoted to Brigadier General, becoming BGGS of ANZAC, under Lieutenant General W. R. Birdwood. As such, his role was to plan the evacuation of Anzac. This became the first operation of the whole campaign to go off according to plan, and to be accomplished without loss.

When the ANZAC returned to Egypt, it was White who planned the doubling of the AIF to four divisions. Creating so many new units virtually from scratch was a magnificent achievement of administration, but it could have been greater if White had been less concerned about seniority and given his subordinates a freer hand to select their own officers. He soon became BGGS of I Anzac Corps, once again under Birdwood, who tended to delegate administrative matters to his chief of staff. When I Anzac Corps moved to France, the greatly increased complexity of warfare there threw an awesome burden and responsibility on both men.

At Pozieres, White clashed with the GOC-in-C of the BEF, General Sir Douglas Haig, over the arrangements for the attack on the Pozieres Heights. White's systematic approach was intended to avoid a repeat of the failure of the first attack on the heights, but it was costly in that it subjected men to enemy artillery for an unnecessarily long time. He also on occasion directed that the line be held too heavily, which either resulted in unnecessary casualties or his orders being overturned by subordinates.

On 1 January 1917, White was promoted to Major General along with Hobbs, Holmes and Howse, making him the most senior corps BGGS in France.

In the advance to the Hindenburg Line, White clashed with Elliott and Gellibrand, the generals leading the advance columns, over tactical matters such as the advisability of double envelopment, which White had disparaged even before the war, only to be proven spectacularly wrong. His insistence on halting each day on prearranged lines on the map made some administrative but no tactical sense, and was ignored by both brigadiers. At First Bullecourt, White opposed the scheme for the attack, but was overruled. At the same time, his planning was faulty, and again he showed no feel for the terrain to be fought over. The arrangements for the Second Bullecourt battle a few weeks later were little better. But at Third Ypres, White's planning was better than ever, and complex reliefs and movements were carried out in a flawless fashion.

In July 1917, Haig suggested to White that he should be commanding the corps. Instead of backing his government's policy that Australians should hold all major commands, White gave a defence of Birdwood, an officer that Haig had less than complete faith in. The probable result was that Haig became even more convinced that Monash was a better choice for the job.

On 31 May 1918, Birdwood took over command of the British Fifth Army, and he took White with him as his Major General General Staff. Some journalists had intrigued to have White given the corps command instead of Monash, but it seems unlikely that a staff officer who had never commanded a unit of any size would have been elevated over the heads of two more senior division commanders. White certainly saw it that way.

On 21 November 1918, Monash met with White and ordered him to return to Australia. A week later, he was promoted to the temporary rank of lieutenant general. This lapsed when White returned to Australia in July 1919. He was made a Knight Commander of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in the 1919 New Years list. Later he became a Knight Commander of the Victorian Order (KCVO) in 1920, and a Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB) in 1927.

In January 1920, White, along with Lieutenant Generals J. Monash, J. W. McCay, J. J. T. Hobbs and J. G. Legge, was appointed to a committee chaired by H. G. Chauvel, to examine the future structure of the army. It fell to White, who was appointed Chief of the General Staff in June 1920, to implement the committee's recommendations, but this proved next to impossible in the face of defence cuts that were imposed in 1920 and 1922. In February 1920, he was promoted to the substantive rank of major general, back dated to 1 January 1919. White resigned from the Army in 1923 to become the first Chairman of the Public Service Board. He retired in 1928.

On 15 March 1940, White was recalled to active duty, promoted to full general and reappointed as Chief of the General Staff. He thus became only the third Australian to be promoted to the rank of full general. His term of office was brief. Along with nine others, White was killed in a plane crash near Canberra Airport on 13 August 1940.

After a funeral service at St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne and a procession down St Kilda Road, his body was taken by train to a small cemetery at Buangor, Victoria, where he was buried.

White is not an easy man to evaluate. His lack of education was a tremendous handicap in grappling with the complexities of modern warfare. Monash said of White: "He has never been tested as a commander. As an interpreter of another man's policy he has been brilliant indeed." This will probably be the verdict of history; that White rose to the highest rank on his merit as a staff officer.

Sources: Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, pp. 667-669; Bean, C. E. W., Two Men I Knew.; Verney, Guy, "General Sir Brudennell White" in Horner (ed), The Commanders

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Last update 8 June 2010