We’re going to jump right into it today with the man who perhaps has the most exotic wartime experiences of any of my relatives – Lt-Gen. Charles Macpherson Dobell.
If anyone in my WWI family history could be classified as a big deal, it’s definitely this guy. I’m not trying to brag, but when I first found out about him two years ago, I was genuinely excited, not least because he has his own bona fide Wikipedia article. In the build up to the Vimy Beaverbrook Prize, we had been asked to do a project on a soldier, and naturally I gravitated towards a family member. Typing in Dobell on the Canadian Archives Attestation Papers Record doesn’t give you any hits, even though there were several in the Great War. This is because, like many other recent immigrants from England, they considered themselves British before Canadian, and so enlisted in the British Expeditionary Force. Charles, Sidney Dobell, and Colin Dobell all fall under this category after having been born in Quebec City and educated at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston (“RMC”).
Charles hardly existed in my life until 2 years ago. The only passing mention of him came in 2006 at a Quebec City family reunion of the descendants of his father, Richard Reid Dobell: MP, cabinet minister, and my namesake. Charles was born on June 22, 1869 and lived the life of any well-to-do Brit in English Canada. His father, an immigrant from Liverpool, was rich and well connected, and so it was a foregone conclusion that he would be brought up in the image of an “English Gentleman”. He chose to pursue the military path early on, enrolling in the then fledgling RMC Cadet Program in his early teens. Attending RMC at this time did not guarantee a career in the military, but upon graduation Charles immediately enlisted in the British Expeditionary force. He most likely had no idea about how crazy his next two and a half decades would be.
The London Gazette marks Charles’s entry into the British Army at 21, “The Royal Welch Fusiliers, Gentleman Cadet… Second Lieutenant… August 18, 1890.” His first decade must have been a whirlwind. He saw action in both the Boxer Rebellion and the Boer War, the advent of the Concentration Camp. He also was part of British expeditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He spent the decade before WWI bouncing around the British Army, slowly moving up in rank. Months before the War began, he was appointed Inspector of the British Forces for the whole of West Africa. When War was declared, it was only natural that he would be chosen to lead a section of the forces there.
Accounts from his two years in the jungles and plains of Cameroon are scattered, but if one picks up a book about the War in West Africa (which I’m sure is a common occurrence in your daily life, not) you’re likely to find mentions of Charles M. Dobell. Finding his name in a reading for a history was quite satisfying. I’ll mostly be relying on the London Gazette and a report that I compiled for the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize exactly two years ago.
The British had been expecting the outbreak of War and were prepared to go on the offensive (unlike the situation on the Western Front). Troops along the Gold Coast, Northern Africa, and South Africa were mustered and shipped in the direction of Togo and Cameroon, which were both under German control. Charles was made Brigadier General commanding the forces invading the Cameroons. This proved to be a rather straightforward affair. It started with the capture of the Duala a month into campaign followed by a consolidation of the coast. Most of this happened before London could actually issue orders and came as a surprise. It was too late to halt progress at this point however, and so the British forged on in conjunction with the French. Months of inland fighting continued until the first attack on the capital, Yaunde, was unsuccessful. The British returned a few months later to finish the job, before clearing out the rest of the country slowly and systematically. In total, the campaign lasted from the outset of the War until the German garrison surrendered in Northern Cameroon on February 18, 1916. It may seem like a long time to capture a colony, but the area traversed in the dense forests of Cameroon was greater than that of the Western Front.
The whole campaign was seen as an unexpected success when elsewhere the War was not progressing well. Charles was knighted, and King George awarded him the Order of St. Michael and St. George and the Order of Bath. Shortly afterward, he was sent right back into the fray, now a Lieutenant General and commander of the Eastern Forces in the Middle East. His commander was Gen. Archibald Murray, precursor to Gen. Allenby who was made famous due to his association with T.E. Lawrence of Arabia.
This is where Charles failed to live up to the expectations for the first time in his military career. He started brightly, reforming the troops under his command into a Desert Column. He also seemed to have a good understanding with Gen. Murray, and his supply of military intelligence was superb. Then he came upon Gaza, better known today as the Gaza strip. It proved to be his Waterloo. Even today, Gaza is a tumultuous place, held by the Israelis but wanted by Egypt and the rest of the Arab World. In April 1917, when it was part of the Ottoman Empire’s front line in the Middle East, it was similarly so.
The British Eastern Force reached Gaza by April 19th and was prepared to attack the next day. This was based on the assumption that the garrison at Gaza was small and discouraged. On the 19th, British Intelligence intercepted Ottoman correspondence hinting the garrison had asked for and received reinforcements and was in possession of heavy artillery. With this information in mind and divisional commanders’ reports of tired troops, Charles decided the attack on Gaza would sustain an unacceptable amount of casualties and should therefore be abandoned. He informed Gen. Murray of his opinion and called off the attack in order to consolidate positions and advance elsewhere.
In actuality, however, Gaza was poorly fortified by the Ottomans and would have been a walk-over had Charles decided to attack. To outside parties, the decision not to attack Gaza appeared a huge oversight and inexcusable. Gen. Murray’s official account of events tried to sugarcoat the whole affair. He justified the decision not to attack by pointing out “no ground… gained on [the 19th] has since been lost, and the position to which we then advanced has facilitated, and will facilitate, further operations” (London Gazette 20 Nov, 1917). Gen. Murray like others was still angry over the oversight and used Charles as a scapegoat. In the London Gazette report, however, he puts it a bit differently:
“In the meantime, it became apparent to me that General Dobell, who had suffered some weeks previously from a severe touch of the sun, was no longer in a fit state of health to bear the strain of further operations in the coming heat of summer. To my great regret, therefore, I felt it my duty to relieve him of his command, and to place the command of Eastern Force in the hand of Lieut.-General Sir Philip Chetwode” (London Gazette).
In other words, Murray fired Charles and cemented his legacy as the man who did not capture Gaza. When I started my research of Charles, one of the first websites that I stumbled upon opened with this sentence: “Sir Charles Macpherson Dobell (1869-1954) served in field command positions in Africa and Palestine during World War One and was chiefly responsible for the failure of the first of two attempts to capture Gaza in 1917” (firstworldwar.com). The only consolation for our family’s pride is that Murray was also largely to blame for the failure and was also recalled to London shortly after Charles. While Charles did fail, I still cling to the fact he was a great soldier and had several successes to his name.
Charles was sent to relative obscurity in India for the rest of the War. Incidentally, Sidney Hope Dobell almost joined him there as an aide after graduating from RMC. Story goes that Sidney’s father, my great-great-grandfather, blocked Sidney from going as he wouldn’t pay for the polo ponies required by English society in India if you were a British officer. If you’re familiar with any hash tags being thrown around twitter updates theses days, you’ve probably heard of #firstworldproblems. I can’t think of any situation that better fits this hash tag.
In many ways, Charles was more British than the British. He had a ‘proper’ upbringing. He joined the Army and spent more time in exotic British territories than most Army regulars ever would. He never came back to Canada, making his home in England until he died. My grandfather has memories of visiting him while studying at Oxford in the mid-1900s. Through all of this, I still maintain that he is a product of the Canada of his time. Born here, educated as a soldier here, and even mentioned in Parliament as a Canadian soldier proving his mettle for the British Army. Charles’s career proves that a great man could come out of the Dominion, and the rest of us should not be overlooked.
In a world before we watched Olympic athletes perform on CTV or applaud RIM and Bombardier’s success on the global stage, men like Charles aroused our national pride. He performed with the best that Britain had to offer, and though he may have adopted many of their methods, he still made Canada proud. That’s what I take out of the story of Charles Macpherson Dobell.
Thanks a lot! If you have any questions about Charles or anything else, I’m always here. I hope you enjoyed the read.
All the Best!
Reid Dobell is a first year International Relations student at the University of Toronto, Trinity College, and an alumnus of the 2010 Beaverbrook Vimy Prize. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.