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Brigadier General Sir James Edward Edmonds, CB, CMG (1861–1956) was a British First World War officer of the Royal Engineers who in the role of British official historian was responsible for the post-war compilation of the 28-volume History of the Great War. Edmonds himself wrote nearly half the volumes, including eleven of the 14 volumes dealing with the Western Front (Military Operations, France and Belgium). His task was not completed until the final volume was published in 1949.

Early army life[edit | edit source]

Edmonds was educated at King's College School, London and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. Edmonds passed into the Royal Military Academy with the highest marks instructors could remember, he won the Sword of Honour for the 'Best Gentleman Cadet' and was commissioned into the Corps of Royal Engineers in 1881.[1] In the Royal Engineers, his intellect earned him the nickname "Archimedes".

Edmonds possessed a considerable intellect and was fluent in many European and Asian languages. In 1896, he entered the Staff College at Camberley, achieving the highest score of his class on the entrance exam. His classmates included Douglas Haig, who would become commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) during the First World War; Edmund Allenby, who would lead British forces in Palestine during 1917–18; and William Robertson, who became Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1916.

Military Intelligence and MI5[edit | edit source]

Edmonds passed the two-year staff course at the top of his class. He was understandably marked for work in military intelligence and was posted to the War Office Intelligence Department in 1899. He served as an Intelligence Officer in South Africa from 1901 – 1904. In 1904 he was appointed to the Far Eastern desk of the War Office Intelligence Department following the removal of an Officer found to have made basic mistakes in the role. He performed well, rising to be the head of the now renamed Military Operations Directorate 5 (MO5) in 1907,[2] by which time he was a highly experienced intelligence officer. Edmonds was arguably the leading army intellectual of his day, as a child living in France he had witnessed the Franco-Prussian War and had studied the German Army ever since. He developed significant German links and was critical in convincing Ministers of the credible German spy threat in the build up to World War I. He is widely credited as being a significant pioneer of intelligence in the departments that developed into MI5, the British Security Service.[3]

Edmonds was a key supporter of the appointment of Captain Vernon Kell to the Secret Service Bureaux, the direct predecessor of MI5 of which he became the first head.

Later career[edit | edit source]

At the outbreak of the war, Edmonds was chief-of-staff of the British 4th Division but the strain of the retreat following the Battle of Mons led to his replacement in September 1914, within a month of the opening of hostilies. He spent the remainder of the war as a staff officer at GHQ of the BEF during which time he gathered documents to be used in the Official History. Edmonds needed to demonstrate great diplomacy to obtain his information. He told his Australian counterpart, C.E.W. Bean:

I was on terms of friendship with all the British generals from Haig downwards. I never belonged to any party and since I was not competing for promotion, I enjoyed confidences I otherwise might not have had.

The Official History produced by Edmonds has been subsequently criticised as propaganda for being too lenient on the British generalship. It has been suggested that Edmonds' favourable portrayal of Haig was a counterpoint to the scathing criticism delivered by former British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George in his memoirs. In 1991, British historian Denis Winter, a staunch critic of Haig, acknowledged Edmonds' comprehensive understanding of British operations during the war but said "Only a profoundly knowledgeable man could have produced an Official History so misleading and yet with that ring of plausibility which has led to a general acceptance for so long." Andrew Green in 'Writing the Great War: Sir James Edmonds and the Official Histories 1915–1948' (2003) considered the volumes of the Official History for Gallipoli, the Somme, 3rd Ypres and the German March offensive of 1918 and concluded that Edmonds had been far more objective than others had given him credit for. "By almost every standard by which the Official Military Histories of the Great War might be judged, one must conclude that the works were of substantial historical, military and literary value.... Even those who have accused Edmonds of bias have had to acknowledge that his assessments and conclusions are correct." [4]

Edmonds was knighted in the 1928 Birthday Honours.[5] In 1939 he became secretary of the Cabinet Office Historical Section following the resignation of Colonel E. Y. Daniel. Then on 15 November 1939 the section moved to Lytham St Annes, Lancashire where it stayed until April 1942 when it moved to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.[6]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Andrew C, The Defence of the Realm – The Authorised History of MI5. Penguin Books Ltd. London. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7139-9885-6. P 11.
  2. Andrew C, The Defence of the Realm – The Authorised History of MI5. Penguin Books Ltd. London. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7139-9885-6. P 7-8.
  3. Andrew C, The Defence of the Realm – The Authorised History of MI5. Penguin Books Ltd. London. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7139-9885-6. P 13.
  4. Green, A. Writing the Great War, p. 207.
  5. "No. 33390". 4 June 1928. https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/33390/supplement/ 
  6. Edmonds (1987) Introduction

External links[edit | edit source]

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Edmonds, James (1987). The Occupation of the Rhineland, 1918–1929. HMSO. ISBN 0-11-290454-8. 
  • Green, A. (2003). Writing the Great War: Sir James Edmonds and the Official Histories 1915–1948. London: Frank Cass. ISBN 0-7146-8430-9. 

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