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Sir John Edward Capper
Colonel Capper watching Mr Cody's experiments with the British Army Aeroplane.
Nickname Stone Age
Born (1861-12-07)December 7, 1861
Died May 24, 1955(1955-05-24) (aged 93)
Place of birth Lucknow, British India
Place of death Eastbourne, East Sussex, England
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
Years of service 1880 – 1946
Rank Major-General
Unit Royal Engineers
Commands held 24th Division
Royal Tank Corps
Battles/wars Tirah Campaign
Second Boer War
First World War
Awards Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath
Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order
Legion d'honneur (France)

Major-General Sir John Edward Capper KCB KCVO (7 December 1861 – 24 May 1955) was a senior officer of the British Army during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who served on the North-West Frontier of British India, in South Africa and during the First World War, where he was instrumental in the development of the tank.

An experienced engineer, Capper was involved in numerous building projects during his years in India and pioneered the development of airships in Britain. He helped establish and command several military training establishments in Britain, was involved in large-scale military planning during 1918 and 1919 and was pivotal in establishing the tank as an important feature of the British Army. Although Capper was sometimes described as pompous and possessing poor communication skills, earning the nickname Stone Age for his attitude towards the ideas of junior officers in the Royal Tank Corps, he nevertheless played a vital role in the development and deployment of armoured vehicles in the British Army.

India, South Africa and airships[]

John Capper was born in Lucknow, India to civil servant William Copeland Capper and his wife Sarah in December 1861. Returning to England at an early age for education, Capper attended Wellington College and upon leaving in 1880 enrolled in the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich and was subsequently commissioned into the Royal Engineers as a lieutenant.[1][2] A capable engineering officer, Capper served in India and Burma for most of the first 17 years of his career, principally employed on military and public construction projects. He performed well in this position, being promoted to captain in 1889.

Nulli Secundus

In 1897, Capper was attached to the force dispatched to the Tirah Campaign on the North-West Frontier of British India. At the campaign's successful conclusion, he was promoted to major and transferred to South Africa while his wife Edith Mary (neé Beausire) and their son John Beausire Copeland Capper returned to England. Arriving in South Africa at the outbreak of the Second Boer War, Capper became deputy assistant director of railways, a vital job given the lengthy and dangerous supply routes along which the war was fought. In 1900, he received the brevet rank of lieutenant colonel and commanded several locally raised units, eventually becoming the commandant at Johannesburg. On 31 October 1902, he was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath.[1][3]

Returning to England as a full colonel at the war's conclusion he settled with his family at Bramdean House in Alresford, and was attached to the School of Ballooning, the Army's training and experimental establishment at Aldershot, under the command of Col James Templer. He was made Superintendent of the Royal Balloon Factory, and was placed in charge of developing Britain's first military airship, the Nulli Secundus. In 1906 he became Superintendent of the Balloon Factory. He piloted the first successful British airship flight, that of the Nulli Secundus over London during 1907.[1][4] On Templer's retirement from service in 1908, Capper became commander of the entire balloon establishment. In 1909 the Balloon Factory was removed from the command of the Army and a new superintendent, Mervyn O'Gorman, appointed. Capper remained in command of the Balloon School, but left in 1910, being transferred to command of the Royal School of Military Engineering at Chatham, which he ran until September 1914 when the lack of experienced officers forced his transfer to France in the early months of the First World War.

First World War[]

As a brigadier-general, Capper was first made deputy inspector of the lines of communication before being given the post of Chief Engineer to the Third Corps.[5] In July 1915 he was promoted to major-general and made chief engineer of the British Third Army. In October, following the deaths of several senior officers at the Battle of Loos, including Capper's younger brother Major-General Sir Thompson Capper, he was promoted to overall command of the 24th Division.[6] Capper remained in command of the division for the next 18 months, including periods of heavy fighting at the Battle of the Somme, in which his son John was killed in action serving with the Royal Artillery.[7] The division also spent extensive periods of time in other sections of the line and gained extensive battle experience at the cost of high casualties. As a reward for his service in command of the division, he was presented with the Commander's Cross of the Légion d'honneur by the French government.[8]

In May 1917, he was recalled to England, initially to run the Machine-Gun Corps training centre and from 28 July hold the position of Director-General of the newly formed Tank Corps at the War Office.[1] Operational command of tanks at the frontlines was in the hands of Hugh Elles, the first commander of the Heavy Branch. Although tanks had first been introduced on the Somme the year before, their design and manufacture were both inadequate and the tactics of their deployment almost non-existent. Capper's job at the Tank Corps was to shape the organisation of the unit into an efficient battlefield force, improve mechanical reliability and develop effective tactics. It was in this role that Capper was given the nickname Stone Age, as his subordinates considered him to be unwilling to accept new innovations in tank tactics.[1] In fact, Capper was an able tactician who worked with General J. F. C. Fuller to develop a plan for a large scale armoured assault on German lines in 1919 (known as Plan 1919): his subordinates' prejudices were based on Capper's rigid adherence to the military hierarchy and his consequent failure to communicate his ideas to those below his rank.[1] For his services as Director General of the Tank Corps, Capper was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath.[9]

Retirement[]

In July 1918, Capper left the War Office and commanded the 64th Division in England until May 1919, when he took over command of Number 1 Area in France and Flanders. In September 1919, Capper became Lieutenant-Governor of Guernsey and took over command of the island's military installations. He held the post for five years and during that time was made Colonel-Commandant of the Royal Tank Corps. On 11 July 1921, he was made a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.[10] Retiring in 1925, Capper remained associated with the Tank Corps and also became a governor of Wellington College, associations he retained until 1946.[1]

During the Second World War, Capper joined the Hampshire Home Guard and remained on duty with the unit until 1943. Post-War he retired fully to Bramdean House and remained there until shortly before his death. He was widowed in 1953 and died at Esperance Nursing Home in Eastbourne in May 1955, leaving a daughter.[1] In 1971, his collected papers, and those of his brother Thompson, who had been an instructor at the Staff College, Camberley, were donated to the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King's College London where they are still available to researchers.[11]

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Military offices
Preceded by
J L B Templer
Superintendent of the Balloon Factory
1906 – 1909
Succeeded by
Mervyn O'Gorman
New title
Post created by separating the School from the Factory
Commander of the Balloon School
1909 – 1910
Succeeded by
Sir Alexander Bannerman
Preceded by
Unknown
General Officer Commanding the 24th Division
October 1915 – May 1917
Succeeded by
J L Bols
Preceded by
Unknown
General Officer Commanding the 64th Division
July 1918 – May 1919
Succeeded by
Unknown
Government offices
Preceded by
Sir Launcelot Kiggell
Lieutenant Governor of Guernsey
1920 – 1925
Succeeded by
Lord Sackville

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