LIEUTENANT GENERAL SIR GEORGE MONTAGUE
HARPER, KCB, DSO
late Royal Engineers
Lieutenant Colonal Edward De Santis ©2008
George Montague Harper was born on 11 January 1865, the son of Charles Harper. He was commissioned a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers on 5 July 1884 and served at Chatham in Kent, at the School of Military Engineering. In 1890 he was serving in Bengal, India, and was promoted to Captain on 1 October 1892.
Upon his return to England from India Harper was posted to Yorkshire. On 10 October 1892 he was assigned as Adjutant of the 2nd West Yorkshire Royal Engineer Volunteers at Leeds where he would serve for a period of six years. On 19 September 1893 he married the Hon. Ella Constance Jackson, the second daughter of William Lawies Jackson, M.P., the first Lord Allerton, of Chapel-Allerton, West Riding, Yorkshire. On 10 February 1898 Captain Harper was assigned to the Curragh in Ireland.
In 1899 Captain Harper was sent on active service to South Africa. He was assigned to the 37th Field Company, Royal Engineers and was present at the Relief of Ladysmith; in the action at Spion Kop; in operations of 5 to 7 February 1900; in the action at Val Kranz; the action on Tugela Heights from 14 to 27 February 1900; the action at Pieter's Hill; the operations in Natal from March to June 1900; and operations in the Transvaal, east of Pretoria from July to October 1900. For his services in South Africa he received the Queen's South Africa Medal with four clasps. He was also mentioned in despatches four times.
On 10 March 1900 he was mentioned in the despatch of Sir Redvers Buller "for meritorious service while assigned to the 37th Company, R.E. in the South African War." Sir Redvers Buller mentions him again in a despatch dated 9 November 1900 stating that "Capt. G. Harper and Lieut. S. Owen merit special mention for their work with 37th Field Co." Additionally, on 1 April 1901 Harper was promoted to the rank of Major and in that same month qualified as a Second Class Interpreter in a Modem Foreign Language. On 4 September 1901, in London, Major Harper was mentioned in a despatch of Lord Roberts for his services in South Africa.
The London Gazette of 27 September 1901 announced the award of the Distinguished Service Order to Major Harper with the following citation:
"George Montague Harper, Capt. Royal Engineers.
In recognition of services during operations in South Africa. "
On 29 October 1901 the insignia of the Distinguished Service Order was presented to Major Harper by His Majesty King Edward VII. The Warrant for the Order was not actually presented to him until 27 January 1902.
Major Harper's next military assignment was to the Headquarters Staff of the Army in the War Office in London where he was specially employed in the Mobilization Division. He began this assignment on 13 January 1902. On 15 October 1902 he was appointed a Staff Captain in this same organization, and in June of 1903 he was appointed a Member of the Army Railway Council.
On I July 1903 Major Harper was assigned to duties as Deputy Assistant Quarter Master General (Mobilization), Headquarters of the Army, War Office, London, as a General Staff Officer, 2nd Grade (G.S.O. 2). He remained in this position until 1906 when he attended the Staff College at Camberley and successfully completed the course.
Harper was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on 1 January 1907. Following his graduation from Camberley he was assigned to the Staff College as Deputy Assistant Adjutant General (General Staff Officer, 2nd Grade). This was quite a distinction for him for The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers states that:
"For twenty-three years, from 1883 to 1906, no officer of Engineers was employed on the staff of the College, but in January 1907, it was decided that an officer of the R.E. should always be included in this staff and Major G. M. Harper was the first so appointed."
On 23 December 1910 Lieutenant Colonel Harper visited the 2nd West Yorkshire Royal Engineers (Volunteers) at Leeds for the Christmas season. As the history of that unit describes the visit:
"The Prize Distribution on December 23rd was honoured by the visit of Lieutenant Colonel G.M. Harper, R.E., and his wife, the Hon. Mrs. Harper, daughter of William Lawles Jackson, the first Lord Allerton."
Harper was placed in a half-pay status on 1 January 1911 and returned to full-pay status on 23 June1911 when he was assigned as General Staff Officer, 1st Grade (G.S.0.1), Director of Military Operations, Staff of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. On 19 July 1911 he was promoted to the rank of Colonel and removed from the list of the Corps of Royal Engineers as was customary for officers to be removed from their regimental rolls upon attaining this rank. In 1912, as an additional duty, he was appointed to serve as the representative of the Directorate of Military Operations to the Army Medical Advisory Board.
At the outbreak of the Great War Colonel Harper was assigned to headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force. On 5 August 1914 he was posted to the General Staff of Field Marshal Sir John French. On 7 November 1914 he was appointed Temporary Brigadier General while on the General Staff.
On 11 February 1915 Brigadier General Harper was made a Brigade Commander and took command of the 17th Infantry Brigade. In that same year he was created a Companion of the Order of the Bath (C.B.), and on the 25th of September 1915 he was appointed Temporary Major General and given command of the 5 1st (Highland) Division in France. He was promoted to the substantive rank of Major General on 1 January 1916.
While serving as General Officer Commanding, the 51st Division fought at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. In the battle the Division completely broke up powerful German counter-attacks against their positions in and around High Wood. The Division also took part in the battles at Ancre (13-18 November 1916), Scarpe (Arras) (9-14 April and 23-24 April 1917), Pilckem Ridge and Langemarck (31 July to 2 August 1917), Menin Road (20-25 September 1917), and Cambrai (20 November to 3 December 1917). While under General Harper's command the 51st Division was assigned successively to the XVII and XVIII Corps.
In the Battle of Cambrai, Harper's division, having its flanks secured by the capture of Ribecourt and Havrincourt, advanced on the left centre of the British attack up the slopes of Flesquieres Hill against German trench lines on the southern side of Flesquieres Village, where there was very heavy fighting.
In 1918 General Harper was made a Commander of the Legion of Honour and Knight Commander of the Bath (K.C.B.). On 11 March 1918 he was appointed Temporary Lieutenant General and General Officer Commanding IV Corps in France. He held this position until the end of the war.
The great German offensive on the Somme began on 21 March 1918 while Harper's IV Corps, in Byng's Third Army, held a front of about 27 miles from the north of Gouzeaucourt to south of Gavrelle. In the final British offensive, which opened in August 1918, Harper's Corps opened the attack on a front of about nine miles north of the Ancre, from Miraumont to Moyenneville. The Corps consisted of the 5th, 37th, 42nd and 63rd Divisions and the New Zealand Division. Its first task was to capture the general line between Urles and Bibucourt. This attack was completely successful, with tanks helping materially to support the attack in a thick fog. The success, in spite of strong German resistance, was pushed home in bitter and prolonged fighting. When the Armistice came, Harper's Corps had lost, since the 21st of August 1918, 30,000 men and had captured 22,500 prisoners and 350 guns. The Corps had fought for ten weeks without rest or break, and often in the worst weather.
On 1 January 1919 General Harper received his promotion to the substantive rank of Lieutenant General and on 1 June of this same year he was appointed General Officer Commanding-In-Chief (G.O.C.-in-C) Southern Command with headquarters at Salisbury.
In this capacity he commanded all troops in the counties of Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire (except Windsor for regular troops and that portion of the county Included in the Aldershot Command), Cornwall, Devonshire, Somersetshire, Dorsetshire. Wiltshire, and Hampshire (except that portion included in the Aldershot Command).
Lieutenant General Sir George Montague Harper, KCB, DSO had been serving at Salisbury for three and a half years when he was killed in an automobile accident on 15 December 1922. The accident took place near Sherborne in Dorset, a town approximately two miles east of Yeovil. General Harper had bought the rectory, Bradford Abbas, which was in the process of being remodeled. He was proceeding there from Sherborne, a distance of nearly four miles, to ascertain what progress was being made on the work. When about a mile and a half from Sherborne his car skidded, ran into a bank, and overturned. General and Lady Harper were pinned beneath the car, and when extricated the General was dead, apparently from a fractured skull, and Lady Harper was injured on the right arm and side. The body of General Harper was removed to a farmhouse nearby, and Lady Harper was conveyed in an ambulance to Sherborne Castle. General Harper had been hunting on the previous day with Blackmore Vale Pack. He and Lady Harper had been staying with friends at Sherborne Castle.
An inquest was held concerning the death of General Harper on 16 December 1922 at Sherborne Castle. Evidence of identification was given by Dr. Harper, of Bath, who testified that he had no doubt that death had been caused by a fractured skull. Lady Harper, whose right arm was fractured, and who appeared with her arm in splints, said that on Friday morning, 15 December, she and her husband were proceeding from Salisbury to Bradford Abbas. They were crossing Silver Lake Farm, midway between Bradford Abbas and Sherborne, when the car skidded backwards and forwards several times. The General tried to right the car by turning into a little bank. Lady Harper did not really know what happened after that. It was all over in a moment. According to Lady Harper, the General was a careful driver and was not going very fast. He had driven the same car, which was an Austin touring car, for over two years. When the car turned over General Harper made no remark whatever. Lady Harper thought that he must have been killed on the spot. The road appeared to have been slippery at the spot where the car skidded.
The superintendent of police produced photographs of the spot showing the marks where the off-wheel skidded just before it took to the grass alongside the road. The near tire was worn badly. There was no tread on it at all. The wheel was tom completely off after it left the road. Other police evidence showed that from the spot where it appeared to have skidded to where the car actually turned over was 50 feet. The car ran off the road on the bank, down a slight slope, and turned completely over.
The coroner, in summing up, said there was no evidence that the General was driving at an excessive speed; in fact, there was evidence to the effect that he was driving at a slow pace. He was of the opinion that the wheel of the car must have had a good deal to do with the skid, and that the soil and manure on the road were also contributory causes. He wit I returned a verdict to the effect that General Harper died from a fracture of the skull caused by the car overturning, and that this was due to an accidental cause.
General Harper's funeral took place at Salisbury, with full military honours, on 19 December 1922. Lady Harper received the following message from the King:
" I have learned with deep regret of the tragic accident by which General Harper has met his death. General Harper had rendered invaluable service to his country, and I feel that my Army loses a distinguished officer. I assure you of my heartfelt sympathy in your great sorrow and trust that the injuries you have received are not serious. "
A procession from Government House to the Cathedral, where the first service was conducted by the Bishop of Salisbury, the Dean of Salisbury, and Bishop Taylor-Smith, was headed by four squadrons of cavalry and three battalions of infantry, followed by the band of the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers and the pipers of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders. The coffin was placed on a gun-carriage covered with the Union Jack, on which lay the General's hat and sword. The pall-bearers were: Major General Sir William Peyton, Military Secretary to the Secretary of State for War; Major General Sir Harold Walker, commanding the 48th (South Midland) Division; Major General the Hon. Sir Richard Stuart Wortley, in charge of Administration, Southern Command; Major General Sir E. Guy Bainbridge, commanding the 1st Division; Major General Sir R.H.K. Butler, commanding the 2nd Division; Major General R. Bannatine-Allason, Major General Sir H. Bruce Williams, and Major General Sir R. Lee.
Behind the gun-carriage was led General Harper's favourite charger, with riding boots reversed. Behind the horse came numerous other military dignitaries and the family mourners.
At the close of the service in the Cathedral, where the music was led by Dr. W. G. Alcock, a salute of fifteen guns at minute intervals was fired. The interment at the London Road Cemetery was conducted by Bishop Taylor-Smith and the Rev. J.G.W. Tuckey. As the General's coffin was lowered into the grave another artillery salute was fired. Buglers sounded the "Last Post," a party of infantry fired three volleys over the grave, and the buglers then sounded the "Reveille."
It was said of General Harper that he brought the experience gained in the South African War to his work in the Great War. The earlier reputation he had won was confirmed and enhanced and his successive promotions from a Brigadier to divisional commander, and then to the command of an Army Corps, were well earned and thoroughly justified. There were not many more popular officers in the Army at the time than Harper, as was attested by his sobriquet, "Uncle," which was invariably applied to him. His rise to the rank of Lieutenant General and his command of an Army Corps in wartime is testimony to his leadership and tactical skills - for such a command was normally not given to officers of the Royal Engineers.
Lieutenant General Harper was a member of the Naval and Military Club.
1. The Monthly Army List, Jun 1890, p. 244.
2. The Monthly Army List, Apr 1890, p. 244.
3. The Monthly Army List, Sep 1885, p. 244
4. The Monthly Army List, Mar 1898, p. 449.
5. The Monthly Army List, Apr 1903. pp. 4, 77, & 448.
6. The Monthly Army List, Jun 1903, pp. 4, 49, 77, & 448.
7. The Monthly Army List, Apr 1907, pp. 41, 74a, & 134.
8. The Monthly Army List, Dec 1912, pp. 7, 109, 170, 247, 3 50, & 787.
9. The Monthly Army List, Feb 1915, pp. 44, 149, 787, 2494, 2539, 2617, & 2657.
10. The Monthly Army List Apr 1915, pp. 45, 53a, 149, 787, 2494, 2539, 2617, & 2657.
11. The Quarterly Army List, Oct 1916, p. 43.
12. The Monthly Army List, Jun 1919, pp. 131, 784, 2534, & 2617.
13. The Monthly Army List, Dec 1920, pp. 54, 123, 2535, & 2617.
14. BOYLE, Colonel Walter. HISTORY OF THE 2nd WEST YORKSHIRE ROYAL ENGINEERS VOLUNTEERS. Leeds, 1936, pp. 32,50, & 82.
15. HAYWARD & HALL. South African War Honours & Awards, 1899-1902. Arms and Armour Press, London, 1971.
16. BAKER BROWN, Brigadier W. The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers. Volume IV. The Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent, 1952, p. 307.
17. INSTITUTION OF ROYAL ENGINEERS. The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers. Volume VII. Chatham, Kent, 1952, p. 318.
18. INSTITUTION OF ROYAL ENGINEERS. The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers. Volume V. Chatham, Kent, 1952, pp. 25, 298, 317, and 705.
19. WATSON, Colonel Sir CHARLES M. The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers. Volume 111. The Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent, 1952, pp. 128, 22 1, & 223.
20. CREAGH & HUMPHRIES. The Distinguished Service Order, 1886-1923. J.B. Hayward & Son, London, 1978, p. 190.
2 1. BURKE, Sir BERNARD. Peerage and Baronetage. Harrison & Sons, London, 1912, p. 89.
22. Who Was Who, 1916-1928, p. 359.
23. London Times, 16 Dec 1922, p. 12b, 14b and 16b.
24. London Times, 18 Dec 1922, p. 9d.
25. London Times, 19 Dec 1922, p. 13f
26. London Times, 20 Dec 1922, p. 7e and 14d.
27. Letts Roadbook of Britain, 1977, p. 8.