Field Marshal Harold Rupert Leofric George Alexander (Ulster, 1891-1969)



Figure 1.--This portrait of Alexander was taken at the family estate, Caledon. Note the tam, smock, leggings, and long hair. I am not sure when this was taken an how hold he was at the time. He looks ti be about 6-7 years old, which would mean about 1897-98. Hipefully we will eventually be able to date the photograph.

Field Marshal Alexander, Earl of Tunis was on of England's most successful army commanders. Harold Rupert Leofric George Alexander was born in London during 1891, but grew up in a privlidged English-Irish family, spebding most of his early boyhood on the family estate in Ulster. He was trained at Sandhurst and during World War I commanded a battalion of Irish Guards on the Western Front. After the War he bought the Bolshevicks in the Baltics with a unit of largely ethnic-Germans. He cpmmanded the British 1st Division and as commander of I Corps oversaw the Dunkirk evacuation. He is nenowned for the North African campaigns against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel during World War II (1942-43). Under Eisenhower he oversaw the Allied drive on Tunia and the invasion of Sicily and Italy. He was one of the few commanders that was able to work amicably with Montgomery--a major accomplishment in itself. He later commanded the Italian campaign (1943-45). He was Governor General of Canada (1946-52), granted the rank of Earl (1952) and becoming the Minister of Defence under Winston Churchill (until 1954).

Parents

Alexander's father was the 4th Earlm of Caledon ( -1898). He died in when Alexander was inly 6 years old and thus he did not know him well. His mother was a much more important, albeit emotonally distant, figure in his life. His mother was Lady Elizabeth Graham-Toler. She lived for 40 years as a widow after her husband's death. Alexander's biographer describes her rekationshio with her boys and staff, "She was tolerant of genuine mistakes, but could not endure slopiness." [Nicolson, p. 11.]

Brothers

Lord and Lady Caledon had four boys. About 10 years sepataed the four. Tubby was the third boy, about 7 years yonger than the oldest Erik.Herbrand was the second amd William, known as "Baby" the youngest.

Childhood

Field Marshal (Alexander, Harold Rupert Leofric George) was born in London during 1891. His names are all suitably British, except for Leofric which was a remanant of his mothers Scandanavia period. His Brothers also had Scandianavian names added (Erik, Herbrand, and Sigismund). Interestingly none of thise names stuck. He was known as Master Harold to servants and later Uncle Harold to nephews and nieces, but as a boy he was called "Tubby" in the family which he did not manage to loose until he began school as a youth and friends began calling him Alex. While born in London, Alexander spebt little time there until he began school. He grew up with this three other brothers on the family estate in Ulster. Despite the way their mother dressed the boys, she was a firm believer in the proverbial "stiff upper lip". Aleander's biographer reports that mother was not a "shoulder to cry on". [Nicolson, p. 11.]

Caledon

The boys' nursery was on the top floor where nanny Mrs. Hariet Harding looked after them. Here they were realtively free as they were in the basement with the staff. In between were two floors devoted to formal rooms and their parents' bedrooms where they could be brought to task. So it was outdoors where they spent most of their time. As long as they showed up for bedtime, no one bothered much what they were up to--least of all their mother who paid little attention to them when they were out of site.

The boys had a glorious time growing up and playing on the estate, depite the differences in ages they seemed to have all gotten along well. Caledon had open ground, woods and the River Blackwater ran through it. The River was a delight, they sawm, canoed, and fished in it and skated on it when it froze over. The boys were never at a loss for things to do. They had ponies, fishing gear, guns, and bycicles. In short it was like growing up in a summer camp without triublesome counsellors. There was even the Clogher Valley light railway that ran through, and the boys were occassionally allowed to operate the engine. Caledon was a working farm estate with craftsmen, agricultural laborers, and gamekeepers. The boys became friends with these men and were intrigued by their work such as carpentry, stone massoinery, painting, ect. Alexander took to making tombstones and Celtic crisses for departed pets. Many had seeved in the military, some with Lord Caledon, and had fascinating stories to tell.[Nicolson, pp. 12-13.]

Lord Caledon had forned a small military band from the veterans on his estate. They had Zouave uniforms and occassionaly played in the manor house after dinner. No doubt the boys were fascinated by this. There were also six small cannons from the yacht wich were occasionally fired off on important occassions. The biys joined in all of this and were given the duty of raising and loweing the flag daily. Alexander learned to play the side drums and was allowed to joun the band. The boys were especially devoted to war games, often conducted in their ponies. The two sides were the Vaxa and Comba nations. They loved to cinduct the wars on rainy days through strio cartoon drawings. William remembers that brother Tubby's Vaxa nation usually won because he was more skilled at drawing. Painting was in fact to become a passion with Alexander who persued it thriughout his life. The boys made up plays and Tubby became quite adeot at the Irish jig. [Nicolson, pp. 12-13.]

There were occassonal outings to the seaside and other poits of interest. Normally these were coinducted by Mrs. Harding rather than their parents.

Boyhood Clothes

Lady Caledon firmly disciplined the boys and dress, clenliness, and good manners were stressed. I do not have a lot of information on how the boys were dresses. As little boys they wore dresses and a family photograph shows Alexander in a lacey dress. Alexander's biographer says simply that the boys were taken to church in blue suits and Eton collars. This would be after they were breached. I'm not sure at what age that occurred. A portrait of him at about 6-7 years of age show him wearing long gair and a white dress or smock with leggings (figure 1). Here I am not sure if this was before he was breached. He could be wearing kneeoants under his smock and te boys may have wore smocks as they played on the estate. Nor do I know what the boys wore to church before they were breached.

Boyhood Hair Styles

Lady Caledon was not a fauning mother, but her emotions can perhaps be glimsed that the boys were not allowed to cut their hair. Concerned about modern sensibilities and that the smock and long hair in the photograph might give the wrong impression, Alexander's biographer writes, "There is a photograph at Caledon of the young Alexander with hair hanging like a girl's to the level of his chin (figure 1), and another of him in a lace 18th century dress, both wholly out of character with the tough little boy he had become." [Nicolson, p. 11.] The boys' hair was not cut until they began school. Alexander did not have his hair cut until the day before he left for school in England.

Education

Lady Caledon employed no tudor for the boys. Mrs. Harding was not a governess. The boys basically ran wild on the estate with no enfoced lessons. Alexander at 10 years of age was sent to St. Michael's, Westgate-on-Sea in Kent, a preparatory school. Some claim that he could not yet read when he arrived. This apparently was not quite true--bit only barely. Alexander was at first homesick, but generally enjoyed his time at school. Looking back he shyly admits he was never beaten--an all to common event in the livesof many many British boys at the time. He had a winning personality and was good at sports--a sure combination for popularity as a boy. He especially enjoyed cricket. He next attened Harrow, one of the most prestigious British public scghools. He received his military training at Sandhurst, the British military academy.

British Preparatory Schools

A British preparatory or prep school, unlike an American prep school, is a private school for primary-age children. The name derives from it's function of preaoring boys for public schools (exclusive private secondary schools). Many English writers have left harrowing accounts of their school experiences. Some like lexander attended rather pleasant schools. Part of the problem is that temore academically enclined boys were more likely to have a hard time of it. Boys like Alexander who were ghood in sports and with winning personalities were more likely to have enjoyed their school days. Of course it was the more academically oriented boys who wrote most of the books.

World War I

Alexander during World War I commanded a battalion of Irish Guards on the Western Front.

Russian Civil War

After the War he bought the Bolshevicks in the Baltics. He commanded the Landeswehr in Latvia, a unit of largely ethnic-Germans. Their loyalty to Latvia was uncertain, but they helped oust the Bolshevicks.

India

Before World War II, Alexander and Claude Auchinleck (1884-1981) were regarding as two up and coming officers in the British army. They served together in the 1930s on the Northwest Frontier in India, each commanding batalions. It was Auchinleck that Churchill in 1942 would replace with Alexander to command the 8th Army in Egypt. Alexander surprised his Indian soldiers by secretly learning Hindi.

World War II

Alexander commanded the British 1st Division and later as commander of I Corps oversaw the Dunkirk evacuation (1940). After serving briefly in Britain he was given the job of overseeing the retreat of the British army from India (1942). Alexander is nenowned for the North African campaigns against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel during World War II (1942-43). He was given command of the British Middle Eastern Command and underhim, Montgomery was given cimmand of the 8th Army facing Rommel's Afrika Corps (August 1942). Less flamboyant than Montgomery, he was a commander of exceptional ability. The realtionship between Alexander and Montgomery was an interesting one. Alexander's biographer recounts how Alexander declined to criticise Mongomery's battle plan for lemain least he weaken Montgomery's confidence. This strikes me as telling of Alexander's ability to assess character and an example's of Montgomery's flaws as a commander. [Nicolson, pp. 162-163 and 168.] He was one of the few commanders that was able to work amicably with Montgomery--a major accomplishment in itself. Montgomery after the War wrote, "Alexander" 'the only man under whom...any general...would gladly serve in a subordinate postion'. (A compliment to Alexander and a side ways slap at Eisenhower. After the victory at El Alemain, he oversaw under Eisenhower the Allied drive on Tunia and the invasion of Sicily and Italy. Alexanfer succeeded Eisenhower as commander of the Mediterrraean Theater and commanded the Italian campaign (1943-45). He took the German unconditional surrender in Italy (April 29, 1945).

Berets

The English appear to have begun the military fashion of wearing berets. The British Tank Corps adopted the black basque beret in, I believe, the 1930s. They appear to have been the first non-French unit to wear the beret. The reason was entirely pragmatic: they were looking for a cap that would help to keep grease out of the hair. Later, Montgomery popularised their black beret and other forces such as the early SAS, the partatroopers ("paras") and the commandoes adopted it in their own colours. Ironically, Dorman-Smith, Auchinlek's brilliant staff officer, was the one credited with coming up with the idea. Dorman-Smith and Auchinlek were sent on their way when Montgromery and Alexander came in at the behest of Churchill. Smith's career was over. The irony is that there would have been no 2nd Alamein or Viscount Montgomery of Alamein had not Smith and Auchinlek stopped the German advance at 1st Alamein. And Montgomery's 'brilliant' plan for Alamein looks suspiciously like Smith's drawn up before he and the Auk were sent on their way. While Monty popularized the beret, it is interesting to see Alexander here as a boy actually wearing a beret or tam (figure 1). Monty of course appeared it also sorts of military headwear. It is the beret, however, that he is most associated with. The beret as a rsesult gained considerable fame during World War II.

Post-War Era

Alexander was Governor General of Canada (1946-52), granted the rank of Earl (1952) and becoming the Minister of Defence under Winston Churchill (until 1954).

Sources

Alexander, Harold. The Alexander Memoirs, 1940-45 (1962).

Nicolson, Nigel. Alex: The Life of Field Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis (Atheneum: New York, 1973), 346p.






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Created: September 26, 2003
Last edited: September 26, 2003