Riviera People – Viscount Plumer

Posted by: on Apr 1, 2020 | No Comments

Riviera People – Viscount Plumer

Herbert Plumer, 1st Viscount Plumer became a senior British Army Officer in the First World War, having spent his formative years in Torquay. He won an overwhelming victory at the Battle of Messines creating what was termed ‘the loudest explosion in human history’. Ian Handford of Torbay Civic Society tells us more.

Herbert Charles Onslow Plumer was the son of Hall and Louisa Plumer. Born in London on 13 March 1857, his father squandered the best part of his grandmother’s substantial inheritance including the family home in Canons Park with its 747 acres in London. His fall from grace came through drink and horses; eventually the family left London for Torquay. They initially resided at Summerhill on Haldon Road. In 1875 they purchased the neighbouring house Malpass Lodge, today Wylam House, a beautiful Grade II listed villa overlooking the Bay.

Herbert spent his formative years in Torquay although little is written about the period. He had an elder brother Frederick and two sisters Beatrice and Constance. He was despatched to Eton in 1870, it being clear the boy was destined for the military. Herbert would return to spend his vacations in Torquay at Malpass Lodge. Later renamed KyaLami (a Zulu phrase meaning ‘My Home’) by its South African owner Frederick Strubren, it would be sold to a Newcastle shipping magnate – Sir James Knott – who gave it the name Wylam House in 1917.

Hall Plumer  (Herbert’s father) was a committee member of Torquay Gentleman’s Victoria Club on Victoria Parade and also a member of the Torquay Cricket Club. During September 1876 a cricket match between Plymouth Garrison team and Torquay Hall Plumer XI  had included Herbert who was playing just before he started what would be a lifelong career in the Army. It was a time of change in the British Army as Prussia had just invaded Denmark, Austria-Hungary and finally France. Meanwhile Britain had realised the inadequacies of its own defences having suffered during the Crimea War. With officers banned from purchasing commissions, entrance to senior rank came only through competitive examination at the Royal Military College Sandhurst, which usually involved a six-year commitment.

Neverthless, Herbert rose rapidly through the ranks after serving in India and the Sudan. Promoted to Major with the York and Lancaster Regiment he served in Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) and became known for writing a book about his experiences as Commander of the Relief Force during the 1896 Matabele Rebellion. Having been promoted again to Major-General, he next served in the South Africa Boer War 1899-1902 before he was appointed Quarter Master General of the Forces in 1904. He was finally honoured with a knighthood in 1906.

In the run up to the First World War, General Sir Herbert Plumer was destined to be one of a few senior officers in this long war to see his reputation enhanced. Given command of the Second Army in 1915 his greatest victory came after the capture of Messines Ridge at Ypres, a strategic position the Germans had held for two years.

The Royal Engineers managed to tunnel right underneath the enemy position to place 500 tons of explosive.The explosives were detonated in June 1917 and the enemy suffered devastating casualties. In addressing the men before the offensive Plumer had famously remarked,

‘Men, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography’

The blast was apparently so huge it was even heard back in England – where the Prime Minister David Lloyd George was known to have remarked on it when in Downing Street. Following this success, General Plumer moved to Messines after salvaging the campaign at Passchendale and then helping restore order on the Italian Front. He even conducted the defence against the last desperate ‘push’ of the German Spring Offensive of 1918, a time when he was recorded as being – the soldiers’ soldier.

By the time of the Armistice in November, General Plumer was overall Commander of the Army of Occupation on the Rhine. On May 5th 1919 our Torquay war hero was finally honoured by his hometown when the local council awarded him the Freedom of the Borough. A special ceremony was held at Torquay Town Hall when the Mayor of Torquay, Alderman Hugh Cumming, welcomed their distinguished soldier as ‘not a stranger’.

Having stepped up to address the audience he reported that though most of his life had been spent away, he well remembered his old days of play at Malpass Lodge and the hospitality dispensed there for many years by Mr and Mrs Hall Plumer. In reply to the Mayor’s introduction General Plumer then said –

‘It is true that my association with Torquay dates from some very long time back. My father and mother had a house here for some years, and my brother [Capt. Frederick Plumer R.N.] and sister [Miss Beatrice Plumer], who are here this afternoon, and I spent some very happy years here too. It was in Torquay that I received my first commission. It was from Torquay that I went to India for the first time to join my regiment, and it was to Torquay that I returned after my first experience of active service in Sudan. It is very gratifying to me, after 42 years’ service to return to Torquay today with my wife [Annie Constance Goss whom he married in July 1884] who was herself a frequent visitor to Torquay with her mother, to receive such a welcome and to feel that my old association has not been forgotten and to have this great honour conferred on me’.

This extraordinary soldier was raised to the peerage in 1919 taking the title Baron Plumer of Messines and Bilton (a place where his ancestry started in Yorkshire). Now promoted to Field Marshal, during the peacetime he would serve as Governor of Malta and the High Commissioner of Palestine. In 1927, he became the soldier who unveiled the magnificent ‘Menin Gate War Memorial at Ypres’ – a fitting sculpture to the many British and Commonwealth soldiers who had been killed and who had no formal grave. A year after his retirement in 1928, Lord Plumer was finally made a Viscount in recognition of his ‘long and distinguished public services’.

Field Marshal Viscount Plumer (Lord Plumer) died at his London home in Kensington at age 75 on 16 July 1932. His body was given full military honours when interred at Westminster Abbey. Amongst the pall-bearers were:  Field-Marshal Viscount Allenby – Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Osmond Brock – Marshal of the RAF, Lord Trenchard and General Lord Baden-Powell and there was a full programme of service and a message of sympathy from King George V:

‘My people throughout the Empire will, with me, mourn the loss of one whom history will ever remember gratefully not only as a distinguished commander in war, but as a great administrator’.