‘A Leader in the Making’: an extract from Experience of a Lifetime

<p>Major Lindsay Merritt Inglis. (Image source: S P Andrew Ltd. Ref: 1/1-014100-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.)</p>

Major Lindsay Merritt Inglis. (Image source: S P Andrew Ltd. Ref: 1/1-014100-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.)

Lindsay Inglis joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) in April 1915 as a 20-year-old second lieutenant, and spent the entire war as an officer with the New Zealand machine-gunners, attached on-and-off to the New Zealand Rifle Brigade (NZRB). I came across his papers at the Alexander Turnbull Library while researching the exhibition ‘All Quiet on the Western Front?’, which was held at the Waikato Museum of Art and History in Hamilton. Inglis’s First World War letters and diaries are extensive, and his detailed descriptions of the war are full of insight.

In his study of a First World War officer, American historian Marco Dracopoli asserts that:

Leadership is in many ways an intangible trait as it encompasses a wide body of other significant traits: courage, empathy, intelligence, competence, and command presence to name just a few. In WWI, officers had to balance their role as disciplinarian, combat leader, and paternalistic father to those under their command. Therefore, while competence and calmness when in combat were important aspects of good leadership, they were by no means the only desired traits. Officers were now encouraged to get to know the men under their command, to come to understand their interests and needs so as to improve morale, ward off combat fatigue, and increase combat efficiency.

Inglis was born in Mosgiel on 16 May 1894 into a Presbyterian family. His grandfathers were Dr Hugh Inglis and Reverend James Kirkland, both emigrants from Scotland. He was educated at Waitaki Boys’ High School in Oamaru from 1907 until 1913, and went on to study law at the University of Otago until he interrupted his studies to enlist on 30 April 1915. On 9 October 1915, Inglis sailed as a machine gun (MG) officer in the 2nd Battalion NZRB for Egypt and then the western front. In March 1916, he was promoted to captain in A Company 1st Battalion NZRB. He would later command the 3rd New Zealand MG Company. In March 1918, he was promoted to major and transferred to command the Otago Company of the New Zealand Machine Gun (NZMG) Battalion. The Otago Company was attached to the 3rd Battalion NZRB in late September 1918.
Inglis was influenced by a number of people prior to the First World War. The qualities shared by his grandfathers were transmitted to the following generations. Doctor and minister are professions requiring compassion, understanding and respect towards patients and parishioners. These qualities were also passed on to Inglis’s own children and grandchildren — an aid worker just after the Second World War and a school chaplain can be found amongst them.

At Waitaki Boys’ High School, the rector (headmaster) Frank Milner noticed Inglis’s leadership potential. Inglis became house prefect in 1911, captain of the First XV when he was in the sixth form, and the following year, captain of the First XI and head prefect. Inglis’s role model at school was Thomas Holmes Nisbet, the son of a pastor and ‘best all-round athlete, captain of football, boxing champion and head boy’. Nisbet is mentioned several times in Inglis’s First World War memoirs and letters. At school, Inglis was assistant librarian in 1909, when Nisbet was the librarian. The following year, Inglis became librarian and was assisted by Athol Hudson, a 1914 Rhodes Scholar who would be killed on 14 July 1916 near Armentières. Nisbet was killed at Gallipoli on 7 August 1915. Inglis was very affected by both deaths, particularly Nisbet’s; he kept the death notice from Dunedin’s Evening Star all his life and it can still be found in the papers held by his family.

Inglis was also influenced by the officers he met through the Cadet Corps. All pupils of Waitaki Boys’ High School were involved in the Navy League, and in 1913 General Godley had complimented them on their ‘efficiency, and [they were] recognised throughout Otago as one of the premier Cadet Corps’. Inglis was very attracted by a military career, although the rector encouraged him to study law.

Inglis, in turn, became a role model for other pupils, including Selwyn Kenrick, who would join the NZRB in 1916 and fight at Le Quesnoy in November 1918. Upon learning of Inglis’s death in 1966, Kenrick wrote to his wife, Mary Inglis: ‘I have known Lindsay all my life, and have always had a great admiration for him as a man and as a soldier. He was head prefect at Waitaki Boys’ High School when I first went there in 1912, and I well remember him getting his commission [of second lieutenant, on 1 July 1912] while still at school.’

While training at Trentham Camp, Inglis witnessed the leadership shown by Lieutenant Colonel Harry T. Fulton, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the newly formed NZRB. Fulton, who was nicknamed ‘Old Bully’ by the men, was in the habit, according to Inglis, of ‘blasting officers and N.C.O.s in the presence of their men . . . The method was apparently deliberate, based on the principle of keeping the officer on his toes so that he dared not let any of his subordinates be slack but passed the influence down the chain of command.’ Although Inglis found the method unattractive, he noted that Fulton was fair in his decisions. Lieutenant Colonel A. E. Stewart, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion NZRB, was nicknamed ‘Granny’ because of his age and apparent inexperience. However:

It became clear, as soon as his battalion got into action, that the most cool and fearless man in it was Colonel Stewart. From that time there was no question but that he had the confidence of his battalion, which, indeed, had always liked him. ‘Granny’ stuck to him throughout; but it lost any sting it ever had and became solely a term of endearment.

As Marco Dracopoli writes:

The ability to improve unit morale was a crucial skill of good leaders as it not only improved the lives of enlisted soldiers, but also improved combat effectiveness of the unit as well. Troops with high morale were willing to fight longer and harder against greater odds than troops that were exhausted physically and mentally. However soldiers’ morale was not the only factor in determining a unit’s combat capability. An officer’s ability to not only lead but also exude an aura of calm in an otherwise chaotic environment was crucial to maximising a unit’s potential.

Early in his war, Inglis learned this through example. We see this at the Battle of Flers–Courcelette, when he witnessed the action of a fellow officer, Lieutenant Edward Kibblewhite, in charge of a section in 1st NZMG Company:

[Kibblewhite] had noticed two riflemen lying wounded on a part of the road where high explosive shells were plumping in rapid salvoes. ‘Two of your men are lying wounded on the road, Captain. We’d better get them out of it or they’ll be blown to bits’, he shouted in my ear. I hope I managed to look as cool as he was, but I certainly did not feel it. One of the wounded men was hit again as we carried him to the shelter of a hole in the clay bank. Kibblewhite was killed later in the morning. Both he and Captain Frank Turnbull, who commanded the Wellington Company which attacked up the road from our position, were fine leaders whom it was an education and an inspiration to watch in action.

Throughout the war, Inglis also witnessed the behaviour of other officers, Australian, British and even American, and he acknowledged that New Zealand officers were closer to their men. There could be two reasons for this. After the casualties suffered on the Somme, newly commissioned New Zealand officers came through the ranks. New Zealanders were also less class-oriented. As a result, discipline amongst the Anzac troops was better than in the British Army, as officers were less feared and less removed socially speaking. It is therefore not surprising to see Inglis being critical of British officers or the old British system. Inglis showed how New Zealand soldiers reacted when they were told in August 1916 in a lecture given by Major Campbell, who commanded the Bayonet Fighting School at General Headquarters, that German soldiers had to be killed even when they surrendered: ‘We don’t want prisoners. We have to feed prisoners. What we have to do is to kill Huns. Kill plenty of Huns. The only good Hun is a dead Hun.’ Inglis was appalled by such attitudes:

If my own men can be accepted as a fair sample — and I think they were — the average New Zealander did not put Major Campbell’s precepts into practice. Like every other large body of men our numbers included a few who would do outrageous things occasionally; but those among us who could bring themselves to kill a ‘tame Jerry’ were few indeed.

Inglis wrote: ‘[soldiers’] endurance and fighting spirit must be based on confidence in their own fighting quality and staying power, not on a discipline produced by menace and brutality but as one educed [sic] by esprit de corps and a healthy morale.’ Inglis’s memoirs are based on the letters he wrote to his fiancée, and reveal how the young officer’s judgment and point of view evolved during the course of the war. It has been argued that ‘The most obvious difference between [good and bad officers] was not in their tactical awareness as one might expect, but in the relationships they had with their soldiers. No matter how tactically aware an Officer may be, it counts for little unless he can command the trust, loyalty and respect of his men and is able to inspire them.’

Experience of a Lifetime is published by Massey University Press and available for purchase here.