CB. GOC Infantry Division
Harrow School psc
Thomas David Pilcher (‘The Sardine’) was the son of T W Pilcher of Harrow. He was commissioned in the Cheshire Regiment (then the 22nd Foot) from the Militia on 21 June 1879, but quickly transferred to the Northumberland Fusiliers (then the 5th Foot). He made a final transfer, to the Bedfordshire Regiment, on 5 July 1899. Pilcher passed Staff College in 1892. He was DAAG Dublin District (November 1895–October 1897), but on 18 October 1897 his career took a more interesting turn when he joined the Western African Frontier Force. He raised the 1st Battalion WAFF and commanded expeditions to Lapai and Argeyah. During the South African War he commanded a regiment of mounted infantry and 2nd Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment. He was GOC 3rd and 5th Brigades at Aldershot from 1902 to 1907. Between 1907 and the outbreak of war Pilcher served in India, latterly as GOC Burma Division at Meerut (22 January 1912–27 October 1914). He was on leave in England when the European War broke out.
Pilcher was clearly a thoughtful officer. He was even capable of putting his thoughts on paper, publishing Some Lessons from the Boer War in 1903. Unfortunately, his thoughts were not to everyone’s taste. General Sir O’Moore Creagh, GOC-in-C India, twice (in 1912 and 1914) reported Pilcher as unfit for promotion. The cause of this appears to have been the views expressed in Pilcher’s pamphlet Fire Problems, published in 1907, and a speech that he delivered to volunteers in Meerut, which was considered by official opinion to be ‘discouraging’. In an army woefully short of experienced officers at every level, however, these black marks did not count against Pilcher and on 25 January 1915 he was given command of 17th (Northern) Division, whose training he completed and with which he deployed to the Western Front in July.
Colonel W N Nicholson joined 17th Division as its AA&QMG in June 1916, shortly before the formation’s first big test, on the Somme. He later described the division under Pilcher in very uncomplimentary terms. ‘The more I saw,’ Nicholson recalled in his memoir, ‘the more I marvelled that a division which had been a considerable time in France could be so disjointedly administered. Nothing was consolidated by the ‘Q’ staff. The Divisional Train HQ were never informed of moves; no trouble was taken over billetting; there were no baths, or laundry; no supply of clean clothing; nothing was known of the cooking in units, or their interior organization. Canteens and cinemas were undreamt of. There was in short no value whatever in the ‘Q’ staff of the division save as an office for collecting unnecessary returns. “I prefer the way the work is being done at present. I don't want you to interfere,” said General Pilcher to me that same night when I asked that I might be allowed to make some changes. Thank God he went.’
Pilcher did, indeed, go very shortly afterwards following the division’s failure to capture Quadrangle Support at the beginning of the Somme offensive. 17th Division captured Quadrangle Trench on 5 July. Pilcher explained to the Official Historian, Sir James Edmonds, after the war that a further two days were needed before the division could safely contemplate attacking the Quadrangle Support system. XV Corps did not give the division the time it needed. It was rushed back into the attack on 6 July under cover of darkness and was repulsed. Worse was to come. The following morning, at 7.00 a.m., Pilcher was ordered by telephone to make another frontal attack, but this time in broad daylight and without cover. He was appalled. He protested. He contemplated refusing the order and offering his resignation. But in the end he carried out the attack. ‘I thought that the only consequence of such action would be that someone else would be put in my place and would probably carry out the operation in such a manner that far greater losses would be incurred than if I were to undertake it myself,’ Pilcher wrote to Edmonds, ‘and I issued orders in accordance with the instructions I had received, employing a minimum number of men.’ This sealed his fate. His act of humane minimalism was interpreted as ‘lack of push’. He was dismissed on 12 July and sent to the outer darkness as GOC Reserve Centre St Albans, a post he held until 1919. The Quadrangle Support fell on 10 July after the divisions on the left and right of 17th Division captured Contalmaison and Mametz Wood.
Major-General Pilcher stood unsuccessfully as a National Candidate for the Thornbury Division of Gloucestershire in the general election of December 1918. He was later Chairman of the National Security Union, an anti-Bolshevik organisation, which also included Brigadier-General Henry Page-Croft among its members. Pilcher’s first wife was Kathleen Gonne, sister of the Irish Nationalist heroine Maude Gonne, muse of W B Yeats and mother of Sean MacBride.
 TNA PRO: WO 138/36.
 W N Nicholson, Behind the Lines. An Account of Administrative Staffwork in the British Army 1914-1918 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1939), p. 175.
 PRO: CAB 45/190.
John Bourne, Centre for First World War Studies