KCB DSO. GOC Infantry Division
Winchester College RMA psc
Hugh Bruce Williams (‘Billy Williams’) was the eldest son of General Sir E C S Williams KCIE. He was commissioned in the Royal Engineers on 29 April 1885 after a brilliant career at ‘The Shop’, where he passed out head of his batch and won the Pollock Medal. His passing Staff College in 1899 confirmed his profile as a ‘serious’ officer. The outbreak of the South African War provided further opportunity for professional distinction, which he grasped. He specialised in intelligence work, serving as DAAG (Intelligence) under Colonel Walter Kitchener and Colonel Herbert Plumer, ‘who ever after were his staunch friends’. Williams achieved a great reputation for organising night attacks and was awarded the DSO. He continued in intelligence after the war, working under the future Sir William Robertson at the War Office (1903–5). Further staff appointments followed. He was GSO2 Southern Command (1906), Secretary, School of Military Engineering (1907–8), GSO2 Eastern Command (1908–11), GSO2, then GSO1 Irish Command (1912–14).
Williams’s GOC at both Eastern Command and Irish Command was General Sir Arthur Paget. This had unfortunate consequences for his immediate prospects. It was expected that Paget would assume command of III Corps on its formation, but Field-Marshal Sir John French refused to accept him as a corps commander. The post went, instead, to Sir William Pulteney, who had his own staff officers to look after. Williams was exiled to the Lines of Communication, first as Commandant No. 1 Base (Le Havre) and then as Commandant Southern Lines of Communication at Marseilles, where he supervised the arrival of the Indian Corps. He was rescued from this galling obscurity in July 1915 by an old friend, Herbert Plumer, now GOC Second Army. As rescues go, it was pretty spectacular. Williams became chief of staff Second Army, with the rank of major-general. He retained the post until June 1916, playing an important part in the plan to dig mines under the German positions on Messines ridge, a project originally scheduled for mid-1916. This, however, was not enough for Williams. Far from being thrilled by his extraordinary elevation, he chafed at what he regarded as the lack of action in Second Army. In June 1916 his career took another extraordinary turn, when he accepted demotion to brigadier-general as GOC 137th (Staffordshire) Brigade, 46th (North Midland) Division, TF.
The Staffordshire Brigade had been cruelly used in the attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt on 13 October 1915 and had suffered heavy casualties. Less than a month after Williams’s appointment the brigade was to be cruelly used again, this time on 1 July 1916 in the diversionary attack against the Gommecourt salient. 46th Division was on the far left of the British line on 1 July. Its preparations had been deliberately obvious in order to attract German reserves away from the expected breakthrough further south. Its attack was subject to enfilade fire from German artillery and machine guns to the north. Plans to mask the attack by the use of smoke rebounded on the Staffordshire battalions, causing confusion and disruption. The attack was a complete failure, in marked contrast to that of 56th Division, which attacked the southern flank of the Gommecourt salient. 46th Division suffered the fewest casualties of any British division on 1 July. This owed much to Williams’s refusal to repeat the attack in the afternoon, recognising that it was doomed to fail and ought never to have been made in the first place. This was a risk for any officer, especially perhaps a brigade commander. But it was the divisional commander, Major-General Hon. E J Montagu-Stuart-Wortley, who paid the price. The subsequent Court of Inquiry did no damage to Williams’s career. In November 1916 he was promoted major-general and given command of 37th Division.
37th Division is little known. It has no divisional history. But under Williams it became a first-class formation, an achievement that was considerably assisted by his GSO1, Lieutenant-Colonel John Dill. 37th Division was heavily engaged in 1917, both at Arras and Third Ypres. It played a key part in the defence of Rossignol Wood during the German spring offensive of 1918. The division remained in Lieutenant-General Sir Montague Harper’s IV Corps for the rest of the war and was almost constantly engaged with the enemy from 21 August to the Armistice.
Two years of combat finally seems to have slaked Williams’s desire for action and fame. He declined further appointments and retired from the army on 23 January 1923. During the inter-war period he showed himself to be ‘an able writer and one of the most lucid reviewers of military works’. He was President of the Council of the Institution of Royal Engineers from 1935 until 1938. During the Second World War he raised a battalion of the Home Guard in Sussex.
Bruce Williams was a striking personality in the Ivor Maxse mould. He had boundless energy. He would not accept second best. He was a demanding taskmaster. He had an explosive temper that he himself recognised sometimes went too far. Critics found him blustering, nitpicking and fault finding. By the end of the war he was the eleventh longest serving British divisional commander. He was also one of the best.
 Williams assumed by deed poll the surname ‘Bruce-Williams’ in 1920. ‘Bruce’ was his mother’s maiden name.
 See the comments by Brigadier-General Sir Archibald Home, Diary of a World War I Cavalry Officer (Tunbridge Wells: Costello, 1985), p. 78.
John Bourne, Centre for First World War Studies