WHITE, Sir Cyril Brudenell Bingham (1876-1940)


WHITE, Sir Cyril Brudenell Bingham (1876-1940)
general, chief of staff, A.I.F.
son of John Warren White, a former army officer from the north of Ireland, was born at St Arnaud, Victoria, on 23 September 1876. He was educated at a normal school at Brisbane and at Eton School, Nundah, Queensland, and entered a bank at the age of 16. Three years later he joined the Queensland permanent artillery and served during the South African war as a subaltern. After his return to Australia he remained in the army, and in 1904 was appointed aide-de-camp to Major-general Edward Hutton. In 1906 White was chosen to go to England and study for two years at the British staff college at Camberley, where his work so impressed the British authorities that the war office requested that he might be lent for a further period. As a result White was employed for three years in training regular troops in England. Returning to Australia he became director of military operations, and was acting-chief of the general staff at the outbreak of the 1914-18 war. He was then a major and went overseas as chief of staff to General Bridges in Egypt and at Gallipoli. In November 1915 it was realized that the troops would have to be withdrawn, and White brought in periods of silence to avert suspicion of the quietness that would follow the evacuation of most of the troops, and drew up the plan for it. Various suggestions were made, one being that there should be a preliminary offensive, and another that a system of defensive mines should be organized. But White felt the important thing was not to arouse the suspicions of the enemy, and that this could best be done by keeping the general conditions perfectly normal. He was allowed to have his way and the evacuation from Gallipoli which followed, perfectly timed and in every way successful, was completed on 20 December 1915.
In February 1916 White became chief of staff to General Birdwood in Egypt, and shortly afterwards his claims to divisional command were considered, but it was felt that he was too valuable as a staff officer to be spared. In the following month he went with Birdwood to France. He was attached to Birdwood, who became G.O.C., A.I.F., in September, for the remainder of the war, and had a great influence on the development of the A.I.F. It was Birdwood's capacity for leadership and White's for organization, that did so much in making the A.I.F. a really efficient instrument of war. In the various operations for the remainder of the year White more than once intervened on the side of caution. It was not from any lack of courage, but his grasp of detail enabled him to see probabilities of disaster not apparent to more impulsive commanders. In the battle for the Pozières plateau at the end of July he allowed the confidence of others to bear down his own misgivings, but after this failure, when Haig was finding fault with Birdwood and White, he stood up to Haig and pointed out that whatever mistakes had been made, the coinmander-in-chief had been misinformed in several particulars, which White then proceeded to particularize. Haig was so impressed that when he had finished he put his hand on White's shoulder and said, "I dare say you're right, young man." During 1917 the value of the Australian troops was being more and more appreciated, but among the troops themselves there was some feeling that they were being too often sacrificed through the mistakes of the higher command. By September White had become convinced that as far as possible piecemeal operations must be avoided, that too great advances should not be attempted, and that there must be a proper use of artillery barrage. These tactics were successfully applied in the Menin-road battle on 20 September, and in subsequent thrusts. Early in 1918 White, realizing the difficulties of repatriation at the end of the war, raised the problem of what would have to be done while the men were waiting for shipping. This led to the educational scheme afterwards adopted. In May Birdwood and White, at the request of General Rawlinson, prepared plans for an offensive but these were shelved in the meanwhile. When General Birdwood was given command of the fifth army the choice of his successor in command of the Australian corps lay between Monash (q.v.) and White. Monash was White's senior and, though White's reputation stood very high, it was impossible to pass over so capable and successful an officer as Monash. White was given the important position of chief of the general staff of Birdwood's army. It was a happy combination, for though Birdwood was a great leader of men he was less interested in organization, and White had a genius for it.
After the war White returned to Australia with the rank of major-general and was chief of general staff until 1922. He was chairman of the Commonwealth public service board from 1923 to 1928, and after his retirement was well known in business circles in Melbourne as a director of several important financial companies. In March 1940 he was called upon to become chief of staff again, but most unfortunately was killed in an aeroplane crash at Canberra on 13 August 1940. He married in 1905 Ethel, daughter of Walter Davidson, who survived him with two sons and two daughters. He was created C.B. in 1916; C.M.G., 1918; K.C.M.G., 1919; K.C.V.O., 1920; and K.C.B., 1927.
White was a man of great personal charm whose pleasant manner did not suggest his real strength. He was quite unselfseeking, completely loyal to his superiors and to his men. He had had an excellent training, he had great powers of work and a quick brain; his remarkable grasp of essentials enabled him to give prompt decisions on all problems whether of organization or tactics. These were some of the qualities that made him as chief of staff one of the great soldiers of the 1914-18 war. To some he was a greater soldier than Monash who himself described him as "far and away the ablest soldier Australia had ever turned out", but their work was scarcely comparable. It may truly be said of White that though apparently little in touch with the junior officers and men in the ranks, no single man did more to mould the A.I.F.
The Official History of Australia in the War, 1914-1918, vols. I to VI; The Times, 14 August 1940; The Argus and The Age, Melbourne, 14 August 1940; Debrett's Peerage, etc., 1940.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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