Norfolk war hero who was ‘too brave’
PUBLISHED: 06:50 02 December 2016 | UPDATED: 06:50 02 December 2016
Steve Snelling tells the remarkable story of First World War hero Frederick Elliott ‘Boots’ Hotblack
It is a striking and startling image of battlefield heroism at its most suicidal and sublime. With revolver drawn, a solitary officer leads a clanking tank through a torrent of fire to a seemingly impossible victory against the odds at the fag-end of the battle of the Somme.
For all its studied melodrama, with bodies strewn in the foreground, bullets flicking the mud around his feet and smoke-belching guns, the illustration which appeared on the front cover of The Graphic nearly a century ago is rooted in extraordinary fact. Vividly rendered though it is, it depicts a real-life act of gallantry performed by one of Norfolk’s most distinguished and yet more obscure soldier heroes of the First World War.
In the course of almost four years’ continuous service, Frederick Elliott ‘Boots’ Hotblack, the scion of a wealthy Norwich family whose fortune and, perhaps, even his nickname was founded in shoe manufacturing, earned no fewer than six awards for bravery as well as four mentions in despatches. Seemingly indestructible – he survived being wounded on no fewer than five occasions, one of which left him blind in his right eye – he acquired legendary status in the newly-established Tank Corps.
John ‘Boney’ Fuller, the Corps’ chief staff officer, considered him a cross between the French medieval philosopher Abelard and Napoleon’s most daring general, Marshal Ney, describing him as “conscientiously” brave.
Others thought of him variously as “a natural soldier”, “a fanatic about the war”, a man of “astonishing courage” whose virtues were both an “invaluable asset” to his Corps and an “inspiration” to his men. Clough Williams-Ellis, the maverick architect behind the creation of Portmeirion in Wales and a wartime colleague, found him “always good humoured and helpful however exhausted” so that “we others could not but strive, however vainly, to live up to his example”.
And yet for all the honours and adulation, he remains a little known figure outside of Tank Regiment circles – until now.
A century after his most celebrated feat on the shell-churned heights above the river Ancre, ‘Boots’ Hotblack, the civilian soldier who rose to become a major general with shadowy links to the world of espionage is being publicly saluted as never before.
As well as featuring prominently in a landmark centenary exhibition at the Tank Museum in Bovington, he has emerged as the enigmatic hero of a ground-breaking new study about a small body of men who were instrumental in helping change the course of the war in favour of the Allies.
The Reconographers explores in detail for the first time the key role played by a force, led by ‘Boots’ Hotblack, whose remarkable feats of intelligence gathering and daring missions of reconnaissance paved the way to some of the most significant advances on the Western Front during the First World War.
Its author, retired head teacher turned award-winning military historian Colin Hardy, is an unashamed admirer of Hotblack as well as being an fervent advocate for raising the profile of a man he describes as “my hero” and whose myriad accomplishments in war and peace are, he believes, worthy of wider recognition. In a preliminary note ahead of my interview, he observed: “As an American military historian said to me, ‘if ‘Boots’ had been an American, Hollywood would have made a film about him by now.”
“In ‘Boots’ Hotblack,” he says, “you have a Richard Hannay-like character, a man of mystery who was also an extraordinarily brave and intelligent man, a real leader of men, who established an esprit de corps and standards that marked him out as someone extraordinary.
“There are those who would argue that the Reconnaissance Department of the Tank Corps which he led was the best of its kind in the whole of the British Expeditionary Force. And given that reconnaissance so far as tanks were concerned was absolutely essential, I think it’s entirely fair to say that the tanks could not have gone into action without his leadership.
“The only criticism I have seen about him was that he was, if anything, too brave for his own good. He was a staff officer and an extremely important and valuable one at that and he had no need to get up to the front-line and beyond, as he so frequently did, and place himself in such danger.”
That determination to lead by example was displayed early in his career as a ‘reconographer’ with a performance that would make unwanted headlines and earn for him the country’s second highest award for gallantry, the Distinguished Service Order.
The action on a wintry Somme battlefield in November 1916 came two years’ into his already noteworthy war service and a little over a month after his appointment as intelligence officer to an unproven Tank Corps which had just undergone its baptism of fire.
By then a 29-year-old captain, Hotblack’s involvement in the country’s war effort had been nothing if not unorthodox. A man of no military experience, who had trained as an accountant, studied at Geneva University and spent two years’ in the Rhineland, he nevertheless found himself in France as a temporary second lieutenant on intelligence duties within five weeks of Britain’s declaration of war in the summer of 1914.
“It’s all a bit of a mystery,” says Hardy. “It’s clear that as a result of his travels that he had become a very good linguist, fluent in French and German, and it is known that the War Office had been collecting names of civilians with good language skills before the war.
“But whether or not ‘Boots’ was approached beforehand I do not know. Nor is it known what precisely he was doing in the Rhineland and whether or not that may have involved some kind of covert work.” What is certain that within days of his arrival on the Western Front, he was serving as an “untrained intelligence officer” on Field Marshal Sir John French’s staff and before the year was out had joined Sir Douglas Haig’s headquarters.
Over the course of the next 21 months, he would be granted a regular commission in the Norfolk Regiment, though there is no evidence of him ever serving a single day in any of its battalions, and awarded his first decoration, a Military Cross for unspecified actions which Hardy says may have involved clandestine work behind enemy lines.
Shortly afterwards, ‘Boots’ was selected for the newly created role within the recently established Tank Corps with the objective of overcoming the shortcomings in preparing the way for armoured attacks which had been cruelly exposed during the first tank action in September 1916.
“Those original tank crews had had very little time to train,” says Hardy. “They were too busy trying to get the damn things to work, to fire their guns, drive them properly and repair them so that reconnaissance was totally neglected.
“It was all part of the learning process. The High Command didn’t know how to handle them. The staff of the Corps to which they were attached determined the routes for the tanks without any idea whether they were capable of traversing the ground. The whole business of reconnaissance was up the creek, a total and utter mess.”
‘Boots’ made his mark immediately. Not only did he lay the foundations for an essential support service that would become the envy of almost every other fighting force on the Western Front, he personally showed the way, as demonstrated most memorably near Beaumont Hamel in November 1916.
Employing innovative new methods that would become the norm, Hotblack had spent a freezing night laying a trail of tape to guide a section of tanks to the right position to launch their attack the following day only for an untimely fall of snow to cover it.
In a response typical of the man, he decided to walk in front of the leading tank, thus ensuring that it did not go astray and was able to fulfil its mission. It was an astounding feat of cool-headed courage that involved struggling across a pitted battlefield exposed to heavy fire while the tank trundled behind him, slowly manoeuvring “in and out of shell holes, which were filled with ice and water”.
Despite the wretched conditions and the odds stacked against them, the tank that Hotblack led “succeeded”, as he put it, “in reaching a portion of the enemy’s defensive system where it was both unexpected and unwelcome”.
Thus, in one fell swoop, the Tank Corps’ newly appointed intelligence officer had managed single-handedly to underline once again the potential not only of the tank as a ‘game-changing’ weapon of war, but of the significance of thorough planning and preparation.
According to Basil Liddell Hart, the pre-eminent British military strategist and tank historian, Hotblack’s feat “impressed the importance on all ranks in a more vivid way than any amount of lecturing could have done”.
The country’s leading advocate of mechanised warfare, whose theories would serve as an inspiration for the German army’s blitzkrieg tactics 25 years later, later wrote of the Norfolk soldier’s actions: “It laid the foundations of the efficient reconnaissance service which the Corps developed, and from that time onward ‘ground intelligence’ was given due weight in planning tank operations.”
While others, including fellow staff officer, Captain, the Honourable, Evan Charteris, considered his survival had been “nothing short of a miracle”, Hotblack himself remained undaunted and undeterred by the hazards he came to regard as part and parcel of a role which Colin Hardy says involved a multiplicity of skills which were “imperative” for overcoming the particular problems faced by tanks that were “poorly manoeuvrable and possessed poor visibility” on ground that was often ill-suited to their capability.
Hardy believes it was a measure of Hotblack’s success that over the course of the next two years, from the Somme to the British army’s victory in November 1918, the tanks played an increasingly influential part in breaking through the German defences.
“The simple truth is that the tanks would never have got to where they did without the reconnaissance officers who were led and trained by ‘Boots’ Hotblack,” he says. “They were the ultimate organisers. They routed them from the railheads to what were called ‘tank-dromes’. They then led them, via supply dumps, to the start points for any attack. Then, when the action started they followed the tanks up to their rallying points, where they fed information back to their commanders and explored the enemy positions to see where the tanks could go next after having breached the defences. As well as all of that, they were also responsible for liaising with other units, such as engineers and artillery, and for taking tank commanders up to the front, to show them the terrain.
“And then, when it was all done, they had the job of synthesising it all, analysing and evaluating it. That’s why I call them ‘reconographers’.”
Hotblack’s own involvement extended way beyond what might have been expected of a commanding officer. According to one historian, he would “routinely disappear”, sometimes in disguise, “for nocturnal visits to the front, feeling the ground, sniffing out the defence’s weak points”.
Roaming the battlefield, always moving “very swiftly and silently on India-rubber soles”, he gleaned whatever lessons he could from the tanks’ performances in action and, on occasions, intervened personally to take charge of operations.
Two such incidents, at Cambrai in November 1917 and the Bellicourt Tunnel during the closing weeks of the war, resulted in further gallantry awards and more injuries.
Both Hardy and Liddell Hart reckon that his actions during the piercing of the Hindenburg Line in September 1918, when he took two tanks, overran a number of machine-guns and then held the captured position despite being partially blinded by a head wound, were worthy of the highest award.
The struggle at Bellicourt signalled the end of his war, but not his career. Between the wars, he served variously as a staff officer, an instructor and a military attaché at Berlin where, according to Liddell Hart, “he sent back ominous reports that did not receive due attention”.
Returning in 1937, Hotblack was steadily promoted and “seemed sure to reach the heights of his profession” until an unexplained incident left him lying unconscious in a London street just days before he was due to lead an expedition to Norway.
What he described as “a soft blow to his head” and was originally thought to have been the work of enemy agents was, in Colin Hardy’s view, more likely a stroke which effectively ended his career.
Elliott Hotblack recovered to enjoy a long retirement into his 90s and, while he never fulfilled his promise as a senior armoured commander, his 1914-18 service alone is enough to merit him a place in the pantheon of Norfolk war heroes.
A century on, and with one road in Norwich already bearing the name of a distinguished forbear, it may be time to honour the memory of another Hotblack – a man of action and no little mystery forever remembered as a hero called ‘Boots’.
The Reconographers, by Colin Hardy, is scheduled for publication by Helion & Company next week, priced £29.95.