Hugh Elles

27 May 1880
11 Jul 1945
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Lieutenant General Sir Hugh Jamieson Elles KCB KCMG KCVO DSO (1880–1945) was a British General and the first commander of the newly formed Tank Corps in the First World War.

Born in British India on 27 May 1880, Hugh Elles was the younger son of Lt Gen Sir Edmond Elles. He was educated at Clifton College, and the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, after which he was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in June 1899. He served in South Africa during the latter part of the Second Boer War and then undertook regimental duty in Aldershot. In 1913 he attended the Army Staff College at Camberley.

On the outbreak of the First World War, posted to the staff of 4th Infantry Division. He served at Le Cateau, then took part in the Retreat to the Seine and the battle of the Aisne, where the German Army was halted. He then moved north with the British Expeditionary Force to Flanders, taking part in the Battle of Armienteres in October 1914. In February 1915, he was promoted to brevet major and served as the Brigade Major with 10th Infantry Brigade. He was wounded during their counter-attack, on 25 April 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres.

In August 1915, he was one of three officers specially selected by Sir William Robertson to liaise with troops at the front and pass the information directly to the British General Headquarters. In January 1916, as a General Staff officer, he was sent by General Haig to investigate the first tanks or “caterpillars” being built in England. He attended the first trials of “Mother” and reported back to Haig on its success. During the summer of 1916, he was tasked to report back from the Somme, where the tanks were first used. He was appointed to head the Heavy Branch (the first tank units) of the Machine Gun Corps in France on 29 September 1916, with the temporary rank of Colonel. His responsibilities included its advanced training and tactical employment. He also commanded the large central depot and workshops established near Bermicourt.

Having seen the tanks achieve little success during the Third Battle of Ypres because of the exceptionally wet ground conditions of the Autumn 1917, he pressed Haig to use massed tanks on the drier, open ground at Cambrai. On 20 November 1917 he personally led 350 tanks into battle at Cambrai in a Mark IV tank called Hilda. He designed the Corps flag of brown, red and green silk, which he flew from his tank.

Elles continued to command the Tank Corps until Germany’s surrender in November 1918.

After the war, he commanded the Tank Corps Training Centre at Bovington from 1919–1923 and was Inspector of Tank Corps at the War Office. He then commanded the 9th Infantry Brigade being posted to HQ Eastern Command as Chief of Staff in August 1926. In 1930 he was appointed Director of Military Training at the War Office and then, in 1933, commanded 42nd (Territorial) Division for a few months. In April 1934, he was appointed Master-General of the Ordnance in the rank of Lieutenant General; he was also the head of the Mechanisation Branch for which his previous service made him particularly suitable. He retired in 1938 and in the early years of the Second World War, was chief of Civil Defence operational staff (June 1940). Later he was appointed South West Regional Commissioner based in Bristol and would have taken regional command of the resistance in the event of a German invasion and occupation of Britain.

Elles was married three times, his first two wives dying before him. He died in London on 11 July 1945

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