From bottle to battle: the bizarre tale of Somme commander PF Crozier

Frank Percy Crozier, thought to have been taken in roughly 1916
Frank Percy Crozier, thought to have been taken in roughly 1916

Historian Dr Gordon Lucy recounts the colourful life of former UVF commander Frank Percy Crozier – who overcame an alcohol problem, and the ignominious end of his first attempt at a military career, to become a stern and gung-ho commander of Ulster soldiers.

Frank Percy Crozier was the son of Major Burrard R. Crozier of the Royal Scots Fusiliers and Rebecca Frances Crozier (née Percy).

Sir Edward Carson, pictured inspecting UVF troops at Balmoral in 1912. Crozier's decision to join the UVF ultimately led him to the battlefields of the Somme.

Sir Edward Carson, pictured inspecting UVF troops at Balmoral in 1912. Crozier's decision to join the UVF ultimately led him to the battlefields of the Somme.

According to historian Charles Messenger, Crozier was born in Bermuda rather in India but, in truth, it is not clear where he was born.

Irrespective of his birthplace, he may be regarded as a child of Empire because he spent a very high proportion of his early life outside the United Kingdom.

He was educated at Wellington College in England but spent much of his childhood and early life at the home of an aunt in Castleknock, County Dublin, and the homes of other relatives in Counties Kerry, Westmeath and Limerick.

Following family tradition, he wished to join the Army but, to his great chagrin, he was deemed too short and too underweight.

He joined a volunteer corps (in which such considerations counted for less) in 1896 and went to Ceylon to become a tea planter in 1898.

He served in the Boer War in Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, a unit raised by Captain Alec Thorneycroft, a friend of Burrard Crozier.

In South Africa, he saw action in the disastrous engagement at Spion Kop and participated in the relief of Ladysmith. He succeeded in obtaining a commission.

He then served with the West Africa Frontier Force – mainly in Nigeria, where he developed a drink problem after a severe bout of malaria.

In 1907 he went on half-pay and in 1908 he went into the reserve. In 1909 he was obliged to resign his commission on account of a trail of bouncing cheques.

He emigrated to Canada where he took up farming and trapping.

MOVE TO THE UVF:

Towards the end of 1912, because of the Ulster crisis, he took up command of the Special Service Section of the West Belfast Regiment of Edward Carson’s UVF.

The smartness and discipline of his Shankill Road boys was widely admired, especially since they were neither renowned for docility nor awe of strangers.

The only sanction Crozier possessed over them was the threat of dismissal, as historian ATQ Stewart explained: “Rather than face the disgrace of having his rifle and uniform taken from him, and having women and children call after him in the street, a special volunteer would make any sacrifice, even to giving up drink.”

Both in the UVF and in the Army, Crozier exhibited all the zeal of the reformed alcoholic.

He clearly relished the excitement and drama of the third Home Rule crisis, and once said: “I slept nightly with a loaded revolver by my side and a button within reach, ready to press to raise a general alarm and explode land-mines and give signals.”

RETURN TO BRITISH ARMY:

Crozier went to France as second-in-command of the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles (West Belfast Volunteers).

Had the military authorities realised that he was the officer who been obliged to resign for dishonouring cheques in 1909, he may well have been denied a commission.

Despite this he secured fairly rapid promotion: in 1914 he was a retired major, by 1915 he was a lieutenant-colonel and after the Somme he became a brigadier-general.

He took over the command of the 9th Royal Irish Rifles from Lieutenant-Colonel GS Ormerod, because the latter was approaching 60 and was in poor health.

Crozier had a reputation as a stern disciplinarian, but he had little choice in the matter because the men under his command needed a firm hand as discipline did not come naturally to them.

For example, crossing over to France in October 1915, several members of 9th Royal Irish Rifles were accused of having stolen drink from the ship’s bar.

He lined up the men on quayside, reprimanded them and had the cost of the stolen alcohol deducted from their pay.

If Crozier was a stern disciplinarian, so too was Major-General Nugent, the Ulster Division’s commanding officer.

According to some accounts, the quality of the Ulster Division’s battalions varied widely.

Crozier thought that the 9th Royal Irish Rifles (West Belfast Volunteers) and the 10th Royal Irish Rifles (South Belfast Volunteers) were competent units, but that the 8th Royal Irish Rifles (East Belfast Volunteers) and the 15th Royal Irish Rifles (North Belfast Volunteers) were not.

Nugent, on the other hand, was dissatisfied with five Belfast battalions.

He attributed poor discipline to weak leadership and he did not mince his words in saying so.

Nugent had inefficient officers in 107th Brigade replaced in the autumn of 1915.

In his memoirs, “A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land”, Crozier recorded that Nugent had berated officers in an episode which he said he would “always treasure in my mind as the complete example of what can be said by the powerful to the powerless in the shortest space of time possible, consistent with the regulation of words for breathing, in the most offensive, sarcastic and uncompromising manner possible”.

Crozier held Nugent in high esteem, regarding him as a highly-competent commander who tried to ensure “objectives would be taken with as little loss as possible”.

The same be said of Crozier with respect to casualties.

CRITICISM OF CASULATY RATES:

Second Lieutenant JL Stewart-Moore of 12th Royal Irish Rifles was disparaging about Crozier’s enthusiasm for raids on the enemy’s trenches.

He said: “Their object was supposed to be the maintenance of an offensive spirit, but so far as I could see they never achieved anything on our part of the front.”

He said Crozier would send out patrols “to no purpose except to show off” and dismissed him as “a callous and overbearing martinet”.

On occasion he could be surprisingly sympathetic and understanding.

One night on his rounds (as he recounts in his memoirs), he found one of his company commanders drunk and asleep in his dugout.

He chose not to report the otherwise brave and popular officer (who had been mentioned in dispatches in June 1916) but requested that Gaffiken give up drink for the duration of the war – which he did, until his death following the opening day of the Somme.

On eve of the Somme offensive, Crozier and Colonel HC Bernard of 10th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles (South Belfast Volunteers) sat listening to a solitary nightingale in Aveluy Wood, during a lull in the artillery duel between British and German gunners.

They discussed their orders for the next day.

Both men decided to disregard instructions not to go over the top with their men – the only two battalion commanders in the Division to do so.

Crozier thought “this whole idea” of remaining in the rear was “repulsive” and that it “cuts across the foundations of mutual trust, emphasized in training, between private soldier and officer”.

Nugent was absolutely furious with Crozier and Bernard’s disobedience, writing that Crozier had shown “rank disobedience of orders, [and] should be court-martialled.” (Bernard himself was mortally wounded in the battle).

JULY 1, 1916 – THE SOMME:

At 8 o’clock on July 1 Crozier and his battalion had emerged from Thiepval Wood and were confronted with “the heaped up masses of British corpses suspended on the German wire”.

Crozier searched for Bernard, and found that the colonel and most of his two leading companies had been killed by mortar fire as they came out of the wood.

The remnant of Bernard’s battalion of the 10th Royal Irish Rifles had gone to ground in desperation and refused to move until Crozier drew his revolver and threatened to shoot.

Fifty years later Malcolm McKee, a soldier who had been present, could still recall Crozier standing in no man’s land like “a tiger”, which – at the time – gave McKee “a feeling of glee that we were in the battle together”.

By late afternoon most of Crozier’s officers were dead.

Crozier records in his memoirs: “I send for 12 more who have been held in reserve, to swell the corpse roll. Other reinforcements are thrown into the melting pot for a similar result.”

The cost was enormous.

Out of 700 men in his West Belfast Battalion, Crozier was left with 70.

Nugent had reservations about recommending Crozier for promotion after the Somme “owing to his roughness and the ruthless way in which he handled his men”, but overcame his hesitation.

Crozier had a reputation as “a thruster”, a commander who obtained results but often at the cost of very heavy losses. For example, his brigade at the Battle of Estaires (April 9-11 1918) lost half its men.

Crozier’s military career closed with him in command of the 40th Division.

After the war he went on to join to the Labour Party, embraced pacifism, and become an admirer of Ghandi, dying in 1937. However, those are stories for another day!