Ulster commander who shared in the mud and the danger alongside his troops

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Major-General Louis Lipsett was the subject of one of the finest portraits by distinguished Dublin painter Sir William Orpen, a war artist during the Great War who correctly recognised the senior Ulster soldier as “a thoughtful, clever and quiet man, [who] was greatly respected”.

The Lipsetts had settled in south Donegal in the seventeenth century and were probably of German or Dutch Protestant stock.

William Orpen: portrait of Louis James Lipsett (1874-1918)

William Orpen: portrait of Louis James Lipsett (1874-1918)

The family name suggests they may even have been originally Jewish. They certainly possessed serious business acumen and prospered over the centuries.

Sarah Lipsett, Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s maternal grandmother, was one of these Lipsetts.

Richard Lipsett, Louis’ father, established the largest general store in Ballyshannon and served as chairman of the Ballyshannon Town Commissioners.

He married Esther Plews, the daughter of the traffic manager of the Great Northern Railway in Enniskillen.

Louis had been born on June 14, 1874, in Bundoran, and his father died aged 48 in 1880.

The young widow took her two young children to live with her mother’s family in Masham in Yorkshire.

Lipsett was educated first at Bedford School and then at Camberley prior to being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Irish Regiment (18th Foot) in October 1894.

Lipsett served in various colonial campaigns, on India’s North-West Frontier and the Second Boer War, and held a succession of staff appointments.

In 1911 Lipsett was posted to Western Canada as General Staff Officer to implement a policy agreed at the Imperial Conferences of 1907 and 1909, whereby military training was to be standardised throughout the Empire.

During this period he was responsible for training Arthur Currie, the future commander of the Canadian Corps during the Great War.

At the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 Lipsett was given command of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s 8th Battalion. He transformed it into one of the finest battalions in Currie’s western 2nd Infantry Brigade.

During the Second battle of Ypres (Ieper), this unit was the mainstay of the Canadian defence against the German assault on April 24, 1915 – the first occasion on which the Germans used chlorine gas on the western front.

Lipsett is credited with ordering men to urinate on their handkerchiefs and cotton bandoliers to provide primitive but successful protection against the gas.

The 8th Battalion managed to hold the line, an achievement for which Lipsett was widely admired.

Lipsett was subsequently appointed Currie’s successor as commander of 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade when the latter was given charge of 1st Canadian Division.

In June 1916, on the death of Major-General Malcolm Mercer, a prominent Canadian Orangeman, at the outset of German assault of Mount Sorrel, Lipsett became commander of the 3rd Canadian Division, where he remained until September 1918.

Lipsett and Mercer had a great deal in common.

Both were unmarried. Like Lipsett, Mercer was an efficient and capable organiser and trainer.

Unlike Lipsett, Mercer never got the opportunity to demonstrate the tactical skill which he had displayed in training and exercises.

The 3rd Canadian Division had been badly mauled in its first serious battle, but Lipsett licked it into shape and converted it into possibly the corps’ best division.

He led it through the battle of the Somme in 1916, at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917, at Passchendaele in October and November 1917, and at Amiens on August 8, 1918 (‘the Black Day of the German Army’).

Lipsett’s demanding training regime and his eager embrace of new tactics and technology transformed the costly failures of the Somme in 1916 into victories – admittedly still costly – at Amiens and at Drocourt-Quéant in August 1918.

The preliminary stages of the attack on the Drocourt-Quéant line on August 27 and 28, 1918, was Lipsett’s last engagement with the Division because at the beginning of September 1918 Arthur Currie and Douglas Haig, the commander of the BEF, agreed Lipsett’s transfer to command the 4th Division.

Currie was anxious that the Canadian Corps should be entirely officered by Canadians.

Although Lipsett was disappointed at the transfer, he acquiesced and threw himself energetically into commanding his new division during the closing stages of the Hundred Days Offensive.

On October 14, 1918 – less than a month before the end of the war – Lipsett and several of his staff officers crawled out from the Bois de Vordon to get a better view of the ground the 4th Division would traverse next day.

They were spotted and a German machine gun opened up on them from across the River Selle.

The party took cover but a single bullet struck Lipsett in the face.

He was able to stagger back to his own lines but there he collapsed from massive blood loss and never regained consciousness.

He was buried in Quéant Communal Cemetery.

The 3rd Canadian Division organized the funeral.

Lipsett’s old battalion provided both the band and firing party.

The Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) attended the funeral.

Currie led a strong contingent of Canadian mourners.

Lipsett was the 58th and last British general to die on the Western Front during the Great War – striking evidence that British generals did not spend the war in the safety of luxurious châteaux far removed the front and the hardships of their men.

Lipsett certainly had an excellent rapport with his troops. W R Bird, who served with the Black Watch of Canada, became a celebrated Canadian author after the war.

Bird, no natural respecter of authority, never forgot that on one occasion Lipsett joined him at a lonely front-line sentry post.

Ernest Davis, who served with the Central Ontario Regiment, recalled a derailment behind the lines. Lipsett’s staff car was the first that stopped: “This general got out of his car, organized everyone within reach into a rescue squad, all of us heaving at the derailed car, including the general himself... That one encounter told me that here was a general one could follow knowing he was not one of the remote kind, far above his men.”