Idle Fermanagh schoolboy who became one of our foremost military historians

Fifty years after his death GORDON LUCY on the life of Cyril Falls, author of the history of the 36th (Ulster) Division

Monday, 26th April 2021, 9:03 am
The publication in 1922 of ‘The History of the 36th (Ulster) Division’ opened the door for Cyril Falls to enjoy a career as military historian, author and correspondent

The 36th (Ulster) Division was extremely fortunate in its official historian because Cyril Falls was to become one of the finest British military historians of the first half of the 20th century.

Sir Michael Howard (1922-2019), who was widely regarded as the United Kingdom’s foremost military historian in the second half of the 20th century, contended that ‘The History of the 36th (Ulster) Division’ ‘contains some of the finest descriptions of conditions on the western front in the literature of the war’.

Although Falls was born on March 2 1888 in Dublin, he grew up in Co Fermanagh. He was the elder son of Charles Fausset Falls and Clare Bentham. C F Falls, an Enniskillen solicitor, was a leading Fermanagh unionist. He organised the selection of the Fermanagh delegates to the Ulster Unionist Convention of 1892, was involved in organising the signing of the Ulster Covenant in the county in 1912 and was the commander of the 3rd battalion of the Fermanagh Regiment of the UVF. Between 1924 and 1925 Sir Charles Falls was one of the two Unionist MPs for Fermanagh and Tyrone, a double-member constituency, at Westminster.

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Cyril Falls served with the 36th (Ulster) Division and lobbied to write its history after World War One

Falls’ family background gave him a full and sensitive appreciation and understanding of the origins of the Ulster Division and events leading up to its formation.

Cyril Falls was educated at Bradfield College, Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, the University of London and abroad. As a boy he had a reputation of being extremely idle and he told his friends that he never did well in examinations. But he read widely, especially history.

He was removed from school for a year when he had a severe attack of rheumatism, and, during this time, was supposed to study with the headmaster of Enniskillen Model School. However, he spent his time in the open air, shooting and fishing and riding in turn all the horses of an Enniskillen horse dealer and sailing Lough Erne, sometimes single handed when his father was not available. His education does not appear to have suffered and his health improved greatly.

At the outbreak of the Great War Cyril Falls was working as a clerk in the Foreign Office. Both he and his father – then 50 – took commissions in the 11th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (Donegal & Fermanagh Volunteers). His younger brother, Leslie, enlisted in the 10th Division ‘simply because it was the first formed and, having hurried home from Canada, did not wait to join us’.

Cyril Falls served as a General Staff officer with both the 36th and the 62nd Divisions. He also was a liaison officer with the French. An ardent Francophile, this proved to be an inspired appointment. He liked the French generals and staff officers and they liked him. He was mentioned in dispatches twice and awarded the Croix de Guerre with two citations.

Falls indicated that if he survived the war he would like to record its history. After the war he was given the opportunity to do so, being employed to write ‘The History of the 36th (Ulster) Division’. The book was dedicated to the memory of two fellow officers: Harry Gallagher DSO, who was killed at the Battle of Messines on June 7 1917, and George Bruce DSO MC, brigade major of the 109th Brigade, who was killed on October 2 1918 near Dadizeele.

The book – published in 1922 – greatly impressed Sir James Edmonds, head of the Historical Section (Military Branch) of the Committee of Imperial Defence, so much so that he offered Falls a place on his staff, first as assistant historian and subsequently as senior historian.

Between 1923 and 1939 the section employed Falls and during that period he authored the official histories of the British campaigns in Egypt and Palestine (1928) and Macedonia (1933) and the volume dealing with the German Retreat to the Hindenburg Line and the Battle of Arras – the first volume dealing with the events of 1917 on the Western Front.

In December 1939 he succeeded Captain Basil Liddell Hart as the military correspondent of The Times. For some 15 years Falls had been an occasional contributor to The Times and the Times Literary Supplement. During the Second World War he wrote a long series of well-informed commentaries on the strategic and tactical aspects of operations. In writing these he was assisted by friends who held senior appointments on the General Staff who knew they could rely absolutely on Falls’ discretion.

He also delivered two very prestigious lecture series during the Second World War. In 1941 he gave the Lees Knowles lectures at Cambridge, taking the methods of modern war as his subject. The following year he delivered the Ludwig Mond lectures at Manchester University, his theme being ‘War: Science, Art or Business?’

In 1946 he became Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford, a position which he retained until 1953, the year he retired as military correspondent of The Times. He greatly enjoyed meeting and teaching undergraduates who had served in the Second World War.

Falls was a prolific author. His many books included ‘Mountjoy – Elizabethan General’, ‘The Gordon Highlanders in the First World War’, ‘The First World War’, ‘The Art of War from the Age of Napoleon to the Present Day’, ‘Armageddon, 1918’ and ‘Caporetto, 1917’. ‘Caporetto’ remains the best book in English (and possibly in any other language) on the Italian campaign.

Falls was a modest and unassuming man with wide interests. In addition to a vast knowledge of both English and French literature, he was well informed about music, riding, sailing, shooting and racing. He retained his membership of Enniskillen Rugby Club and The Yacht Club, was vice-president of the Military History Society of Ireland and was a keen Mason. He died on April 23 1971 at Walton on Thames.