Hero in war, hopeless in politics

A report in The Daily Telegraph on November 29 about a famous First World War painting prompted the following letter from Alistair Lexden, which was published on December 3 in the centre of the page with a picture of the painting in question.


SIR - Nothing could be more fitting than the re-creation of Sir Alfred Munnings’s most famous First World War painting in the year of its centenary (‘’Rein supreme”, report, 29 November).

Major-General Jack Seely sits aside his magnificent horse Warrior after the Battle of Moreuil Wood in March 1918, the scene of a great cavalry charge, when victory in that terrible conflict still seemed remote. It was a poignant moment: never again would horses play a prominent part in warfare in Western Europe.

Seely combined immense bravery with utter political incompetence. He was sacked as war secretary a few months before the start of the Great War for amending a key document after the Cabinet had approved it. In 1935, following several meetings with Hitler, he told the House of Lords that Germany had a leader who was “absolutely truthful, sincere and unselfish”.

He was at Harrow with Churchill, who was devoted to him. In June 1940 he presented himself at No 10 in the full dress uniform of a Lord Lieutenant and handed in a message which read: “Hampshire is behind you”. Churchill’s Private Secretary, Jock Colville, recorded in his diary: “I gave the Prime Minister the message. He shook with laughter as he read it and then, quite suddenly, he wept.”

Lord Lexden
London SW1 


The following day a letter of protest was published from two of Seely’s grandsons. They began: “Quite what prompted as grand a historian as Lord Lexden to attack our grandfather Jack Seely defeats us”. They took issue with the view that he had shown “utter political incompetence”, but did not dispute the accuracy of the specific criticisms made of him. They pointed out that the picture had been painted before, not after, the Battle of Moreuil Wood, and that Churchill and Seely had not been Harrow contemporaries. Churchill arrived at Harrow after Seely had left, affection for their school later becoming one of the bonds between them. The main concern of Seely’s grandsons, however, was to stress that he was “a lovely, kind, intelligent, brave and wonderful man”. On that, opinions differ.