Lieutenant General Richard Turner, V.C.
2nd Canadian Division
We are all very tired from days and nights of endless strain – with no sleep. I had men killed by enemy fire actually at the door of the house where my H.Q.’s was-to get to the Signal Dug Out-we knocked a hole in one side of the house, as it was too dangerous to pass outside.
(Gen. Turner diary, 3 May 1915)
On 7 November 1900, Richard Ernest William Turner drove off an attack by Boer fighters near the Komati River. For his gallantry that day he was one of three Canadians to earn the Victoria Cross. Born in Quebec on 25 July 1871, Turner was the son of a Quebec politician and businessman. After his return from South Africa, Turner remained active in the Canadian militia until moving to the reserve list in 1912. At the outbreak of the Great War, he was recalled to service and appointed brigadier general.
Turner commanded the 3rd Infantry Brigade during the 1st Canadian Division’s introduction to trench warfare at Ypres in April 1915. While his bravery under fire was unquestioned, his performance as a battlefield general had been uneven at best. His superior, Lieutenant General Edwin Alderson, felt him unsuited to command but Turner received a promotion major general of the 2nd Canadian Division in August 1915.
Alderson opposed the appointment but remarked “that Canadian politics have been too strong for all of us and so he has got it.” Fellow Boer War veteran, militia minister Sam Hughes actively advocated for Turner’s advancement and his status as a Victoria Cross winner made his removal politically untenable.
After Turner’s division suffered heavy setbacks at the battle of St. Eloi Craters in April 1916, Alderson sought his dismissal from command. Instead, Alderson was replaced by Julian Byng as corps commander in June, and Turner kept his post until December, when he was replaced by Major General Henry Burstall.
On 5 December 1916, Turner assumed command of the Overseas Military Forces of Canada Headquarters in London. When Byng was promoted, Turner expected he would be next in line to return to France as the new Canadian Corps Commander. The position instead went to Arthur Currie although Turner was elevated to lieutenant general as well to retain his rank seniority.
On 18 May 1918, Turner became Chief of the General Staff for the OMFC but never commanded troops in combat again.
He died in Quebec on 19 June 1961.
Further Reading: William Stewart, The Embattled General Sir Richard Turner and the First World War (MQUP, 2015)