General Julian Byng was a member of a long established military family. He was the seventh son of George Byng, second earl of Strafford and the grandson of Field Marshal John Byng. He was also descended from Admiral John Byng, famously executed after failing to defend Minorca.
Despite his aristocratic background, Byng had a relatively impoverished upbringing, entering the army through the 2nd Middlesex militia. His family connections were in the highest places – his father was a friend of the prince of Wales, and in 1883 Byng joined the prince’s own regiment, the 10th Royal Hussars, joining them in India in March 1884.
Byng gained his first experience of battle during the rebellion in the Sudan. He was present at the second battle of El Teb (29 February 1884) and at the battle of Tamai (13 March 1884), both of which were British victories, but neither of which prevented the British evacuation of the Sudan. Byng was mentioned in dispatches during this campaign.
Byng now began to rise within his regiment. From 1886-1890 he was adjutant of the regiment, excelling in the role. He was promoted to captain in 1889. He then attended the Staff College at Camberley, graduating in 1894. After Camberley he served as a squadron leader, still in the 10th Royal Hussars, for three years, before becoming deputy assistant adjutant-general of the Aldershot Command. In 1898 he was promoted to major.
At the outbreak of the Second Boer War, Byng was sent to South Africa, where he was given command of the newly raised South African light horse. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Byng was able to adapt to the nature of the war in South Africa, rising from command of his regiment to command of a group of columns in the sweeps of the later years of the war. He was promoted to brevet lieutenant-colonel in November 1900 and brevet-colonel in February 1902, the month before he returned to Britain.
Between the end of the Boer War and the outbreak of the First World War, Byng continued his rise through the ranks. In 1902 he was given command of the 10th Hussars, based at Mhow in central India. In 1904 he formed and was the first commander of the Army Cavalry School at Netheravon. In 1905 he was appointed to command the 2nd cavalry brigade, then from 1907-1909 the 1st cavalry brigade. In April 1909 he was promoted to major-general on half pay, until a new command was found for him. In October 1910 he was appointed to command the East Anglian division of the territorial army. From October 1912 until the outbreak of the First World War he commanded the British army in Egypt.
At the outbreak of war Byng was recalled from Egypt and given command of the 3rd cavalry division of the BEF. This division played an important role during the first battle of Ypres. Here the mobility of the cavalry within the British lines allowed Byng’s men to rush between crisis points to help hold the line. However the expected breakthrough never came, leaving the cavalry largely without a role. In May 1915 Byng was appointed to command the entire cavalry corps, and given the temporary rank of lieutenant-general.
His time in command of the cavalry corps was short. In August 1915 he was appointed to command the 9th corps at Suvla (Gallipoli). On arrival at Suvla he soon realised that the situation was hopeless and began to plan for an evacuation. While many senior officers at Gallipoli were convinced that any evacuation would be a costly disaster, Byng was sure that a well planned evacuation could succeed without heavy losses. He was proved right, and the retreat from Gallipoli was probably the most successful part of the entire operation.
From Gallipoli Byng was sent to Egypt and then in February 1916 recalled to France to command the 17th corps. In May 1916 he was moved to the Canadian corps, where he would remain for just over a year, and received a permanent promotion to lieutenant-general. Here Byng was able to demonstrate his eye for detail and ability to plan successful offensives. He was also able to gain the trust of the Canadian corps, just as he had won over the South African light horse.
During his time in command the Canadian corps fought around Ypres and on the Somme, but its most famous exploit was the battle of Vimy Ridge (9-13 April 1917). This was one of the best planned operations of the entire war. Byng had his men construct twelve tunnels under the front line to protect his troops from German artillery. A scale model of the ridge was built, and as many men as possible taken to study it, so that every man would know his part in the upcoming attack. After a twenty day long artillery bombardment, Byng’s Canadians captured the ridge in the first assault.
In June 1917 Byng was promoted to command the Third Army. In his new post he was responsible for approving and helping to plan the battle of Cambrai (20 November-7 December 1917), the first major tank attack in history. Although the battle eventually failed to secure any real gains, on the first day the tanks had smashed a hole in the German lines, demonstrating the potential of armoured warfare.
In March 1918 the Germans launched the first of their series of great offensives (Second Battle of the Somme). Byng’s Third Army was attacked across the old Cambrai battlefield, but managed to hold its own. Only after the Fifth Army, to the south, began a retreat towards the Somme was Byng forced to order a rapid retreat on his right flank, in order to prevent a gap opening in the line.
By the middle of July the German offensives were effectively over, and the Allies were able to launch their own counterattack. Byng and the Third Army took part in the second phase of the Battle of Amiens, starting on 21 August. Over the next eighty days the Third Army advanced sixty miles, breaking through the Hindenburg Line on 27 September and capturing 67,000 prisoners before the armistice of 11 November.
After the war Byng was showered with honours. In 1919 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Byng of Vimy, was promoted to full general and received a grant of £30,000. He served as governor-general of Canada from 1921-1926, but despite his popularity in Canada refused to serve a second term. From 1928 to 1931 he was chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, where he began a series of long needed reforms, amongst them the introduction of of a system of promotion based on merit.
By the time of his death in 1935 Byng had been promoted to field marshal and to viscount. He had been a popular commander during the First World War. During the war he demonstrated a willingness and ability to plan his attacks that was not as widespread as it should have been, combined with a willingness to adopt new technology and tactics in an attempt to break the deadlock on the Western Front.