Sir William Bernard Hickie, British Army general, commander of the 16th (Irish) Division (1915–18) and an Irish nationalist politician, is born on May 21, 1865, at Slevoir, Terryglass, near Borrisokane, County Tipperary.
Hickie is the eldest son of Colonel James Francis Hickie, JP, of Slevoir, former commanding officer of the 7th Royal Fusiliers, and Lucila Calista (de Tejada) Hickie, daughter of Don Pablo Lariosy Herreros de Tejada of Laguna de Cameros, Castile. He is educated at St. Mary’s College, Oscott, before attending the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and is commissioned into the Royal Fusiliers in 1885, serving in Egypt and India.
A major at the outbreak of the Second Boer War in 1899, Hickie serves on the staff of Lieutenant-Colonel P. W. J. Le Gallais, commanding officer of the mounted infantry. On November 6, 1900, he is involved in an attempt to capture General Christiaan De Wet at the Battle of Bothaville, when a force led by Le Gallais and Lieutenant-Colonel Wally Ross storm De Wet’s camp. De Wet escapes, while a rearguard of 100 men engage the British force. In a fierce fight Le Gallais is killed and Wally Ross is badly wounded. Hickie decides to charge the Boer position and leads his small force forward just as reinforcements under Major-General C. E. Knox arrive. The Boers immediately surrender and some are found with explosive bullets. He wants to execute them immediately but Knox insists that they be tried. Exasperated with the whole affair, Hickie gives a highly critical interview after the action which is later published in The Times History of the War in South Africa (7 vols, 1900–09), edited by Leo Amery.
Hickie is promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel in 1901 and appointed deputy-assistant adjutant general of the 8th division (1903–06). In 1906, he is given command of the 1st battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. Promoted to colonel in 1912, he serves as assistant quartermaster general of the Irish command (1912–14) and is appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1914. On the outbreak of World War I, he is promoted to brigadier general and serves in Belgium and France in command of the adjutant’s and quartermaster-general’s department of II Corps. In this capacity, he is involved in the retreat following the Battle of Mons and during the First Battle of the Marne (September 1914). In December 1915, he is appointed to command the 16th (Irish) Division, with the rank of major general, replacing General Sir Lawrence W. Parsons. The division is based around a core of Redmondite National Volunteers, and Hickie, a Catholic and a home ruler, is an acceptable commander to John Redmond and other Irish nationalists.
Hickie is professional, politically adept, and popular with his men, and under his leadership the 16th is renowned for its aggressive fighting spirit. He commands the division during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and, while proud of his men’s success in capturing Guillemont and Ginchy (September 1916), is appalled by their losses. When the division is ordered to capture Messines (now Mesen) in June 1917, he gives Major Willie Redmond permission to advance as far as the first objective and, following Redmond’s death, reproaches himself bitterly. After this attack the division is transferred to the fifth army and provides assault troops for future attacks. During the Third Battle of Ypres, and especially during the attack on Langemarck in August 1917, the division suffers horrendous casualties, losing 221 officers and 4,064 men. Among the casualties is Fr. Willie Doyle, who Hickie unsuccessfully recommends for a Victoria Cross. The division’s losses at Langemarck are highlighted by Irish MPs in the House of Commons, and Hickie’s handling of the attack is criticised. By this time, nationalist disillusionment with the war means that few Irish replacements are available, and Hickie is forced to accept increasing numbers of non-Irish conscripts into the division. Worn down by years of command, his health finally breaks and, in February 1918, he is sent home on sick leave, being replaced by Major-General Sir Richard Amyatt Hull.
In 1918, Hickie is created a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) and is also awarded the French Croix de Guerre. During the Irish War of Independence (1919–21), he is critical of the methods used by Crown forces, denouncing in particular the indiscipline of the Black and Tans. In 1921 he retires from the army and becomes a prominent figure in the Royal British Legion in Ireland, tirelessly campaigning on behalf of ex-servicemen. In the 1920s he is involved with the Irish battlefield memorial committee, which erects memorial crosses at Wytschaete, Guillemont, and Salonika, commemorating the 10th and 16th divisions. He later serves as a senator of the Irish Free State (1925–36). Retiring from public life in 1936 to his residence at Terryglass, County Tipperary, he devotes his last years to gardening and reading.
Hickie dies on November 3, 1950, in Dublin, and is buried at Terryglass. He marries a daughter of the novelist Rev. J. O. Hannay, who predeceases him. There is a small collection of his papers in the National Library of Ireland (NLI).
(From: “Hickie, Sir William Bernard” by David Murphy, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie, October 2009)