Witwatersrand Rifles Regiment

Veterans' Club - History Archive

Major-General Sir John Edward Capper, KCB, KCVO

(Colonel J.E. Capper, Circa 1910)

Major-General Sir John Edward Capper, KCB, KCVO (7 December 1861 – 24 May 1955) was an engineering officer and the Commanding Officer of the Railway Pioneer Regiment.

General Capper was born in Lucknow, India to civil servant William Copeland Capper and his wife Sarah in December 1861. Returning to England at an early age for education, Capper attended Wellington College and upon leaving in 1880 enrolled in the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich and was subsequently commissioned into the Royal Engineers as a lieutenant. A capable engineering officer, Capper served in India and Burma for most of the first 17 years of his career, principally employed on military and public construction projects. He performed well in this position, being promoted to captain in 1889.

In 1897, Capper was attached to the force dispatched to the Tirah Campaign on the North-West Frontier of British India. At the campaign's successful conclusion, he was promoted to major and transferred to South Africa while his wife Edith Mary (neé Beausire) and their son John Beausire Copeland Capper returned to England. Arriving in South Africa at the outbreak of the Second Boer War, Capper became deputy assistant director of railways, a vital job given the lengthy and dangerous supply routes along which the war was fought. In 1900, he received the brevet rank of lieutenant colonel and commanded the Railway Pioneer Regiment, eventually becoming the commandant at Johannesburg. On 31 October 1902, he was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath.

Returning to England at the war's conclusion in 1903 he settled with his family at Bramdean House in Alresford, and was appointed Commander of the Balloon Sections, based at Aldershot under the command of Col James Templer. In 1906, having briefly become the Balloon Companies, the organisation became the School of Ballooning with Capper as its Commandant. At about the same time the Balloon Factory was split off and moved to a new site nearby at Farnborough and, on Templer's retirement, Capper also became its Superintendent and was given the brevet rank of full colonel. Templer was retained at the factory under Capper to complete the development Britain's first military airship, the Nulli Secundus ("second to none") in a purpose-built airship shed.

Capper not only supervised ballooning and airship activities, but also the man-lifting "war kites" developed by Samuel Franklin Cody and the early work on aeroplanes by both Cody and J. W. Dunne. During this period, in anticipation of the new airship, he joined in with the then popular sport of ballooning, flying in competitions initially as assistant to the Hon. C.S. Rolls and later with his own balloon "Pegasus" and his wife as assistant.

Capper piloted the first successful British airship flight, that of the Nulli Secundus over London during 1907. He also flew one of Dunne's gliders briefly, sustaining a cut to the head when it crashed into a wall. He went on to modify the airship as Nulli Secundus II, parodied by Punch as "second to none the second", and a smaller experimental airship called Baby. Neither was a success, although Baby would later be modified and have a long and successful career.

In 1909 the Army stopped its aeroplane activity. Soon afterwards the Balloon Factory was removed from the command of the Army and a new civilian superintendent, Mervyn O'Gorman, appointed. Capper remained in command of the Army Balloon School until 1910, when he was transferred to command of the Royal School of Military Engineering at Chatham, which he ran until September 1914 when the lack of experienced officers forced his transfer to France in the early months of the First World War.

When Dunne left Farnborough in 1909 he and his friends started a new company to develop his ideas. Capper remained closely involved and one of the new aeroplanes is sometimes referred to as the Dunne-Capper monoplane. The company, the Blair Atholl Syndicate, was dissolved in 1914.

As a brigadier-general, Capper was first made deputy inspector of the lines of communication before being given the post of Chief Engineer to the Third Corps. In July 1915 he was promoted to major-general and made chief engineer of the British Third Army. In October, following the deaths of several senior officers at the Battle of Loos, including Capper's younger brother Major-General Sir Thompson Capper, he was promoted to overall command of the 24th Division. Capper remained in command of the division for the next 18 months, including periods of heavy fighting at the Battle of the Somme, in which his son John was killed in action serving with the Royal Artillery. The division also spent extensive periods of time in other sections of the line and gained extensive battle experience at the cost of high casualties. As a reward for his service in command of the division, he was presented with the Commander's Cross of the Légion d'honneur by the French government.

In May 1917, he was recalled to England, initially to run the Machine-Gun Corps training centre and from 28 July hold the position of Director-General of the newly formed Tank Corps at the War Office. Operational command of tanks at the frontlines was in the hands of Hugh Elles, the first commander of the Heavy Branch. Although tanks had first been introduced on the Somme the year before, their design and manufacture were both inadequate and the tactics of their deployment almost non-existent. Capper's job at the Tank Corps was to shape the organisation of the unit into an efficient battlefield force, improve mechanical reliability and develop effective tactics. It was in this role that Capper was given the nickname Stone Age, as his subordinates considered him to be unwilling to accept new innovations in tank tactics. In fact, Capper was an able tactician who worked with General J. F. C. Fuller to develop a plan for a large scale armoured assault on German lines in 1919 (known as Plan 1919): his subordinates' prejudices were based on Capper's rigid adherence to the military hierarchy and his consequent failure to communicate his ideas to those below his rank. For his services as Director General of the Tank Corps, Capper was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath.

In July 1918, Capper left the War Office and commanded the 64th Division in England until May 1919, when he took over command of Number 1 Area in France and Flanders. In September 1919, Capper became Lieutenant-Governor of Guernsey and took over command of the island's military installations. He held the post for five years and during that time was made Colonel-Commandant of the Royal Tank Corps. On 11 July 1921, he was made a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. Retiring in 1925, Capper remained associated with the Tank Corps and also became a governor of Wellington College, associations he retained until 1946.

During the Second World War, Capper joined the Hampshire Home Guard and remained on duty with the unit until 1943. Post-War he retired fully to Bramdean House and remained there until shortly before his death. He was widowed in 1953 and died at Esperance Nursing Home in Eastbourne in May 1955, leaving a daughter. In 1971, his collected papers, and those of his brother Thompson, who had been an instructor at the Staff College, Camberley, were donated to the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King's College London where they are still available to researchers.


 He was awarded the following medals: 

  • Knight Commander of the Order of the bath (KCB)
  • Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO)
  • Commander's Cross of the Légion d'honneur by France
  • He was awarded various campaign medals for service during the First World war.

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