Herbert Alexander Lawrence was born in 1861, the fourth son of Sir John Laird Mair Lawrence, a British imperial statesman and Viceroy of India, and his wife Harriette. He was educated at Harrow and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He was commissioned into the 17th Lancers in 1882, and was later appointed regimental adjutant, a post reserved for officers with a flair for administrative management.
In 1892 Lawrence married Isabel Mary Mills, daughter of the banker Charles Henry Mills, 1st Baron Hillingdon. They had two sons and a daughter together: Oliver, born in 1893; Michael, born in 1894; and Elizabeth, born in 1902.
After training at Staff College at Camberley from 1894 to 1896, Lawrence was appointed Staff Captain (Intelligence) at the War Office. During the South African War (1899-1902) he served on the intelligence staff of Sir John French’s cavalry division, and by the end of the war had risen to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel. In 1903, however, he was overlooked for the command of the 17th Lancers in favour of an officer who was his junior, Douglas Haig. He resigned his commission and returned to England, where he embarked on a career in the City of London.
Lawrence became a director of various companies including, from 1907, his wife’s family bank, Glyn, Mills, Currie & Co. Isabel’s brother Charles was forced by ill health to retire from the bank at around that time, and Lawrence, already developing a reputation in the City for sound business judgement, made a fitting replacement. He served alongside Isabel’s father, Charles, and brother, Algernon, as well as members of the Glyn and Currie families.
Outside work, Lawrence retained his connection with military affairs as an officer (commanding officer, 1904-9) of a volunteer regiment, King Edward’s Horse (King’s Colonials).
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the British army was desperate for experienced officers, and Lawrence rejoined in September 1914, becoming a General Staff Officer, grade 1, in the 2nd Yeomanry Division. He went with this unit to Egypt and then to Gallipoli. Within eleven months he rose from the rank of Major (retired) to Brigadier-General, and returned to Egypt, where he won an important victory at Romani.
Lawrence’s elder son Oliver, meanwhile, was on active service in France, and at the end of May 1915 news came that he had been killed in action at Festubert. Just over sixteen months later, Lawrence’s younger son, Michael, died of wounds received in action on the Somme. Both boys were 21 at the time of their deaths.
Around the time of Michael’s death, Lawrence’s career hit difficulties. He disagreed with plans to invade Palestine, and asked to be relieved of duty rather than carry them out. He returned to England, and – having lost favour by his actions – did not receive another fighting command until February 1917. That October, he was posted for the first time to the Western Front, where both his sons had been killed.
In January 1918, Lawrence received an unexpected promotion, becoming the army’s Chief Intelligence Officer. Within weeks he was promoted again, to Chief of the General Staff. He retained this post for the remainder of the war. He retired from the army with the rank of General in 1919.
Lawrence returned to Glyn, Mills, Currie & Co, and to various other company directorships. He also became a trustee of the Imperial War Graves Commission. In the ensuing years he took an active part in the bank’s growth, which saw it become Britain’s largest private bank by the 1930s. In 1934 he became its chairman, and in 1939 he negotiated its sale to The Royal Bank of Scotland.
General Lawrence died in 1943, two years after his wife Isabel.