Nowadays the once-great names of that war are mostly quite unknown - bar one. The exception, of course, is Field-Marshal Lord Haig, who continues to attract some of the most sickening and mendacious essays in biography ever to reach public print. We would be better off without such travesties, and such ridiculous concentration on one man, who is made the scapegoat for all the War's evils. By contrast, there is one name that we hear and remember much too rarely, that of 'Wully' Robertson.
Field-Marshal Sir William Robertson Bart., GCB. KCVO, DSO deserves rescue from oblivion for two compelling reasons: who he was, and what he was.
Who was he? He was the only man in the Army's history to enlist as a private soldier and end as a Field-Marshal - the whole long haul from bottom to top. He was unique.
What was he? For two hard years in the hardest part of the war he was the Army's top soldier, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. He was to the field commanders to Haig in France and Murray and Allenby in Palestine, Maude and Marshall in Mesopotamia, Smuts and van Deventer in East Africa and Monro in India, what Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke in the next war was to Wavell and Auchinleck and Maillam Wilson in the Middle East, to Montgomery in north-western Europe and to Leese and Slim in Burma. Robertson and Alanbrooke were the masters of the field generals. Men with such responsibilities as those should not be forgotten. What sort of a man was William Robertson?
He was born on 29 January 1860 and christened William Robert. His birthplace was Welbourn, a quiet little village not far from Lincoln - and only those who knew Lincolnshire before it became part of the great Anglo-American aircraft-carrier in the 1940s can appreciate just how quiet that could be.
There was nothing whatever of the military in his family connections. His father - Thomas Charles Robertson - was the Welbourn postmaster and also the village tailor. William's mother, Ann Robertson, had a strong firm character; she was a deeply religious person who profoundly influenced her son (and I would imagine his four sisters and two brothers also). William was devoted to her, though he did not always do as she would have wished.
All of the Robertson children went to the village school. Wully liked school: he was an avid reader; he particularly liked maps and geography; he had a certain aptitude for drawing and he wrote well. He left school when he was thirteen years old - that was normal for a village boy; by that time he was a monitor, which meant keeping a sharp eye on the younger children and even teaching some of them for the princely salary of sixpence a week.
The biographers of people of humble origin - I only know of one biography of William Robertson, Victor Bonham-Carler's Soldier True published by Frederick Muller in 1963, which I heartily recommend - these biographers usually face a very serious difficulty: the sheer absence of information about lives which it never occurred to their families or friends to record, even if they had known how to set about doing such a thing. So we don't know much about the next part of William Robertson's life. We do know that his first job was as garden boy to the clergyman who ran the school; this enabled him to push his education a little further, a chance he was not likely to miss. He then went to work for another cleric, but in what capacity we do not know. But two years after leaving school we find him quite definitely serving as a footman at Deene Park in Northamptonshire, the home of the Brudenell family, whose most famous member was the 7th Earl of Cardigan, the one who had led the celebrated charge of the Light Brigade al Balaclava in 1854 and who died in 1868. But all we know about Robertson's life at Deene is his own remark in later years: 'I was a damn bad footman'. On 13 November 1877 he joined the Army, and after four unsettled years his story became one of steady, continuous progress along a single road.
The Victorian Army, the army of the red-coats (with some very fancy variations, especially in the cavalry), an army of rigid class division, rigid discipline, rigid drill, rigid administration, seems a world away from us now. Change worked slowly, and is at limes hard to perceive, but in fact the Army that Robertson joined was an army in transition British history seems to tell us that the normal pattern for the Army is to stagnate and decline between wars until some disaster wakes even-one up and restores life to the organism. The Crimean War, coming just about the middle of the nineteenth century, was such a disaster.
Indeed, it was so much of a disaster that reform began even while it was still being fought far reaching, administrative reforms in 1854 and 1855 which at last gave Britain a properly responsible War Department. This laid a sound foundation, but it hardly touched the character of the Army itself - its ability to carry out the tasks required of it. In fact, there was considerable confusion as to what those tasks were. It was Mr Edward Cardwell, who became Secretary of State for War in Gladstone's first administration in 1868, who first tackled these questions. He was a brave man. Can yon imagine the ferocious resistance which must have arisen to abolishing the old numbered regiments and replacing them by territorial designations? To this day there are officers who still refer to the numbers, and they live on even in the present amalgamated formations. Not content with this hornet's nest, Cardwell also abolished the notorious purchase system, by which commissions could be obtained by men of no military experience or quality - some of them mere boys - for regulated sums of money. Every intelligent soldier knew that this must be a fatal barrier to professionalism, but Cardwell had to fight every inch of the way - including a royal warrant - to drag the Army out of the eighteenth century to achieve this essential progress in 1871.
When Will Robertson look the Queen's shilling six years later the Army was still in the process of digesting - with some difficulty - Mr. Cardwell's reforms; in any case a seventeen-year-old recruit was not much concerned with officers and their affairs. Yet the greeting he received does not at all match the general picture of harsh reaction that is often presented as the Victorian Army. He enlisted in Worcester, but to join his regiment he had to go to Aldershot, and this involved a delay of four days; the War Office paid him two shillings and a halfpenny a day for board and lodgings - an odd sum, but as he says in his autobiography, it was 'no doubt arrived at by Her Majesty's Treasury after careful calculation', and he goes on:-
The recruiting sergeant, a kindly disposed individual, took possession of the whole sum, giving me in return excellent, if homely, accommodation and food at his own house.
Robertson's book has a title which no-one else can match: From Private to Field-Marshal. It came out in 1921, and it tells us a good deal about the man he later became, though not as much as we should like about the boy he had once been. Yet even that one sentence, precise in detail, displays the dry stone-faced humour which was characteristic of the 'other ranks' of his day, and which he never lost. The regiment he had selected to join - sadly, we know not why - was the 16th (the Queen's) Lancers; he presented himself accordingly at the West Cavalry Barracks, Aldershot, on a 'wet and dreary November evening'. Forty years later he recalled that:
the first people I met were the 'orderly officer' and the regimental sergeant-major, both of whom showed a sympathetic interest in me.
It was a good start, and it continued; he was at once posted to 'G' Troop, commanded by a Captain Henry Graham who was, he says,
one of the most kind-hearted men under whom it has been my lot to serve. His subaltern, Lieutenant 'Freddy' Blair, was somewhat of a terror to all shirkers and wrong-doers in the troop, but I have no recollection of having been on his black list; and I am sure that neither of us then thought that forty-one years later .... he would be my military secretary. But so it turned out.
Robertson was no doubt lucky - but how lucky? Was the 16lh Lancers an exceptional regiment? If so, what made it exceptional? He speaks just as warmly of his next regiment, the 3rd Dragoon Guards. Others speak of their own regiments in the same way - but 'others', of course, were different; they were officers themselves; Robertson was a ranker, and his impression of the officers he encountered - the men who could make or break a regiment - therefore has a special value. Discipline being as stern as it was - Cardwell had succeeded in abolishing flogging in peace time, but not until 1881 was it done away with altogether - even as dutiful a soldier as Robertson was hauled up for what the Army called 'crimes'. Captain Graham was an officer with enough good sense to distinguish between a bad hat with a criminal disposition and mere youthful inexperience and so, just over a year after he joined the 16th Lancers, says Robertson, the captain took advantage of the temporary absence of the colonel to recommend me to the acting commanding officer for promotion to lance-corporal, thus obtaining for me the first step towards the rank of Field-Marshal.
Within a few months, just over nineteen years old, he put up a second stripe. He was on his way.
It is quite clear from what he writes that his problems in those early days did no stem from his officers (the colonel was not over-keen on him, but he did not make an issue of it, and in any case he left in due course). The soldiers among whom young Will Robertson served were a different matter. The old soldiers, enlisted for twenty-one years still predominated in the regiments, and they were, generally speaking, a rough lot of men addicted to heavy drinking and hard swearing. Robertson tells us:
They could not well be blamed for this. Year in and year out they went through the same routine, were treated like machines - of an inferior kind - and having little prospect of finding decent employment on the expiration of their engagement, lived only for the present ... These rugged veterans exacted full deference from the recruit, who was assigned the worst bed in the room, given the smallest amount of food and the least palatable, had to 'lend' them articles of kit which they lost or sold, 'fag' for them in a variety of ways and, finally, was expected to share with them at the regimental canteen such cash as he might have in the purchase of beer sold at threepence a quart.
Faced with an existence which could easily become fairly brutal and a discipline which was always close to the borderline of cruelty - both somewhat eased by the two bright stripes on his arm - there was something far worse for young Will Robertson to bear in those early days. His first letter from the mother he loved and so greatly respected ran as follows:
My very Dear Boy,.. you never could Mean what you put in your Letter on Sunday ... and what cause have you for such Low Life ... you have as Good Home as any one else in our Station ... you have kind and Loving Sisters ... you know you are the Great Hope of the Family ... if you do not like Service you can do something else ... there are plenty of things Steady Young Men can do when they can write and read as you can ... [the Army] is a refuge for all Idle people ... I shall name it to no one for I am ashamed to think of it... I would rather Bury you than see you in a red coat...
It is a powerful letter, full of true grief and at the same time boiling over with the fixed beliefs of a large majority of working-class people. It must have hurt him a lot, to read it. Some soldiers, when their families responded like that to their enlistment, just cut themselves off and never had anything further to do with their mothers and fathers.
Robertson did not react in that manner; he never lost his devotion to his mother. She, for her part, became at first reconciled and then actually proud of her determined son as, with the aid of sympathetic and helpful officers, he continued his long, slow climb: Corporal in April 1879, Lance-Sergeant in May 1881 (thus, as he says, becoming a member of the sergeants' mess and terminating my barrack-room life with the men' - it was a milestone), then full Sergeant in January 1882 ('by far the youngest of that rank in the regiment', he says, 'both in age and service'), and in March 1885, only 25 years old and with seven years' service behind him, he became Troop Sergeant-Major. That left only one more non-commissioned rank to be gained: Regimental Sergeant-Major - and to obtain that he would have to wait for a dead man's shoes. Alternatively, he could become a Riding-master or a Quartermaster, both of which carried commissions, but both were dead-end jobs. He had reached a moment of decision.
He continued as Troop Sergeant-Major for three years, well esteemed by his officers, by the other members of the sergeants' mess and, as far as we can tell, by the troopers too. But what of the future? One thing comes over quite clearly from his story, and must have been equally clear to him at the time: he was cut out for a soldier. There is no suggestion anywhere that he thought of leaving the Army. But his own ability had brought him very early to a full-stop; the only way forward from it was the hardest of all.
Normally, in the 1880s, there were fewer than half a dozen promotions from the ranks to commissioned status each year. The chief obstacle, of course, was money. The lowest commissioned rank - 2nd Lieutenant - pulled a salary of just under ?100 a year, that is, below ?2 a week. For many of the working classes, that would be considered not a bad sum. Even 40-50 years later, when I was a boy, ?5 a week was considered very good pay; ?10 a week was a far-off ambition, and ?1,000 a year was wealth that one scarcely dared to dream about. Of course, on paper the 2nd Lieutenant's pay compared well with the private soldier's average of ?18,0.5d a year (with ?7,3.3d deducted that meant under ?1 a month - Field-Marshal Lord Carver says that 'The only wage-earner worse off in real terms was the Irish farm-labourer' - but in fact the officer's unavoidable expenses made him bankrupt before he started. This distressing fact was disguised by private income. William Robertson told his father that this would have to be a minimum of ?300 a year, which many would describe as a very conservative figure, but was, in any case, quite out of reach. Cavalry regiments were the most expensive of all (including the Guards) because their officers were expected to provide at least one charger - i.e. a horse of high quality which would have to be kept in that condition - for themselves, and would also generally require at least two hunters and probably three polo ponies. There was also what Robertson calls 'an absurd amount of costly uniform to be purchased'. Officers had to make substantial contributions to the regimental band, and there was a constant round of entertainment by the Officers' Mess. Even in a line infantry regiment, Mess bills alone would be at the very least ?10 a month, which already added up to a good deal more than a full year's pay. But Robertson did not waste any time thinking about infantry because, as he says, 'I could not entertain the idea of leaving my old arm, the cavalry.' So, taking all this into account, he 'decided that I must give up all idea of realising my ambition, and I did.'
This also must have been a bitter moment, like reading that first letter from his mother. But once more there was a happy sequel; and once more it was much assisted by his officers, now including a new CO, Colonel Maillard, who all gave him encouragement Robertson obtained the necessary First Class Certificate of Education without much difficulty, and Maillard promised to get him posted to a regiment serving in India, when the pay would be higher and the expenses less than at home. Thus,'says Robertson, 'the die was cast.' On 27 June 1888, 28 years old, he was gazetted Second Lieutenant in the 3rd (Prince of Wales's) Dragoon Guards. Colonel Maillard presented him with a sword one of his troop officers filled him out with saddlery, the Sergeants' Mess gave him a silver-mounted dressing-case, and many who could afford nothing more gave their best wishes. He wrote of this momentous break with his past:
The 16th Lancers had become a home to me, and I am proud to think that I once had the honour of serving in so distinguished a regiment.
I wonder what Welbourn made of it all.
There now remained one more hurdle to clear: the class system and the purgatories that it could inflict in those days, especially in a tradition-bound institution like the Army. As he told his mother, the new world that he now entered could have a chilly look. His first posting was to Hythe, while he waited for a passage to Bombay, ant there he filled in time with a refresher course at the School of Musketry. He described his arrival - one day early - in a letter to his mother:
Well I could not pluck up sufficient courage to go to the Officers' Mess that night, so I took up my abode in the town until the next night when I had to go. Well I got on middling but wished myself home a good many times, indeed I never remember leaving home more depressed than this time. You see its all amongst strangers - strangers in more ways than one. The next day I got on better and am now very fairly settled and comfortable. The officers who now know me are very nice, but its a difficult business because you see I feel I am acting under a false flag if they do not know my previous life. However I always out with it if occasion demands, so it will soon be known throughout the school and then I shall be all right because of knowing to whom they are talking ... Of course I should like a bit more companionship during my walks but that will come in time, anyway, it does not much matter as I do not care much about it at any time, only one is liable to despondency with too much of one's own company.
It is a very revealing letter - a good deal more revealing than his autobiography in matters of personal feeling. That generation, particularly, in the Services, was usually fairly tight-lipped about its feelings. But this letter reveals a well-established 'loner'. A young man used to going his own way in his own company except when involved in the community of the regiment. The quality must have been in him from schooldays and is an explanation of the restless four years between school and Army, when the lad was finding his way. It also explains why, in his otherwise informative and reflective first chapter of life in the ranks, there is no mention of any special friend or 'chum', which is unusual Soldiers normally went in pairs; they were encouraged to - it was a safety precaution in foreign parts, and gave reassurance in battle. But not for Will Robertson. And the commission emphasised, rather than diminished this characteristic; elsewhere in the letter I have just quoted he says:
I have just been asked by a very nice officer to go over to Folkestone with him this afternoon, on the impulse I assented. Well that was wrong. If I go there, money will be spent and a Sunday spent wrong, so I have made escape and do not intend going.
Even in India, the Promised Land of 'ranker' officers, where as long as they behaved themselves they could just about live on their pay, and where Robertson arrived at the end of that year (1888), these restrictions and solitude accompanied him. When he joined his new regiment, the 3rd Dragoon Guards, he received, he says,
a most friendly welcome from all members of the officers' mess, which at once dispelled the anxiety I had felt as to the nature of the reception that would be accorded me ...
However, a letter survives which he wrote to his father, conveying a rather different impression of his new surroundings:
Let me hear soon how you all are, it is so miserable out here - you don't know - to be wondering how you all are. I'd much rather be sure of hearing the bad news as well as the good as not to know whether you are all right or not... I'm afraid I do not remember how often I must feel cut off from all friendship. So far as I know, not once has any one in my present sphere taken offence at being in my company, but there is much difference between this and sincere mutual interest; this cannot naturally be between a born gentleman and one who is only now beginning to try to become one. In the midst of the highest society one's thoughts fly back to far off Welbourn and its well remembered little bits of domestic life of my early days. There I see real love, whilst here amid all the gaiety and apparent friendship I feel that were I not an officer tomorrow, there would be perhaps none to recognise me.
Perhaps that was just a bad day. But there are some things that are difficult to put right out of mind and which make themselves felt in a very acute manner; he tells us:
Water was the only drink I could afford, while for smoking I had to be content with a fixed amount of tobacco and cheroots at two shillings a hundred. It was not altogether agreeable to be seen drinking water at mess when others were drinking champagne, or to defer smoking till leaving the mess because pipes were not allowed, but it had to be done.
There were rewards for this enforced virtue, as he discovered, though he claimed no credit for it. One was physical fitness in a climate that could easily do great damage to Europeans - soldiers not least. He won prizes in competition with the whole Army -British and Indian - for tent-pegging, swordsmanship and fencing, and in 1894 the chief prize of all, for 'best officer-at-arms'. And at the same time he worked hard to increase his pay by obtaining language certificates, no fewer than six of them: Hindi, Urdu, Persian Punjabi and Pushtu. Pushtu presented a problem, because the munshi who tested him in conversation insisted on discussing the nature of the Holy Trinity. Even a sound religious upbringing left him somewhat at a loss in a case like this, and he had to take that exam again, fortunately with a new munshi. So that made five languages, and he added a sixth -Gurkhali - while travelling with a Gurkha orderly on the frontier. It was not long before he stood in for the adjutant when that important man fell ill, and this appointment carried with it the duties of station staff officer and cantonment magistrate so has he says, he 'learned something of the native customs of the country'. His reputation for hard work and good sense must have been spreading, because not long afterwards he became supervisor of the 11,000-acre government grass farm which was, I should say, a good deal more important for a horse-drawn army than practising cavalry charges. And in addition to all this he was put in charge of the regimental signallers (following a specialisation in the 16th Lancers) and from a very poor annual report when he took them over he carried then: to first place in the whole Army in India the next year.
It is pleasant to record that bit by bit the sense of being an odd man out, or outsider, dropped away. All the officers of the 3rd Dragoon Guards, he says,
were particularly pleasant and helpful, and on the whole I felt, and still feel [this is in 1921] that I was fortunate in being posted to the regiment.
In 1925 he would become Colonel of the Regiment - which it is fair to say was an honour for both.
Service in India brought a deep sorrow and a great compensation. In 1893 be took six months' leave in England, intending to see his mother who, he knew, was now very ill, and to whom he remained always devoted; she died before he could get home, and he writes: To that extent the trip to England was a bitter failure.' Two years later however, he married; this relationship was very close and affectionate and continued so to the end of his life. His wife was Mildred Palin, the daughter of a Lieutenant-General whose family was not best pleased with the choice she had made - but as his career advanced they became reconciled to it. William and Mildred passed through a bad time capped by the loss of their first child, and in the early stages always short of money, but they came out of it together triumphantly.
Meanwhile Robertson was making his way up his new ladder: he became a full Lieutenant in 1891, and in that year he also had his first experience of active service on the North-West Frontier. In 1892 he was selected, among a very small number from the whole army, to join the Intelligence Branch at Army Headquarters in Simla - the reward for his five languages. This was his first introduction to staff work, which remained his occupation until 1918, so it can be truly said that he had now found the work that suited him. And at this stage, too, we begin to hear of friendships which ripened in later life - one being his new chief, Colonel Elles, and also his wife, 'a lady of gentle and kind disposition', both of whom gave him what he calls 'many proofs of sincere friendship'. Their son, Major-General H. J. Elles, was the first commander of the Tank Corps, and led it into action at Cambrai in 1917.
Robertson was posted to the North-West Frontier section, dealing with an area which extended from Tibet at one end to the Arabian Sea at the other - a distance of about 2,000 miles. During his first year in Intelligence most of his time was taken up with the compilation of a Gazetteer and Military Report on Afghanistan, in five volumes containing some 3,000 pages. His comment is characteristic:
It was a stupendous task, and I was glad when it was finished, but the knowledge I gained of the country was some compensation for the drudgery involved.
He then went on the sad leave to England that I have already mentioned, and returned to find the frontier in a very unsettled state, and considerable alarm at the possibility of a Russian attack on India through Afghanistan. He comments pretty sharply on this:
It is incomprehensible why those who held this view never seemed to appreciate the tremendous topographical difficulties to be overcome.
It is indeed. One route by which Russian invasion was feared in the 1890s led through the Pamirs, that range of great lofty peaks known as 'The Roof of the World'. The word 'Pamir', he informs us,
signifies a more or less level valley of considerable width, and as the lowest of them is 12,000 feet about sea-level, the climate is severe; in a few favoured spots only is there much grass; trees there are none, and even bushes are scarce; strong, biting winds are common, and on the whole the Pamirs cannot be recommended as a cheerful or comfortable country in which to live.
In 1894 his task was to make a personal reconnaissance of this spectacular region and report on its military possibilities.
His now dead mother's farewell letter to him when he was sent out to India had been brief, expressive and entirely in the Victorian manner:
My Dear William Good bye and May God Bless you and Keep you is the constant Prayer of your Loving Mother Ann Robertson. Deuteronomy Ch 4 Verse 9.
Deuteronomy 4 Verse 9 yields up the following:
Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life ...
This text served him well on his journey to the 'Roof of the World' with only his Gurkha orderly and a dozen or so assorted Indian servants and followers for company. His account of it, nearly thirty years later, runs to only nine pages in his book, but every one of them is fully deserving of the old-fashioned adjective for many a talc of discovery and adventure - 'gripping'. As he pressed further and further on, he says,
As far as the eye could reach, gigantic peaks, clothed in perpetual snow, soared proudly up into the blue heavens at heights of 25,000 feet and more above sea-level, and this incomparable array of mountain majesty was rendered the more impressive by the apparent total absence of life of any kind, and by the great stillness which everywhere prevailed ... I remained absorbed and appalled by the magnitude of Nature's works, feeling but a very small atom in the Universe ...
These were 'things which his eyes had seen' which did not readily depart from him. And one day this experience of the silence and solitude of the high mountains would stand Robertson in good stead.
These were lively times in India: before 1894 was out there was a 'regrettable occurrence' when a British camp was surprised at dawn by enterprising tribesmen; the next year saw a rising in Chitral and the isolation of a British garrison calling for a major Relief Expedition - you will find the history of all this in Churchill's book The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898), based on his despatches as a war correspondent. Robertson was involved in the planning, much helped by the local knowledge he had so recently obtained, and was then appointed to the Intelligence Staff of the Force. This was very much more 'active' service than his previous experience of it, and included a ferocious attack on him by a religious fanatic which left him severely wounded. When the Chitral affair was over - the fort was relieved after a prodigious march over snow-blocked passes - Robertson received a 'mention in dispatches' and a Distinguished Service Order which was, he says, 'then a rather rare decoration'. He also reached the rank of Captain, which brought the princely pay of about ?200 a year; he was, he says, 'unusually lucky in reaching that rank in less than seven years after being commissioned.' From the starting-point of private soldier, he was even luckier to have come this distance in eighteen years, but is it really to be called 'luck' when the chief ingredients are hard work and unflagging perseverance?
But there was a snag: once more the serious question arose, where did he go from there? He came to the conclusion that unless he could graduate at the Staff College at Camberley, and put the magic letters 'psc' after his name, his future prospects would be very dubious. And a further realisation had come to him: that just as he was cut out to be a soldier, he was also cut out to be a staff officer. So here was another hurdle, once more to be surmounted by hard work and perseverance. Some thirty officers were admitted annually to the Staff College, three quarters of them by competitive examination, the rest by selection. It was not, he says, a difficult examination, but it embraced many subjects - mathematics, military engineering, military topography, tactics, military history, strategy, military geography, military administration, military law, and a knowledge of two foreign languages, of which one must be either French or German.
He chose Hindustani as one of his languages, and French as the other, and settled down to the hard grind of examination preparation, helped by his wife, who 'showed exemplary patience in hearing me recite the propositions of Euclid'. He was almost entirely self-taught, which made progress slow and doubtful, because, as he says,
having no one to guide me I approached my tasks by the most roundabout way, and when completed there was often no certainty that the results were correct.
The exam lasted ten days, and in the event Robertson qualified in all subjects, but he just missed one of the competitive vacancies; since he would have been over age by the next time it came round, this might have been fatal, but he was saved by the Commander-in-chief, India, who recommended him for a vacancy by selection, this being then approved by the Commander-in-Chief at the War Officer, Lord Wolseley. He believed he was the 'first officer promoted from the ranks' to enter the Staff College as a student, and it appears likely that this was true.
Robertson spent two years (January 1897 to December 1898) at the Staff College; among the other students during that time were Haig, Allenby, Murray (that is Sir Archibald Murray, in whose footsteps Robertson followed for the next eighteen years), Milne (who became C-in-C at Salonika in 1916 and was later CIGS for two successive terms). Capper (a very fine divisional commander, killed at Loos), Haking (a reliable corps commander), Barrow (who commanded a cavalry division in Palestine under Allenby) and Forestier-Walker (Smith-Dorrien's chief of staff in 1914). Robertson comments:
this personal acquaintance was very useful to me, as no doubt it was to them, when I was Chief of the General Staff in France in 1915, and still more so when I became Chief of the Imperial General Staff.
The most notable of the instructors at the Staff College in Robertson's time as a student was Lieutenant-Colonel G. F. R. Henderson, whose biography of the famous Confederate leader. General 'Stonewall' Jackson (1898), is the standard work and a military classic to this day. His teaching and his personality - what Robertson calls 'his loveable and unselfish companionship' - left a lasting mark on all his pupils. Yet at that time, and for long after, even wise and penetrating teachers like Henderson looked chiefly for the supposed attributes of 'Great Captains' delivering 'thunderstrokes of war' - which the Industrial Revolution with its mass armies supported by mass production was increasingly turning into romantic delusions. A great - and sad - awakening was at hand.
Looking back on his Staff College days, Robertson says that on leaving,
Rightly or wrongly, we felt ourselves capable of competing with whatever task the future might have in store for us; and the same self-confidence would not have been lacking had we known that in less than sixteen years some of us would be among the chief actors in the greatest drama the world has ever seen - the Great War.
It is another way of saying what one of Haig's biographers said about him:
From the Staff College he carried away with him a belief in the 'educated soldier' which never afterwards faltered.
Such a belief, says Robertson,
was merely an illustration of the saying that 'knowledge is power', and showed that the training received by the Staff College officer gives him a measure of self-reliance which he probably did not possess before, and which, if appropriately used, should be of great value to him in the future. The Staff College does not aspire to make wise men out of fools, or to achieve any other impossibilities, and, like other educational institutions, it has had its failures. It can, however, and does, make good men better, broaden their views, strengthen their powers of reasoning, improve their judgement, and in general lay the foundations of a useful military career.
For Robertson, says Victor Bonham-Carter, the Staff College 'was the turning-point of his career'. He still had a long way to go, and much hard work ahead, but the slopes would never be quite so steep again, though they might be slippery, as he found out. After the Staff College - two years of close proximity to the intellectual cream of the Army - Bonham-Carter says he 'bothered no longer about social origins'. At that time probably well over 75% of officers were from public schools, and among them would be a fair proportion of aristocrats and even royalty; this composition would be to some extent reflected at the Staff College also. In his second year Robertson was called upon, as part of his instruction, to help in umpiring the annual manoeuvres, in which one side was commanded by the Duke of Connaught, who was a son of Queen Victoria and brother of the Prince of Wales. The Duke was a serving officer, and the Prince, especially after his accession as Edward VII, took a close and informed interest in Army matters. They would now become familiar figures to Robertson, increasingly frequently encountered, and in the case of the next Prince of Wales, later George V, even friends. In 1898, as Robertson left the Staff College, all this was just beginning, and he was still only a Captain, but fortune was smiling.
From the Staff College he came away with a 'very favourable' report which, coupled with his experience of staff work in India, led to his being immediately appointed to the Intelligence Branch at the War Office. When Robertson joined it, the Branch numbered only some sixteen officers; together with the Mobilisation Section, with another three or four officers, to which it was closely linked, this was, he says, 'the only semblance of a General Staff then in existence.' It is revealing of British attitudes that Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who had been Secretary of State for War from 1892 to 1895 and would shortly become Prime Minister in the great Liberal landslide of 1905, was one of many who thought a General Staff to guide military policy was quite unnecessary. 'In this country,' said Sir Henry, 'there is in truth no room for a "general military policy" ... We have no designs against our European neighbours.' Robertson remarks:
It seems to have been overlooked, or was too inconvenient to be admitted, that these same neighbours might have designs against us ...
In the Intelligence Branch his first duty was in the section dealing with Asia - a large enough parish in all conscience - and he greatly impressed his immediate superior. Captain Waters, who wrote: 'I soon found that he was the very man required, a great worker, and absolutely reliable.' Robertson's appointment was at first only temporary, and there was a threat to remove him to what would very probably have been another dead-end job - the Army seemed to have quite a few of these - but Waters put up such a fight that the posting was made permanent, and he was transferred to the Colonial Section. This new post also covered a wide parish; Robertson tells us:
Our Colonial Empire comprised some forty distinct and independent governments, and in addition ... there were a number of dependencies which had no formed administrations, as well as large territories controlled by certain British Companies, and the protectorates, such as Somaliland and British East Africa, under the supervision of the Foreign Office. All military questions concerning these possessions found their way into my section, their number being exceeded only by the variety of their character.
It was rare for there not to be some military operation on foot somewhere in this great imperial sprawl, but one area in particular now claimed attention: South Africa, where as he says, 'trouble with the Transvaal had been brewing for some two years past and was daily becoming more acute.' In October 1899 this 'trouble' became open war with the two Boer Republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. This was the great, sad awakening to which I have just referred - a war full of bad shocks and unpleasant episodes after 40 years during which Britain had faced no major enemy. It is a measure of the shock that one can call the two Republics, which never fielded more than 50-60,000 men at any time, a 'major enemy'. Yet they kept a total of over 450,000 troops of the British Empire well occupied for over two and a half years. This was largely due, says Robertson, to
the weakness of our military position as compared with the Boers when hostilities commenced ... in consequence we were penalised with the greatest of all handicaps in war - a bad start. The British forces were, in fact, as General Buller said, 'like a man who, with a long day's work before him, overslept himself and so was late for everything all day'. Sometimes one concludes that this is, nationally, our favourite position; but real professional officers like Robertson don't like it at all, and it is one of the reasons for the enmity between them and politicians. It is here, in his Intelligence experience, that we discover Robertson's first stirrings of acute distrust of the political animal.
As in 1914, at the coming of war the Whitehall cupboards were almost swept bare of staff officers, who went off happily to join the forces overseas. Robertson was left behind in charge of the Colonial Section, though he had only been in it for six months, and before the end of the year five different assistants had come and gone, leaving him to grapple with six men's work and a sixteen-hour day. As news of one disaster after another arrived, a major task was dealing with the flood of brilliant ideas that poured in for reversing this depressing state of affairs and overthrowing the enemy. This was a phenomenon that he would encounter again and again, and he never shifted from the view that he took on very first acquaintance, saying:
Practically all of them suffered from the defect common to other amateur prescriptions, in that while they clearly and often quite cleverly showed what it was desirable to do - a comparatively easy task - they failed to be so convincing as to how this could be done - which is never easy, especially for those responsible for doing it.
Sixteen years later the welter of bright ideas which finally emerged as the Gallipoli Expedition drew from him a succinct restatement of this verdict - which would also be repeated:
There is seldom any lack of attractive-looking schemes in war. The difficulty is to give effect to them...
Robertson was not left at home for long. In December 1899 Field-Marshal Lord Roberts was sent out to South Africa to take hold of operations and defeat the Boers. He took with him Robertson's Staff College tutor, Henderson, as Director of Intelligence, and on 27 December Henderson sent for Robertson. He arrived in Cape Town on 20 January-1900 and was given the duty of collecting and studying intelligence concerning Boer movements. This, also, could hardly fail to have an educational value, but probably what he chiefly learned from South Africa was the unfortunate consequence of misuse of staff, even by such able generals as Lord Roberts. This, also, was something that he would meet again.
In October Robertson was ordered back to the Intelligence Branch at the War Office. He was now a Major, in the ordinary course of regimental promotion, and a year later became a Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel for his South African service. Already there were perceptible stirrings of reform to put right the faults so acutely felt in the war. The Directorate of Mobilisation and Intelligence, as it was now called, was reorganised into three Sections: a Special Section dealing with security and counter-espionage, an Imperial Section, and a Foreign Section under Robertson himself, with nine officers under him. He took up his new post on 1 January 1901; he could not have chosen a better time to return to the centre of affairs.
The Boer War ended in 1902 and Rudyard Kipling wrote its epitaph: 'We have had no end of a lesson. It will do us no end of good!' Robertson was only acknowledging this when he observed twenty years later:
It is perhaps not too much to say that the Empire was saved from disaster by the small community of Boer farmers who, a few years before, had fought against us.
Robertson remained at the War Office from 1901 until the end of January 1907, a period which covered what I may call the 'groundwork' for the final touches of Mr. Haldane which gave Britain the splendid professional Army of 1914. The Royal Commission on the South African War carried out an amazingly searching investigation of every aspect of the Army's performance; its report (with two large volumes of Minutes of Evidence) came out in 1903, and provided a firm foundation for all that followed. In 1903 Mr. Brodrick, the Secretary of Slate for War in Balfour's government, made a start by setting up the Committee of Imperial Defence to survey the military needs of the Empire on a regular basis - for the first time. In 1903 the Esher Committee was set up, and in February and March 1904 it announced a complete overhaul of the War Office, the creation of the Army Council and a properly constituted General Staff, with a Chief who was to be the Government's sole military adviser. In this year also the new field artillery, the 13- and 18-pounders, began to be introduced. Training manuals also made then appearance. In 1905 Haldane became Secretary of State. In 1906 the Expeditionary Force was organised; Staff talks with the French began; in 1907 the Territorial Army came into existence; the Imperial General Staff was created; and the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle started to be issued. It was a tremendous performance, a transformation of what had always been a slow-moving, traditional organisation, and all done in very short order.
Nothing, of course, was more fundamental than the question, what was it all about? What was it for? Robertson had no doubts. In November 1902 he produced a paper discussing the pros and cons of an alliance with Germany - a proposal that was being officially discussed. He said this:
It is not an exaggeration to say that in no other European country is hatred of England so general or so deep-rooted as in Germany ... [a] most potent cause [of this] is the rivalry in trade and colonial enterprise, and in this respect Germany is the aggressor. Indeed, the hope of superseding us in the commercial and naval supremacy is the governing idea of the national imagination. It may be argued that this is a perfectly laudable ambition, but it should be remembered that the fact of one nation being engaged, with every right and remarkable efficiency, in undermining the foundations of another, is not in itself an aid to good relations between them, and certainly not to a reliable alliance...
This paper, lengthy and powerfully argued, was written three years before the first Morocco crisis, brought about by Germany, opened a number of important eyes Robertson's conclusions in 1902 were prophetic:
... that the alliance is not practicable; that even if it were, it would not be worth the price we should have to pay for it; that instead of regarding Germany as a possible ally we should recognise her as our most persistent, deliberate and formidable rival.
The first Morocco crisis, testing the strength of the new Anglo-French Entente erupted in March 1905, and in April Robertson, now an Assistant Director of the Intelligence Division, and his friend Major-General Grierson, now Director, conducted ; war game based on the supposition of war between France and Germany, with part of the German army advancing through Belgium and Britain going to Belgium's aid. Robertson 'commanded' the German side, and as the game developed Grierson's decisions as Umpire showed, he says,
that there would be little chance of stopping the German turning movement unless the British forces arrived on the scene quickly and in considerable strength.
Pondering on this, in the following year he argued that
we ought to be prepared to send to France as a first contingent a force of 500;000 men.
Haig, in the same year, is reported wanting Britain at the end of twelve months to place an army of 900,000 men in the field and keep it there for five years.
This was 1906 and it is precisely this kind of foresight that General Staffs are for; if politicians pay no attention, they have only themselves to blame for the results. But one can imagine the soldiers' feelings when the birds come home to roost.
When Robertson left the War Office after what Victor Bonham-Carler calls 'a long and momentous tour of office', he was a marked man, obviously destined for high position. He was now a full Colonel, with twenty officers under him. His character was fully formed - after all, he was 47 years old. He walked with a slow, measured tread, planting his feet firmly on the ground - like his thoughts; he gave the impression of being always deep in thought, his manner was reserved, he wasted few words, he could be disconcertingly gruff and his dismissive grunts were famous. To a long discourse with which he totally disagreed he would usually reply, not by argument, but by a grunt and a phrase which was also famous: 'I've 'eard different' - and that was that. To the end of his days he dropped his 'Hs' - which may have been affectation as much as habit - and spoke with a roughish intonation which has sometimes been described as cockney, but I doubt that; his manner and his sayings seem to me to be pure Lincolnshire. They belong to the boy from Welbourn. He was regarded by most of those who knew him with respect and affection. His nickname (not often used to his face) was 'Wully' (which also has a Welbourn ring) and as Victor Bonham-Carter says, It suited him somehow'.
Robertson left the War Office in January 1907, and his immediate reward for six years of hard, successful work was to be put on half-pay, an iniquitous system which another CIGS would call 'a miserable dole designed to enable the War Office to keep up a cheap pool of senior officers.' In his case it did not last long - just over three months - and his next post took him back to Aldershot, where it had all begun thirty years before. He spared some wry glances, he says, for 'the old barrack room where I first lived, and its neighbour the guard-room of evil memory.' Now he was an important personage, first of all Quartermaster-General, and then Chief of Staff to the commander of Britain's only army corps, Horace Smith-Dorrien. Smith-Dorrien was another reformer, this time of the conditions of service of the soldiers under him; he taught officers that their men must be their first care - in Robertson's words 'to identify themselves in peace with those upon whom they have to depend in war' - while soldiers were at last encouraged to show initiative; in general, says Robertson,
the aim of all was to try and bring out what was best in the men and not everlastingly be thinking of the worst.
He would know the full meaning of those words.
In June 1910 he received a letter from the CIGS inviting him to return to the Staff College - as Commandant. The drawback was, he says,
that the post was greatly underpaid. However, I determined not to be balked of a promising opening on that account, but to have a try at filling what was one of the most important positions which an officer of my standing could in peace time be called upon to hold.
His teaching was down-to-earth and totally practical. He condemned outright what he called the 'objectionable habit' of craving to employ high-sounding phrases such as 'pivot of manoeuvre', 'interior lines', 'offensive-defensive' and so on, all of which were right enough in their way, on paper but in actual war do not greatly assist the ordinary commander in the thing that really matters, the defeat of the enemy. There is only one road to victory, given a capable opponent, and that is the road of hard fighting, of which there is usually a great deal.
Every idea was put to the practical test, and his students were warned above all against conclusions which, however attractive they may appear on paper, have little or no connection with the rough and bloody work of masses of men trying to kill each other.
As regards who these 'masses of men' might be, there was little doubt. He told the 1911 leavers that all their studies were intended to prepare them for fighting 'the most probable and formidable adversary for the time being', and he adds:
It was well understood between me and the students who 'the most probable and formidable adversary' was. We had often discussed him, and there was no need to mention him by name.
By October 1913, when he left the Staff College, Wully from Welbourn was , Major-General and a Knight Commander of the Victorian Order. His training abilities were evidently known, because he was now summoned back to the War Office to be Director of Military Training - with the promise of command of the 1st. Division at Aldershot to follow: a Major-General's dream command. But it was not to be; within a year the 'probable adversary' had become a real adversary, the 1st Division was part of the Expeditionary Force, and in the late search for Staff officers, Robertson became Quartermaster-General of the BEF. And that, too, would only be a stepping-stone; even higher posts and higher ranks awaited the gardener's boy, Sir William Robertson KCVC DSO.
In August 1914 William Robertson crossed to France to meet the long-expected foe, together with the rest of the British Expeditionary Force, on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Field-Marshal Sir John French, and in the post of Quartermaster-General. The word 'Staff' gathered a good deal of odium and contempt in the course of the war, much of it entirely undeserved, so it may be as well to be clear straight away about what it meant in 1914. The Regular Army at that time numbered just under 250,000 officers and men, of whom precisely 447 were psc ('passed Staff College'); that is roughly 18%, so you can see they were in short supply (and I may add that out of that 219 of the 447 (49.2%) were killed or died of wounds during the war). All other staff officers - and they ran to thousands - were wartime appointments without previous special training, so if the quality was somewhat uneven it is scarcely to be wondered at.
There were three categories of staff officer: the General Staff, dealing with training, operations, intelligence and military policy; the Adjutant-General's Staff, and the Quartermaster-General's Staff. According to Robertson:
The Adjutant-General recruits the men with which to fight, tends to their spiritual needs, tries them by court-martial when accused of breaking the regulations, takes care of them when sick or wounded, and buries them when they die. The Quartermaster-General clothes, arms, feeds and houses them, and supplies them with all they need with which to fight... He also moves them, according to the direction of the General Staff, by rail and sea.
You will observe that it is a pretty comprehensive assignment. The fact that anyone was left alive to grumble about the Staff was in itself a tribute to their competence.
The whole of the BEF, and the Quartermaster-General not least, was thrown into the war at the deep end in August 1914. The BEF's weakness in numbers - only about 100,000 at the beginning - meant that it had to conform without question to French strategy, which amounted to a headlong attack on the Germans. They, for their part, were carrying out a great outflanking movement through Belgium. The BEF, on the extreme left of the French, reached Mons on 22 August, just in time to find itself about to be surrounded, so that after one day's battle it had to go into precipitate retreat. This came as a considerable shock to many, who were expecting an early picnic on the Rhine, but not to Robertson. 'My business,' he said, 'was to be prepared for the worst that might happen a well as for the best. He is merely a fool who, holding a high position in war, refuses I contemplate anything but success.'
The Retreat from Mons lasted thirteen days and covered 136 miles (as the crow flies) but as the Official History says, 'as the men marched, at least 200'. Before the retreat had even begun, Robertson had taken a major decision - to prepare to shift the advanced base of the BEF from Amiens, due north of Paris, to Le Mans, a long way to the south-west of it, and the main bases from Boulogne and Le Havre on the Channel coast to St. Nazaire on the Atlantic. This was just as well, because by 31 August the Germarns were in Amiens and looked as though they might soon be in the Channel ports. Wully comments (with understandable satisfaction):
There are not many other instances in military history, I imagine, if any, of measures having been taken before the first battle of a campaign to change the base of an army which has been deliberately selected after long and careful consideration.
Changing bases was one thing; getting essential supplies to a retreating arm (whose whereabouts was often uncertain) was something else altogether. We have to exercise a good deal of imagination to appreciate the problems of officers whose whole peacetime training had impressed them with the value of pennies, ha'pence and farthing! and whose competence was often judged by their ability to produce 'vouchers' for everything they issued. Now they were being told by Wully to adopt such startling expedients as dumping supplies - flitches of bacon, sides of beef, cheese, boxes of biscuits alongside the roads so that the troops might help themselves as they passed..... Compliance with routine regulations, and the extra expense incurred by issuing double or treble the normal allowance of rations, were not considerations to be taken into account.
Wully was an unorthodox QMG - but war itself is an unorthodox practice.
On 25 January 1915, not without apprehension, because he had a shrewd idea of what he might be in for, he ceased to be the BEF's storekeeper-in-chief and became Chief of its General Staff; that is to say, officially, the C-in-C's responsible adviser on all matters affecting military operations, through whom he exercises his functions of command, and by whom all orders issued by him will be signed.
It promised to be a bumpy ride: on the one hand French was a volatile, quick tempered C-in-C of the old school of direct personal command, but no deep thinker; on the other was 'Wully', a terse, gritty, forthright ex-ranker, a staff officer to his fingertips and firm believer in tested principles of war. As Wully's biographer, Victor Bonham-Carter tells us (Soldier True ), he distrusted French's professional competence and personal qualities as a commander, and doubted whether he - or anyone else - could counteract these disabilities.
The year 1915 was a miserable one for the British Army. Its sorrows may be summed up in one dismal word: shortages. The Army was short of everything it needed for the war it had to fight, and not the least of the deficiencies was soldiers. Men there were in plenty, hundreds of thousands of them, responding to Lord Kitchener's call - but crowds of eager men are not an army. For that they have to be turned into soldiers - and that takes time, in January the BEF had increased to eleven infantry divisions and five cavalry divisions, a total strength by the end of the month of 347,384. There had never been a British Army of that size before, so there was no experience of directing or administering such a force to draw upon - yet judged by the requirements of continental war this was a trifling number.
Even worse than the small numbers that Britain could put into the field was the serious decline in quality after the heavy losses of Regulars at Ypres. The combination of these two factors produced some very depressing performances during the winter of 1914-15. It became clear that the British Army was held in low regard both by its German enemies and by its French allies, and this was something that could only be put right by a successful offensive operation. How to perform such a feat in the existing desperate situation of equipment of all kinds - in particular all types of trench stores, all types of guns and all types of ammunition to perform what was already clearly seen to be an artillery war - became the permanent preoccupation of the Commander-in-Chief and his new Chief of Staff. What they had to do, in fact, was to fight a war and make an army at the same time, bearing in mind that to make an army meant creating a munitions industry virtually from scratch. All these matters would haunt Wully Robertson for the rest of his war.
It is not at all surprising that Wully found, on taking over, a certain amount of confusion and disorganisation at GHQ, administering a Force which had already trebled its initial strength and was growing all the time. So his first task was reorganisation -removing bottlenecks which, as he said, 'are notorious for making nothing and obstructing everything' - and redefining responsibilities. For staff officers, the occupational hazard is always overwork; a 12 to 14-hour day at a desk was normal at GHQ, and for men used to an open-air life with a lot of physical exercise this was not good. Wully had to insist 'upon my staff taking exercise at least once during the day, preferably on horseback'. He and his immediate subordinates, he says,
seldom missed going for a ride at 6.30 a.m., returning for breakfast at 8 a.m., and with this invigorating recreation in hand we were able to commence the day's work on cheerful terms with ourselves and everybody else.
Another matter, he says,
on which I laid stress was that staff officers at GHQ should carefully maintain friendly relations with the troops and headquarters, small as well as large, at the front. By this means only is it possible to learn what the feeling of an army really is, where the shoe pinches, and how it can be eased.
This touches a sore spot. As the war went on the number of staff officers multiplied (I have come to the conclusion that there must have been at least 10,000 of them), and the overwhelming majority can only have come from the fighting troop: seconded for staff duties by reason of special skills, meritorious service, or wounds. Yet the sense of segregation between staff and front-line men grew and the legend of the useless staff officers persists to this day - well summed up by Robert Graves: Trench soldiers hate the staff and the staff know it.' There was no cure for this complaint.
It was during this grim year that the war within the war became apparent - the great strategic dispute over the very existence of the Western Front and about the manner in which the campaign was to be conducted. For the time being the BEF and its GH< were, as Robertson says, of course concerned only with matters on [our] front, and had nothing to do with the conduct of the war in general, either strategical or administrative. That was the business of the authorities in London, by which he means the War Council of the Cabinet, and above all the Secretary of State for War, Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener.
Understandably, all of these dignitaries (Kitchener included) were in a state of great perplexity and considerable dismay about the war. The Western Front had settle into a continuous line from the Channel to Switzerland - a circumstance which was unprecedented and unforeseen by either side. The winter fighting had produced no result except long casualty lists. On 2 January Kitchener wrote to Sir John French, remarking on the general failure of the French as well as of the BEF to make any progress, and concluding with a famous pronouncement:
The German lines in France may be looked upon as a fortress that cannot be carried by assault, and also cannot be completely invested -with the result that the lines can only be held by an investing force, while operations proceed elsewhere. And then he added,
The question of where anything effective can be accomplished opens a large field, and requires a good deal of study.
Reflecting on all the implications and applications of that remark, one can only fall back on an American colloquialism; 'You could say that again.'
Powerful - but not always well-instructed - minds were applying themselves to this very problem, with the result, says Robertson, that in addition to Lord Kitchener's speculations,
It thus came about that... the First Lord of the Admiralty was advocating the seizure of the Dardanelles and Constantinople; the Secretary of State for India and the Indian Government were conducting a campaign in Mesopotamia; the Secretary of State for the Colonies was concerned with operations in various parts of Africa; and the Chancellor of the Exchequer was impressing upon his Cabinet colleagues the strategical advantages to be gained by transferring the main British military effort from the Western Front to the Balkan Peninsula and Syria. A more deplorable state of affairs can surely never have existed in the conduct of any war.
What made it more deplorable is that, being human, each and every one of these well-intentioned people was liable to change his mind, and they frequently did so.
The General Staff, in Robertson's view, existed precisely to avoid such confusion and to offer the Government authoritative professional opinion on the military options. He tells us:
The views of the General Staff were unanimous and simple. They were that the West Front was the main front, whether we liked it or not; that the main decision must consequently be sought on that front; and that every man, gun, and round of ammunition should be sent to it, except such as were absolutely required elsewhere for the defence of interests vital to the Empire.
Bluntly and tersely expressed, as Wully's views always were, this recipe held out little appeal to the clever men at the head of affairs, as he learned to his cost. It was too simple; they wanted some infallible, subtle remedy for their troubles. Unfortunately the arrival of Turkey amongst our enemies (in November 1914) seemed to offer opportunities for many such stratagems. But to all of them there was a simple objection, admirably expressed by a man who usually preferred to deal in subtleties bordering on the incomprehensible; in March 1915 General Sir Henry Wilson was for once in full agreement with Wully Robertson; he told the Conservative leader Mr. Bonar Law:
The way to end this war is to kill Germans and not Turks. The place where we can kill most Germans is here, and therefore every man and every round of ammunition we have got in the world ought to come here.
Wilson would change his mind; Wully and the majority of trained General Staff officers would not. Their thinking emanated from principles of war derived from study of the great soldiers and wars of history. Wully tells us:
It is one of the first principles of war that all available resources should be concentrated at the 'decisive point' - that is, at the place where the main decision of the war is to be fought out. There may be a difference of opinion as to where that point should be, but there should never be more than one such point at a time, and once the selection is made, no departure from the principle ... is admissible.
In 1915, he says,
there was no doubt whatever about the 'decisive point': the decisive front was fixed for us by the deployment of the enemy's masses in France and Belgium, which compelled us to go to the direct assistance of those countries.
Robertson's perception of the BEF's own strategic needs in 1915 is quite clear; as he says:
The necessity for safeguarding the Channel ports, together with our lack of men and munitions, indicated that the policy most favourable to us would be to defer offensive operations until we possessed a well-trained and well-equipped army adequate to our needs.
But he is equally clear about the fundamental and ruling fact of the war when he says:
It must also be remembered that the [British] Commander-in-Chief was not in all respects master in his own house ... if General Joffre [the French C-in-C] thought [the] situation could best be met by an early offensive his British colleague could hardly do otherwise than support him to the best of his power. For ... a score of reasons a defensive policy was not practicable, and yet it is true that our armies were not in a condition to fight with any good prospect of obtaining decisive result.
This passage explains the basic tragedy of 1915 and 1916, especially 1915, which I call the saddest year of the war. The BEF was caught in the jaws of a vice: on the one hand the pressures of the Coalition - the French struggling with all their might and incurring fearful losses to get the invaders off their soil - and on the other the Germans who held the initiative and called the tune. Wully would now have a close-up view of the vice in action.
First, in March, came the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the British Army's first serious offensive of the war - a good start, quickly followed by disappointment. In April the Germans used their initiative to launch an attack at Ypres, using poison gas, which brought on a six-week battle, and cost the BEF some 60,000 casualties. During this a times desperate struggle the BEF was undergoing an ammunition crisis so serious that Wully had an officer at GHQ whose sole duty was what lie calls 'keeping the artillery ammunition account, and advising me how we could best use the small amounts then being received.' 'Small' is correct; the BEF, says Wully, was receiving its shells not by hundreds of tons at a time in special ships and barges, but in driblets of thirty or forty rounds, much in the same way as if despatched by parcel post.
Yet only three days after the opening of this critical battle, against all strategic principle and against reason, a new front with all its inevitable demands was opened a Gallipoli. Wully was as able to appreciate the potential advantages of a victory a Gallipoli as anyone - but he could also appreciate the fatal barrier to obtaining one. As he says:
Such a success would, as the advocates of the project said, serve to secure Egypt, to induce Italy and the Balkan States to come in on our side, and, if followed by the forcing of the Bosphorus, would enable Russia to draw munitions from America and Western Europe, and to export her accumulated supplies of wheat. There is seldom any lack of attractive-looking schemes in war. The difficulty is to give effect to them...
This is pure 'Wully' - a thought which he expressed more than once. The manner of doing so is characteristic - a cool, objective balance-sheet, with the positives precisely stated, and then the crushing negative of sheer impracticably, the stark fact that Britain hardly had enough men and munitions for one major campaign, let alone two.
The Battle of Ypres vividly demonstrated this, and before it was over there were two more offensive gestures by the BEF - Aubers Ridge and Festubert - you could hardly call them more than 'gestures', though they produced another 18,000 casualties, with scarcely anything to show for them. These were part of the cost of Coalition, and well might Lord Kitchener utter the lament, 'We cannot make war as we ought; we can only make it as we can.'
By August Kitchener had reached certain painful conclusions, which he imparted to Haig (the commander of the First Army) during a visit to the Front; taking into account Russian as well as French need:
he had decided [says Haig] that we must act with all our energy, and do our utmost to help the French, even though, by doing so, we suffered very heavy losses indeed.
And that was precisely what happened in the next big battle, Loos, where the British casualties amounted to over 50,000. The German losses were, by comparison, trifling, reflecting the BEF's grave disadvantages at this stage of the war of technology and technique, as it waited for the technical solutions to come off the drawing-boards, through the factories and training camps to the battlefields.
The reputations of senior officers were naturally liable to suffer in such unhappy circumstances, sometimes undeservedly. Field-Marshal Sir John French had never been an admirer of General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, who commanded the Second Army at Ypres, and early in May he decided to remove this officer. Wully Robertson, who had been Smith-Dorrien's chief of staff at Aldershot, offered to go personally to break the unpleasant news to his old friend as tactfully as possible. A famous anecdote, related by an officer who witnessed the interview, reveals that even with a general's badges up there was always a good slice of the ranker in Wully. Marching straight up to Smith-Dorrien, and apparently without any effort to drop his voice, he announced, ' 'Orace, you're for 'ome.' I often wonder if he didn't sometimes drop his aitches on purpose, just to remind people that he had been through the ranks - he was very proud of the fact. But I consider this example of sensitivity and tact as being at least as much a legacy of Lincolnshire as of the 16th Lancers.
Before long it would be French's own turn for removal. The truth is that there had been grave doubts about him in some Government circles - especially Kitchener and the Prime Minister - ever since the retreat from Mons; these had mounted through 1915 - in June Wully had told Lieutenant Colonel Hankey, the influential secretary of the War Council, that French was 'always wanting to do reckless and impossible things', and the King was already considering that he might have to be superseded. Loos settled the matter. In the aftermath of that unhappy battle the last shreds of Sir John French's reputation were torn up, and on 19 December he was replaced by General Sir Douglas Haig. Four days later, 23 December, Robertson (now a Lieutenant-General) went to London to take up the Army's highest office, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, The boy from Welbourn would now have the task of framing instructions to all the British Commanders-in-Chief in six theatres of war.
Robertson and Haig saw eye to eye on these arrangements. Their view of the war was identical and they had complete respect for each other's professional qualifications. They have been accused of 'intriguing' against French, but for the life of me I can see no support for this supposition. Both of them were well aware that the Government had serious doubts about Sir John. In July both Kitchener and the King urged Haig to write to them privately about 'the doings of the Army in Flanders' - in other words about French's failings. Haig was not attracted by these proposals, and noted in his diary:
The King quite realised the nature of such conduct on my part, because he told me he had said to Lord K. with reference to it: 'If anyone acted like that, and told tales out of school, he would at school be called a sneak.' K.'s reply was that we are beyond the schoolboy's age.
Wully Robertson, I feel, would probably not have needed to be told that - it was a penalty of public school ethics. By November, however, neither Haig nor he was in and further doubt that Sir John French was now a serious menace to the safety and future prospects of the Army that he commanded. That being so, to have continued to disregard the requests of the Army's titular head - the King - and of the Secretary of State for war who was also the senior active Field-Marshal, in conformity to schoolboy codes, would have been a dereliction of duty. But the final truth is that the Government, while no doubt glad of the backing of these two important officers, had already made up its mind about French.
Because, in their different functions, Robertson and Haig were now to be closely associated for two fateful years, because they came to these positions together, and because neither of them ever deviated from the belief that the Western Front was where the war would be won or lost, they are often written or spoken about as if they were a close-knit team like Hindenburg or Ludendorff, and warm friends as well. I do not believe that this is true. I think Robertson would have liked it to be true, and often reached out for such a mutually supportive relationship, but was regularly disappointed, and at the end of the day I do not think he counted Haig among his friends. Haig, though he admired Wully's obvious qualities and believed he was the right man in the right place, was not a ease with him. My strong impression is that he found Wully's blunt forthrightness distinctly abrasive. In this, and probably in virtually nothing else, Haig was in some degree of agreement with Mr. Lloyd George.
In Wully's case, there was a serious complication about the post that he was taking up; its name was 'Kitchener'. 'Kitchener of Khartoum', a national hero, had been appointed Secretary of State for War on 6 August 1914, amidst almost universal acclaim and his popularity with the general public remained enormous. The same could not be said of relations with his Cabinet colleagues, nor with Army officers who had to work closely with him. The unfortunate truth was that Kitchener knew very little and cared less about General Staffs and their methods or about sound organisation: he was autocratic and secretive, and there was no-one in the War Office able to stand up to him. The result was that the Government did not have the sense of being expertly and consistently advised about the War, while Robertson's predecessor as CIGS, Sir Archibald Murray, would call Kitchener 'that past master of disorganisation'.
Before even taking up his new post, Wully realised that he had to do something about this state of affairs. He was not, in any case, overjoyed at the prospect of this advancement for various reasons; a minor one, he says,
was that the open-air life and spirit of comradeship and cheerfulness which always prevailed at the front... were far more attractive than the gloomy despondency of London and the thankless work of Whitehall.
Another may well have been that he would have liked to try his hand at commanding troops - e.g. as a Corps commander. A third was that he scarcely knew Lord Kitchener but, as he admits,
I could not help being influenced by the prevailing gossip that he centralised all authority in his own hands, and would not allow the General Staff at the War Office to take that part in the strategical direction of operations which it ought to take.
It was therefore with considerable misgiving that Wully went to his first interview with this famous but imperious soldier on 4 December. Kitchener, he says, 'referred quite frankly to the unenviable reputation he had acquired, and asked me not to believe it for it was not true'. And Wully adds:
I was much impressed by his outspoken manner, and felt that I was in the presence of a man whose character was totally different from what I had been led to suppose; but I still thought it would be best for both of us, and for the country, if before finally deciding we came to a definite understanding, in writing...
So he wrote to Kitchener the next day, setting out what he understood to be their agreement, but aware, as he did so. of certain faults of his own which caused him to introduce his memorandum with an apology for its 'apparent abruptness': he continued:
It reads the reverse of pleasing, but I must send it as it is, as I have to start at once for Chantilly. It was written in a great hurry, and I am afraid it is rather characteristic of my blunt way of saying things. Please excuse it.
The bluntness that Wully acknowledged lay more in the content than in the very clear wording of his memorandum. Two paragraphs in particular indicated a deep divergence of views which mutual respect and friendly feelings could not disguise. The first laid down the basic principle of the General Staff:
All orders for military operations ... should be signed and issued by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, under the authority of the [Government] ...
The second paragraph disposed summarily of the Secretary of State:
The Secretary of State for War is responsible for raising, maintenance, and equipment of the forces which the policy of the [Government] makes necessary. This is of itself a task of great magnitude ... and the Secretary of State for War can therefore be connected with actual military operations only on the same footing as any other member of the Army Council.
Wully adds: 'To these paragraphs Lord Kitchener took exception' - which was hardly surprising, and he replied by return of post, thanking Wully for his frank letter, and then saying:
I took it this morning to the Prime Minister and recommended him to accept your terms - He quite agreed with me that it was of course impossible for me to retain the responsibility of S of S without any executive work as regards the war and with my functions curtailed to the feeding and clothing of the Army. The Munitions Ministry do all the rest of the work you consider should be done by the S of S. - The PM will I think agree though he said he wanted time to consider the matter ... you may rely on me to always do my best to support you in carrying out the difficult task you will have before you.
What then followed was a remarkable scene by any standards, deeply revealing of the characters of both men, and it is best to let Wully describe it:
This example of patriotism and subordination of serf was the more striking as coming from a man of his standing in the Empire and with his record of service, and I had not a moment's hesitation as to the right thing to do. His letter reached me at St. Omer about seven o'clock in the evening, and as I knew that he was passing through Calais at eleven o'clock the same night on his way to Paris, I got into my motor after dinner and went to Calais to meet him. He greeted me very cordially, albeit a little sadly, I thought, and with an air of disappointment. I came at once to the point and said that whatever happened I could not hear of his leaving the War Office, since there was no one who could fill the position which he held in the country, and I begged him to discuss with me the paragraphs in the memorandum to which he objected. As his train was due to start almost immediately for Paris he asked me to go with him. I jumped in, and we sat up talking till two o'clock next morning, the conversation being resumed after we had breakfasted in Paris.
This may sound like a fairly drastic treatment for a disagreement, but it worked. Between them, Kitchener and Wully drafted a new document - it runs to over 1,500 words - leaving Wully's main principles intact but softening the impact by not spelling out the diminution of the role of the Secretary of State. What it came down to was that professionally Wully was clearly right, but as he admits, 'constitutionally Lord Kitchener's view was doubtless the more correct'. Between them they evolved a compromise, which Kitchener always referred to as 'our bargain'. Victor Bonham-Carter wisely comments:
This was war, and war of a kind never experienced before in terms of technique, urgency, and scale ... A new situation had arisen that demanded a new solution. The one presented by Wully was only tolerable if the CIGS and S of S worked in harmony, and agreed above all on strategy.
With Wully and K, that was how it was; they had no strategic disagreements, and when Kitchener was drowned in early June Wully said:
I have found him a most helpful and kind friend. I am more than sad to lose him. I feel remorseful because of my brutal 'bargain'. It was never necessary, and was made only because I was misinformed of the man's nature.
With a man of different nature, this 'happy ending' would prove to be more like a bed of thorns.
So Wully Robertson now came to the high peak of his career - CIGS. He did so with what he calls:
a profound sense of anxiety, as I realised the amount of work to be done was enormous and without precedent, and that many things would be expected of me with which I had had no previous dealings ... A heavier burden could hardly have rested on the shoulders of any man, and I could only hope that I might be given the strength and wisdom to carry it fearlessly and efficiently.
He came in as a new broom, and as such he never expected to have an easy time, but the bad time greeted him sooner than he had anticipated. The first and only day that he spent in the room the War Office considered suitable for the Chief of Staff was, he says,
quite the most exasperating day of my life. The telephone, which I have always detested, rang incessantly, and a constant stream of people of both sexes and all grades - girl typists, wives of officers, members of parliament, boy-scout messengers, general officers - entered the room, one after another, unannounced, either to see me on some trivial matter or someone else whose room they thought it was. To attempt to work under such maddening conditions was worse than useless.
Fortunately, his devoted ADC, Major Lucas (known as 'the Monument'), soon found him a better room, without a telephone, and protected by his secretary in an anteroom. And now he could set to work, and the first thing he had to do reorganise the War Office General Staff as he had done at GHQ at the beginning of the year, and as he says,
then hope that, as a result of its increased usefulness, the Government would accord to it that position in the direction of the war which a General Staff at Great Headquarters is intended to fill.
'Great Headquarters', in a democracy, means the elected Government, presiding over a sovereign Parliament. Almost every day Wully attended the War Committee (later to be known as the War Cabinet). He now came into direct and continuous contact with homo politicus, which he considered to be a very strange breed indeed. After his first Cabinet meeting he asked Sir Edward Carson 'whether he had been attending a Cabinet or a committee of lunatics', and I'm not sure that he ever believed he had had a proper answer to that question. At any rate, his next two years were to be spent grappling with politicians who finally defeated him. That was a black hour for Britain and the Allies, and this portion of his life, spent in the full glare of high office has now gone down in the political and strategic history of the War in great detail and from many standpoints. Wully's own account of it, and his cool, considered reflections, are contained in the two bulky volumes of his book Soldiers and Statesmen (Cassell, 1926) which I readily confess that I regard as the best book on the direction of war that I know, I commend it to you. For now, having traced the rise of Wully Robertson from gardener's boy to the professional head of the Army, I can only offer you the briefest summary of his decline and fall.
He quickly discovered that there were two dominant issues at the top of his 'In' tray, and they were inseparable. The first was manpower; by mid-1915 that extraordinary flood of volunteers which had been the response to Kitchener's call and the origin of the 'Kitchener Armies' was drying up. Yet even now, after nearly one and a half years of war, there was fierce resistance in the Liberal Party and in the Trade Unions to compulsory service. Lord Derby had been brought in in October 1915 as Director-General of Recruiting to attempt, against his better judgement, to keep the voluntary principle alive - what Lord Esher called 'the principle of unequal sacrifice'. By mid-December it was clear that the 'Derby Scheme' compromise has failed; on 4 January 1916 the Prime Minister introduced the Military Service Bill, which became law on 27 January, and by 9 February a form of conscription was in operation.
The fact is that compulsory military service in Britain was never whole-hearted during the Great War. Kitchener, when he became Secretary of State, decided at once that Britain ought to put 70 infantry divisions in the field; his biographer. Sir George Arthur, says
they seemed to him what England was in honour and duty bound to furnish, and they were arguably the maximum force which could be raised and trained during the war.
By 1916 he could claim that 67 were already in existence, and three more were on the way. To some members of the Government this was anathema; the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Reginald McKenna, was openly saying that the Army should be reduce and Britain should in future 'pay our allies to do all the fighting while we do all the manufacturing here.' Robertson reported to the King's Assistant Private Secretary Colonel Wigram,
The attitude of some ministers is rather to find out what is the smallest amount of money and smallest number of men with which we may hope, someday, to win the war, or rather not lose it, whereas the proper attitude is to see what is the greatest number of men we can put into the field in the shortest possible period of time, after ... making full and appropriate use of every man and woman in the country ... No one can say what men we shall need except that we may need every one.
It is obvious that there was a great gulf fixed between these two points of view.
By April 1916 a full-blooded political crisis had blown up, which threatened destroy Asquith's Government. One has a clear sense of lack of direction, sometimes of hysteria. Wully did not know what to make of his political masters; on 26 April he wrote to Haig: 'They regard me as an optimistic ass when not as a stupid soldier. They think and nearly say - that all soldiers are stupid.' That is a generalisation: not every politician shared this opinion, but it was firmly believed in influential quarters and it permeates Lloyd George's War Memoirs (1933-36).
By May 1916 Wully was complaining that 'all his time has been taken up late with the recruiting crisis and he has not been able to concentrate on the strategy of the war.' Strategy was his second pressing business, and nothing divided the soldiers from the politicians so deeply as the meaning of the word. To Kitchener, to Wully, to Haig, there was no doubt what 'strategy' meant. As far back as 3 December 1915 Kitchener had to Haig:
General Joffre should be looked upon as Commander-in-Chief in France ... we must do all we can to meet the French C-in-C's wishes whatever may be our personal feelings about the French Army and its Commanders.
This was the discipline of the Coalition; Kitchener didn't like it, Haig didn't like it, Wully didn't like it - but they recognised it, and tried to make it work, whatever they may have muttered under their breaths. And Wully knew best of all what it meant terms of strategy, because he had been at the conference of Allied Staffs at Chantilly early December where the strategy for the Alliance for 1916 had been decided. Joffre informs us:
The outcome of these conversations was the drawing up of a document which constituted the charter of the Coalition during the winter of 1915-16 and the summer campaign of 1916. It was agreed upon that a decisive result should be sought through co-ordinated offensives on three fronts, Russian, Franco-British and Italian.
This was the first (and sadly, the last) attempt at co-ordinated action of the whole alliance with a view to an early ending of the war. To the simple soldiers it looked like a good idea, and Joffre says that this conference 'marks a vital date in the history of the conduct of the war.' Lloyd George describes it somewhat differently in his memoirs:
The general staffs of France and Britain [not a word, you will notice, about Russia and Italy and Belgium] had not won the War, but they had won their war ...The Germans had not been beaten, but the politicians had been thwarted. The Brass Hats were triumphant. They sang their chortling Te Deums from Chantilly to Whitehall.
Wully was now astonished to find that so far as the politicians were concerned, no 'Charter' existed. On the day he took office, he demanded to know whether or not the Government accepted the Chantilly decisions, as the General Staff recommended. On 28 December he got the reply he wanted;
From the point of view of the British Empire, France and Flanders will remain the main theatre of operations. Every effort is to be made for carrying out the offensive operations next spring in close co-operation with the Allies and in the greatest possible strength.
This was a Cabinet decision. Nothing could be clearer. You may imagine Wully's sensations as he wrote to Haig only three days later:
At the last meeting Balfour [First Lord of the Admiralty] weighed in with a proposal that as the Western Front was so strong we should transfer all possible troops to co-operate with Russia on the Eastern Front! Words failed me and I lost my temper.
So Joffre's 'vital date' might never have happened. The General Staff might never have spoken.
There were going to be a lot more times like this, dealing with wavering politicians who were indefatigable in thinking up brilliant new ideas - a major offensive in the Balkans, another landing in Turkey (at Alexandretta), shifting the main effort to the Italian Alps, anything but concentrating on the Western Front where the main enemy was - and treating the War Committee as a debating society rather than as an instrument of war. As long as Kitchener was alive, Wully had strong support, but Kitchener was drowned on 5 June, and his successor was none other than Lloyd George, who soon became the most passionate critic of the Western Front. The agreement that Wully had extracted from Kitchener would never suit Lloyd George, and as the Battle of the Somme pursued its harrowing, costly course (unparalleled in British history), the lines were drawn for a fierce personal antagonism. In October Wully told Haig: 'I am having a rotten time. I don't want to make trouble but I doubt if I can avoid it much longer.'
It was at this period, with casualty lists constantly growing, that Lloyd George, talking to Colonel Repington of The Times burst out and said that we were all asked to keep silent and how the knee to this military Moloch, but that he was responsible, and as he would have to take the blame, he meant to have his own way. So the antagonism is even deeper than Robertson suspected.
In December 1916 Lloyd George became Prime Minister, and faced the prospect of presiding over another large offensive on the Western Front the next year. He could't stand that, and 1917 turned into a history of desperate expedients by which Lloyd George and his Cabinet supporters tried to avoid grasping the nettle of continental war. It is a dismal story; I have done my best with it in two chapters of my book The Western Front (1964), and can now only offer you the contents of a very small nutshell. At the root of was Lloyd George's steady refusal to apply the full meaning of the conscription which he had always advocated. As the year 1917 wore on Britain was exempting seven men from military service for every one exempted in France; there were 3 and a half million men Britain of military age in civilian occupations; French casualties by then numbered three times Britain's total. But Lloyd George ignored all that; he simply asserted that he was 'not prepared to accept the position of a butcher's boy driving cattle to the slaughter.'
Hence the expedients: blaming the High Command for British casualties, although no other High Command could show any different performance; withholding reinforcements from the BEF, so that weary and discouraged troops had to return to battle with unfilled ranks; trying to subordinate the British Commander-in-Chief to a French C-in-C who produced one of the War's major disasters - General Nivelle; urging an all-out attack on Austria across the Alps; and finally trying to transfer direction of the War to an inter-Allied committee, in the hope of overruling the British General Staff. To each and every one of these dangerous notions, it was Robertson who had to make the opposition. It was Wully's broad shoulders that bore the daily, weekly, monthly load, and more and more lonely did his position become. Well might he say, 'l am sick of this damned life'.
In February 1918, it came to open opposition of the British Prime Minister an his chief Military Adviser, This took place at a meeting of the Supreme War Council, high-sounding inter-Allied body which was virtually a creation of Lloyd George', prompted by Sir Henry Wilson, in the name of 'Unity of Command'. The Council was lodged at Versailles, where its permanent Military Representatives and its Secretariat resided; the Military Representatives were supposed to have authority over all the Commanders-in-Chief and all the Chiefs of Staff. Lloyd George jumped at this expedieint as a most convenient method of overruling Haig (whom he now scorned) and Wully, the thorn in his flesh who persistently championed the Western Front and Haig as C-in-C. Lloyd George appointed Wilson, whose clever talk and bright ideas appealed to him, as Britain's Military Representative, and therefore arbiter of her strategy. But every other country - France, Italy and America - appointed its Chief of Staff or his mouthpiece to represent it at Versailles. The result, of course, was that Britain's counsels were divided and her position seriously weakened.
So now the battle of principle was out in the open. Wully bitterly resisted this entire proceeding, not because he opposed unity of direction, but because this system offended what he regarded as a fundamental principle - that the Government's chief Military Adviser must be the man responsible for carrying out the advice, i.e. the CIGS. Finally, in desperation, Lloyd George tried, as a sop, to switch the roles of Wilson and Wully - Wilson to be CIGS, advising the Government, but Wully to be Military Representative with, presumably, power to overrule the CIGS, an extraordinary conception. It came to nothing - fortunately; Lloyd George delegated Mr. Balfour to put the proposition to Wully, and Balfour's account of what happened was as follows:
I pointed out to him that the Government gave him the alternative of accepting either of the two great Staff appointments connected with the conduct of the War on the Western Front, It seemed to me that they could do no more, and that, on public grounds, he ought to accept. General Robertson observed, repeatedly and with great insistence, that the fact of his having been offered whichever of the two posts he preferred had, in his view, nothing to do with the question. If his objection had merely been that the powers now given to the Council at Versailles, and therefore to the British member of it, overshadowed the position of the CIGS, it might conceivably have been worthwhile to transfer his activities from London lo Versailles. But this was not his point of view at all. He objected to the new system, and he equally objected to it whether he was expected to take a share in working it as CIGS or as Military Member of the Supreme War Council. An objectionable object in the middle of the table (to use his own metaphor) was equally objectionable from whichever end of the table you looked at it... We discussed the matter for over half an hour; I regret to say with no result at all.
So Wully fought his last fight for principle irrespective of self-interest - and lost. He told Haig:
I could not possibly accept a system as CIGS which I had already condemned as dangerous and said so. It would have been disgraceful, I may have acted wrongly but I do not think so ... It was best to be firm and act according to conviction.
I think I hear the quiet, firm voice of his mother's religious conviction speaking there.
On 16 February 1918 Wully ceased to be CIGS and was replaced by General Wilson - who was already having second thoughts about the whole CIGS/Versailles relationship. Very soon the Supreme War Council itself was relegated to the scrap heap by the great German offensives.
As for Wully, the rest of his story is soon told. For the time being he stepped down to a relatively junior position, Commander-in-Chief of Eastern Command, Home Forces, which gave him a little time to reflect on all these events. In mid-March Colonel Repington found him 'looking well and cheery. He said that he had found that he had more friends than he knew, but fewer on whom he could count than he expected.'
I find that view entirely understandable.
However, on 5 June 1918 Wully began moving upwards again. He became C-in-C of all Home Forces, and then nine months later (13 March 1919) he became C-in-C of the Army of the Rhine, following General Plumer. A year after that (29 March 1920), he tells us with quiet satisfaction, on the recommendation of Mr. Churchill, the Secretary of State for War, His Majesty promoted me to Field-Marshal.
Field-Marshals, of course, do not retire, but this was the end of soldiering for the boy from Welbourn, the amazing consequence of the step he had taken forty-three years before, when he arrived on a 'wet and dreary November evening' at Aldershot, to join the 16th Lancers, in the lowest rank of all.
On 11 February 1933 he played eighteen holes of golf; the next morning he woke up, called for his tea - and dropped dead. He was 73 years old.