(Lecture delivered by John Terraine at the Western Front Association's Annual Seminar at Abergavenny in June 1992)
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, as 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 shook 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 as well as for the best. He is merely a fool who, holding a high position in war, refuses to 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 Germans 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 army (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 farthings 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 personnel command, but no deep thinker; on the other was 'Wully', a terse, gritty, forthright ex-ranker, a staff officer to his fingertips and a firm believer in tested principles of war. As Wully' s biographer , Victor Bonham -Carter. tells us (Soldier True [1926 ]),
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 anny. 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 troops, 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 GHQ 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 settled 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] though [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 annies 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 at times desperate struggle the BEF was undergoing an ammunition crisis so serious that Wully had an officer at GHQ whose sole duty was what he 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 at Gallipoli. Wully was as able to appreciate the potential advantages of a victory at 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 impracticality, 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 tom 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 Welboum 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 GovefI1II!ent 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 io 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 any 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 at 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, ' refe rred 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 Anny 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 self 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 tem:.is 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 cany 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 was to 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 fonn 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 Anny should be reduced, 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 to 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 lately 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 told 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 in terms of strategy, because he had been at the conference of Allied Staffs at Chantilly in 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 cooperate 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 couldn'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 it 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 in 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, ' I am sick of this damned life '.
In February 1918, it came to open opposition of the British Prime Minister and his chief Military Adviser. This took place at a meeting of the Supreme War Council, a high-sounding inter-Allied body which was virtually a creation of Lloyd George 's, 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 expedient 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 to 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 matte 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.