(Lecture delivered by John Terraine at the Western Front Association's Annual Seminar at Abergavenny in June 1991 and published in Leadership & War, a WFA publication for members, in 1998)
The title of this essay is 'Wully' - the Army nickname for a man. There should really be a sub-title too, and it ought to be 'The Making of a Chief'. This is the background story of one of the most important British officers of the Great War - indeed, in our whole history. I shall try to show you what kind of a man it was who went to France with the BEF in August 1914, on his way to duties and burdens beyond previous experience and honours beyond his dreams.
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 Maitland 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-Carter'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 at 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 times 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 everyone 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 you 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 took 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 boai;d 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 blacklist; 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 16th 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 h 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 not 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 anyone 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 so as, with the aid of sympathetic and helpful officers, he continued his long, slow clim Corporal in April 1879, Lance-Sergeant in May 1881 (thus, as he says, 'becoming member of the sergeants' mess and terminating my barrack-room life with the men' - was a milestone), then full Sergeant in January 1882 ('by far the youngest of that rank the regiment', he says, 'both in age and service'), and in March 1885, only 25 years old ai with seven years' service behind him, he became Troop Sergeant-Major. That left on one more non-commissioned rank to be gained: Regimental Sergeant-Major - and 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 we 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 no suggestion anywhere that he thought of leaving the Army. But his own ability ha 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 dare 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 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 Guard 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 make substantial contributions to the regimental band, and there was a constant round entertainment by the Officers' Mess. Even in a line infantry regiment, Mess bills alo 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, he says, 'I could not entertain the idea of leaving my old arm, the cavalry.' So, taking this into account, he 'decided that I must give up all idea of realising my ambition, an 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, where 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 fitted 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 Welboum 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, and 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 it's 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 it's 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 on 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 them 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, an 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 he 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 above 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 tale 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 world , 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), Ha.king (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 905, 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 State 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 their 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 bf tween 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 a 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-Carter 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 Welboum. 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 peacetime 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 a 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 commarid. 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 KCVO, DSO.
IMAGE: General Sir W Robertson ("Wully") (IWM Q69626) from the collections of the Imperial War Museums