May 2, 2009

Hat tip to Dr James Beach of Salford, who sent me this example of a contemporary remembrance of the high command in the Great War. Shame about the spelling, and getting the wrong king, but never mind: there are more details about William Robertson, the only soldier to rise all the way from private to field marshal, here.

It put me in mind of another echo of Robertson, during the Second World War. This is from John Kennedy (DMO at the War Office)’s memoirs, The Business of War (London, Hutchinson, 1957), 254. The moment is half way through July 1942. The Americans General George Marshall and Harry Hopkins were on their way to London to discuss Anglo-American strategy:

In a telegram which Dill had sent us just before Marshall’s arival, he mentioned that Marshall had been studying Sir William Robertson’s Soldiers and Statesmen, and that he had sent him a copy of Volume I of this work, in which he had marked Chapter 3. We looked it up, and found that this is the chapter in which Robertson emphasizes the importance of concentration upon the decisive point, and in which he states his view that the Dardanelles attack was an unjustifiable diversion of effort from the Western Front. The Americans had evidently drawn the deduction that, in July 1942, France was the decisive front, and that new operations elsewhere [ie an invasion of NW Africa] must, therefore, be wrong. In this same chapter, Robertson also lays stres on the duty of Service advisers to state their opinions whether asked for them or not. The Dardanelles Commission had supported this view when they pointed out that Mr Churchill had obtained the support of the service chiefs to a lesser extent than he himself had imagined, because they had not spoken out.

Brooke told me, on 18th July, that he had discussed this telegram with Churchill, whose hackles were up over the reference to the Dardanelles. He had said to Brooke that he would make short work of Marshall if he tried to lay down the law on the lines advocated by Robertson. One of my officers told me he had been unable to get a copy of Soldiers and Statesmen from any of the libraries – there had been a run on it by Ministers, who were said to be waling about with copies under their arms.

Whether Robertson would actually have been in favour of a cross Channel invasion in 1942 is another matter. He’d have been in the same position as Brooke (and Dill before him) of lacking the military resources, and as a former Quartermaster General and Chief of Staff of the BEF, he’d also have known the importance of logistics. Only once the Atlantic seemed secure would he have been keen to risk his neck in France, I think.