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Cleverest Man in the Army: The Life of FM Sir William Robertson

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 6 October 2011

Justin Saddington discusses the life of Field Marshal Sir William Robertson and the themes of late Victorian and Edwardian Army reform and British strategy in the First World War.


Justin Saddington:

William Robertson was a truly remarkable and inspirational soldier whose achievements though of great significance have largely been forgotten by history. Through a combination of ability, determination, and sheer hard graft he was able to overcome the barrier of class to become the first man to rise from private to field marshal. More significantly, as Chief of the Imperial General Staff during the critical middle years of the First World War he played a central role in masterminding the Allies' war-winning strategy of defeating the German Army on the Western Front.

Robertson's career provides us with a window onto both the transformation of the British Army from the late Victorian period onwards and to the complex evolution of British strategy and tactics during the First World War. A common thread to these themes is that they show how the British Army was undergoing a fundamental shift away from a structure based on class and wealth towards one based on meritocracy and professionalism. This was a transformation in which Robertson was in the vanguard and indeed came to personify.

William Robertson was born in 1860 in the village of Welbourn, Lincolnshire to parents of modest means and humble origins. (Here are his folks.) His parents, Thomas and Ann Robertson, were respected members of the village community who imparted a strong work ethic and Christian faith to their son. In spite of these qualities, and of the fact that he was a bright boy who showed some promise, William was educated at the village school until only the age of 13. He then seemed doomed to a life of servile obscurity when for four years he undertook employment as a domestic servant.

Clearly this is a period in his life that he tried his best to forget, for the only reference to it that his biographer, Victor Bonham-Carter, could find was where many years later he was said to have remarked to one of his staff officers: 'Boy - I was a damn bad footman.'

To escape this life William took the bold or perhaps foolhardy step of joining the Army. In November 1877 he enlisted in the 16th Lancers, then stationed at Aldershot. His mother's response to this throws some light onto popular perceptions of the Army in this period. In a letter to her son she expressed the commonly held opinion that the Army 'was a refuge for all idle people'. Indeed such was her opposition to the idea that she declared that she would 'rather bury you than see you in a red coat'.

Such a bleak view was derived from the fact that as a result of low pay and dreadful conditions the Army often attracted only the dregs of society. It was view very much vindicated by Robertson's first impressions of army life. In his memoirs he described how on joining many of his comrades seemed 'addicted to rough behaviour, heavy drinking and hard swearing'.

Indeed entry to the Army was quite a shock and in many ways a deeply unpleasant experience. Many of the soldiers in his regiment were old timers who had been worn down and embittered by the misery of army life.

Forced to live in grubby, poorly furnished barracks on meagre rations and subjected to harsh discipline, the Army held out few prospects for most soldiers. Their life consisted of a monotonous routine, brightened only by the receipt of their meagre weekly pay. This they invariably spent on drink, which in turn fuelled an unending series of petty arguments and fights. Such a wretched existence inevitably led to establishment of a strict pecking order in which the old soldiers, in Robertson's phrase, 'exacted full deference' from new recruits, who were subject to the servile practice of 'fagging', were forced to lend money and kit to their older comrades and assigned the worst bed, food and jobs.

It is hardly surprising that given such an environment Robertson soon had second thoughts about the wisdom of joining up. During many nights he contemplated putting on his civilian clothes and deserting. This option was eventually denied to him, however, when one night one of his fellow recruits, having similar thoughts, stole his civilian clothes and snuck away.

Having the decision to stay thus forced upon him Robertson began the determined effort at soldiering, which would result in his remarkable rise. In this process a further obstacle was the training system, which had changed little since the Napoleonic Wars and which Robertson described as consisting of 'antiquated and useless forms of drill and blind obedience to orders'.

However, within the Army there was still plenty of scope for individual achievement especially in sporting, martial and equestrian competitions. Being athletic and powerfully built, as well as diligent and conscientious, Robertson was able to hone his soldiering skills and so to excel in such competitions. In this way he was able to stand out from his peers. Also, in spite of few mishaps, the most notable of which was the loss of a prisoner that had been placed in his charge (for which he spent a miserable three weeks in the brig), Robertson gradually acquired a reputation for reliability and was entrusted with special duties. He also undertook the few special training courses available becoming an instructor in musketry and signalling. His hard work paid off and he rose steadily through the lower ranks becoming Corporal in 1879, Sergeant in 1882 and Troop Sergeant-Major in 1885. (He was by far the youngest sergeant in his regiment was his boast.)

As his confidence and experience grew so too did his ambition to become an officer. To this end he improved his formal education and read every book on military history, strategy and tactics that he could get his hands on. Yet the officer corps was mired within a centuries-old snobbish and hierarchical culture dominated by wealth and social status. Entering into it presented a serious obstacle to all but the most able and determined aspirants of low birth. However, this slim chance would have been reduced to nought had William joined the Army but a few decades earlier. For it was his luck that his military career began when the Army was going through a fundamental and long overdue period of reform.

This reform was initiated in response to, and gathered pace in the face of, the trials of war and the threats posed by foreign powers. It covered all aspects of army life, from the service conditions of ordinary soldiers, through to the structure of the regimental system, the reserves and the highest echelons of political and military command. Most significantly for William, they included the abolition of the purchase system, which opened up the prospect of advancement for promising soldiers of humble background.

The purchase system was a century-old method by which the aristocracy had maintained its control over the Army. It regulated entry into, and promotion within, the officer corps by purchase, each rank having a rising value. However, the system was not merely socially unjust but antithetical to the professionalism of the Army. Its abolition in 1871 was a long overdue reform of the highest importance.

However, although this was an important reform, which gave Robertson his chance, powerful forces of class and wealth remained to bar his way. William was painfully aware that should he become an officer his humble background would be constantly exposed by his accent, manners, habits, sense of humour, and a host of other things. Even if he could stomach being an outsider the problem of finance remained a serious barrier. At that time the pay for a 2nd Lieutenant was £120 a year, but an additional £300 a year was required to maintain the lifestyle of a cavalry officer. Because of this Robertson took what must have been the very difficult decision to turn down several offers to take up a commission.

The problem was only surmounted when an offer was made to him, which included the promise of a transfer to a regiment serving in India, where pay was higher and the cost of living lower. Despite the financial and social risks involved Robertson took the plunge and was gazetted as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 3rd Dragoons in 1887. (From one of the youngest sergeants he was one of the oldest lieutenants in the Army due to his late start.)

An insight into his fears and to the loneliness of his position at this time is revealed in letters that he wrote to his parents, in one of which he described how:

'I never remember leaving home more depressed than this time. You see it's all amongst strangers - strangers in more ways than one... the officers who know me are very nice, but it's a difficult business because you see I feel that I am acting under a false flag if they do not know my previous life.'

Robertson arrived in India in December 1888. Although kindly received by the officers of his regiment, the difficulties of his position placed a great stain upon him. He had to watch every penny and be very careful in his habits. The pleasures of drinking and smoking in the mess were denied to him, for he could afford neither wine nor cigars.

William had to dig deep to sustain himself in his situation and in so doing he threw himself into his work. Such an effort was easier said than done when it is appreciated that India could easily become a trap to the officers who served there. The intense heat of the day combined with light regimental duties and the large number of servants available could easily result in a slide into indolence.

Not so for Robertson, however, who seized all opportunities that came his way. He made sure to keep himself fit and continued to compete in martial and equestrian competitions, He won prizes for tent pegging, swordsmanship and fencing, and most notably in 1894 won the prize for 'best officer-at-arms'.

He was also always ready to make himself useful and was happy to take on any additional regimental duties that came up. However, his most rewarding enterprise during this time was his study of oriental languages. By taking the unusual step of working through the heat of the day, he eventually succeeded in mastering six languages: Urdo, Hindi, Persian, Pashto, Punjabi and Gurkhali.

Qualifications in these languages not only meant an important increase to his pay, but also helped him to secure a post at the army intelligence service at Simla. Working in the North-West Frontier section William began to develop the skills that would take him to the top. Diligent and methodical in his approach, his role was to gather and record intelligence data on the region. Although this involved many tedious hours of deskwork, it also entailed travelling extensively in the spectacular scenery of the region.

In 1895 Robertson had his first experience of active service when he took part in the Chitral expedition, one of the innumerable little campaigns that took place along the North-West Frontier. He was very nearly killed when during a reconnaissance mission his two guides turned on him and wounded him severely. He survived the attack wounding one and driving off the other. For this he was awarded the DSO and was soon after promoted to Captain. The event was reported with illustrations in the Daily Graphic, which you can see here.

It really was a close shave. He was travelling down a narrow mountain path when his two guides, who turned out to be religious fanatics, turned on him. One opened up with a double-barrelled shotgun, but miraculously missed with both barrels, then came at him with a sword slashing wildly. Robertson was able to floor the guy with his fist and then drive them off with his revolver. He wounded one who was captured and executed, as you can see there.

His experience in the intelligence corps at Simla encouraged William to sit the examination for entry into the staff college, a move that would greatly accelerate his career progression. This decision presented him with yet another major challenge, for the exam was highly competitive and required Robertson to learn yet another language, this time either French or German. Unable to take time off from his job or to afford private tuition Robertson took to rising early to study as best he could for several hours before starting work.

In this enterprise he was given much assistance by his new wife, Mildred, whom he had married in 1894. Despite the inequality of the match (Mildred was the daughter of a general) and the death of their first born son in 1895, the marriage was to prove highly successful and Mildred was to be a great support to her husband throughout the remainder of his life, especially in helping him to become more at ease in the society of other officers.

Robertson's hard work again paid off and he passed the exam and in 1896 left India to become the first man from the ranks ever to gain entry to the staff college.

Robertson's change of direction provides us with the opportunity to note another important aspects of the growing professionalism of the British Army, the emergence of the general staff system.

Having a pool of officers highly trained in military administration, intelligence analysis, operational planning and logistics was vital to the functioning of any modern army. Such roles were undertaken by staff officers. However, for much of the 19th century, like many other aspects of the Army, the system for training staff officers had been badly neglected. Nor was the Army run by a general staff system comparable to that developed by continental armies.

The result of this neglect had been the disasters associated with the Crimean war. After this calamity there was a gradual improvement in the training of staff officers, yet it took the further disasters of the Boer war half a century later to bring about the introduction of the general staff system.

We can see then that graduating from the staff college on the eve of the Boer War was highly opportune. Robertson reaped the benefit of the rising importance of trained staff officers to further his career.

In 1900 he became head of the foreign section of the War Office Intelligence Department. Here he acquired in-depth knowledge of the global military situation and successfully identified Germany as Britain's principal threat.

In 1907 he took up senior staff positions at Aldershot command, where he befriended the future King George V, who visited on many formal occasions.
The King was to prove a powerful ally during his wartime service as Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

In 1910 he took up the prestigious posting of commandant of the staff college, where he was lauded for his practical and common-sense approach to teaching. In 1913 he became director of military intelligence by which time he had reached the rank of major-general. During this meteoric rise Robertson, or 'Wully' as he was now affectionately known, had won the respect and admiration of his colleagues and acquired a wide range of knowledge and experience which had established his reputation as 'the cleverest man in the Army'.

When war broke our in August 1914, 'Wully' was attached to the British Expeditionary Force as Quartermaster General. The opening months bore witness to a highly mobile form of warfare, in which the BEF advanced to meet the German attack at Mons before retreating, regrouping and advancing again as part of the French counter attack on the Marne.

In such a fluid situation 'Wully' had to work frantically to provide the troops with all they needed. He quickly dispensed with all peacetime red tape to ensure supplies were issued when and where they were needed, and took care to ensure that British forces could would not be severed from their supply ports.

As winter drew on and the open warfare gave way to entrenched stalemate it became clear that victory had eluded both sides and that the war would continue indefinitely. The British Army was badly short of the supplies and equipment needed for trench warfare. 'Wully' had to tackle this problem by implementing strict economy especially in the issue of artillery ammunition. Despite its shortages the BEF clung on grimily through the winter, notably defeating the German Army's ferocious attempts to break through at Ypres.

His efforts did not go unnoticed and further promotion followed when in January 1915 he was appointed Chief of Staff of the BEF (that's the abbreviation of British Expeditionary Force). This was a tough job for it entailed the careful handling of its temperamental commander in chief, Sir John French, whose views and methods 'Wully' often profoundly disagreed with.

The position did, however, give 'Wully' a platform to assert his strategic views. As it is his influence on the development of British strategy in the First World War that Robertson's importance to history lies it is to this broad theme that we now must turn our attention.

At its outset the British government had anticipate a war of only short duration in which Britain would largely be a bystander. Her role would be to defend sea communications and maintain the economic integrity of the alliance while the powerful land forces of her allies, France and Russia, it was hoped would rapidly overwhelm the forces of the Central Powers. Britain's small Army was intended to make a symbolic rather than a significant contribution to this victory.

This passive and languid approach to war was characterised by Churchill as the strategy of 'business as usual'. However, by the winter of 1914 with Russia suffering serious defeats in the east and with the onset of entrenched stalemate in the west it became clear that this strategy was redundant; the war would be long and would require Britain's full commitment. In the wake of this failure a debate over the shape of the new British strategy began which was to grow in ferocity as the war proceeded and indeed was to be re-fought by historians for decades to come.

This debate has been broadly and somewhat crudely characterised as falling between 'easterners' and 'westerners'. (Here's the Western Front in all its glory.)

Western strategy was far simpler in terms of its basic conception. Its advocates, who included most senior British generals, argued that victory could only be won by the defeat of the German Army in France and Flanders and that, as Robertson put it, 'every man, horse, shell and gun' should be deployed in that theatre to attain this.

This concept was fundamentally sound; the Germans were the principal enemy; winning the war depended upon defeating their armies which were largely deployed in west. Furthermore, logistics dictated that the British fight in France and Belgium where port and rail facilities were available and lines of communications were short. Finally, the defence of France was such a vital issue that it could not be jeopardised by deploying troops elsewhere.

However, despite the seemingly inexorable logic that lay behind them, arguments for western strategy lost much of their force in the face of the grave difficulties that were manifested at the operational and tactical level of war. These problems were the result of the technological epoch in which the war was fought. Briefly outlined, the problem was that machine guns, artillery, barbed wire, railways and telephones gave overwhelming advantage to the defence.

(Here we can see the classic ingredients of trench warfare which led to the stalemate.)

This led to the failure of all offensive operations with which the war had begun and forced each side to construct the vast and highly elaborate system of opposing trenches which eventually stretched from the Alps to the Channel. It is the dilemma created by this unique set of technological factors, rather than the more commonly held belief in the incompetence of commanders, which resulted in the enormous casualties of the First World War.

(Here's a few of the 'trenchy' scenes which I'm sure you're all familiar with.)

(And this is an aerial view which gives an impression of just how elaborate the trench system became, with multiple lines of defence making it incredibly difficult to break through.)

Because of this situation many British politicians drew the conclusion that because attacking in the west was both costly and futile an alternative should be sought as a matter of urgency. This gave rise to a plethora of competing schemes to open fronts in alternative theatres, which have been grouped together under the umbrella term of 'eastern strategy'.

(Here, two giants of the 20th century nicknamed 'the Heavenly Twins' - the most eloquent advocates of eastern strategy, Lloyd George and Churchill.)

Easterners argued that new fronts should be opened up against one of Germany's weaker allies. This could be done by bringing in hitherto neutral states into the war on the side of the Allies or by utilising Britain's superior naval strength by mounting amphibious assaults on undefended coastlines. Lloyd George characterised this strategy as 'knocking the props from under Germany', the idea being that German power was underpinned by her allies and that should they be defeated Germany would be forced to surrender.

In accordance with this thinking and the pressure of events a number of campaigns came into being in 1915, against Turkey in Gallipoli, and Palestine and Mesopotamia, against Bulgaria in Greece, and Austria via Italy.

However, although not devoid of some redeeming merits eastern strategy was deeply flawed. Far from being propped up by her allies it was clear that the Germans in fact propped them up. By attacking Germany's partners all the Allies succeeded in doing was bringing them more fully into the war than they otherwise would have been, thus increasing the strength of the Central Powers and dissipating that of the Allies.

Eastern strategy also failed to take account of the logistical superiority of the Central Powers' interior railway lines over allied sea transport. This meant that wherever the Allies attempted to attack, the Central Powers could deploy troops to block them with greater rapidity.

Another problem was that wherever the new fronts were created they would swiftly degenerate into smaller versions of the Western Front, where the machine gun, barbed wire and heavy gun reigned supreme and little gains could be won for the huge losses sustained. Deploying troops to new theatres could not overcome the fundamental problem of the First World War, which resulted from the superiority of defensive firepower, poor communications and lack of mobility.

This factor was exacerbated by the terrain in which the peripheral campaigns were fought. This ranged from the formidable mountain ranges of Italy and the Balkans, to the high cliffs and narrow peninsula of Gallipoli to the vast deserts of the Middle East. None of these hostile environments offered any advantage to the attacker, and all increased the already formidable advantages of defence.

Finally Eastern strategy was flawed because Britain simply lacked the resources to make it effective. Britain lacked the means even to fight on one front let alone many. Indeed opening up new fronts while there were desperate shortages on the Western Front was little short of reckless.

The only potentially valuable dimension to Eastern strategy concerned support for Russia. Russia played a vital role in the allied cause. She forced the Central Powers to fight on two main fronts, gave the allies a superiority in manpower and helped to ensure that the Central Powers remained besieged within their narrow central European corridor of territory.

Yet in spite of her importance Russia did not have the place within British strategy that it warranted. No statesmen consistently championed Russia's cause and as a result the formidable logistical difficulties inhibiting British aid to Russia were never fully overcome. As a result Russia was left to fight the war in isolation, a situation which contributed to her slide into revolution in 1917.

While this dispute between 'easterners' and westerners' formed the broad context for the strategic debate, British strategy was complicated and compromised by three other major issues: Imperial defence, coalition warfare and inadequate governmental machinery.

Britain's global empire and worldwide interests coloured the outlook of her leading statesmen and so distorted the course of British strategy. This became of particular importance when the Ottoman Empire entered the war. This brought a direct military threat to the vital strategic areas of the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf (again accounting for the campaigns that opened up there). It also brought the more insidious threat of the Sultan's call to holy war against the British, which aimed to incite revolt within the British Empire's territories populated by Muslims.

All these threats were to prove exaggerated. The Middle Eastern deserts made both Suez and the Gulf easily defensible and the Sultan's call to Jihad met with little response from the Muslim subjects of the British Empire. Yet these fears were widely held by British statesmen and were used to bolster arguments for adopting eastern strategy, much to the detriment of Britain's real interests.

The pressures of coalition warfare were to be even more serious in their effects. British statesmen were painfully aware that the only way Germany could be defeated was if the allied coalition of Britain, France and Russia held together. The paramount importance of this political objective was to badly restrict British strategic freedom.

As the war progressed, France and Russia were bearing the brunt of the fighting and suffering enormous casualties in the process. This put the British under increasing pressure to act offensively to relieve them. Even if such offensives were costly and militarily unwise it was politically vital for the British to show their allies they were not going to leave them in the lurch and were ready to make sacrifices on a comparable scale. This pressure was to cause Minister of War Lord Kitchener to lament that: 'We are compelled to make war as we must not as we should like.'

Complicating everything was the chaos that presided at the centre of government. There were deep-seated divisions between the 'frock coats', or civilian politicians, and the 'brass hats', or senior military professionals, over who should run the war. Also for much of the war strategy was formulated in number of large unwieldy cabinets and committees. As a result policymaking was subject to continuous and often-acrimonious debate, lacked cohesion and consistency and was compromised by delays and unresolved differences.

We can see then that a wide range of competing interests, problems and pressures were at work in the formulation of British strategic policy. Where then does Robertson fit in to this picture?

Robertson was amongst the most persistent and obstinate of the westerners. In keeping with the ideas with which he had been inculcated at Staff College he believed firmly in the importance of concentrating forces against the primary enemy in the principal theatre of war. He expressed this clearly in an influential strategic paper circulated in 1915 in which he wrote: 'The aim of the Entente Powers is to bring about the defeat or exhaustion of the predominant partner of the central alliance - Germany. Every plan of operation must therefore be examined from the point of view of its bearing on this result. If it does not it will have a false basis, and will accordingly lead to false conclusions.'

He was to cling to this view tenaciously throughout the war. Yet as I indicated earlier western strategy was compromised by the immense tactical difficulties resulting from the emergence of trench warfare. The question that presented itself to those who advocated action in this theatre then was how could these problems be overcome or at least mitigated? It is upon this issue that the opinions of the generals diverged and it is possible to discern the emergence of two distinct, if overlapping, schools of thought on how offensive operations should be conducted.

The first of these was that advocated by the two commanders of the BEF, Sir John French (who you can see here) and Sir Douglas Haig. These two commanders held to a belief that with a sufficient concentration of artillery fire the Western Front could be broken. The gap so created could then be exploited and return to manoeuvre warfare brought about. This strategy alone they argued could bring victory through the encirclement and destruction of enemy forces or the capture of key strategic objectives which would force the Germans to withdraw.

However, breakthrough was to remain an unattainable goal throughout the war. Simply put, it was far too difficult to create a clean break in the line and even on the fleeting occasions when this looked possible, exploitation remained impossible with the transport and communications of the time. Yet it was just such a strategy that was attempted repeatedly throughout 1915. This had disastrous effects which achieved little except the demise of Sir John French's career.

In spite of these failures Haig remained transfixed by the mirage of the green fields beyond the mud and blood of the Western Front and when he took command in December 1915 refused to relinquish his belief that such a strategy could bear fruit. Yet because by the end of 1915 the notion of breakthrough had been widely discredited he was forced to conceal his hopes within the new strategy that had emerged as its replacement.

This new strategy was that which goes by the now notorious name of 'attrition'. Attrition has had a bad press and is conventionally looked upon as the unimaginative and callous concept, which generals fell back upon when they failed to come up with more subtle or creative solutions to the tactical impasse of the Western Front. Indeed this type of warfare has been roundly condemned as being responsible for the annihilation of an entire generation. However, attrition was not only the correct strategy, but indeed the only viable strategy with the technology available at the time.

Attrition, then is a key concept for understanding the strategy and warfare of World War One and it is worth considering its origins and development.

The concept of attrition evolved during the course of the war and meant different things to different people. It was first introduced by Lord Kitchener, who as minister of war controlled British strategy in the early part of the war. For Kitchener attrition was a defensive strategy based around the hope that the Germans' would obligingly attack the Allies, who could then use the superiority of defensive firepower to inflict disproportionate casualties upon them.

Although favourable to the British as it allowed them to husband their forces instead of committing them to offensives before they were ready, this strategy was untenable and broke down in the face of many pressures. Firstly the Germans' didn't oblige the Allies by attacking in the West. Instead throughout 1915 they concentrated much of their effort on the eastern front where they enjoyed considerable success. Secondly, Sir John French along with most other British officers, held firm to the belief that offensive operations could be successful and were in any case essential to maintain the morale and fighting efficiency of the Army.

Most significantly, however, the pressures of coalition warfare served to undo Kitchener's defensive strategy. The French, who were understandably adamant in their efforts to drive the Germans from their territory would not accept a defensive stance and the Russians were suffering serious defeats in the east and had to be assisted by attacking the Germans in the west. In order to maintain the integrity of the alliance the British were forced to participate in offensive endeavours as fully as they could.

The failure of Kitchener's strategy was most tellingly revealed by comments he made to Haig prior to the battle of Loos in September 1915 where he confided that: 'We must act with all our energy, and do our utmost to help the French, even though by so doing, we suffered very heavy casualties indeed.' These comments were a frank admission of the harsh reality that the politics of maintaining the alliance at all cost had to put ahead of sound strategy and indeed the lives of British soldiers. Yet the inherent contradiction of this policy was summed up concisely by Robertson who said prior to Loos that: 'We would not be helping the French by throwing away thousands of lives in knocking our heads against a brick wall.'

Kitchener's strategy was also undone however not only by offensives in the west but also by the extension of the war to the east. In this respect Kitchener was his own worst enemy, for he had spent prolonged periods of command in Egypt and India and as a result was profoundly influenced by imperialist concerns. Because of this outlook, Kitchener acquiesced in the eastern adventures in Gallipoli, Salonika and Mesopotamia all of which for the reasons that I outlined before ended in failure and contributed to the very overstretching of Britain's resources that Kitchener had hoped to avoid.

1915 was the graveyard of three different strategies. Kitchener's hope of limited commitment and defensive attrition had been undone by a whole host of factors. Likewise the breakthrough strategy of French and Haig had yielded nothing, nor had the eastern adventures advocated by Lloyd George and Churchill. These failures produced major changes in the British military and political command. Churchill and French lost their positions and Kitchener became increasingly sidelined. The rising stars were Haig, who became commander of the BEF, and Robertson who became Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

(There's Robertson again, just in case you'd forgotten what he looks like.)

On taking up office 'Wully' re-invigorated the authority of the general staff which had languished under his predecessors. He also re-organised the war office bringing in his own men and putting all theatres of war under his command. However, these were but a preliminary to the attainment of his three principal aims. These were: to reassert the primacy of the Western Front; to harness the entire resources of the nation, in particular her manpower, to the allied war effort;' and to devise and implement a war-winning plan with Britain's allies.

In all three of these endeavours 'Wully' experienced decidedly mixed results. Although the Western Front was acknowledged by all to be the primary front and the Gallipolli fiasco was brought to an end, Salonika remained as a running sore and the campaigns in the Middle East were to continue to grow as the war went on.

Also, although conscription was introduced during 1916, 'Wully' never got the full control over manpower that he felt was necessary to ensure victory. Indeed as the war went on Lloyd George was to use control of manpower increasingly as a means of restricting Robertson's control over strategy. Finally although plans to co-ordinate the efforts of the allied coalition were devised, they proved difficult to implement and the problem of inter-allied co-operation was to remain a serious one until 1918.

An additional frustration for Robertson, however, was his inability to impose his will upon the operational methods used on the Western Front. Grave differences on this issue emerged between his views and those of Haig. It is here that we must return to the concept of attrition. For at the heart of these differences lay a divergence in the understanding of the concept and purpose of attrition held by each.

Robertson was an advocate of what we may call the step-by step warfare of offensive attrition. In a memorandum of extraordinary prescience 'Wully' saw the way ahead as early as February 1915.

'If the Germans are to be beaten it must be by a process of slow attrition, by a slow and gradual advance on our part, each step being prepared by a predominant artillery fire and great expenditure of ammunition.'

This concept was also advocated by General Henry Rawlinson (who we see here) who coined the term 'bite and hold ' to describe such attacks. Such attacks aimed to minimise the cost of offensive action through the selection of only a limited objective which could then be captured through the means of methodical planning and overwhelming concentration of artillery.

Because the objective was limited, once taken the captured ground could be quickly and easily re-enforced and the power of defensive firepower utilised to inflict serious losses on the Germans if they attempted to counter attack. Then when the ground had been consolidated artillery and fresh troops could be brought up and preparations for another limited offensive could begin.

If German resistance stiffened in one sector, the offensive could be shifted to another part of the line, so that the Germans whilst never losing territory in depth would suffer severe losses and be pushed back gradually along the whole front.

This step-by–step method for offensives would be supported by a generally offensive attitude in which continuous raiding of enemy trenches would aim to ensure that the enemy was both continuously pressurised and weakened. (Here we see a British raiding party going into action). This method of warfare was most vividly described by Churchill as 'nibbling and gnawing '. Its function was to wear down the Germans by conducting operations in such a way as to ensure that their loses were higher than those of the Allies. Yet although its genesis lies in 1915, it was not until 1918 that it was implemented to its fullest extent.

This was war at its most brutal and grinding. It promised heavy casualties with no quick success or easy victory. Moreover it was a difficult concept to grasp, not only in the sense of how such battles could be conceived in the imagination, but how they could be woven together into a war-winning strategy. Also the strategy required lavish amounts of artillery, which had to be utilised with a raft of new gunnery techniques in combination with new more sophisticated infantry tactics. All of this would take time to build and learn and would in the short term severely limit what the British Army was capable off achieving.

These unfortunate realities rendered the strategy of attrition either unintelligible or unattractive to many generals and politicians. So while as a result of the failure of all other options attrition ostensibly became the guiding principle of allied strategy, in practice this policy was never adhered to in the pure form which would enable it to succeed to the fullest extent.

Haig in particular held a very different understanding of attrition. For him attrition was only the first stage of a battle. Its purpose was to wear down the enemy only to the extent needed to create favourable conditions for a decisive attack. Again this decisive attack would entail breaking through the enemy's lines and returning to mobile warfare.

This was most succinctly defined in Haig's diary entry for January 18 1916 where he wrote:

'The principals which we must apply are:

  1. Employ sufficient force to wear down the enemy and cause him to use up his reserves.
  2. Then, and only then, throw in a mass of troops (at some point where the enemy has shown himself to be weak) to break through and win victory.'

This flawed notion was based upon faulty and over-optimistic intelligence about the decline of German reserves and morale which led Haig to believe that the Germans were far closer to cracking than was actually the case. It was to have serious consequences for the offensives of 1916 and 1917.

These mighty offensives, notably the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele, are by far the most controversial in British military history.

On the first day of the Somme, Haig, believing that the German reserves had been used up at the battle of Verdun earlier in the year, hoped to rupture the German lines in a single mighty blow. This failed catastrophically resulting in the bloodiest day in [British] military history.

Likewise during the Passchendaele offensive a year later, Haig again believing that the Germans were on their last legs, harboured hopes for a breakthrough. He once again set far-reaching objectives, which aimed to capture the Belgian coast, again resulting in excessive casualties.

Haig was certainly not blind to the importance of well-prepared operations and indeed implemented the innovations in tactics and weaponry needed to make them a success. The great battles of 1916 and 1917 contain some striking successes, most notably the capture of Vimy and Messines Ridges. However, he failed to embrace the concept of attrition whole-heartedly. Because of this even in the face of horrific weather Haig continued to sanction over-ambitious and ill-thought-out operations in line with his unfaltering yet unfounded belief that if he kept pushing the German front would collapse, and the opportunity for manoeuvre and exploitation would at last present itself.

We may properly regard the great battles of 1916-17 as a mixed bag of success and failure in which Haig earnestly grappled with and attempted to reconcile the opposing concepts of attrition and breakthrough.

Yet at the same time as the battles raged, Haig, utilising the language of attrition, claimed more frequently that he was fighting a 'wearing out' battle. Yet such statements were just a way to rationalise his losses and justify his continuation of battles. Having failed to use attrition to achieve breakthrough, attrition now became the concept used to defend his conduct of operations.

Yet there can be no doubt that this claim is something of a smokescreen. For Haig's mistakes ensured that the strategy of attrition had clearly failed at a tactical level. By most calculations the Allies suffered significantly higher casualties than the Germans during the operations of 1916 and 1917.

(And here's just a grim reminder, really, of how success and victory on the Western Front is measured by the body count.)

However, I suspect there are some Haig supporters out there, so before I get accused of Haig bashing, it is important to qualify some criticism of him. First it's important to re-iterate that the heavy casualties resulted more from the nature of trench warfare and the inherent weaknesses of the British Army, than bad generalship. Moreover, Haig can be praised for effectively managing the transformation of the British Army into a modern and highly efficient fighting force, which in the hard school of war succeeded in mastering the latest weapons and tactics to become well versed in the art of trench warfare.

Most importantly, if measured by their wider strategic aims the offensives could still be regarded as a success. The Germans could less afford the losses than could the Allies and in the long term the grim arithmetic of attrition still worked in the Allies' favour. Finally, the offensives of 1916- 17 played a vital role in alleviating pressure on Britain's hard-pressed allies.

Robertson and Haig were united in their belief that the Western Front operations should be prosecuted relentlessly and in this judgement they have undoubtedly been vindicated by history.

However, while united on the broad question of strategy we have seen that there were clear divisions between them as to how operations should be conducted. 'Wully' had been preaching the need for more measured and careful approach to battle since 1915 and was deeply perturbed by Haig's over-ambitious plans and the excessive casualties which resulted from them. The question remains then why he did not take measures to enforce this approach upon Haig when as CIGS he was his superior. If 'Wully' was unhappy with Haig's methods why did he not bring Haig to book for them, or perhaps even press for his dismissal.

In fact Robertson did the opposite. In his correspondence with Haig he showed great deference to him and offered him unfailing support. 'Wully' also championed Haig at home and resolutely defended his conduct of operations in the cabinet. He limited himself to writing in confidence to Haig's subordinates in the vain hope that they would act to reign in Haig.

This contradiction is especially mystifying given Robertson's character. He was not a man to suffer fools, nor cow down to social superiors and could be extraordinarily blunt in his opinions. How then is it to be explained?

Whilst technically his superior, Robertson clearly felt some measure of deference to Haig and to his position as Commander of the BEF. He also felt that it was not the place of the CIGS to lecture the commander in the field on tactics.

Yet the root cause of Robertson's deference to Haig was his fear that if he made an open break with him on the issue of tactics the politicians would exploit this division between them to wrest control of strategy. It was only by resolutely maintaining a united front with Haig that Robertson could hope to retain his control of British military policy. So for the sake of strategy 'Wully' was forced to sacrifice his influence over tactics. This was a heavy price to pay and was to gradually undermine his position, for he was forced into the unenviable position of having to justify an ever-growing butcher's bill whilst being deeply unhappy with the methods by which operations were being conducted.

Whilst western strategy was in the main vindicated, the huge cost in life it had incurred was deeply unsettling to the politicians. Lloyd George in particular was distraught by this and constantly sought to undermine the strategy and the men who were its advocates. During the course of 1916 he rose to become Minister of War then Prime Minister, his views became increasingly difficult to ignore. Indeed Robertson's time in office was characterised by a running battle with Lloyd George over control of strategy. This battle was to become increasingly bitter and while Robertson was able to use influence with the press, the Army, the King and, at times the other allied generals to obstruct Lloyd George's schemes, in the end Lloyd George proved too cunning an opponent and succeeded in forcing 'Wully' out.

That Britain's war effort should be so severely compromised by the bitter feud between its senior military and civilian leaders was especially tragic given the fact that both men agreed that the war should be fought to a finish with the aim of total victory. Yet while Robertson could accept that total war could not be won without hard fighting and heavy casualties, Lloyd George could not bring himself to face the harsh reality of this cruel logic. He therefore constantly sought new schemes which would enable the British Army to avoid heavy losses either by lobbying for his earlier policy of concentrating forces against Germany's weaker allies or by supporting any scheme that would involve Britain's allies having to shoulder a greater burden of the fighting and the casualties.

In stark contrast to Robertson's unwavering adherence to western strategy Lloyd George flitted about from one scheme to the next as his fertile mind grappled with the strategic conundrum. As well as pressing for action in the Balkans and the Middle East, he sought to equip the Italians and the Russians with British guns to enable them to take the offensive.

The Robertson-Lloyd George duel had mixed results. While Robertson was unable to prevent the growth of Britain's military commitments in the Balkans and Middle East, he thwarted large-scale transfer of material to Italy or Russia and ensured that the Western Front remained the primary theatre.

As the battle for a strategy rumbled on another issue grew steadily in importance and also served to drive a wedge between 'Wully' and Lloyd George. This was the thorny issue of unity of command. This problem had dogged Anglo-French strategy since the beginning of the war. For whilst unity of command was clearly desirable to enable the Allies to make the most efficient use of their resources, the lack of trust between the British and French commanders made it extremely difficult to implement in practice.

Lloyd George however was not to be deterred. He saw unity of command not only as a noble end in itself but also as a way of undermining the authority of his own generals which would enable him to seize control of the higher direction of the war.

Lloyd George's first attempt to subordinate the BEF to the French came during a conference at Calais in February 1917. It failed when Robertson and Haig reacted with fury to the idea and to Lloyd George's devious intrigues. However, in the face of a catalogue of disasters which befell the Allies in 1917, which saw mutiny in the French Army, heavy British loses at Passchendaele, revolution in Russia, the rout of the Italians at Caporetto and the devastating impact of Germany's u-boat campaign, unity of command once again became a pressing issue.

While this bleak picture was offset by the entry of the United States into the war it set the scene for the climax of the duel between Robertson and Lloyd George in the winter of 1917-18. Lloyd George used the deteriorating strategic situation to again press for his long-hoped-for diversion of allied strategy away from the Western Front. He argued that the Italians could not be allowed to go under and British troops should be despatched there to prop them up. He also argued that German expansion into Russia posed a threat to the British Empire, which the British should counter by sending more troops to the Middle East to capitalise on General Allenby's recent successes there.

While Robertson was forced to give some ground, he did not buy this interpretation of the strategic situation. In contrast he quite rightly still viewed the Western Front as the decisive theatre. He argued that Germans would not use the collapse of Russia to expand east, but on the contrary would take the opportunity to divert troops from the east to the west in an attempt to win victory there before the Americans arrived in large numbers.

As this dispute over strategy reached a new pitch of intensity Lloyd George determined to win it by once again resurrecting the issue of unity of command. To this end he conspired with this chap, General Sir Henry Wilson, to press for the creation of the Allied Supreme War Council upon which would sit senior allied political and military figures. The idea was for this body to co-ordinate all allied strategy and resources. However, it was not clear how this new body would operate, what its powers and responsibilities would be, nor how it would interact with existing command structures.

Robertson perceived both Lloyd George's duplicitous motives and the flaws in the new system. He understood that its main purpose was to undermine his authority as CIGS and so lobbied hard against its introduction. However, his opposition was perhaps too virulent, for unity of command was an important objective and it was necessary for the Allies to attempt to come to some formula to bring it about however imperfect. In putting up such fierce resistance Robertson began to be seen as an obstacle to allied unity and so having boxed himself into a corner was forced to resign in February 1918.

However, Lloyd George had left it too late to re-orientate strategy away from the Western Front. As Robertson had predicted the Germans concentrated their resources for one final mighty offensive on the Western Front in the spring of 1918. The crisis that this brought rendered all other strategic considerations meaningless. All energy and resources had by default to be once more concentrated on the Western Front. Moreover, the crisis finally forced upon the Allies a workable system of unity of command when Marshal Foch was chosen to co-ordinate allied forces.

(And he is the one second from the right. And that's the bunch of allied commanders on the Western Front in 1918.)

After weathering the storm of the German onslaught the Allies seized the opportunity of German exhaustion to vigorously counter attack. The British armies, now lavishly equipped with artillery and employing the most sophisticated fighting methods, were in the vanguard of an offensive that pushed the Germans back along the entire front and forced them to sue for peace.

The First World War was the most desperate and gruelling war in Britain's history. Few generals came out of it with their reputations intact. How then does Robertson's stand?

Whilst he had no doubt made many mistakes, in particular showing too much deference to Haig, his views on both strategy and tactics had been ultimately vindicated. And it is by this that his time as Chief of the Imperial General Staff should be judged.

(There's another fine caricature showing what a big character he was.)

Thank you very much.


James Bishop-King
23 January 2012, 3.22pm

As a member of SOFNAM I am

As a member of SOFNAM I am currently unable to attend the lunchtime lectures. This was one I wished to attend and it was very helpful to hear it on line plus a transcript. It was also informative because I am a member of the WFA.

Rihari Wilson
1 June 2016, 5.50am

I believe that it is still

I believe that it is still true that Sir William Robertson remains the only man in the British army ever to rise from the rank of private to that of field marshal. I remember hearing in the 1950s the son of an air vice-marshal say that a certain cavalry regiment was the best in the army as it was impossible to get a commission in it without a private income.

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