Sir William Robertson, in repose
Sir William Robertson is a remarkable man of history and yet no one remembers him, a few military historians aside. William was born in 1860, in Lincolnshire, England to good burgher folk of limited means. Or to put it another way, he came ‘beneath the salt’, or another way, he was brought into this world by good hard-working lower middle-class folk. An epithet which would ‘dog’ him the rest of his illustrious career in a society obsessed by Class and social standing.
At the tender age of 17 (just a shy of his 18th birthday), good William enrolled in the British army as a Private soldier in the 16th Lancers. His mother was not pleased and wrote sweet William a hard letter of admonishment. William was so traumatised by his first night in a British barracks that he contemplated desertion. However, he was thwarted in his precipitate career change after discovering that his civilian clothes had been stolen. Intriguing, isn’t it, that the most mundane of events can have great consequences to a man’s life?
So why am I writing about a lowly Private in the Victorian Imperial British Army? Well, it transpires that William, or ‘Wully’ as he was known, turned out to be a most phenomenal and singular man and has the distinction of being the only soldier in the British Army to have risen from a humble Private to Field Marshal. It is worth digesting this fact for just a second. In a Victorian society drenched with Class distinction and static notions of status, this is truly an astonishing prospect.
After 11 years of service as an enlisted soldier, William received an officer’s commission in the Dragoon Guards and served in India until 1896. He was promoted to Captain on the 3rd April 1895. During his time on the sub-continent, he applied himself diligently to learning Urdu, Hindi, Pashto, Punjabi and Persian. Later he would add Gurkhali, French and German to his repertoire of accomplished languages. With his linguistic ability established, Wully supplemented his Officer’s pay as an interpreter. Wully’s intellect was noted and in later life, he was described as the ‘Cleverest man in the British Army’. On the outside, at least, the British Army of the time was considered anti-intellectual. Being smart was not considered an important quality in an Officer. It was more important that an Officer was brave to the extent of being suicidal and smart in the sartorial sense. Of course, this is nought but soldiery bravado and nonsense. The Victorian British Army did recognise and appreciate intelligence in its soldiers and consequently, Wully received an appointment to the Intelligence Department during the Boer war of 1899 to 1902. In 1910, and in recognition of his intellect, he was appointed Commandant at Staff College. His appointment was not without controversy and one detractor, the Chief of the General Imperial Staff, initially opposed his appointment ‘due to want of breeding’. Nonetheless, and in spite of want of breeding, he was knighted by the King in 1913 and his rise through the ranks continued, a pace. By the time of the Great War in August of 1914 Robertson had achieved the accolade of Quartermaster General of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and subsequently, he was promoted Chief of Staff of the BEF in January 1915.
During the war, Robertson, together with General Haig, was a staunch advocate for concentrating military effort on the Western Front. In essence, he argued that the war could only be won on the stage of the Western theatre and subsidiary military actions, elsewhere, could only detract from the main intent. In contrast, the Prime Minister, Lloyd-George and Churchill, were firm adherents of alternative ‘Eastern pursuits’ culminating in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. In this respect, Robertson was right. Even if the Gallipoli affair had proved successful in knocking Turkey out of the war, this in no way would affect German fighting ability on the Western Front. The harsh reality for the Allies was that the war could only be won on the Western Front and this could only be achieved by defeating the formidable German army in the field. The prospect of winning the war on ‘the cheap’ was superficially attractive, but an illusory dream of armchair Generals. Churchill’s mercurial intellect never got to grips with this stark military reality.
Robertson, with others, played a pivotal role in the resignation of the commander of the BEF, Sir John French, in December 1915 and in the promoting of Sir Douglas Haig as his replacement. In the same month, Robertson became Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Toward the end of the war (February 1918), Robertson resigned his post and received a paltry command in England (1919-1920). In 1919 he became a Baronet and in the following year, a Field Marshal. Strangely enough, Robertson never led a body of troops in action. Unfairly, some of his critics would describe Robertson, as a ‘mere clerk’.
In manner, he was considered brusque and maintained a crude barrack room persona. Although aware of his social impediment of being ‘low born’, he made little attempt to acquire a patina of cultured refinement. A quality which strangely endeared him to King George. He was not a subtle man and his direct uncompromising attitude alienated politicians and fellow soldiers alike. His later years were relatively uneventful and he died from a thrombosis on 12th February 1933, aged 73.
In the final analysis, Sir William Robertson’s contribution and legacy have largely been forgotten. Tis a sorry state of affairs, as Wully deserves to be considered a ‘Great Man’ of his time. This is particularly pertinent considering his achievements and especially in view of his background and the prevailing view of a highly restrictive society. And in this regard, his rise through the degrees in rank should be considered as bordering on the miraculous.
Sir William Robertson is buried in Brookwood Cemetery, London
Sir William Robertson, in repose