Tag Archives: field marshal

The British Field Marshals 1736-1997 by T.A. Heathcote

This is one of those books that I read through, cover to cover, within hours of opening. There’s something almost holy about the British Field Marshal. Even more so since the 1995 Betts report recommended that senior officers should not be appointed to Field Marshal, Admiral of the Fleet or Marshal of the Royal Air Force, except in special circumstances. The feeling is that the Field Marshal is now a thing of history, and indeed there are very few surviving holders of this high rank alive. Added to this, Field Marshals never retire, and are on the active list for life. Anyone promoted to the top of the tree, and awarded the Prince Regent-designed Baton, is in exalted company indeed. Of the 138 men to hold the rank, there are some fine names indeed to consider – Wellington, Roberts, Kitchener, French, Haig, Plumer, Allenby, Robertson, Birdwood, Smuts, Gort, Wavell, Brooke, Alexander, Montgomery, Wilson, Auchinleck and Slim.

The interesting thing is, that Field Marshal as a rank has never been a condition, or benefit, or serving in a particular appointment. There were points in both the First and Second World Wars when the Chief of the Imperial General Staff  – the head of the British Army – was a General, while theatre commanders – technically subordinates – were Field Marshals. The rank can often be awarded by Royal approval, as it was to Haig in 1916 and Montgomery in 1944. It has also been awarded on an honorary level to 22 British and Foreign Monarchs, Royal Consorts of officers of commonwealth or Allied Armies – one of them being Marshal Foch, and also a certain Emperor Hirohito.

I was particularly interested to read the analysis of what arms Field Marshals came from. As someone who has critiqued the armed forces for the background of their leaders, I was intrigued to see how the Army fared. And it’s rather interesting. 20 Field Marshals came from the Cavalry, 4 from Armour, 10 from Artillery, 5 Engineers, 18 Foot Guards, 48 Line Infantry (including 8 scottish, 14 Rifles or Light Infantry and 1 Gurkha), and 11 from the old Indian Army. The schools attended by Field Marshals is also an interesting appendix –  15 for Eton, 3 from Charterhouse, 3 from Marlborough, 4 from Wellington, 6 Westminster, 5 from Winchester and 2 from Harrow.

The individual entries about each Field Marshal are informative, but concise as you would expect from a Biographical Dictionary. I particularly enjoyed reading about some of the older, lesser known Field Marshals pre-Wellington. We often think that the Iron Duke was the first Field Marshal. After he captured Marshal Jourdan’s Baton at Vitoria, the Prince Regent promised to send him the Baton of a British Field Marshal in return. No such Baton existed, however, so one had to be hastily designed!

It is of course a shame that we no longer, generally speaking, appoint Field Marshals. As much as the historian in me would love to see the Baton awarded more regularly, the realist in me acknowledges that our armed forces are so small, and the nature of warfare is so different nowadays, that it is perhaps not appropriate to automatically promote officers to the rank, when it is largely symbolic. If in the future we found ourselves in a mass-mobilisation war and generals were again commanding large forces in action, then by all means bring it back. But the clue is in the title – ‘Field Marshal’, he who marshal’s the field of battle. Is a Field Marshal’s place in Whitehall, in peacetime?

Funnily enough, a matter of days ago it was announced that General Lord Guthrie – Chief of the Defence Staff 1997-2001,  the last CDS not to be promoted to the highest level and the provider of the foreword for this book – was being made a Field Marshal in the Queens Birthday Honours. Also awarded the rank, along with Admiral of the Fleet and Marshal of the Royal Air Force, was Prince Charles. Illustrating succinctly how Field Marshals can be appointed after a lifetime of service, or as an honour.

The British Field Marshals 1736-1997 is published by Pen and Sword

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Lest we Forget

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Unknown Warrior (Image via Wikipedia)

First of all, apologies that its taken me this long to post something today, thanks to some pretty unpleasant stuff (but dont worry, everythings ok).

I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone who visits my blog how important the 11th of November is. The day took on a special resonance when on 11 November 1918, the guns fell silent at 11am, ending the First World War on the Western Front. Since then 11am, on the 11th day of the 11th month has been a time to remember the men and women who died during the First World War, the Second World War, and all wars since.

90 years ago today the Cenotaph was erected in Whitehall, and has been the setting for national commemoration ever since. Also in 1920 the Unknown Warrior was buried in Westminster Abbey, in a state funeral attended by Royals, Field Marshals and Generals alike. The concept of remembering a completely unknown soldier was completely new, but captured the imagination of the country – the idea that ALL war dead should be remembered, regardless of who they are. The unknown warrior represents all of his comrades.

Of course on a day like today we remember the more than 5,000 men and women from Portsmouth who died during the First World War, the 2,549 who died during the Second World War, and the men who were killed during wars in Korea, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan.

But most of all… don’t just remember them for a couple of minutes on one day each year. Remember them every day. Because thats the gap that their loss left in the lives of their family and friends.

For anyone local, the annual Remembrance Sunday Service in Guildhall Square in Portsmouth starts this Sunday at 10.30am. Hope to see you there.

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Slim: the Standard Bearer by Ronald Lewin

For as long as I can remember I have been an unashamed Monty fan. I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading up on his career, and in particular between D-Day and VE Day. To this day I am convinced that he has had a very raw deal from History, primarily due to the efforts of a number of partisan US writers who have denigrated his achievements.

But having read this book, I can confidently state that I have changed my view that Monty was the most able British General of the Second World War. Why? Well, its no to say that I think any less of Monty, but I believe that in Bill Slim we have an extraordinary leader who has really not got the credit that he deserves. Ronald Lewis more than does the man justice here.

The first thing that makes Slim extraordinary is his humble origins. He came from ordinary stock from the West Midlands, and only managed to become an Army officer through the roundabout method of joining the local University Officer Training Corps – even though he wasnt even a member of the University! These humble origins meant that he never lost an ability to talk to the ordinary soldier on a personal level – a rarity indeed for Generals.

He saw action at Galipoli and the Siege of Kut during the First World War. He was seriously wounded at Galipoli, and was awarded the Military Cross. Even so, he could only remain an officer after 1918 by transferring to the Indian Army. He spent much of the period between the wars serving as a Gurkha officer. This experience of working with colonial troops proved valuable when he came to command a multi-national Army in Burma. Perhaps his Indian Army heritage has made him a lesser leader in some people’s eyes? If so, I would ague, as Lewin seems to, that it should not matter which Army a man came from.

Unlike Monty, Slim never let success get to his head. His men – officers and other ranks alike – called him ‘uncle Bill’. Lewin argues that Slim moulded 14th Army in Burma into such a motivated, effective force, a leadership that was only matched by Monty when in command of the 8th Army in North Africa, and perhaps Patton’s 3rd Army in 1944 and 1945. But it is hard to imagine the Desert Rats referring to their commander as ‘Uncle Monty’.

Also unlike Monty, Slim did not have his own band of subordinates. Whereas Monty would bring his own men from one posting to another, Slim almost always gave them men who were there a chance. More often than not they came to admire and respect him. This surely speaks volumes about the man. As well as his subordinates, Slim was well respected by his peers and commanders. The Supreme Commander during his time in Burma was Lord Mountbatten, who was a firm supporter. Slim even managed to get on famously with the notorious anglophobe ‘Vinegar’ Joe Stilwell.

Critics might ponder how Slim would have fared commanding in North West Europe, away from a colonial setting. Lewin’s analysis of his career leaves us in little doubt. In any case, the first time Slim had fought in the jungle was when commanding the retreat from Rangoon. As someone who was able to get on with anyone, would let his generals get on with fighting the battle without micro-managing them, and had the skills to adapt to any kind of warfare, I have a sneaking suspicion that Slim would have fared better in North West Europe than Monty would have in the jungle.

That my views on British Generalship have changed so much speaks volumes about the lucidity of Lewin’s writing. I am normally very sceptical of official biographies – very often they stray into hagiography. But this is more measured. I really would have expected it to be more popular than it is.

Perhaps as the Commander of the Forgotten Army, Slim is the Forgotten General? All the same, it should not take a new book to rectify this – Lewin has than done Slim justice.

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