25 OCTOBER 1963, Page 28

How to Wage War

Soldier True: The Life and Times of Field- Marshal Sir William Robertson, Bart., GCB, GCMG, KCVO, DSO, 1860-1933. By Victor Bonham-Carter. (Frederick Muller, 50s.) Years of Combat: A Personal Story of the First War in the Air. By Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Douglas of Kirtleside. (Collins, 36s.) BY all ordinary standards, 'Wully' Robertson's life was a triumphant success. He was the only man in the British Army who ever rose from the ranks to become a Field-Marshal; and for three years, from 1915 to 1918, as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, he presided over its destiny during the most critical period in its history.

Yet the triumph was not unflawed. Robertson was, as Mr. Bonham-Carter convinces us, a soldier of great intelligence and tremendous application, of great force of character, of great force of will. Yet, as CIGS, he could not impose on Lloyd George, whose military adviser he was, his own conceptions of strategy, nor could he command from Haig, his C-in-C in France, the loyalty and frankness which, as Haig's military superior, he was entitled to. Perhaps Robertson could not be blamed for this; you cannot impose your ideas on a daemon and Haig was never loyal to anybody.

Yet it was not personal factors which led, in 1918, to Robertson's dismissal as CIGS; it was the much greater question of how the war should be conducted. Mr. Bonham-Carter, rightly, does not try to answer the question himself, and indeed by now it is probable that no final answer can ever be given. Robertson himself, however, like Haig, never had the slightest shadow of doubt what the correct answer was. It was that everything was subsidiary, even irrelevant, to the winning of the war on the Western Front.

This strategic doctrine, whether right or wrong, assumed in their minds the status of a dogma. It deprived their military thinking of all flexibility; it blinded them even to the possi- bility of any other alternative; and it led them to regard anyone who disagreed with them as either a knave or a fool or, like Lloyd George, both. They became the slaves, and others, in their millions, the victims, of their own dogma.

Perhaps that was the only way they could continue to believe in it after the appalling con- sequences of the British offensives of 1916 and 1917. Yet, curiously enough, Robertson began to have doubts. Mr. Bonham-Carter makes it clear that, before and during Passchendaele, he had serious reservations about Haig's capacity to translate into successful tactical terms the strategic doctrine to which they were both so deeply committed; and equally, about Haig's in- tention to conform faithfully to his instructions with regard to the conduct of the battle. Yet, because of his false position in relation both to Lloyd George and to Haig, he could not express these reservations without, on the one hand, impugning the divinity of the sacred cow he had so stubbornly defended, or, on the other, provoking the wrath of a subordinate to whom he had always shown an inexplicable deference. In such circumstances, his dismissal was in- evitable.

It is a relief to turn from the miasmic and sulphurous atmosphere of the great war between the frocks and the brass hats with which so much of Soldier True is concerned to the war in the air described by Lord Douglas of Kirtle- side in the admirable first volume of his auto- biography. In describing his own experiences

as a fighter pilot in the infant Royal Flying Corps he also succeeds in conveying, with great freshness and directness, the spirit of idealism, exhilaration, individualism and wry cynicism which animated the new service. The tragedy was, of course, that while the Alfred Balls, the Mick Mannocks, the Immelmans and Richthofens were fighting their way in the skies, by trial and error, and by hand-to-hand combat, to an intelligent doctrine for the employment of their revolutionary new weapon, hundreds of thousands of young men like themselves were being slaughtered like cattle on the ground be- neath them.

Lord Douglas is keenly aware of the con- trast. He rightly says that the effect of the operations on the Western Front on the young officers who, like Wavell, Alan Brooke, Mont- gomery, were later to provide the British Army with its best commanders, was to create a pro- found conviction•that this was not the way to wage war and that it must not be allowed to happen again. It seems the best, if a pragmatic. comment on the great controversy in which Robertson played so notable a part.