26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 37


One-man think tank

John Keegan

ALCHEMIST OF WAR: THE LIFE OF BASIL LIDDELL HART by Alex Danchev Weidenfeld, f25, pp. 369 Basil Liddell Hart was, in his heyday, one of the most famous men in the world. As his successor at four or five removes as the military correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, I am often asked, at home and abroad, if I regard myself as a 'new Liddell Hart'. No chance. I lack his height, his width of acquaintance, his circle of disci- ples, his influence and certainly the power which, if only for a brief pre-war moment, he exercised.

I also lack, I hope, his impatience with any views but his own, his certainty of being right, his relentless determination to stand always in the limelight, his insatiable appetite for honours — at one stage he lobbied for an OM — and above all, the Lord spare me if I am wrong, his relentless, overweening, all-consuming and essentially. comic vanity. When I came to know him in the 1960s, he had achieved the knighthood for which he had also long agitated, and that perhaps had stayed some of the pangs of ambition that gnawed at his vitals. Nevertheless, he was still shaken by silent, self-complacent chuckles in company, sometimes when he decided to read the notes of his own brilliant stray thoughts extracted from an inside pocket at unpre- dictable moments during a conversation, sometimes simply when overcome by the realisation that ordinary mortals had been admitted to his presence. He shook and shook and Kathleen, the wife and Vestal Virgin, shook with him. `Who's in the flat?' he would ask — the flat was a space in the outbuildings of States House, near Maidenhead, arranged for 'the historians', mainly undergraduates from the Department of War Studies at Kings College London, who had been sent down to muddle in his papers; most have returned into obscurity. `Are we going in the big car?' was another question. The big car was a Rolls-Royce, supplied to him by the proprietor either of the Times or the Daily Telegraph, so that he might represent the newspaper at manoeuvres in proper style; the style had also been supported by a salary of £1,000 a year in 1925, perhaps £100,000 today. As his influence grew, so did his income. By the late 1930s, when he was pouring out articles for the Times and writing a book a year, he was earning enough to float in the great world not only on his reputation but also on his wealth.

But why his reputation? Alex Danchev has decided to characterise Basil as an `alchemist of war'. It is an intriguing description. Alex is one of the two cleverest people I taught at Sandhurst; the other was a Wykehamist with a first in PPE. The Wykehamist decided to be an infantry officer in the Greenjackets. Alex, who also had an Oxford first, became an education officer before, as a professor of interna- tional relations, establishing himself as a biographer of widening reputation. `Alchemist' is an odd choice of word to describe someone who has claims to be regarded as a major biographer himself (Foch, T. E. Lawrence), a serious historian (of both the first and second world wars), a military theorist, a strategic analyst, an influential journalist and, as special adviser to Hore-Belisha, Secretary of State for War from 1937-40, a maker of public policy (`Yesterday the War Office adopted anoth- er of the reforms I advocated. That makes 32. I shall have to amend my entry in Who's Who next year,' private papers, 12 July 1938).

Yet I see the biographer's difficulty. `Alchemist' suggests someone who did not quite have the gift of turning base metal into gold. Liddell Hart went for gold, but did not quite achieve it. Today, his histories have been superseded, his biographies have dated, his journalism has yellowed. The importance of his one big idea — mecha- nising the army for a decisive breakthrough on a narrow front — is recognised by every modern military historian, but it was never his alone. Hitler, on being shown the first panzers in 1934, exclaimed, 'That's what I need. That's what I want.' It was only after the war that the creators of the panzers and the blitzkrieg idea, Guderian foremost among them, were subtly blackmailed by Basil — who debriefed them in captivity into identifying him as their inspiration. Even before the war, the gospel of mecha- nisation was preached as hard by General J. F. C. Fuller as by Liddell Hart. Their early collaboration ended in tears.

It was Basil's vanity that did it, and it is testimony to its effect that Fuller, a better historian, a more knowledgeable man and a keener brain, was famed for his intellec- tual self-confidence. Even he could not eventually sustain his self-control. 'Your letter is one of the most extraordinary examples of self-adoration I have ever met', he wrote. 'You talk of "your correc- tions" as if you were a schoolmaster and I a little boy.' The issue of the quarrel was the American civil war, rather than mechanisa- tion, but the cause was immaterial, Basil just knew he was right — an editor of the Times later expostulated that his employee was 'a monolith of egotism and vanity' about any subject to which he gave his attention.

How well I remember his 'corrections' in another case. I had gone over to States House with a Sandhurst colleague, now a distinguished professor of strategic studies. There was a delicious lunch at the end of the big drawing-room — the dining-room had been incorporated into the master's multi-chambered working space. During coffee, Basil decided to consult some of his stray thoughts, extracted from an inner pocket of his Kilgour and French suit (he insisted on 13), and began the smiling shakes. They were interrupted by the appearance of Adrian, his Etonian son, already over-large in early middle age, with an equally over-large, crew-cut American friend. Basil continued the chuckling tremors and Kathleen — who was not Adrian's mother — indulgently joined in.

Then the mood changed. My colleague's recent book on strategic mobility was to be summoned for review. It being a Saturday, the devoted secretary was not present. Kathleen was despatched to find where the book had been put. More important, he had also to have the notes — reproduced in multiple carbon copies — he had written while reading it. Kathleen could find nei- ther. Basil became tetchy. Kathleen broke into a short, light-infantry run. Other notes on strategic mobility were produced, then books which might have been the one in question but were not.

Eventually, Kathleen laid her hand on what was needed. Basil accepted it without acknowledgment, Kathleen beamed delightedly at her guests — 'I'm used to difficult men.' My colleague was steered into a tutorial position, with his book as centre point. There were stabbings with a pencil, mutterings and murmurings, suck- ings at the frequently lit pipe. Eventually, the tutorial concluded. 'Well,' I heard Basil say, 'I've ticked all that, so you see you're all right there.'

My friend and I exchanged camouflaged smiles. We felt we were beginning to understand Kathleen's difficult man. After- wards, Basil and I walked in the orchard. He talked to me from his immense height, but not down at all. What did I think of this military matter, what of that? He listened gravely to my juvenile opinions. My partic- ular role that day had been to report on the quality of the French translation of his memoirs – an odd task, since he had been born in Paris, the son of a resident English minister to the Methodist community. I still do not know whether he spoke French, his explanation of his request, in a letter I still have, being that pressure of work prevent- ed him checking the translation himself. Later, he inscribed a copy to 'John Keegan — in warm appreciation of his historical gifts'. I had, at this stage of my life, not a single published word to my credit. I saw him rarely thereafter. I continue to think of him as one of the nicest men I ever met.