robertsonPhotographs from the life of Field Marshal Sir William Robert Robertson, 1st Baronet, GCB, GCMG, GCVO, DSO (29 January 1860 – 12 February 1933). Robertson was a British Army officer who served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1916 to 1918, during the First World War.

'Wully' Robertson was the first and to date the only British Army soldier to rise through the ranks from private soldier to field marshal.

Photographs and captions kindly supplied by Charlie Vincent.

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1. My great-great-grandfather Thomas Robertson standing at his shop door. Thomas was Welbourne's village tailor and postmaster. He was a large, well-turned out man who would do the postal rounds with a flower in his pinhole and his faithful collie by his side. As a junior officer, William Robertson could often not afford the uniform he needed. His father helped out by making the clothing for him. Whilst William Robertson loved and admired his father it would be his devoutly Christian mother, Ann, who would be the greater influence on his life.

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2. Robertson aged 30 as an officer in India. He didn't have the funds to give lavish parties like other officers so, instead, he filled his time by, among other things, learning languages. He made the acquaintance of a local Munshi who taught him Hindi, Urdu, Persian Punjabi, Pashto, and Gurkhali. He mastered the latter whilst trekking through the Pamirs with a Gurhka guide.

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3. A map drawn by Robertson as a school boy. His interest in and talent for cartography would prove valuable in his rise through the ranks.

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4. He spoke French fluently with a terrible accent. The same is probably true of his Pashto as it failed to endear him to a couple of Pashtun guides during reconnaissance work for the Chitral Relief campaign of 1895. Struck down with dysentery he made the mistake of giving his sword to one of the men to carry. They attacked him and Robertson managed to fight the pair of them off. Pictured here is the Daily Graphic's imaginative take on the situation.

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5. With Winston Churchill (two photos). The two men disagreed on much during the First World War. Churchill did not hold this against Robertson and personally recommended him to be made Field-Marshal to the King.

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6. David Lloyd George was no fan, however. He saw to it that whilst Haig and others were given Earldoms and £100,000 after the war Robertson got £10,000 and a baronetcy. His widow would also be deprived of a military pension. Such was Lloyd George's hatred of Robertson that he was said to have gone home to sing hymns in celebration after he had facilitated his stepping down from CIGS. He'd also mimic Robertson by copying his heavy manner of walking.

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7. Receiving the keys to the City of Lincoln in 1922. Robertson's accomplishments gained him a lot of prestige and fans. Admirers wrote to him during and after First World War, including men who had served under him, dignitaries from home and abroad, and quite a few interested ladies.

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8. As an older man Robertson devoted a lot of time speaking and writing against war. In the words of his biographer Victor Bonham-Carter, 'Though a soldier all his life, and active in the greatest emergency in the history of the Empire, there was nothing inconsistent in his disowning war as an instrument of policy. He had been sickened by the casualties, by the cruelty, and by the waste of life and wealth, and he spoke from the heart.'

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9. In October 1931 Robertson sailed from Southampton to New York with his wife and daughter on a ship called 'Aquitania.' He gave a speech at a New York dinner in the company of President Hoover and Premier Laval of France. Here is a an excerpt from the speech in which he seems to be warning of the terrors to come in WWII with chilling accuracy, 'For 54 years I have served in the army and in the high councils of war only to see that period climaxed by such a conflagration as came in 1914-1918, leaving the world in its present miserable state. I cannot help by reach the conclusion that war is a failure in the job it sets out to do. That is it cannot settle the differences between nations, but can only plunge them into worse difficulties then they were before.'.....'I can envision the next war, if there is one, as being vastly more dangerous to the women and children, and non-combatants than any in history. In fact, while the civilian population was endangered often in the World War, in the next one they will be the objects of primary attack.'

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10. Playing golf. According to Victor Bonham-Carter, Robertson was a 'determined rather than skillful' player. Perhaps his choice of attire hampered his performance? On 11 February 1933 he played 18 holes of golf and went to bed in normal health. The next morning he woke up in one of his gruff moods, complaining that his tea was too cold. On returning with the hot tea his wife found him dead. He had died instantly of a blood clot. In a letter to his wife before his death he requested that his funeral be a simple affair rather than an official state or military occasion. In the words of Bonham-Carter, 'The service was as simple and unpretentious as the man he begun life in 1860 as Will Robertson, and ended it in 1933 as Field-Marshal Sir William Robert Robertson, Bart, GCB, GCMG, GCVO, DSO, DCL LLD.'

 

I am indebted to Charlie Vincent for his contribution.

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