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

  2. 3 de nov. de 2023 · 3rd November 2023 at 3:35pm. Sir William Robert Robertson is the only man in history to hold every rank within the British Army from private to field marshal (Picture: Alamy). Sir William Robert Robertson is the only person in the history of the British Army to have held every rank between private and field marshal in his military career.

  3. Field Marshal Sir William Robert Robertson, 1st Baronet, was a British Army officer who served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) – the professional head of the British Army – from 1916 to 1918 during the First World War.

  4. 5 de abr. de 2024 · Sir William Robert Robertson, 1st Baronet was a field marshal and the chief of the British Imperial General Staff during most of World War I. He supported Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief in France, in urging concentration of Britain’s manpower and matériel on the Western Front.

    • The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
    • Overview
    • Early life
    • Boer War and Staff College
    • Curragh Incident
    • World War I: 1914-15
    • CIGS: 1916
    • CIGS: Spring 1917
    • CIGS: Summer 1917
    • CIGS: Third Ypres
    • CIGS: 1917-18

    Field Marshal Sir William Robert Robertson, 1st Baronet, GCB, GCMG, GCVO, DSO (29 January 1860 – 12 February 1933) was a British Army officer who served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff ('CIGS' - professional Head of the British Army) from 1916 to 1918, during the First World War. As CIGS he was committed to a Western Front strategy focusing on Germany and was against what he saw as peripheral operations on other fronts. As CIGS Robertson had increasingly poor relations with Lloyd George, Secretary of State for War then Prime Minister, and threatened resignation at his attempt to subordinate the British forces to the French Commander-in-Chief, Robert Nivelle. In 1917 Robertson supported the continuation of the Third Ypres Offensive, at odds with Lloyd George's view that Britain's war effort ought to be focused on the other theatres until the arrival of sufficient US troops on the Western Front.

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

    Born the son of Thomas Charles Robertson and Ann Dexter Robertson (née Beet), "Wully" Robertson was educated at the local church school and began his military career in November 1877, leaving his post as a servant in the Earl of Cardigan’s household to enlist - five months underage - for twelve years as a trooper in the 16th (The Queen's) Lancers. He recorded his mother's horror in his autobiography: “You know you are the Great Hope of the Family … if you do not like Service you can do something else … there are plenty of things Steady Young Men can do when they can write and read as you can … I shall name it to no one for I am ashamed to think of it ... I would rather bury you than see you in a red coat." On his first night he was so horrified by the rowdiness of the barrack room that he contemplated deserting, only to find that his civilian clothes, which had been parcelled up but not yet sent home, had already been stolen by another deserter.

    As a young soldier Robertson was noted for his prowess at running, and for his voracious reading of military history. He won company first prizes for sword, lance and shooting. He was promoted to troop sergeant major in 1885 to fill a vacancy as his predecessor, a former medical student serving in the ranks, had been demoted for making a botch of the regimental accounts and later committed suicide. Encouraged by his officers, and the clergyman of his old parish, he passed an examination for an officer's commission and was posted as a second lieutenant in the 3rd Dragoon Guards on 27 June 1888. Normally only four or five rankers were commissioned each year at that time.

    Robertson later recorded that it would have been impossible to live as a cavalry subaltern in Britain, where £300 a year was needed in addition to the £120 official salary (approximately £30,000 and £12,000 at 2010 prices) to keep up the required lifestyle; he was reluctant to leave the cavalry, but his Regiment was deployed to India, where pay was higher and expenses lower than in the UK. Robertson's father made his uniforms and he economised by drinking water with meals and not smoking, as pipes were not permitted in the mess and he could not afford the cigars which officers were expected to smoke. Robertson supplemented his income by studying with native tutors whilst others slept during the hot afternoons, qualifying as an interpreter - for which officers received cash grants - in Urdu, Hindi, Persian, Pashto, Punjabi and Gurkhali. Promoted to lieutenant on 1 March 1891, he was appointed an attaché in the Intelligence Branch of the Quartermaster-General's Department in India on 5 June 1892 and was then promoted to captain on 3 April 1895.

    He took part in the Chitral Expedition as a field intelligence officer in 1895 and was described by Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Low, the Expedition Commander as "a very active and intelligent officer of exceptional promise". He was present at the Siege of Malakand (3 April 1895). However, he was wounded when he was attacked by his two guides on a narrow mountain path when on a reconnaissance mission. One guide was armed with a shotgun and fired at Robertson but missed. The other guide was armed with a sword but Robertson punched him to the ground then drove off both attackers with his revolver; one was wounded and later captured and executed. The incident was reported and illustrated in the Daily Graphic and Robertson was awarded the DSO.

    With the start of the Second Boer War, Robertson was appointed as Deputy Assistant Adjutant-General to Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts, the British Commander-in-Chief South Africa, on 15 January 1900. He was present at the Battle of Paardeberg (17–26 February 1900), the Battle of Poplar Grove (7 March 1900) and other battles in March and May. Robertson was promoted to major on 10 March 1900 and was mentioned in despatches on 2 April 1901.

    He returned to the War Office in October 1900 and was promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel (29 November 1900) for his services in South Africa. On 1 October 1901 he was appointed Assistant Quartermaster-General with specific responsibility for the Foreign Military Intelligence section, recommended by General Sir Henry Brackenbury, an Intelligence expert. He worked closely with William Nicholson (then Director of Military Operations) and was promoted to brevet colonel on 29 November 1903. Having been one of the oldest lieutenants in the army, he was now one of the youngest colonels, heading a staff of nine officers (divided into Imperial, Foreign and Special sections). In the later words of a contemporary he “became rated as a superman, and only key appointments were considered good enough for him”. He assessed Germany as Britain’s main threat. He was made Assistant Director of Military Operations and appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) on 30 June 1905.

    When that job expired in January 1907 Robertson went onto half pay, spending his time translating German and Austro-Hungarian military manuals into English. He became Assistant Quartermaster-General at Headquarters Aldershot Command on 21 May 1907 and then Brigadier General (equivalent to the modern rank of Brigadier) on the General Staff at Headquarters Aldershot Command on 29 November 1907.

    Robertsons's patron Nicholson, now Chief of the Imperial General Staff, appointed him Commandant at Staff College, effective 1 August 1910. He was a practical lecturer at Camberley whose teaching included withdrawals as well as advances. Edmonds, who had been Robertson's classmate in the 1890s, said he was a better lecturer even than Henderson. He taught officers that they “were at the Staff College to learn Staff Duties and to qualify for Staff Captain, not to talk irresponsible trash” about “subjects of policy or strategy”.

    With the Cabinet apparently contemplating some kind of military action against the Ulster Volunteers, it was unclear whether the Director of Military Operations (responsible for operations abroad), the Adjutant-General (responsible for domestic aid to the civil power) or the DMT (responsible for home defence) was responsible for drawing up deployment plans. On the evening of 18 March Robertson, who had asked practical questions throughout, was told that it was his responsibility as DMT.

    After Gough and other officers had threatened to resign (see Curragh Incident), Robertson also supported Wilson in trying in vain to persuade French (CIGS) to warn the government that the Army would not move against Ulster. The affair led to hatred between senior officers and Liberal politicians. Robertson contemplated resigning, but unlike French and Wilson he emerged without any blot on his reputation.

    Quartermaster General, BEF

    Robertson was expected to remain Director of Military Training on the outbreak of World War I, but instead replaced Murray as Quartermaster General of the British Expeditionary Force (under Field Marshal French) from 5 August 1914. Robertson was concerned that the BEF was concentrating too far forward, and discussed a potential retreat with Major-General Robb, Inspector-General of Lines of Communication, as early as 22 August (the day before the Battle of Mons) when French and Wilson were still talking of advancing. He arranged supply dumps and contingency plans to draw supply from the Atlantic rather than the Belgian coast, all of which proved invaluable during the retreat from Mons. He became known as “Old Any-Complaints?” as this was his usual question when checking on troops at mealtimes. In Dan Todman’s view the excellent performance of BEF logistics in August 1914 contrasted favourably with the “almost farcical” performance of the BEF General Staff. Robertson “felt deeply” the loss of his close friend Colonel Freddy Kerr, who was killed by a shell whilst serving as GSO1 (chief of staff) to 2nd Division (Clive Diary 31 October 1914). Robertson was then promoted (over the head of Wilson who was already Sub Chief of Staff) Chief of Staff (CGS) of the BEF from 25 January 1915. Robertson had told Wilson (17 January) that he did not want the promotion as he “could not manage Johnnie, who was sure to come to grief and carry him along with him” (Wilson commented in his diary on the irony of both of the candidates for the job – they were in a car driving to church together at the time – protesting to one another that they did not want it). Robertson later wrote that he had hesitated to accept the job, despite the higher pay and position, as he knew he was not French’s first choice, but had put his duty first. He refused to have Wilson remain as Sub Chief. French was soon impressed by Robertson’s “sense and soundness” as CGS. Wilson continued to advise French closely whereas Robertson took his meals in a separate mess (although Robertson preferred this, and in common with many other senior BEF officers his relations with French deteriorated badly in 1915).

    Chief of Staff, BEF

    Robertson improved the functioning of the staff at GHQ by separating Staff Duties and Intelligence out from Operations into separate sections, each headed by a Brigadier-General reporting to himself (previously, the Operations section had been something of a bottleneck, exacerbated by a personality clash between Murray and Harper). Robertson was advanced to KCB on 18 February 1915. Robertson consistently urged strong commitment to the Western Front. He advised (22 February) that Balkan countries would act in their own interests, not those of Britain, and thought the naval attempt to force the Dardanelles “a ridiculous farce”. He also advised French (2 April 1915) that if the government did not make France the main theatre of operations they should stand on the defensive there. Robertson told Hankey (1 June) that Sir John French was “always wanting to do reckless and impossible things” and made similar remarks to Kitchener in July. When French visited London (23 June) to talk to Kitchener, Robertson remained behind as he could not be seen to argue with French in public. He advised (25 June 1915) against retreat to the Channel Ports, an option contemplated by the Cabinet after the defensive losses at Second Ypres, arguing that it would leave the British “helpless spectators” in France’s defeat, and (26 June, in response to a Churchill memorandum) that attacks on entrenched positions at Gallipoli had been just as costly as on the Western Front, but without the chance of defeating the German army. In “Notes on the Machinery of the Government for the Conduct of the War” (30 June 1915) he argued, in Clausewitzian terms, that the government should state its war aims (in this case, the liberation of Belgium and the destruction of German “militarism”) and then let the professionals achieve them. The King had a “long talk” with Robertson (1 July) and was left convinced that French should be removed as Commander-in-Chief of the BEF. Attending a council of war in London (early July 1915), Robertson was asked at the end if he had any comments – he produced a map and delivered a 45-minute lecture, and when interrupted stood glaring at the minister. His presentation made a strong impression compared to the indecisiveness of the politicians and Kitchener. Robertson wrote to Kiggell (20 June 1915) that “these Germans are dug in up to the neck, or concreted” in “one vast fortress” ... “attack on a narrow front & we are enfiladed at once” ... “attack on wide front is impossible because of insufficient ammunition to bombard and break down the defences”. Tactically, he urged “slow attrition, by a slow and gradual advance on our part, each step being prepared by a predominant artillery fire and great expenditure of ammunition” and stressed the importance of counterbattery work. He also (July 1915) advocated surprise, and realistic objectives to prevent attacking infantry outrunning their artillery cover and ragged lines becoming vulnerable to German counterattack. Maurice, who drafted many of Robertson’s memos, had advised him (19 June 1915) that such attacks were best carried out in places where the Germans were, for political or strategic reasons, reluctant to retreat so were bound to take heavy losses. Robertson initially opposed the mooted Loos offensive, recommending (20 July) a more limited attack by Second Army to seize Messines-Wyndeschete ridge, and telling Sidney Clive (25 July) it would be “throwing away thousands of lives in knocking our heads against a brick wall”. He tried to get Sir John “in a better state of mind & not so ridiculously optimistic about a state of German collapse”, although he told a conference in July that he and Sir John French “looked out above all things for optimists”. Robertson also advised (5 August) that Russia, then being driven out of Poland, might make peace without a wholehearted British commitment. Robertson complained to Wilson (29 July) that French “chopped & changed every day & was quite hopeless” and (12 August) was “very sick with Sir J., he cannot manage him nor influence him”; Wilson noted that relations between French and Robertson were breaking down, and suspected (correctly) that Robertson was blackening French’s reputation by sending home documents which French had refused to read or sign. He wrote a memo to French (3 or 5 August) arguing that the volunteer New Armies should be committed to the Western Front, an idea to which Kitchener was only reluctantly coming round. French refused to read it, explaining that he was “fully acquainted with the situation”, so Robertson sent it to the King’s adviser Wigram anyway. Robertson was made a Grand Officer of the French Legion of Honour on 10 September 1915 and acted as Commander-in-Chief BEF when French was sick in September.

    Promotion to CIGS

    Robertson later wrote in his memoirs that he was not close to Kitchener, having only ever served with him in South Africa. With Asquith's Coalition Government in danger of breaking up over conscription (which Robertson supported), he blamed Kitchener for the excessive influence which civilians like Churchill and Haldane had come to exert over strategy, allowing ad hoc campaigns to develop in Sinai, Mesopotamia and Salonika, and not asking the General Staff (whose chief James Wolfe-Murray was intimidated by Kitchener) to study the feasibility of any of these campaigns. Robertson had advised the King’s adviser Stamfordham (probably June or July 1915) that a stronger General Staff was needed in London, otherwise “disaster” would ensue. By October 1915 Robertson had come to support greater coordination of plans with the French and was in increasingly close touch with Charles Callwell, who had been recalled from retirement to become Director of Military Operations. When the King toured the front (24 October) Haig told him that Robertson should go home and become CIGS, whilst Robertson told the King (27 October 1915) that Haig should replace French. He was promoted to permanent lieutenant general on 28 October 1915. Robertson clinched his claim as the future CIGS with a lengthy paper (actually written by Maurice, dated 8 November) “The Conduct of the War”, arguing that all British efforts must be directed at the defeat of Germany. Robertson told Haig from London (15 November 1915), where he was seeing the King and Kitchener, “the first thing is to get you in command”. French, finally forced to "resign" early in December 1915, recommended Robertson as his successor and Kitchener told Esher (4 December) that the government intended to appoint Robertson Commander-in-Chief, although to Esher’s disappointment “dear old R” was not appointed. Robertson was willing to relinquish his claim if the job went to Haig, his senior and a front line commander since the start of the war. Conversely, Haig's inarticulacy may also have made him an unappealing choice as CIGS. Kitchener and Asquith were agreed that Robertson should become CIGS, but Robertson refused to do this if Kitchener “continued to be his own CIGS”, although given Kitchener’s great prestige he wanted him not to resign but to be sidelined to an advisory role like the Prussian War Minister. Asquith asked the men to negotiate an agreement, which they did over the exchange of several draft documents at the Hotel de Crillon in Paris. Kitchener agreed that Robertson alone should present strategic advice to the Cabinet, with Kitchener responsible for recruiting and supplying the Army, and that the Secretary of State should sign orders jointly with the CIGS (Robertson had demanded that orders go out over his signature alone). Robertson became Chief of the Imperial General Staff on 23 December 1915, with a Royal Order in Council formalising Kitchener and Robertson's relative positions in January 1916.

    Strategic Debates

    Robertson was a strong supporter of BEF commander Douglas Haig and was committed to a Western Front strategy focusing on Germany and was against what he saw as peripheral operations on other fronts. Having seen politicians like Lloyd George and Churchill run rings around Kitchener, Robertson’s policy was to present his professional advice and keep on repeating it, flatly refusing to enter into debate, arguing that the government should accept his advice or else find another adviser. However, Robertson reduced the government’s freedom of action by cultivating the press, much of which argued that the professional leadership of Haig and Robertson was preferable to civilian interference which had led to disasters like Gallipoli and Kut. He was particularly close to Gwynne and Repington, who worked for the Northcliffe Press until it ceased to support the generals late in 1917, and advised Haig to cultivate journalists also. Robertson communicated by secret letters and “R” telegrams to generals in the field, including Milne, whom he discouraged from offensive operations at Salonika, and Maude who may have “consciously or unconsciously” ignored his secret orders from Robertson not to attempt to take Baghdad. In a 12 February 1916 paper Robertson urged that the Allies offer a separate peace to Turkey, or else offer Turkish territory to Bulgaria to encourage Bulgaria to make peace. In reply Grey pointed out that Britain needed her continental allies more than they needed her, and Britain could not, e.g. by reneging on the promise that Russia could have Constantinople, risk them making a compromise peace which left Germany stronger on the continent. Robertson told the War Committee (22 February 1916) that the French desire to transfer more troops to Salonika showed a weakening in their resolve for trench warfare. He scorned the idea that it would bring Greece into the war on the Allied side, and at a late March 1916 conference argued with Briand (French Prime Minister) and Joffre, who thumped the table and shouted that Robertson was “un homme terrible”. With characteristic bluntness he said of an Italian officer (12 March 1916), who warned that his country might be invaded by Switzerland, “I’d like to have kicked him in the stomach”. The War Committee had only agreed (28 December 1915) with some reluctance to make preparations for the Western Front Offensive agreed at Chantilly, which Haig and Joffre agreed (14 February) should be on the Somme, although Robertson and the War Committee were not pleased at Joffre’s suggestion that the British engage in “wearing out” attacks prior to the main offensive. For three months, against a backdrop of Russia planning to attack earlier than agreed, Italy reluctant to attack at all and the scaling-down of the planned French commitment because of Battle of Verdun, Robertson continued to urge the politicians to agree to the offensive. He increasingly believed that France was becoming exhausted and that Britain would carry an ever greater burden. After Robertson promised that Haig “would not make a fool of himself” (he told Repington that Haig was “a shrewd Scot who would not do anything rash”), the War Committee finally agreed (7 April). Robertson lobbied hard with politicians and the press for conscription. When the Cabinet finally authorised the Somme Offensive, Robertson had the Army Council make a statement in favour of conscripting married men. In the face of protests from Bonar Law that the government might break up, to be followed by a General Election (which he thought would be divisive, even though the Conservatives would probably win) and conscription brought in by martial law, Robertson refused to compromise and encouraged Dawson, editor of The Times, to make his stance public. After poor relations between French and Kitchener had permitted civilian interference in strategy, Robertson was also determined to stand solid with Haig, telling him (26 April 1916) that they finally had the civilians “into a corner & have the upper hand”.

    Prelude to the Somme

    Robertson was contemptuous of the House Grey Memorandum (early 1916) and of Woodrow Wilson’s offer to mediate in May 1916. Robertson and Hankey were sent from the room on 24 May 1916 so the politicians could discuss the offer, and McKenna (Exchequer) later told Hankey that he, Asquith, Grey and Balfour, but not Bonar Law or Lloyd George, had been in favour of accepting because of “the black financial outlook”. The plan was stopped when the entire Army Council, including Kitchener and Robertson, threatened to resign. At first Robertson tried to limit information to the War Committee only to a summary of news, most of which had already appeared in the newspapers – this was stopped by Hankey (who called it "really almost an insult to the intelligence of the War Committee") and Lloyd George (22–3 May 1916) when it was discovered that Robertson had moved troops from Egypt and Britain to France with little reference to the War Committee. (Given the logistical difficulties, Robertson scoffed at suggestions that the Turks might invade Egypt, and by July, on his orders, Murray had shipped out 240,000 of the 300,000 British Empire troops in Egypt, including 9 infantry divisions, 3 independent infantry brigades and 9 heavy artillery batteries, most of them going to France, leaving him with 4 Territorial divisions and some mounted troops.) In late May Haig and Robertson also angered ministers by challenging their right to inquire into the shipping of animal fodder to France. Robertson told ministers (30 May) that “Haig had no idea of any attempt to break through the German lines. It would only be a move to (rescue) the French”, although he was probably not aware of Haig’s insistence, overruling Rawlinson’s earlier plan, on bombarding deeper into the German defences in the hope of “fighting the enemy in the open”. Maurice later wrote (29 June) Haig “does not mean to knock his head against a brick wall, and if he finds he is only making a bulge and meeting with heavy opposition he means to stop and consolidate and try somewhere else”. Robertson was promoted to permanent full general on 3 June 1916. At an Anglo-French conference at 10 Downing Street (9 June) Robertson finally succeeded in blocking a major offensive from Salonika. In response to French pleas that such an attack might bring Romania into the war, Lloyd George continued to lobby throughout July and August. Robertson’s view was that Romania would come in as a result of Russian success, if any, and that peace with Bulgaria, although desirable to cut German-Turkish communications, was best sought by diplomatic means. Robertson lobbied hard – briefing against him to Stamfordham and The Times and the Morning Post - but in vain to prevent Lloyd George, who made no secret of his desire to use his control over military appointments to influence strategy, succeeding Kitchener as Secretary of State for War. Although Robertson retained the special powers he had been granted in December 1915, and Lord Derby, an ally of the soldiers, was appointed Under-Secretary, Robertson still wrote to Kiggell (26 June 1916) “That d----d fellow L.G. is coming here I fear. I shall have an awful time.”

    The Somme

    Robertson was clear that it would take more than one battle (28 December 1915, 1 January 1916) to defeat Germany, but like many British generals he overestimated the chances of success on the Somme, noting that Britain had more ammunition and big guns than before, that by attacking on a wide front of 20 miles or so, the attackers would not be subjected to enfilade German artillery fire (in the event this probably spread the artillery too thin, contributing to the disaster of 1 July) and that attrition would work in the Allies’ favour as “the Germans are approaching the limit of their resources”. Afterwards he wrote to Kiggell (5 July) stressing that “the road to success lies through deliberation” and that “nothing is to be gained but very much is to be lost by trying to push on to rapidly”. He recommended “concentration and not dispersion of artillery fire” and “the thing is to advance along a wide front, step by step to very limited and moderate objectives, and to forbid going beyond those objectives until all have been reached by the troops engaged”, and urging Kiggell “not to show this letter to anyone”. He again wrote to Kiggell (26 July) urging him not let the Germans “beat you in having the better manpower policy”. It was rumoured that Robertson was angling for Haig’s job in July, although there is no clear evidence that this was so. This was the month with the highest British casualties of the entire war, at a time when the German Verdun Offensive was already being scaled back. Haig was reluctant to send Robertson full weekly reports and Robertson complained that Haig’s daily telegrams to him contained little more information than the daily press releases. “Not exactly the letter of a CIGS! … He ought to take responsibility also!” was Haig’s comment on one such letter (29 July). F.E. Smith (1 August) circulated a paper by his friend Winston Churchill (then out of office), criticising the high losses and negligible gains of the Somme. Churchill argued that this would leave Germany freer to win victories elsewhere. Robertson issued a strong rebuttal the same day, arguing that Britain’s losses were small compared to what France had suffered in previous years, that Germany had had to quadruple the number of her divisions on the Somme sector and that this had taken pressure off Verdun and contributed to the success of Russian and Italian offensives. After the Churchill memorandum, both Robertson and Esher wrote to Haig reminding him of how Robertson was covering Haig’s back in London, Robertson reminding Haig of the need to give him “the necessary data with which to reply to the swines” (7 and 8 August). With Allied offensives apparently making progress on all fronts in August, Robertson hoped that Germany might sue for peace at any time and urged the government to pay more attention to drawing up war aims, lest Britain get a raw deal in the face of collusion between France and Russia, whom Robertson also regarded as long-term threats to Britain (as indeed they had been until the early 1900s). Prompted by Asquith, Robertson submitted a memorandum on war aims (31 August). He wanted Germany preserved as a major power as a block to Russian influence, possibly gaining Austria to compensate for the loss of her colonies, Alsace-Lorraine and her North Sea and Baltic ports (including the Kiel Canal). Robertson was initially unimpressed by the appointment (20 August) of Hindenburg as German Chief of Staff, and he knew little about Ludendorff.

    January Conferences

    Robertson was appointed ADC to the King on 15 January 1917[106] and was advanced to GCB on 24 January 1917.[107] Following a fractious Anglo-French conference in London (26–8 December) the War Cabinet (30 December) gave Lloyd George authority to “conclude any arrangement” at the forthcoming Rome conference. At the Rome Conference (5–6 January 1917) Lloyd George, advised by Hankey, proposed sending heavy guns to Italy with a view to defeating Austria-Hungary, possibly to be balanced by a transfer of Italian troops to Salonika. Robertson stressed that this was contrary to agreed policy and hinted that he might resign. Cadorna (Hankey suspected he had been “got at by Robertson”) stressed the logistical difficulty of accepting the heavy guns, even when Lloyd George removed the precondition that they be returned to the Western Front by May, and even Albert Thomas (French Minister of Munitions) thought it unwise to remove the guns from the Western Front. Robertson wrote to Lloyd George explicitly threatening to resign if he acted on Briand’s impassioned plea to send more divisions to Salonika.[105][108] A further Conference followed in London (15–16 January 1917). Cadorna was also once again talking of being able to win a major victory if reinforced by 300 heavy guns or 8 British divisions – Robertson predictably opposed this (29 January).[109]


    Haig wanted to delay his attack until May to coincide with Italian and Russian attacks, but was told by the government to take over French line as requested, to live up to both the “letter” and “spirit” of the agreement with the new French Commander-in-Chief Nivelle, to be ready no later than 1 April, and not cause delays, almost certainly a result of private lobbying by Nivelle. Robertson was worried about Nivelle forcing the British to attack before the ground dried, although when Haig blamed the poor state of the railways (he demanded twice the railway requirements for half as many troops as the French), he inquired (28 January) whether Haig’s staff had obtained an exaggerated figure by simply adding together the highest estimate of every subordinate formation. Haig demanded a meeting between British and French ministers to resolve matters, although Robertson urged him (14 February) to resolve them in a face-to-face meeting with Nivelle and keep the politicians out of it.[110] Robertson later claimed that he attended the Calais Conference thinking it would be solely about railways, but this is probably untrue. Robertson was at the War Cabinet (20 February) – he told them that Haig and Nivelle were in complete agreement – which insisted on a conference to draw up a formal agreement about “the operations of 1917”, and Robertson wrote to Haig (24 February) informing him of this.[111] Neither Robertson nor Derby were invited to the War Cabinet on 24 February (no minutes were circulated, but on the train to Calais Hankey was instructed to draw up a summary to be circulated after the conference), at which ministers felt that the French generals and staff had shown themselves to be more skilful than the British, whilst politically Britain had to give wholehearted support to what would probably be the last major French effort of the war. Hankey also told Stamfordham that on the train to Calais Lloyd George had informed Robertson and Maurice that he had the authority of the War Cabinet “to decide specifically between Generals Haig & Nivelle”, although the subordination of Haig to Nivelle had not been specifically discussed.[111] At Calais (26–7 February), after the railway experts had been sent away, at Lloyd George's request Nivelle produced rules governing the relations between the British and French armies, to be binding also on their successors. Nivelle was to exercise, through British staff at GQG, operational command (including control of logistics and food) of British forces, with Haig left in control only of discipline (which could not legally be placed in foreign hands) and forbidden to make direct contact with London. Haig “had become a cipher, and (his) units were to be dispersed at the will of the French command, like the Senegalese Regiments, like the Moroccans, like the Foreign Legion, until (his) massed thousands had become mere khaki pawns scattered amongst the sky-blue pawns”[112] The plans were brought to Robertson, who feeling unwell had dined with Maurice in his room, at around 9pm. In Spears’ famous account Robertson’s face “went the colour of mahogany … his eyebrows slanted outwards like a forest of bayonets held at the charge – in fact he showed every sign of having a fit” He shouted “Get ‘Aig!”. Haig and Robertson visited Lloyd George – one of Robertson’s objections was that the agreement could not be binding on Dominion troops – who told them that he had the authority of the War Cabinet and that, although Nivelle’s demands were “excessive”, they must have a scheme agreed by 8am. The next morning, after Nivelle had claimed he had not personally drawn up the scheme and professed astonishment that the British generals had not already been told of it, Robertson “ramped up and down the room, talking about the horrible idea of putting “the wonderful army” under a Frenchman, swearing he would never serve under one, nor his son either, and that no-one could order him to”. Hankey drew up a compromise rather than see Haig and Robertson resign, with Haig still under Nivelle's orders but with tactical control of British forces and right of appeal to the War Cabinet. Robertson later (3 March) regretted even agreeing to this.[113]

    Eroding the Agreement

    Robertson wrote to Haig (28 February) that Lloyd George was “an awful liar” for claiming that the French had originated the proposal (the Prime Minister had in fact met Major Berthier de Sauvigny (15 February), a French liaison officer in London, telling him that Haig needed to be subordinated to Nivelle for the offensive and that if necessary he would be replaced), and that he lacked the “honesty & truth” to remain Prime Minister. Haig claimed (3 March) that with the BEF spread more thinly by having recently taken over line to the south, German forces (they had recently added 300 battalions by more intensive mobilisation, and by withdrawing to the Hindenburg Line would later free up an extra 15-20 divisions (135 -180 battalions)) might be used to attack at Ypres and cut him off from the Channel Ports. The French assumed Haig was inventing this threat (possibly true – in the summer of 1917 Haig’s staff confessed to MacDonogh of playing up such a threat to avoid cooperating with the French).[114] Robertson, who had been sick in bed, wrote to Haig (3 March) that he did not trust Nivelle. He continued to lobby the War Cabinet (“it was very unpleasant to listen to” wrote Spears) of the folly of leaving the British Army under French control, passing on Haig’s demand that he keep control of the British reserves, and advising that intelligence reports suggested preparations for large-scale German troop movements in Eastern Belgium. With War Cabinet opinion having turned against Lloyd George – who was also rebuked by the King – Robertson also then submitted a memorandum stating that the Calais Agreement was not to be a permanent arrangement, along with a “personal statement” so critical of Lloyd George that he refused to have it included in the minutes.[115] The King and Esher also urged Haig and Robertson to come to an agreement with the government.[116] At another conference in London (12–13 March) Lloyd George expressed the government’s full support for Haig and stressed that the BEF must not be “mixed up with the French Army”, and Haig and Nivelle met with Robertson and Lyautey to settle their differences. The status quo ante, by which British forces were allies rather than subordinates of the French, but Haig was expected to defer to French wishes as far as possible, was essentially restored.[117]

    Robertson's Views on Flanders

    As Chief of Staff BEF Robertson had had Maurice, then Director of Military Operations at GHQ, prepare a study of an Ypres Offensive on 15 March 1915. The study had warned that the capture of Ostend and Zeebrugge “would be a very difficult enterprise so far as the nature of the country is concerned” and if successful “would not materially improve the military situation of the Allies in the western theatre” except in the unlikely event that it prompted a general German withdrawal – more likely it would leave the British defending a longer line supplied by only two lines of railway, at “a grave disadvantage” and “in a rather dangerous position” with their backs to the sea as the Germans counterattacked.[125] By 1917 Robertson was more keen on the idea of the Germans standing and fighting where they would suffer at the hands of strong British artillery. He wrote to Haig (20 April) cautioning against “determination to push on regardless of loss” and repeating Nivelle’s error of trying too much to “break the enemy’s front” and urged him instead to concentrate on “inflicting heavier losses on (the enemy) than one suffers oneself”. It is unclear that the letter had much effect as Haig appointed Gough, an aggressive cavalryman, to command the Ypres Offensive shortly after receiving it.[126]

    France steps back

    With the Nivelle Offensive in its final stages, Lloyd George went to the Paris Summit authorised by the 1 May 1917 War Cabinet to “press the French to continue the offensive”. Lloyd George was keen to build bridges with the generals and told them at Paris (3 May 1917) that he would back their plans (“We must go on hitting and hitting with all our strength”) and stressed that they must choose the time and place of the next offensive. The next day Robertson stressed attrition with limited territorial objectives, whilst Hankey stressed the importance of Zeebrugge, where the Germans would suffer attrition if they stood and fought. Over dinner the Prime Minister reduced the company to “fits of laughter” with an impersonation of Robertson. Robertson thought Paris “about the best Conference we have had”. With Russian commitment to the war wavering, Smuts, Milner and Curzon agreed with Robertson that Britain must attack in the west lest France or Italy be tempted to make a separate peace.[127] Petain, committed to only limited attacks, became French Commander-in-Chief (15 May) and with Esher warning that the French government would not honour their Paris commitments, Robertson warned Haig that the British government would not take kindly to high casualties if Britain had to attack without wholehearted French support.[128] Foch, now French chief of staff, also urged Robertson at a meeting (7 June 1917) to conduct only limited attacks (he opposed the planned Flanders Offensive) until the Americans sent more troops, and they discussed the possibility of attacks on Austria-Hungary designed to encourage her to make peace.[118] Robertson and Haig met (9 June) after the victory at Messines. Robertson warned Haig that the government were diverting manpower into shipbuilding, ship crews and agriculture rather than the Army, and that a prolonged offensive would leave Britain “without an Army” by the autumn, and suggested that attacks against Austria-Hungary might be more prudent. Haig, dismayed, retorted that “Great Britain must … win the war by herself” and that the government were “failing at the XIIth hour”. Haig also showed Robertson his “Present Situation and Future Plans” (dated 12 June) in which he argued that he had a good chance of clearing the Belgian Coast provided the Germans were unable to transfer reinforcements from the Eastern Front (in the event German reinforcements did not start to arrive in number until November), and that victory at Ypres “might quite possibly lead to (German) collapse”. Robertson told Haig he disagreed with the statistical appendix (prepared by Charteris who was thought “a dangerous fool” in the War Office) showing German manpower near breaking point and refused to show it to the War Cabinet.[129]

    War Policy Committee

    The political consensus of May had broken down. Lloyd George told the War Cabinet (8 June) he was dissatisfied with military advice so far and was setting up a War Policy Committee (himself, Curzon, Milner and Smuts) which held 16 meetings over the next six weeks.[130] Smuts, newly appointed to the Imperial War Cabinet, recommended renewed western front attacks and a policy of attrition.[131] He privately thought Robertson “good but much too narrow & not adaptable enough”.[132] Robertson objected to proposals to move 300 heavy guns and 12 divisions to Italy, secretly lobbying Foch, via Spears, in late June 1917. He also warned that the Germans could transfer forces to Italy easily, an attack on Trieste might leave Allied forces vulnerable to counterattack from the north, that Cadorna and his army were not competent, and conversely that they might even make peace if they succeeded in capturing Trieste.[130] Robertson wrote to Haig (13 June) that “there is trouble in the land just now”. He complained to him of the War Policy Committee's practice of interviewing key people individually to "get at facts" rather than simply setting policy and allowing Robertson and Jellicoe to decide on the military means, and that there would be "trouble" when they interviewed himself and Haig. He wrote that “the (guns) will never go (to Italy) while I am CIGS”. He also urged him not to promise, on his forthcoming visit to London, that he could win the war that year but simply to say that his Flanders plan was the best plan, which Robertson agreed it was, so that the politicians would not “dare” overrule both men.[130] Haig told the War Policy Committee (19 June, and contrary to Robertson's advice of six days earlier) that “Germany was nearer her end than they seemed to think … Germany was within six months of the total exhaustion of her available manpower, if the fighting continues at its present intensity”[133] and (20 June) he had no “intention of entering into a tremendous offensive involving heavy losses” whilst Robertson wanted to avoid “disproportionate loss” (23 June). At this time Haig was involved in discussions as to whether Robertson should be appointed First Lord of the Admiralty (a ministerial post), and Woodward suggests that he may have felt that Robertson had outlived his usefulness as CIGS. Ministers were not entirely convinced by Jellicoe’s warnings about German submarines and destroyers operating from the Belgian ports, but were influenced by France’s decline (the opposite to Robertson’s original view that this made a major offensive less sensible) and by the apparent success of the Kerensky Offensive. The Flanders Offensive was finally sanctioned by the War Policy Committee on 18 July and the War Cabinet two days later, on condition that it did not degenerate into a long-drawn out fight like the Somme.[134] To Haig’s annoyance the War Cabinet had promised to monitor progress and casualties and, if necessary call a halt. Robertson arrived in France (22 July) to be handed a note from Kiggell, urging that the offensive continue to keep France from dropping out (even if Russia or Italy did). Over dinner Haig urged Robertson to “be firmer and play the man; and, if need be, resign” rather than submit to political interference and on his return Robertson wrote to Haig to assure him that he would always advise “supporting wholeheartedly a plan which has once been approved”. Robertson met with Cadorna and Foch (24 July) prior to another inter-Allied conference at Paris, and they agreed that the current simultaneous offensives must take priority over Allied reinforcements for Italy, even though it was now clear that the Kerensky Offensive was failing disastrously and that Germany might sooner or later be able to redeploy divisions to the west.[135]

    Third Ypres begins

    Third Ypres began on 31 July, with Haig claiming that German losses were double those of the British. Robertson asked Kiggell (2 August) for more information to share with ministers.[135] After the Inter-Allied conference in London (6–8 August 1917), at which Lloyd George had urged the creation of a common Allied General Staff, Robertson again joined with Foch in claiming that there was not time to send heavy guns to Italy for a September offensive. Robertson wrote to Haig (9 August) that Lloyd George would "put up (the useless) Foch against me as he did Nivelle against you in the Spring. He is a real bad 'un."[137] With the offensive already bogged down in unseasonably early wet weather, French (14 August 1917) claimed to Riddell (managing director of the News of the World, and likely to pass on French's views to Lloyd George) that Robertson was “anxious to get the whole of the military power into his own hands, that he is a capable organiser but not a great soldier, and we are suffering from a lack of military genius”. Lloyd George suggested that all Robertson’s plans be submitted to a committee of French, Wilson and one other, although Wilson thought this “ridiculous and unworkable”.[138] The Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo began (18 August) and on 26 August the British Ambassador in Rome advised that there might be “a complete smashing” of the Austro-Hungarian Army. Robertson advised that it was “false strategy” to call off Third Ypres to send reinforcements to Italy, but after being summoned to George Riddell’s home in Sussex, where he was served apple pudding (his favourite dish), agreed to send a message promising support to Cadorna, but only on condition Cadorna promised decisive victory. The Anglo-French leadership agreed in early September to send 100 heavy guns to Italy, 50 of them from the French Army on Haig’s left, rather than the 300 which Lloyd George wanted.[139] Robertson expressed his concern (15 September) that the heavy shelling necessary to break enemy defences at Ypres was destroying the ground.[140] As soon as the guns reached Italy Cadorna called off his offensive (21 September).[139]

    Third Ypres: reluctance to call a halt

    Robertson felt that Lloyd George's proposal for an Anglo-French landing at Alexandretta would use up too much shipping and told the War Policy Committee (24 September) that he felt Allenby had enough resources to take Jerusalem, although he stressed the logistical difficulties of advancing 400 miles to Aleppo.[141] Bonar Law, having guessed from a recent talk with Robertson that he had little hope “of anything coming of” Third Ypres, wrote to Lloyd George that ministers must soon decide whether or not the offensive was to continue. Lloyd George travelled to Boulogne (25 September) where he broached with Painleve the setting up of an Allied Supreme War Council and then making Foch generalissimo.[142] On 26 September Lloyd George and Robertson met Haig to discuss the recent German peace feelers, one of which suggested she might give up her colonies, Belgium, Serbia and Alsace-Lorraine in return for keeping Poland and the Baltic States. Ministers were reluctant to accept this, but at the same time were concerned that Britain could not defeat Germany singlehandedly (in the event the peace feelers were publicly repudiated by Chancellor Michaelis, and Robertson again urged diplomatic efforts to encourage Bulgaria and Turkey to make peace, although the collapse of Russia made this less likely).[143] Haig preferred to continue the offensive, encouraged by Plumer’s recent successful attacks in dry weather at Menin Road (20 September) and Polygon Wood (26 September), and stating that the Germans were “very worn out”. Robertson spoke to the Army Commanders, but declined Haig’s offer that he do so without Haig present. He later regretted not having done so, although he was aware of the ill-feeling which Painleve had caused when he asked Nivelle's subordinates to criticise him.[144] He later wrote in his memoirs that “I was not prepared to carry my doubts to the point of opposing (Haig)” or of preventing one more push which might have “convert(ed) an inconclusive battle into a decisive victory”.[143] On his return Robertson wrote Haig an equivocal letter (27 September) stating that he stuck to his advice to concentrate effort on the Western Front rather than Palestine out of instinct and lack of any alternative than from any convincing argument. He also wrote that “Germany may be much nearer the end of her staying power than available evidence shows” but that given French and Italian weakness it was “not an easy business to see through the problem”.[145] Robertson’s refusal to advise a halt to Third Ypres cost him the support of Smuts and Milner. By the end of the year the Cabinet Committee on Manpower were hearing about an alarming rise in drunkenness, desertions and psychological disorders in the BEF, and reports of soldiers’ returning from the front grumbling about “the waste of life” at Ypres, and even Haig himself writing (15 Dec, whilst arguing against a proposal that the BEF take over line from the French) that many of his divisions were “much exhausted and much reduced in strength”.[146]

    Palestine Manpower Requirements

    At the War Policy Committee (3 October) in Robertson’s absence, Lloyd George urged greater effort to advance into Syria with a view to knocking Turkey out of the war altogether, and the ministers decided to redeploy 2 divisions from France. Robertson angered the Prime Minister (5 October) by arguing against this, claiming that these troops would be needed in France. He also asked Allenby to state his extra troop requirements to advance from the Gaza-Beersheba line (30 miles wide) to the Jaffa-Jerusalem line (50 miles wide), urging him to take no chances in estimating the threat of a German-reinforced threat (although neither Allenby nor Robertson really thought there was much chance of this happening), but urging Maude not to exaggerate his needs in Mesopotamia.[141] Robertson, worried that he would be overruled as Painleve was visiting London for talks, without waiting for Allenby’s reply, claimed (9 October) that 5 divisions would need to be redeployed from France to reach the Jaffa-Jerusalem line, and that Allenby would face at least 16 Turkish divisions (120,000 men). That same day Allenby’s own estimate arrived, claiming that he would need 13 extra divisions (an impossible demand even if Haig’s forces went on the defensive) and that he might face 18 Turkish and 2 German divisions. Yet in private letters Allenby and Robertson agreed that sufficient British Empire troops were already in place to take and hold Jerusalem. In the event the Germans sent only 3 battalions to Palestine, and Turkish strength there was only 21,000 (out of 110,000 on all fronts) facing 100,000 British Empire troops. The politicians were particularly irritated that they were being shown clearly exaggerated estimates at a time when the General Staff were demanding renewed effort to “divert (Germany’s) strategic reserve” to Flanders.[147] In his 8 October paper Haig claimed that since 1 April 1917 135 of the 147 German divisions on the Western Front had been driven from their positions or withdrawn after suffering losses, several of them two or three times, and argued that the Allies could beat Germany in 1918 even if Russia were to make peace. The War Cabinet were sceptical, and in his reply (9 October) Robertson, although he thought Haig’s memo “splendid”, cautioned that German Army morale still seemed to be holding up well.[148][149] He wrote to Haig in the same letter that “the Palestine thing will not come off”, and having heard from Lord Robert Cecil that Haig was dissatisfied with him, asked him to “let me do my own job in my own way” in standing up for proper principles of warfare against Lloyd George. He also commented that (Lloyd George) was "out for my blood very much these days" and claimed that "Milner, Carson, Cecil, Curzon and Balfour, have each in turn expressly spoken to me separately about his intolerable conduct", that he hoped "matters would come to a head" at the next Cabinet as he was “sick of this d-d life”, that he would "manage" Lloyd George, and that Painleve's recent visit to London had been an attempt to "carry him off his feet" but that he "had big feet!".[150][151] Robertson also (9 October) advised against the Prime Minister's recent talk of setting up a Supreme War Council, reminding ministers of the Nivelle fiasco and the sending of heavy guns to Italy only for Cadorna to call off his offensive, and wanted Britain to dominate operations in 1918 by virtue of the strength of her army and her political stability.[152]

    Rapallo and Paris

    The argument was overtaken by disaster on the Italian front: the Battle of Caporetto began on 24 October. Robertson later wrote to Edmonds in 1932 that although he had kept the diversion of divisions to Italy to a minimum, some reinforcements had to be sent as the Italians would not have been impressed by claims that they were best helped by renewed British attacks in Flanders.[157] Robertson went to Italy to supervise deployment of British divisions, meeting Lloyd George, Hankey and Wilson when they arrived for the Rapallo Conference (6–7 November), which formally established the Supreme War Council. Robertson had been told by Hankey that Lloyd George had the War Cabinet's backing, and Lloyd George (Memoirs ii 440-1) later wrote of Robertson’s “general sulkiness” and “sullen and unhelpful” attitude at the conference. He walked out of the meeting, telling Hankey "I wash my hands of this business", and contemplated resignation, as he had over the French-Wilson papers.[156][158] Lloyd George and Robertson had long been briefing the press (mainly the Morning Post in Robertson's case) against one another. After Lloyd George’s Paris speech (12 November), in which he said that “when he saw the appalling casualty lists” he “wish(ed) it had not been necessary to win so many (“victories”)”, and unlike the Nivelle Affair, Lloyd George's differences with the generals were being aired in public for the first time. The Daily News, Star and Globe attacked Lloyd George.[159][160] Robertson reported to the War Cabinet (14 November) that Italy’s situation was like that of Russia in 1915 and that she might not recover. In his paper “Future Military Policy” (19 November), Robertson was impressed by the French Army’s recovery under Petain but advised that lack of French reserves might make major French offensives in 1918 unlikely. He rejected a purely defensive posture in the west, as even defending would still result in heavy casualties, but was sceptical of Haig’s wish to renew the Ypres Offensive in Spring 1918, and argued that Britain should build up her strength on the Western Front and then decide on the scale of her 1918 offensives. He warned (correctly) that, with Russia dropping out of the war, the Germans would use the opportunity to attack in 1918 before the Americans were present in strength. Lloyd George replied (wrongly) that the Germans would not attack and would fail if they did.[161] Amidst talk of Austen Chamberlain withdrawing support from the government, Robertson briefed the Opposition Leader Asquith. However, Lloyd George survived the Commons debate on Rapallo (19 November) by praising the generals and claiming that the aim of the Supreme War Council was purely to “coordinate” policy.[159][160]

    SWC and Inter-Allied Reserve

    Derby got the Prime Minister to agree that Robertson should accompany Wilson (British Military Representative) to all Supreme War Council meetings and he would make no proposals until Robertson and the War Council had had a chance to vet them. He then reneged on this promise, telling Derby (26 November) that Robertson would have a chance to comment at the meeting itself and that decisions would have to ratified by the War Cabinet after they had been made. Lloyd George restored Wilson's freedom of action by instructing Wilson to send his reports directly to him.[160][162] Hankey wrote (26 November) that only Britain, the USA and Germany were likely to last until 1919 and that “on the whole the balance of advantage lies with us, provided we do not exhaust ourselves prematurely”.[163] By the time of the initial SWC meeting (Versailles 1 December 1917) Allenby’s successes, culminating in the Fall of Jerusalem (9 December 1917), demonstrated the potential of attacks in the Middle East, particularly compared to Haig’s apparently unproductive offensive at Ypres, followed by Cambrai in November (initial success followed by retaking of gains). Russia had finally collapsed (Brest Litovsk Armistice 16 December) yet only a handful of American divisions were available so far in the west.[162] After the Fall of Jerusalem Derby threatened to resign if Lloyd George sacked Robertson, but the War Cabinet (11–12 December) minuted its dissatisfaction at the information which he had given them about Palestine. Maurice claimed that intelligence from Syria “was too stale to be of use” and Robertson claimed that the speed of Allenby’s advance, often with little water, had taken everyone by surprise.[164] After the Fall of Jerusalem, Allenby irritated Robertson by writing that he could conquer the rest of Palestine with his present force of 6-8 divisions, but said he would need 16-18 divisions for a further advance of 250 miles to Aleppo (the Damascus-Beirut Line) to cut Turkish communications to Mesopotamia. In a paper of 26 December, Robertson claimed that the conquest of the remainder of Palestine might mean an extra 57,000 battle casualties and 20,000 sick. Amery (30 December) thought this “an amazing document even from him” and that such arguments could have been produced against any major campaign in history. By mid-January Amery and Lloyd George were arranging for the Permanent Military Representatives at Versailles to discuss Palestine (they thought Turkish ration strength was 250,000 ”at most” whereas the General Staff put it at 425,000, of whom around half were combatants).[165] Robertson tried to control Lt Gen Sir William Raine Marshall (Maude's replacement as C-in-C Mesopotamia) by handpicking his staff. Smuts was sent to Egypt to confer with Allenby and Marshall and prepare for major efforts in that theatre. Before his departure, alienated by Robertson’s cooking of the figures, he urged Robertson’s removal. Allenby told Smuts of Robertson’s private instructions (sent by hand of Walter Kirke, appointed by Robertson as Smuts’ adviser) that there was no merit in any further advance and worked with Smuts to draw up plans for further advances in Palestine.[166] Wilson wanted Robertson reduced “from the position of a Master to that of a servant”. Robertson thought Wilson's SWC Joint Note 12, which predicted that neither side could win a decisive victory on the Western Front in 1918, and that decisive results could be had against Turkey, “d-----d rot in general” and promised Haig he would “stick to (his) guns and clear out if (he was) overruled”. Joint Note 12 and Note 14 proposing the formation of a General Reserve were discussed at the second full session of the SWC (30 January – 2 February 1918): Robertson opposed attacks on Turkey, (1 Feb) siding openly with Clemenceau against Lloyd George. Although Robertson apologised for doing so, the Prime Minister was angry and told Wilson afterwards that he would have to get rid of Robertson. Robertson's request to be on the Executive Board controlling the planned Allied General Reserve was overruled.[167][168] Robertson called the Executive War Board the “Versailles Soviet” and claimed to the King's adviser Lord Stamfordham that having “practically, two CIGSs” would lead to “destruction of confidence amongst the troops”. He also briefed H.A.Gwynne against the proposals, writing that “the little man” was “all out for (his) blood” and “to see that the fine British Army is not placed at the mercy of irresponsible people – & some of them foreigners at that”.[169]

    Fall from power

    Robertson was finally forced out in February 1918 over his refusal to agree that the British representative at the Supreme War Council should be Deputy CIGS and a member of the Army Council (giving him the right to issue orders to the BEF). Lloyd George offered Robertson a choice of remaining as CIGS in London with reduced powers (reporting to the Secretary of State for War rather than directly to the War Cabinet), or else accepting demotion to the Versailles job. Robertson's position was that either the CIGS should himself be the Versailles delegate or else the Versailles representative should be clearly subordinate to the CIGS. There was talk of the government falling, and Lloyd George attempted to have Robertson swap jobs with Plumer, then commanding British troops in Italy (Plumer refused).[169] Haig was summoned to London to be consulted; whilst driving from Victoria Station to 10 Downing Street “by a circuitous route” Derby, who had threatened to resign in protest, told him (9 Feb) Robertson "had lately become most difficult to deal with and lost his temper quickly”. Haig, whose relations with Robertson had been deteriorating since at least the Boulogne Conference of September 1917, told Robertson (11 Feb) it was his duty to go to Versailles or anywhere else the government wanted, and advised the King to insist on Robertson going to Versailles. Derby (in Beaverbrook’s phrase “left stranded like a whale on a sandbank”) withdrew his resignation, which Lloyd George permitted on condition he did not resign again.[170] The King thought it would be “a national calamity” if Robertson was removed but when told of this Lloyd George told Stamfordham that “he did not share the King’s extremely favourable opinion” of Robertson “who had never fought at the Front, had hardly ever visited the trenches, and who was not known by the rank and file” and that the government would resign if the King attempted to block Robertson’s removal. Curzon and Balfour were sympathetic to Robertson’s position that the Versailles delegate must report to the CIGS, but he lost Balfour’s sympathy at a Cabinet meeting on 14 February where he made clear his dislike of Wilson. He had told Stamfordham that he would serve at Versailles under Plumer as CIGS, but not under Wilson “his Junior”. After a fortnight of argument Robertson's "resignation" was announced. Lloyd George, possibly aware that Robertson was dependent on his army pay, suggested he be given command of an Army in France, but Haig said he “was quite unfitted to command troops”.[171] Robertson wrote notes thanking Maurice, Macdonogh and Whigham, ending “now get on with the war”.[172] Wilson and Robertson had a very brief handover meeting at the War Office, at which Robertson (by Wilson’s account) was “grumpy and ungracious & said he had nothing to say – and indeed said nothing”.[171]

  5. Sir William Robertson. Sir William Robertson (1860-1933) holds the unusual distinction of being the only man to rise from Private to Field Marshal rank in the British army. Having enlisted at the age of 17 as a Private, Robertson joined the 16th Lancers in November 1877, starting his remarkable ascent ten years later when he was made an NCO.

  6. William Robert Robertson was the first British soldier to advance from private to field marshal. During the Great War, he initially served as the British Expeditionary Force’s quartermaster-general before becoming its Chief of staff in January 1915.