Who's Who - Sir William Robertson

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.  In June 1888 he was made Second Lieutenant in 3rd Dragoon Guards, thereafter spending four years in India as a subaltern; following this stint he was enrolled into the Intelligence Branch at Simla, British HQ in India.

Having been appointed to the headquarters staff of the Chitral Relief Force in 1894, Robertson returned to England and entered Staff College in January 1895.  Leaving Staff College he was attached to the Intelligence Staff at the London War Office, working within the Russian and Colonial departments.  The same year Robertson was promoted to Captain.  After a brief spell in the intelligence department at the start of the Second Boer War (1899-1902) Robertson was dispatched to South Africa to join Lord Roberts HQ staff (then Commander-in-Chief of the British effort).

Towards the close of 1900, in November, Robertson was promoted to Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel.  After the conclusion of the South African war he returned to London where he rejoined the Intelligent Staff at the War Office, receiving an appointment as Head of the Foreign Section.

Having been made a full Colonel in 1904, Robertson's career received a further major boost in December 1907 when he was appointed Chief of the General Staff to Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien (who had himself succeeded Sir John French as command of the Aldershot garrison).

From June 1910 until October 1913 Robertson served as Commandant of the Staff College, during which time he was promoted to Major-General.  Back again at the War Office he was appointed Director of Military Training.  It was in this role that Robertson served when war broke out in August 1914.

Robertson was appointed Quartermaster-General of Sir John French's British Expeditionary Force (BEF), a post he took up with his sailing to Boulogne on 14 August.  The following January Robertson switched posts, receiving an appointment as Chief of the General Staff, a position he retained until 1918 (renamed in December 1915 as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, receiving a promotion to Lieutenant-General in October 1915).

In this role Robertson served as liaison between the army and the government (in which role he conspired against then Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, helping to install David Lloyd George as the new Prime Minister late in 1916).

A staunch supporter of Sir Douglas Haig, Robertson acted to stymie Lloyd George's attempts to divert effort from the Western to the Eastern Front; unlike Lloyd George, Robertson was a keen 'Westerner', believing that the war could only be won on the Western Front.  Robertson's name had earlier been mooted as a possible contender for French's position as British Commander-in-Chief; in the event Haig received the appointment.  It has been speculated that Robertson's humble beginnings as a Private worked against him.

Having thus antagonised the Prime Minister, Robertson was forced to resign on 11 February 1918, taking instead the lesser role of Commander-in-Chief of the British Home Forces (replacing Sir John French).  Sir Henry Wilson replaced Robertson as Chief of the Imperial General Staff.  Wilson had connived with Lloyd George in the creation of the Supreme War Council, a body which Robertson had vociferously opposed, not least because it served partly to circumvent Robertson and Haig.

Commanding the British forces on the Rhine from 1919-20, Robertson was first made a baronet in 1919 and then appointed Field Marshal on 29 March 1920, completing his impressive career ascent.

He published his autobiography, From Private to Field Marshal, the following year.  He also published Soldiers and Statesmen, 1914-1918 in 1926.

Sir William Robertson died in 1933.

'Whippet' was a term used to describe any light tank.

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