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Remembered Today:

"Private to Field Marshal"


Justin Moretti
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I have heard two differing opinions on whether Sir William Robertson (CIGS for most of WW1) was the only person ever to rise from Private to Field Marshal in the British Army.

An article of Terraine's says he was. I have also read that Sir William Slim managed this feat, but only in one place, and can't find anything either to substantiate/deny this, or to counteract the prevailing wisdom (in my head anyway) that 'Wully' was the only one.

Certainly for his time, the achievement was remarkable.

Can anyone help?

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I've certainly also heard that Slim achieved this feat; not sure where I heard it, just one of those bits of info that one picks up.

The other name that immediately sprang to my mind was the late Field Marshal Lord Harding, but without actually searching out a reference I stand to be corrected.

But Wully's feat was the most impressive as he was much earlier than the other two and would have had even more social and professional hurdles to overcome

Adrian

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Although Slim came from a humble background, I don't think that he was ever actually a private. My understanding is that he somehow managed to join Birmingham University OTC despite not being a student at the Uni. I think that he was then a school teacher in Birmingham so may have had some connection with the Uni? This is sometimes reported as him being a Territorial Army private but I don't think that this is an accurate description of the position of a member of a Uni OTC. He obtained a commission in the Royal Warwicks on the outbreak of WW1.

Website regarridng Slims' official papers

If the question refers to 5 star rank in any of the services, then I think that the future Marshal of the RAF Sir Charles Portal joined the army as a private in 1914; he was a despatch motorbike rider. However, he was at Oxford Uni before the war so probably was from the "officer class." I don't know if any other such Kitchener volunteers got to the top?

I also have a vague idea that everybody had to start in the ranks in the latter half of WW2 but I'm not sure if this applied to men wanting a regular commission?

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Harding is mentioned in Tommy by Richard Holmes. According to this he was a Post Office clerk & joined the unfashionable 11th Battalion of the London Regt. as it was the only Territorial army unit that would give him a commission. Holmes gives his source as being personal information from FM Harding. The book implies that Harding joined the TA as an officer but it doesn't explicitly say so.

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It was/is my understanding that Robertson was the only man to rise from Private to FM. I have not heard of the Harding side and beleive that Slim did not accomplish this if atal and certainly not in the way that Wully did.

Went to Brookwood cemetery the other day and saw Robertsons grave. A great man, who played an important part in the Great War. But his achievment to advance in a society bound officer corps was brilliant.

regards

Arm

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Robertson definitely achieved the extraordinary Private to FM, and Robin Neillands in "The Great War Generals" notes that Slim was the only other one to achive Private to FM, but Neillands does not reference the book so it is impossible to say where he got this information from. Certainly agree with Arm and Gibbo that there is no evidence I can see that Slim started as a Private.

Andrew

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I've just looked up another source, which I ought to have used first. This is Defeat into Victory by Slim himself. The book is the story of the Burma campaign rather than his life story. The dust jacket, however, says that 'Sir William Slim joined the Army as a ranker in the Territorials'.

It does seem that Robertson is the only peace time regualr private to have made it to Field Marshal.

I'm a mature student. I'll see if the library has Ronald Lewin's biography of Slim when I'm there on Monday.

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I think Robertson jumped a rank or two at the higher NCO level but other than that he did hold all ranks.

regards

Arm

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Whatever rank he started as, I believe Harding was the longest-serving member of the British Army. He joined at 18 in 1914, and since Field Marshals never retire and he was in his nineties when he died, this gave him the record.

Adrian

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I've just looked up another source, which I ought to have used first. This is Defeat into Victory by Slim himself. The book is the story of the Burma campaign rather than his life story. The dust jacket, however, says that 'Sir William Slim joined the Army as a ranker in the Territorials'.

It does seem that Robertson is the only peace time regualr private to have made it to Field Marshal.

I'm a mature student. I'll see if the library has Ronald Lewin's biography of Slim when I'm there on Monday.

I did go to the library today but couldn't find the Lewin biography of Slim. I did, however, look up Robertson, Slim & Harding in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Robertson was promoted from Troop Sergeant Major to 2nd Lieutenant so I guess that he missed out only RSM.

Slim was in the Birmingham Uni OTC before WWI. He was commissioned in the Royal Warwickshire Regt. in Sept. 1914. It doesn't, however, say when he joined the army so it could be that he joined in August as a private & was commissioned a month later.

Harding joined the 11th Battalion London Regt of the TA in May 1914 as a 2nd Lt. after an interview with 2 regular officers despite being 'from a station in life different to that of most regular officers.' As Adrian said, he was then only 18.

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Phil,

I am sure they do, though not sure what but it may be something like Squadron SM and RSM.

regards

Arm

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I've now had a quick look at Ronald Lewin's biography of Slim. He says that Slim was never a ranker. Accroding to the book, he was a private & then a lance corporal in the Birmingham University OTC & from those days himself told the demoted for falling out of a march to have a drink of water story. Presumably being a private/lance corporal in a university OTC doesn't count as being a ranker otherwise many university educated officers could claim to be promoted from the ranks?

Lewin does mention another Kitchener volunteer in the Royal Warwicks who was commissioned from the ranks & rose to be VCIGS in WW2, Sir Archibald Nye. His highest rank appears, however, to have been lieutanant-general.

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