Sir William Joseph Slim, 1st Viscount Slim, chief of the Imperial general Staff. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Master of sword and word

Field Marshal William Slim was not only Britain’s greatest military field commander, but our finest soldier-writer, too


This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

How many British generals have been able to write as well as they could fight? Strangely perhaps, quite a few. Field Marshal Sir Michael Carver (Dilemmas of the Desert War, The Seven Ages of the British Army etc), General Sir David Fraser (And We Shall Shock Them), General Sir John Hackett (The Third World War) and Major General John Strawson (Beggars in Red) are four outstanding soldier-writers that spring immediately to mind. Even Monty wrote his memoirs. 

In our own day I’ve read plenty of competent books from a slew of men who’ve reached the top of the profession of arms. The work of some, such as that of General Sir Richard Shirreff (2017: War with Russia), Major General Mungo Melvin (Manstein) and Brigadier Allan Mallinson (Too Important for the Generals), could be described as outstanding. Julian Thompson and Richard Dannatt also fit this bill. 

But by far and away the best of Britain’s soldier-writers in the last century was also probably the greatest soldier — and field commander — of them all: Bill Slim. 

He was, more properly, Field Marshal William J. Slim KG, GCB, GCMG, GCVO, GBE, DSO, MC, KStJ, the one-time General Officer Commanding the famous Fourteenth Army — the so-called Forgotten Army — of Burma fame. He was, in this author’s view, the greatest British general of the last war (to avoid further debate, let’s just agree that Monty failed as a coalition commander, whereas Slim excelled). His ability as a general is perfectly summed up by the historian Frank McLynn:

Slim’s encirclement of the Japanese on the Irrawaddy deserves to rank with the great military achievements of all time — Alexander at Gaugamela in 331 BC, Hannibal at Cannae (216 BC), Julius Caesar at Alesia (58 BC), the Mongol general Subudei at Mohi (1241) or Napoleon at Austerlitz (1805). The often made — but actually ludicrous — comparison between Montgomery and Slim is relevant here … there is no Montgomery equivalent of the Irrawaddy campaign … Montgomery was a military talent; Slim was a military genius.

Some hint of Bill Slim’s fluency with the written word to complement his ability as a soldier came with the publication of Defeat into Victory in 1956, his superb retelling of the Burma story. Apart from its remarkable tale — the humiliation of 1942 eventually overturned by a triumphant army (87 per cent of which was Indian) in 1945 — the quality of the writing is astonishing. 

“I doubt whether a kindlier or truer description of the contemporary soldier has been given anywhere”

Its author, a man who would be appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1949 (following Monty), the first sepoy general ever to do so, and by Clement Attlee no less, could clearly wield a pen every bit as he could destroy Japanese armies in battle. 

When the book was first published it was an instant publishing sensation, with the first edition of 20,000 selling out immediately. Among the effusive reviews, the London Evening Standard wrote: “He has written the best general’s book of World War II. Nobody who reads his account of the war, meticulously honest yet deeply moving, will doubt that here is a soldier of stature and a man among men.”

The following year Slim also published an anthology of speeches and lectures, loosely based on the theme of leadership, called Courage and Other Broadcasts. Then in 1959 he published his second book, Unofficial History. It was a deeply personal, honest though light-hearted account of events during his service. 

It received widespread acclaim. The National Review wrote: “One of the most significant aspects of Field Marshal Slim’s book is the affectionate respect he shows when he writes about British and Indian soldiers. He finds plenty to amuse him too. I doubt whether a kindlier or truer description of the contemporary soldier has been given anywhere than in Unofficial History … It is one of the most delightful and amusing books about modern campaigning I have ever read.”

What only a handful of people knew at the time was that, in terms of writing, Bill Slim had form. The publication in 1959 of Unofficial History was the first indication that there was an unknown literary side to Slim. The secret was only publicly revealed on the publication of his biography in 1976 by Ronald Lewin — Slim, The Standard Bearer — which won the W.H. Smith Literary Award. 

Lewin explained that Slim had written material for publication long before the war. In fact, between 1931 and 1940 he had written a total of 44 articles, extending in length between two and eight thousand words — a total of 122,000 words in all — for a range of publications, including Blackwood’s Magazine, the Daily Mail, the Evening Express and the Illustrated Weekly of India. According to Lewin, he didn’t do it because he had pretensions to the artistic life, but because he needed the money to supplement his earning as an officer in the Indian Army. 

As with all other officers at the time who did not have the benefit of what was described euphemistically as “private means” he struggled to live off his army salary, especially to pay school fees for his children, John and Una. Accordingly, he turned his hand to writing articles under a pseudonym, mainly of Anthony Mills (Mills being Slim spelt backwards with an extra “l”) and one time as “Judy O’Grady”. 

Slim was a master of the telling phrase but, more than that, each story has a purpose

Fearing identification, in 1939, he asked the editor of the Illustrated Times of India to use an additional pseudonym because “Anthony Mills” would then be immediately “known to several people and I do not wish them to identify me also as the writer of certain articles in Blackwood’s and Home newspapers. I am supposed to be a serious soldier and I’m afraid Anthony Mills isn’t.” 

He would never have pretended that his writings represented any higher form of literary art. He was, first and foremost, a soldier. But, as readers will attest, he was very good at it. For instance, here he is describing a fight between a Gurkha battalion and Pathan tribesmen on the North-West Frontier in the 1930s:

The Lewis gun was firing madly in one continuous burst on Sukhlal’s left, and the empty cases rattled about him unheeded as he jammed a fresh clip of cartridges into his rifle. He heard the Lewis gunner yelling to his mate to “change magazine” and cursing him as he fumbled with it. Then the tribesmen were all round the piquet. A fierce face glared into Sukhal’s over the wall and a sword swept at his head. He ducked, poked his rifle almost into the Pathan’s beard, and fired. The sword struck a trail of sparks out of the stones and the face disappeared, only to be replaced by another, while a huge hand made a grab at his rifle, seized it just below the nose-cap and thrust it upward. With a cry, Sukhlal automatically jerked the trigger, sending the bullet soaring harmlessly heavenwards. The tribesman, his body half across the wall, made wild slashes at him with a wicked looking knife. Still clinging to his rifle with one hand and leaning far back to avoid the knife, Sukhlal fumbled for his kukri. Before he could draw it someone behind pushed a rifle muzzle over his shoulder and fired with an air-splitting crash. For a second Sukhlal saw and heard nothing, then his vision clearing, there was his adversary lying head downwards across the wall, a bundle of dirty white. All round he was conscious of a fierce struggle as the tribesmen tried by sheer weight or numbers to force their way over the wall. On his left the Lewis gun, as is the habit of Lewis guns in moments of stress, was jammed, and both gunners were using their pistols. On his right part of the wall was down, and he could see in the rifle flashes a seething mass of Pathans pressing forward. Sukhlal groped in an empty cartridge pouch, tried another, feverishly rammed the clip into the magazine, and standing a little back from the wall, resumed firing.

Slim was a master of the telling phrase but, more than that, each story has a purpose. Some were simply to provide a picture of some of the characters in his Gurkha battalion, some to tell the story of a battle or of an incident while on military operations. Some are funny, some not. Some are of an entirely different kind, and have no military context whatsoever. These are often short adventure stories, while some can best be described as morality tales. A couple of them warned his readers not to jump to conclusions about a person’s character. Some showed a romantic tendency to his nature.

After the Second World War, and with senior military rank attained, he never again wrote stories of this kind for publication. Any common remembrance of his pre-war literary activities withered and copies of the articles languished amidst his papers in the Churchill Archives Centre at Cambridge University. 

Now, for the first time in many cases since they were first written, all 44 articles have been republished in three short volumes (The General Wondered Why; The English Colonel; A Close Shave), allowing a new readership to have the chance to appreciate Slim’s deft demonstration that his pen was at least equal to his sword.

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