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Bill Slim's 'Courage and Other Broadcasts'
Republished at last!
I’m delighted to announce that for the first time since it was first published in 1957, Sharpe Books has republished Field Marshal Bill Slim’s Courage and Other Broadcasts. Its not before time. A friend told me recently that when he’d read it, he bought copies for both his sons, so profound was its effect on him. This edition comes with an introduction by me, copied below. If you haven’t got a copy on your shelves, its time to treat yourself.
Who was the man who wrote this book?
Put simply, he was one of the two most famous British generals of the Second World War (though he was in actuality a member of the Indian Army), and certainly the most successful. This short tome captures Slim at his best as a military leader. The best way to understand Slim is to listen to those who served under and with him. This is how the young, hard bitten and cynical Lance Corporal George Macdonald Fraser of the Border Regiment – later to reach fame as a writer and journalist – recalled him:
The biggest boost to morale, was the burly man who came to talk to the assembled battalion by the lake shore – I’m not sure when, but it was unforgettable. Slim was like that: the only man I’ve ever seen who had a force that came out of him, a strength of personality that I’ve puzzled over since... His appearance was plain enough: large, heavily built, grim-faced with that hard mouth and bulldog chin; the rakish Gurkha hat was at odds with the slung carbine and untidy trouser bottoms... Nor was he an orator... His delivery was blunt, matter-of-fact, without gestures or mannerisms, only a lack of them. He knew how to make an entrance – or rather, he probably didn’t, and it came naturally... Slim emerged from under the trees by the lake shore, there was no nonsense of “gather round” or jumping on boxes; he just stood with his thumb hooked in his carbine sling and talked about how we had caught Jap off-balance and were going to annihilate him in the open; there was no exhortation or ringing clichés, no jokes or self-conscious use of barrack-room slang – when he called the Japs “bastards” it was casual and without heat. He was telling us informally what would be, in the reflective way of intimate conversation. And we believed every word – and it all came true. I think it was that sense of being close to us, as though he were chatting offhand to an understanding nephew that was his great gift... You knew, when he talked of smashing the Jap, that to him it meant not only arrows on a map but clearing bunkers and going in under shell-fire; that he had the head of a general with the heart of a private soldier.’
Slim was a born leader of soldiers. He inspired confidence because he knew that the strength of an army lay not in its equipment, traditions or even doctrine, but in the training and morale of its soldiers and the personal competence and leadership of its officers. During the retreat from Burma in 1942 he had gone to visit a unit that he had been told was in a bad way. He soon found out why, observing that the officers were looking after themselves, rather than their men. This was entirely unacceptable: officers existed to lead, and the interests of their men came well ahead of their own. ‘I tell you, therefore, as officers’ Slim told an audience of officers joining 14th Army in 1944, ‘that you will neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, nor smoke, nor even sit down until you have personally seen that your men have done those things. If you will do this for them, they will follow you to the end of the world. And, if you do not, I will break you.’
Slim knew his men and could communicate with them because he was one of them. From the bloody days in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia during the First World War, and in the inter year wars on the North West Frontier, had experienced their bitterest trials. Not for him the aristocratic or privileged middle class upbringing of many of his peers, but an early life in industrial Birmingham, relieved only by the opportunities presented by the upheavals of the First World War. Born in 1891 Slim had left school at 16 due to the impoverishment of his family. He spent two years teaching some of the most hardened youngsters to be found in Birmingham, before going to work on the shop floor of an engineering company. These experiences meant that when he became Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1948 it could be said of him, ‘that he had never forgotten the smell of soldier's feet.’
As a result the men of 14th Army in India and Burma – British, Indian, African and Gurkha – gave him their loyalty in a way rarely seen in the annals of command. It would be inconceivable to think of Field Marshal Montgomery as ‘Uncle Bernard’, but it was to ‘Uncle Bill’ that soldiers in Burma, from the dark days of 1942 and 1943, through to the great victories over the Japanese in 1944 and 1945, put their confidence. Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten declared that the entire 14th Army became ‘his devoted slaves’.
‘Bill Slim was to us,’ said Captain Antony Brett-James, ‘a homely sort of general: on his jaw was carved the resolution of an army, in his stern eyes and tight mouth reside all the determination and unremitting courage of a great force. His manner held much of the bulldog, gruff and to the point, believing in every one of us, and as proud of the “Forgotten Army” as we were. I believe that his name will descend into history as a badge of honour as great as that of the “Old Contemptibles.”
Lord Mountbatten claimed that despite the reputation of others, such as the renowned self-publicist, Montgomery of Alamein, it was Slim who should rightly be regarded as the greatest British general of the Second World War.
This is the man who wrote this book. It wasn’t the only one he wrote. Slim wrote a bestselling account of his experience of war in Burma and India, published in London in 1956 by Cassell under the title Defeat into Victory. It was an instant publishing sensation in the United Kingdom with the first edition of 20,000 selling out almost immediately. It is widely regarded as a classic memoir of high command. Major General. D. R. Bateman wrote in The Field: ‘Of all the world's greatest records of war and military adventure, this story must surely take its place among the greatest. It is told with a wealth of human understanding, a gift of vivid description, and a revelation of the indomitable spirit of the fighting man that can seldom have been equalled - let alone surpassed - in military history.’ George Thompson in the London Evening Standard was as effusive in his praise: ‘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 author John Masters, who served in the 14th Army, wrote in the New York Times on 19 November 1961 that it was ‘a dramatic story with one principal character and several hundred subordinate characters,’ arguing that Slim was both ‘an expert soldier and an expert writer.’ The book remains a best seller today.
What few people ever knew was that before the war Slim exercised his passion for writing by penning, under a pseudonym, forty-four articles across a variety of subjects, including his beloved Indian Army, for magazines and newspapers in Britain, India and Australia. These have recently been resurrected and republished by Sharpe Books in three short volumes: The General Wondered Why, The English Colonel and A Close Shave. All three provide an invaluable window on the man who would prove to be, in my view, Britain’s greatest fighting general of the Second World War.
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