Peace, War and Whitehall by Field Marshal Lord Guthrie; Bloomsbury, October 2021
THERE are very few soldiers who have commanded at every level from platoon to army group, particularly in the UK. Given that the current British Army would struggle to deploy a brigade, it’s unlikely that there will be many more British field marshals, let alone any with the depth of experience of the author. On that basis alone this memoir is a piece of history.
As the author makes clear in the prologue, he never intended to write a memoir and went on the record in 2000 as disapproving of generals who did – in the field marshal’s view it is a betrayal. (It was he who told General Sir Peter de la Billière following the publication of his rather detailed memoirs, contrary to the then policy of the SAS, that he was no longer welcome in any SAS mess or camp.) However, thankfully, in his 82nd year his family, friends and (I suspect above all) the Welsh Guards have persuaded him to produce a memoir for his descendants and, as he hopes, an aid to those who wish to make a career in the Army or a success of their lives.
As the author points out, this is a memoir not an autobiography, so he has left out dull episodes (in which he includes commanding 1 Br Corps and being an Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff). He has also managed not to spill beans, stoke controversy or re-fight old battles – not least as much of the controversial stuff is probably wrapped up under 50-year rules. This has not prevented some gloriously waspish comments about some individuals, nor the recounting of some fairly direct encounters. I laughed out loud several times and the Field Marshal’s prose is engaging, precise and often dry.
His career spanned the retreat from Empire which he saw at first hand as an SAS Troop commander in Aden, the rejuvenation of 1st British Corps under Lt General Nigel Bagnall, who transformed the posture from one of nuclear trip-wire to one of a (very) aggressive mobile battle to fight and win. Lord Guthrie commanded 4th Armoured Brigade (which was the crucial counter stroke brigade). It encompassed the Ulster troubles (he commanded the Welsh Guards in South Armagh on an emergency tour from Berlin), the end of the Cold War, the Coconut War (Google it or read here), Bosnia and Kosovo, Sierra Leone, the Gulf War and Iraq.
The memoir is more or less chronological, with a couple of themed chapters (on leadership and sport). One discerns that Lord Guthrie led and commanded through finding and developing the right people in the right position. He also has the habit of ensuring that he sees for himself, getting forward and being in the right place at the right time. There is little (if anything) on tactics, weaponry or technology, which is perhaps more a reflection of Lord Guthrie’s interests than his input. There is very little on politics even though as CGS he bridged Major to Blair.
Those seeking controversy, an explanation of the Snatch Land Rover debacle or how the Army lost the ability to win will be disappointed. That is perhaps the point of this memoir – one that the current technocrats would be well advised to heed; it is (or at least was) possible to ascend to the arcadian heights of five stars through meeting, leading, training and charming people. Of course, SAS troop and squadron commanders don’t lack an iron fist or the ruthlessness to use it when necessary – as is implied occasionally.
This is a fluent, compelling, very readable memoir. Should you buy it? Of course. Will you enjoy it? Undoubtedly. You may or may not learn a little more about how to lead and command. What you will gain is the personal view of possibly the last Field Marshal of how he got there.
This review was originally published on the Army Rumour Site www.arrse.co.uk and appears here with their kind permission.