Field Marshal the Viscount Slim of Yarralumla & Bishopston

On Saturday 18th June 2005 the Burma Star Association was asked to take part in the Open University’s Open Day at their Headquarters in Milton Keynes. HQ, with the assistance of the Bedford Branch, managed to prepare a notice board full of information about the campaign to ‘enlighten’ those attending the ‘Peoples War’ part of the Open Day. During the afternoon Robert Lyman was able to deliver two lectures about Field Marshal Slim, which were received very well. He also delivered the same lecture at the Living Museum, which was held in St James’ Park during the week 4-10th July. Our thanks to Robert and the Bedford Branch for their support on very hot day.

I am honoured to be able to talk to you on behalf of the Burma Star Association, one of the contributors to the ‘Peoples’ War’ project. The BSA was created in the 1950s by the man who had commanded the British and Commonwealth armies in Burma – Field Marshal Bill Slim – as a means to support those soldiers who had earned the now famous Burma Star medal in the jungles of eastern India and Burma, and their dependents. It is one of the most successful organisations of its kind, and has currently a thriving membership of some 10,000. In the context of the theme of today I want to explain why I think that Slim was the archetypical ‘People’s General’.

But the fact is that the name of Bill Slim or, to give him his full title, Field Marshal the Viscount Slim of Yarralumla and Bishopston, has all but dropped out of public consciousness today. This is despite the fact that he was, in his day, one of Britain’s most loved soldiers, possibly unequalled since the Duke of Marlborough. The war in the Far East was always regarded as a peripheral war by those fighting in Europe, and before long his army came to call itself the ‘forgotten army’. Sadly, Slim’s achievements as the leader of this great army have equally been forgotten, although not of course by those who served under him who were all, as Mountbatten declared, ‘his devoted slaves’, nor indeed by their children and grandchildren who together make the Burma Star Association a living and vibrant association committed to providing hope for the future as well as giving thanks for the past.

Slim was the epitome of the ‘Peoples’ General’. He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but rather into an impoverished middle class family from Bristol and was brought up in the Black Country. Thrown into the First World War with thousands of his age group he proved himself a natural soldier, and despite being badly wounded in Gallipoli he rose through the ranks and, at the end of the war, he transferred to the India Army.

He was a born leader of soldiers. He inspired confidence because he instinctively knew that the strength of an army lies not in its equipment or its officers, but in the training and morale of its men. Everything he did as a commander was designed to equip his men for the trials of battle, and their interests were always at the forefront of his plans. He knew them because he was one of them, and had experienced their bitterest trials. Brigadier Bernard Fergusson (later Earl Ballantrae and Governor General of New Zealand), believed that Slim was unlike any other British higher commander to emerge in the Second World War, ‘the only one at the highest level in that war that… by his own example inspired and restored its self-respect and confidence to an army in whose defeat he had shared.’

Slim was an intelligent, imaginative soldier, able to free himself from the strictures of military orthodoxy and received wisdom. He loved his men and was loved in return – a remarkable feat in any military commander whose task is to oversee the destruction of life and treasure in the pursuit of military goals. His instructions on the creation of morale based on his three pillars – physical, spiritual and intellectual – are still issued to Officer Cadets at Sandhurst and form a deeply intelligent analysis of the things that will enable free men to give of their best and to endure the harshness and brutality of combat.

He was commonly known to those who served under him as ‘Uncle Bill’ from the special affinity British troops had to him: the remarkable fact, however, was that many of his Army of several hundred thousand men recalled him as ‘Cha Cha Slim Sahib’: 14th Army was, after all, very largely Indian, Gurkha and West and East African. He ‘was the only Indian Army general of my acquaintance that ever got himself across to British troops’ recalled Fergusson. ‘Monosyllables do not usually carry a cadence; but to thousands of British troops, as well as to Indians and to his own beloved Gurkhas, there will always be a special magic in the words “Bill Slim.”

What did he achieve in Burma? First, he prevented, by his dogged command of the withdrawal from Burma the invasion of India proper in 1942 by a Japanese Army exulting in its omnipotence after the collapse of the rest of East Asia and the Pacific rim. The 100 day 1000 mile retreat from Burma to India in 1942, the longest in the long history of the British Army was, whilst a bitter humiliation, nevertheless not a rout, in large part because Slim was put in command of the fighting troops. He managed the withdrawal through dust bowl, jungle and mountain alike so deftly that the Japanese, though undoubtedly victorious, were utterly exhausted and unable to mount offensive operations into India for a further year. In time Slim was given the opportunity no British soldier has been given since the days of Wellington: the chance to train an army from scratch and single-handedly mould it into something of his own making, an army of extraordinary spirit and power against which nothing could stand.

Second, he removed forever any further Japanese ambitions to invade India proper by his destruction of the Japanese in the Naga Hills around Kohima and the Manipur Plain around lmphal in the spring and early summer of 1944, and in so doing he decisively shattered the myth of Japanese invincibility that had for so long crippled the Allied cause. He did this after rebuilding the army, in the face of hindrances of every kind and of every magnitude. Third, despite the prognostications of many, and subtly influencing Mountbatten to conform to his own strategy, Slim drove his armoured, foot and muleborne and air-transported troops deep into Burma in late 1944 and 1945, across two of the world’s mightiest rivers, to outwit and outfight the 250,000 strong Burma Area Army of General Kimura and in so doing engineer the complete collapse of the Japanese in Burma.

So, by 1945 Slim’s 14th Army, at 750,000 men the largest ever assembled by Britain, had decisively and successively defeated two formidable Japanese armies, the first in Assam in India in 1944 and the second on the banks of the great Irrawaddy along the infamous ‘Road to Mandalay’ in Burma in 1945. Given the pattern of British misfortune in 1942 and in 1943 it is not fanciful to argue that without Slim neither the safety of India (in 1942 as well as in 1944), nor the recovery of Burma in 1945, would ever have been possible. Slim’s leadership and drive came to dominate the 14 Army to such a degree that it be came, in Jack Master’s phrase, ‘an extension of his own personality.’

‘Slim’s revitalisation of the Army had proved him to be a general of administrative genius’ argues the historian Duncan Anderson: ‘his conduct of the Burma retreat, the first and second Arakan, and lmphal-Kohima, had shown him to be a brilliant defensive general; and now, the Mandalay-Meiktila operation had placed him in the same class as Guderian, Manstein and Patton as an offensive commander.’ 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. Slim’s failing was to deprecate any form of self-publicity believing, perhaps naively, that the sound of victory had a music all of its own. The ‘spin doctors’ of our own political generation have sadly taught us something Monty knew instinctively and exploited to his own advantage, namely that if you don’t blow your own trumpet no one else will.

The final word should be left to one who served under him. “Bill” Slim was to us, averred 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.” This badge is proudly worn, of course, of the Burma Star Association, whose proud members I represent today. They carry forward the fortitude and courage of their leader, and those of an earlier generation who gave so much for us today.

DEKHO! Summer 2005