December 21

This Day in History

World War I

Dec 21, 1915:

Sir William Robertson is appointed chief of the Imperial General Staff

Shortly after Sir Douglas Haig is installed as the new commander-in-chief of the British forces, his steadfast supporter, Sir William Robertson, is appointed the new chief of the Imperial General Staff, with King George's backing and over the head of the embattled British war secretary, Sir Horatio Kitchener.

Robertson, who first enlisted as a private solder in 1877, became the only man in the British army to risefrom such humble beginnings to the rank of field marshal by the end of the Great War. His impressiveascent included stints as an officer in India and South Africa; positions in British Intelligence in both the Russian and colonial areas; head of the Foreign Section of the War Office in London; chief of the general staff under Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien; commandant of the Staff College from 1910 to 1913; and finally director of military training at the War Office, where he was serving when war broke out in August 1914.

With the start of war, Robertson was plucked from his duties in London and sailed to Boulogne, France, asquartermaster-general of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), then led by Sir John French. When Haigreplaced French on December 19, 1915, the new commander-in-chief saw his chance to appoint his allyto replace Sir Archibald Murray as chief of an Imperial General Staff that had been allowed to weaken under Kitchener's watch since before the war.

The strong-willed Robertson had already concluded by the time of his appointment that the war could only be won on the Western Front. He wrote to Kitchener on December 27 that "we can only end the war in ourfavour by attrition or by breaking through the German line." In this view, Robertson coincided with Haig, but the force of his personality ensured that he would be more that just Haig's puppet. In his new role, he effectively served as a liaison between the army and the government. He supported the ousting of PrimeMinister Herbert Asquith in December 1916 in favor of David Lloyd George, then clashed bitterly with LloydGeorge over the latter's attempts to subordinate Haig and Robertson himself through the formation of aSuperior War Council that would direct the war's policy. In early 1918, when the new council created a strategic reserve corps of its own, against Haig's wishes and out of Robertson's command, Robertsonresigned his position. He was replaced by Sir Henry Wilson.

Robertson subsequently returned to London. After the war, he served as commander in chief of the BritishArmy on the Rhine. In March 1920, he was made a field marshal. He published two memoirs about his military career: From Private to Field Marshal and Soldiers and Statesmen. Sir William Robertson died in 1933.

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