So I wrote this letter to the Times Literary Supplement, in May this year:
Then, in July, the TLS ran a hugely interesting review of a biography of Charles Repington, The London Times’ main correspondent between the Russo-Japanese War and World War 1, and a man who (according to the reviewer, Allan Mallinson) was described as “the most brilliant military writer of his day. His pen was entirely devoted to the service of England and the army that he loved.”
One would think that, as a correspondent, one doesn’t necessarily want praise that sets you apart as a very effective propagandist for one of the two sides. I can hear the objection coming: but times have changed. Yes. Winston Churchill himself, following military adventures in Afghanistan and Sudan, got a job to cover the Boer War in South Africa in Repington’s heyday, and he did it with–how to put it–a lacking sense of balance. He was captured by Lous Botha, a future Prime Minister of South Africa, while fighting in support of British troops there (he didn’t shoot at Botha simply because he had forgotten his gun, by his own confession).
So, back to Repington, a man of his times: Mallinson tells us he had to quit his military career because of a liason with a married woman, and became an opinionated influencer of policy during the Great War:
“As war with Germany approached in 1914, he was the first to champion the appointment of Field Marshal Kitchener as Secretary of State – “the perilous experiment” as Asquith called it, a man in uniform in the Cabinet. His public advocacy of Kitchener undoubtedly helped. Thereafter Repington’s influence on appointments and strategy is harder to assess, the claims often amounting to merely post hoc ergo propter hoc. Senior officers and politicians are notably and understandably reluctant to acknowledge influence, unless to excuse a cock-up. Without doubt, though, Repington’s reporting of the shortage of artillery ammunition at the front in 1915 – “the shell scandal” – helped bring Lloyd George to centre stage as head of a newly created ministry of munitions, sidelining Kitchener who had previously had responsibility for all procurement.”
“But by the law of unintended consequences his efforts to abet the flagrant attempts of his old friend Sir John French, C-in-C of the British Expeditionary Force, to shift the blame for the debacle of the Battle of Loos in October that year to Sir Douglas Haig resulted in the dismissal of the former and the elevation of the latter. Things really started to go wrong, however, with Repington’s absolute conviction that the Western Front was the only place the war could be won, and only by Allied offensives, no matter how costly – and that Lloyd George, after he became Prime Minister at the end of 1916, was impeding this reality. “Wully” Robertson, the Chief of Imperial General Staff, thought the same, and after a year of quarrelling resigned in early 1918, to be replaced by Henry Wilson. Geoffrey Dawson, Editor of The Times, exasperated with his military correspondent’s stand against the War Cabinet, sacked Repington at the same time. There the story doesn’t end, but suffice to say that while representatives of the Morning Post and the Daily Telegraph, for whom he then went to work, came to Repington’s funeral in May 1925, none came from The Times. Indeed, while all his other obituaries (worldwide) were laudatory, The Times carried the deadly verdict that “defects of temperament and judgment detracted from his talent”.
I now must wonder whether Repington, so keen on having others chew barbed wire all the way to the German border, had anything to do with the “political bickering and finger-pointing” that led to the creation of the canard that Gallipoli was a unique disaster.