Lt. Churchill: “A Subaltern’s Advice to Generals”

Lt. Churchill: “A Subaltern’s Advice to Generals”

With col­leagues I dis­cussed which of young Winston’s ear­ly war books was deri­sive­ly called, “A Subaltern’s Advice to Gen­er­als.” This was a pop­u­lar wise­crack after his ear­ly works had the temer­i­ty to pro­pose British mil­i­tary strat­e­gy in India, Sudan and South Africa. Churchill was in his mid-twen­ties at the time—but not ret­i­cent to speak his mind. Noth­ing we didn’t know here….

Malakand Field Force?

With­out con­sult­ing ref­er­ences, I thought the “advice” line involved The Sto­ry of the Malakand Field Force (Churchill’s first book, 1898). I was influ­enced by its last chap­ter, “The Rid­dle of the Fron­tier.” Plen­ty of advice there, though it is as much polit­i­cal as it is military.

I also remem­ber the fine biopic Young Win­ston (1972). Here Gen­er­al Kitch­en­er picks up a copy of what looks like a first edi­tion Malakand, scans its cov­er, and hurls it into a wastebasket!

Churchill was at the time lob­by­ing for appoint­ment as a war cor­re­spon­dent on Kitchener’s expe­di­tion to recap­ture Sudan. Dal­ton New­field, the sec­ond edi­tor of Finest Hour, wrote in his col­umn, “75 Years Ago” FH #28 (1973):

[Churchill] gath­ered his forces for a tremen­dous effort to join Kitchener’s forces In Egypt, after which he would return to Eng­land and pol­i­tics. He unashamed­ly pulled every string known to him or [his moth­er] Lady Ran­dolph, but Kitch­en­er remained obdu­rate. He had read the Malakand, often referred to in mil­i­tary cir­cles as “A Subaltern’s Advice to Gen­er­als.” He want­ed no part of the brash young lieutenant.

Sur­pris­ing­ly, there are few appear­ances of “A Subaltern’s Advice to Gen­er­als” in the Churchill canon. Ted Mor­gan, in Churchill: The Rise to Fail­ure, alludes to it in passing:

Kitch­en­er lis­tened in absolute silence as Win­ston told him that the ene­my was advanc­ing in large num­bers between the British posi­tion and the city of Omdur­man. “You say the Dervish [Sufi Mus­lim] army is advanc­ing,” Kitch­en­er said. “How long do you think I have got?” The com­man­der-in-chief was ask­ing a subaltern’s advice, which Win­ston did not hes­i­tate to give. “You have got at least an hour—probably an hour and a half, sir, even if they come on at their present rate.”

The River War?

But that ref­er­ence proves noth­ing, real­ly. Churchill his­to­ri­an Paul Courte­nay thought “A Subaltern’s Advice to Gen­er­als” refers to Churchill’s sec­ond book, The Riv­er War.

adviceMr. Courte­nay based his answer on Richard Hard­ing Davis’s Real Sol­diers of For­tune (Lon­don: P.F. Col­lier & Sons, 1906), 108. Admit­ted­ly his Churchill chap­ter con­tains sev­er­al inac­cu­ra­cies, but this ref­er­ence to Riv­er War looked right:

Equal­ly dis­gust­ed [with The Riv­er War] were the younger offi­cers of the ser­vice. They nick­named his book, “A Subaltern’s Advice to Gen­er­als,” and called Churchill him­self a “Medal Snatch­er”…. But Churchill nev­er was a medal hunter. The rou­tine of bar­rack life irked him…. Indeed the War Office could cov­er with medals the man who wrote the Malakand and Riv­er War and still be in his debt.

I appealed for adju­di­ca­tion to a judge, the Hon. Dou­glas Rus­sell, who is not only a judge but the author of a dis­tin­guished book, Win­ston Churchill Sol­dier: The Mil­i­tary Life of a Gen­tle­man at War. Judge Rus­sell replied in detail (reprint­ed by kind permission)…


Douglas Russell:

If we con­clude that the “subaltern’s advice” quip was the rea­son Kitch­en­er did not want Churchill in the Sudan, the book has to be the Malakand. It could not be The Riv­er War, which was pub­lished after Churchill left the Sudan cam­paign. By that time, young Win­ston was try­ing to get into the Sec­ond Boer War, and the gen­er­al mak­ing the deci­sion was Roberts, not Kitchener.

adviceIt is not clear that Churchill’s cri­tiques in the Malakand caused Kitchener’s resis­tance to him join­ing the Sudan cam­paign. I have nev­er ver­i­fied that. I do not know if Kitch­en­er even read the book. It is clear that Kitch­en­er did not like jour­nal­ists gen­er­al­ly. He cer­tain­ly knew of Churchill. In August 1898 Win­ston wrote to his mother:

F[rancis Rhodes, cor­re­spon­dent for The Times] v[er]y kind and ami­able. He talked to Sir­dar [leader] about me. Kitch­en­er said he had known I was not going to stay in the army—was only mak­ing a con­ve­nience of it; that he had dis­ap­proved of my com­ing in place of oth­ers whose pro­fes­sions were at stake….

This may be the real rea­son Kitch­en­er did not want Churchill. I do not give great weight to Richard Hard­ing Davis and his Real Sol­diers of For­tune. His Churchill chap­ter has sev­er­al basic errors on oth­er top­ics. I have looked at the 1914, 1941 and 1981 edi­tions and there are no foot­notes. Davis was a pop­u­lar rather than a schol­ar­ly writer. The subaltern’s advice quip is the sort of thing that would appear in a soldier’s mem­oir, as some­thing that he had heard some­one else say with­out dis­clos­ing the indi­vid­ual who actu­al­ly said it.

Subaltern’s Advice

So which book con­tained Lieu­tenant Churchill’s Advice to his Gen­er­als? We con­clud­ed that the best ref­er­ence avail­able is Davis (his errors else­where notwith­stand­ing). A war cor­re­spon­dent him­self, Davis asso­ci­at­ed with mil­i­tary types. The wise­crack could have been going around, and if he heard it about The Riv­er War, so be it. Churchill in that book deplored cer­tain of Kitchener’s actions after the vic­to­ry at Omdur­man, such as destroy­ing the Mahdi’s tomb.

Still, one could use this humor­ous sub­ti­tle for any of his four war books, all pub­lished before he had turned twen­ty-six. For­ev­er fas­ci­nat­ed by war strat­e­gy, Churchill nev­er hes­i­tat­ed to speak his mind, whether he was twen­ty-five or seventy.

One thought on “Lt. Churchill: “A Subaltern’s Advice to Generals”

  1. A leg­end so well-known it almost cer­tain­ly orig­i­nat­ed as a joke cracked in some officer’s mess, I think you are right about Davis even though he was fog­gy on a few details.

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