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A master of his material, Andrew Roberts’s study of nine war leaders is both incisive and engaging, says Julian Lewis MP

The House Magazine – 30 October 2019

Andrew Roberts: Leadership in War – Lessons from Those Who Made History, Allen Lane, 2019, 256 pp, £20 (ISBN: 978-0241335994)

The success of deterrent and containment policies in averting a third world war has – mercifully – deprived modern leaders of the opportunity to show what they might have achieved in times of global conflict. Andrew Roberts’ incisive survey of nine war leaders examines six who reached their apotheosis in World War II, with only Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands campaign included from the postwar period.

Roberts has written acclaimed biographies of several of his chosen leaders and is a master of his material. All had “a profound sense of self-belief” and almost all had immersed their younger selves in the copious study of history. Roberts believes that people’s characters and outlook are profoundly shaped by historical study and personal experience in early teenage years.

De Gaulle’s Anglophobia stemmed from the humiliation of France by Britain in the 1898 Fashoda incident: his jaundiced view of our behaviour was distorted by this prism. Churchill predicted, when only 16, that one day he would

“command of the defences of London and … save London and England from disaster”.

His understanding of Hitler’s mentality – without ever meeting the man – stemmed from confronting fanatics on the Afghan border in 1896-97.

Both Churchill and de Gaulle were immune to physical fear. Both used the spoken and broadcast word to inspire. Both prized the honour of their countries more than life itself. Both embodied the spirit of resistance – and neither would contemplate national surrender, even in seemingly hopeless circumstances.

From the military professionals, Roberts chooses Marshall and Eisenhower. Each was supremely calm, strategically sound and personally diplomatic. Marshall’s “Olympian self-confidence” was allied with genuine modesty about his own achievements, such as creating an eight million-strong US Army from a meagre 200,000 in just four years. As an Allied Commander-in-Chief, Eisenhower viewed his role as Chairman of the Board –

“quick to give credit, ready to meet the other fellow more than half way, and absorb advice and … be willing to decentralise”.

He projected outward calmness, keeping all the prima donnas in play, whilst drafting a statement accepting full personal responsibility if the D-Day landings had miscarried.

Such people, on the surface, had little in common with Adolf Hitler, their arch-enemy, whom Roberts also analyses. Millions idolised the Nazi leader, whose views and obsessions were

“the kind of thing that mentally disturbed people used to write to the newspapers”

in green ink. Yet, he appealed to a nation in defeat by blaming it on a stab-in-the-back, and by painting a picture of racial superiority. He was packaged and presented as a superstar by cleverer brains than his and was aided by disastrous economic conditions enabling the imposition of totalitarian control. In reality, it was all about him – as his final denunciation of the Germans for having proved unworthy clearly demonstrated.

Indeed, if egocentricity were a disqualification, several of Roberts’ subjects could not have been included – Nelson and Napoleon, especially. From each of their careers, one of our foremost modern historians has distilled the elements of successful wartime leadership. They include a sense of mission, an appreciation of history, boundless energy, the power of concentration, a belief in the superiority of one’s nation and way of life, and determination to learn from past mistakes whilst never accepting defeat.

Great war leaders cultivate an aura of invincibility. Above all, they infuse their spirit into others:

“Great leaders are able to make soldiers and civilians believe that they are part of a purpose that matters more than even their continued existence on the planet.”

Future generations of military leaders will have cause to be grateful to Andrew Roberts for distilling the findings of his meticulous research into such an accessible and engaging analysis.