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Peace, War and Whitehall
A Memoir

by Field Marshal Lord Guthrie

A few years ago my indomitable grandmother’s response to the news that my own memoir was being published was understandably sceptical: who would want to read that, she wondered, you’ve only been in the Army for five minutes and haven’t done anything important. If anything, she was even more incredulous when she saw that the finished book had stretched the briefest snapshot of service to more than 300 pages. In every respect the opposite could not be truer of Peace, War and Whitehall Field Marshal Lord Guthrie’s memoir of an extraordinary 42 years’ of service during which he has commanded at every level in the British Army, from Second Lieutenant in the Welsh Guards in 1959 to Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) at the turn of the millennium. Who wouldn’t want to read that, would be the natural response and it is indeed a wonder, and slight sadness, that for such a career this is a relatively brief and episodic book.

Lord Guthrie wryly acknowledges at the outset that he was on record twenty years ago saying he was sick of Generals writing their memoirs and would never write his own. This reticence seems to stem in part from his own time with the SAS and the omerta which (just about, still) governs its members but equally from an instinctive and admirable reticence to bloviate. We should, therefore, be grateful to his family, friends and the Welsh Guardsmen who persuaded him to change his mind and belatedly put pen to paper because the result is an accessible, entertaining and informative memoir that avoids the pitfalls of those seeking to write their own versions of history and reads more like an after dinner speech than a lecture with as much for the aspiring junior officer as for the student of strategy and generalship and more in the way of wry, amusing asides than grandiose pronouncements. The seriousness of the Balkan conflict and the delicate Northern Ireland peace process sit somehow comfortably alongside jokes about Benedict Cumberbatch and outsize cowboy hats.

The sheer scope of the Field Marshal’s experience is remarkable. In his early recollections the Second World War is a palpable presence – his commanding officers in the Welsh Guards during his formative years ‘had all conducted themselves with courage and distinction in the Second World War’ and were garlanded with DSOs and MCs and nicknames hard-earned in the fighting in Normandy. His first operational deployment was to Aden in 1965 as to which he all too accurately observes that if any lessons were learnt they were soon forgotten ‘events 40 years later in Basra sadly proved that’. Vignettes from his time in Northern Ireland and with the British Army of the Rhine are particularly valuable and instructive – the arduousness and brutality of the worst years of the ’Troubles’ soberingly recalled – but in between we take in the New Hebrides and the Silver Jubilee celebrations in London. There are serious lessons to be learnt from Lord Guthrie’s experiences but an appealing lightness of touch with which they are delivered. There is a heartening  seam running through the Field Marshal’s memoirs which while never suggesting anything other than utmost professionalism, decries taking things too seriously and working too hard – I suspect some of today’s frantically busy junior and staff officers may read this and wish they had been working for him and it is a testament to a generosity of spirit that his own staff and subordinates appear to be universally recalled with praise and gratitude.

Peace, War and Whitehall is written in a tone of fond recollection and warmth with refreshingly little in the way of gossip and political score-settling, but that is not to say the Field Marshal pulls his punches. For example, as CDS, he concedes, that in the optimism of the end of the nineties and early noughties we failed to track the threat of a rising China whose ‘ruthless policy of co-option, coercion, concealment and mendacity poses the single greatest threat to world peace’. One wonders what the Field Marshal would make of the recent appointment of the first CDS from the Royal Navy in the twenty years since he was succeeded by the ‘taciturn’ Admiral Boyce: the two aircraft carriers which were approved during Strategic Defence Review of 1997 are flagged up as unaffordable mistakes and ‘sitting ducks in the face of our enemies’ growing technological advances’. There is no doubt that HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales (as the Royal Navy cannily named its two carriers) provide excellent photogenic content for official social media accounts, but how effective they may prove at deterring an increasingly assertive China remains open to question and the contrast between the 1997 strategic defence review – of which Lord Guthrie concludes it ‘could have been a lot worse’ - and the parlous state of the Army in particular following the 2021 Integrated Review is stark. Elsewhere Lord Guthrie recalls how 1990s Options for Change had ‘left the British Army in a vacuum, with no clear focus’ and the Royal Armoured Corps halved in strength which might seem like an alarmingly familiar predicament today.

Indeed, if there was any sadness to this book, for this reader at least, it was to wonder whether or not the Army described even in its latter stages is already a thing of the past – whether a critical mass point has been passed that, combined with a lack of political will, means the optimistic, expeditionary Army which Lord Guthrie commanded has receded as much into history as the one he joined over sixty years ago. At the heart of it all is Lord Guthrie’s reflection that ‘People join the services, as I did, for travel, adventure and excitement, and to go to war to defend out national interests and lay down their lives if needs be … Nobody flourishes just sitting around in barracks, in a naval base or on an RAF runway. It’s like asking a teacher not to enter a classroom, or a lawyer to keep away from a courtroom’.  This memoir is as much about travel, adventure and excitement that the Field Marshall enjoyed as anything else and should provide encouragement that one can reach the very top of one’s profession without losing that sense of fun.

Patrick Hennessey

Published by Osprey Publishing (see page 105 for special offer)

Patrick Hennessey is the author of The Junior Officers’ Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars (published in 2009)

 

 

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