Robert Lyman on Courage & Other Broadcasts

The great commander's biographer chats about his collection of talks, re-published recently.
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Do you think Bill Slim’s ideas surrounding courage and morale can be applied to modern-day warfare?

Absolutely. They’re timeless. All soldiers need to be motivated to fight. Napoleon described ‘the moral to the physical as three is to one’. To be motivated, soldiers need to believe in the cause in which they’re fighting, and they need to be well led. It’s the job of leaders to do this. Leaders help create a sense of oneness and unity in military units that enables tough jobs to be undertaken. Personal courage, high morale, small-unit cohesion, training and professionalism are all essential ingredients in successful armies. Slim knew this, as he had seen the low morale in the British and Indian Armies in Burma and India in 1942 and 19453, and knew that to create the conditions for military success he had to increase the men’s morale. The more they trained, the harder they trained, and the better were their officers and equipment, morale improved. With higher morale came the knowledge, indeed the belief, that they could defeat the Japanese. They went on to do precisely this. At Kohima and Imphal in 1944 and Burma in 1945.

Which of Slim’s broadcasts resonates with you the most and why?

Well, the first two take some beating! The first, on courage, equates this virtue with being a good person. Slim always framed his conversations about fighting the Japanese as one between good and evil: in order to conquer evil, one needed to be good, because it is moral courage which enables sacrifice to be entertained. Its  fascinating concept, deeply rooted in the Christian structure of our thinking about warfare. The second, about morale, deftly explains how it was that he was able to rebuild the British and Indian Armies in the Far East to allow them to fight and defeat the Japanese. All armies need, he argued, to be build on a triumvirate of principles; spiritual, mental and material. He describes these in far more detail in his masterful account of the war, Defeat into Victory, published in 1956.

How do you think the principles of leadership have changed since Slim and WW2?

Honestly, I don’t think they have. What has changed is the nature of the soldier, and indeed the culture and society which produces both our soldiers and officers. Soldiers are perhaps more demanding of intelligent leadership: they certainly wont accept it solely because an officer wears the rank. Officers have to live their leadership, in order for real followership to be created. This is the big think that Slim championed. Leaders are only such if they have willing followers.

What do you feel should be the most important value in the British Army today?

The same virtues that characterised Slim’s army in WW2. Selfless command is the critical underpinning of real leadership. It is sacrificial, putting the men and their achievement of the team’s military tasks before anything else. This was always Slim’s yardstick for assessing the morale of a unit. If the officers lived for their men it was obvious to anyone looking in. If the officers were concerned only for themselves, the unit was dangerously holed below the waterline, because the men weren’t being led properly or effectively.

Do you think the British Commonwealth will change now that the leadership has been passed to Charles?

No, I don’t think that it will make any difference. Soldiers are loyal to the crown, whomsoever wears it. All the traditions of duty, loyalty and service remain bound up in the character of military service in Britain’s army, and the loyalty it owes the crown is merely an expression of this.

Courage and Other Broadcasts by Field Marshal Sir William Slim, with an introduction by Robert Lyman, is out now and is published by Sharpe Books.