It is always a delight to drive the country roads of Hampshire to see the man known throughout the army simply as ‘Dwin’ — Field Marshal Lord Bramall. Until quite recently, I was always greeted at the door in person by the last of the Chiefs of the Defence Staff (CDS) who had really seen war — in France and Germany — but today I am met by Paula, his dedicated carer. ‘Can’t get up so easily these days,’ he says as I ‘salute’ on entering his little study. ‘Have a chair — the Eton one or the Rifles,’ he adds, nodding to the cushions bearing the arms of the two great institutions of his early life.
The first time I met Dwin Bramall was in 1984, when he was CDS and I was a young major just out of the Staff College. He came into the directorate of military operations on my first morning as I was reading a tatty file marked ‘top secret’, which I’d found while trying to weed my absurdly overfilled safe.
‘What’s that ancient-looking stuff?’
I said it was Field Marshal Montgomery’s unexpurgated signals from 1944.
‘Why on earth have we still got them?’
I’d only had a brief look, but I couldn’t see anything of relevance to current operations. ‘I don’t know, sir, but he says some pretty scathing things about people.’
He frowned knowingly. ‘That was Monty.’
I said that I supposed he’d met him several times.
‘Two or three, yes. The first time, one of his staff said to me, the Field Marshal will ask if you’ve met before, and that he doesn’t mind whether the answer is “yes” or “no” but he doesn’t like you saying “I can’t remember.”’
The occasion was to pin a Military Cross on the chest of the then Lieutenant Bramall.
Field Marshal Lord (Edwin) Bramall, 94 this month, has certainly known the best of times and the worst of times. As a 16-year-old in 1940 he endured the Blitz and joined the Home Guard. As soon as he was 18 he enlisted, and was commissioned the following year in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (Green Jackets). On 7 June 1944, ‘D+1’, he landed in Normandy to take part in fighting as intense as on the Eastern Front — ‘very noisy, pretty dangerous’ — and was twice wounded. He saw the horrors of Belsen and the devastation of German cities: ‘Hamburg was unimaginable.’ Then, as war in Europe drew to a close, he volunteered to serve with the Parachute Regiment in the Far East, and found himself in Japan soon after the surrender. ‘I walked through what was left of Hiroshima, which wasn’t much. It had a profound effect on me.’
In 1982 he became Margaret Thatcher’s CDS, and when he left active duty in 1985 (a field marshal never retires), he was ennobled as Baron Bramall of Bushfield in the County of Hampshire, and became an active crossbencher in the Lords until standing down in 2013.
Then one morning in March 2015 it became the worst of times again when two dozen Metropolitan policemen descended on the Bramalls’ modest-sized home in their tight-knit village. A deranged individual, codenamed ‘Nick’, had made allegations of historical sexual abuse. The details were in the next day’s papers, and for nearly a year, during which time Lady Bramall died, speculation took its inevitable course. Eventually, the police announced there was no evidence and the ‘case’ was closed. Seven months later, the Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, went to see Bramall. ‘He said they’d known almost at once there was no truth in any of it, but couldn’t say so because it would have prejudiced other inquiries.’ Bramall was awarded £100,000 in compensation (he turned down a far larger sum), but remains angry that anyone could be left out to dry in such a way: ‘They say they might prosecute “Nick”, but the ones who should be prosecuted are the police who led the inquiry.’ He sniffs, and adds, ‘Hogan-Howe’s in the Lords now, of course.’
If any good has come out of the affair, though (for it served as a catalyst in gathering up half a lifetime’s writing), it is the publication of The Bramall Papers: Reflections on War and Peace (edited by Robin Brodhurst), in part the initiative of the University of Buckingham, where his archive is to be deposited. His wide-ranging selection of essays, articles, letters, lectures and speeches shows just how frequently his views have been controversial. He opposed the Iraq war. He shakes his head adamantly: ‘Containment was far the better option.’ He was against Trident renewal. He shrugs: ‘It deters nobody.’ And he thinks we’ve handled Russia — Putin — badly. He shakes his head again: ‘We behaved too much like victors. You’ve got to have a sensible balance of power.’
Whether reflecting on the battlefield or geo-strategy, his focus is always on what conditions must pre-exist or be put in place if military action is to succeed. While those questions seem straightforward, he says, the answers have been remarkably unrealistic of late: ‘I thought it would be useful if the papers, properly edited and put into context, could be placed in the wider public domain,’ he adds, as we sip army standard coffee brought by Paula.
Incidentally, Bramall rates Monty, for all his sometimes excruciating faults and foibles, as Britain’s ‘greatest professional soldier since the great Duke of Wellington’. Indeed, one of the many instructive delights of The Bramall Papers is the section on generals and generalship. He has always studied history. He says simply: ‘You can’t form a rounded view of current and future strategy without it.’
Bramall himself might not have become a soldier had it not been for the war. He had a place at Oxford but gave it up to enlist. After the war he decided not to take up the deferred offer, but to take a regular commission instead: ‘I was 22 and an acting major. I didn’t think I could go back.’
Neither did his divisional commander, who evidently saw the proverbial field marshal’s baton in the young soldier’s pack, and wrote to an old regimental colleague, General Sir William (later Field Marshal Lord) Slim: ‘I have an officer on my staff who will one day be Chief of the General Staff.’
It is tempting, though, to imagine the roads not taken. While still at Eton, Bramall had two paintings in the RA summer exhibition, and captained the cricket First XI. ‘We were unbeaten that season,’ he says, with undiminished pride even after so long (when he stood down as CDS he became president of the MCC). His mother was a socialist, and his brother a Labour MP during Attlee’s ministry. In the early 1980s, the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, asked if he’d like to be governor of Hong Kong. ‘I turned it down to be CDS,’ he says, ‘much to the relief of the Foreign Office.’
Over more coffee we speculate on whether the army will be able to attract the sort of quality it has in the past as it shrinks in size seemingly inexorably. ‘There are some very good commanding officers by all accounts. I just hope we’ll be able to keep them.’ A lot will depend, he adds, on whether they’ll be spared the time to think, especially outside the box: ‘They’re all having to spend too much time trying to find savings.’ He has a concern, too about the narrowness that can come from fixating on particular operational experience (meaning Afghanistan). He suddenly picks up his book to find an address he gave, in 1985, to cadets at Sandhurst, and begins reading: ‘My final word to you would be… to cultivate outside interests and pursuits, both adventurously active and intellectually reflective… to see the broader picture, not only those matters of immediate concern,’ adding with a twinkle in his eye, ‘which will, incidentally, make you to others (of both sexes) that much more interesting a person.’
Thinking time in his own career had been at something of a premium, given his continuous engagement in Britain’s long and at times painful withdrawal from Empire, until, in 1970, came a seminal opportunity. By then a brigadier, he attended the Imperial Defence College (later the Royal College of Defence Studies). ‘My academic supervisor was Michael Howard,’ he says, with evident satisfaction. Sir Michael Howard, who had himself won the MC, in Italy, would become Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford. With his encouragement, Bramall developed, during his year at the IDC, his thoughts on the future application of force. His thesis is the book’s central intellectual position: ‘Force must be considered a strategy for peace quite as much as it always has been for war.’
These days the idea seems unremarkable, but in part this is because when he became CDS, Bramall managed to get the MoD to start thinking beyond present defence policy, the so-called ‘four pillars of defence’ — the strategic nuclear deterrent, the defence of the UK, ground and air forces in Germany and the navy securing the eastern Atlantic — and to consider in addition the UK’s interests beyond the Nato area, notably in the Middle East and south-western Asia. ‘I found it almost as hard to persuade the single-service chiefs as I did Heseltine [Defence Secretary]. They were all preoccupied with the Cold War and — quite rightly, of course — their own service’s interests.’ Nevertheless, Heseltine did eventually agree to release some money to enable the forces to train and provide support in countries judged unstable, or potentially so: ‘The policy became known unofficially as the “fifth pillar”.’
Today, after two decades of war of one type or another, all three services are again considering their strategy for peace: ‘We laid some good foundations then,’ says Bramall, with utter conviction. ‘We’ve just got to get on with it now.’
One of the threads running through the book is, as he puts it, ‘There’s no such thing as “simple soldiering”.’ He shakes his head again: ‘There never was, really.’ It is ironic that soldiers now seem to understand this more than do their political masters, who have been too often prepared to rush to arms, as if from the ultima ratio the solution to complicated problems will mysteriously emerge. That said, Bramall is scathing about certain senior officers who after the debacles of Iraq were keen on wider involvement in Afghanistan, simply wanting to — he quotes one of them, raising his eyebrows — ‘get stuck into some proper soldiering’, by which he means fighting without political consequences.
The Bramall Papers are in their way a unique anthology of strategic and tactical wisdom. They ought perhaps to be inscribed with the words of Caesar Augustus: ‘Young men, hear an old man to whom old men hearkened when he was young.’
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10