Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Book review: Uncle Bill, By Russell Miller

Slim, the ordinary bloke who defeated the Japanese in Burma, ranks as a world-class general

Field-Marshal William Slim is the greatest general in British history, far outstripping Wellington, an unimaginative plodder who got lucky. His encirclement of the Japanese on the Irrawaddy in Burma in 1945 is one of the great martial exploits of the ages and makes him fit to be ranked with the all-time greats: Alexander, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Subudei, Tamerlane, Napoleon.

Get money off this title at the Independent book store

It is therefore good to have this authorised life drawing on archives which, so far as I am aware, have not been used before for Slim's life. However, Russell Miller's workmanlike and thoroughly competent biography is beset by two major problems. The first is that Slim's career was significant for only four years at most. Apart from being wounded three times in the First World War, he had an early life that was steady if dull, spent mainly as an officer in the Indian Army with a short burst in Eritrea in 1941-42. After the war he was Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Governor-General of Australia, prestigious posts but hardly ones that generate much excitement.

That leaves just the years of the Burma campaign, 1942-45. What Sir Walter Scott said of Bonnie Prince Charlie could be said of Slim – that he was "one of those personages who distinguish themselves during some single and extraordinarily brilliant part of their lives, like the course of a shooting star, at which men wonder, as well on account of the briefness, as the brilliancy of its splendour."

Miller's second problem is that, as an authorised biographer, he is bound to be reverential to Slim's family and associates. This results in bland descriptions and analyses of people about whom the reader wants to know more. Slim's wife Aileen appears to have been both spendthrift and a gorgon, but she receives the kind of Panglossian treatment that would not bring a blush to the familial cheek.

Miller does his best to overcome these problems, working in as many anecdotes and snippets as he can, but at times one can almost sense his attention drifting. This may account for some lapses in the first half. He seems to think that "caravanserai" denotes a moving caravan rather than an oasis. He talks of "Maxims guns left over from the Indian mutiny". But the Mutiny happened in 1857 and the Maxim gun was not invented until 1884. Pedants' corner stuff, perhaps, but one's confidence is shaken when he gives Wingate and the Chindits more credit than they deserve and applauds Mad Mike Calvert as a genuine war hero. Calvert was courtmartialled and cashiered after the war; a more nuanced portrait would have to contain the nouns sociopath, alcoholic and pederast.

Even worse is the totally uncritical account of Mountbatten, a man notable for stealing others' achievements and obfuscating his own (copious) mistakes. Miller quotes with a straight face Mountbatten's remark to Slim on the hero's deathbed: "We did it together." Apart from the fact that Mountbatten opposed Slim's strategy in Burma until jumping on the bandwagon at the very end, what would our reaction be if Madame von Meck, Tchaikovsky's patron had said: "Together we wrote Swan Lake"? An enabler is not a creator, nor is an office-bound supremo a great strategic thinker.

This may seem harsh, for Miller's work is a perfectly good overall view of Slim's life. His best point is to emphasise constantly Slim's human qualities, thus disproving the (usually accurate) perception that great achievers in any field are rarely decent human beings – and the great generals usually power-crazed butchers. Utterly without pretension and humbug, Slim was a straight-talking, commonsensical individual who possessed charisma and the common touch. Hugely popular with the troops –hence the sobriquet "Uncle Bill" –he never let the adulation go to his head. Although not necessarily the kind of person one would welcome as a sparkling dinner companion (as a raconteur he was second-rate), he was unquestionably a great man and, it can be argued, was treated shabbily by the establishment.

At his death in 1970 he left just over £12,000 – which even at today's rates would be only about £120,000. When one considers the gigantic sums received by today's footballers, tennis players, rock stars, movie stars, bankers, hedge-fund managers etc, it seems scandalous that the nation could not find a way to give a greater reward to one of history's greats. It was typical of Slim, though, that he never complained. Most of the celebrated Second World War generals were preening prima donnas –Patton, Montgomery, MacArthur, Alexander, Mountbatten. Alongside them Slim stands as a beacon of sanity, humanity, stoicism and wisdom.

Frank McLynn's 'The Road Not Taken: how Britain narrowly missed a revolution' is published by Vintage

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all