Book review: Uncle Bill, By Russell Miller

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

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The Independent Culture

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.

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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