Obituary: General Sir Philip Christison Bt
Thursday 23 December 1993
IF RANK and age jointly constitute 'seniority', then Philip Christison was at the end of his life the senior serviceman in Britain. He won his first Military Cross in 1915, and his DSO in 1945, 30 years on. He was latterly known to Second World War servicemen as 'the last of the Marshals' - the successor to Bill Slim in commanding the Burma 14th Army; and receiver of that most emotional of surrenders, Singapore in September 1945. When almost the only officer alive to hold the monarch's commission from before the Great War, he wrote to the papers last year deploring capital defence cuts. A centenarian last month, he was much feted by the press, by the services, and by his friends.
It was fate that Philip Christison did not follow his family's metier. He was the fourth Christison baronet: the first had been Queen Victoria's senior physician in Scotland, and the second had been surgeon-general in the Bengal Army and in the Indian Medical Service. These were his grandfather and father. He himself read anatomy and physiology at Oxford - University College made him an honorary fellow in 1975 - before he took his first MB in 1914. He was commissioned into the Royal Army Medical Corps.
The First World War found 'Christie' Christison on a course at the RAMC Depot at Aldershot; but he had not gone far enough to continue once war came, and so he became an infantryman. His soldiering, nevertheless, was characterised by his family background. In Rangoon his father had performed the first surgical operation under anaesthesia in the field on one Ensign Garnet Wolseley, a future field marshal. A century later Philip Christison himself wanted to be remembered as a soldier who had a real part 'in beating tropical
But an infantryman he became, and was commissioned into the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. By 1915 Capt Christison had been severely wounded at the Battle of Loos, needing to be hospitalised, and been awarded his first MC in the year of its institution. The next year he fought at Semur and was mentioned in despatches. In 1917 he participated in the Arras Battle, was again mentioned and again awarded the MC. The last phase found him at Passchendaele; and in May 1918 he was given command of his 7th Battalion, a training cadre destined for the United States.
He emerged from the First World War halfway through his twenties and well set upon a career which would bring him to be a theatre commander at the end of the next. Eventually he became the British Army's senior full general (he turned down the offer of a marshal's baton), and he was latterly the only survivor among those who had held high command in a world war.
For Christison, as for many such servicemen, the inter-war years were just that - recuperation and preparation. In the 1930s he was called back to Camberley for a three-year stint as a Staff College instructor, a fellow instructor for the same period being a Gurkha officer, Bill Slim. From Camberley, Christison was given accelerated promotion to command not Scotsmen but Yorkshiremen, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment at Now- shera, covering the passes into Afghanistan, and afterwards on the Punjab plain. His son joined that regiment, serving in it and dying in action in Burma in 1942. Christison might have become a European soldier in the Second World War, as in the First; but the East beckoned, and in 1942 he was posted as GOC Baluchistan (finding time to write a book on its birds).
Thereafter he lived out five years of great intensity. In the first, as a lieutenant-general, he took command of 55 (Indian) Corps. In the second, he took command of Slim's 15 (Indian) Corps for the first Arakan campaign. In the third, he led his corps through the second Arakan campaign, the initial outright victory against Japanese forces and a hinge point of the struggle in that theatre, leading to the capture of Rangoon. In the fourth, he found himself in the event of armistice the only British commander on the ground, as pro tem C-in-C Allied Land Forces, South East Asia. This afforded him the Singapore Schadenfreude of taking the surrender of all Japanese sea, land and air forces in South-East Asia. In the fifth, he accomplished a politically difficult task as C-in-C Allied Forces, Netherland East Indies. Then in 1946, a tired 53 years, he left Asia for ever: he had succeeded to his baronetcy and wished to enjoy his own land.
Quiet years followed, as GOC-in-C Northern Command (York) and GOC-in-C Scottish Command (Edinburgh). He was made ADC General to George VI and given the colonelcy of two regiments, The Duke of Wellington's and the 10th (Princess Mary's own) Gurkha Rifles, and a further honorary colonelcy. A countryman by nature, he took to farming and farm interests, and those of wild life, taking his share on Scottish committees: he was, for example, vice-president of the National Trust for Scotland. Living to an enormous age, he kept kindled military and civic loyalties through the long years.
Christison wanted to be remembered principally (in his own words) 'as a general who won battles with minimum casualties, and had a real part in beating tropical disease in Burma'. The medical interest of his family never left him.
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