REVIEW – Leadership in War: lessons from those who made history

4 mins read
Andrew Roberts 
Allen Lane, £20 (hbk) 
ISBN 978-0241335994
Andrew Roberts
Allen Lane, £20 (hbk)
ISBN 978-0241335994

Early in Leadership in War, Andrew Roberts recounts the note-to-self that Philip Ziegler had sitting on his desk while writing a biography of Admiral Lord Mountbatten: ‘Remember he was a great man.’

Mountbatten had frequently acted so pompously and irritably that Ziegler was liable to forget his subject’s many achievements.

No doubt Roberts can sympathise with this experience, having published biographies of Winston Churchill and Napoleon Bonaparte, both ‘great’ figures in history with quite considerable ugly sides.

Here, he has decided to reconsider them, along with seven other figures, to establish why, in the time of war, such individuals stood out above the rest.

Roberts begins with a personal hero, Napoleon Bonaparte. There seemed to be an array of qualities that made the general great, including meticulous planning, steady nerves, superb timing, good speeches, and respect for the men who served under him.

Yet Roberts suggests it may have been more complicated than that. Great leadership, he argues, involves an unknown element, or ‘magic ingredient’, that cannot be studied in a textbook.

Nonetheless, Bonaparte, though a keen student of history, still lost in the end. And of course, his most disastrous mistake – invading Russia – was repeated just over a century later by another leader who failed to heed the lessons of the past.


To be sure, a wartime leader needs to be egotistical to the point of madness, for only then do they have the confidence to make the daring decisions from which lesser figures would shrink.

One of the most egotistical of them all was certainly Churchill, who grew up believing he was destined to save his country and was determined to write history in real time.

Yet the belief that you are destined for greatness can very often lead to calamity, as Churchill himself proved on more than one occasion. He may have been the man of the hour in 1940, but he spearheaded a costly disaster at Gallipoli in WWI. And his decision to reintroduce the gold standard in the 1920s led to recession, unemployment, and nationwide strikes.

Looking back on these early errors, it is easy to understand why, in the dark days of early 1940, so many were desperate to avoid him taking charge.

Even well into the war, Churchill made a number of grievously controversial decisions, including the sinking of the French fleet, which broke his heart, and the returning of the Cossacks to Stalin’s charnel house, which seemed to trouble him less.

The Soviet leader also offers plenty of cautionary tales of what can happen when war leadership is poor. Too obsessed with his internal political enemies to focus on the wider world, Stalin reacted with genuine shock when Hitler broke their Faustian pact with Operation Barbarossa.

Although the invasion would in the long run rebound on Hitler, Stalin displayed something very far from great leadership upon hearing reports of German troops at the border. Suffering from something of a nervous breakdown, he cowered in his private quarters for days while countless young Russians were overrun by the enemy. As he would later remark after recovering his nerve, ‘aft er a certain time quantity becomes quality.’

Some of the later chapters are more polemical in tone. Roberts is generally an anglophile historian, but he argues against type in his defence of General Eisenhower, whom British war leaders like Montgomery derided as not cut out for the job.

Eisenhower is an astonishing and often-overlooked figure, perhaps because he was modest compared to the other leaders of his day. In a situation where several large egos repeatedly rubbed up against one another, Eisenhower kept a cool head and never forgot about the lives of the men he was sending into battle. He was also one of the few war leaders to make the successful transition into politics.

Roberts reverts to type, however, in his consideration of Charles de Gaulle. The Free French leader gets a thorough cutting down to size. De Gaulle rather ludicrously embraced the crowds upon the 1944 liberation of Paris as if it had all been his own work. In fact, as Roberts takes great care to remind us, most of the heavy lifting had been done by the British and Americans.

Yet as with Napoleon, De Gaulle possessed a similarly unquantifiable ‘magic’. By refusing to support the capitulation of 1940, and by insisting that although the battle was lost the war was not, it was De Gaulle’s stubborn personality that ultimately saved the honour of a country otherwise tainted by defeat and collaboration.


In a way, I think Roberts’ argument is best illustrated by his last chapter, on Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands in 1982.

This is perhaps because she is the most contemporary of the figures here, or perhaps because she is the only woman profiled in the book. Either way, it is easy to appreciate how her individual qualities were essential to the situation.

Almost any other prime minister of post-war Britain, when confronted with an attack on the Falklands, would have settled for a compromise. This would have been both a humiliation and a betrayal of the British state. Thatcher chose to gamble on war. This may have been down to either principle or simply ego, but her personality was key. Thatcher had something her predecessors had not.

I cannot say, upon reaching the end of this book, that Roberts has managed to pin down exactly what that is – though he provides many valuable insights into the nature of high command in war.

A reader may be alarmed by the phrase, ‘this book began as a series of lectures.’ It suggests a rushed effort to keep the fans contented between the larger volumes (a biography of Marlborough is reportedly Roberts’ next project).

Yet, for the most part, these essays are fascinating. Some leaders – such as Caesar and Lincoln – have been unforgivably missed out, although the cautious Roberts is perhaps showing good sense when he avoids the periods he knows little about.

And those who do make the cut are considered thoughtfully. The chapter on Churchill is refreshingly free from the ‘finest hour’ nonsense that infused the recent Gary Oldman Oscar-bait. Roberts prefers to put the Prime Minister’s success down to being in the right place at the right time.

As Steven Pinker has pointed out, fewer people die in wars today than at any point in history. Yet at the moment, our global leadership is grievously lacking, and we need all the reminders we can get about what it is to chart a course through difficult times without descending into chaos.

With Leadership in War, Roberts has made his contribution. It may be difficult to establish what makes a Nelson or an Eisenhower, but at least we can concur with his conclusion that when it comes to leadership, we know it when we see it.

Review by Calum Henderson

This article was published in the March 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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