Military reform and Lord Roberts’s longevity

One of the major enjoyments I have had as an historian is the uncovering of lost conversations or exchanges of correspondence.  Such exchanges are rarely groundbreaking or paradigm-shifting in their historical significance, but they are nonetheless fascinating in nature.  Indeed, it is probably this banal quality that makes these sorts of conversations so remarkable.  Whether taking the form of angry interactions between book authors and newspaper reviewers or cordial communiqués between political associates, these are communications that have slipped out of major historical narratives and into archival obscurity.  In discovering such exchanges one cannot help but feel both excited and privileged, however mundane they may prove to be.  This post will explore the ‘invasion-scare’ implications of one such example, a 1908 conversation between the social investigator, journalist and editor W T Stead and the Victorian military hero and retired Field Marshal Lord Roberts.        

These prominent Edwardians stood on either side of a fierce contemporary debate, concerning the best method of defending Britain against the threat of invasion.  Unlike major continental powers, Britain did not have a system of compulsory military service.  Relying on the Royal Navy to protect Britain’s global commercial dominance, the British Army was a small and professional force, unlike the vast conscript armies of France and Germany.  Though in part the product of circumstance (for an island power has much greater need of a powerful navy than a large standing army), this arrangement equally reflected something of Victorian cultural attitudes. The near-universal commitment to military volunteerism was at its heart a laissez faire opposition to state intervention.  Just as the prospect of tariff reform seemed to represent an attack on the individual freedom to trade, for men such as Stead compulsory military service appeared a gross violation of liberty, an imposition that would fundamentally question the social and cultural status quo.[1]  Yet by the mid-Edwardian period a significant and vocal minority had begun to question this established principle.  Led by Lord Roberts as head of the pro-compulsion National Service League, such commentators warned the nation of the danger of over-reliance on the Royal Navy, fearing that a ‘Bolt from the Blue’ invasion could wrong-foot the fleet and leave Britain entirely undefended.[2]


W T Stead

The exchange under examination thus engaged in this military reform debate, though as we shall see, in a rather peripheral manner.  It began in the February 1908 edition of The Review of Reviews, a periodical then edited by Stead, with an article entitled ‘What to eat, drink, and avoid: the experience of experts in the art of living’.  Responding to a similar piece in the French magazine La Revue, letters had been sent to a number of eminent and aged Britons asking for “a few jottings as to what life has taught you as to the best regimen as to food and drink and tobacco”, believing such experiences “may be very useful for the younger generation”.[3]  One of the ‘elders’ consulted was the septuagenarian Lord Roberts.  While appearing to preach respect for one’s elders, as those “who have lived longest have the right to speak first”, it appears Stead could not resist poking fun at the stalwart of the campaign for military compulsion.  Roberts, who elaborated no further than advising “little or no smoking, and moderation in food and drink”, was speculated to enjoy “a very tough constitution”, and described as “hale…hearty, and a holy terror to the opponents of universal military service in this country.”[4]   


Lord Roberts

Much to my delight, a recent research trip to see Stead’s papers at Churchill College, Cambridge unearthed a response from Lord Roberts to this article.  Writing in early March, Roberts informed Stead that he was “quite right in thinking that I must have a very tough constitution”.  Having suffered “a very severe attack of brain fever” at an early age, he had suffered ill-health throughout his service in India.  However, as Roberts further explained, “by taking care and being moderate in all things, I found myself able to do what most men could do, even when I was much older, in age, than they were.”  Yet just as Stead’s article included a veiled criticism of calls for compulsory military service, Roberts’s reply was largely an effort to defend the value of his campaign.  Arguing that the Royal Navy “could not possibly ensure this country from invasion”, however powerful it was and may become in future, Roberts asserted that many naval experts agreed with him, pointing to the fact that “upwards of thirty Admirals of the Fleet and Admirals have joined the Service League”.  Imploring Stead to revise his views on the matter, Roberts also requested that his letter remain off the record, as he would prefer to state such opinions “in the House of Lords, than to let them appear in the public press.”[5]  And with a friendly apology for writing such a long letter, the conversation drew to a close.

A critical reading might consider this exchange a peripheral and irrelevant conversation, in which two commentators of entrenched opinions traded a combination of niceties and minor criticisms.  Yet I would defend it as a fascinating microcosm of a much larger debate, and one of countless lost conversations taking place over the course of the Edwardian period.  Finally, the episode offers tentative proof that unfaltering support for compulsory military service is key to enjoying a long and healthy life.    

[1] G. Q. Flynn, Conscription and Democracy: the draft in France, Great Britain, and the United States, (Westport, Conn., 2002), pp1-21.

[2] H. Moon, ‘The Invasion of the United Kingdom: Public Controversy and Official Planning’, unpublished PhD thesis, (University of London  1968).  For the National Service League see R. J. Q. Adams, ‘The National Service League and mandatory service in Edwardian Britain’, Armed Forces and Society, 12/53, (1985) and M. Hendley, Organised patriotism and the crucible of war: popular imperialism in Britain, 1914-1932, (Montreal, 2012). 

[3] ‘What to eat, drink, and avoid’, The Review of Reviews, (February 1908), p136. 

[4] Ibid., pp136-140.

[5] STED 1/60, Letter from Lord Roberts to Stead, (2nd March 1908), W T Stead Papers, Churchill College, Cambridge.   

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