Book review: Defeat into victory

“It was good fun commanding a division in the Iraq desert. It is good fun commanding a division anywhere.” – A memorable start to an excellent work by a great field commander. Defeat into Victory is an easy read written by a self-effacing author who has much to tell and more to teach – which explains why a book about the “Forgotten Army” it has become an oft-quoted work.
Field Marshal Sir William J Slim was a remarkable man; and judging by his book, lacking in the bombast and self-congratulation that fills the pages of many other memoirs. Indeed, his preface starts with the caution that “a general who has taken part in a campaign is by no means best fitted to write its history. That, if it is to be complete and unbiased, should be the work of someone less personally involved.” He continues: “Yet such a general might write something of value. He might, as honestly as he could, tell of the problems he faced, why he took the decisions he did, what helped, what hindered, the luck he had, and the mistakes he made. He might, by showing how one man attempted the art of command, be of use to those who may later themselves have to exercise it. He might even give, to those who have not experienced it, some impression of what it feels like to shoulder a commander’s responsibilities in war. These things I have tried to do in this book.” Fifty years later it bears saying by this reviewer that where others have failed, Slim succeeded.                          
The introit of Defeat into Victory finds Slim a division commander – one of the “four best commands in the Service” – in the Iraq desert in March 1942. He had already been a successful brigade commander in Eritrea the year before. War had come in the Far East and Burma Corps – more a name than a formation – needed a commander. Slim divides the work into six “books”, the first dealing with the defeat of Burma Corps and its retreat into India. The last deals with the race to Rangoon in 1945 and victory over Japan – hence the memoir’s title.
In between, we see Slim and his staff – he was a man lavish in his praise for good subordinates – forge the 14th Army, test it in small-scale operations and hone it in the Imphal-Kohima battle. With the Japanese exhausted, his army pursues overland into Burma along the very roads Burma Corps used in retreat, meeting the Japanese again for a decisive battle around Mandalay. Again defeating the Japanese, 14th Army forces open the gates to Rangoon and is just getting ready to invade Malaya when the atomic bomb ends Japanese resistance. The final chapter, his “Afterthoughts” and a look into the future are especially valuable and much of the advice has stood the test of time – and has remained valid. “War remains an art, and like all arts, whatever its variation, will have its enduring principles. Many men, skilled either with sword or pen, and sometimes with both, have tried to expound this principles. I heard them once from a soldier of experience for whom I had a deep and well-founded respect. Many years ago, as a cadet hoping someday to be an officer, I was poring over the ‘Principles of War’, listed in the old Field Service Regulations, when the Sergeant Major came upon me. He surveyed me with kindly amusement. ‘Don’t bother your head about all them things, me lad,’ he said. ‘There’s only one principle of war and that’s this. Hit the other fellow, as quick as you can, and as hard as you can, where it hurts him most, when he ain’t lookin’!’ As a recruit, I earned that great man’s reproof often enough; now, as an old soldier, I would hope to receive his commendation. I think I might, for we of the Fourteenth Army held to his Principle of War.”            
Field Marshal Sir William Slim
Defeat into Victory
The Reprint Society