Wolfe Society dinner

Speech by Lord Astor of Hever DL, Under Secretary of State.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Lord Astor of Hever DL

Mr President, thank you for that kind (and accurate) introduction, I was once introduced as Lord Astor of Heaven!

Indeed, the names of peers do sometimes make good stories.

When Lord Hart was given a peerage, he received many letters with suggestions for his new title.

One was from a Scottish football fan who asked him to include Midlothian, so there would be constant references in Hansard to his team, Heart of Midlothian!

I’m delighted to see so many officers representing the naval and military members of the Wolfe Society.

Now I’m very grateful to John Rawlinson for helping me with some of the general Wolfe aspects of this speech.

We discussed possible themes.

With Remembrance Sunday just round the corner, John suggested a comparison might be made between two well known Generals, Wolfe and the First World War leader, General, later Field Marshal, Haig.

Wolfe’s father was an elderly half pay Lieutenant Colonel who had moved south seeking influence at the heart of government.

Both parents lived to old age, the General’s father dying at 72, just 6 months before the death of the young General at Quebec.

This young man never achieved financial independence; throughout his life his letters are interrupted with frequent requests to his parents to send more money!

Wolfe was closest to his mother, Henrietta.

Never escaping her influence, the only rift between them came with the search for a suitable bride.

The pragmatic mother seeking a financially advantageous match with Miss Hoskins of Croydon, the romantic Wolfe seeking a love match, first with Elizabeth Lawson, and later with Katherine Lowther.

But Wolfe was never to marry, travelling to Quebec shortly after his engagement to Miss Lowther.

Although lost to Wolfe, Miss Hoskins wasn’t lost to Westerham, marrying the eldest son of the Warde family, our President this evening being one of her descendents.

So how does James Wolfe, a hot headed, young maverick given command of an expeditionary force of 12,000 men sent to unlock the gateway to North America, connect with the Field Marshal?

On the face of it the differences outweigh the similarities.

Douglas Haig was the establishment General, entrusted with command of the biggest military undertaking our nation had known.

In contrast to Wolfe’s pecuniary difficulties, Haig was from a wealthy family.

Both parents died when Douglas was just 18, leaving him an independent wealth but without the guidance and support of strong parents.

The young man looked to his elder sister, also called Henrietta.

Ten years his senior, she provided this support and guidance, and in later life lobbied to promote her brother’s career.

Romantically, the independent Haig did better than Wolfe, marrying the daughter of Lord Vivian.

He had four children, one of whom was my mother.

Haig was educated at Clifton and Oxford, and went on to Sandhurst.

His room mate there, General Sir Walter Congreve, VC as he would become, was already a man not to be trifled with, he had been sent down from Oxford for shooting at his don with an airgun!

Another fellow cadet later shot his mother-in-law and her lawyer in a drame passionel!

By contrast Wolfe’s education was less formal, initially here in Westerham and, after the family moved to Greenwich, at an academy for the sons of naval and military officers.

Wolfe was to feel his lack of education throughout his life, taking time whilst on garrison duty in Glasgow to study Latin and mathematics.

Later he successfully sought special leave to travel to Europe to undertake military studies.

Not unaware of his lack of social graces he spent time in Paris, in an attempt to ‘round his character’, visiting Versailles and being presented to Louis XV and Madame Pompadour.

Haig learnt his profession in the wars at the edge of the empire, in the Sudan, South Africa, and India.

Wolfe learnt his skill fighting on the battle fields of Europe very much at the birth of the empire.

But the similarities between Wolfe and Haig are also striking.

Haig’s criticism of Kitchener’s strategy during the Sudanese war, and Wolfe’s private comments on Mordant’s performance at Rochefort, suggest that, as young soldiers, neither was afraid to voice their opinions of inadequate leadership, and both were confident in their own military knowledge.

Both earned rapid promotion for meritorious war service.

Wolfe rising to the rank of Major General aged just 32.

Haig was the youngest Major General in the army when he was promoted to that rank aged just 43.

Haig understood the importance of the welfare of his troops.

Not just in later life when he lobbied for rights for demobbed soldiers and set up the British Legion and the Haig Poppy Fund. Even in the darkest days of the First World War, tiny details didn’t escape him; he was responsible for ensuring dentistry services were available for the men.

Wolfe also knew the importance of welfare, ensuring his troops brewed spruce beer to avoid scurvy; issuing detailed instructions on camp layouts to prevent the spread of disease and ensure the men were fit.

After his death, Wolfe’s mother also took a hand in soldier’s welfare, creating a fund for the children of injured veterans of the Quebec campaign.

The residue of this fund was used to help found the Hibernian Military School.

Wolfe stood his ground against established military doctrine; despite the threat of a court martial adopting the Prussian drill to train his infantry soldiers.

Whilst these tactics were to prove decisive at Quebec, just 2 volleys seeing off the enemy, his success came more through innovation.

After the aborted raid on Rochefort in 1757, he set out the principles needed to launch a combined operation, emphasising the importance of army and navy commanders working in unison.

He understood the need for new landing craft to allow rapid disembarkation of troops and, most important, that his soldiers be drilled in the use of these boats.

Delivering 3,600 well trained, well equipped, disciplined and motivated men to a battlefield 3,500 miles away from home was no easy task.

Doing so two and a half centuries ago would mark Wolfe out for immortality.

His finest hour was no accident.

Quebec was a victory built on an understanding of what the troops were capable of, how to deploy new technology on the battlefield, and the co-operation between arms.

Haig also had to bring new understanding to the battlefield at the darkest hour of World War 1, the German advances of March 1918 and the ‘backs to the wall’ speech.

Just as at Quebec, the 100 day offensive, the advance to the Hindenburg line and ultimately the German surrender, was also no accident.

Certainly, the infusion of American troops was an incredible tonic.

But the development of military doctrine within Haig’s forces was also critical.

Gone was the idea of going over the top without aerial reconnaissance.

No more would men advance beyond the artillery barrage and armour.

Tanks would now support the advancing infantry.

The newly arrived Americans, eager to make their mark, would learn these lessons the hard way, as the French and British had done over the previous four years.

Despite political resistance and pressure to stop his advance Haig fought on, ensuring the war in France and Flanders did not extend into 1919.

Of course, Haig would be associated with the earlier strategy of attrition and the huge loss of life on the western front as much as final victory and post-war benevolence.

But both Wolfe and Haig left positive legacies too.

Wolfe, for his understanding of combined operations and his ability to discipline and train his men to new tactics and technology.

Haig, for his ability to adapt and develop a strategy of attrition into one of co-operation between artillery, aeroplanes, tanks, and infantry.

Now turning to the period in which we are living, despite the reasons for his resignation, I think that Liam Fox will leave a lasting legacy.

I worked closely with Liam, both in opposition and in government.

He has always been a passionate and intelligent advocate for the armed forces, and for the robust defence of our national security.

He showed decisive leadership, not just in Libya where our forces have made a magnificent contribution in the liberation of that country.

But also in taking many of the tough decisions required to put our armed forces on the road to a sustainable future.

He was under no illusions: if you want first class armed forces you need a first class economy.

There is no future for a big military supported by a small economy.

That was one of the central lessons of the cold war.

So the new armed forces we are developing and equipping must be built on firm foundations.

First, with a force structure that is fit for the challenges of future warfare and the real world risks we are likely to face.

Second, with a defence programme that is affordable now, and sustainable into the future.

That’s why unpicking last year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review is simply not an option.

And that’s why our new Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, has been clear that he looks forward to the challenge of completing what Liam started.

Liam Fox was able to secure agreement from the Treasury that we could plan on the equipment and support budget being increased by 1% a year in real terms between 2015/16 and 2020/21.

Doing so has allowed us to place contracts knowing we will have the money to pay for them, an obvious notion I know, but sadly lacking in recent years!

For example, last week we announced a £1 billion upgrade of the British Army’s Warrior armoured vehicles, which will extend their service life to 2040 and beyond.

Of course, military effectiveness is built not only on economic success; it is built on people.

All of us in the Ministerial team are lucky to be working with the bravest, most selfless and professional people the country has to offer, the men and women of our armed forces.

And they are supported by some of the most dedicated people in the wider public service, the most highly skilled workforces in British industry, and some of the most committed people in the charitable sector.

Defence is a very human endeavour, and the consequences of service life are very human too.

For the first time we’ve brought into law the Armed Forces Covenant which sets out formally what all of us here know to be true.

The men and women of our armed forces are the greatest assets we have, and the whole nation owes them a lifelong debt of gratitude.

Now your President asked me to end on a lighter note.

He was kind enough to mention my father.

One of the best things I inherited from him was a file with amusing stories for every occasion he would encounter as Lord Lieutenant.

I will try out a couple of these about Foreign Secretaries.

First Austen Chamberlain.

During a luncheon given in his honour, things began to go amiss.

Chamberlain did not notice that the butler was drunk but his hostess did.

She scribbled a note and gave it to the butler.

It read ‘You are disgustingly drunk. Leave the room at once.’

The butler read the note, smirked, placed it on a silver salver and, walking unsteadily, handed it with a deep bow to the Foreign Secretary.

He read it with some surprise, but, being a perfect gentleman, did as instructed.

Another is about Lord Curzon.

As Foreign Secretary he attended the 1922 Lausanne conference accompanied by a new valet, who turned out to be drunk.

His antics culminated in the ballroom of the Beau Rivage Hotel in which, wearing Lord Curzon’s evening clothes, he reeled around with delegate’s wives.

Not surprisingly the valet was sacked on the spot and ordered home.

In revenge he made off with all the Foreign Secretary’s trousers, leaving him in his pyjamas just one hour before the beginning of this important conference.

And finally, the first person I sat next to at lunch in the House of Lords was Lord Franks or Sir Oliver Franks as he was when Ambassador in Washington after the war.

Shortly after his arrival, he was asked by a local radio station what he would like for Christmas.

Sir Oliver was very touched.

But being a man of frugal tastes he said it was very kind of them to ask and what he would really like would be a small box of crystallised fruit.

On Christmas Day, the radio station broadcast the results of its enquiries.

Asked what he would like for Christmas, the French Ambassador replied, “peace for all mankind.”

The Soviet Ambassador, “freedom for all people enslaved by injustice.”

There then came the polite voice of Sir Oliver, asking for a small box of crystallised fruit.

Thank you for inviting me tonight.

Published 3 November 2011