Selected products from Philip Warner


"Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them" - Leo Tolstoy

The true worth of an individual is valued in many ways but for an historian how can we know their worth?  I think many would agree that it is an ability to ask and answer questions that many would shy away from. Tolstoy would certainly agree with that and one of the finest military historians England has produced in the 20th Century Philip Warner ably matches this description. 

His style is engaging but absolutely honest.  He will not sugar coat when the bitter facts need to be faced. He will make an allowance for the stresses and needs of war but he will explain them for what they are not for what the victor would rather they be.

Below is not a formal biography but a personal tribute given by his son, Richard Warner, at his funeral.  It’s a marvellous piece of explanation and devotion that illuminates the man and his work:

I rang the Book Review Editor of The Spectator last week to tell him that Philip had died and therefore please not to send more books to review. I introduced myself as 'Richard Warner, Philip Warner's son'. He replied 'that is a very nice thing to be able to say'.

He was absolutely right and it does feel very nice, doesn't it, to be a child of Philip's, or a member of Philip's family, or one of Philip's much cherished friends and work colleagues, and indeed nice to have enjoyed Philip's stimulating company.

He prized above all the loyalty of family and those firm friends who he included inside that inner circle. Once you had won his trust and respect, then you were on his side and he would do anything for you. 'Families stick together through thick and thin'. You didn't let the side down. If one did, he would be slow to forgive and never to forget.

So, as his family and friends, I welcome you all here today to the Royal Memorial Chapel, to join in this Service of Thanksgiving for Philip.

Philip did not 'meekly hand in his dinner pail', as P. G. Wodehouse put it - he remained an active, alert, interested and interesting man right to the end.

He died just under a fortnight ago, aged 86, on September 23rd, peacefully in his sleep, beside his great love and companion for the last 30 years, Freda. He had gone to bed with a copy of the Spectator, in which he had written a review of a biography of a hero of his  –  Jock Lewes, co-founder of the Special Air Service. He had finished his day as he always did, reading a chapter from Wodehouse. He just did not wake up to make the early morning tea.

He was  –  in his words  –  'going like a train' (an expression he had learned before the era of Connex South Central), enjoying a very busy life in his fourteenth year as the army obituarist on The Daily Telegraph (he had filed his last obit on the day before), a regular book reviewer for the Spectator, the Field, and many other papers and periodicals.

It is perhaps only in the last fortnight that the Warner family has come to realise what a special man our father was, and just how many facets there were to his life. Each of us has found out more about this reserved, steadfast, lively-minded and inspiring man from letters or telephone calls since his death.

He had special, private, individual friendships with a large number of you - but since he did not talk about himself, the facts of his life are not well known. When teaching us to box, he encouraged to 'present a moving target' - and he took this advice better than anyone. When his close friends and next door neighbours of some forty years found out only from his obituary in the Telegraph that he had been a Prisoner of War, let alone a guest of the Japanese, I realised we need to  – in his words 'establish some facts'.

Philip was born the youngest child of three and the only boy into a farming family in Warwickshire, deep in the countryside, on May 19th 1914, four just months before the First World War.

Philip proudly traced his ancestry back some 500 years in the same county, loving this continuity with the past that he picked out in his first book, published in 1968, Sieges of The Middle Ages:

Standing on the battlements of a castle the humblest person feels a sense of power and grandeur. He is back in the past and feels a kinship with the original owners. In all probability this kinship is genuine, though remote. Every family that was in England in 1087 is now related thirteen times over to every other family in the country at that time; he is thus related both to the mighty baron and the most downtrodden villein.

The Warner family sold their farm in 1924, which meant that Philip had to put up with poor local schooling, making him determined that his children would have the opportunity of public school education that he had missed - never mind whether he could afford it or not.

He strongly believed that 'nothing is impossible, you can do anything, if you put your mind to it - and persevere at it'. His achievement in winning a County Major Scholarship from Nuneaton Grammar School, against all expectations, to Christ Church, Oxford, was a prime example.

Another example lay in his sporting achievement: undaunted by his isolated upbringing on a remote farm, and realising that his elder sisters were not interested in Rugby Football, he acquired a Rugby ball and a coaching book from the library: by practising assiduously in fields, he made himself into an excellent place kicker. Likewise he developed into a ferocious tackler, with a tackle bag made from old sacks and hung from a tree. This tackle bag did double duty as a punch bag, while he taught himself to box.

By the age of eighteen, he had played as a Wing Forward for the Leicester first team. He then went on to play for a great range of teams -Blackheath Moseley, Saracens, Windsor and principally for the Harlequins, in addition to two-timing two County sides, Sussex and Berkshire 'it seemed much easier to play for them both than to explain the mix-up' he unconvincingly claimed with that mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary, Philip did not think of himself as an excellent Rugger player, or boxer (he boxed for the Army) or athlete (he represented his County and the Milocarians), or squash player (for the Jesters’ Club). He never mentioned his own contributions - he thought only of the team's achievements and the spirit in which the game was played.

After spending an idyllic year of University sporting and social life as an undergraduate of Christ Church in 1933, he received a nasty jolt, when the authorities sent him down for omitting to pass his exams. 'Always learn from experience' he said, and did, taking care never to make the same mistake again. Rapidly finding himself a job as a prep school master, he won a scholarship to Cambridge in 1936 and graduated from St Catharine's College in 1939.

The impending war soon broke and Philip enlisted in the Royal Corps of Signals. [It gave him great pride forty years later to write the regimental history The Vital Link, at the request of General David Horsfield and with his collaborator Colonel Robin Painter.]

He saw action in the Far East, defending Malaya and Singapore island, where he and 60,000 other Allied troops were compelled to surrender to the Japanese and became a Prisoner of War for three and a half years.

That he felt betrayed and frustrated by the Allied command and the treachery and complicity of the politicians can be seen in his 1988 book, World War II: The Untold Story: 'for the British Government, and for Churchill in particular, it was an incredible disaster; to those who had been trying to make a fight of it the whole campaign had been a major exercise in frustration. The final insult was that the world blithely accepted the Japanese figures for the numbers who had surrendered and the absurdly inflated figure of 130,000 passed into history  – in fact the true figure was 60,000'.

You would not find Philip making this statement anywhere else, as he would not talk about the past. He did however write about it revealingly - as in The Fields of War (I977) –   'When fighting soldiers eventually read or hear what was supposed to have taken place on campaigns in which they were engaged they tend to smile cynically. Sometimes they consider offering a few corrections, but rarely bother; the task, they often feel, is too large, and scarcely worth the trouble.'

As a PoW, Philip drew his strength from his background and his upbringing. He kept himself as fit and healthy as he could, remained resolutely positive in outlook and inspired his comrades with his unflagging belief that they would pull through.

To raise morale he organised theatrical productions and skits. Without props, scenery, paper, with people at the end of their powers of endurance, he still managed to put on entertainments to cheer the troops, to the complete incomprehension of the Japanese guards.

In one talk, a man who had been employed as a butler in a grand household described his day, eating meals both before and after waiting on the family 'he had two breakfasts, elevenses, two luncheons, high tea twice, and of course two dinners before absentmindly munching the dog biscuits he had pocketed as he took Her Ladyship's Chihuahua out for its nightly walk'. This to a rapt audience of PoWs whose daily ration was half a cupful of rice.

At the end of the war, Philip weighed four and a half stone, but he had survived. He set about building a new life, first at The Treasury, then at the British Council in Spain.

In 1948, with a young wife Patricia, and a newly-minted daughter, Diana (my brother and I were still ideas) he became a Junior Lecturer at the newly established RMA Sandhurst.

This occupation of lecturing to young and stimulating young cadets - as well as the ideas that they gave back to him - fitted his abilities perfectly. He firmly believed and communicated that 'you could learn anything, if you put your mind to it' and that 'everybody was best at something, it was just a question of finding out what it was'. His forward leaning walk and his leadership by example appealed to cadets. H e worked here for 3I years until his retirement, relishing his colleagues, the intake of cadets, the opportunities for sport and for coaching, and the grounds.

And to a man who was committed to the principle of working and playing 'full tilt', he relished the chance that the Sandhurst academic terms gave him to use 'what would otherwise have been my leisure' for his other interests.

Thirty one years amounts to more than a third of his life. During this time, he rose to be senior lecturer, teaching many intakes of cadets about politics and current affairs.

He immersed himself in the Academy's sport: he ran the Rugby XV and taught goalkicking to the then current England full back, John Willcox. He ran the athletics too, watching with immense satisfaction when his protégé, the Ghanaian Kotei, qualified for the Olympic high jump at the Sandhurst Athletic Ground, still wearing his track suit top.

He loved the relaxed concentration that fly fishing on the Sandhurst lake demanded. Deeming it a suitable activity for cadets, he would declare regretfully to each new intake that  – as he was both the Secretary of the Fishing Club and the person responsible for deciding who passed their exams  – the lists inevitably got muddled up. This rapidly boosted membership.

It would be a matter of great delight to him to know that Sandhurst has given permission for his ashes to be scattered over the pool on the Wish Stream named after him (the 'Plum' pool), where he fished only a month ago. 'How marvellous' he said then, 'to be able to still tie on a fly and to cast a good distance  – and I'm 86!'

He relished teaching generations of cadets about both current affairs and how to communicate  –  till his time a neglected subject. He enjoyed drawing out from each individual what made him tick, habitually asking each new student to talk for a brief time in front of the class on subjects of their choosing. Cadets responded such diverse subjects as how to soft boil an egg and how to remove the top from a bottle of champagne in one blow from a sword.

Whatever the subject, the aim was to give self-confidence to these young officers. Eventually, it led to his founding a new and now thriving department of Communications. Begun as a small section within the Department of Political and Social Studies in 1973, it now has transformed into one of the three Academic Departments within Sandhurst's training.

Philip's great break came in 1967, at a time when he very much needed one: overburdened with school fees and with a very ill wife (Pat was to die in 1971), he took with both hands an introduction to a book publisher provided by his friend and Sandhurst colleague, Brigadier Peter Young. He never forgot this kindness and determined to repay Peter's faith in him. Seizing his opportunity of a contract and an advance, he saw a way to pay for his children's education and proceeded to write two books a year 'from a standing start' for the next twenty-five years.

That was a fantastic achievement  – 150,000 published words, aside from the pages he crossed out or rejected, plus all the historical research –  3,000 words a week, every week for quarter of a century. 'You have to keep pushing the pen across the paper' he would say.

Every one of those words was lovingly and meticulously typed, and retyped if he wished, by Freda. It was just as well, as only Freda could read Philip's handwriting, which resembled most of the time the tracks of inebriated and exhausted sand eels, improving for a brief period every few months as he laboriously worked from a Teach Yourself Handwriting manual.

Many of the fifty or so books he has written have  – to his great delight – come back into print in new formats as military classics. He felt that they were good books, his earnings from Public Lending Right reflecting library borrowings showed how often they were taken out, and now even publishers have seen the light. 'Never underestimate the stupidity of publishers, Dickie.'

Though each book was a massive labour  – he would just say 'toil and swink', each one allowed Philip to describe events through the eyes of the soldier at the time, rather than looking 'with the benefit of hindsight'. In the Crimean War (I972), he says: 'Equally full of martial spirit, strategic foresight and tactical ability are critics who have never heard a shot fired in war, never endured hunger, thirst, heat or cold, and never commanded anyone, in war or peace, in their entire lives'.

This constant theme informed his biographies of unfashionable subjects, whose leadership styles he admired: for example, General Brian Horrocks 'The General who led from the front' and Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck 'The Lonely Soldier' …. lonely he may have been, but he had the vision which allowed the SAS to get started.

This empathy with his subjects and his ability to pick out the essential character of the people he wrote about led to a life and career that can be looked back on not only with great affection but an historian’s eye for truth – no matter where the awkward facts might lead.