Philip Warner (1914-2000) enlisted in the Royal Corps of Signals after graduating from St Catherine’s, Cambridge in 1939. Philip Warner was an outstanding military historian, and for the last 13 years The Daily Telegraph’s peerless Army obituarist. Indeed, he played a vital role in setting the standard for the modern Telegraph obituary. He had a relish for the piquant detail and an understanding that a good story should never be overdressed.
He was a master of the laconic, lapidary phrase. Warner’s direct, uncluttered and transparent prose, was a reflection of the man. Above all, he felt deep admiration for the lives he celebrated. His own character, always strong, had been tempered by his terrible experiences at the hands of the Japanese during the Second World War.
One of the Allied soldiers rounded up and imprisoned after the fall of Singapore on February 15 1942, he spent some time in the infamous Changi jail, and worked on the Railway of Death. For every sleeper laid on the 1,000 miles of track through Malaya, Burma and Thailand, a prisoner of war was lost. Philip Warner was saved by his tough-mindedness and by his belief in the virtues of loyalty. To help his fellow prisoners forget their troubles, he organised plays, talks and debates.
Afterwards, he never liked to mention his ordeal. He felt he owed his survival to his physical condition (he performed 30 minutes of exercises every day of his life), his scrupulous hygiene (hard to stick to when one is starving), and to his strong sense of belonging to his family back in Britain. At night he would look at the moon, and think of it passing over Warwickshire.
In 1944 Warner and other able-bodied POWs were stowed under deck in a troopship (he enjoyed the irony of being almost torpedoed by the Americans), and taken to Japan, where he worked in the copper mines, in dark, hot and dangerous conditions.
As the Americans closed in, he and his fellow POWs had the unnerving experience of being herded into caves, while the Japanese guards set up machine-guns outside. The atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably saved the prisoners from massacre.
At the beginning of the war Warner had weighed 14 stone; in 1945 he was 4.5 stone. In 1,100 days of captivity, he only received half a Red Cross parcel. He was never among those inclined to bestow easy forgiveness upon the Japanese. The maltreatment which he had endured increased his natural reticence. Although he set great store by loyalty, he gave his trust warily.
Once certain that he could rely on someone, he would do anything for them; should anyone abuse his trust, he was slow to forgive. “There are six billion people in the world,” he was wont to say, “and when this person gets to the top of the pile again, I will give him another chance.” After the war Warner taught at Sandhurst and became a prolific writer, turning out more than 50 books.
He would produce two volumes a year, not to mention up to 200 obituaries and many book reviews – all with an absolute minimum of fuss. He worked on the principle that, once he had covered a page with writing, he could always cross it out. He was a firm believer in the virtues of perseverance – “Stick at the wicket and the runs will come” – and in early starts: “One hour in the morning is worth two in the afternoon, is worth three in the evening.”
In the 1970s he was seriously ill, but under his colossal labour he throve as never before. Without it, he used to say, he would have had to play golf every day; and, useful player though he was, that was not his idea of a tolerable life.
Though the last man to preach, Philip Warner set a supreme example of how to tackle old age. While eager to enjoy himself, and, still more, to see that his friends enjoyed themselves, he instinctively understood that pleasure is best courted against a background of disciplined endeavor.
|The Medieval Castle: Life in a Fortress in Peace and War||1965|
|Sieges of the Middle Ages||1968|
|Dervish: The Rise and Fall of an African Empire||1973|
|Japanese Army of World War II||1973|
|Famous Scottish Battles||1975|
|Fontana British Battlefields||1975|
|Army Life in the ’90s||1975|
|The Battle of Loos||1976|
|Famous Battles of the Midlands||1976|
|Famous Welsh Battles||1978|
|Auchinleck: The Lonely Soldier||1981|
|A Guide to Castles in Britain: Where to Find Them||1981|
|The Special Air Service||1983|
|Horrocks: The General Who Led from the Front||1984|
|Kitchener: The Man Behind the Legend||1986|
|World War Two: The Untold Story||1988|
|The Vital Link: The Story of Royal Signals, 1945-1985||1989|
|Firepower: From Slings to Star Wars||1989|
|The Battle of France, 1940||1990|
|Phantom: Uncovering the Secrets of the WW2 Special Forces Unit||1990|
|Field Marshal Earl Haig||1991|
|The Harlequins: 125 Years of Rugby Football||1991|
|Secret Forces of World War II||1992|
|The Great British Soldier: A Living History||1992|
|World War One: A Narrative||1995|
|Letters Home from The Crimea: A Young Cavalryman’s Campaign||1999|
|The Crimean War: A Reappraisal||2001|
|The Zeebrugge Raid||2002|
|D-Day Landings: With Introduction by John Keegan||2004|