British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was addressing the House of Commons on the war situation in the Mediterranean. His speech turned to the Governor of Malta: ‘That remarkable man, General Dobbie — a Cromwellian figure at a key point, fighting with his Bible in one hand and his sword in the other’.
October this year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of this humble servant of Christ, who in his generation became an inspiration to so many in the English-speaking world.
William Dobbie was born into a family in which the evangelical gospel had taken root, in the 1840s, in India. Both of his grandfathers and their wives had been brought to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ through the ministry of a member of the Basle Mission in Switzerland, Samuel Hebich.
Although Hebich’s original call seemed to have been to the natives of Madras, the Lord gave him sweeping success in evangelising British Army officers. The first of the Dobbie brothers to submit to Christ’s irresistible call was influenced by Hebich’s exposition of the first three verses of Genesis 1. When it is appreciated that Hebich’s English vocabulary was limited to a mere 550 words, this conversion may be regarded as a missionary classic!
The next generation embraced the same gospel, but William himself was born again as a boy, at the age of 14.
Fifty years later he recounted this in his biography, A very present help, in these words: ‘On the first Sunday of November 1893, when I was spending a half-term holiday from Charterhouse School at Blackheath, I realised for the first time, although I had often heard it before, that Jesus Christ the Son of God, had come to this earth for the express purpose of laying down his life as the atonement for my sin, in order to deliver me from its penalty and power, so that I might go free.
‘Burdened as I was with the guilt of my sin, I realised that this remedy exactly met my need, and I then and there accepted Jesus Christ as my Saviour, on the grounds that by his death he had settled my debt once for all, and that therefore I went free.
‘As time passed I entered more and more into the meaning and implications of this wonderful transaction; but, from the very beginning, I rested my hopes on the plain fact that Christ had taken my place and had fully satisfied the just claims of a holy God against me, and that I was able to make no contribution to that perfect work of his, beyond gratefully accepting it and acknowledging it. That was the turning point in my life.’
From Charterhouse School, Dobbie proceeded to the Royal Military Academy (RMA), Woolwich. This had not been expected, as he had weak eyesight and was unlikely to pass the medical exam.
To everyone’s surprise, he did pass and this enabled him in due course to be commissioned into the Royal Engineers. While at Woolwich, he began a lifelong relationship with the Open Brethren; but, although this style of discipleship was his own choice by conviction, he valued fellowship with all believers whose faith was biblically driven.
What mattered to him most was that a man was saved, sanctified and serving Christ — other issues might be important, but not of overwhelming importance.
Following service in the Boer War and marriage to the daughter of a retired officer who had influenced him greatly at Woolwich, Dobbie fulfilled postings in Bermuda and the Curragh.
He then secured a place at the Staff College at Camberley in 1913. He regarded his experience at that institution as, humanly speaking, providing the springboard to his professional success in the years which followed.
The early part of World War 1 was spent as a Royal Engineer officer at regimental duty, with testing operations involving demolitions and bridging. This included his participating in the retreat from Mons, as well as the Battles of Ypres and Marne, before filling appointments on the staff.
In both responsibilities he revealed an amazing stamina, working under great pressure and with minimal sleep. He was to become well aware how close the Allies had been to losing the war, when the Germans in March 1918 achieved a breakthrough near Amiens, which had briefly caused severed contact between the British and French armies for several hours.
‘Have faith in God’
Had the Germans realised this and exploited their success, they could have rolled up the British army towards the Channel and dealt with the French separately, as they did in 1940. On 25 March 1918, Dobbie wrote home to his wife (as he endeavoured to do daily, even if in the shortest terms): ‘Again I repeat this is some battle. It is still going as hard as ever. “Have faith in God”.’
Mercifully British and American reinforcements arrived and the tide turned. On 9 November, he was able to write: ‘It looks as if hostilities must cease any old time now. The whole thing seems like a dream, the German army inevitably defeated and the German menace lifted once for all. God has been wonderfully good, far more so than we have deserved or could have expected’.
Two days later, the war ended with Dobbie, as the duty Lieutenant Colonel that morning at Advanced General Headquarters, having the astonishing privilege of drafting the signal which ended the British involvement in that fearsome conflict.
He signed it at 6.50am, and it read as follows: ‘Hostilities will cease at 11.00 today, November 11th. Troops will stand fast on the line reached at that hour, which will be reported by wire to Advanced GHQ. Defensive precautions will be maintained. There will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy until the receipt of instructions from GHQ. Further instructions follow’.
Those who read copies of that original signal today cannot but be amazed at the plainness and simplicity of so influential a document.
Dobbie’s performance at regimental duty and on the staff brought tangible recognition, including the Distinguished Service Order and another British decoration (the CMG), the French Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honour, and similar awards from the Belgians. He was also Mentioned in Despatches no less than six times.
Further promotion awaited Dobbie and, in 1928, he was appointed to command an infantry brigade in Cairo. The following year, there was a serious breakdown of law and order in Palestine. Dobbie and his brigade were deployed to achieve restoration.
In order to achieve immediate impact, he abandoned a principle which he would have been taught at staff college — that of operating from a secure base — but dispersed his force in small numbers, to confront violence immediately and protect Jewish towns.
The greatest threat was from a Bedouin force of 5000 moving on Gaza. With no reserves available, Dobbie could only pray. That night the Bedouin, for no reason that was ever discovered, turned into the desert. Additional troops arrived the next day and Gaza was saved. Law and order in Palestine had been restored in less than three weeks.
Christian people in Jerusalem approached Dobbie, asking if he would allow them to present a New Testament to every officer and soldier in the brigade, and asked him to write appropriate words to be printed on the fly-leaf.
Dobbie’s office looked out onto the place which General Gordon in the 19th century believed to have been the authentic site of Calvary. This view will surely have inspired Dobbie as he wrote these words:
Dobbie’s name as a Christian and soldier had now become well known, from tiny Bethesda and Ebenezer chapels where he was regularly upheld in prayer, to the War Office and even humorous professional colleagues who, on hearing of his initial deployment to Palestine, had quipped that the operation would be a part-time affair, as ‘the Arabs won’t fight on Fridays, Jews won’t fight on Saturdays and Dobbie won’t fight on Sunday!’
Not surprisingly, Dobbie was decorated again, promoted to Major General and, after a tour as the Commandant of the School of Military Engineering, was appointed General Officer Commanding in Malaya.
While holding this post, he made an appreciation of the most likely means of attack on Singapore that the Japanese might use in the event of war. He concluded, after conducting appropriate exercises, that the Malayan jungle was penetrable by forces landing on the east coast, and sought to acquire funding for the necessary defences to be built.
The British government refused this request and history records the tragedy that befell Singapore three years later and the accuracy of Dobbie’s forecast.
(To be concluded)
Brigadier Ian Dobbie OBE
The author, who is a grandson of Lieutenant General Sir William Dobbie, was chairman of SASRA until 2013