Repington was educated at Eton College (1871-76) and Sandhurst Military College (1876-78). He joined the Rifle Brigade and after active service in Afghanistan, he entered the Camberley Staff College (1887-89). Fellow students included Herbert Plumer and Horace Smith-Dorrien.
He took part in the Boer War and his biographer, A. J. A. Morris, has argued: "When invalided home from the South African campaign he had reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel, had been mentioned in dispatches four times, and created CMG. Bold, tenacious, able, ambitious, and hard-working, he had proved himself a fine regimental, and an outstanding staff officer. But his considerable virtues were complemented by not inconsiderable faults. He was extravagant, impetuous, and sometimes cavalier in his attitude to authority and routine. He never suffered fools gladly, whatever their rank."
In 1900 Repington was posted to Egypt where he became involved with Mary North Garstin (1868–1953) the wife of Sir William Edmund Garstin, a senior official in the Egyptian ministry of public works. The military authorities warned Repington about his behaviour and he gave his written promise, "upon his honour as a soldier and a gentleman" to stop seeing the woman. However, the relationship continued and when Garstin named Repington in divorce proceedings, he was forced to resign from the army. Repington blamed Henry Wilson, his commanding officer, for his dismissal.
Repington turned to journalism and his first regular contributions were to The Westminster Gazette. He was also military correspondent of the Morning Post (1902-1904) before joining The Times in 1904. His accounts of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904–5 earned him international recognition as an outstanding military commentator.
Repington had strong views on defence matters. A. J. A. Morris has argued: "International tensions forced changes in British foreign policy that in turn posed complex defence problems. Repington offered solutions that his civilian readers could comprehend. He advocated a general staff, and, believing in the co-ordination of military and naval planning and closer imperial ties, was an enthusiastic supporter of the infant committee of imperial defence. He opposed the dominant ‘blue water’ strategists, who claimed the navy alone was sufficient to secure Britain against invasion." Repington also warned of a possible German invasion and was a strong supporter of an alliance with France and in 1905 he was awarded the Légion d'honneur for working as their intermediary.
Repington disliked nearly all politicians. He told Leo Maxse, the editor of The National Review, that they were "Tadpoles and Tapers shivering for their shekel… rabble seeking office and rewards." Most ministers were "ignorant… uncaring… they know nothing of the Army". The only senior politician he had time for was Richard Haldane who he called "the best Secretary of State we have had at the War Office so far as brain and ability are concerned" and generally supported his military reforms.
On the outbreak of the First World War Repington remained in London and relied on his contacts in the British Army and the War Office for his information. Through his friendship with the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, Sir John French, Repington was invited to visit the Western Front in November 1914, whereas most war correspondents were banned from France.
On a visit to France during the offensive at Artois, Repington was shown confidential information about the British Army being short of artillery shells. When his article about the shell shortage appeared in The Daily Mail, its owner, Lord Northcliffe, called for Lord Kitchener, the War Minister, to be sacked. Repington now had growing influence over military policy and one politician described him as "the twenty-third member of the Cabinet". The discussion that followed Repington's article resulted in David Lloyd George being appointed Minister of Munitions. However, Lord Kitchener got his revenge on Repington by getting him banned from the front-line and he was not allowed to return until March, 1916.
Repington was a strong advocate of war by attrition and supported General William Robertson and his leading advisor, Frederick Maurice, that the war would be won by the allies concentrating their forces on the Western Front. The prime-minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, did not challenge this approach to the war. However, he lost office after the failure of the Somme Offensive. His replacement, David Lloyd George, disagreed with this strategy and at various stages advocated a campaign on the Italian front and sought to divert military resources to the Turkish theatre. Repington was highly critical of what he described as "side-shows" and accused Lloyd George of being an "amateur strategist" who starved the army of the men and munitions it required. Some of Repington's articles were censored by his editor, Geoffrey Dawson, and in January 1918, he resigned from The Times and joined the Morning Post.
According to the historian, Michael Kettle, Repington became involved in a plot to overthrow David Lloyd George. Others involved in the conspiracy included General William Robertson, Chief of Staff and the prime ministers main political adviser, Maurice Hankey, the secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) and General Frederick Maurice, director of military operations at the War Office. Kettle argues that: "What Maurice had in mind was a small War Cabinet, dominated by Robertson, assisted by a brilliant British Ludendorff, and with a subservient Prime Minister. It is unclear who Maurice had in mind for this Ludendorff figure; but it is very clear that the intention was to get rid of Lloyd George - and quickly."
On 24th January, 1918, Repington wrote an article where he described what he called "the procrastination and cowardice of the Cabinet". Later that day Repington heard on good authority that Lloyd George had strongly urged the War Cabinet to imprison both him and his editor, Howell Arthur Gwynne. That evening Repington was invited to have dinner with Lord Chief Justice Charles Darling, where he received a polite judicial rebuke.
General William Robertson disagreed with Lloyd George's proposal to create an executive war board, chaired by Ferdinand Foch, with broad powers over allied reserves. Robertson expressed his opposition to General Herbert Plumer in a letter on 4th February, 1918: "It is impossible to have Chiefs of the General Staffs dealing with operations in all respects except reserves and to have people with no other responsibilities dealing with reserves and nothing else. In fact the decision is unsound, and neither do I see how it is to be worked either legally or constitutionally."
On 11th February, Repington, revealed in the Morning Post details of the coming offensive on the Western Front. Lloyd George later recorded: "The conspirators decided to publish the war plans of the Allies for the coming German offensive. Repington's betrayal might and ought to have decided the war." Repington and his editor, Howell Arthur Gwynne, were fined £100 each, plus costs, for a breach of Defence of the Realm regulations when he disclosed secret information in the newspaper.
General William Robertson wrote to Repington suggesting that he had been the one who had leaked him the information: "Like yourself, I did what I thought was best in the general interests of the country. I feel that your sacrifice has been great and that you have a difficult time in front of you. But the great thing is to keep on a straight course". General Frederick Maurice also sent a letter to Repington: "I have the greatest admiration for your courage and determination and am quite clear that you have been the victim of political persecution such as I did not think was possible in England."
Robertson put up a fight in the war cabinet against the proposed executive war board, but when it was clear that Lloyd George was unwilling to back down, he resigned his post. He was now replaced with General Henry Wilson. General Douglas Haig rejected the idea that Robertson should become one of his commanders in France and he was given the eastern command instead.
After the war Repington worked for the Daily Telegraph. His editor, Edward Lawson-Levy, commented: "He wrote at a time in international affairs when his special knowledge and talent were particularly valuable. Though his critics chose to regard him as a somewhat extinct volcano... however he retained the distinction which characterized all that he did."
Repington also wrote several books on the war including The First World War (1920) and After the War (1922). In these books Repington divulged private conversations and correspondence. Although the books sold well, Repington was shunned by former friends who felt he had betrayed them. His biographer, A. J. A. Morris has pointed out: "Though they remain an important historical source, at the time his public recollection of private gossip further damaged his already precarious social position. Repington's wife had refused to divorce him. Nevertheless Mary Garstin, through all their vicissitudes, supported Repington: she took his name, lived with him as his wife, bore him a daughter, and forgave him his not infrequent indiscretions."
The ostensible cause of the outbreak of the war was the murder of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Serajevo on June 28, 1914. This murder was followed by an Austrian ultimatum to Serbia of the most rigorous and exacting character, and though Serbia humbled herself, and agreed to almost all the terms, Austria pretended to regard the reply as unsatisfactory, and at once declared war. This ultimatum was, I believe, drafted by Count Forgach, my old friend of the Hague days, in collaboration with ount Berchtold and the German Ambassador at Vienna Sir Edward Grey told me soon afterwards that the annotated text of it had been seen, before it was sent off, on the table of one of the chiefs of the Foreign Office in Berlin. The German military party, determined to wage war at the first favourable opportunity in order to forestall the impending expansion of the Russian Army, reckoned the moment propitious and the pretext adequate for war, and from the first Germany blocked all the openings to peace.
After a long retreat, great losses, and much suffering, the Allied Armies turned on the Marne, and from September 6 onward there began that wonderful series of battles in which the French re-established the campaign and drove the enemy back in rout to the Aisne. The action of General Joffre and of his Army Commanders and their valiant troops during this period filled me with admiration, and, except in July 1918, there was perhaps never such an abrupt reversal of the roles between two contending armies as there was at this famous time. I also thought that Sir John French's decision to cross the Aisne in pursuit was one of the boldest ever taken by a commander, and the behaviour of our troops in that fight seemed to me most glorious. Our Army then moved to the left and began that series of wonderful actions which culminated in the defeat of the second great German effort to overwhelm us in the West, and eventually ended in the establishment of rival lines of defence, and in the crystallisation of the fighting into the trench warfare which endured throughout the years 1915, 1916, and 1917.
The results of our attacks on Sunday last in the districts of Fromelles and Richebourg were disappointing. We found the enemy much more strongly posted than we expected. We had not sufficient high explosive to level his parapets to the ground. When our infantry gallantly stormed the trenches, as they did in both attacks, they found a garrison undismayed, many entanglements still intact, and Maxims on all sides ready to pour in streams of bullets. The attacks were well planned and valiantly conducted. The infantry did splendidly, but the conditions were too hard. The want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success.
Derby is a useful public servant, tall, bluff, hearty, and always smiling; not clever, but very shrewd, a man of the world with very good sense, and at this moment is popular with all classes, including labour and the Army. I do not see anybody better than he for the post of War Secretary if Lloyd George does not want it. But I question whether it is wise for me or The Times to advocate Derby's appointment. I am inclined to think we had better wait and let things work out naturally.
We heard this morning that our troops had evacuated Gallipoli and Anzac successfully; a great relief to us all, and especially to the Government, which would probably have been turned out had the operation cost as much as was feared by Ian Hamilton and others.
Saw a friend and discussed the general situation. The continuation of the allied pressure on the three main fronts is in our opinion the best road to victory. We agreed upon the usefulness of the Balkan theatre to us.
Went down to hear the Prime Minister bring in the Compulsion Bill. A packed house. The Prime Minister very quiet and undemonstrative. He spoke so low that he was invited to speak up. A great want of magnetism, and judged by this speech his powers are failing, but it may be only a trick. He gave no explanations of the military necessity for the Bill, but restricted himself to the political side, to his pledge, and to the terms of the Bill. Sir John Simon, who has happily left the Government, got up next and made an unhappy speech for a Minister who has had all the facts before him. He was cheered by the riff-raff of the Left, but he made a bad impression.
Finished rather an important article about the German casualties, making out that they have lost 150,000 men a month since the war began; that is the permanent net loss including sickness. I find that my article on 'The Western Front' is regarded as unanswerable, and is generally agreed with by the most important people.
A company of German prisoners was paraded for my inspection. They were captured in Avocourt Wood a few days ago. They are a villainous-looking lot with bad faces, and many were miserable-looking specimens of humanity. There were all sorts of men. There were Poles who were delighted to be free; others were short of fingers or were deaf; others had joined in February and were captured within two months. There were scarcely any men who would have been taken by the German Army in peace-time.
We visited the trenches of the 4th Army, which are held on their left by the 7th Cavalry Corps. A long walk through woods to a ruined farm. In front is the first line of all, which is an outpost line by a small number of men and a few machine guns just to check the enemy had to split up an attack. All these trenches are protected by wire, mostly barbed, but not altogether so; and as it is the order in the 4th Army to add two yards of depth to one or other of the lines of wire entanglement every week, the result is a perfect sea of wire.
The dug-outs are very deep, with good wooden bunks, one above the other, for the men to sleep in. There are blankets and straw in the bunks. Each dug-out has at least two entrances, in case one is blown in by a shell.
The parapets are arranged for rifle fire, but there seems to be a great absence of head cover. The machine guns and 37-mm guns are placed in concealed pits flanking the lines and covering all approaches. The tops of them are covered with canvas and pieces of bracken or branches.
Winston was full of the naval-fight off Jutland. He had been asked to issue the semi-official communiqué which appeared in Sunday's papers, June 4, and was not quite sure whether he had done right or not. Balfour's private secretary had made the demand, whereupon Winston had consulted Lloyd George and Rufus Isaacs, who said that he could not refuse, so he returned to the Admiralty, and said he would draft something if Balfour personally asked for it. This Balfour did. Winston thinks that the success of the German Battle Cruiser Squadron against our superior squadron of similar type is a very serious matter and requires investigation. I agreed, but we are evidently very badly informed of all these events as yet, and cannot draw conclusions.
The torpedoing or mining of the Hampshire, and the drowning of nearly every one on board, including Lord Kitchener, O'Beirne, and FitzGerald, is a great tragedy. They were on their way to Russia, and were blown up off the Orkneys. The news came while many of our friends were selling at a bazaar in the Caledonian Market, and the women of the East End shed tears at the news. We hoped against hope, but no doubt now remains. A great figure gone. The services which he rendered in the early days of the war cannot be forgotten. They transcend those of all the lesser men who were his colleagues, some few of whom envied his popularity. His old manner of working alone did not consort with the needs of this huge syndicalism, modern war. The thing was too big. He made many mistakes. He was not a good Cabinet man. His methods did not suit a democracy. But there he was, towering above the others in character as in inches, by far the most popular man in the country to the end, and a firm rock which stood out amidst the raging tempest.
Lord Esher had arranged this trip to the Somme for me. The invitation having come, I set out and left for Amiens at this morning. I was met at the station by Colonel Hutton Wilson, who was in charge of the Press, and I put up at the Hotel du Rhin. Brigadier-General Charteris, now in charge of the Intelligence in Macdonogh's place, came to lunch, and said that I was free to go where I pleased, the only stipulation was to kill Germans. The strategic objective in this area was a secondary consideration. There were about 60 German battalions against us, and 30 against the French, when the action began on July 1. There are 120 battalions against us now, all the German troops eastward to Verdun having been milked. At present the Germans were afraid to milk their front to northward for fear lest we should make another attack there. Rawlinson was in charge of the 4th Army, which was making the attack. He had been given fifteen divisions but Gough, after the attack, had been placed in charge of the 8th and 10th Army Corps, which, with Snow's 7th Army Corps, had made the unsuccessful attack between Gommecourt and Thiepval. Since the beginning some divisions had been taken out of our line and replaced owing to the failure and losses of our attacks at Gommecourt, Thiepval and Orvillers. Charteris said we had lost 55,000 men, and put down the German losses at 75,000, which I did not believe. He is going to say officially that the Germans have lost 60,000 and says that I can safely say 50 000.
I went by invitation to G.H.Q., which are at Beauquesne, north of Amiens. Haig is living at a chateau in a wood on the right-hand side of the road, a mile along the Marieux road. I found Haig with Kiggell: the latter was very pleasant, but spoke little. Haig explained things on the map. It is staff work rather than generalship which is necessary for this kind of fighting. He laid great stress on his raids, and he showed me on a map where these had taken place. He said that he welcomed criticisms, but when I mentioned the criticisms which I had heard of his misuse of artillery on July 1, he did not appear to relish it, and denied its truth. As he was not prepared to talk of things of real interest, I said very little, and left him to do the talking. I also had a strong feeling that the tactics of July 1 had been bad. I don't know which of us was the most glad to be rid of the other.
Went to see Sir John French at the Horse Guards. He had just got word from the War Office that our losses up to Saturday evening were 103,000, of which between twenty and thirty thousand were missing. Sir John asked me whether I thought the game was worth the candle. The bit of ground we have gained is about the same as we had gained at Loos at half the cost, and we now had twice the Army. He does not think that we can win at the rate. Nor do I, but where are the thirty new divisions which I said we should want in 1916?
Finished and sent off my second and third articles on the first phase of the battle on the Somme. They have to go to the G.H.Q. in France, which I think an absurdity.
Lunched with Winston Churchill at 41 Cromwell Road. He knew all about the battle and the causes of our heavy losses. He has always been against this offensive, and thought it would come to no good. But we agreed that something had to be done, and we could not sit still. He was very pleased with his journalistic success. He had got £1000 for writing four long articles in a Sunday paper, and felt sure that he could make £5000 a year, and place himself on the right side in matters of finance.
He told me that I ought to have had one of the highest commands, and that no one had my brain. I wonder whether he says this to everybody. I took the compliment for what it was worth.
About 10.30 p.m. came the news over the telephone of the imminence of a fresh Zeppelin raid. We all went off, and I had an opportunity of seeing the whole of the anti-Zeppelin arrangements working at full pressure in the stables, or cellars, at a certain place. General Shaw was there in control of a Staff of about twenty or thirty young officers, naval and military, clerks, telegraph and telephone and wireless operators, etc. The telephonic and telegraphic system very complete, and messages came in with few delays.
I went first to the Chart Room, where the position of most if not all the Zeppelins in the North Sea before the raid began was shown. This is done in the following manner: Zeppelins cannot navigate at night with any certainty of knowing where they are. They, therefore, send by wireless to Germany the number of their ship - L29, or whatever it is - and two German wireless stations, at a wide distance apart, get the message and send it back at once the exact bearing of the airship, which they can do by one of the many inventions of this art. The airship officer plots the two bearings, the intersection of which then gives him his position. But we also pick up the airship's number, and, by cross bearings from our wireless stations, can plot in the Chart Room the exact position of every Zeppelin.
The first of a line of military correspondents was Captain Battine, a cavalry officer who came to the Telegraph on the recommendation of Sir John French. Battine was succeeded by Colonel Repington when he left The Times. He wrote at a time in international affairs when his special knowledge and talent were particularly valuable. Though his critics chose to regard him as a somewhat extinct volcano... however he retained the distinction which characterized all that he did.