Field Marshal Sir John Chapple GCB CBE DL MA

Portrait of Field Marshal Sir John Chapple by Andrew Festing, now at the Gurkha Museum, Winchester.


Field Marshal Chapple was born in 1931.  Under the influence of his paternal grandfather, a great fan of Kipling, he went to Haileybury which had recently merged with the Imperial Service College.  While there he developed an interest in acting and took part in five expeditions of the British Exploring Society which fostered a lifelong interest in conservation.

He did his national service in the Royal Artillery before reading German and history at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he acted in five plays.  On graduation in 1954 he joined the 2nd Goorkhas and was posted to the 1st Battalion in Malaya.  After attending Staff College in 1962 he returned to join them on operations in Borneo as a company commander, subsequently taking the role of Brigade Major, Brigade of Gurkhas.

Chapple commanded the 1st Battalion in Singapore and Hong Kong from 1970-72 before returning to Staff College as an instructor.  He then went to a key Colonel’s job in the Ministry of Defence to do with the Army’s organisation.  He did not mind the pressure of work in the Ministry and was later reported as saying “All my life I’ve been surrounded by people who thought they could do my job better than I could – and by and large I’ve let them.”  Command of 48 Gurkha Infantry Brigade in Hong Kong followed, after which he returned to MoD as principal staff officer to the Chief of the Defence Staff.  On promotion to Major General, Chapple went east again to be Commander British Forces Hong Kong.

Field Marshal Sir John Chapple with the Colonel-in-Chief, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales (now King Charles III).

He subsequently held positions as Director of Military Operations, Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Programmes and Personnel) and Commander-in-Chief UK Land Forces before becoming Chief of the General Staff in 1988.  His main task was to steer through the ‘Options for Change’ reductions in the Army following the end of the Cold War, a thankless task involving much bitter wrangling.  He also oversaw the preparation and despatch of British Army forces to take part in the First Gulf War in 1991.

On leaving Army employment in 1992 he became Governor of Gibraltar.  He had a huge range of other interests, holding appointments in many organisations including the Zoological Society of London, the Royal Geographical Society, and the World Wildlife Fund.  He was a keen and knowledgeable ornithologist and collected Kipling first editions and militaria.  He helped to establish the Gurkha Welfare Trust and the Gurkha Museum.  His conservation work in Nepal was recognised by the award of the Order of Gorkha Dakshina Bahu.

The Field Marshal at the 2nd Goorkhas Durbar in Pokhara in 2015

His one bad habit, he said, was small Philippine leaf cigars.  After he gave up cigarettes in Malaya, his Gurkha orderly had put a packet of these by his bedside.  “What are you doing?” he asked.  “Sahib, you got so bad-tempered when you stopped smoking that I thought these would help you”

He was married and had four children. He died in 2022.

The Field Marshal playing elephant polo in Nepal in 2004 (painting by Katie Quentin)

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The following eulogy was given by Lieutenant General Sir Peter Duffell at the Field Marshal’s Memorial Service at the Royal Memorial Chapel of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst on Saturday 11 March 2023.  Numerous members of the Sirmoor Rifles Association were present, and British and Gurkha Officers from the Regiment acted as ushers.

When I joined the 2nd Gurkha Rifles in 1960 John Chapple was the Adjutant.  We were stationed in Malaya at the end of the communist insurgency in which John had played an adventurous part.  Our Commanding Officer was a much-decorated Colonel, Monty Ormsby; but gallant as he was, Monty disliked paper and letters from Headquarters would mysteriously disappear only to be recovered from under the carpet or deep in the waste paper basket by Captain Chapple, who dealt with them with much dispatch to save the day.

Early on it was clear to us that here was an officer with a brain of rare clarity and much intellectual curiosity – always an eye for the arresting detail – someone who seemed to have plenty of time for everything, who never lost his temper, and didn’t go running – although any idea that he was some sort of physical slouch could be dispelled by knowledge of the five rugged expeditions to the snows of Labrador and elsewhere that he had made as a schoolboy explorer.  Here, we thought, was an interesting and talented officer of promise; a history graduate from Trinity, a veritable polymath with a rich hinterland and a well-stocked mind.  His knowledge of matters zoological and ornithological was unsurpassed – a patrol in the jungle with him was a revelation of natural history scholarship.  Equally importantly he had a most elegant wife, Annabel – an international diver of kindness and beauty, John had pursued her tenaciously round the world for three years before finally winning her hand – not least, it was said, by intercepting flowers from an opposing suitor and deftly replacing the card of endearment with one of his own.  Annabel was to be John’s steady rock throughout his life and together they made a memorable and generous couple.

John died a year ago after a short illness.  I saw him several times in his last few weeks and I can record that he met his death with a steady eye and much good grace with Annabel and his family around him in support.  A few months earlier, John had reached the formidable age of ninety amidst much celebration.  Age of itself is without much virtue save as an exemplar of clean living about which John clearly knew a very great deal – apart that is from a daily dose of Philippine leaf cigars and dry Spanish Manzanilla.  But what matters is not age but how you run your race and here the record is clear enough.  The Times recorded a distinguished career – Field Marshal rank, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, Knight of St John, an order from Nepal – these are the glittering prizes that come to few and only after much endeavour.  I also noted when inspecting his medal bar that almost hidden was the Greek Medal of Honour.  Of his service to the Hellenic people that earned this distinction I know not but there must have been a great deal of it.

Called up in 1949 John began his national service as a Rifleman with the 60th Rifles at Winchester.  He could hardly have expected that 70 years later his barrack room would be part of the Gurkha Museum where above his old Rifleman’s bed space would now hang a portrait of Field Marshal Chapple. Introduced to the unique ethos of a Rifle Regiment John was none the less commissioned into the Royal Artillery and posted to 50 Heavy Ack-Ack Regiment based in Carlisle – surely a course of liberal studies the half of which has not yet been told.  But in 1954, after Cambridge, John’s final regimental destiny was the 2nd Gurkha Rifles.  It must have been his education at historic Haileybury with its links to the East India Company and his lifelong interest in Kipling that drew John to the 2nd Goorkhas – the senior Regiment in the Gurkha Brigade and one which firmly believed that it was what every Gurkha Regiment ought to be – only very much more so.  Throughout his life John remained loyal to his Regiment serving as a company commander on clandestine operations in the dangerous jungle confrontation with Indonesia; as a popular and successful Commanding officer, and finally as its Colonel.  He was always committed to the Gurkha soldiers’ heritage and well-being; he designed the detail of their Welfare Trust with its important work for our veterans; he was a founding father of the Gurkha Museum and he did much valuable conservation work in Nepal with successful schemes to protect the Annapurna region high in the Himalayas, and to save from extinction that leathery behemoth Rhinoceros Unicornis.

Having commanded his Regiment John’s military journey moved at Rifle pace with appointments that went with a star on the rise: a Defence Fellowship at Fitzwillam College, Brigade Commander, Commander British Forces in Hong Kong, exacting assignments in Whitehall and a four-star Commander in Chief – and then suddenly, gracious me – an officer of the 2nd Goorkhas was Chief of the General Staff and head of the British Army – the first Gurkha officer since Bill Slim to hold that exalted appointment.  John’s experience, his intelligence, his knowledge of Whitehall and his ability to navigate through the cross currents and internecine struggles that are all part of life at the top was notable while his leadership never lost its clarity.  The challenges were many.

The collapse of the Warsaw Pact – the perceived end of the Cold War – had led to political demands for a peace dividend – options for change that threatened cherished institutions – and brought hostile clamour from outraged Colonels demanding cuts to any regiment but their own.  Smaller but better may be an attractive political slogan but it came at some cost to the size and integrity of the British Army and John Chapple had to fight some tough Whitehall battles. Then came Saddam Hussein and his invasion of Kuwait with the commitment of a British armoured division to an international coalition that was to deal a hammer blow to the Iraq dictator’s nefarious ambitions.  Returning unbowed to Options John proved himself indifferent to protest and harassment.

Pressure of work left him undisturbed: “All my life”, he used to say, “I have been surrounded by people who thought they could do my job better than I could and by and large I’ve let them do it – and they never let me down”.  He was a natural leader –  not in a macho sense – he was never a brusque conventional military figure nor was he built like one – but in another scale of values he was reflective, competent, dependable, without pomposity and with an intellectual facility to grasp complex issues and explain them with lucidity and good effect.  As the Cold War faded, the CGS was offered an historic invitation to visit his Russian opposite number on a tour that resonates strongly today.  Over ten days he held talks in Moscow and travelled to the Urals and the Crimea, he viewed the tanks of 1st Guards Army and the bird life of the Odessa marshes.  And he wrote of attending a choral concert in Kiev where the banned Ukrainian national anthem was sung for the first time in 70 years as the audience wept.

Outside of work John was a good enjoyer at parties with a sense of mischief and good humour; additionally, he knew of Mad Carew and Kipling’s Ballads and could recite them at the slightest provocation.  Then, after three and a half demanding years as CGS John left Whitehall for the last time – but not for retirement.  As Governor of Gibraltar his commitment and a deft political touch earned him the respect of Gibraltarians as well as the British Foreign Office.  And on return John pursued interests across a broad and eclectic canvas.  We look in amazement at the list of institutions catalogued in your service sheet where he served as Fellow or Fugleman.  Singlehandedly he saved the London Zoo from extinction; he contributed hugely to the National Army Museum to which, not least, he gave much of his lifetime collection of 9000 military badges – a collector’s passion with its unlimited use of scarce resource and storage that must have driven Annabel to distraction.  There was dedicated service on the Council of the Royal Geographical Society, Commissioner at the Royal Hospital Chelsea and as a busy Vice Lord Lieutenant of London.  Meanwhile he and Annabel travelled the world seeking out the most elusive of birds to add to the lexicon – I can see the Field Marshal now, moving silently forward, telescope at the ready on expeditions to Ethiopia and Assam, with Annabel, ever the good Gurkha wife following three paces behind, pack on her back as yet more rare species were identified in their natural habitat – a master twitcher on patrol.  Apart from Polo – a game to which he gave great support and once played John did not follow traditional military pursuits – the gun, the rod, the turf – these held no attraction.  An ADC requesting a day off for grouse shooting met the response: “Oh! For goodness’ sake I’ve spent my life trying to protect birds – but I suppose I should let you go since you are unlikely to hit anything.”

John never forgot the institutions and people of his professional life – chair of the Stoll Foundation housing service veterans; the Imperial War Museum, the Royal Armouries, the Nehru Memorial Trust.  On an annual pilgrimage to Annapolis, he joined a distinguished group selecting talented American candidates as Bill Gates Cambridge scholars.  As a fellow selector, the Master of Trinity recorded: ‘John was an astute observer with a nose for quality – and further, he was proud of his University and College and we were proud of him.’ And here, I must record that the Field Marshal kept track of all his multifarious interests entirely by landline and pen – the mobile, the tablet, the computer – their supposed utility was blithely ignored – no digital signature was to be left for posterity.

So there, as best I can, is the full and rewarding life of John Chapple who we remember today with admiration and affection.  Long after the bugles have sounded for him on the other side, as surely they did, he will have met St Peter for that final searching review, telescope to hand and enquiring gently where the elusive Osprey with its cosmopolitan range might be nesting.  And no doubt he will be pointed in the right direction.  John’s legacy remains his devoted family, Annabel, Rachel, David, Kate and Sasha, and his friends, his Gurkhas, his ornithology, Nepal conservation, Trinity College and above all the British Army; those were his lodestars and faithfully he served them all.  We are grateful for John Chapple’s full life and leadership and we shall remember his generous friendship, his wise counsel, and his gentle humour. “He was a good man and he did good things”.  Bravo Chapple Saheb.

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