The problem of the military biography

It has long been a tradition that when somebody proves their worth in battle, particularly in high command, sooner or later someone will write a book about them. Beyond books, absolutely anything to do with them becomes hot property. Nelson, Wellington and – to a lesser extent – Montgomery are good examples.

Often when someone is elevated to a status of virtual saint, it then becomes almost sacrilege to say anything negative about them. For years no one would have dared utter the fact that Nelson had a mistress, or that Wellington was a cold character who had more than one mistress. Montgomery hasn’t got away with it quite so much, thanks to the attention of mainly American historians keen to drag his reputation down.

Even with less senior officers, the tradition of the military biography pervades. The usual routine is that when somebody dies, their family allow somebody to write the official biography, and gives them full access to all papers and documents. As a result, they are very unlikely to be impartial or objective. In fact, the family are surely likely to pick a writer who they trust to be favourable to their relatives reputation in the first place.

the Pursuit of Exactitude - Roy Fullick

the Pursuit of Exactitude - Roy Fullick

A great example is the biography of General Sir John Hackett, ‘the Pursuit of Exactitude’ by Roy Fullick. A keenly awaited book, it promised much and delivered little. Given that Hackett was one of the most interesting characters to serve in the British Army in the second world war, and was absolutely pivotal to one of the most famous battles in history, it really disappoints. While it is no doubt interesting to read about the social conventions of pre-war Egypt, or what Hackett got up to when Chancellor of Kings College London, that does not jusity the minimal chapter on Arnhem. The title really is ironic, given Hackett’s well known academic nature and quest for the truth, his biography does nothing of the sort. This really was an opportunity missed. One cannot help but wonder if there is a reason that the Arnhem chapter was so weak.

Horrocks - the general who led from the front

Horrocks - the general who led from the front

Slightly more useful is the biography of Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks, by Phillip Warner. It gives fair emphasis to each part of Horrocks’ life, not seeking to cover up anything unpleasant. Uncomfortable questions are asked too, such as those regarding Horrocks performance in the Market Garden campaign, and his ongoing ill-health. But Horrocks was an interesting character, and his life needs no embellishments or cover-ups.

Not long ago I became interested in researching the life and career of Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Browning, ‘Boy’ Browning of Bridge too far infamy. I came across some very interesting sources, regarding Browning’s background, first world war and inter-war careers, and later life. Seen in these contexts, his performance over the Arnhem debacle makes much more sense. Unfortunately, part way through the research I was informed by the Grenadier Guards Archivist that somebody else is already well advanced on a biography. The message, a clear ‘leave off’. I would hope for a balanced, objective, scholarly study, but I won’t hold my breath. Sadly families and regiments are all too often concerned with reputations than truth.

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Filed under Arnhem, Book of the Week, debate

8 responses to “The problem of the military biography

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