I’ve almost finished reading The Making of the British Army, by Allan Mallinson. I will be writing a review in full course, but I’m more than happy to give away a few glimpses now.
Think of great British Generals. Cromwell. Marlborough. Wellington. You can probably add Wolfe, and maybe Kitchener, to that list. But in the twentieth century, nothing. If anything, we tend to think of amateurish fumblings in the Crimea, Haig’s indifferent and incompetend leadership on the Western Front, and evacuation at Dunkirk and surrender in Singapore.
Why is it that we generally can’t offer up a great British General since Waterloo? Especially as in that time we have fought a multitude of colonial wars, won two world wars, and then a plethora of difficult conflict around the world? Certainly, it would take a very brave person to argue that any great leaders came out of the Crimea or the First World War.
Or is it that British Generals have suffered from History? The longer ago a commander died, the more that their faults and vices tend to pale into insignificance. It is often said that the best career move anyone can make is to die – if we look at a comparable military figure, such as Nelson, all becomes clear. To die in battle absolves you of pretty much any drawbacks, even infidelity and vanity.
Nelson brings us on to another theme. Britain, as a country, has always admired sailors. There is something noble about going to the sea, even as a Jack Tar. Yet soldiers have long been thought of as ‘the scum of the earth’. The Royal Navy is the senior service, yet the Army – note the absence of a royal prefix – itself is only a loose collection of tribes. The Royal Navy has a pantheon of greats, from Howe, Anson, St Vincent, Nelson, Collingwood, Fisher, Jellicoe, Beatty, Cunningham, and … and I would also argue Henry Leach… plenty more besides.
I have always thought that in Montgomery Britian did in fact have a 20th Century General who may rank just below Marlborough and Wellington. He probably doesnt deserve to rank alongside them, the debacle of Arnhem put paid to that, as well as his prickly character which won him few friends. But his military record speaks for itself. He saw active service in the first world war and was severely wounded. Then in the Second World War he managed to extricate his Division from Dunkirk, and gained a strong reputation as a trainer of men. When he was finally called to command the Eighth Army in North Africa, he put together a sound plan that turned the course of the Desert War. And only Montgomery could have overseen D-Day so succesfully.
For almost half a century it has been fashionable to knock Montgomery. Perhaps this stems from his abrasive attitude. But on the other hand, Wellington was a notoriously cold character too. Or it may stem from the fact that historical views of Wellington tend to polarise on US-British lines. This arose from the deep dislike that American generals had for Montgomery. But were they right to be so bitter? Montgomery had seen more action than all of them put together. At the start of the war, Eisenhower was a Colonel. Patton was good at driving forward in a straight line very fast, but came unstuck when he faced strong opposition. And to my knowledge, Montgomery cared too much for his men to slap any of them. If he had, he would have been sacked and retired from the Army. And for all his faults, Montgomery always followed orders. Perhaps his greatest fault was that he was right, and was not afraid of saying so.
American Historians – and not a few British ones too – have dominated the military historiography of the second world war. It has almost become an orthodoxy that Montgomery was over-rated. Saving Private Ryan said as much. In America, every general seems to be respected as a matter of course. Whilst I would not go this far, it is frustrating that in Britain we do not stand up for our military figures as much as we should. We love to knock our heroes, and especially our Generals. The late Robin Neillands wrote some very positive books about Montgomery, so hopefully in time historians will come to realise that his perceived faults have been exaggerated, and by comparison his strengths have been overlooked.
It seems that it is not so much what happened during the war that matters, but how it has been written about. It might be quite possible that had American Historians had found reason to denigrate Wellington, he would not be regarded as being as important as he is now. And that would completely change our view of leadership in the British Army. Are we missing out by not holding up Montgomery as a more important figure?