British Generalship

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?



Filed under Army, debate, Navy, Uncategorized, World War One, World War Two

19 responses to “British Generalship

  1. Mike Burleson

    Thank you for this alternative view of General Montgomery, which I agree with. Funny thing about Arnhem, here was the one time the General finally acted with the boldness and risk-taking that his peer claimed he lacked, and he stumbled. Monty knew his strength and his limitations and I’m always skeptical of critics who claim a battle wasn’t won the correct way. The important thing was Monty was a winner in almost all his endeavors. He was also dealing with a very different type war, of mobile Blitzkrieg and combined arms which Britain never really got the hang of as we see in the numerous battles in the Western Desert, and soon after the Normandy Invasion. Not a perfect general, but he was perfect for Britain at the time. Thank God he was on our side!

    Your description was very apt:

    “in Montgomery Britain did in fact have a 20th Century General who may rank just below Marlborough and Wellington. He probably doesn’t deserve to rank alongside them”

  2. James Daly

    He was exactly the General that the Eight Army needed prior to El Alamein – supremely confident, and in now way willing to countenance retreat. I did read a description once of how before Alamein the Eight Army was always looking across its shoulder, and I think that sums up his effect very aptly.

    Critics might point out that he came along at the right time when the US was coming onside and the tide had turned, but thats like saying that Wellington only won at Waterloo because the Prussians turned up.

    Im convinced that Market Garden was a good plan, but that it was let down by strategic factors from above and tactical failings from below. That is not to say that Montgomery could not have made a difference to these, he could have made stronger orders for closer landing zones, for example.

    ‘Give people a victory and they wont care who won it’ – possibly one of my favourite Monty quotes

  3. I think if we are looking for a British General in the 2th Century then probably the leading candidate would have to be Field Marshal Slim. Very underated during the war, certainly until 44-45, and he suffered from the problem of being an Indian Army General but he showed an acumen that Montgomery did not have.

    Your right that Monty was right for 8th Army in 42 but by 44 his fraught relationship with the Americans was possibly detrimental to 21st Army Group’s perfomance, though you could argue that short of Slim who else could have taken on the role. Alexander, Tedder’s preferred choice, would have been out of his depth.

    Perhaps the best epitaph to Slim comes from Max Hastings:

    “In contrast to almost every other outstanding commander of the war, Slim was a disarmingly normal human being, possessed of notable self-knowledge. He was without pretension, devoted to his wife, Aileen, their family and the Indian Army. His calm, robust style of leadership and concern for the interests of his men won the admiration of all who served under him … His blunt honesty, lack of bombast and unwillingness to play courtier did him few favours in the corridors of power. Only his soldiers never wavered in their devotion”.

    Perhaps his normality is his failing for not being in the public eye more unlike Monty who went out of his way to keep himself in the public eye.

  4. Mike Burleson

    Might I also add to this list Richard O’Connor of Beda Fomm, who was unfortunate enough to meet Rommel when the bulk of his victorious forces were off fighting in Greece and elsewhere. Had he been allowed to go on to Tripoli, after defeating a greatly disproportionate force of Italians, I have to wonder what if?

  5. Mike I have often wondered the same thing. Had he not been captured what would have happened. Would there have even been a need for Monty commanding the 8th Army.

  6. James Daly

    Slim and O’Connor certainly are under-rated Generals. Slim especially.

    The only thing with O’Connor is that he was in command at a time when Churchill was prone to sacking Generals at some point or other. Would he have lasted the course? Apparently Monty suggested that O’Connor should succeed him commanding Eighth Army, which is interesting given that he was removed from command of VIII in November 1944. Him and Monty seem to have clashed too post-war when O’Connor was Adjutant-General and Monty was CIGS.

    Slim does seem to have suffered for being of the Indian Army, although so was Auchinleck. Mind you Auchinleck was from a much higher part of society than Slim. Slim was a much more succesful CIGS than Monty too.

    All of Slim’s fighting took place in North Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. Interesting to speculate how he might have fared commanding in Europe.

  7. Yes but by the time O’Connor took over at VIII Corps he had suffered the problem of spending time in an Italian PoW camp. Most contemporaries noted that he has not the the man he had been.

    Slim was certainly a better CIGS especially with the serious issues that Monty left him with particualry the problem of demobbing the rest of the army. Slim also got on better with other people much more than Monty.

  8. James Daly

    Heres another thought, might Horrocks have risen higher had he not been seriously wounded in North Africa? It meant that he was not available to command until August 1944. I have often wondered if Montgomery might have chosen him for 2nd Army if he had been fit. His illness did seem to affect his performance in Market Garden and did force him to retire early post-war.

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