The Mothering of Montgomery

John Keegan

  • Monty: The Making of a General, 1887-1942 by Nigel Hamilton
    Hamish Hamilton, 871 pp, £12.00, June 1981, ISBN 0 241 10583 8
  • The War between the Generals: Inside the Allied High Command by David Irving
    Allen Lane, 446 pp, £9.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 7139 1344 4

On the amalgamation of Woolwich and Sandhurst after the Second World War to form the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, 12 new companies were formed, bearing the names of British victories. Four were redcoat triumphs, four First World War battles, four Second World War campaigns. Among the latter was Alamein and it became an annual Alamein Company event for the victor himself to visit, dine with the cadets and afterwards address them in their ante-room.

I didn’t belong to Alamein and so had no right to attend, but one year was invited to do so by the company commander. I accepted with little enthusiasm. The Field-Marshal was by then retired, but his reputation continued to circulate and was reinforced by hints, anecdotes and diary extracts in the flood of Second World War literature then leaving the presses: he was rude, opinionated, intolerant, arrogant, egotistic, self-inflating, even megalomaniac. He could think and talk only of himself, one heard, refused to admit that he had ever made a mistake or that any of his plans developed in a way he had not foreseen, and arrogated to himself all credit for any success achieved under his command.

I expected, therefore, when we sat down after dinner, to be both bored and embarrassed, and perhaps at length. And, indeed, the speaker did at once begin by talking about himself. But after a short time I found that I was seized with silent laughter. Why, I wondered, had no one ever said that Monty was funny? Because he was funny, hilariously, riotously, endearingly funny. He was an act. His subject was himself. But quite as important to him as his subject, it was clear, was his audience. Like the most professional of troupers, Monty sought to be at one with those who had come to hear him, to reach out and touch what was common to all of them in their lives and his and to transform it into art.

In subsequent years I managed to ensure that I was always present for the Alamein dinner, to which I looked forward with keener and keener anticipation. Indeed, like John Osborne waiting for Max Miller to come on stage in whatever provincial repertory theatre it was that he had sought him out, I found that I began to laugh before the Field-Marshal rose to speak and that while he was speaking I was reduced to tears by the pain. He was a Cheekie Chappie. He was a little man, who had taken on a ponderous, pompous, stuffed society, defied all its conventions, punctured its hypocrisies, incurred its odium, broken its rules and still come out on top. He had been a naughty, a wicked cadet. He had been broken in rank. His company commander had told him he would never get anywhere in the Army. He had failed to get onto the Indian list. He had not had the money to get into a fashionable regiment. His company commander had tried to have him expelled. ‘Well, gentlemen’ – the voice rose to a Ritchie-Hook shriek of triumph at confounding the thunder-box wallahs – ‘I became a field-marshal (I played top of the bill at the old Birmingham Alhambra) and’ – pause – ‘he did not.’

It was the ethic of anarchy, schoolboy anarchy at one level, which was why the cadets shook in unison, but also the anarchy of the artist. If there is an art of war – and it is one of those dreary conventional phrases against which the 18-year-old’s rebellious spirit must have kicked in Sandhurst halls of study seventy years ago – it lies in seeing that the chaos of the battlefield is malleable only in the hands of someone with the imaginative power, relentless dedication, emotional self-absorption, social ruthlessness, breathing, eating, sleeping, dreaming obsessiveness of a great painter or musician. In war, the spiritual anarchy of the great general confronts the physical anarchy of its facts and masters them. Montgomery had that anarchic power. And his company commander, together with a thousand other dutiful servants of the system, emphatically did not.

Where did it come from? There seems little doubt – Montgomery himself did not doubt the explanation – that it came from his early relations with his mother. The boy was uncontrollably energetic, proud and self-willed. But there have been many little boys like that, whom wisdom and love turned into sober members of society. But Lady Montgomery – it was entirely in character that on her husband’s becoming Prelate of the Order of St Michael and St George she adopted the style of an (honorary) knight’s wife, though she had no right to it – was not wise in the management of a tough little boy and systematically denied him any display of love at all. Her own fortunes in love had been mixed. The daughter of Dean Farrar (author of Eric, or Little by Little), she was only 14 when one of the Dean’s curates fell in love with her, and only 16 when they were married. The curate was 33. Eight years later, they had had five children, and the 24-year-old wife was also looking after three infant cousins, whose parents were in India.

Her husband was already venerable as a young man, and in old age was universally described as saintly. Montgomery loved him deeply and drew great pleasure from his company. The young wife expected to do so as well but, for all his gentleness of character, the priest was so whole-hearted in his mission that she had him little to herself. Three curates joined the household as soon as the couple were married and translated into a parish of their own. And when the household moved to Tasmania to take up the bishopric there, episcopal journeys kept its head constantly away. Maud admitted to having been very lonely. She filled the gap with meticulous supervision of every detail of her children’s lives. Clearly, she had the latent will of a dictator which it needed only the right circumstances to bring forth. With the other children she had her way. With Bernard, her third son and fourth child, she did not, or only at the price of repeated punishment, usually with the cane. ‘What have I done, what have I done?’ Bernard used to ask when he ran out into the Tasmanian bush to recover from his latest beating. But he knew. ‘Goodness, she was strong-willed,’ remembered his favourite sister, Winsome. He had challenged her will with his own, hoping that he would eventually break it and jemmy out a little of the store of mother love resolutely denied a naughty boy.

He took his naughtiness to school, where he did badly at work though well at games, and on to Sandhurst. There his bullying, already established as a characteristic in early boyhood, led to the disgrace which he so exultantly recalled on his visits to Alamein Company in the 1960s. Maud saved him by personal intercession with the Commandant – the author suggests that Colonel Capper relented to spare the Bishop’s shame, but one suspects he was beaten in a fair fight – and he departed chastened to his regiment. The Royal Warwickshire was in India: Sandhurst makes a point of not giving its products a ‘character’ and he was therefore able to settle in as a quite ordinary new subaltern, noticed only for his keenness.

Then luck came to his aid. The Great War memorial tablets in the Sandhurst chapel display a chilling truth: that in Britain in 1914 the most dangerous thing to be was an infantry subaltern. Avoid being killed that year, and promotion would carry one to a safer billet. Montgomery avoided his fate in the most meritorious but also beneficial way. He was almost killed – the private soldier who ran forward to dress his wound was shot dead on top of him – and in such gallant circumstances that he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. This very high honour brought him, on recovery, appointment as a brigade major at home, and when the brigade moved to France, his efficiency won him promotion from that plum staff job to a succession of others. In 1918, he was chief of staff of a division and in 1919 a battalion commander and lieutenant-colonel. Good luck also then saw to it that he went straight to the Staff College, thus avoiding the great post-war block (Alexander did not get there until 1926).

On this solid foundation of achievement, his inter-war career flourished. Indeed, his succession of appointments reads like a model list for an aspiring officer. He was chosen to write a volume of the official Infantry Training. He served as an instructor at the Staff College, Camberley and as Chief Instructor of its Indian twin at Quetta. He commanded the First Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He got command of a brigade at 50 – which was a bit late even in those years of slow promotion – but got command of a division the next year. By 1939, he was a success and his subsequent selection to command a division in the Expeditionary Force, furthered and endorsed by supporters as influential as Alan Brooke and Wavell, who had already seen his worth, was preordained.

Yet there was an element of the surprising in his advancement, which derived from two sources, one willed, the other passionately unwished for. At the age of 40, as an apparently committed bachelor, he had married a widow, Betty Carver, whose charm and warmth had transformed his inner and outer life. Everyone noticed that, although as meticulous as he had ever been as a regimental and a staff officer, the married Montgomery was a more tolerant and companionable man than they had guessed he had the capacity to become. Inwardly, the married relationship comforted and fulfilled him as nothing had before. In manhood, his old antagonism towards his mother had been overlaid by a deference towards her perhaps taught him by regimental life. But the wounds had not healed. Betty Carver soothed the hurt. It would not be an exaggeration to suppose that, had his ambition carried him no further than brigadier or major-general, he would have settled into retirement a contented man with his wife at his side. But in their tenth year together one of those trivial infections which antibiotics have eliminated from the anxiety patterns of modern families carried her off.

‘Well, that’s the end of it,’ he said to a friend in his first days of mourning. ‘It’s just the Army now.’ And so it was. But in the inter-war years before and even during marriage and in those which remained afterwards (Betty died in 1937), Montgomery had continued to display, quite consistently, much of that wilfulness and relish for conflict, particularly with superiors, which had made him a reprobate son and cadet. It is this which adds the second element of the unexpected to his advancement. A single episode conveys his approach to the military establishment.

In 1934, Montgomery was commanding his battalion at Poona. The General Officer Commanding was Sir George Jeffreys, a Grenadier Guardsman so quintessentially guardsmanly that his person might be said to have incarnated the regiment: today his memory still has a stronger reality for the guardians of its spirit, the senior non-commissioned officers, than does the fleshly presence of many of their current superiors. By coincidence, the General had written the companion volume to Montgomery’s Infantry Training. Its subject was drill, which was his mania and Montgomery’s bane, and over the drill of the First Royal Warwicks they set about having the sort of protracted hot-station fight which would have supplied Kipling with a theme for a ‘Plain Tale’. The General found consistent fault and Montgomery gave not an inch.

It could have spelt the end of a career. It is to Jeffreys’s enormous credit that when the time came he wrote a confidential report on his subordinate which classed him as ‘well above average’ in energy, knowledge and power of imparting it, and merely counselled him, ‘for advice not adverse criticism’, to remember that few officers had ‘the same energy or ability as himself’. For all his Ice Age qualities, Jeffreys was a supreme regimental soldier, the only colonel to have brought his battalion through the Retreat from Mons without losing a single straggler. Montgomery’s equivalent, though quite differently directed, obsessiveness about military life must have struck a chord of recognition. Jeffreys cared for his men because they were the potential agents of a battle-winning act of war. Teleologically the impulse was identical and Jeffreys had the wit to see and respect it.

Other superiors would detect it, too, and would intervene to help him through subsequent disciplinary and even medical problems – he was diagnosed to have tuberculosis, falsely, but the symptoms were alarmingly convincing. What recommended him at every stage was his remarkable power to instruct officers and train soldiers, so that exercises became, as all good education should, an experience of future reality. By exposition and analysis, Montgomery was able always to show his subordinates why things had happened as they had, what had been successful, what had been a mistake, and how their next bout of training could depart from a new base of experience. His training skill, proved as a divisional commander in counter-insurgency operations in Palestine in 1938, led to his appointment as commander of the Third Division in the Expeditionary Force. It was soon the best-trained British division of those sent to France for the Phoney War and was brought into the Dunkirk perimeter after the retreat from Belgium – shades of Jeffreys! – stronger than any other. Montgomery’s handling of it persuaded Brooke that he was the right man to succeed him at II Corps when he himself was unexpectedly recalled. Montgomery therefore returned to England in a lieutenant-general’s appointment, in which rank he was shortly confirmed.

At this point in this first volume of the official biography, the story starts to become familiar, and grows more so as we reach Alamein – though the author enriches it with some marvellous documentation. The Corps Commander’s comments on some of his new subordinates, painful though their effect was at the time, are hilarious to read today. If read by Mrs Thatcher, they may tempt her to try her hand at reincarnation: this officer ‘has proved himself disloyal, his services should be dispensed with ... is old and decrepit and should go at once ... should be sent away to end his life in peace ... is quite unfit to be a Major-General ... is far too old and quite unfit to command ... is idle and has taken to drink ... is completely and utterly useless’. Sustained by treasure-trove of this sort, the reader will persist to the end. But he will have been motivated to do so in any case, despite the very great length of the volume, by the remarkable quality of the author’s writing, the depth of his research and his admirable capacity for organising material.

Mr Hamilton has not only been through the enormous archive of papers left by the Field-Marshal himself, but also worked extensively in several others. He has corresponded and talked with almost everyone still living who knew Montgomery well. He has read very widely in the history of the war and the modern British Army. He has assembled the pieces with great skill and, despite their bulk, without trying the patience of the reader. But he has done more than that. He has produced a most fascinating study of character, both his subject’s and those of the individuals surrounding him and the families to which they belonged, an achievement almost unique in military biography. One may differ with his psychological interpretations: a sharper definition of schizophrenia would be necessary before one accepted that the condition – in whichever of its many forms – affected Montgomery. But one wants more, rather than less, of the enthralling accounts he offers of Montgomery’s family life, of his descriptions of Lady Montgomery fixing bayonets, the infant Bernard forming square, the Bishop benignly oblivious of the fight. One wants more of the Jeffreys-Montgomery duel. One wants more of the Bernard-Betty romance. One even wants, I’m afraid, more of the bereaved brigadier’s mourning.

The author’s other achievement – all the more remarkable in that he is not and doesn’t think of himself as being a military historian – is to have caught with great authenticity the character of the British Army. It is a very strange organisation and Montgomery cannot be understood without it. His early life may have taken the form of a struggle with his mother, the effects of which persisted to his deathbed – Lord Carver found him on it recalling ‘how horrid’ his mother had been to him: but the middle years of his life were spent in a struggle with the institution to which he had chosen to belong, and his old age was a celebration of his victory within and over it. Beating the Germans, he must undoubtedly have felt and at times almost said, was a secondary difficulty. No wonder he made Alamein Company laugh. His had been a funny life, in every sense of the word. We look forward with anticipation to the next instalment.

With The War between the Generals David Irving has turned away from the German side of the last war, where he is almost uniquely at home, to bring his methods to bear on the making of Allied strategy. The period he has chosen is that which runs from the American entry to the achievement of victory in Europe, and the group on which he concentrates is composed of the senior Allied commanders, Eisenhower, Montgomery, Patton, Bradley, Marshall, Tedder, Leigh-Mallory, Harris, Spaatz, Vandenberg, Everett Hughes, J.H.C. Lee and a supporting cast of lesser generals and admirals. The politicians figure less prominently. This concentration is perfectly consistent because, after the large decisions had been taken, their implementation fell to the professionals and could not have done otherwise. Only Hitler, and perhaps Stalin, among the war leaders had both the will and the talent to attempt to control the battlefield from the point of political command.

It is now common knowledge that the Allied leaders did not always agree among themselves, that the Services did not always agree, and that sometimes the airmen ganged up against generals, and vice versa, on a service rather than a national basis: All these disputes are well-documented and have often been told. The telling began with the publication of the American official histories at the end of the Forties, was brilliantly carried forward by Chester Wilmot in his Struggle for Europe, was lent spice by the serialisation of the Alanbrooke and other diaries, and has subsequently been brought into scholarly order by platoons of academic historians. The benchmarks of the wrangling are now clearly defined. It began with a major Anglo-American quarrel over the timing of the return to Europe, which went on for two years and led to American accusations that the British were dragging their feet. It was fuelled by jealousies over the appointment of a Supreme Commander and by tactical disputes about the size of the landing force. The success of the beach assault soothed bad feelings on all sides, but they were inflamed again by the apparent lethargy of the British effort to break out from the bridgehead and, when it came, by the contrasting drama of the American Blitzkrieg. A genuine dispute, not resolved by hindsight, then divided British and Americans over the proper strategy for the exploitation of the victory in Normandy. And when the advance petered out into a winter stalemate on the Siegfried Line, ill-will was fed by the Americans’ failure to detect the Ardennes offensive in preparation and by Montgomery’s appointment to co-ordinate the counter-offensive. The year of victory itself found brothers-in-arms still getting on badly. The war ended, for Patton, on a sour note because of his forced withdrawal from Czechoslovakia to make way for the Russians.

Patton, a temperamental badmouth, recorded his irritations as he went along and they have been made public through his diaries. The papers of most of the other leaders have bulked out the detail of all these affairs. We can now freely consult the private thoughts of Alanbrooke, Marshall, Eisenhower and many of the others over the development of almost every point of Allied strategy. What, therefore, can David Irving have discovered to add to the record? It comes hard to an admirer to say: not much. Some censored passages from the diaries of Eisenhower’s naval aide, Harry Butcher; the hitherto undeciphered diaries of another aide, Everett Hughes; the diary of Eisenhower’s driver, Kay Summersby, with whom he may have had a mild wartime affair; odds and ends by secondary figures.

None of this would matter if David Irving were a different sort of historian: if his strength lay in the sustained passage of grand narrative, or the setting of mood, or in the analysis of impersonal factors, economic, military and geographical, or in the sensitive dissection of character. But it does not. His enormous talent lies in discovering what people actually said and wrote to each other and in making sense of their actions in terms of their words. An Irving chapter, seen at its best in Hitler’s War, is a pyrotechnic display of skill in the interweaving of and cross-cutting between dozens of sources, each from the pen or tongue of men pitted in the struggle of great events. But the effect, wonderful as it usually is, depends for its force on our unfamiliarity with the story or the material and often both.

Here the story is already well-known and the material, when it is fresh, trivial. The result is to make displeasing those things in the author’s approach which are usually to be admired. His relentlessly realistic and unemotional treatment of Hitler, Himmler, Goering and the rest of the Nazis allows us to see them plainer than we have ever done before, because most other writers have them typecast as monster, pervert, buffoon or self-serving lackeys. But the value-free approach, appropriate if he were writing of times more distant from our own, cannot be made to cut both ways in a history of the Second World War.

For better or worse – and better is still what most of us would say – its objects were those which continue to animate and inspire the democracies. The passage of time will lead us to recognise more easily the flaws of selfishness and cowardice which disfigured the policy of the democracies before and during the war. The vanity and egotism of many of the democracies’ leaders, military and civilian, have already been made to stand out. But these leaders still look better, individually and collectively, than their German counterparts and will continue to do so however often David Irving returns to the archives.

The facts about the Second Front are simply stated. Given the risks entailed, and that they were to be borne by the Allies, an inter-Allied strategic dispute was unavoidable. That it was sustained so temperately and resolved so amicably was the wonder. Personal differences between the Allied commanders were also inevitable. What is remarkable is that the differences never led to any irreparable breach, even between individuals. The credit for that must be given in part to Montgomery, who was a truly great battlefield soldier and so recognised, however grudgingly, by all his confréres, and for the rest to Eisenhower, whose talents for conciliation, encouragement and creative self-effacement partook of diplomatic genius. Tactical and strategic mistakes were made. But all must be viewed against the preinvasion expectation that the battle for France would last a year, instead of the three months it took to reach the German border. The logistic arrangements which underpinned the triumph in the field, though no doubt, when they faltered, provoking all the small rancours which the author pinpoints, were of unparalleled efficiency and almost in themselves assured the German defeat.

All in all, the last year of the Second World War in Europe was an annus mirabilis, and such war as there was between those generals lucky enough to be on the winning side pretty small beer. Back, please, Mr Irving, to the Führerhauptquartier.