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.

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